New rivalry kindled as Winnipeg Jets and fans visit Xcel Energy Center
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Sometime in January, when the Metrodome roof is (intentionally) deflated for the final time, and demolition commences, there will be many Minnesota sports fans waxing nostalgic about great moments they had inside.
They'll likely gloss over those not-uncommon times when "our house" was overtaken by loud, rude guests from out of town. With local fans either too apathetic or too "Minnesota nice" to assert themselves, there have been many fall Sundays when loud chants of "Go Pack Go" have been heard there, as hordes from Wisconsin descended on downtown Minneapolis to cheer for Dickey and Majkowski and Favre and Rodgers.
Then there was that time after a Gophers football loss when black-clad invaders from the south stormed the Metrodome turf and tore down the goalposts to celebrate a Big Ten-clinching victory by the Hawkeyes. And there was usually a notable, noisy contingent of Blue Jays fans from Thunder Bay and the prairie provinces whenever Toronto came to town for indoor baseball.
Now, with the NHL divisions revamped and the Wild facing more geographically aligned foes, there's a new threat of sports venue takeover in the Twin Cities. And if Saturday's preseason game -- a 4-3 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets -- is any indication, it's going to be loud.
The throngs of Manitobans started early on Saturday, if the noontime crowd at Mall of America counts. There, amid the Cinnabons and Crocs and Chico's were dozens of not hundreds of folks walking around in blue hockey sweaters, emblazoned with that interesting "F-16 over a maple leaf" logo.
At Xcel Energy Center they were loud during warmups, louder still when "O' Canada" began, and loudest of all when they shouted the lyrics "TRUE NORTH" during their national anthem's second stanza. True North Sports & Entertainment is the name of the business partnership that bought the struggling Atlanta Thrashers two summers ago and moved them to Winnipeg, for the re-birth of the Jets franchise, 15 years after the original Jets moved to Phoenix.
It's roughly an eight-hour drive between Winnipeg and St. Paul, and with a Vikings home game making for a perfect sports doubleheader this weekend. In game one of that twin-bill, we saw a preview of the intensity the Wild's newest neighborhood rival will bring this season.
"I think with the new division and the proximity to all these cities, you're going to get more teams' fans traveling," said Wild defenseman Keith Ballard, whose hometown in northern Minnesota is roughly two hours closer to Winnipeg than to the Twin Cities. "Hopefully we'll see more of our fans traveling to Winnipeg and Chicago and to some of these places."
While they were never in the same division, and never met in the playoffs, there was a fun rivalry between the old Jets and the Minnesota North Stars. The teams played a few times each season, and annually on Dec. 26, rotating between Minnesota and Manitoba every year, with a few handfuls of North Stars fans going to Winnipeg, and many more Jets fans coming to Bloomington.
Zach Parise, during his years in the Eastern Conference, played in a place where several rivals were less than two hours' drive from each other, and got used to seeing New Jersey's home rink overtaken by New York Rangers fans a few times each season. He said hearing "Go Jets Go" inside the X was nothing on that scale, but the noise was noticeable.
"I was surprised. There were a lot of Jets fans here," he said. "I think as these two teams become more familiar with each other you're going to see a lot of that, but that makes it fun, and makes for a good atmosphere. It's good to have them jawing back and forth at each other."
The intensity of the Canadian hockey fan, who comes from a place where the NHL passion is akin to the American fervor for pro football, college football and NASCAR combined, cannot be underestimated. But at least one prominent Wild voice said that visiting fan takeovers, the likes of which have happened on the other side of the river with some regularity, are unlikely in St. Paul no matter how many Jets fans show up in the regular season.
"I don't think our fans will let that happen," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "(Winnipeg) will have fans here, and they'll have a showing, but our fans won't let that happen."
The Jets make their first regular season visit to Xcel Energy Center as members of the Central Division on Oct. 10. Bring your own earplugs.