NHL Year in Review: Winnipeg Jets' Return an Unforgettable Highlight of 2011

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IDecember 31, 2011

WINNIPEG, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 20: The Winnipeg Jets salute their fans after their first home preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the MTS Centre on September 20, 2011 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
Marianne Helm/Getty Images

In the long run, 2011 will be remembered as a year of collapses, catastrophes and calamities in the world of hockey.

Yet the return of the Winnipeg Jets to the National Hockey League, after 15 years of waiting, was the true memorable moment of the year that was.

Tradition. History. Atmosphere. The city of Winnipeg, and their beloved hockey team, has it all. However, the aspect that simply makes Winnipeg a one-of-a-kind hockey city is something else—passion.

No matter where your allegiances lie, the overpowering aura of devotion that overtook all 633,451 residents of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on that unforgettable day—May 31, 2011—is an occasion that should never be forgotten.

After the formal announcement of the purchase at 12:20 PM local time, shockwaves of elation rocketed throughout the city of Winnipeg and beyond. The immediate support shown for the city's new franchise was simply astounding, especially considering their new team had made the playoffs just once in their 12-year history prior to the move.

On June 4, Jets' season tickets were sold out just 17 minutes after being opened up to the public, as the team's goal of 13,000 season tickets was reached in less than three mere days. And on June 21, the NHL Board of Governors finally approved the Thrashers move to Winnipeg—unanimously.

WINNIPEG, CANADA - OCTOBER 9: Winnipeg Jets fans (L-R) Andrew Sinclair, Eric Hogue, Kyle MacKay and Tyler Contant make their way to the MTS Centre before the Winnipeg Jets game against the Montreal Canadiens for NHL action at the MTS Centre on October 9,
Marianne Helm/Getty Images

But the inspiring sequence of events that surrounded the Jets' return last spring was often overshadowed by a series of less-than-uplifting headline-generators.

Looking for their first NHL title and Canada's first league championship in 21 years, the Vancouver Canucks blew 2-0 and 3-2 series leads in the Stanley Cup finals as they fell in seven games to the hard-hitting Boston Bruins.

The 'Nucks meltdown set the stage for a summer of tragedies—one that had already begun with the drug-induced death of Derek Boogaard, only 28 years old, the previous month. But the passing of Boogaard only scratched the surface of what was to come.

Former Vancouver enforcer Rick Rypien was found dead on August 15, in a passing that was eventually deemed suicide. Rypien, who was 27, had suffered through a year of depression-caused leave of absences from the Canucks.

Just two weeks later, 35-year-old Wade Belak similarly committed suicide in his Toronto condominium. Belak had only just retired from hockey in March of this year.

This string of cataclysmic deaths among three respected enforcers set loose a firestorm of debates and concerns regarding the potential dangers of headshots, once common in the NHL. But those arguments were soon cut short by the most alarming event yet—the crash of the Lokomotiv team jet.

The Lokomotiv plane crash. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports Puck Daddy Blog.
The Lokomotiv plane crash. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports Puck Daddy Blog.

Lokomotiv, a KHL team from St. Petersburg, Russia, was flying out of Yaroslav, Russia on Sept. 7 when pilot error crashed their plane shortly after takeoff. Forty-four of the 45 people on board, including 36 team-related players and personnel, were killed.

Among the fatalities were a number of well-liked former NHLers: Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek, Karlis Skrastins, Stefan Liv, Karel Rachunek, Jan Marek and coaches Brad McCrimmon and Alexander Karpovtsek. Salei had played as a bottom-pairing defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings in the 2011 NHL playoffs just a few months before.

Almost completely lost in the mess of headlines was another jet—the Winnipeg Jets. Enthusiasm continued to boil over the entire province of Manitoba, completely unfazed by the dismal news bouncing around the hockey world.

And on October 9, Winnipeg hosted another regular season NHL game at last. The hometown side was routed 5-1 by the visiting Montreal Canadiens—a sign of the rough road ahead for this newly-energized franchise—but it was the 15,004 exuberant Jet fanatics who packed the MTS Centre on that magical night who were the real winners.

As the 2011-2012 season has moved along, the Jets have slowly but steadily improved. Every gameday, Winnipeg rocks the blue and silver before cramming the MTS Centre to capacity.

WINNIPEG, CANADA - DECEMBER 6: Bryan Little #18 and Andrew Ladd #16 celebrate Little's game winning goal against the Boston Bruins in NHL action at the MTS Centre on December 6, 2011 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
Marianne Helm/Getty Images

On October 17, the Jets earned their first home victory. On October 22, their second. On November 14, their third.

As the calendar year of 2011 has wound down, those wins have come closer and closer to each other, just as the Jets have quietly climbed up the Eastern Conference standings.

The Winnipeg faithful have supported their team through some rough outings, but also during more than a few impressive wins—2-1 over Pittsburgh and Boston and then-league leading Minnesota, 4-1 over Washington, 4-0 over Montreal, 6-4 over Philadelphia, and 5-3 over Anaheim and Teemu Selanne (the last player left from the '95-'96 Jets).

With the New Year standing before us all today, Winnipeg is in the conference's top eight for the first time, led by a remarkable 13-6-1 home record.

And they still have yet to leave a single seat empty.

How could a team's relocation to a city—a city that has had a team before—possibly outshine the horrifying deaths of 12 NHL players within a five-month span? How could the hockey world so carelessly forget the lives of these extraordinary men in favor of the happiness of one mid-sized town?

Well, just go to a Jets game.

You'll see.