Winnipeg fans rejoice at draft as 'Jets' rejoin NHL

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

ST. PAUL, Minn. – For 15 years they had waited for this moment. At 7:09 p.m. Friday, Manitoba time, chairman Mark Chipman stood at the lectern at the 2011 NHL entry draft. He deferred to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff so he could make their first-round pick "on behalf of the Winnipeg Jets."

With that almost quiet, almost casual statement, it was official. The old name was new again. The Jets were back.

Up in Section 202 at Xcel Energy Center, the fans who had made the eight-hour drive from Winnipeg cheered and high-fived each other, wearing vintage Jets jerseys and white T-shirts, some of which had sat in their closets since their former team had moved to Phoenix and become the Coyotes in 1996.

For a moment, there were wrinkled brows and shrugs when Cheveldayoff announced the seventh overall pick was Mark Scheifele, a centerman from the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. The fans had been chanting for Sean Couturier, a centerman from the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But just as quickly, they cheered some more.

Scheifele? Fine. Frankly, anyone was fine.

"I don't know who he is," said Sal Costanzo, 37, of Winnipeg. "But he's a Jet now."

That's all that mattered.

Look, the people of Winnipeg were going to support their new team whatever it was going to be called, so hungry have they been for big-league hockey since the NHL left them for the desert, so happy are they that the Atlanta Thrashers have moved to the Great White North.

But the Jets … the nickname Jets just makes sense. The Jets were the team they lost. The Jets were theirs, and even if the Coyotes will keep the old team's history, even if the new uniform will look nothing like the old when it is eventually unveiled, the Jets are now theirs again.

"It didn't matter what the team was going to be named. The first game, we were saying, 'Go Jets go!' " Costanzo said. "It's like a child that was ripped away from a mother. It's just calling for it, and that's what we wanted. We wanted our team back, and so this is our voice and we're using it."

Chipman was smart to listen to it. True North Sports and Entertainment had built a strong brand with the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose in the Jets' absence. When the group acquired the Thrashers, several nicknames were considered, many of them using Manitoba – the province instead of the league's smallest city. That would have been a calculated marketing move.

The name was just part of the process as the new team was being put together on the fly. The sale of the Thrashers wasn't officially announced until May 31. Cheveldayoff wasn't introduced until June 8. Coach Claude Noel wasn't introduced until Friday – the morning of the first round of the draft.

It wasn't until this week that Chipman made the final decision on the name. He made a common-sense marketing move.

"In the end," Chipman said, "Winnipeg Jets has got so much equity in it, well deserved equity. It just seemed right to take it forward and not mess around with it."

It was simply right to listen to the wishes of fans who had snapped up all the season tickets within minutes – fans who were so full of pent-up passion that they couldn't wait to come to the draft, let alone a game.

Costanzo and four of his friends piled into a Toyota Corolla and made the trek to Minnesota. They gravitated toward other Jets fans and made immediate friends. A group of maybe 50 fans marched around the concourse of the arena.

"We want the Cup!" they chanted.

"Let's go, Oilers!" one Edmonton fan responded.

"Boo!"

They passed Matt Gould, 31, a Blues fan from the St. Louis area dressed in a vintage Curtis Joseph(notes) jersey, giving out welcome-back hugs.

"Thank you, Curtis Joseph!"

They settled in Section 202, high above the Jets' table on the draft floor, marked only by a black NHL logo that said "WINNIPEG 2011-12." They chanted, "Go Jets Go!" They chanted for Chipman. They even chanted for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, under whose watch the Jets had both departed and returned.

A guy in a Teemu Selanne(notes) Jets sweater walked to his seat with a couple of beers.

"It's going to be a profitable season at the MTS Centre!" he cracked.

A guy in a Thrashers sweater showed up.

"You stole my team!" he shouted.

But he was laughing, and they laughed, and they all took a picture. Turns out he wasn't actually from Atlanta. He was from Minnesota. He was just having fun, which Thrashers fans won't find funny.

There has been ugliness in this. Atlanta lost its team the way Winnipeg once did. Regular people their lost their jobs – and reportedly weren't officially informed until Monday, the day before the NHL's board of governors officially approved the sale. Good hockey men like general manager Rick Dudley and coach Craig Ramsay lost their jobs, too, when they had worked so hard to turn around the team.

"Right before I got told that I wasn't going to Winnipeg, we just spent literally eight hours a day for probably eight straight days beating up a draft list," said Dudley, who landed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday. "And then to have it all go for naught, that part is frustrating."

This was still the beginning of serious work, too. Cheveldayoff said "drafting and developing is going to be the hallmark of this franchise," and it probably will have to be if it is going to succeed over the long term in the NHL's smallest market. The Jets must do well Saturday in Rounds 2 through 7. Then they face their first foray into free agency, which opens on July 1.

But this is what will be remembered most: Chipman stepping up to the lectern and feeling like a draft pick as he uttered the words "Winnipeg Jets" – "obviously just trying to keep my knees from going out from underneath me," he said.

Cheveldayoff called Scheifele's name, and Scheifele said his legs shook and his heart raced as he walked up on stage. He pulled on a generic black NHL jersey, when all the other draft picks got to wear their new team's colors. But he was promised his new jersey would be coming soon, and it could have been worse. His junior coach happens to be Dale Hawerchuk, the Jets legend.

"He was actually kidding around," Scheifele said. "He said, 'If you get drafted by Winnipeg, they're going to bring a parka instead of a jersey.' "

No need for a parka. Right now, the feeling in Winnipeg couldn't be warmer. The Jets are back. The old is new.

"We're going to build a new history," Costanzo said. "This is a new team. This is a new environment. It's a different league. It's going to be exciting. I'm happy. I'm looking forward to it."

He scanned Section 202. He saw his people whooping and hollering and having fun.

"Look at this crowd."

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