Winnipeg back to loving its Jets

Winnipeg Jets' Alexander Burmistrov (8) celebrates his first-period

Winnipeg Jets' Alexander Burmistrov (8) celebrates his first-period goal with Tim Stapleton (14). (Feb. 11, 2012) (Credit: AP)

WINNIPEG, Canada -- The atmosphere for the pivotal Islanders-Jets playoff-race game here Tuesday night was typically warm and frenzied. There was chanting and yelling at MTS Centre, one of the noisiest arenas in the NHL. It is an environment that any home team would want, except the Islanders hope never to have it.

The truth is, the fervor for the Jets is fueled by the fact that Winnipeg went 15 years without an NHL franchise after the original Jets left for Phoenix. That is exactly the scenario Long Island is trying to avoid.

It was coincidence that the Islanders played here on the same day the Nassau County Legislature held a hearing about the future of the Nassau Coliseum property (and, by extension, the Islanders), but it was coincidence with a chaser of irony. There is no guarantee that Long Island would be as lucky as Winnipeg was, to get a second chance in the NHL.

"I'm from Minneapolis and we learned the hard way," said Jets forward Blake Wheeler, whose family saw the North Stars leave a void that was eventually filled by the Wild. "When you lose a team, it can kind of sting for a while. This is definitely a huge hockey community and I think they're out to prove they should never lose a team again."

This city did support minor-league hockey after the Jets' departure in 1996. "One year, we went to the finals and the last couple of series were sold out. People were hanging banners outside and stuff," said Michael Grabner of the Islanders, who played four seasons for the Manitoba Moose.

But enthusiasm jumped off the charts once the NHL allowed Winnipeg a mulligan and brought the woebegone Atlanta Thrashers here. Entering Tuesday night, the Jets were 16-8-2 at home.

"Friends ask me back home what it's like and you really can't describe it," forward Chris Thorburn said. "When they start chanting, man, especially after a goal, it's crazy. Even when we go out on the ice at the start of games, the way they yell `Go Jets, go!' it just sends chills down your spine.

"I guess you don't appreciate something until after it's gone, but at the same time, you don't want to test that market. It's too risky."

Defenseman Johnny Oduya, a former Devil who moved here with the team from Atlanta, where the weather was hot and the hockey interest tepid, said: "It has been unbelievable, the best I've ever seen.

"If we had twice as big an arena here, we could probably fill it. People are getting more and more used to having the team here, but at the same time, they know you don't take it for granted."

As a former Atlantic Division player, Oduya would hate to see the Islanders leave. "They have a tradition, maybe not as much lately, but I think it's there. It could be good," he said. "Just get a new location, a new rink, get some more hype about it. Like here, there's a battle for tickets all the time."

Tuesday night, with two teams desperate to gain points and to keep the other side from doing the same, the fever pitch was higher than normal. That actually can help the visitors, too. "It's a great place to play," Kyle Okposo said. "You have to try to feed off that energy."

Islanders coach Jack Capuano said after the morning skate, "You look at the standings, you look at the atmosphere, this is a great game to be a part of."

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