True North Sports and Entertainment is preparing for the return of Winnipeg Jets fans at Canada Life Centre for Thursday’s home opener — the first regular-season game to be played in the facility since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 0-2 Jets are hoping to turn things around before they hit the ice in Winnipeg against the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night. In the arena, however, change is already underway.
True North executive Kevin Donnelly told Global News that the downtown arena is ready for full capacity, with all public health restrictions in place.
“It’s incredible to think that it’s been 591 days since we’ve had an audience for a full-capacity game, so we’re very excited to have people coming back,” he said.
“Their wellbeing is our top priority.”
According to the new rules at Canada Life Centre, patrons must be fully vaccinated with a QR code and ID, and must be masked unless they’re actively eating.
The team is also following NHL protocol when it comes to the size of bags that can be brought into the facility. Patrons can no longer bring any bags, backpacks or purses, unless they meet the new 12-inch by six-inch by three-inch requirements — essentially a small purse or a clutch.
“A couple of things have changed, but it’s still fun. We’re looking forward to it, it’s going to be incredible,” said Donnelly.
“There are 12 overhead projectors will make the entire ice surface like your home video screen, so we’re looking forward to that. The people behind it have been having a lot of fun making the different effects and whatnot, so we’re excited to see that.
“Winnipeg is renowned for having incredible audiences — loud crowds, educated crowds, these fans know hockey.”
Another new change to the arena’s offerings this season: the food.
Executive chef Mike O’Neill, who has previously worked at NHL arenas in Vancouver and Edmonton, told Global News one of the new offerings is the “Jet Dog Burger” — an extra-large twist on the popular Jet Dog.
“The Jet Dog has always been a fan favourite for a long time, so with the break with COVID and fans being away, we put our thinking caps on and wanted to give it some competition, something else for fans to look forward to when they come back to the building,” he said.
“It’s a pretty big mouthful. You won’t be hungry after that one. Hopefully you may have room for some cotton candy and some popcorn as well.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said the pandemic has had a serious impact on the team, both in terms of mental health becoming a priority while players were separated from their families in the NHL bubble, and when it comes to taking the ice without fans in the stands.That’s something that will change Thurday.
“You now have an understanding of how much the fans mean to your team,” said Maurice, “how important they are just to your overall enjoyment of the job.
“Being able to play in front of your hometown fans — we haven’t had it yet, but we’re certainly looking forward to them.
“This is a big night coming back, hopefully getting back to normal a little bit. That’s come out more than anything for our players.”
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