One of the most memorable sports venues in southern Canada and for all of North America is officially no more... no longer standing, that is.
Winnipeg Arena, once the fabled home of the defunct Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association (WHA) and National Hockey League (NHL) was demolished on Sunday morning. Besides the nearly 1,000 spectators that witnessed the historic event, many more Winnipeggers and hockey fans throughout Canada will remember March 26, 2006 as the day a beloved hockey palace died.
The beginning of the end to the venue's glory can be traced back to April 28, 1996 when the Jets played their final NHL game in Winnipeg. Famous among long-time hockey fans as the origin for an annual playoff tradition as the "white-out", it was no different on that day. Despite a season-ending 4-1 Game 6 loss to the Detroit Red Wings to end their 1996 Western Conference Quarterfinal series, Jets fans came out in full force dressed in white to provide a memorable setting at Winnipeg Arena.
The economic climate that surrounded the very operation of the NHL, plus the inability of local officials and the former Jets ownership to build a new arena in this midwestern Canadian city were among the biggest reasons the Winnipeg Jets were forced to relocate its operations to Phoenix, Arizona on July 1, 1996. With Winnipeg Arena becoming an obsolete facility that would be capable of sustaining a profitable franchise for the Jets as its primary tenant, it was only a matter of time the team would no longer be able to play in Winnipeg.
Since then, the team formerly known as the Winnipeg Jets became the present-day Phoenix Coyotes.
Interesting enough, while vivid memories of Jets games, concerts and other big-ticket events remain, so did the survival of the arena's four concrete support columns that stood since 1955 during the initial demolition execution at 7:25 AM Central Standard Time. Of the many on hand to see the demolition, 15-year-old Annie Wowchuk expressed her disappointment to Winnipeg Free Press writer Carol Sanders.
"Blow the damn thing up already!" Wowchuk said. "They should've blown the whole thing up! Everybody was expecting it to collapse and be gone!"
It took a final yank by cables attached to heavy construction vehicles at the site to take down the remaining structure of what was left standing to make the demolition official roughly three hours later.
John Custance explained to Winnipeg Sun staff writer Chris Kitching why he and his 8-year-old son Brandon came to witness this event.
"For me, it's history. For him, it's the fun of the implosion. Kids like to see a big bang. I spent a lot of my youth in there at Jets games, the Red River Exhibition and the circus," Custance said.
One player that has been with the very franchise that once called Winnipeg home and was playing his rookie NHL season with the Jets before accompanying the team to the Valley of the Sun, Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan provided his greatest memories of Winnipeg Arena to Arizona Republic hockey writer David Vest.
"Those are huge moments that I'll always remember," Doan said. "And I'll never forget the last game we played there before moving to Phoenix. It was the loudest building I've ever been in for a sporting event ever. I couldn't hear what my teammates were saying."
While the 10-year anniversary of the Jets' last NHL game in Winnipeg is fast approaching (just one month away), there have been recent efforts to bring back the world's best hockey league back to this city of over 750,000 residents. Led by a diehard Jets fan and member of the Winnipeg business community, Darren Ford founded nearly three years ago The Return of the Jets Campaign that has caught the attention of not only Winnipeggers, but also hockey fans from across Canada, the United States and the rest of the world.
Should the NHL return to Winnipeg in the future, it most likely will be in Winnipeg Arena's replacement that opened its doors in the heart of the city's downtown business district in November 2004. The 15,015-seat MTS Centre has been home to the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose, a primary minor league affiliate to a former Jets rival in the Vancouver Canucks. The new venue also hosted the 2006 AHL All-Star Game.
From the days of Bobby Hull skating on the ice surface during the WHA years to Teemu Selanne's unforgettable rookie season to the final Jets game with players waving goodbye to the fans, the Winnipeg Arena died in its physical form after 51 years of existence. But it will remain a part of hockey fans' memory banks forever.
Mon 03/27/06, 2:35 pm EST
- Winnipeg Free Press (March 27): "Arena puts up a good fight"
- Winnipeg Sun (March 27): "The old barn is just history now"
- Arizona Republic's Coyotes page (March 27): "Doan recalls demolished Winnipeg Arena"
- photo by Greg Froese at Flickr.com