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Fans on board as Winnipeg Jets rocket toward possible playoff spot

Passionate Winnipeg Jets fans could be rewarded with playoff spot this season

The Jets' departure from Winnipeg in 1996 inflicted a deep wound. The team was a source of civic pride from its World Hockey Assn. beginnings through its entry into the NHL, bringing major league status to a small prairie city.

All was forgiven when the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to Winnipeg-based owners and moved north in 2011. The 13,000 available season tickets in the 15,000-seat MTS Centre were sold in 17 minutes despite a requirement that purchasers commit for three, four or five years. Suite holders had to choose seven- or 10-year terms. A waiting list of 8,000 was established, with nonrefundable deposits.

Since then, the affection between the city and the reincarnated Jets has been tested by the team's three non-playoff finishes. But with Coach Paul Maurice's leadership and enough depth to fight for a playoff spot, the bond between fans and team has intensified.

"There's a great sense of pride in the return of the National Hockey League to this market and I think people understand that they need to support it," said Norva Riddell, senior vice president of sales and marketing for True North Sports and entertainment, the Jets' parent company.

"None of us are taking anything for granted and we're trying very hard to do as many of the right things as we can and be careful how we approach this because it's so important to our community."

The Jets retained their hold on a wild-card spot after a 4-3 overtime loss Sunday to the Ducks. They'll face the Ducks again Saturday in a city where the slogan "Fueled by Passion" is more than talk.

"If you come here during the week and people are wearing a shirt and tie and suit jacket during the day, they lose the jacket and the tie and they put on the jersey, which is different from some buildings you go into," Riddell said. "People are extremely passionate. It's not a coincidence that the 'Fueled by Passion' component is really speaking to the energy in the community."

The first season-ticket commitments came up for renewal earlier this year and Riddell said the renewal rate was 96%. About half of those who renewed added three years to their terms. The arena's 55 suites are sold out, with two held back on a game-by-game basis. The season-ticket waiting list remains at 8,000.

Riddell considers the population base to be about 700,000 but the team draws from throughout the province of Manitoba. The season-ticket holder of the day last Sunday, she said, lives seven hours away in The Pas. Many fans drive two hours or more. "Manitobans are extremely resilient," she said.

Extremely loyal, too. And with good reason, because of the work of General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff.

"Winning and selling go hand in hand and it does make a huge difference," Riddell said. "Hockey operations and Kevin Cheveldayoff have been very transparent with their plan to draft and develop. We've got an exciting group of young players that everybody can see are our future. We're starting over, so we really do need to develop as an organization, and we're still all learning better ways to do things."

Senators' MacLean greased own exit

Paul MacLean had an odd response when asked by TSN's Chris Cuthbert last week if, as Ottawa's coach, he'd be more worried facing Sidney Crosby when the Penguins' standout is hot or cold.

"All I know is I'm scared to death no matter who we're playing," MacLean said. "Whether it's Sidney Crosby or John Tavares or the Sedins, I go day-by-day and I'm just scared to death every day of who we're playing. And sometimes I'm scared to death of who I'm playing."

It's unclear if he was joking, but General Manager Bryan Murray wasn't amused. On Monday, Murray fired MacLean, the 2013 coach of the year, and promoted assistant coach Dave Cameron.

MacLean was in his fourth season, a time when coaches often struggle to vary their message. Murray said MacLean no longer related to players and lacked a cohesive defensive plan for the 11-11-5 team. "I think there's an obligation for a lot of people, the players included, to perform better than that," Murray said at a news conference in Ottawa. "But the leader of the pack always is the coach."

And that's no joke.

What happens in Vegas

Commissioner Gary Bettman emphasized that allowing potential Las Vegas expansion owner Bill Foley to conduct a season-ticket drive to gauge interest in a team didn't mean the NHL is ready to expand. Repeated expressions of interest from the city, Bettman said at a meeting of the board of governors in Boca Raton, Fla., "has raised lots of questions about the market itself and the interest level in supporting a professional team in Las Vegas." Translation: If there's money to be made, the NHL is ready to place its bet.

Bettman also said initial projections put the 2015-16 salary cap at $73 million if the Canadian dollar stays at 88 cents compared to the U.S. dollar. The current cap is $69 million.

Kane suspended

Winnipeg forward Evander Kane was suspended two games by the NHL for boarding Ducks defenseman Clayton Stoner. The explanatory video said Kane drove Stoner "dangerously into the glass" Sunday and the onus was entirely on Kane "to avoid the check completely or, at the very least, minimize contact. Kane does neither."

Stoner had facial cuts but finished the game. Kane is a first-time offender.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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