Hockey gets second chance in Winnipeg

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- This is the prodigal son returned home.

This is a priceless family heirloom long thought lost, but suddenly found.

This is a second chance when no such chance was believed possible.

This is the return of the National Hockey League to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

"There's a real genuine excitement. I think it's a pure excitement. I don't even know how to put it," Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "It's the excitement of a little kid at Christmas, I guess."

In the weeks and months since NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced Winnipeg would see its beloved Jets return to this prairie city, there have been hints and glimpses about what fans could expect.

There were hirings, players signed to contracts, a new logo, new jerseys and parties -- all steps along a path that leads to Sunday's home opener against the Montreal Canadiens, the moment when the dream becomes real.

"It's been like peeling back the wrapper of a present and getting a glimpse, but not seeing the whole surprise, the logo and then the jerseys. It's that atmosphere," Cheveldayoff said.

In recent days, the images have suggested Winnipeg is in a near-constant state of nirvana as Sunday's game approaches. Yet to contemplate what Sunday will mean to the citizens of Manitoba, you have to first go back to that day on April 28, 1996, Game
6 of the first round against the powerful Detroit Red Wings. The Jets had forced a sixth game at home with a win in Game 5 and were hoping against hope they could force a deciding game against the Wings.

The move to Phoenix had already been long decided, but as long as the Jets were still playing, they were still Winnipeg's team. But the Wings won, 4-1.

Devon Ostir was there with her then-fiancé, now husband, Grant. They were near the top of Winnipeg Arena in the standing-room-only section. Her parents had season tickets to the Jets and she had grown up with them. She recalls people standing six, seven deep around the upper level that day.

As the final seconds ticked away, the realization hit like a hammer.

"It was full, full, full and everybody was very, very upset," she said.

For a long time, the players stayed on the ice while the fans clapped through their tears. Even when the players departed, the fans stayed.

"Fans just stayed for a long time after the ice was empty," Ostir said. "How do I describe it? It wasn't just the hockey team being pulled away, but the identity of the city."

The Jets were Winnipeg for many people, and vice versa. "It did feel like part of our identity had left," she said. Ostir was 24 when the team left.

Her life has changed dramatically since -- whose doesn't over 15 years? She married her fiancé and had three children -- two boys and a girl, Keaton, 14, Hayden, 12, and Sydney, 8. All are hockey players. This Sunday, Ostir and her husband will take the two boys to see the new Jets play their first game.

It's a journey she had no right to expect she would make.

The day the Atlanta Thrashers' relocation to Winnipeg was made official in June, Ostir took her two boys down to The Forks, a popular meeting place where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet near downtown, where thousands gathered to mark the event.

"I know tons of people who took their kids out of school that day," she said. "That's all everybody was talking about."

Ostir and her family have had opportunities to move to bigger cities with different opportunities, but they remain in Winnipeg because it feels right to them. It's home.

Has she thought of what it will be like to share the Jets with her children, as she shared them with her family growing up?

"Of course," she said. "To not have those role models to look up to and that are right there for people to see, it's a big deal to have something like that."

Will Ostir remember that final game when she takes her seat Sunday

"To me, this is something new," she said. "I don't know if we can look back. I think we should just look forward."

Among those players on the ice that day in late April 1996 was longtime NHL player and current national broadcast analyst Ed Olczyk.

"I kind of remember the last 90 seconds or so, coming off the ice and just kind of sitting there and realizing this was it," Olczyk told ESPN.com this week.

The skilled forward had two stints with the Jets sandwiched around a gig with the New York Rangers. It was one of six NHL cities Olczyk called home during his 1,031-game career, and in every one, there was a bond forged with the people of those cities.
That bond becomes even more tangible in a place like Winnipeg, where the game is so important.

"You become part of the community. You live it, you breath it," Olczyk said. "It was a very difficult time."

Olczyk recalled the end of the game, the players staying on the ice and recognizing the fans and realizing how upset people were. "You could see people that were very emotional. You felt helpless," he said.

Olczyk has jerseys from the teams for which he played, and also managed to come up with one of the carbon copies of the final game sheet from that final game in 1996. At the time, it looked like that memento would be a reminder of something that was gone forever. As it turns out, there will be a new generation of game sheets in Winnipeg.

"I think my first thought was, it's back where it belongs," Olczyk said of the Jets' return. "And I couldn't be happier for the people."

Kris King, now an NHL executive, was the captain of that team in 1996. He had hurt himself in Game 5 and was on the bench for Game 6. That season had been particularly difficult for King, as he was asked wherever the Jets traveled about the impending departure for Phoenix.

"As the clock ticked down, you knew it wasn't just another playoff year coming to an end," King told ESPN.com. "It was really, really sad to see what was happening, and it wasn't just the fans. Looking down the bench, the players were the same way."

King had arrived in Winnipeg from New York and played for parts of four seasons while there. Jets fans immediately embraced him for his hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach to the game. Over the years he too had hoped that somehow the NHL would find its way back to Winnipeg.

"You always hoped the fans would get their team back because it really was their team," King said.

This past offseason, King visited Winnipeg a number of times and people will often talk to him about that final game.

"Everybody was there. I think it was a 100,000-seat arena that day,"
King joked. "And another 100,000 will say they were at the first game on Sunday."

George Dyker was a 20-year-old university student in 1996. He and his buddies were at that final game, high up in the north end of Winnipeg Arena, and had made plans to go to Detroit for Game 7. Along with the sadness, Dyker admits now he felt more than a little bitterness that his team had been pulled from the community.

"It was devastating, I was absolutely devastated," he told ESPN.com. "You think it's the end of the world."

As for the team's return, Dyker was sure he had seen his last Jets game in 1996.

"Not in a million years did I ever imagine that there'd ever be a chance they'd be back again," he said.

A Winnipeg native, Dyker is now 36, an accountant with two girls, ages 5 and 6. He has been to training-camp practices and preseason games and will be on hand Sunday. He imagined what it will be like to share his love of the team with his daughters as they get older.

"It's the end of a 15-year nightmare, to be honest with you," he said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.