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As Jets fly again, the dream returns to Winnipeg

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WINNIPEG – The dream was supposed to have died for kids like Derek Meech(notes).

Born in Winnipeg, Meech lived on Malmsbury Avenue. Whenever he played street hockey, he pretended to play for the Jets. He was Teemu Selanne(notes) usually, Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) if he were in goal. Whenever his dad scrounged up tickets, he couldn't wait to go to Winnipeg Arena, the old barn with the big portrait of the Queen on the wall.

Meech was there on April 28, 1996, a week after his 12th birthday. He came with his face painted white and a Jets logo plastered on each cheek, knowing that if the Jets lost, they would not only be out of the playoffs, they would be out of town.

The Jets lost. They were moving to Phoenix, and so the fans said goodbye. They stood and cheered as the Jets shook hands with the Detroit Red Wings, and they stood and cheered some more as the Jets acknowledged them one last time. A homemade banner unfurled from the upper deck: "OUR JETS WILL FLY 4 EVER."

"There wasn't a dry eye in the building," Meech said. "You could look around the rink, and all the fans were crying. You could look down on the ice surface, and the players were crying. So it was a pretty emotional thing for a young kid.

"I cried. Oh, yeah. It was my favorite team leaving the city. It was a heartbreaker."

Well, this is a heartwarmer. Winnipeg has a new version of the Jets, after the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers, and the dream is alive again. Kids can pretend to be Evander Kane(notes) or Dustin Byfuglien(notes), knowing that maybe, just maybe, someday they could actually wear that jersey, too.

Dreams can come true. Meech signed with the Jets as a free agent and made the team as a depth defenseman, and though he probably won't be in the lineup Sunday for the opener against the Montreal Canadiens at the MTS Centre, he will be in the building with so many others who hoped and prayed for this moment, unsure if they would ever see it.

"I was thinking of painting my face," Meech said, "but that might not look too good."

What does this mean to Winnipeg? First, understand Winnipeg. It is a city of people who have not bolted for someplace sunnier and warmer. Living here, according to Jets chairman Mark Chipman, takes "a collective act of will."

The winters are hash. The city is somewhat secluded from the rest of Canada. Its heyday as a transportation hub has long past and it has social and economic issues, but its spirit remains strong. "It's just a mix of people from all over the world that came here, decided to stay here and dug in," Chipman said. "And so there's a sort of sense of pride that comes from that. Nobody's going to help us but ourselves."

Winnipeg didn't drop off the map when the original Jets left. It carried on and continued to recreate itself, actually growing a little into a metropolitan area of about 750,000. It became a minor-league sports town but never took its eyes off the major leagues. The MTS Centre was built in 2004 for the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose. It has 15,000 seats – small enough to fit the market, but just big enough to be viable for an NHL franchise, by no coincidence.

Chipman and his partners at True North Sports and Entertainment worked and waited, patiently and quietly, prepared to pounce when an opportunity finally presented itself. The NHL was reluctant to leave a major American market and return to little old Winnipeg, but when it ran out of options in Atlanta, it had no choice but to turn to the True North.

"I think it's an opportunity to kind of rewrite the model for a sports franchise," said David Thomson, a co-owner and one of the richest men in the world. "I think you follow your heart. You put together something that just feels right, and then you watch. That's how we feel."

Asked what he meant by rewriting the model, Thomson said: "Small communities, with an intense belief, produce outstanding results."

Winnipeg is the smallest market in the NHL. It has the smallest arena in the NHL. It faces long-term competitive challenges. But its immense passion for hockey will fill that arena for the foreseeable future, and Chipman is adamant that the Jets aren't here for the sake of being here. They are here to win.

When season tickets went on sale, all 13,000 available were claimed in about one minute and 15 seconds. It took another 15 minutes or so for the computers catch up and process the credit cards. That happened even though the average ticket price was $90 and fans had to make a 3-to-5-year commitment. Seventeen minutes, sold out, for three-plus years.

With 1,000 seats reserved for suites and others on hold for the teams and league, only about 500-600 tickets are available for each game -- to the approximately 70,000 people who have signed up for drawings. The Jets have started revoking season tickets from scalpers because the secondary market has been so hot, especially for the opener. Scott Brown, the Jets' senior director of corporate communications, said prices had risen to "absurd levels" for this game.

"You appreciate the groundswell of emotion and how people sublimate their feelings over many, many years," Thomson said. "It aggregates, and when it's unleashed, you reap … I mean, it's a revelation.

"It's a testimony not just to the team. It's a testimony to the community, to the country. I think we all appreciate that there's heartfelt connection to the sport and to the principles of integrity and attributes of courage, determination. You look at the fortitude of the people within the province and the country, particularly in these days. The team is a reflection of their struggles and how they surmount those struggles day in and day out."

Instead of looking back in NHL history, Winnipeg can look forward now – a new team, a new generation, a new future.

Kane, a 20-year-old budding star , visited an elementary school Friday. Even though the students weren't even born when the original Jets left, even though they haven't even seen the new Jets play yet, they gathered in the gym and chanted, "Go, Jets, go!"

One girl had heard Kane mention his favorite beverage in a radio interview. As he signed autographs, she handed him a can of Barq's Root Beer she had brought from home.

"I thought that was pretty cute of her," Kane said. "It just shows how appreciated you are, and you want to give back, especially to the kids."

When the Jets played their first exhibition Sept. 20 at the MTS Centre, it was only a split-squad game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But it was a full house, and the fans stood and sang "O Canada" loud and proud.

"It was like they just had to let it out," coach Claude Noel said. "It almost brought tears to your eyes. It was beautiful."

Tears have pain have turned into tears of joy.

Noel said he can't imagine what the atmosphere will be like for Sunday's opener, a game some have compared to the Winter Classic or even the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper will be here. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will be here. The Habs will be here. The Jets will fly again.

So Noel said he won't sit in the back as he usually does. He will walk out for warmups. He will stand for the anthem. He won't miss a moment.

"I will smell the coffee," Noel said. "I will smell the roses."

It's going to be sweet.

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