The return of Winnipeg Jets fans brings more than just noise

By: Daniel Adam

After public health restrictions left seats empty for the 2020 NHL season, sports fans are able to watch live hockey once again. 

Under the new provincial guidelines, Canada Life Centre is allowed 100 per cent capacity for the 2021 NHL season. However, fans must show proof of vaccination to enter the building.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” says Bryan Johnston, creator of Armchair Jets GM blog and hockey fan. The 26-year-old says Winnipeg Jets games felt empty when he tuned in last season. 

When local health restrictions barred arenas from hosting fans, teams around the NHL pumped in artificial crowd noise to recreate a hostile environment for opposing teams.

Johnston is most excited for the home-opener on Oct. 21, when the atmosphere of a long-awaited packed house is expected to be lively.

Fans try to catch a t-shirt at their first game back to Canada Life Centre./TRUE NORTH SPORTS + ENTERTAINMENT

With the regular season approaching, employees of True North Sports + Entertainment are giddy with excitement too.

Kyle Balharry, senior director of game production for the Winnipeg Jets, said it’s not necessarily about how many people are in attendance, it’s just about having people there. 

“The fans are everything,” says Balharry. “The emotion they bring, nothing can replace that.”

The Jets invited 500 fully-vaccinated healthcare workers to watch the playoffs last season. Balharry said the fans’ excitement during those games was second only to when the team returned in 2011. 

Balharry and his team were in charge of manufacturing the piped-in crowd noise last season.

He said one of the most noticeable differences with artificial noise was with goals – no fans meant players had no positive response when they scored. Balharry said crowds returning will not only be beneficial to players but to fans as well. 

“Everyone’s been a bit alone during this time. Physically for some, mentally for more,” says Balharry.

This year, Canada Life Centre has a new on-ice projector to further engage fans. They’ve also hired a third in-house host for game days.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, the Jets only played the other six Canadian teams in the North Division for a condensed 56-game season last year.

In 2021, the team will return to an 82-game schedule and the central division that now includes the Arizona Coyotes after the Seattle Kraken joined the NHL.

The Jets’ regular season starts Oct. 13 on the road in Anaheim. The team is expected to play the standard 41 games at Canada Life Centre this year.