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May 21, 2018

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Enemy Territory: Winnipeg’s hockey passion an obstacle for Knights

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John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP

Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine (29) celebrates his goal on Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) during the first period of Game 1 of the NHL hockey playoffs Western Conference final, Saturday, May 12, 2108, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The streets in downtown Winnipeg are overflowing with passion for their hockey team.

Any city with a team in the NHL conference finals would be excited on game day, but the passion and togetherness Saturday afternoon in Manitoba felt different. The type of togetherness where anyone walking on the sidewalk within a mile of the arena dressed in any color but white immediately prompts puzzled stares.

Enter a pair of Vegas Golden Knights fans. Yes, they stood out.

“We definitely drew a lot of attention,” said Nolan Jones, who traveled from Las Vegas with his wife, Cayla, for the two Western Conference finals playoff games against the Jets. “I was really surprised by the amount of people who kept stopping us because we were in Knights gear to have a conversation.”

On Portage Avenue — the main strip of Winnipeg — not a single business can be found without some form of encouraging signage for the Jets in their window. “We love our Jetties!” is written on bar windows and a sign reading “Forecast calls for a whiteout. Go Jets go!” dons the marquee of a car dealership. Even a church near the arena has a sign proclaiming, "Go Jets Go."

“It’s life,” said Golden Knights forward Cody Eakin, who was born and raised in Winnipeg. “They are diehards. There are long, cold winters so having hockey here is what you do in the winter. It’s very important.

“Ever since they came back they’ve been rallying around it, and now they have a good playoff run with high hopes so it’s exciting for them. It’s good for the city.”

The Winnipeg Jets have a proud history dating back to the World Hockey Association in 1972. The franchise joined the NHL in 1979, where it played for 17 years before a financial demise led to a relocation and rebranding as the Phoenix Coyotes.

As the NHL changed and players began demanding higher salaries, paid in U.S. dollars, Canada’s smallest market couldn’t afford to keep up.

“This place has had heartache, having their team taken away from them,” said Gary Lawless, who is now the Golden Knights insider after working in Winnipeg for 18 years.

Winnipeg got its team back in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated. The team hadn’t won a single playoff game until this year, but the Jets are now three wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals. The beat Vegas on Saturday in the first game of the best-of-seven-game series. The second game is at 5 tonight.

“This is the Green Bay of the NHL,” Lawless said. “There are only 700,000 people here and it doesn’t fit. The city sticks out because it’s different than New York, Los Angeles or even Vegas but they want to punch above their weight and they have a really good hockey team.”

A sellout crowd of 15,321 packed the Bell MTS Place to cheer on the Jets against Vegas, while thousands more spilled into the streets of downtown Winnipeg. More than 25,000 fans squeezed into Donald Street, right next to the arena, to watch the game on monitors outside. There would have been more but security had to limit it for safety.

“I’ve seen it get real loud in here when I had some big games here with (the Dallas Stars), but I haven’t heard it that loud,” said Eakin, who had family in attendance for Game 1. “I’m always fairly loose and I try to enjoy every minute, so when they get loud I’m loving it.”

The 26-year-old was able to easily spot his mother, sister and cousins during pregame warmups as they were part of the very few not wearing white in the arena.

The sea of white shirts, pants, jackets and facepaint is a tradition that dates back to 1987 when fans were asked to dress in all white to home playoff games to create an intimidating effect and atmosphere.

It worked in game one as the Jets jumped all over the Golden Knights, scoring three goals in the opening eight minutes to claim a 4-2 win and a 1-0 series lead.

“It was a fun atmosphere, and they are passionate fans here,” said Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves, who also grew up in Winnipeg and played for the Junior Jets as a youth. “They love their hockey and they love their team. It’s good to see them supporting them I’d rather have a different result.”

The thousands of fans danced on Donald Street, celebrating around the two-story-tall red, goal light that illuminates each time the Jets score.

“It was a great experience,” said Jones, who has traveled with his wife to every Golden Knights playoff game this season. “They obviously have a pretty rocking setup. While it’s a smaller venue it’s loud and engaged venue. Everyone in our section was really nice and they were excited that we traveled all the way from Las Vegas to watch the hockey game.”

Winnipeggers partied well into the night. Fans ran down the sidewalk waiving a Jets flags in the air while others cheered them on with a “Go Jets Go” chant.

“A lot of people say the reason they care so much about the team is there is nothing else to do in Winnipeg, but that’s not true,” Lawless said. “There are lots of things to do here. It’s a culturally diverse city with great lakes around here that people go and spend a lot of time. There is a lot to do here, but the Winnipeg Jets are the most important thing.”

Las Vegas’ hockey history is relatively young. The minor league Thunder had a great following, and were inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame this week, and the Wranglers had a good run as well.

Now the city has fallen in love with the Golden Knights. Lawless, who was in Winnipeg for the return of the Jets and has been with the Golden Knights nearly from their inception, sees some parallels in two cities that could not be more different in every aspect outside of hockey.

“Vegas is only in the first year,” he said, “but Vegas will be like this too. You you can see it in the way they love their Golden Knights that it will develop.”

Jesse Granger can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Jesse on Twitter at twitter.com/JesseGranger_.

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