Ten years ago to this exact date, the Winnipeg Jets flew home as the NHL returned to Manitoba for a second time.
“We get to be back in a place we wish hadn’t left in 1996,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in Winnipeg on May 31, 2011.
When looking back upon the day the announcement was made, Bettman recalls the most genuine feeling of electricity.
“Everybody was literally on cloud nine, it was like people were walking on air and you could feel it,” he said while smiling during a Zoom call with Global News.
The commissioner recalled True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman’s unwavering desire to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg.
“He was a man with a purpose. His mission had been over a number of years and it really focused on what he had to do to get this done and what he shouldn’t do to undermine it,” Bettman said.
“I think secrecy was paramount until the announcement of getting it done.”
Jets president of hockey operations Craig Heisinger says the deal to bring the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg wasn’t officially signed and sealed until the morning the announcement was made.
“People had been disappointed here before, the Jets had left once before, there was lots of speculation that Arizona might wind up back here,” he said.
“There was all kinds of speculation over the years. Any more false hope wasn’t going to do anybody any good, so it was best that the way the story came out everything was factual and it was ready to go.”
After 10 years of white-out passion, the sheer excitement has remained on display this season despite the anniversary being celebrated in the midst of a challenging year.
“We always pride ourselves in punching above our weight class, taking what somebody else has done and doing it bigger and better and taking a concept that you think can’t come out of a marketplace this small, that can’t come out of an arena this small and just blowing well past everybody’s expectations,” said True North senior VP of venues and entertainment Kevin Donnelly.
Throughout the past decade, nothing has demonstrated passion among Jets’ fans quite like the ever-popular play-off ‘whiteout’ parties.
“Everything about that screamed Winnipeg, it was grassroots, it was free admission, it was so universally accepted and loved and it happened time and time again without a problem,” Donnelly said.
“The fan support has been quite remarkable, we’re really the envy of a number of teams with the community that we have here and the fan base that we have,” said True North executive VP of sales Norva Riddell.
Heisinger says the city’s hockey fan base was clearly well-established before the Jets made an eventual return.
“The past 10 years had no chance to happen without the previous 15 of the Manitoba Moose,” he said.
“People that think differently are beyond naïve because that set the foundation of a new building, a good organization and one that earned the respect of the National Hockey League.”
After celebrating the anniversary in a variety of ways this season, True North is in the midst of crafting plans to celebrate 10 years of memories next season, when fans make their much-anticipated return to Bell MTS Place.
“The fans have been sensational. Everything that (Mark Chipman) told us they were going to be and even more,” said Bettman.
“I remember being there for the first game on opening night and you could just feel it, you could see it, this was a big deal for a city. Particularly a city like Winnipeg that missed having NHL hockey and it was really an honour and a privilege to bring a team back.”
Retired NHL defenceman Jim Kyte, who spent part of seven seasons in Jets colours in the 1980s, told 680 CJOB having been a Jet is a source of pride for him, and he was thrilled to see the team return in 2011.
Kyte said the original Jets ‘put Winnipeg on the map’ internationally, and the current incarnation of the team continues to do the same.
“I was very fortunate. I loved playing in the city. The people were fantastic and I have some very, very fond memories of my time there,” he said
“I thought they never should’ve left in the first place. Certainly from a fan perspective, there was always a strong fanbase. I wasn’t there when the Jets actually left, but I thought it was a tragedy.
“Thankfully, Mark Chimpan and David Thomson and the ownership are second to none in the National Hockey League… I think it’s fantastic, the generations certainly identify with the name Jets, and I’m proud to say I played for the Jets.”