WINNIPEG – One of the front men for the NHL Players’ Association says he doesn’t know how fans will react when he skates on the ice this month in the first game of the season.
Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey was NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr’s sidekick for much of the lockout as a player representative in the talks with the owners.
He understands the frustration some fans have felt.
“We’re sorry we couldn’t get it done on time,” he said after his first skate in Winnipeg since the dispute ended.
“But now our focus has to be on putting on a great 48 games and putting on a great Stanley Cup playoff and helping everyone forget we went down this road.”
Hainsey said the players may appreciate what their representatives went through to get the deal done, but that’s where it stops.
“The public perception of it is going to be negative, because we took the game four months past where the season should have been started,” he said.
“It’s up to us, the players, to go out there and put the best season we can on for the fans.”
As someone who spent most of his time in New York during the dispute, he also didn’t have the same opportunities to skate with other players as they tried to stay game ready.
“I haven’t been skating with a group of players, I’ve been mostly skating by myself, which is more miserable than skating with players, believe me, so I was more than excited to get out there,” he said.
Ironically, while most players on the ice Wednesday were still wearing NHLPA jerseys, Hainsey was in standard Winnipeg Jets issue.
“Dumb luck, we were out of NHLPA jerseys,” he said.
Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec also turned up for the first time to issue an apology to fans and the team for his impaired driving conviction last year in his native Czech Republic.
Even the Jets ownership didn’t know he had been charged until his conviction became public, after they signed him to a new contract. Pavelec says he was scared and told only his parents, even his agent didn’t know.
“It was stupid, that’s for sure,” he said of the incident.
He has already discussed the issue with Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and expects to have another chat with team owner Mark Chipman.
“We met yesterday for quite a length of time,” said Cheveldayoff. “Certainly from a organizational standpoint, I re-iterated to him the seriousness of what he did and how we view that, and we certainly don’t condone those type of actions.
“We going to help him grow from this and hopefully there can be some good that can come out it it, at some point in time, where Ondrej has learned from it and other people can learn from it as well.”
New backup goaltender Al Montoya was at the rink Wednesday and says he’s happy to finally join the team he signed with as a free agent six months ago.
“Wanting to play in Winnipeg, wanting to play hockey in Canada and experience this, it was tough,” said the former New York Islander.
“My main focus right now is to help this team win.”
He spent the lockout in his native Chicago, skating with players there.
Jets’ defenceman Dustin Byfuglien was on the ice Wednesday, looking a lot leaner than some might have expected, although as usual, he laughed off requests to disclose his weight.
“You guys always want to know that, you’ll never get it,” he said.
At six-foot-five and a listed weight of 265 pounds, he will never look like the average lean NHL player, but he also posted 53 points last season in 66 games.
And despite being in perhaps better shape than usual, he said it’s still not the same as playing.
“Being in the gym a little bit longer and stuff, doing different things, I think I’m in better shape that way, but once you start going and battling and playing, it’s totally different,” he said.
Byfuglien wasn’t worried about winning back the fans in Winnipeg.
“The fans are going to be great. This is probably one of the better buildings to play in. The fans don’t get any better than they are here.”
Cheveldayoff says he doesn’t expect a backlash, as Winnipeg hockey fans have always shown great patience.
“They waited a long time to get NHL hockey back, unfortunately they had to have a three month hiatus,” said Cheveldayoff.
“I wouldn’t say we’re taking anything for granted. We feel for the fans, they want to see us play, and I’m happy that we’re moving in that direction. We’re going to give the fans what they wanted.”