WINNIPEG, MANITOBA — Eric Fehr was with the Capitals when it happened, but he was living in Winnipeg. When it became official that the NHL was returning after a 15-year absence, the celebrations were hard to contain.
“Oh, it’s crazy,” Washington forward and Winnipeg native Cody Eakin said. “They shut down the downtown and had parades and had street hockey games going on Main Street there and just festivals and concerts and all that.”
The Jets were back, and everything seemed right with hockey in Winnipeg. So far, the on-ice product has been predictably mediocre, as the Atlanta Thrashers were re-branded with a new logo, jerseys and a boatload of new fans but not an influx of talent.
The honeymoon period, though, is still in its infancy. Fans did boo the Jets during a recent game, but many of those same fans were the ones who scooped up season tickets in a matter of hours when they went on sale.
The return of hockey in Winnipeg has not disappointed.
“It’s everything I thought would be,” Fehr said. “The fans here are passionate. It’s always been a hockey city, and now that the NHL’s back, the city’s gone crazy. It’s everything I thought it would be in the summer.”
Every game is like a mini-Super Bowl for the Jets as fans cram into MTS Centre to celebrate the NHL being back in town. Even warmups in the early stages have been the scene for “Go Jets Go” chants, with fans on their feet soaking in every moment.
Forward Jason Jaffray said, “We’ve got to treat each game as if it’s the biggest one of the season.” It helps when the fans make each game really seem like that.
The Capitals got their first chance to experience that fervor Thursday night. Many had been there for American Hockey League games against the Manitoba Moose and knew what to expect.
“When we were with Hershey, it was always fun going there,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “They have good crowds, they’re loud. It’s an exciting city to play a hockey game in.”
The reviews of Winnipeg — and its icy temperatures — were pretty much the same around the Capitals’ locker room.
“It’s actually a pretty cool city,” Karl Alzner said. “A little cold, but it’s a nice city.”
Veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik had been the only Capital to play in an NHL game in Winnipeg before Thursday night - but that was at the old Winnipeg Arena and not MTS Centre. He talked about it being so cold he and his teammates didn’t even leave the hotel for dinner the night before the game.
The sparkling building in downtown Winnipeg, opened in 2004, is familiar to a few Washington players - namely Alzner, forward Mathieu Perreault, goalie Michal Neuvirth and defenseman John Carlson, who won the 2009 Calder Cup there.
“It was the first championship I ever really won on an elite level,” Carlson said. “It was a great atmosphere there; it’s a big part of my career.”
Neuvirth capped off a Calder Cup playoffs MVP run in Winnipeg, leading the Bears to a 3-1 clinching victory. This place holds special meaning to him because of it.
“I remember it pretty well,” Neuvirth recalled. “It’s probably the most beautiful hockey memory I have so far, and I’m never going to forget.”
Now that the NHL is back in Winnipeg, the chances for more unforgettable memories are there for the making.