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Jets stage MTS Centre love-in

Thousands of fans attend team's training camp debut

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Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane throws hats to fans on opening day of training camp at the MTS Centre on Sunday.

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Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane throws hats to fans on opening day of training camp at the MTS Centre on Sunday. (JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Kane chats with teammates Olli Jokinen (left) and Dustin Byfuglien during the public practice session.

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Kane chats with teammates Olli Jokinen (left) and Dustin Byfuglien during the public practice session. (JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jets fans Bruce Dueck and daughter Jesslyn, 9, check out the merchandise at the Jets Gear store before the start of the team's training camp.

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Jets fans Bruce Dueck and daughter Jesslyn, 9, check out the merchandise at the Jets Gear store before the start of the team's training camp. (MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

It was only a practice, but fans cheered as if the Jets had made the playoffs.

The NHL team celebrated the end of a contractual lockout by inviting fans to a public practice at the MTS Centre on Sunday afternoon, tossing in free popcorn, free soft drinks and a 25 per cent discount on Jets merchandise.

There were no boo-birds or other evidence fans might bear a grudge against NHL players and owners for the contract stalemate that started Sept. 25.

Instead, a crowd that filled most seats in the lower bowl was in a forgiving mood and expressed general delight as the Jets took the ice for skating and shooting drills.

Yes, skating drills. Only in Winnipeg do thousands of fans gather to cheer drills.

When captain Andrew Ladd stepped on the ice, the arena shook with resounding huzzahs.

All that was lacking was the presence of an opposing team for Jets fans to insult with their renowned creativity.

Fans started lining up hours before the practice began at noon. Fortunately, organizers had the common sense and humanity to let them line up inside the building instead of making them wait outside in -20 C weather.

Kia Lockhart and Jessie Cheswick were there by 8:30 a.m., surprised to find themselves first in line.

"We both like (Blake) Wheeler, he's our favourite," said Cheswick.

"And (Zach) Bogosian," said Lockhart.

Alas, Bogosian is still recovering from a wrist injury.

As for any residual feelings about the lockout: "It's time to move forward," said Cheswick.

"I want to see all the players," said Nathan Unrau, 12. "Supporting them is a really big factor. These are the loudest fans in the NHL."

Kirk Shepherd, who was there with his daughters, said he had no hard feelings about missing a big chunk of the season: "It's water under the bridge. If you had asked me when the lockout was on, it would have been different."

Shaun Blagdon said anyone with residual unhappiness about the lockout is ignorant about the whole situation.

"It would be good just to see the guys bring the whole family out," said Blagdon. Besides, "there's nothing wrong with free popcorn."

Oh right, the free popcorn and free drinks.

Lineups at the concessions handing out the freebies stretched 40 metres and more just after the doors opened, and people who went out to line up after the practice started took a good 15 to 20 minutes to make it back.

"We're excited the Jets are back -- no animosity for me," laughed Melissa Johnson, shopping at a Jets merchandise kiosk for a present for her niece.

"You wait 15 years, you can wait four months. Just a chance to see them will be fantastic," said her brother-in-law Tyler Chow, who was there to replace a white Jets cap that got grungy when he wore it all summer. "Get a nice, darker one. Hopefully it'll last."

Bruce Dueck was buying a discounted Jets fleecy for his wife, matching the one he was wearing. Daughter Jesslyn, 9, was checking out pink Jets shirts.

"My mom came home from the gym this morning and said do we want to go to free hockey training," said Jesslyn.

Out on the ice, the Jets did competitive drills inside one blueline with offence, defence and a goalie that had fans applauding big saves and ooing and ahhing nifty goals.

There was no public-address system, no rosters handed out and, because not all players were wearing their usual numbers, it was hard to tell who the minor-leaguers were.

No matter -- everyone could tell Dustin Byfuglien the instant he came out on the ice and the crowd seemed to follow his every move.

As they left the ice, Jets players threw signed caps into the crowd. Pembina Trails School Division phys-ed teacher Blue Jay Bridge tweeted that his kids had caught caps signed by Olli Jokinen and Bryan Little.

The Jets will open the season Saturday afternoon when they host the Otttawa Senators at the MTS Centre.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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