Stanley Cup finalists welcome Winnipeg to NHL

Kevin Bieksa survived and thrived during a winter in Winnipeg,
and he thinks the former Atlanta Thrashers will do just fine in the
frigid center of Canada.

The defenseman and several of his Vancouver Canucks teammates
joined Tuesday in sending congratulations to the Thrashers, who
upstaged the eve of the Stanley Cup finals with the announcement of
their sale and impending move to Winnipeg.

”It’s a little bit cold, but that just means they’ve got great
ice,” said Bieksa, who played 108 games over four seasons with the
AHL’s Manitoba Moose.

Bieksa, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and backup goalie Cory
Schneider are among several Canucks who logged seasons with the
Moose, the Canucks’ top minor-league affiliate. The AHL club had a
lively fan base and strong attendance in Winnipeg, and that’s one
reason the NHL felt confident in moving from a major American
market to a smaller Canadian city.

”I think there’s more money there than you realize, and people
have been waiting for a franchise to come back for a long time
now,” said Schneider, who played parts of the past three seasons
in Winnipeg. ”They’ll do everything they can to support them and
keep them there. Ticket prices might be a little higher than they
were in Atlanta, but they wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t
think it would work.”

Bieksa praised the professionalism of the True North ownership
group, which also owns the Moose, and said the players will be
treated ”like gods” in Winnipeg.

”I think they’ll like it there,” Bieksa said. ”There’s a
trade-off. They’re going from Atlanta, which is warmer and probably
a little easier to live in, but the trade-off is the passion. For
all the guys, even the role players, there’s no better place to be
appreciated than a Canadian market.”

Burrows has particularly fond memories of his time in Winnipeg.
Perhaps the agitating forward appreciated the big-time atmosphere
even more after working his way up from the ECHL to the Moose.

”My first few games were at the old Winnipeg Arena just before
they shut it down,” Burrows said of the venerated building that
closed in November 2004. ”I remember the last game there, it was a
whiteout for the old Winnipeg Jets, and I remember the fans
chanting, `We want the Jets! We want the Jets!’ That was my first
week in the AHL, and the fans were great. And when we moved to the
MTS Center, we had 15,000 people there for Game 1 and throughout
the playoffs.”

The 15,015-seat MTS Center will be the NHL’s smallest arena, but
that’s not a negative to players. Several Canucks said they thrive
on enthusiastic crowds close to the ice.

”I’d rather play in a rink that holds 15,000 and feels like
it’s 20,000 than go into a building with 20,000 seats and just
5,000 fans,” Burrows said. ”So I think it’s a great move for the
league, and I’m looking forward to playing there.”

Most of Vancouver’s former Moose are also Canadians, and they
loved the prospect of a seventh NHL franchise north of the
border.

”The game is so important to Canada,” said left wing Jeff
Tambellini, who played seven games with Manitoba this season. ”We
take so much pride in the game of hockey. A team does deserve to be
in a city like Winnipeg, and the fans deserve it there, so it’s a
great day for Canada. They treat you like an NHL player, and now
they get to have an NHL franchise, which they deserve.

”It’s always bigger playing in Canada. Talk to any guy in the
league, and they’ll always tell you that.”

Even non-Canadians grew comfortable living and working in
Winnipeg. Schneider is a Massachusetts native who went to the Moose
straight out of Boston College in 2007.

”Over three years, it felt like a second home,” Schneider
said. ”You were really comfortable and close-knit with the
community and really became a part of it, so I think that’s the
angle they’re going to try and play. Guys are going to … want to
play there.”