I remember sitting in the upper bowl of the MTS Centre in Section 310 with my significant other, about seven rows up from the railing and peering over about 7,500 other Manitoba Moose fans to watch the Moose play in Game 2 of the 2009 Calder Cup Finals.
There was something more special about Game 2 than there was about Game 1, a game which I had been sitting with a good friend over in Section 302 a few nights prior to witness a 5-4 overtime loss. The score was tied in Game 2 1-1 with under five minutes to play in the third period.
Overtime was looming.
Longtime Moose winger Jason Jaffray got a cross-ice pass across centre coming down the left wing. He drove wide on the defenseman. Being a left handed shot, Jaffray wound up and buried his head as he took a crack at the puck with a sharp slapshot. The puck bounced its way towards Hershey Bears goaltender Michael Neuvirth.
And then the puck eluded Neuvirth and 15,005 fans erupted in, what was then, the loudest hockey celebration in the MTS Centre’s history. Though the Moose would go on to lose the 2009 Calder Cup in six games, the three games hosted by the Moose in the MTS Centre showed that Winnipeg was ready for an NHL team.
Three consecutive sellouts and the screaming fans made it a madhouse in the arena. Moose head coach Scott Arniel could not even communicate to his players what they were to do for the final minute of the game after Jaffray’s second goal of three.
A great business structure that was provided by True North Sports & Entertainment CEO Mark Chipman through the ownership and successful and fruitful management of the Manitoba Moose for 15 seasons as part of the IHL and AHL formed an unmistakeable sense of trust that Winnipeg could indeed be viable as an NHL market.
Now 15 years after the Jets flew to Phoenix, they are reincarnated as the Jets again, this time flying from Atlanta, where once a team was and then flew to another Canadian city in Alberta. That team, known as the Flames even after the move from Atlanta, won a Stanley Cup only nine seasons after the move. Could this be an omen for the newest Atlanta moved team?
But more to the point, the success of the Moose culminated in that 2009 Calder Cup Finals. Never since the 1979 Avco Cup winning Winnipeg Jets has the city of Winnipeg had any type of professional champion hockey team.
The Bombers last won the Grey Cup in 1990. The Goldeyes won the Northern League in 1994. And the Jets had won Avco Cups galor in the 1970s in the WHA, but never the ultimate hockey prize in the NHL.
Passionate fans that were willing to come to see AHL hockey for 15 years also culminated in those three games. You were lucky to even get a seat. For the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Aeros, the upper deck was opened but sparsely populated. I myself was able to get a seat in the lower bowl only eight or nine rows up from the ice, on the corner, behind the net.
For that 2009 Calder Cup Final, you were lucky to even get anywhere near the lower bowl. In the decisive Game 6, my friends and I were able to grab nosebleeds in section 308 in the very back row.
Granted, my current Jets mini-pack tickets are in the very back row of the upper bowl, but the point is that Winnipeggers were willing to come to watch a championship calibre team play for a professional championship with tradition and pride.
So why couldn’t they finally be able to watch the best of the best? They witnessed Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, and Alex Edler rise to become NHL players for the Vancouver Cancucks. But now they will watch the likes of Evander Kane, Bryan Little, and Ondrej Pavelec rise to NHL stardom in the NHL, not the AHL.
It all comes back to the sunny, beautiful day of June 2, 2009.