For the first time in 566 days, thousands of fans were allowed to take in a Winnipeg Jets game in person.
The last time anyone was able to shout “True North” during the anthem or chant “Go Jets Go” — save for a few health-care workers during the playoffs last summer — was March 9, 2020, which seems like a lifetime ago rather than just 18 months.
But there they were on Sunday night, 14,625 hockey fans, fully vaxxed and fully ready to watch the Jets take on the Ottawa Senators and enjoy the taste of normalcy that’s been provided by triumph of science over a deadly virus that has ravaged the world.
Here, we’ll take a look at the first game day experience in a long time.
Jets Celebrate Front-Line Workers
Health-care and other front-line workers — those who couldn’t isolate from the virus but put themselves at risk every day to help or serve others — deserve society’s everlasting gratitude.
The Jets, who also welcomed fully-vaccinated health care workers into the then Bell MTS Place during the Jets’ second-round playoff matchup with the Montreal Canadiens in June — recognized before the game how hard they worked and continue to work.
The team also are encouraged season ticket holders to donate their pre-season tickets directly to deserving frontline workers, are doing a draw where front-line workers can win pre-season tickets, and offered a discount of concessions as well.
Jets Show Off Slick On-Ice Projection
Compared to game-day experiences in most other NHL markets, the Jets’ is fairly corporate and boring. Lack of engaging activities and extras has, for a few seasons now, been a sticking point as fans are no longer satisfied with just having the NHL back in their city.
In an attempt to combat that feeling, the Jets added on-ice projection and debuted it on Sunday night (it was supposed to be implemented for the 2020-21 season but there would have been no fans to enjoy it.)
It ended up looking pretty darn slick and the first pre-game show was a really good one.
“The new system that was installed over the summer months and includes eight laser projectors that turn the ice at Canada Life Centre into a massive TV screen,” a recent Jets’ news release explains. “Splitting the ice surface into four sections, each section receives the power of two projectors that will ensure a high-resolution and high-brightness viewing experience.”
“Fans will instantly see the excellence of the new system from the moment they walk into the arena,” Kyle Balharry, Senior director of game production for True North said in the same release. “The system will be used throughout the pre-game, post-warm-up and intermissions. We plan on using it to its full capacity, meaning that any time the lights are out, the on-ice projection will most likely be on, and we’ll be using it in many different ways.”
Long Lines to Enter Canada Life Centre
“Walking from my parking spot to Canada Life Centre and it’s great to have that #NHLJets game-day buzz back around the downtown barn. Stark contrast to all the quiet nights with tumbleweeds figuratively blowing through the empty streets with no fans allowed last season,” the Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre tweeted.
Perhaps part of the reason the buzz around the rink was so good is that there were a lot of people waiting a long time to get in.
Reports and photos came in on social media of long lines of fans stretching for blocks and blocks. Everyone had to show their proof of immunization and a matching photo ID to gain entry, which obviously slowed things down. There was also a new no-bag policy that caught fans off guard as well.
The Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers — another franchise that checks proof of immunization and IDs at the gate — has been very successful in streamlining the process so people get in quickly (and they’ve had more than 30,000 to a game just this month.)
The orngaization is tackling the issue, with True North’s Kevin Donnelly telling 680 CJOB radio Monday that they will make changes to fix it. Doors will open 90 minutes before puck drop instead of 60 for at least the rest of the preseason.
“The mood coming in was so good, I think the majority of people gave us a mulligan last night,” Donnelly said, while acknowledging “we don’t like to see people waiting in line.”
Game Itself Nothing Special, But it Didn’t Matter Much
At the end of the day, it was just an exhibition contest meant to evaluate young talent and potential depth players. But the good vibes just from being back made it a night many will remember.
The Jets didn’t dress Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, or Blake Wheeler. Nor did defensemen Dylan DeMelo, Josh Morrissey, or Nate Schmidt play. Same went for star goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
The game itself was expectedly sloppy, with plenty less-than-perfect plays due to lack of chemistry between line-mates and piles of penalties doled out to both sides.The Jets dominated the second period, but were taken to task in the third, relinquishing a 2-1 lead and eventually falling 3-2 in overtime (and losing a four-round practice shootout as well.)
That being said, there were still some notable plays from both sides, including Ridley Greig’s game-opening goal and CJ Suess’ second-period snipe. Brenden Dillon, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Kristian Vesalainen all stood out to this author.
The fan presence was also notable to Jets personnel. “I had goosebumps going out on the ice,” Dubois said post-game. “They were great tonight. It just feels like real hockey again and it feels good.”
“I think it was just fun to see some faces in the stands and I think they’re having a good time…” defenseman Logan Stanley agreed. “There’s a little bit of butterflies before (the game) because we haven’t played in front of fans for quite a long time. It was good to see faces in the building; they were great tonight and I think they had a lot of fun and were definitely pretty loud.”
The Jets will be back in action at Canada Life Centre on Wednesday, Sept. 29 when they welcome the Edmonton Oilers. This fully-vaccinated author can’t wait to wait in line (however long it takes), flash his immunization card and photo ID, and enjoy the atmosphere.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.