John Lipman, a former Atlanta Thrashers season-ticket holder, became a Winnipeg Jets fan after the franchise moved there in 2011.
KENNESAW, Ga. — John Lipman rounded a corner in his stately home here northwest of Atlanta wearing a vintage Winnipeg Jets jersey and white Winnipeg Jets sneakers, but his game day outfit still felt incomplete.
Ducking out of the foyer, he reappeared a few seconds later clad in an electric blue blazer — size 48 and 100 percent polyester — festooned with Jets logos that he procured three weeks ago during a pilgrimage to Manitoba. His wife, Jayne, shook her head.
“Isn’t that the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” she said.
She nevertheless indulges Lipman’s obsession with the Jets, the spiritual successor of the Atlanta Thrashers, who played — not very well, if we’re being honest — 11 seasons at Philips Arena downtown before relocating to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2011.
Rather than adopt another team, renounce hockey altogether or root joylessly for the Jets’ opponents — à la deserted Seattle SuperSonics fans hissing at the Oklahoma City Thunder from afar — Lipman remained loyal to a franchise that he had backed from Section 115, Row F, Seats 7 to 10, since the Thrashers’ inception in 1999.
The community of fellow Winnipeg fans across this sprawling metropolitan area is smaller than a hockey puck, a minority within a minority. Watching almost every game, devouring practice reports and tracking off-season moves, they are as infatuated with the Jets as their most ardent comrades in Manitoba — even if, until a few years ago, some could not locate the province on a map.
“I was like: ‘What the hell is a Winnipeg? Who’s taking my team?’” said Buddy Whitlock, 28, a Jets fan from suburban Lawrenceville, Ga.
Sitting beside his girlfriend, Ana Smith, who was cradling their 6-month-old daughter, Claire, in a booth at a Waffle House last week, Whitlock wore a Jets hat and a plain white T-shirt, getting in the spirit of the whiteout that would envelop Bell MTS Place for Game 3 of a Western Conference semifinal game against the Nashville Predators later that night.
Already these Jets, who this season finished with more points (114) than all but Nashville, have advanced deeper than any other team in the franchise’s 18 seasons. The competition was hardly steep, mind you: In their only other two playoff series, the Thrashers, in 2007, and the Jets, in 2015, were 0-8. But they now hold a 3-2 series lead against the Predators after routing them, 6-2, on Saturday night.
Because of that, Lipman, 58, can appreciate the delirium coursing through Winnipeg, the smallest market in the N.H.L., whose identity was wounded by the original Jets’ departure, after 17 meager seasons, to the Phoenix area in 1996.
Lipman watching Game 3 of the Jets’ playoff series against the Predators in his suburban Atlanta home. He rubs a Mark Scheifele bobblehead atop his TV for good luck.
A bleakness enveloped Winnipeg in a way that Lipman and the Thrashers’ loyal knot of fans, if not Atlanta as a whole, could understand.
“I’m man enough to admit that I cried,” said Austin Kitchens, 24, who had just completed his junior year of high school when the Thrashers moved.
His friends joke that he is a Northerner living in the South, loving hockey as he does. Heading into that first season without the Thrashers, Kitchens tried not to like the Jets. He was jealous that Winnipeg could cheer for his team, for his players. Then he started scanning message boards and watching preseason games on the internet and following Jets reporters on social media and traveling to Nashville and Tampa, Fla., for games.
Over the Jets’ seven seasons, Kitchens estimated, he has missed maybe a dozen games on television. Whitlock has rarely missed a game on TV or radio since he re-engaged with hockey after a few years of indifference. He often works nights, setting up events, which is conducive to the later start times of Jets games, but he tries to watch with Claire — born on a Jets off-day, naturally — because Winnipeg tends to win when she does. Except for that double-overtime loss at Nashville in Game 2.
“She fell asleep,” said Whitlock, turning to Claire. “Don’t worry — it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.”
Whitlock hopes she will grow up to love the Jets as much as he does, which is even more than he loved the Thrashers. Hockey, fast-paced and physical, appealed to him more than football or baseball ever did. When the Thrashers left, he missed having a rooting interest.
“I felt kind of like a guy without a soul, you know?” Whitlock said.
The thought of adopting a perennial contender, like Chicago or Pittsburgh, repulsed him. So did switching to Nashville, the team closest to Atlanta. The Predators capitalized on the void by offering weekend ticket packages to abandoned Thrashers fans. They included discounted hotel rates and a gas card, and Nat Harden, the senior vice president for tickets and youth hockey, said the Predators sold almost 150 packages.
One went to David Pugliese, 58, a former Thrashers season-ticket holder from Milton, Ga., who said the team’s departure topped the list of disappointments in his life. Pugliese attended several Predators playoff games last year and drove up for Game 5 Saturday in Nashville against the franchise he once supported.
“I think it would be much weirder if it was the same roster, but the roster has changed so much,” said Pugliese, noting that only five players on the Jets were part of the Thrashers organization. “There’s really no mixed emotions.”
Had Matt McReynolds, 26, followed his impulse, he, too, might have changed his allegiance. Angry at the league and at Commissioner Gary Bettman, who he felt did not do enough to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta, McReynolds tried cheering for Nashville. It felt strange, artificial.
In 2012, about halfway through the Jets’ first season back in Winnipeg, McReynolds had his left shoulder tattooed with the Thrashers’ logo. Gradually he began watching the Jets again, sucked in by players he liked who were now wearing a new insignia on their chests.
“Now,” he said, “it’s pretty much my kid, my wife and Jets hockey.”
As a hockey fan in Georgia, McReynolds already felt isolated and lonely; he has never met another Jets fan he did not convert to the team himself. It seemed natural to devote himself to a team in a city he has never visited, that plays in an arena whose smells and sounds and sights he cannot conjure.
Once, he said, a customer at a Publix supermarket in Conyers, Ga., where McReynolds lives, spotted him wearing Jets gear and called him a traitor. When Whitlock wears his Jets hat, with a fighter jet atop a red maple leaf, people ask why he supports the Canadian air force. When he wears his Thrashers hat, with a bird gripping a hockey stick, people ask whether it’s a skateboarding company.
Without that kinship, Kitchens said, rooting for the Jets feels like a private endeavor.
“You’re not about to go to work and say, ‘How about those Jets last night?’” said Kitchens, a union pipe fitter from Stockbridge, Ga. “They’d be like, ‘Who?’”
Lipman had long wanted to visit Winnipeg. Seeking a more communal experience, he booked airfare and a hotel room for the Jets’ playoff opener before the regular season ended, betting that they would secure home-ice advantage in the first round against Minnesota.
To score a ticket to Game 1, Lipman, an interventional radiologist, cold-called another one in Winnipeg, Brian Hardy, and presented his bona fides: a Thrashers season-ticket holder with a closet full of Jets jerseys who watches practically every game on his laptop or phone.
A day later, Hardy invited Lipman to sit with him and his family, but on one condition: that Lipman give grand rounds at the hospital. For the occasion, Lipman wore a navy Jets jersey — his dress blues, he said — and, in a show of gratitude, was presented with a trove of Jets paraphernalia.
“I got all kinds of nice Winnipeg booty,” Lipman said.
An unopened Jacob Trouba bobblehead sat behind the bar in his basement, where Lipman watched Game 3 on Tuesday on a television topped by another bobblehead, that of Jets center Mark Scheifele. From his seat in the arena, Hardy called Lipman on FaceTime, letting him absorb the pregame atmosphere.
His blazer long discarded, draped over an easy chair, Lipman agonized as Nashville scored the first three goals (you’ve gotta have that!), rejoiced as Winnipeg scored the next four (that’s more like it!) and kicked the coffee table when the Predators equalized in the third period.
With six minutes remaining, he rose from the couch to wave his “We Are Winnipeg” rally towel and rub the Scheifele bobblehead for good luck. A minute later, a Scheifele shot caromed to Blake Wheeler — a former Thrasher — whose snipe from a sharp angle proved the winning goal in a 7-4 victory.
With Winnipeg one win from the conference finals, a playoff round neither incarnation of the franchise has reached, Lipman was thinking about his next potential trips — to Las Vegas, maybe, with his son, Jonathan, if the Golden Knights also advance.
But, really, he wants to return to Winnipeg, to revel with fans who lost their beloved team and grieved its absence and are now celebrating the best hockey they’ve ever seen. People dressed in white but dreaming of silver, of the Stanley Cup, just like him.