Matt Mantler gathered with some friends at the MTS Iceplex on Thursday morning, hoping to get autographs and pictures from some of the Winnipeg Jets after they finished practising.
But Mantler and his buddies might be waiting a while to see a Jets game.
Just a year after Winnipeg hockey fans got their beloved Jets back, a lockout threatens to delay the start of the team’s second season.
“I guess we could wait one year (if a lockout led to a cancelled season), but the excitement we had last year, now it’s going to feel like they’re gone again,” said the 17-year-old Mantler, who wore a Jets hoodie with Alexander Burmistrov’s name on the back.
Fans had to wait 15 years for the NHL to return to Winnipeg after the franchise left in 1996 to become the Phoenix Coyotes. The wait ended last year when True North Sports and Entertainment bought the Atlanta Thrashers and relocated them to the Manitoba capital.
A pre-sale of 13,000 season tickets sold out in 17 minutes and full houses of 15,000 grateful fans packed the MTS Centre each game to earn a reputation of being one of the loudest crowds in the league.
“We’re kind of in a unique situation because it’s only our second season here,” Jets forward Bryan Little said after the practice. “I think I feel it worse for the Winnipeg fans because all they want to do is see more hockey and they were so excited and they were so great last year.
“They just want to see more of it, and to have this situation I can understand why they’re all frustrated.”
Little was joined at the practice by 15 other teammates and locally connected pros, including Winnipeg-born New Jersey Devils forward Travis Zajac and his brother, Darcy, who’s in New Jersey’s system.
One of the skaters waiting to soak up the Jets atmosphere as a home player is veteran forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, who signed with the club in the off-season after splitting time with New Jersey and Carolina last season.
“When I played against the Jets here with the other teams that I was with last year, the atmosphere in their building is pretty energizing,” Ponikarovsky said. “You can see how the city was missing hockey for a while and now that they have a team back, they just can’t get enough of it.”
He wants that experience to continue for the fans and players.
“(A lockout) doesn’t work for anybody, especially for the fans,” said Ponikarovsky, who has a wife and three children aged 10 and under waiting at home in Florida for news of when they can head north.
“(Fans) expect the season to start. It’s a lot of things that we have to deal with emotionally and physically. Right now, we’re just getting ready and, hopefully, we’re going to get it resolved as soon as we can, but it’s just one of those things that is probably going to take a little bit of time.”
On Thursday, commissioner Gary Bettman held a news conference in New York and reiterated that if there is no deal in place by midnight Saturday, the players would be locked out.
Fans like Mantler have a hard time wrapping their heads around why billionaire owners and millionaire players can’t come to an agreement.
“There’s too much money out there that they really shouldn’t be taking this long to figure this out,” said Mantler, who attended 13 Jets games last season. “It’s about the fans, and the fans are how they make their money. I feel that they should just agree on something so that we can watch some hockey.”
Little can see why many fans have that point of view.
“Every player understands why they’re frustrated,” he said. “They don’t care about all this talk about money, they just want to see hockey. They want to go to games, they’re fans.”
He said the players are frustrated too.
“It’s frustrating for us because we want to play and we want to make the fans happy, but at the same time we’re fighting for what we think is fair,” he said. “That’s just how it’s going to be. It’s our jobs. Sometimes fans, they don’t see things through our eyes.”
Ponikarovsky went through the last NHL lockout in 2004-05. After that season was cancelled, he played in Russia. Playing overseas would be an option again if a lockout drags on.
Little and Jets forward Antti Miettinen will also look at their options if and when it becomes necessary.
Miettinen said there would likely be an opportunity for him to return to Finland to play.
“I haven’t really made any decisions about what to do and when to go and where to go,” Miettinen said. “I hope things get sorted pretty quick so I don’t have to go anywhere.”
Only game for Jets fans could be the waiting one