Kris King had just finished a men’s league hockey game and was more than happy to reminisce about his days as a member of the Winnipeg Jets.
“I play on a team with Luciano Bosato and Darrin Shannon and Mark Osborne,” King said Thursday morning. “So there’s a bunch of old Jets still toiling around.”
Of course, almost all of them can be found in beer leagues or pick-up games. Players with ties to the Jets have basically become an endangered species in NHL dressing rooms.
Keith Tkachuk will become the latest former Winnipeg player to step away from the league when he retires after one final game with the St. Louis Blues on Friday night.
There’s a possibility Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne might also call it quits this summer, which would leave just three former Jets in the league – Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan, Detroit’s Kris Draper and Edmonton’s Nikolai Khabibulin, who missed most of the season with a back injury.
Tkachuk was a popular player during his days in Winnipeg, leading the team with 50 goals and 98 points in its final season before moving south to Phoenix.
He was just a 20-year-old in his second NHL season when King arrived via a trade from the New York Rangers.
“As soon as I got there, (general manager) John Paddock roomed me with Keith figuring maybe I could to teach him the right away and I think I failed miserably early,” said King, who served as Jets captain in the team’s final season.
“But you know, he was just a kid that had tons of talent and tons of strength and someone you could build your team around.”
The Jets had a dynamic core of young players with Tkachuk, Selanne and Alexei Zhamnov – “three of the best young players in the game,” according to King – and showed promise. However, they weren’t able to get out of the first round of the playoffs.
“There was some times when you think, ‘man, if we just had a couple more guys that could play with these guys and not have to play all three of them on the same line,’ it would have been something neat,” said King. “That last year we were there and we lost to Detroit in six games, I think we scared them. We had a pretty good chance.”
A total of 243 players suited up for the Jets during their NHL existence from 1979 to 1996 and a number have exited the league in recent years: Tie Domi, Bryan Marchment, Zhamnov, Dallas Drake, Chad Kilger and Teppo Numminen.
Doan has spent his entire career with the franchise and accepted a gift from King, now a member of the NHL’s hockey operations department, during a ceremony commemorating his 1,000th game earlier this season.
Draper played just 20 games for Winnipeg before famously being sold to the Detroit Red Wings for $1 while Khabibulin appeared in 79 games with the Jets and remained with the organization when it settled in the desert.
Another current NHLer has ties to the team but never played for it – Anaheim Ducks defenceman Aaron Ward was selected fifth overall by the Jets in 1991 and traded to Detroit a couple years later.
Tkachuk is preparing to join the ranks of retired Jets after a successful career that saw him play 1,200 career games and surpass 500 goals and 1,000 points.
“It goes by fast,” he said.
Just ask King. He vividly remembers arriving to a snowstorm and minus-35 C temperatures after being acquired by Winnipeg in a December 1992 trade.
The checking forward would end up spending parts of four seasons with the Jets and is among the people who wish the franchise could have survived.
“Winnipeg is probably the fondest memories of my career – a lot of people think I’m crazy when I say that,” said King. “It was a down-to-earth kind of place, people really respected their team. I had a guy come and, if he knew I was away on the road and we’d have snow, my wife didn’t have to lift a shovel – the driveways were cleared. People were always checking in to make sure all of the families were taken care of.
“That’s just what Winnipeg was. They really respected their players and their team.”