Jets' future begins at NHL draft
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Even before the Edmonton Oilers made Ryan Nugent-Hopkins the first pick in the 2011 draft Friday night, several small groups of fans in the upper reaches of the Xcel Energy Center let loose an unfamiliar cheer:
"Go Jets Go! Go Jets Go!"
Other pockets of fans scattered around the arena picked up the cheer.
Then, as though to remind those in attendance at the draft that the winds of change had once again blown across the Canadian prairie with the return of NHL hockey for the first time since 1996, the fans followed up with "We Want Teemu" and calls for another Winnipeg Jets great, Thomas Steen.
And finally, after a sign appeared on the video scoreboard praising NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for returning the team to Winnipeg, the crowd began chanting, "Gary, Gary, Gary," a dramatic departure from the boos and catcalls the commissioner usually hears at these kinds of public league events.
Winnipeg owner Mark Chipman, new GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and other members of the management team mounted the podium in front of the giant draft board and welcomed Winnipeg back into the NHL machinery by announcing the team would be known once more as the Jets.
"It just felt like it was the right thing. We deliberated long and hard. Apologize that we took so long on it," Chipman said of the decision to go retro in renaming the franchise the Jets.
"The name means so much in Winnipeg and in Manitoba and across the country, frankly, for the people that moved on from the city. We thought about lots of different ways of doing this, but we just kept coming back to that name," Chipman said.
The owner admitted to feeling more than a few nerves as the team's big moment came Friday night.
"Just trying to keep my knees from going out from underneath me. That's a daunting experience being up there in front of that many people and on TV and knowing how important the name is to so many people. It's humbling. It's really, really humbling to have been able to utter those words tonight," he said.
The name is the same, but the look of the jerseys will be completely different.
"I would tell you that it will be a very, very different look than when the team left back in '96," Chipman said.
Although Cheveldayoff had little to do with the naming debate, he said it sounded pretty good to him as he announced center Mark Scheifele of the Barrie Colts as the first draft pick of the new Jets squad.
"But I'll tell you something, when I was up there announcing the pick, 'the Winnipeg Jets' rolled right off my tongue," Cheveldayoff said.
At this stage, Scheifele's selection with the seventh overall pick is largely symbolic. He represents a new future, a new beginning if you will for a franchise that has known little but disappointment and disinterest in a decade in Atlanta.
Still, if you believe in portents or karma, you have to think this pick was preordained.
Although not slated to go this high in the draft, Scheifele was sold to Cheveldayoff by the prospect's junior coach, who emphasized Scheifele's potential. That coach's name is one familiar to Jets fans: Dale Hawerchuk.
"It is ironic. One of the reasons our guys felt so strongly about that young man is largely to do with Dale's endorsement. He coached him and thinks very, very highly of him, and our guys were ecstatic to get him," Chipman said.
Certainly Scheifele, who led all OHL rookies with 53 assists, seemed to understand the excitement that greeted his selection.
"I'm just so excited right now. This is a moment I've always dreamed about. To go to the Jets ... be the first pick since they've been back, it's an unreal feeling; walking up the stage, my legs were shaking, my heart was racing, I'm just so excited," the 6-foot-2 18-year-old said.
As for stories about Winnipeg, Scheifele said Hawerchuk told him a few.
"I heard a few," he said. "He always told me about the big Queen Elizabeth they used to have, and how it's really cold. So he was actually kidding around. He said, 'If you get drafted by Winnipeg, they're going to bring a parka instead of a jersey.'
"But I hear it's a great organization. He loved it there. I think he was there nine years and he was captain. He had a great time there. He said it was an unbelievable organization to play for, so I'm very excited."
By the end of the Jets' last season in the NHL, the white towels that created the team's signature "whiteouts" had been packed away, and the franchise table at the 1996 draft bore the logo of the Phoenix Coyotes.
On Friday night, hours after introducing Claude Noel as the Jets' new coach and then announcing it would repatriate the Jets name, if not the logo, the franchise hoped it had taken the first steps in a direction long foreign to the Atlanta Thrashers -- forward.
"One of the things that we talked about is that drafting and developing is going to be the hallmark of this franchise," Cheveldayoff said. "For us to move forward, to have the success that we want to have, we have to draft well and we have to develop well.
"From the very first time I sat down with Mark Chipman and we talked about this position, he was very clear and I was very clear development was going to be viewed as an investment, not as an expense. When I heard those words out of his mouth, they were music to my ears, because to have that kind of commitment from ownership, to know that they're in it for the long haul, they want to see these players become National Hockey League players when they're ready to."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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