By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Winnipeg welcomed back its beloved Jets on Sunday, as the National Hockey League (NHL) returned to the western Canadian city 15 years after its heartbreaking exit.
The Montreal Canadiens beat the Jets 5-1 in Winnipeg's first game of the NHL regular season, but the result was hardly the point as the Manitoba provincial capital reclaimed what it once lost to poor economics.
Winnipeg's True North Sports and Entertainment, led by local businessman Mark Chipman and Thomson Reuters Corp chairman David Thomson, bought the money-losing Atlanta Thrashers after last season and moved them north to become Canada's seventh team in the 30-team NHL.
Derrick Edmundson, 55, watched the last Jets game in 1996 and didn't expect to see the NHL return any time soon after the team moved to Phoenix, Arizona to become the Coyotes.
"To have them back in our generation is unbelievable," he said. "What's more Canadian than hockey? We're in the center of the hockey universe today - how fun is that?"
Although Winnipeg, population 695,000, was devastated to lose the Jets, the loss was a turning point, co-owner Chipman.
The city built new sports facilities and its manufacturing, farming and mining economy grew steadily.
The NHL and its players eventually agreed on a salary cap and the Canadian dollar has soared to near parity with the U.S. greenback, cutting costs for small Canadian markets.
"I tell people how it happened," Chipman said of the return. "I'm not sure I can say why it happened. An enormous number of good things happened."
Winnipeg sold out its 13,000 season tickets in minutes last spring in a frenzy of anticipation.
On Sunday, jersey-clad fans packed the MTS Center arena and chanted 'Go Jets Go' hours before the opening faceoff, while nearby thousands of fans who couldn't get tickets cheered the team on a giant TV screen.
"I think everyone has taken note of the enthusiasm and the passion for our game," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was villified in Winnipeg when the last team left. "... We have no reason to believe other than this team will be an absolute success."
The Canadiens jumped to a 2-0 lead before Nik Antropov cut the lead in half with the first goal for the reborn Jets in the third period. Montreal put the game out of reach with three more goals.
Despite the loss, Winnipeg fans saluted the NHL's return with a standing ovation in the final minute. But the Jets' dressing room was somber.
"I think you just try to use the excitement in the game," said Jets captain Andrew Ladd, asked if the players had gotten too caught up in the fan hoopla. "If you try to do too much, it can be used against you sometimes."
Michael Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec had the Canadiens' first two goals with Yannick Weber, Travis Moen and Max Pacioretty scoring after Antropov.
The first version of the Jets began play in 1972 in the now-defunct World Hockey Association and moved into the NHL in 1979. After 17 seasons, a weak Canadian dollar, aging arena and escalating player salaries led to its sale and relocation.
"What happened was unfortunate," said Keith Tkachuk, who was a bruising winger on the Jets team that moved to Phoenix. "As an ex-Jet, I'm so happy the team is back here."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)