June 3, 2011 / 3:12 PM / 7 years ago

Happy Winnipeggers snap up free hockey sticks

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Winnipeg celebrated the return of an NHL team with a hockey stick giveaway on Friday, even if cautious Prairie residents initially refused to believe their luck.

<p>Hockey fans celebrate the return of NHL hockey during a rally in Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 31, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Greenslade</p>

The initial reaction to 1,500 freebies was muted, as downtown workers mostly ignored a cluster of sticks leaned against the arena where the still unnamed team will play.

“Most people are saying, ‘Is it free or not?'” said Jacques Trudel, a worker with retailer Canadian Tire, which masterminded the take-a-stick campaign. “People are too honest.”

By mid-morning that had changed, and neatly dressed office workers soon had wooden sticks slung over their shoulders as they headed back to their cubicles.

“It’s awesome,” said Kevin McDowell of the NHL’s return. “We’ve been waiting for a long time,” he said as he went back to work with a free stick with “Welcome Home” printed on it.

The money-losing Atlanta Thrashers will move to Winnipeg next season if the NHL’s board of governors approves the sale to True North Sports and Entertainment on June 21.

Winnipeg has already celebrated the return of the team on several occasions, blocking the busy downtown corner of Portage and Main three times in the last two weeks with cheering games of street hockey, chanting and flag-waving.

Winnipeg’s last NHL team, the Jets, moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1996.

New team owner True North has already taken deposits on 4,170 multi-year commitments for season tickets from a limited group. All 13,000 season tickets go on sale to the general public on Saturday and are expected to sell out.

Editing by Janet Guttsman

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