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.”