WINNIPEG – It’s not often a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers serves as a demarcation point for a franchise, but that’s exactly what happened to the Winnipeg Jets a week ago.
After losing to the Panthers and looking putrid doing so, the Jets were booed off the ice by their own fans. The same fans, incidentally, who waited 15 years for the NHL to return the way a spinster pines for marriage and who hadn’t seen the team in action at home in more than two weeks.
It was then the Jets stopped being cute and cuddly. And now if the team has any hope at all of making the playoffs in their first season back in Manitoba, they have to establish an identity beyond being the former Atlanta Thrashers, beyond being the new novelty act in the NHL, beyond being Canada’s seventh team.
Yes, NHL hockey belongs in Winnipeg. We all get that. Now it’s up to the Jets to prove they belong in the NHL.
Jets coach Claude Noel is looking forward to the day when every Winnipeg game isn’t an event or a first, to the day when a Jets game is approached as one of 82 on the schedule. The adjustment has been an enormous one for everyone involved and Noel isn’t sure when it will be completely made. He thinks it might take the better part of 30 games before the team can establish a daily routine and start to feel comfortable.
“The identity thing right now has not been established on our team,” Noel said. “We’d like to have an identity in place, but there has been no continuity with our organization. We’ve assumed Atlanta’s players and we’re happy to have them, but there’s something attached there. For some of these guys, I’m the third coach they’ve had in four years. So the stability is not great, continuity is not great.”
And there has been an entire change in culture notwithstanding the move from a Sun Belt team to a hockey market. The same way you worry about how Rick Nash may be learning to accept defeat from all his years in Columbus, the Thrashers were not exactly a franchise with zero tolerance for failure. Increased expectations from a fan base and a front office can be jarring for some players, particularly young ones who have never been exposed to that kind of pressure and demands to perform.
By moving to Winnipeg, by getting a billionaire owner who has indicated a willingness to spend to the cap, by going to a city where there is far more day-to-day accountability has kicked out every crutch the Thrashers ever had. No longer is this franchise a small-market underdog from which little is expected.
But making that transition won’t be easy. First of all, the Thrashers were perennially on the outside looking in at playoff time for a reason. They weren’t very good. Moving the franchise to a new city won’t make their players any better. There are some very good parts in place, but this is a roster that is still a significant distance away from being a contender. And while the Jets have a fan base that is enthusiastic and knowledgeable enough to know these things take time, being booed off the ice is an indication they’re not about to be hoodwinked into thinking they’re fortunate just to have their team back. They will want results at some point and the honeymoon will not last forever.
On top of that are all the logistical factors that come into play for the players, things such as uprooting a family and establishing yourself in a new city, preparing for life in a location where cold weather is a daily reality in winter and all of the challenges that come with adjusting to a new place.
“That can be a hard thing to manage,” Noel said. “What it does is it confuses your identity because there’s a lot of noise in your life. It takes you longer to settle in and it might take us three months before we really get this thing down. We’re home for the whole month of December, but in December in Winnipeg it gets pretty cold. That could be a real shock for some people.”
Thursday night will be another first with Alex Ovechkin making his first visit to the MTS Centre. Much of the focus was on No. 8 and Noel noted players such as Ovechkin, if they get a big hit or a big goal early, often set the tone for one of those games where they’re extremely dangerous. When it was suggested Ovechkin should be fired up by all the buzz in the city, Noel said, “And you’re trying to scare me with that? I don’t know that there’s any recipe for taking away his enthusiasm aside from getting on the rosary and making phone calls to the big guy upstairs. I just hope he doesn’t get too charged up with the enthusiasm around here. We don’t need to feed that.”
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