Life will never be the same for hockey players who used to call Atlanta home.
Moving to a hockey hotbed from one where the sport was rarely in the spotlight, the Thrashers are expecting a little bit of culture shock now that they’ve landed in Winnipeg.
“It’s probably going to be bigger than most guys think,” captain Andrew Ladd told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. “I think not having (NHL) hockey there for 15 years, it’s kind of built up and built up to the point where I’m sure (fans) are ready to blow the doors off the hinges and get this thing going.”
Added goaltender Chris Mason: “Next year it’s going to be hockey, hockey, hockey. I just love that. I think it’s going to be awesome.”
The men who play for the Thrashers have largely been left in the dark while speculation ran rampant about the franchise’s relocation over the past couple weeks. They officially learned of their fate when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman appeared at a press conference announcing the sale on Tuesday.
It was somewhat bittersweet news, particularly for those who got comfortable in the city. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has made all 119 of his career NHL appearances in a Thrashers sweater and says he enjoyed playing in Atlanta.
Even still, he understands why the move is being made.
“It’s four sports in Atlanta and we were No. 4 I think,” said Pavelec, a Czech native. “The people in Atlanta like baseball, they like American football. … Everyone knows we had problems (getting) the fans to watch our games.
“I think for hockey it’s a good thing.”
With a little more than three months remaining before training camp opens, players will now go about finding accommodations and moving north.
An old Jets connection will be lending some assistance on that front. Winnipeg native Chantal Tkachuk, the wife of Keith Tkachuk, has been in touch with Mason’s wife Courtney.
“Keith and I played together in St. Louis and she’s putting together a little information package for Courtney and all the girls,” said Mason.
The 35-year-old from Red Deer, Alta., spent one season in Atlanta after signing as a free agent last summer. He and Ladd are among 10 Canadians that finished the year on the Thrashers roster.
Both men are looking forward to their first opportunity to experience NHL life on home soil.
“I think everyone wants to be able to play in Canada where they just have that passion for the game,” said Ladd, a native of Maple Ridge, B.C., and two-time Stanley Cup champion. “There’s a little extra pressure and attention, but for me I like that part of it. You can definitely thrive on it and use it to your advantage.”
There will be some changes to get used to—and the colder climate is only one small part of it.
Mason was impressed by the strong fan turnout he saw while watching Tuesday’s press conference on television. However, he knows those people will likely take more of an interest in his day-to-day life than folks did in Atlanta.
“I’m just assuming with a smaller market that wherever you go someone will probably know who you are,” said Mason. “We’ll have to wait and see. I’m not going to mind too much, but I mean there’s going to be some time you just want to go out in your sweat pants and not be noticed.
“We’ll see, it comes with the territory.”
Ladd led the Thrashers in scoring last season with 29 goals and 59 points in 81 games. He is scheduled to become a restricted free agent this summer—one of 10 Thrashers players up for a new deal—and doesn’t expect the move to have a major impact on contract negotiations.
In fact, he hopes agent J.P. Barry will be able to get back to the bargaining table now that the relocation has been made official.
“It’s kind of been in limbo because we were negotiating towards the end of the year for a couple months and then with the ownership situation it’s kind of been stalled,” said Ladd. “As players, you’re not sure with new ownership coming in what they’re going to want to do and where you fit in orthat sort of thing.
“We’re just kind of waiting to see what happens and get some answers on what’s going on.”
Other players from the NHL expressed excitement at the return of big-league hockey to Winnipeg.
Vancouver Canuck forward Victor Oreskovich played 40 games in Winnipeg this season with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. He says it’s a great thing that the NHL is returning to Manitoba’s capital.
“It’s a tremendously well run organization,” Oreskovich said. “I felt they were running that AHL team like it was an NHL team. I think it will be a lot of fun to play there.”
Oreskovich doubted NHL players would balk at playing on a team in Winnipeg.
“I had a lot of fun there,” he said. “The winters are cold, but that’s the way Canada is.
“If you build an organization that is professional and well run, guys will want to play their regardless.”
Canuck forward Tanner Glass grew up in Craven, Sask., and was glad to hear about the NHL coming to another Prairie city.
“I think it’s a great day we can add another franchise to Canada and on the Prairies,” he said.
Glass said once players see how excited the fans can be in Winnipeg, they won’t mind playing there.
“As a player you want to go somewhere where you are wanted and appreciated,” Glass said.
“I think Winnipeg is going to be an organization that is going to strive at that aspect.”
In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, a number of NHL players weighed in with their thoughts on Twitter.
Thrashers players Evander Kane and Anthony Stewart thanked fans in Atlanta for their support while others welcomed Winnipeg back to the NHL family.
“Winnipeg is back, now time for the Quebec Nordiques!!!” wrote St. Louis Blues forward David Perron.
Added Phoenix Coyotes tough guy Paul Bissonnette: “I have a feeling in 9 months there will a lot of babies being born in the city of Winnipeg. Welcome back Jets. Let the party begin in Canada.”
Edmonton Oilers forward Taylor Hall is looking forward to the first road trip that takes him to Manitoba.
“Very excited to play in another Cdn city. Congrats Winnipeg!”
—With files from Jim Morris in Vancouver.