WINNIPEG - Paul Maurice didn't put too much stock into the snow falling on the day of the first playoff game in Winnipeg since 1996. It's the whiteout inside MTS Centre that fans, coaches and players have been waiting for.
Playoff hockey returned to the city Monday with the Jets hosting the Anaheim Ducks in Game 3 of their first-round series. It's a day 19 years in the making since the first incarnation of the Jets left for Arizona and four years since the Thrashers moved here to bring the NHL back.
"It's a real special day for the people that have been here a long time," winger Blake Wheeler said. "Losing the team a number of years ago, it's kind of come full-circle. I think it's a great day for people of Winnipeg."
Maurice has coached in Toronto and Carolina but never experienced the kind of connection Jets fans have with this team.
"The fans here come up and thank you like you had anything to do with the team coming back, which I didn't, for being here," Maurice said Monday morning. "You get the feeling that you're kind of like the teacher here and you've got their kids, and their kids is the Winnipeg Jets hockey team. Through the course of the regular season, they've been getting some pretty average to below average marks and they're finally getting some good grades."
Monday night's highly-anticipated parent-teacher conference included a full house of over 15,000 fans making more noise than ever before. The decibel level was off the charts during warm-ups, and fans loudly cheered icing calls in the opening minutes.
Players around the league already consider the arena one of the loudest around, despite being one of the smaller ones. The combination of the Jets making the post-season and the drought since the last home playoff game combined to make this a whole different atmosphere.
"We know it's a pretty big deal in Winnipeg for the first time in 19 years to have an NHL playoff game here," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We also know how rabid the fans are about their hockey and how they love their hockey. ... We're happy for the city, we're happy for everything as far as the growth of the game and what hockey in Winnipeg has done."
What Winnipeg has done is embraced a hockey team that missed the playoffs its first three years since relocating. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff hired Maurice halfway through last season and slow-played his hand on personnel — often to the chagrin of fans desperate for change — before making key moves before the trade deadline to give the Jets the boost they needed to get in.
Being in the playoffs is a validation of Cheveldayoff's plan.
"It was a process," said veteran centre Jim Slater, the only player left from the Thrashers' only playoff team in 1996. "Obviously hiring Paul Maurice as the head coach was a big part of that process. I think now fans get a taste of it, they're going to want some more, year after year. With the management here, that's what they want to build. They want to build a team year after year that's a contender."
For one night at least, the long-term vision of the franchise took a back seat to the moment. Like the first game back on Oct. 9, 2011, this is a night to remember for everyone in attendance at MTS Centre, whether in the stands, behind the bench or on the ice.
"This is a big thing for this city, for this community to have their team in the playoffs," Slater said. "Not a lot of people know where Winnipeg is on a map, but they definitely know where their hockey team is, and we take a lot of pride in that."
That includes the visitors on the receiving end of the noise.
"Part of me as a hockey fan and a hockey player appreciates this," Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "It's great to see a city rally like that."
Commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand to see it himself.
"As I've travelled the league the last week, the question I got most frequently was, from people within the NHL family: 'Are you going to Winnipeg Monday night?'" Bettman said. "Because everybody knows that this is going to be a special night."
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