Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The people of Manitoba are hardy, to say the least.
Stick them with summer temperatures soaring where mercury can bust through plastic with mosquitoes swarming, they brush it off and get through the day. Try to freeze them out with gusty winds and temperatures where Fahrenheit starts to meet Celsius in winter and they're reminiscing about colder times. Try to take away their professional hockey team and they'll fight like Hell to squeeze one more year of top-level competition before capitulating to the inevitable.
Let them wade through a decade and a half of International Hockey League and American Hockey League action, constantly dangling the possibility of an NHL return, through those extremes in the middle of the continent and the faith never wavered.
Give them a team uprooted from the American south and they'll turn out en masse to the corner of Portage and Main to proclaim their love in Selanne, Hawerchuk, Tkachuk and Shannon jerseys on national television the day the deal is consummated. And then, let them wait another four years as the competitive balance in the Western Conference finally tips in their favor and a late- season run finally nets the city of Winnipeg and its new Jets a playoff berth.
The White Out will return.
"The playoffs with every team I was at were a tremendous experience, but that whiteout environment in Winnipeg was so unique that it was probably the one thing that would set it apart from all the others. It just created an unbelievable environment in that rink," said former original Jets forward Mike Eagles earlier in the week to the Winnipeg Sun.
Paul Maurice and his club will set up shop in the province's largest city on Monday night at MTS Centre either tied with the Ducks at one game apiece having erased the Pacific Division champions' home-ice advantage, or will face an 0-2 hole in desperate need of a win to stay alive in that best-of-seven set. That sea of opaqueness from a frenzied sell-out crowd will stack the venue to the rafters and try to distract Anaheim with its volume and ferocity for however long the game lasts.
Nineteen years is too long for one city to celebrate its heritage -- hockey or otherwise. The last time Jets fans were able to emulate a blinding prairie blizzard was April 28, 1996.
Under the massive visage of Queen Elizabeth II which dominated everything above ice level at the old Winnipeg Arena, the Detroit Red Wings closed out a Western Conference quarterfinal series with a 4-1 victory in Game 6. Defenseman Norm MacIver was etched into the history books with the final goal in the first iteration of the franchise now known as the Arizona Coyotes.
"In the old building our locker-room was right behind our player bench, so the crowd was right on top of it," current NBC and Blackhawks broadcaster Ed Olczyk added. "There was not a lot of room between the seats and the roof of the dressing room. So it was as wild as you'd imagine it would be. You talk about adrenaline and energy and all that kind of stuff, it was pretty cool coming out onto the ice right before the start of the game into the whiteout and skating around in the pre-game warmup before the national anthem. It was just surreal seeing all those people in white. Talk about emotional."
Adam Lowry made the history books last night, scoring the first playoff goal for a team based in Winnipeg since MacIver in a 4-2 series-opening loss in southern California, and the city awaits its next hero to add to the ledger in the back section of next year's media guide.
Lost in the wave of nostalgia and the glow of renewal, is that the White Out itself never really operated as much of a hometown advantage. It may provide a psychological edge to the paying customers, but it's little more than a stock image to set the scene. Like cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, aerial shots of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles and a wide pan from the base of the CN Tower in Toronto, it's an identifier that lets people know where the game's being played.
Despite the rich history of the game in Winnipeg, the Jets Mark I and II, have only won two playoff series in 36 years -- both against the Flames (1985, 1987) -- and while the blinding whiteness might have intimidated Calgary, it did little to stop the Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Detroit from derailing dreams of deep playoff runs in intervening years.
If there's going to be a third, it will have to be done in a new building with the Mona Lisa-reminiscent grin of commissioner Gary Bettman projected above. This was his move, and a fulfillment of his dare to the fan base to sell out every night to "make it work."
The power was, is, and always will be in the hands of the head coach and the players.
Maurice has led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002 and to the Eastern Conference final in 2009. He's got to instill a sense of calmness in his team, who held a one-goal edge through most of Thursday's opener before the sure-handed Ducks used their own home-ice edge to take the series lead.
Mathieu Perreault needs to recover his scoring prowess which netted him four goals in one game against the Panthers. Andrew Ladd, besides the intangibles of leadership, has to exercise more puck certainty and not try to force the play so much each shift. Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers have to use their largesse a tad more judiciously and not simply capitalize on the emotion of the moment to create chaos for opposing forwards.
Ondrej Pavelec has to morph into the game-stealing goaltender many have projected ever since he patrolled the Atlanta Thrashers' crease. He'll need to elevate his game above the Second Star honors received for the final week of the regular season.
White shirts, pants, pom-poms and the volume of a roaring jet engine can't make that happen.
If it all collapses like a fading star after a single unsuccessful round, the people of Manitoba will slink off disappointed but unbowed. Hockey eventually returned, playoff hockey eventually returned, the passion once again manifested itself in its old colors. Why shouldn't they think a playoff series win isn't worth waiting for?
"People are telling me it's like 2011 opening night all over again -- only ramped up," said Andrew Shefchyk, Boston Pizza's director of marketing to the Globe and Mail.
"Pretend you're seven years old again and tomorrow's your birthday," says Mr. Shefchyk. "That's how excited people are around here."
With a second chance in their back pocket, the Jets themselves have to realize that excitement must transfer to wins, so that Winnipeg transforms from a city known for its celebration of hockey to a city known for a team which is a danger to others with the Cup on the line.