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Winnipeg fans soak in NHL hockey

Jets fans are still celebrating their return to the big leagues. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

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Jets fans are still celebrating their return to the big leagues. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

Monday couldn’t have turned out better for me as a staff member of the New York Rangers and a former Winnipegger. Our team won a big 2-1 game in ‘The Peg’ to cap an arduous road trip and the entire day's experience provided more evidence that proved the extent of the NHL’s rebirth in the city.

As is the case throughout the league, our morning skates were not open to the public, though this didn’t diminish the public presence at every entrance to the MTS Center. The Jets’ souvenir store was bustling with customers.

Autograph-seeking fans surrounded the media and security entrances and were especially noticeable in the area where the ramp leads to the event level, which is actually located one block west of the arena. There was no doubt in the mind of anyone in the downtown area it was Hockey Day in Winnipeg.

I arrived early for the game, parked one block from the rink and walked around the area before entering. The streets were alive with enthusiastic fans and the restaurants and bars were jammed. I found the people coming into the area were somewhat different than the crowds that attended Jets games at the old Winnipeg Arena.

On the whole, this crowd was younger, louder and displayed more Jets apparel. It was also more diverse. There were more women and people from a number of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Particularly noticeable to me was the significantly higher number of aboriginal fans.

Inside, there’s no comparison between the ambiance in the MTS Center and the old Winnipeg Arena. The new building has modern lighting, spotlight effects and far superior acoustics. The pre-game buildup created an electric atmosphere in the building.

The announcement of starting lineups has become an art form across the league and Winnipeg’s public address operator didn’t disappoint. The highlight of the pre-game activities was the playing of the national anthems. A stirring rendition of The Star Spangled Banner was lustily cheered and I’ve never heard such a level of fan participation as when the audience passionately sang Oh Canada. The loud chant of the words "True North" brought a unique local flavor to this rendition of the anthem.

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Only a passionate audience can maintain an intense level of noise throughout a game without artificial video prompting and this was apparent in Winnipeg.

But it had to be a frustrating game for the Winnipeg faithful. The Jets managed only one goal and one shot off the post in the 5-1 loss, despite logging 28 shots and having a number of shifts where they sustained pressure. Even so, few fans left before the final buzzer. These were loyal Jets fans and, most important of all, dedicated hockey fans.

Competing in the NHL is a daunting task. Success is such a fragile commodity. Key injuries, poor personnel decisions and just plain bad luck can all submarine your team's chances. Fans must come to each game not just to see the home team win, but to thrive on their proximity to the spectacle of NHL hockey. Game days are special experiences.

Fans of the Winnipeg Jets are savoring the NHL experience and this is a crucial building block for the long-term success of the franchise.

Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be writing his Insider Column regularly for THN.com throughout this season.

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