WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) Winnipeg already was gripped by playoff fever. Now, with the Jets in the Western Conference final, the temperature is rising further.
Jets merchandise is flying off shelves, downtown office workers are decked out in team jerseys and organizers must cap attendance at 20,000 for street parties on game nights.
The passion surpasses that of the glory days of 40 years ago when the Jets were champions of the World Hockey Association. Stars of that team are in town this week to join the festivities.
”I don’t recollect any sporting event … bringing the fans into the downtown area and into the excitement that there is today,” Joe Daley, the 1978 squad’s goalie, said before the Jets hosted Game 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday. ”I think it’s unbelievable what’s going on.”
Anders Hedberg, the right wing who notched 63 goals in 1978 and later returned to his native Sweden, told The Canadian Press he’s not surprised by how fans in the NHL’s smallest market have filled the arena and the streets.
”The relationship to the game is the closest here of all the teams in the National Hockey League,” he said.
The street parties feature fans dressing up in white, watching on big screens next to the arena and listening to onstage entertainment.
Organizers said Friday that for the rest of the playoffs, attendance will be capped and fans must get free tickets in advance if they want to get in. By Friday afternoon, some online ads were offering to resell those free tickets at $25 or more.
Fans can even taste the excitement. A chocolate maker has started selling Jets-themed chocolates in the shape of pucks.
The feeling has been a long time coming for Winnipeg. The Canadian Football League Blue Bombers haven’t won a championship since 1990 and the original Jets never made it this far before leaving for Phoenix in 1996.
The new version of the Jets relocated from Atlanta in 2011 and was swept in the opening round in 2015, the team’s only playoff appearance before this year.
”The entire city, you can really feel the energy,” said Josh Drury, who along with his wife splits time between home in Winnipeg and running a business in Las Vegas. His loyalty lies completely with the Jets.
”This is really uncharted territory. … Winnipeg sports fans are kind of used to disappointment,” he said.
Daley continued to live in Winnipeg after his playing days. He says this playoff run is great for the city.
”We forget about all the shortcomings that everybody else in Canada thinks we have as a city,” he said. ”Right now, we’re No. 1 in Canada.”