Winning next step for Winnipeg

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

WINNIPEG – The public-address announcer served notice over the loudspeakers – “Last minute of play in the third period” – and the fans rose to their feet. They cheered their Winnipeg Jets as the clock counted down. When play stopped with 1.6 seconds left, they had one more chance to chant: "Go, Jets, go!" The standing ovation continued through the final horn and didn't end until the last man filed off the ice.

And the Jets lost, 5-1.

"We were just like, 'Oh, my god,' " winger Chris Thorburn(notes) said after Sunday's inaugural game against the Montreal Canadiens. "I mean, we thought it was like playing [in] Montreal or something, they were cheering for Montreal or something because they won. But it just goes to show what kind of fans we have here."

It just goes to show the responsibility the Jets have here, too.

This city is so delirious with joy, having returned from 15 years in NHL exile, the honeymoon period is sure to be long and strong. The Jets sold out 13,000 season tickets in 17 minutes – even though the average ticket price is $90 and people had to commit for three to five years – and it took that long only because the computers needed 15 minutes to process the credit cards. The Jets' slogan is "Fueled by passion."

But the Jets cannot take that passion for granted, and they know it. Now that they're here, they need to be competitive. These fans love their hockey and know their hockey, and having made such an emotional and financial investment in the team, eventually they are going to expect a return on that, not just a return to the NHL. There is a long way to go.

"I don't have any concern about putting the game on," Jets chairman Mark Chipman said Saturday afternoon, holding a steaming cup of coffee as the team went through its final practice before the first game. "We've been doing that for years, and our people, they know how to do that. My nervousness comes from – always comes from – wanting our team to play …"

His voice trailed off. He thought for a moment. He said there was a lot of pressure to play in a game like this one, and hoped the team got off to a good start.

As for the long term, Chipman said: "I got in this business to win at the game of hockey. Obviously everybody's excited about the magnitude of the event and everything, but our focus is on being the best possible hockey team we can be starting tomorrow and for many years to come."

True North Sports and Entertainment has been putting on games at the MTS Centre since 2004, when the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose first moved in. The presentation was top shelf on Sunday.

After warmups came a video montage of Winnipeg hockey history – from the original Jets' days in the World Hockey Association, to their days in the NHL, to their departure to Phoenix in 1996, to the Moose, to the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers and their relocation here. Bobby Hull. Dale Hawerchuk. Teemu Selanne(notes). The Jets celebrated the stars and many in between.

They also acknowledged Rick Rypien(notes), who played for the Moose, signed with the Jets as a free agent and was found dead in his Alberta home Aug. 16. His mother wore his No. 11 Jets jersey to drop the ceremonial first puck, flanked by Chipman, co-owner David Thomson, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Incredibly classy.

But then the Jets fell behind just 3:05 into the game when the Canadiens' Mike Cammalleri swiped a puck, streaked in and scored. Another turnover led to another goal in the second period. Coach Claude Noel said they "gave out some free pizzas." Captain Andrew Ladd(notes) said they were "sloppy."

"We've been waiting for this day for the last three months," center Nik Antropov(notes) said. "Everybody was winding up, winding up, winding up. It gets closer and closer, and I guess we just kind of … I mean, we didn't come out flat-footed, but we didn't come out …"

Well, they didn't come out well. Antropov scored 2:27 into the third, and it was a great moment – the kind of moment everyone came for. It was the perfect first goal for the new Jets' history: a rebound, Antropov chipping the puck out of the blue paint and flying through the air. Maybe this comeback story would start with a comeback victory. The fans roared, really roared.

But there would be no comeback. There was a weak interference call on defenseman Dustin Byfuglien(notes), and the Habs took a 3-1 lead on the power play. They added two more goals, and that was it. Welcome back to the NHL, Winnipeg.

"It's nothing to be proud of as far as our performance goes," Thorburn said. "We want to make these fans proud of us."

No one should read too much into one game. But of the 20 players who dressed for the Jets on Sunday, all but four were Thrashers last season. That team had a great first half and a lousy second half, finishing 25th in the league standings – 13 points out of the playoffs.

After Saturday's practice, Noel was asked if he expected to make the playoffs. He responded with a simple, emphatic "Yes." Asked to elaborate, he said: "I just think we're ready." But the longer he talked, the more realistic he became. This is a young team, and this is a new group of executives and coaches who still don't know what they have.

"We'll see," Noel said. "We'll see when we start to play against the teams. If we get 20 games in, we'll reassess and think, 'OK, do we think we can do this? Is it realistic? Where do we have to get better?'"

At least the fans of Winnipeg will get a chance to watch it all play out. After the first game was over and the crowd had left and the roar had silenced, the scoreboard hanging over center ice still showed the final score: Montreal 5, Winnipeg 1. But it also flashed a reminder: "NEXT GAME … OCTOBER 17." It displayed the logos for the Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins. The NHL shield twirled on the main screen.

There will be other games, and at the end of this day, anyway, that's what it was all about.