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For championship-starved Winnipeg fans, this is finally the year they’ve been dreaming of

There is a unmistakable symmetry to the idea Canada’s best hope to end an interminable Stanley Cup drought — which is now officially being measured in quarter-centuries — rests with a city that is home to one of the few championship droughts in North American sport even longer than that.

It’s been 25 years since a hockey team from Canada hoisted a Stanley Cup; it’s been 28 years since either of this city’s two major sports teams hoisted a trophy of their own at Portage and Main.

All of which is to say, we feel your pain Canada. More than most.

Now, the oddsmakers will tell you that it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs who are currently the favourite to win the Stanley Cup at odds of 7-1 (the Jets are the second pick at 17-2).

And the always breathless Edmonton media is already pumping the Oilers tires, as though last year’s tire fire didn’t occur.

But don’t believe a word of it. If this embarrassing Stanley Cup drought for Canada finally ends in the 2018-19 NHL season, it will be the Jets — and only the Jets — who will be the ones to do it.

The Leafs don’t have the blue line to do it.

And the Oilers, last time I checked, still have the same goaltender who was the source of so much of their woes last season. Believing you can ride Cam Talbot again and expect a different result is, well, the definition of insanity.

And so that leaves the Jets in the same role as the one they were in last spring — the last maple leaf team still standing.

The Jets, of course, came just short of ending the drought, falling to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final in what will forever be remembered in these parts as, ‘The Stanley Cup That Got Away.’

I will believe to my dying breath the best team lost that series. And I will also forever believe the Jets would have beaten the Washington Capitals in the final if they could have just survived Vegas.

But that’s all spilled champagne now.

Winnipeg Jets salute their fans after losing game five and the NHL Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights in May.

JOHN WOODS/ WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets salute their fans after losing game five and the NHL Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights in May.

Before we go any further, a disclaimer: you should take with less than a grain of salt any prediction you’ve heard over the last week from this country’s myriad of self-appointed ‘hockey experts.’

These are all the same clowns, myself included, who told you last year at this time that Vegas would be lucky to win 20 games.

There’s wrong and then there’s hopelessly wrong. If you did your job as badly as we in the hockey media all did at this time last year, you’d be fired by the end of the day.

So yeah, Vegas happened. And for all you and I know, it might happen again this season: some upstart team like Arizona could be this year’s Cinderella, while a Jets team that eight of 15 Sportsnet ‘hockey experts’ this week picked to win the Stanley Cup falls on its face and misses the playoffs, a la Edmonton last year.

Personally, I think the former is much more likely to occur — did you know the Coyotes went on a 17-8-2 run during the final two months of last season? — than the latter — the Jets are stacked.

But like I said, things happen.

What is crystal clear and not in any dispute is that a 2018-19 Jets campaign that opens Thursday night in St. Louis against a much improved Blues team is the most highly anticipated season in this city’s long and checkered sporting history.

We’ve had good teams before, in both hockey and football. We’ve had lots of teams that headed into new seasons, as this one does, with “unfinished business.” We’ve had teams that everyone knew were going to be good before a puck had even been dropped or a ball kicked off.

But never, ever, were the expectations for a Winnipeg team as deliriously high as they are for this Jets team.

And that’s both inside and outside the Perimeter.

A city that gets even less respect than it gets recognition — and that’s saying something — has been front and central in any and all discussions about the upcoming NHL season over the past month.

Pundits in the U.S. are picking the Jets to win. Pundits out west are picking the Jets to win. Pundits in Toronto, even, are reluctantly admitting that it’s the Jets, not the odds-on favourite Leafs, who are most likely to win the Cup this year.

And so with that, a team that nobody wanted back in 2011 — the former Atlanta Thrashers — is suddenly the team everyone wants. And a city that nobody wanted to be is suddenly the toast of the hockey world — and a country that desperately wants to reclaim its rightful place at the peak of that world.

Winnipeg Jets' Tucker Poolman (3) during practice at the Bell MTS Iceplex Tuesday morning.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets’ Tucker Poolman (3) during practice at the Bell MTS Iceplex Tuesday morning.

I’m on record in these pages with my thoughts — as goalie Connor Hellebuyck goes this season, so too will go the Jets.

What was once an impossible dream in a city that didn’t even have an NHL team for 15 long years is now a very distinct possibility. And if you believe Hellebuyck can recreate last season’s magic, then you should love his team’s chances to finish the job this time around.

And that would be a win for the entire country. The number nerds over at fivethirtyeight.com did a piece awhile back that put a number to just how unlikely it is that Canada hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in 25 years — 99.4.

As in, 99.4 per cent, the odds a Canadian team would have won a Stanley Cup in that period if all the NHL did every year was simply hand one out randomly.

The reasons underlying Canada’s Stanley Cup drought are not unlike the reasons underlying the championship drought in Winnipeg. None of them will come as a shock to you: There have been lots of bad teams over those years. There has been lots of bad management over those years. And there is the simple fact that we’re both smaller and not as rich as our competition.

But more than anything, there’s been a lot of bad luck and bad breaks. Quarterback Kevin Glenn broke his arm in the 2007 CFL East Final; the Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins, etc.

The list of ‘what might have beens’ is endless — but also beside the point.

Because with a new hockey season upon us and Winnipeg home to maybe the best team we’ve ever seen in these parts, that interminable discussion of what might have been for this town — or, for that matter, this country — is finally over.

Because it’s now about the delicious prospect of what yet might be.

They say there’s always next year. They’ve been saying it forever in these parts.

But what if the next year we’ve been promised for so long has finally arrived? What if next year is this year?

Man, that’d be a party. And it would rock from coast to coast.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press — 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets — long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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