There wasn’t any history before us. We got a chance to start a new chapter, and I’m happy to be a part of that
– Blake Wheeler
The Winnipeg Jets are going to win the Stanley Cup in 2019. It’s true because the guys from The Hockey News wrote it in the paper. Or at least we predicted it in our annual Future Watch issue four years ago. And nothing has happened so far this season to cause us to backpedal from that prediction. So much has to go so right for a team to be the last one standing in June, and that will be the case again this year. But take one look at the Jets and it’s clear they have the size, the skill and the depth to be that team and end the 26-year Stanley Cup drought for Canada.
Before they can do that, though, the Jets have to get through the grind of the regular season. And it doesn’t get any grindier than a three-game trip though the Atlantic Division in February. This is the point in the season when the truly elite teams begin to separate themselves from the rest of the league. Sitting atop the Western Conference with fewer than 30 games remaining, Winnipeg has done just that. Sure, there are some trouble spots, as there are with any team, and this road trip will reveal Winnipeg’s few remaining warts. But the Jets are exactly where most people thought they’d be. They’ve gotten there with a good level of consistency heading into this road trip, which is a compressed one – three games in four days, including back-to-back afternoon affairs. They’re 14-10-0 on the road, a decent mark by NHL standards, and they swept a three-game trip through New York and New Jersey in December, so nobody would’ve been surprised if they came out of this one with three more victories.
But there are no easy games in the NHL, not even when you’re the second-best team in the standings. This is a trip where the Jets can create distance between themselves and the Nashville Predators and they know it. Coming off a 3-2 overtime loss at home to the San Jose Sharks, it’s time for the Jets to hit the road and get back to work.
IT’S THE KIND OF morning that would make even the most fervent Montrealer wish to be somewhere else. Somewhere warm. It’s not the lose-the-will-to-live kind of biting cold that can sometimes grip Montreal. It’s that dreary, wet, windy frigidity that hangs in the air and chills the body to the bone. You wake up, and the first meaningful relationship you have is with your ice scraper. All the cars, caked in wet snow and salt, look as though they’ve just driven through a war zone.
The excitement of the Christmas holiday season now sits distantly in the rearview mirror. Neither Punxsutawney Phil nor Wiarton Willie saw his shadow just five days earlier, which is supposed to signal an early spring. But it’s clear those mangy beasts are only trolling us. These are truly the dog days of winter, and it’s usually the same for NHL teams as well. They’re all up over the 50-game mark by now, and there has been some tough sledding to get here. But there’s still a good chunk of the schedule left to play, and the frenzy of the playoff race is still miles away. If there’s ever a tedious point in the season, this is it.
A frozen, pea soup-thick haze envelops the city. But for the combatants in this game, things couldn’t be any brighter. The Jets and the Canadiens both play in cities where the NHL really means something, even a mid-season interconference game like this, and both teams are riding high. One is right where it should be, atop the Central Division. The other is defying expectations and thumbing its nose at the critics by holding its own in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Jets have done nothing to sway our opinion that the good people of Winnipeg will be swatting away mosquitoes this June as they watch the Stanley Cup parade through the intersection of Portage and Main. And on this night, they get a big piece of the championship puzzle back in defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds of ill temper and surprising skill, Byfuglien is a steamroller of a player who can impact the game in many ways. He’s been out with the ubiquitous lower-body injury (who’s kidding whom here, it was his left knee) for the past 15 games, after an innocent-looking hit behind the net by Luke Kunin of Minnesota.
But tonight he’s back, and the Jets are that much more dangerous. There’s a spring in their step this morning, one you can see near the visitors’ dressing room as Jack Roslovic, fresh off scoring a bazillion goals and being named player of the week, and Brandon Tanev casually sink three-pointers in a basket propped up on the wall that looks a little higher than the regulation 10 feet. “Oooh, that’s wet. You think that’s wet?” says Roslovic as he drains one of four consecutive shots.
The morning skate is an age-old routine that traces its roots back to the Summit Series in 1972, when North America took notice of the fact the Soviets were being put through gruelling practice-like workouts on game days. The NHL followed suit and over the past half-century the routine has been seen as a way to get the kinks out before a game. Its validity has been questioned, and there’s little evidence to suggest it either hurts or enhances performance. But NHL players are creatures of habit, so it continues.
Prime practice time has been at premium for the Jets anyway, so this morning skate is somewhat necessary. Having played just two games in 12 days early in the season on their trip to Finland, coupled with their eight-day bye week in January, the Jets’ schedule has become an experiment in cramming 82 games into the season. On this trip, for example, they play three games in four days, and two of them are in the afternoon. So, in a five-day period (they take the day off after they return) they’ll have just one practice and one morning skate.
This one is also another chance for Byfuglien to get some reps in before his return to the lineup. Winnipeg has gone 10-4-1 without him, which speaks more to the team’s depth, particularly on the blueline, than it does about Byfuglien. Blake Wheeler, captain and undisputed spokesman for the team, stands in front of his stall answering all forms of questions from all sorts of media types, who use morning skates as a way to gather information in a more casual setting. After the crowd disperses, Wheeler is asked if Byfuglien’s presence makes the Jets skate a little taller, or at least changes the complexion of their roster and how their opponent prepares for them. “You know that’s a rhetorical question, right?” Wheeler says. “Just making sure. He makes us a better team in every way, shape and form.”
What you might not know about Byfuglien is that the guy is some kind of riot in the dressing room. The players love the give-and-take with him, and he dishes it out just as well as he takes it. That might be a surprise, since the general perception of him is one of a quiet, even shy, behemoth who rarely speaks publicly and looks extremely uncomfortable while saying little when he does. Byfuglien spoke the day before the game but doesn’t on this one. He’ll pretty much go into hibernation on the public front until the playoffs. But when he gets behind the dressing room door, he goes from being quiet and reserved to a force of nature. And the Jets follow his lead.
“Our team has way more fun when he’s in the lineup,” Maurice says. “His personality is big. We have three different leaders. Blake Wheeler is just driven and intense and on fire each night. Mark (Scheifele) is the real cerebral guy, but he’s also the youngest of the group, so he handles that middle group. Dustin is, in a very competitive way, the opposite side of Blake. If the game is tied and there’s five minutes left and all the pressure is on, you’re going to catch him with a smile on his face. He has fun out there. Blake enjoys it too, but he’s snarling because they’re wired differently. When he’s in our room, everybody has more fun. It’s just funnier. Better chirps.”
Explaining the difference between Byfuglien’s public persona and the one his teammates see, Wheeler describes it like this: “This is his environment. These are the people he trusts.”
(Personal note: For a reporter, everything about Montreal on a game day is about preparing for the intermission food. A small breakfast, an energy bar for lunch and a long, hard workout earns permission to eat the between-periods chien-chauds, not until you’re merely full, but until you hate yourself. Mission accomplished. Five of those beautiful rink steaks wrapped in a thin toasted bun consumed in total, three after the first and two after the second. They line the stomach quite nicely for the carbohydrate consumption that comes later at Hurley’s Irish Pub, the downtown establishment that has long been a favorite of hockey fans and sportswriters for post-game libations.)
Like a lot of things that receive too much hype and expectation, this game fails to live up to its billing, though not for the Habs. They execute a perfect plan by turning the contest into a track meet. Even though the Jets are big and fast, they’re beaten to almost every puck and, worse, are goaded into a bevy of turnovers by a team that is on them every time they look up during the 5-2 loss. “Players were bad, coaches were bad, food was bad,” says Maurice in his post-game scrum. “Hope the plane works.”
(Personal note: Perhaps there are people in the world who can go to a Canadiens game, then return to their hotel and hit the rack. Let us know who they are. Tonight’s companions are two outstanding people, Finnish journalist Sami Hoffren and Ismo Lehkonen, the father of Canadiens winger Artturi Lehkonen. Ismo is a longtime hockey coach who does analytics for Finnish television and has been an analyst for Finnish TV during the Stanley Cup final. His younger brother, Timo, came to North America in the 1980s to play goalie for the Toronto Marlboros junior team and, as Ismo tells it, played in the 1985 World Junior Championship in Helsinki and got into a fight with Claude Lemieux in the hotel lobby. Great story. There are lots of them as the night progresses and more and more writers join the group. One beer becomes one too many, and then one way too many. Naturally, the alarm needed to make the 9 a.m. train to Ottawa the next morning gets set for 7:45…P.M.)
(Personal note: Waking up at 8:31 for a 9 a.m. train, rushing to the station and taking a two-hour train ride with a furry tongue and a head that feels as though it’s about to explode is just as much fun as it sounds.)
THE FIRST ITEM ON the day’s agenda is to figure out what “red rotten” means. Maurice used it to describe his team the previous night and nobody can figure it out. It certainly stumped Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun and Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press, two reporters who represent an anomaly in Canada – competing newspapers that aren’t owned by the same company. As the Jets work out at a local rink in Ottawa with a skeleton crew of players, it’s the main topic of conversation. Maurice doesn’t even put his skates on today, deferring to his assistants to run a makeshift practice. Instead, he pulls up in a vacant dressing room for his daily update.
So what exactly does “red rotten” mean? “You’ve never heard that before?” Maurice asks. “Well, it means really f—in’ bad. Really rotten. Overripe.”
By that time, Maurice will have watched the video of yesterday’s game a couple times over. His attention to detail is legendary. One year when he was a television analyst for the playoffs, he used to spend all day watching every game from the first round and breaking it down. He was astounded that not everyone on the panel did that. On this day, he talks about his fondest memories as a child, watching the Montreal Canadiens on a Saturday night when his mother would give him popcorn with so much butter that he could barely see through his glass of pop and his father would swear at the television in both official languages. The Canadiens were a juggernaut, winning four straight Stanley Cups in the late 1970s. “I was Guy Lafleur, then I was Larry Robinson,” Maurice says. “Then reality hit.”
In his first year of major junior with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, Maurice was hit in the right eye with a puck, and it robbed him of 90 percent of his vision in the eye. But instead of taking a $50,000 insurance policy and retiring, he played out his junior career and retired as the Spits’ captain.
You wonder if Maurice rehearses some of what comes out of his mouth or whether it’s off the cuff. Perhaps it’s a little of both. Either way, it’s almost always gold. In his last year of junior, he was offered an assistant coaching job in major junior by owner Peter Karmanos, who would later purchase the Hartford Whalers and move them to Raleigh. “He told me I had a job for life,” Maurice once said. “And then after 17 years I got fired. Where’s the loyalty?” Maurice is the kind of guy who will get asked about the power play and say, “We’re workin’ on it,” then look around to the media throng to see if anyone catches the Slap Shot reference.
Sometimes it seems as though Paul Maurice was personally delivered to southeastern Manitoba on a chariot from the hockey gods. To be sure, there isn’t a better marriage of coach, market and roster in the league.
In January 2014, months after a one-year coaching stint in Russia, Maurice had made peace with the fact he was going to finish his hockey career as a TV analyst. He was undeterred by his two previous stints in broadcasting: for the 2005 World Championship in Austria, when he stood in the rain for two hours while they fed tape back, and the 2014 Winter Classic, when the heater broke in the broadcast booth and he sat and froze for six hours. He liked talking hockey and figured after two stints with the Carolina Hurricanes and one with the Toronto Maple Leafs, plus six years in the OHL and one in the AHL, the coaching carousel wouldn’t be coming around again.
Less than two weeks after that Winter Classic, however, Maurice got a call from Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. The Jets were floundering below .500 under another career coach, Claude Noel, and in danger of missing the playoffs a third straight year. Cheveldayoff had met Maurice only once in passing at a hotel in Washington when Cheveldayoff was going to the White House with the Chicago Blackhawks the same time Maurice’s Hurricanes were in town. Larry Simmons, Cheveldayoff’s assistant GM in Winnipeg, recalled that he had interviewed Maurice for the coaching job when Simmons worked for the Atlanta Thrashers. He kept his notes from that exchange, and the more Simmons talked about the interview, the more Cheveldayoff was convinced Maurice was his man. So, he called Maurice with a job offer for the rest of that season, basically giving both parties a chance to test drive the other before making a commitment. “We shook hands over the phone and I don’t think we even put anything on paper,” Cheveldayoff says. “He came in and it was clear from the beginning that he was a leader and commanded a lot of respect in our room. He had an immediate chemistry with Blake Wheeler, and had an immediate influence on Dustin Byfuglien. I wouldn’t call him a players’ coach, but he coaches for the players. He’s not a guy who’s coaching for his next job, so that gives him that confidence that he exudes all the time.”
You’ve never red rotten that before? Well, it means really f—in’ bad. Really rotten. Overripe.
– Paul Maurice
The loss to San Jose prior to the road trip was Maurice’s 1,500th NHL game as a coach, something only five other men have done in league history. His teams have not always been good. Maurice’s career winning percentage is under .500, and his teams have missed the playoffs in 10 of the 17 full seasons he has been behind an NHL bench. He did coach Carolina to the Cup final in 2002, but this Jets team represents his best hope to win a Cup and join the legends ahead of him on the all-time games-coached list. Winnipeg enjoys the rare combination of being both extremely good and extremely young. Most contending teams in the league don’t have this many young players, which presents Maurice with the dual challenge of winning games while developing the kids. The Jets entered the season with an average age of 25.8, tied for the second-youngest team in the league with the Columbus Blue Jackets, just slightly behind the Hurricanes.
The youngest of them is Patrik Laine, who shouldn’t be out there during the optional skate, but he is. The only player in the NHL who has more goals than Laine during the course of his two-plus years in the league is Alex Ovechkin. He’s only 20 and already has more than 100 goals. But he’s also enduring the worst slump of his career. Laine played just 14:43 against the Habs, so he should be fresh. More worrisome is the fact he’s scored just one goal in 10 games – and two in 22 – and that he’s been demoted to the second power-play unit, replaced by Roslovic. The Jets have suggested he not speak publicly until he breaks his slump. But Sami Hoffren, who is based in Toronto and travelled to Montreal to speak with Laine, gets a couple minutes with him in Finnish. “There have been games where I didn’t have any interest in playing,” Laine tells Hoffren. “Just didn’t feel right. When that happens, it seems nothing goes your way.”
Of course, the Jets are concerned, otherwise he’d probably be saying that stuff in English and sending Winnipeg into a frenzy. But they also know he’s a 20-year-old kid who, as sublimely talented as he is, is still finding his way in the best league in the world. When the Jets talk about development with their young players, this is exactly what they mean. Rather than frame it as a negative, Maurice looks at it as a chance for Laine to learn. As much as he’d like to put him with Wheeler and Scheifele on the top line, Maurice hasn’t liked what he’s seen when Laine has been there and thinks that drawing the opponents’ top lines isn’t what is best for him right now.
“I want him to go through this process, to feel what the pressure is like when things aren’t going well, to develop a toolbox,” Maurice says. “It’s no different than Connor Hellebuyck three years ago. I pulled him five times and fired him right back in. It was a hard year for him. The struggles and adversities are not something that, as a coach, you need to fix right away. If you’re in a playoff series, you have to make those adjustments really fast, but right now you want to be patient and let the players find their way a little bit. It’s an important time.”
(Personal note: Skating on the Rideau Canal in the dead of winter is an experience that should never be missed when in Ottawa, even if the wind is so biting that it numbs the face. On this day, your trusty correspondent skates the old route he took to school more than 30 years ago from Dow’s Lake to Carleton University. There are all sorts of people of all shapes and sizes, age ranges and levels of skating ability – all so appreciative and grateful for the small window of opportunity to glide along the world’s longest skating rink.)
IT’S HOCKEY DAY IN Canada and six of the country’s seven teams are playing one another on the one day of the year when the sport finally gets some recognition north of the 49th parallel. The standings tell us this is a good season for Canadian teams. Almost two-thirds of the way through 2018-19, six of the seven are battling for playoff spots. The most anticipated of the games is being played two hours northeast, where the streets of Montreal are undoubtedly filled with fans in Habs jerseys, the lobby of the Chateau Champlain is a zoo and the bars are doing a brisk business.
Contrast that with Ottawa, a city that is holding its annual Winterlude carnival, about the only thing worth celebrating here these days. The Senators are in the midst of an annus horribilis, a nightmare of a season that has been a cataclysmic disaster both on and off the ice. But especially on it, as they enter this game in last place by five points.
Castoff goalie Anders Nilsson is the star with 44 saves in a rare 5-2 Sens win. Unlike two nights previous, the Jets feel pretty good about the way they played in this defeat. They had lots of zone time and double-digit shots in each period, including 13 shot attempts from Byfuglien.
Still, there’s no sugarcoating this loss and the play of Laurent Brossoit. The first of back-to-back afternoon games has to go to the backup goalie, and when you’re playing the worst team in the NHL he has to deliver a victory, particularly in a game where your team outshoots its opponent by 14. But Brossoit, who has had such a remarkable turnaround after being rescued from the tire fire that is the Edmonton Oilers, is a big goalie who plays like a small one on this day, far too deep in his net at times. Four of Ottawa’s five goals are scored glove-side. Much of the job description for a backup is to be prepared to go long periods without playing and be ready to perform. Brossoit has done a good job of that to this point of the season and has been one of Winnipeg’s most pleasant surprises. There was little to suggest he’d be a dominant goalie when he was in Edmonton, and consistency has eluded him as a pro. But the Jets were bullish on Brossoit when he became a free agent, signing him to a league-minimum $650,000 deal after sending Steve Mason to Montreal in a salary dump that cost them Joel Armia.
Brossoit has the same agent as Hellebuyck, and the two work out together in the summer, so there’s familiarity there. Brossoit may be the most fit of all the Jets, and his dedication, if not his level of consistency, is phenomenal. So when goalie coach Wade Flaherty and former AHL Manitoba goalie coach Rick St-Croix recommended him, Cheveldayoff did what a good GM does – he listened to his people. “They were the ones who said to me, ‘If we can get Laurent Brossoit, that’s who we want,’ ” Cheveldayoff says. “The credit goes to those two guys for sticking their necks out.”
So put this game down as a bad day at the office, something Brossoit hasn’t had until this afternoon in Ottawa. Chances are, it won’t happen again for a while. He won’t elaborate but says he knows where he went wrong in his preparation. “A couple of things I didn’t do that I normally do, I didn’t think I needed to,” Brossoit says. “I’ll chalk it up to being a little nonchalant in that regard, and it came back and bit me in the ass.”
(Personal note: Arriving at Buffalo International Airport well before the game should make it easy for any Uber driver to take a customer to a downtown gym on Delaware Avenue. Unless of course the idiot customer mistakenly tells him it’s on Delaware Road and the sheepish rider doesn’t realize his error until they’re well off the beaten path. Luckily this is nothing new to Nabil. “No problem,” he says. “I’ll take you downtown for the same price.” Nabil then proceeds to recount a story when he picked up a woman who was struggling to get to work at a pizza joint in 10-degree weather and he took her there for free. “She was going to have to walk five miles,” he says. “Her boyfriend’s car broke down. I don’t cheat anyone, even for one dollar.” He’s told that karma will reward him and he holds up a copy of a book called The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel. “I got this book from another driver,” he says. “I’m not a Christian, but I was born in the Holy Land, Jerusalem.” Nabil feels lucky. He has five kids and all have either graduated from or are currently studying in college. One is a nurse, another a police officer. At the gym, the serendipitous hospitality continues: the attendant hands out a Star Wars towel, as one would to a guest at their house. Strange.)
THE JETS GO INTO their third game in four days and their second straight matinee in a position that has been foreign to them this season: they are in the midst of their first three-game losing streak. Although there isn’t full-on panic, there is some level of angst. Nashville is closing in, just one point behind Winnipeg. Laine still isn’t scoring. It won’t be a pleasant flight home if the team can’t salvage at least one win out of this trip. On this afternoon, it’s the Jets’ turn to be outshot and for their goalie to shine. As much as this team relies on its youth, the veterans are the ones being looked to for answers. With under four minutes left, they find them by playing to their identity. Using their size and skill, the Jets dominate the Buffalo Sabres down low until Wheeler gets open in front of the net and Josh Morrissey finds him for an easy tap-in. For a Sunday afternoon in the middle of February in Buffalo, the Jets sure seem inordinately relieved to get that goal on their way to a 3-1 win.
Only three holdovers remain from Winnipeg’s incarnation as the Atlanta Thrashers: Wheeler, Byfuglien and Bryan Little. Maurice once called Wheeler “the hardest-working man I’ve ever seen in my life.” He might be one of the few players in the NHL who has defied logic and nature by getting better in his early 30s. He had a career-high 91 points last season at 31, and through mid-February he’s on pace to better that to 98 points. His play last season earned him a five-year extension worth $41.3 million that kicks in next season. There is no concern from the Jets that they’ll be attaching an $8.25-million cap hit to a player who, by all conventional thinking, should be a diminishing asset.
Wheeler is a huge part of the culture the Jets are building under Cheveldayoff. He is to Winnipeg what Joe Thornton is to San Jose – a charismatic leader who has chosen to stay and see this thing through to a title. “Since Day 1 (in Winnipeg), it’s brought something out in me, helping me become the player I am today and the person I am today,” Wheeler says. “There are so many people who genuinely care about what they do, so it kind of soaks into you. It becomes a part of who you are and when it came to my future and the possibility of leaving Winnipeg, I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. There wasn’t any history before us. We got a chance to start a new chapter, and I’m happy to be a part of that.”
The Jets scored a coup at the trade deadline last year when Paul Stastny waived his no-trade clause to come to Winnipeg. But as much as the Jets wanted to keep him, they couldn’t work him into their salary structure and that’s why he’s no longer there, not because he wanted out. Winnipeg has yet to land a major UFA, but it doesn’t really matter. The way the Jets have built their organization, the goal is to ensure their own players want to stay. They’ve done that with Wheeler, Little, Byfuglien, Scheifele and Hellebuyck.
This isn’t the first time the Jets have been a championship-caliber team. There was a time when they ruled the defunct World Hockey Association, winning three of the last four Avco Cups. That was a big deal in Winnipeg, a city that landed Bobby Hull in the prime of his career and made an indelible mark on the sport by having Hull play on a line with Swedish sensations Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. Lars-Erik Sjoberg was the captain of those teams and was the first to accept the Avco Cup. (The Winnipeg Victorias won the Stanley Cup three times from 1896 to 1902, so we’re assuming they must have been a pretty big deal, too.)
If the Jets win the Stanley Cup this year, making us look like geniuses for our 2015 prediction, or in the next few seasons, it will be Wheeler who takes it for a spin around the ice first. He’s invested in this organization. It’s home to him and he envisions what it would be like to be the first captain to bring the Cup to Winnipeg. “I think about it all the time,” he says. “Those are the reasons you wake up in the morning.”