Jets embraced in hockey-mad Winnipeg

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Evander Kane was sky high when he learned how pumped fans were to have the Jets back in Canada. On a commercial flight over the summer to Winnipeg, Kane was recognized as one of the stars of the reborn franchise and became more popular among his fellow passengers than the free peanuts.

Once he landed, about a dozen Jets fans waited outside his gate to greet him.

The message was clear: Welcome back to Winnipeg, Jets. And welcome to your new home, Evander Kane.

This time, stay.

''I don't know how they knew the time of my flight,'' Kane said, smiling. ''It was cool. It was fun to see.''

After 12 apathetic years and 11 ho-hum seasons in Atlanta, playing in an arena filled with more losses than fans, the Thrashers hit the scrap heap. True North Sports and Entertainment bought the team and moved the Thrashers to Winnipeg, still reeling from losing the Jets to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season.

The Jets are in instant smash hit the second time around in hockey-crazed Winnipeg. From packed crowds to team flags waving from cars to routine errands turning into autograph sessions for the players, the affection from the city toward the franchise has floored the former Thrashers, and Jets home games are fueled with a Stanley Cup playoff series feel. It's been a frenzy straight from the announcement into training camp and into the season.

A month into their first campaign, players were still buzzing over the opening night homecoming scene. As the seconds ticked down in a 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the fans at MTS Centre rose to their feet and gave the Jets a standing ovation.

''For me, I can relate it to big games, a playoff game or a Winter Classic,'' Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. ''It had a bigger feel than most openers. I don't think you realize how much the team meant to that community until you felt that energy and atmosphere.''

All the Jets need now is to give them a winner to root for. While the Jets left Atlanta nearly 1,600 miles behind, they brought the losing with them. The Jets are 4-6-1 and near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, a stale reminder of a franchise that made one postseason appearance overall and failed to post a winning record in their final four seasons in Atlanta.

The Thrashers went through four coaches in their life span, and failed to win a playoff game, let alone a series. In the 2006-07 season, Atlanta won its first and last Southeast Division title, only to be swept in the first round by the New York Rangers.

That was a team of stars - forwards Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, and Keith Tkachuk among them - and even that didn't work in Georgia. That sweep is often remembered for an embarrassing 7-0 loss in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden.

The Jets were a regular postseason team in the 1980s during their first NHL incarnation, though playing in the same division as elite teams like Edmonton and Calgary thwarted their Stanley Cup bids. Led by Bobby Hull, the Winnipeg Jets first hit the scene in 1972 as part of the defunct World Hockey Association. They were one of four teams absorbed by the NHL in 1979 and stayed in Winnipeg until leaving for Phoenix - and rechristened the Coyotes - in 1996.

Jets forward Eric Fehr was raised about 90 miles away in Winkler, Manitoba, and grew up a diehard fan of the team. He idolized those old Jets and was crushed when they left for Phoenix. He never followed the team once it bolted for the United States.

When the Washington Capitals traded him in the offseason to Winnipeg, he felt like a kid again.

''It was something I dreamed to be a part of when I was younger,'' he said. ''Now, I'm living it.''

As for the sold-out crowds, Fehr said the fans are, ''going to make it their job to make sure they never leave again.''

Bad crowds and bad teams were a recipe for moving trucks in Atlanta.

This was the second time the NHL failed in Georgia's capital city. The Thrashers averaged less than 14,000 fans a game last season, and co-owner Michael Gearon and the rest of the Atlanta Spirit group came under heavy criticism for the way they ran the franchise.

Along the way, they claimed $130 million in losses.

Canadian billionaire David Thomson, who heads the Winnipeg ownership group along with Mark Chipman, made a serious pitch for an NHL team when the Coyotes and the Thrashers ran into financial hardships.

So the Thrashers packed up, changed their name, and became the seventh of the NHL's 30 franchises to call Canada home.

''It was very quiet in Atlanta,'' Fehr said. ''It was one of the tougher buildings to play in just because of the atmosphere.''

The NHL swapped a market of 5 million people in the metro Atlanta area in exchange for Winnipeg, the league's smallest market with the smallest arena.

The Jets play in the 15,015-seat MTS Center, where 13,000 season tickets were sold in a matter of minutes days after the sale was announced.

Even teen pop star Justin Bieber went to a game, wearing a No. 6 Jets jersey, and watched a rare victory from a box seat.

Not everything about the transition has been easy for the Jets, though. The Jets are still stuck in the Southeast Division with Washington, Florida, Carolina and Tampa Bay for this season. That makes no sense geographically and does nothing to build natural rivalries. In the wake of their arrival, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman put a realignment plan into place next season that will stick the Jets in the Western Conference.

Until then, it's road trips like their current one: A taxing seven-game trip with stops against the Flyers, Lightning, Panthers, Islanders, Devils, Rangers and Sabres. They are 2-1 on the trip entering Thursday's game in Uniondale, N.Y

The Jets are counting on team bonding to lead to better results on the ice.

Maybe then that playoff-type atmosphere in the opener could be duplicated in the real deal in April.

Tagged: Capitals, Jets, Eric Fehr, Evander Kane

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