It's the cradle of hockey," says Hall of his hometown, and he knows a thing or two about pucks. Before he hosted Let's Make a Deal, he was the New York Rangers' radio color commentator during the 1959--60 season, and he was once thrown out of the Maple Leaf Gardens press box during a junior hockey game by Conn Smythe himself for loudly cheering on Pudge Robertson, a fellow Winnipegger. Hall's father used to tell him stories about the Winnipeg Falcons, a band of Icelandic expats who won the first Olympic hockey gold medal, in 1920. "We were isolated in that prairie town," says Hall, who's 90 and can still recount the exploits of the old Junior League Winnipeg Monarchs of the '30s as if they skated last night. "You had to look inwards instead of outwards. You had to look to your neighbors. It was a community, and the hockey team that represented you was the most exciting thing."
The city was granted a franchise in the World Hockey Association in 1972, and the ensuing seven years were the glory days, with Bobby Hull skating around Winnipeg Arena as Queen Elizabeth II looked on approvingly from a 23-foot-high painting that hung from the rafters. The Jets won three WHA titles, and when the league folded in 1979, they were welcomed into the NHL.
But in the early '90s the NHL's buzzword became footprint, as the league looked to move into nontraditional markets in the Sun Belt and Southwest. When the Nordiques bolted Quebec City in the summer of 1995 for Colorado, Winnipeg was left as the smallest market in the league. The team was losing money, and the Canadian dollar was getting weaker and weaker. It was just a matter of time before the relocation talk started.
Plans were mooted to stave off the sale of the team by building a new arena, which led to rancorous debate between the Save the Jets campaign and Thin Ice, a group that argued that using so much public funding at a time when the city faced other problems was irresponsible. Thin Ice won. On Dec. 19, 1995, the announcement was made: The Jets would move to Phoenix the following season. "It was," says Hall, "like picking a family member up and sending him off to Siberia."
Except in Siberia, they actually like hockey. In 1996, Hockey Night in Canada pundit Don Cherry surveyed the new NHL landscape and said, "If you ask me, it'll be the big thing to do for about eight years or so, but after that, I want to see what happens in these places."
What happened was that some clubs struggled to leave a footprint at all. "What I learned in Atlanta is that football is Number 1," says Kane, a native of Vancouver. "NFL, college football, high school football all come before hockey. When you've got high school sports coming before the highest level of professional sports, it's tough."
"You need to win down there if you want to sell the game's appeal to fans," says Jets goalie Chris Mason. "Because if you don't, it might be a novelty, and then it'll wear off."
Their team lost, the Save the Jets group refocused its goal on simply keeping hockey alive in Winnipeg. Under the leadership of local businessman Mark Chipman, a minor league team was brought to town in 1996, and in 2003 the partnership True North Sports & Entertainment broke ground on a new downtown arena that was built largely with private funds. As the Coyotes and the Thrashers continued to struggle at the gate, Chipman turned his attention back to the NHL. Last May 31, at the corner of Portage and Main, he announced that True North had bought the Thrashers and would be moving the club to Winnipeg. Four days later season tickets went on sale. They were gone in 17 minutes.
"It's been a long, long time since Winnipeg was the center of attention in Canada for something great," says Burpee. "And it feels awesome." The move was a boon not just for Winnipeggers but for all Canadians, who see it as a repudiation of the idea that their undersized cities aren't viable markets. (Further proof that the league's vaunted footprint has been light: Nine organizations this year are drawing less than 90% capacity in their arenas. All are American teams, and seven of them moved to their current city—either as an expansion team or as a relocated franchise—within the past 20 years.)
Last month Chipman was at a rink in Milestone, Saskatchewan (pop. 562), a good eight-hour drive to the east of Winnipeg. He was bundled up, wearing a toque, and in hostile territory—there's something of a rivalry between Saskatchewan and Manitoba—but still a local recognized him, approached and said, "Hey, congratulations. And thanks."