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John Lu: Impressions of Winnipeg's Draft Party

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John Lu
6/27/2011 3:42:33 PM
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Here are my impressions from a Draft Party being shown on a very large TV, with a lot of guests, in my hometown last Friday.
 
The other shoe dropped to close the book on the great name debate. The approval felt like True North Sports and Entertainment brass could've heard the roar all the way to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul's, Minnesota.

"Mr. Kevin Cheveldayoff will make the first pick of behalf of the Winnipeg Jets."

When team owner Mark Chipman, in true Winnipeg fashion, understatedly declared the nickname "Jets", the thunderous cheer felt like a physical blow from where I was standing on the floor of the MTS Centre. I've covered four seasons of Montreal Canadiens games at the Bell Centre, so trust me on this one. It was a deafening roar that rivaled any which I've experienced at a live event.

It was like a joyous release from four thousand fans, sounding like a capacity crowd. I'm guessing it was a preview of what the atmosphere will be like at the MTS Centre when more than 15,000 fans will pack the building for every Jets home game starting this fall.

It also was a seminal moment to cement the relationship between Chipman and the fans. He gave his blood, sweat and tears (and substantial dollars) to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg. The fans repaid his largesse by selling out the season ticket base of 13,000 seats in a heartbeat. What was left for Chipman to give in return? He gave the people what they wanted.

The symbol, the identity, the calling card of the pulse of hockey beating within Winnipeggers' hearts.

An aside to the "official announcement of the name": In the moments leading up to the Jets' pick, the buzz in the crowd was like a gathering storm -- noise and energy waiting to explode. When we came out of the commercial break it was so loud in the building, TSN had to scrap my live hit because I couldn't hear James Duthie in my earpiece, who was trying to link up with us from St. Paul's. When you can't hear James Duthie shouting in your ear, you know it's loud around you.

Seconds later when the Jets VP & GM Kevin Cheveldayoff again uttered "Winnipeg Jets" to preface the pick, his announcement of the player's identity was almost drowned out. Subsequently, the reaction was muted when Mark Scheifele went at Number 7. You got the sense that fans in the building were asking, "Mark Who?".

However, because of the way Cheveldayoff described the Barrie Colts centre -- as a player possessing the character and values the organization wants to foster within the team -- my guess is that Winnipeg fans will quickly warm to a young man who evidently reflects the humility and sincerity of the community which he will make his first NHL home. Plus, it can't hurt that Scheifele's junior coach, Dale Hawerchuk, gives his glowing endorsement. If you can't trust a Hall of Famer and icon in Jets history, whom can you trust?

You can understand the fans' initial confusion/disappointment, no disrespect to Scheifele.  Two picks earlier they lustily booed Islanders' GM Garth Snow when he chose Ryan Strome. Jets fans, dazzled by Strome's viral YouTube double dangle goal and enthusiastic hype built by the Winnipeg sports media, coveted the Niagara Ice Dogs product.

That visceral reaction simply said that these fans, and thousands of their brethren around the city and country who were watching the draft, are truly plugged in. They know their hockey and they love their Jets.

Here's another example of how plugged in they are. Even though a large portion of the fans in attendance would've been infants or had never seen an NHL game in Winnipeg when the Jets left in 1996, they let it be known that the old Smythe Division rivalry is alive and well in The Peg. When the Edmonton Oilers were called to the podium to make their first overall pick, Steve Tambellini received the second loudest boo of the evening. Realignment, anybody?
The loudest boo of the evening? One hint: He opened the evening's proceedings.

Commissioner Gary Bettman is forever doomed to be a villain in Winnipeg. No matter how many times and ways he explains why the team left in the first place, most Winnipeggers refuse to cut him slack. I found it interesting that in an interview with Tim Campbell published in last Saturday's Winnipeg Free Press, he described the typical reaction he gets from the city's fans as "a routine" rather than criticism. Hmm.

No matter. The fans shortly thereafter cheered Bettman loudly when he welcomed Winnipeg and its fans back to the NHL fold. Is all forgiven over that little relocation thing from 15 years ago? Let's find out when Winnipeg hosts its first All Star Game or Entry Draft and the Commissioner is back in town.

As memorable as the cheers, boos and buzz from the crowd were, I was once again reminded of how inviting and friendly Winnipeggers are from my interactions with them throughout the evening. Unfailingly polite, scores of them sought pictures with TSN's Draft Day representative and a few moments to talk hockey. I even ran into a couple of friends from Red Lake, Ontario as echoes of my former career. I've always said that Winnipeg demonstrates one degree of separation.

I met Dancing Gabe Langlois, the holdover from the first Jets era who is a local legend for entertaining Winnipeg crowds with his self-styled gyrations in the stands. Gabe is the classical paradoxical performer -- a wildman when the adrenaline of the crowd is fueling him, but normally a soft-spoken, cordial gentleman with a self-conscious handshake who looks like a financial advisor.

Come to think of it, he looks like my financial advisor.

But to borrow from TSN's vernacular, my Highlight of the Night came at the request of a young fan who asked me to tape a video greeting to his friend Tyson who is fighting cancer.

People in the sports media are greatly privileged to be a part of the public's everyday lives. I've always felt we're ordinary people who are blessed with extraordinary careers. For that reason it was an honour to be asked to give encouragement to a young man whose battle will be as singularly challenging as Mark Chipman's was to bring the Jets back to Winnipeg.

My fervent hope is that Tyson will be adding his voice to those boisterous crowds of more than 15,000 fans who will cheer their Winnipeg Jets at every home game starting this fall.
 
John Lu is TSN's Montreal Bureau Reporter and a long-time Winnipegger.

Winnipeg Jets fans (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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