NASHVILLE — The Washington Capitals left here Wednesday afternoon bound for a destination they haven’t visited since December of 1995, a city in which only one of their players has ever skated in an NHL game.
Fifteen years after the NHL pulled its franchise out of Winnipeg, though, the highest level of professional hockey is back with the reincarnated Jets, and for at least one season the Capitals will get a front-row seat to the league’s return to Manitoba.
With Winnipeg’s inclusion in the Southeast Division for the 2011-12 campaign, the Capitals will face the Jets six times, including three trips to western Canada.
“It’s a nice city, it will be fun,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s smaller than [Calgary and Edmonton], it’s colder than them. I think the thing that we’re all excited about is we haven’t had a chance to play there yet, the fans haven’t really had a chance to see guys like Ovi and Nicky really, and in turn I think it’s going to spill on to the ice.”
In the mid-1990s, Winnipeg, a city of roughly 700,000, struggled to support the Jets. The combination of a poor exchange rate between United States and Canada, a small television market and an old arena prompted owners to transplant the franchise to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season.
The American Hockey League quickly moved in a franchise, the Manitoba Moose, and the team’s local ownership group, True North Sports and Entertainment, would build a new arena in 2004 as it continued to lobby to bring the NHL back to the province.
When it became clear that the ownership group in Atlanta was seeking to sell the fledgling Thrashers, whose attendance was consistently among the bottom three in the league since it was created as an expansion franchise in 1999, Winnipeg had its opportunity. Once news of the franchise’s relocation broke, the city began its celebration and the franchise quickly sold its goal of 13,000 season tickets.
“It’s crazy,” said rookie Cody Eakin, the lone Winnipeg native on Washington’s roster. “When it was announced, they shut down the downtown and had parades, had street hockey games going on Main Street there, festivals and concerts and all that.”
Washington arrives to face the Jets having dropped four of its past five outings, six of the last nine and looking to respond from a stinging defeat to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday. With a few exceptions, the Capitals will face the same team that existed in Atlanta, one that is struggling to find consistency and an identity in the midst of a rebuild. Heading into Thursday’s meeting, the Jets are 6-9-3 with 15 points and sit as the third-worst team in the league, ahead of only the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets.
One of the new faces added to the dressing room once the team moved to Winnipeg was former Capitals winger Eric Fehr. The Winkler, Manitoba, native was traded from Washington in July in an effort to clear space under the salary cap.
Fehr has yet to play a game this season because he is recovering from offseason surgery on his right shoulder and won’t be ready to face his former teammates, but he’s seen how Winnipeg’s infatuation with the NHL doesn’t come without expectations.
“The first couple weeks it was just pure excitement. Everyone was just happy to have the NHL back,” Fehr said in a phone interview. “The pressure has slowly started to build from there, though. I think we all want to live up to that and give this city something it can get behind. The support from the city has been great now that they got the team back; they want to make sure it stays here.”
While only Roman Hamrlik has played an NHL game in the city, a handful of Capitals have positive memories of Winnipeg.
Goaltender Michal Neuvirth, defensemen Alzner and John Carlson, center Mathieu Perreault and assistant coach Bob Woods won the Calder Cup as members of the 2009 Hershey Bears the last time they visited MTS Centre.
“It’s probably the most beautiful hockey memory I have so far. I’m never going to forget,” said Neuvirth, who will likely get the start in goal against the Jets. “They got pretty nice rink and I’m pretty excited to see it [Thursday].”
Capitals notes: Mike Green, who has missed the past two games with a strained right groin muscle, has not skated since suffering the injury on Friday against the New Jersey Devils. As of Wednesday evening, there were no plans for the defenseman to join the Capitals on the road.