By HOWARD BERGER
WINNIPEG (Dec. 31) – There will be lots of excitement tonight when the Toronto Maple Leafs tangle for the first time with the “new” Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre here.
The teams met at the Air Canada Centre back on Oct. 19 with the Leafs prevailing, 4-3, in a shoot-out. Highlight of that game, as I recall, was 19-year-old rookie Mark Scheifele of the Jets scoring his first NHL goal on James Reimer in the second period. Scheifele was returned to the Ontario Hockey League Barrie Colts two days later and is currently skating for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton and Calgary.
The anticipation is palpable in this city for tonight’s first regular-season visit by the Maple Leafs since Feb. 28, 1996: a game that was played against the original Jets at Winnipeg Arena (the Leafs and Coyotes squared off in an exhibition game at the MTS Centre in September 2007). The Jets re-located to Phoenix for the 1996-97 NHL season and finally “returned” this year when the Atlanta Thrashers moved here.
Winnipeg Arena (photo below), built in 1955, was home to the Jets from the franchise inception in 1972 as part of the World Hockey Association; through a merger of four WHA teams with the NHL in 1979, and until the club left for Arizona nearly 25 years after its playing its first game. It is best-remembered for hosting Game 3 of the legendary summit series between Canada and Russia in 1972 and for the WHA exploits of hall-of-famer Bobby Hull, who left the Chicago Blackhawks after the 1971-72 season and signed with the Jets for $1 million – providing the new league instant credibility and forever altering the salary structure in professional hockey.
A TERRIFIC SHOT OF WINNIPEG ARENA (ABOVE) TAKEN IN 2003 FROM THE STANDS AT ADJACENT CANAD INNS STADIUM, HOME OF THE CFL WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS (PHOTO BY JEAN-FRANCOIS BRULOTTE). BELOW, IS A PHOTO OF THE ARENA DURING ITS DEMOLITION PROCESS IN EARLY 2006.
On Apr. 16, 2003, ground was broken along Portage Ave. here in downtown Winnipeg on the site of the former Eaton’s department store. Rising in the next year-and-a-half was a brand new arena – to be named the MTS Centre – in the hopes of luring the NHL back to this city. Owned and operated by True North Sports and Entertainment, the building opened on Nov. 16, 2004 and was home to the American Hockey League Manitoba Moose until 2011. It is the NHL’s smallest arena in terms of seating capacity (15,004 for hockey) but word is the building will be expanded by raising the roof and adding more than 4,000 seats.
Right now, you could get into the Oval Office at the White House easier than the MTS Centre when the Jets are playing. Demand far outweighs supply in this city.
Tonight’s game starts at 6 o’clock locally – 7 p.m. in Toronto – and will be televised across the country on Hockey Night In Canada. I walked over to the MTS Centre this morning with my trusty Nikon for this photo-tour of the Jets’ home arena:
WINTER MADE A BRIEF RETURN OVERNIGHT WITH A LIGHT DUSTING OF SNOW THAT WAS EVIDENT ALONG PORTAGE AVENUE (ABOVE).
THE MTS CENTRE (ABOVE AND BELOW) IS LOCATED AT 300 PORTAGE AVE., IN THE HEART OF DOWNTOWN WINNIPEG.
WITH THE EARLY START TONIGHT, THE MAPLE LEAFS CANCELED THEIR USUAL DAY-OF-GAME SKATE; ONLY A COUPLE OF PLAYERS TOOK TO THE ICE (ABOVE AND BELOW) WITH ASSISTANT COACH ROB ZETTLER.
ALL SEATS IN THE MTS CENTRE ARE DARK AQUA-GREEN. IT IS A HANDSOME FACILITY, AND A CREDIT TO THE RABID HOCKEY FANS OF THIS REGION.
THE MTS CENTRE PRESS FACILITIES ARE LOCATED ABOVE THE SECOND DECK AND THE ARENA IS RINGED BY ONE LEVEL OF PRIVATE LUXURY SUITES (ABOVE). EVERYWHERE YOU GO IN THE BUILDING (AND IN THE CITY, FOR THAT MATTER), YOU CAN FIND THE NOW-FAMILIAR JETS LOGO (BELOW).
ROB ZETTLER HAD IT RATHER EASY THIS MORNING (ABOVE).
THE 100-LEVEL CORRIDOR (ABOVE) AT MTS CENTRE.
MAIN ENTRANCE TO THE ARENA (ABOVE). A TRIP UP THE ESCALTOR BRINGS PEOPLE TO A NEAT DISPLAY OF NHL BANNERS ON THE FIRST LEVEL.
IT WAS GREY AND RATHER BLEAK AS I WALKED ALONG PORTAGE AVE. LATE THIS MORNING (ABOVE), BUT UNUSUALLY MILD FOR THIS TIME OF YEAR – JUST BELOW THE FREEZING MARK AT MINUS-2 CELSIUS. MY HOTEL IS LOCATED FIVE BLOCKS FROM THE MTS CENTRE, AT WINNIPEG’S MOST FAMOUS INTERSECTION (BELOW).