NHL-Happy Winnipeggers skeptical of free hockey sticks

Fri Jun 3, 2011 11:04am EDT

* Canadian Tire gives away 1,500 sticks to cheer NHL return

* Season tickets for relocated team selling fast

By Rod Nickel

WINNIPEG, Manitoba, June 3 (Reuters) - Jubilant Winnipeggers saw their long-tested faith in the National Hockey League's return rewarded this week, but when it comes to giveaways, Canadian Prairie manners and skepticism rule.

Canadian Tire Corp (CTC.TO), a major retailer of sporting goods, as well as auto and household items, placed 1,500 hockey sticks around the Manitoba capital's downtown on Friday in a promotional giveaway to cheer Tuesday's conditional purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers.

The money-losing club will move to Winnipeg if the NHL's board of governors approves the sale to True North Sports and Entertainment on June 21.

On Friday morning, downtown workers strode past a cluster of wooden sticks leaned against the MTS Centre, where the still unnamed team will play.

"Most people are saying, 'Is it free or not?'" said Jacques Trudel, a Canadian Tire worker sporting the company's hockey jersey. "People are too honest."

But word spread quickly through the reputedly frugal city, and neatly dressed office workers soon had sticks slung over their shoulders, heading 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 made his way to the office with a free stick.

Winnipeggers aren't always a modest bunch.

Three times in the past two weeks, they have blocked traffic at the busy downtown corner of Portage and Main to cheer the league's return with games of street hockey, chanting and flag-waving.

On Tuesday evening, police dispersed an NHL-happy crowd at The Forks tourist site that they said was getting out of hand.

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

True North launched a drive on Wednesday to sell what is the city's hottest ticket in years.

As of Thursday afternoon, True North had taken deposits on 4,170 multi-year commitments for season tickets from a limited group. All 13,000 season tickets are expected to sell out soon after they go on sale to the general public on Saturday. (Editing by Rob Wilson)