Until next year, Jets fans.
The Winnipeg Jets close out their first year in Manitoba Saturday night versus the Tampa Bay Lightning, and no doubt the primary storyline will be Steven Stamkos's pursuit of the rare, 60-goal season.
But if we're talking about rare and special moments, I think we need to take a second to appreciate the year-long party that's taken place this season at the MTS Centre. Saturday will mark the end of the honeymoon phase between Winnipeg's hockey fans and their prodigal NHL team, a phenomenon that we may not see again in our lifetimes.
It was like something out of a parable when the Jets nee Thrashers moved to Manitoba this season; the fans practically stripped naked and ran out to meet the team coming down the road. The city's hockey fans, teeming after 15 years without, embraced the Jets without qualification and have continued to do so for 40 consecutive home games. The Winnipeg crowd has been the best crowd in the NHL all year, a fact that very nearly spurred the team to an unlikely playoff spot.
"Have you seen our home record?" Tanner Glass told a scrum of reporters last month when asked why the Jets salute their fans after every game. "It's the least we can do."
No kidding. Fact is, we may never again see an NHL crowd like the one we saw in Winnipeg this year. From Ed Tait of the Winnipeg Free Press:
This was a unique and special season, quite frankly, that will be unlike no other before it or after. A team came home and a rabid fan base was, depending on your age bracket, either born or reborn.
Some referred to it all as a honeymoon, a dream vacation of a season. All true, because beginning Sunday the joy and thrills of 2011-12 come to a close and the demands and expectations for 2012-13 are instantly ratcheted up a notch or three.
There's a hint of melancholy towards the end there, and there should be. Regardless of what happens next season, the mood is going to change. The fans, once giddy at simply being inside an NHL arena for the first time in a decade and a half, will require from their team than just existing. They won't be as forgiving as they were this year, and that's not a knock -- that's just the reality of hockey fandom.
The Jets were bulletproof this season. For those outside of Winnipeg, watching the NHL give that city the Thrashers was like watching Hank Scorpio give Homer Simpson the Denver Broncos. But Winnipeg acted like they'd been given the Dallas Cowboys.
That ends tonight. Next season, the expectations rise above simply showing up. The Jets were knocking of the door to the postseason just two weeks ago. Will fans be as forgiving if the team takes a step back? Think of what it's like in Toronto right now. Could a prolonged playoff drought ever turn the Jets fanbase into that? God help us all.
Other cities will earn NHL teams, either by expansion or by relocation, but you wonder if any NHL team will ever see a first-year reception like this again. I don't think so. New markets won't yield the release, and a return to other lost markets such as Quebec City likely won't either, especially since Quebec has had another team to cheer for in the meantime.
As a Vancouverite, it was remarkable to see. We're 41 years into a sexless marriage here in British Columbia, and it's reached the point where even the littlest things can set the fanbase off. In game 80, with the Canucks' guaranteed 2nd place in the Western Conference at worst, the fans cheered Roberto Luongo getting pulled from a game. A month ago, with the team all-but-guaranteed a playoff spot, a brief losing streak spawned several articles calling for Alain Vigneault to be fired.
Fickle, panicky fandom of that sort is infuriating, but it's also completely natural for Canadian hockey fans, save the ones Winnipeg. Until next year.