Winnipeg Jets relaunch in preseason home opener

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WINNIPEG, MANITOBA (AP) - The fans came, they cheered and they screamed “Go Jets Go” as a 15-year separation between Winnipeg and NHL hockey ended Tuesday night as the Jets made their return with a 6-1 win.

It was just an exhibition game against the Columbus Blue Jackets and a split-squad one at that. Columbus won the other matchup in Ohio 5-1.

But the smallest arena in the league was packed with 15,004 jersey-wearing, ecstatic fans who screamed their lungs out at the MTS Centre.

They had lots to cheer. The first fight, which included big Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, erupted less than a minute in and Winnipeg’s first goal was scored by Paul Postma within the first eight minutes.

“Between Byfuglien and the fans it was like a Stanley Cup final,” coach Claude Noel said after the game.

Jets top draft pick Mark Scheifele, an 18-year-old with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, scored twice and had two assists.

“He looked like the best player on the ice,” Noel said.

“He looked like a guy that was a veteran guy, he played big smart clever. … He’s doing the things he needs to do to stay, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Scheifele was awed and inspired by the crowd.

“To hear how loud they were I couldn’t even hear myself think it was just unbelievable and I wanted to feed off that energy and give it back to them,” he said.

For fans, it was enough that the Jets are back.

“It was heartbreaking to lose them and to get them back like this is extremely exciting,” said Kevin Francis, who attended the game with his son John.

“I couldn’t be happier,” said Francis, one of many who lined up and arrived more than an hour early.

It was 1996 that saw the previous incarnation of the Jets leave Winnipeg for Phoenix, where they were renamed the Coyotes. The Jets played in Atlanta last season as the Thrashers.

Last year there was speculation it would be the Coyotes who might return since, like Atlanta, Phoenix was in financial trouble. But at the end of May, True North Sports and Entertainment completed a deal to bring the Thrashers to Winnipeg.

Since then it’s been hectic as the former home of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose was brought up to NHL standards, a team name was picked and season tickets quickly sold out.

“The city’s gone crazy for them,” said Francis, who couldn’t get season tickets but was happy to get a couple to the emotional return Tuesday.

Even a Jets practice during the weekend saw thousands of fans turn out to cheer and get autographs. Many said they knew it would be their only chance to see the team on the ice.

Even though it was a split-squad game with Columbus, many of the big names on the Jets played in the home game _ including team captain Andrew Ladd, who scored once, defensemen Zach Bogosian and Byfuglien and Scheifele, who is quickly making himself a fan favorite.

Byfuglien received a huge cheer when, along with Ladd, he got an assist on the first goal of the night. He also took part in the first fight with Columbus forward Cody Bass.

Kevin Clark and Ivan Telegin also scored for Winnipeg and Ryan Johansen scored for the Blue Jackets.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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