Winnipeg Jets\' Jim Slater, left, and Columbus Blue Jackets\' Maksim Mayorov, of Russia, fight for a loose puck during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
WINNIPEG - They came, they cheered and they screamed "Go Jets Go" as a 15-year separation between Winnipeg and NHL hockey was put on ice Tuesday night as the Jets made their return with a 6-1 win.
It was just an exhibition game against the Columbus Blue Jackets and a split-squad one at that. Columbus even won their half of the series at home 5-1.
But the smallest arena in the league was packed with 15,004 jersey-wearing, ecstatic fans who screamed their lungs out at the MTS Centre.
They had lots to cheer. The first fight, which included big Winnipeg defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, erupted less than a minute in and Winnipeg's first goal was scored by Paul Postma within the first eight minutes.
"Between Byfuglien and the fans it was like a Stanley Cup final," coach Claude Noel said after the game.
Jets top draft pick Mark Scheifele, an 18-year-old with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, scored twice and had two assists.
"He looked like the best player on the ice," said Noel.
"He looked like a guy that was a veteran guy, he played big smart clever. . . He's doing the things he needs to do to stay but let's not get ahead of ourselves."
Scheifele was awed and inspired by the crowd.
"To hear how loud they were I couldn't even hear myself think it was just unbelievable and I wanted to feed off that energy and give it back to them," he said.
For fans, it was enough that the Jets are back.
"It was heartbreaking to lose them and to get them back like this is extremely exciting," said Kevin Francis, who attended the game with his son John.
"I couldn't be happier," said Francis, one of many who lined up and arrived more than an hour early.
It was 1996 that saw the last incarnation of the Jets leave Winnipeg for Phoenix, where they were rechristened the Coyotes. The reborn Jets played in Atlanta last season as the Thrashers.
Last year there was speculation it would be the Coyotes who might return since, like Atlanta, Phoenix was in financial trouble. But at the end of May, True North Sports and Entertainment sealed a deal to bring the Thrashers to Winnipeg.
Since then it's been hectic as the former home of the AHL's Manitoba Moose was brought up to NHL standards, a team name was picked (Jets wasn't True North's first choice but they bowed to fan pressure) and season tickets quickly sold out.
When the online sale opened to the general public—Moose ticket holders had first crack—you didn't have time to drink a cup of coffee before all the tickets were gone.
"The city's gone crazy for them," said Francis, who couldn't get season tickets but was happy to get a couple to the emotional return Tuesday.
Even a Jets practice on the weekend saw thousands of fans turn out to cheer and get autographs. Many said they knew it would be their only chance to see the team on the ice.
Dancing Gabe was one of the first through the doors Tuesday evening. The fixture at Jets' games in the old Winnipeg Arena threw up his hands and cheered when he walked through. A loud cheer went through the arena when he showed up on the big screen, doing his familiar arm-waving jig.
True North made sure he could get tickets to games.
It was a split-squad game with Columbus but many of the big names on the Jets played in the home game—including team captain Andrew Ladd, who scored once, defencemen Zach Bogosian and Byfuglien and Scheifele, who is quickly making himself a fan favourite.
Byfuglien has been making headlines off the ice as well.
He's facing four charges that includes boating while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and refusing to provide a blood or urine sample after his boat was stopped on Lake Minnetonka in his home state of Minnesota.
But he received a huge cheer when, along with Ladd, he was named for an assist on the first goal of the night. He also took part in the first fight with Columbus forward Cody Bass.
Kevin Clark and Ivan Telegin also scored for Winnipeg and Ryan Johansen scored for the Blue Jackets.
In the Columbus loss, Evander Kane scored the first goal for the new Jets.
"It's the first goal, even though it's pre-season," Kane said. "It's nice to get on the board."
While the Jets fell in that game, defenceman Ron Hainsey thought they at least went down in style.
"The first thing I noticed is how good (the uniforms) looked, to be honest, in warmups," Hainsey said. "I thought we at least looked good."