They weren't even the Jets yet. The sale of the team had been announced just 11 days earlier. The general manager had been hired just two days before. There was no coach, no nickname, no logo. But soon after Andrew Ladd's(notes) jet landed on June 10, he got his first taste of what was to come.
"Welcome to Winnipeg," a fan greeted Ladd at baggage claim, recognizing him right away.
This ain't Atlanta anymore.
Not to bash the old place. As I have written in the past, the Thrashers failed Atlanta as much as Atlanta failed the Thrashers. Good people lost their jobs. Good fans lost their team. It's a shame hockey couldn't take hold in a major American market, and the NHL faces challenges in returning to a small Canadian one.
But there is no denying the difference, the passion these people have for a team they haven't even seen yet. Imagine what it will be like for the Jets' first practice of training camp on Saturday; for the first exhibition, a split-squad game at home Tuesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets; and for the first regular-season game, Oct. 9 at home against the Montreal Canadiens.
"Everywhere you go now, people know who you are," said Ladd, the team captain. "It's a big change from Atlanta, where you could go anywhere you wanted and no one had a clue who you were."
It's a big change within Winnipeg. Claude Noel coached the Manitoba Moose last season. He won 43 games. His name was in the newspaper every day. But no one bothered him much. When he got the Jets job on June 24, he didn't have to move, like Ladd and the other former Thrashers did. But going from the AHL to the NHL, even in the same city, was like going from off-Broadway to Broadway.
Noel and his wife tried to go out for pizza about two weeks after he was hired. The place was small, and it was packed. There was no place to sit, so they decided to leave. The owner came up and told them he would find them a table. They declined because they didn't want to make a fuss. As they walked to the car, one of the waiters came out to talk hockey.
"And I thought, 'Whoa, this is a new world for me,' " Noel said.
The passion built up for 15 years, since the original Jets left town and became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996, and it exploded when the news broke that the Thrashers actually would move from Atlanta, after so many teases about Winnipeg getting an NHL team again.
People partied at Portage and Main. People scrambled to buy season tickets, even though they had to make a long-term commitment. It was one thing to get excited about the nickname announcement at the draft, the logo unveiling on July 22 or the jersey unveiling on Sept. 6. But the Jets received media requests to film the event level of the MTS Centre being covered in a new dark shade of blue.
Yes, people were excited to watch paint dry.
"I think they kind of realized what they lost," Ladd said. "They're so happy to have that back because it was such a big part of their community. You just sense that going around town, because everywhere you go everybody's talking about it. Everybody's so appreciative to have the team back in town."
But there is another side to the story. There has been a ton of work to do in a short amount of time. While other teams were going through their usual off-seasons, this one had to hire a front office and coaching staff, put together big-league and minor-league teams, settle on a nickname, design a logo and uniform, renovate the rink and more.
Ladd didn't see the jersey himself until just before the unveiling ceremony, and he didn't see the whole uniform together until he wore it at the NHL media tour last week in Newark, N.J. He said then that the dressing room was still a mess at the MTS Centre – a construction zone of new carpet and paint, out with the Moose, in with the Jets. The uniforms weren't ready for the rookie tournament this week in Penticton, B.C, so the kids wore practice jerseys.
"It has been interesting. It has been exciting," Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "But I think everyone within the city of Winnipeg and in the front office just can't wait to drop the puck."
Once the puck drops, what then?
This is an unusual situation in which many of the players know each other but don't know the coaches, the training staff, the equipment guys or the route to the rink. Noel has watched video. He knows his personnel. But that isn't the same as knowing his people.
"I was talking to Claude Noel the other day, and he said it's even tough for him because they don't know anyone," Ladd said. "They don't know anyone to just call them up and see how they're doing in the summer and keep just that relationship going."
Training camp might be more important for the Jets than any other team. The coaches and players have to build of a foundation for their relationship and style of play. Noel is a detailed, organized guy. He wants to be aggressive on the puck, fast up and down the ice, but said "winning really comes through defense."
The Thrashers were a young team that played a disciplined, up-tempo style under Craig Ramsay last season and started 19-11-5. But then they stopped skating, sank in the standings and missed the playoffs, allowing the second-most goals in the league.
"I think it's going to be interesting to see the responses to some of these new challenges," Noel said. "I think that's really what we're looking to find. Who can play in this situation? And who can flourish in this situation?" The honeymoon period will be long and strong. The rink will be packed even if the Jets go 0-82 this season. But at some point, people aren't going to be happy just to have the NHL back and will start paying attention to the product itself.
In Atlanta, there was less attention, but there was also less pressure. The Thrashers were a small deal in a big city. Well, this is Winnipeg. The Jets are a big deal in a small city. When Noel and his wife left that packed pizza place, they went somewhere Noel called "a little bit quieter." Still, he said: "There's really no places to hide." There's almost no place to go but down.
"We haven't played a game yet, so this could be our most popular time right now," Noel said. "So we just hope that the fans are going to be supportive of us through this first season, and I think they will be.
"It's going to be different in Canada – in Winnipeg, certainly. What they do there is they watch games and they're very into their hockey there, so it will be a new challenge for the players to perform in front of them. We want to just do well. We want to have growth in our team, and we want to hopefully make the playoffs. That's really our goal."
The playoffs? Imagine that.