(Reuters) – Winnipeg has Portage and Main and black flies, Las Vegas has the Strip and Black Jack but both cities have hockey teams that have defied the odds and will face off in a best-of-seven series that will see one advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
It is ‘The Peg’ taking on Sin City in a fascinating Western Conference showdown that starts on Saturday featuring two teams, the Jets and Golden Knights, and two cities that are as different as opera and heavy metal rock.
The National Hockey League’s smallest market Winnipeg sits at what is recognized as the crossroads of Canada, Portage and Main often referred to as the hockey-mad nation’s coldest and windiest corner.
Las Vegas is the NHL’s newest glitzy addition, a first year expansion franchise that has set up shop in the world’s most famous gambling destination.
Winter-Peg and the city billed as the Entertainment Capital of the World, the contrast could not be more jarring than a Dustin Byfuglien hit or the storylines more compelling.
While the two teams and their fans have had plenty to celebrate, their seasons have also been linked by grief.
Just days before the Golden Knights official home opener, Las Vegas was the scene of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history when a gunman opened fire a short distance from their T-Mobile Arena home killing 58 people.
In the aftermath of the tragedy the Golden Knights retired number 58 to honor the victims.
For Canadian hockey fans, tragedy struck close to the heart when a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos, a Saskatchewan junior hockey team, was involved in a horrific crash that left 16 dead.
The Prairie bonds are strong and that sorrow continues to hang heavily over Manitoba and Saskatchewan who share a provincial border.
Sitting at the center of the country, Winnipeg has assumed the mantle of Canada’s team with fans from coast to coast rallying around the Jets and their quest to end a 25-year Stanley Cup drought for Canada.
Not since the Montreal Canadiens lifted the last of their 24 Stanley Cups in 1993 has Lord Stanley’s famous mug been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city, humbling a nation that claims ownership of the game.
When the Jets beat the Nashville Predators in Game Seven on Thursday to reach the conference finals for the first time Winnipegers filled the streets around Bell MTS Place, breaking into a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
“We’re just so happy to allow our fanbase to have a celebration,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler following their clinching win over the Predators. “I’m a sports fan too and when my teams go on runs it’s amazing, it’s a great feeling.
“Our fans have been with us, filled up our building for seven years and haven’t always had the most success but they’ve always been supportive all over the city I don’t think I have ever heard a negative comment in seven years.”
Winnipeg hockey fans have endured more than most.
Professional hockey arrived in the Manitoba capital in the form of a World Hockey Association franchise in 1971 and played there until the Jets were absorbed into the NHL in 1979.
For the next 17 seasons the Jets never reached the heights they had hoped for and in 1996 relocated to Phoenix and were renamed the Coyotes.
It was 15 years before the NHL returned to Winnipeg, Mark Chipman and Canada’s richest man, David Thomson, triggering a wave of national pride when they bought the struggling Atlanta Thrashers in 2011 and convinced the league they should return to The Peg.
Their opponents the Golden Knights, a group of castoffs considered expendable by other NHL teams, have been playing with house money and are now just eight wins away from hitting the Stanley Cup jackpot.
They could be about to make history as no expansion team in any of North America’s big four professional sports leagues has ever captured a championship in their first year.
(This version of the story has been refiled to make clear Las Vegas is world’s most famous gambling destination in fourth paragraph)