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Winnipeg Jets long defied death, kept flicker of hope alive for NHL return

The Winnipeg Jets made a habit of defying death.

How else to explain a tear-filled rally known as "The Funeral" that was held a full year before the franchise actually left town? Even as fans filled Winnipeg Arena to mourn what they believed was the imminent departure of their beloved NHL team in May 1995, a handful of people participating in the ceremony were carrying a secret.

"We actually had a pretty strong inkling that afternoon as it was going on that things were happening to keep us for one more year," said John Paddock, the Jets general manager at the time. "It was strange. The arena was full and everybody was in white and there was stuff going on downtown with socials and parades and people with their piggy banks."

It was the kind of scene that hasn't played out in any of the other eight cities that lost a NHL team during the past 35 years.

Fans were sobbing in the packed arena on a warm May day while members of the organization took turns paying their respects at the microphone. Don Cherry even made a guest appearance — "Well I'll tell ya, they made a big mistake ... I guess we in Canada only get one chance, down in the States they get two or three," he bellowed — before hurrying back to Toronto for a "Coach's Corner" appearance on Hockey Night in Canada later that evening.

"It was an emotional thing, a very emotional thing," recalled Paddock. "Probably the players didn't know even (the team was staying) and we didn't know for sure, but there was an inkling when I got to the arena that day that something was happening for another year.

"It was just like disbelief."

It's a feeling some Winnipeggers have been re-acquainted with after Tuesday's announcement that NHL hockey is returning to the city.

Even though the Jets did eventually die, moving south to become the Phoenix Coyotes prior to the 1996-97 season, the manner in which they left never totally extinguished hope for a return.

The bond between the city and its team was stronger than most. Winnipeg was the NHL's second smallest market behind Edmonton at the time of the Jets' departure and players were always made to feel part of the community.

"Winnipeg is probably the fondest memories of my career — a lot of people think I'm crazy when I say that," Kris King, the Jets captain in their final season, told The Canadian Press last year. "It was a down-to-earth kind of place, people really respected their team. I had a guy come and, if he knew I was away on the road and we'd have snow, my wife didn't have to lift a shovel — the driveways were cleared. People were always checking in to make sure all of the families were taken care of.

"That's just what Winnipeg was. They really respected their players and their team."

Paddock arrived in 1991 for his first head coaching job in the NHL. It was a dream scenario for the native of Oak River, Man., who recalls former owner Barry Shenkarow already talking about the need for a new arena when he was hired.

Ultimately, there was no one willing to finance the project — be it the government or a well-heeled businessperson — although a group of fans did their best with a grassroots campaign that started shortly after the team was granted a one-year reprieve from moving in 1995.

The economics of the era doomed the Jets. Rising player salaries, a slumping Canadian dollar and the outdated Winnipeg Arena all conspired to keep a local suitor from stepping forward and buying the team from Shenkarow and his partners.

Even with all the turbulence that followed the franchise in its final years, some positive things were happening on the ice. Teemu Selanne took the league by storm when he scored 76 goals as a rookie in 1992-93 and helped form a dynamic core of young players that included Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Zhamanov and Nikolai Khabibulin.

The Jets failed to get past the first round of the playoffs during their final nine years in Winnipeg but there's no telling what might have happened if they were given more time and a few more pieces to build with.

"That last year we were there and we lost to Detroit in six games, I think we scared them," said King. "We had a pretty good chance."

The time spent in Winnipeg left a strong impression on a number of former Jets — perhaps none more than Swede Thomas Steen, who stuck around after 14 seasons with the team and is now a city councillor.

Paddock returns to Manitoba for a few weeks each summer — pretty much all his current job as assistant GM of the Philadelphia Flyers will allow — and thinks NHL players will once again warm to the city.

"I never heard anybody complain about playing in Winnipeg," said Paddock, echoing the words of Rick Bowness, another former Jets coach.

"I think the players, the organization, are in for a treat in a lot of aspects."