WINNIPEG — At first, it was just a few thousand people braving the cold to cheer on the Winnipeg Jets in a street party.
Then the numbers grew. And, with each game, the crowd got bigger.
Organizers say that by Game 5 of the first round of the NHL playoffs — which the Jets won against the Minnesota Wild — almost 20,000 people had gathered in the street outside Bell MTS Place to cheer, watch the game on big screens and be entertained by DJs.
Playoff fever has fully erupted in a city that had been starved of an NHL playoff victory for two decades.
“The patience as a fan base … has created this enormous sense of pent-up excitement to explode and let it all out,” says Darren Ford, who led a grassroots campaign to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg after the first Jets franchise left for Phoenix in 1996.
The new version of the Jets came to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. They made the playoffs in 2015 but were swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round.
This time, the team shows a lot more promise and fans have come out in droves, dressing all in white for a ritual known as The Whiteout.
For one couple, getting married didn’t keep them from joining in. Eddie Bartlett and Rebecca Hiscock joined the frenzy for Game 5 of the series against Minnesota. They wanted to take wedding pictures at the street party. They talked their wedding photographer into it.
The bride’s white gown was a natural fit.
“We said, ‘OK … what a chance we have to get a perfect picture,’” Bartlett said.
“We just went there to get one picture and all of a sudden, an hour later, we were still there.”
Fans surrounded the couple and took pictures which were quickly posted to social media sites.
“Everyone was so excited to see us and … no one believed that it was our actual wedding day,” said Hiscock.
All the excitement has organizers wondering how big the crowds will get if the Jets continue to do well in their playoff run, especially now that warmer weather has arrived. The second round against the Nashville Predators begins Friday.
More street sections have had to be blocked off, more big screens have been put up. Police have said there have been virtually no problems so far, aside from a small number of people arrested for public intoxication.
Organizers, who have also set up a family-friendly, no-alcohol zone for each street party, say they are prepared to expand further to accommodate growing crowds.
“We’ll continue to tweak that every time we have a game,” said Dayna Spiring, president of Economic Development Winnipeg.
“We’re going to continue to expand as we need to and we’ll see what the demand is.”
For Ford, the sellout crowd inside the arena and the large crowd outside are proof that the city, a small population base by NHL standards, is a big market when it comes to the national game.
“This is our sport.”