WINNIPEG – Nik Antropov and his teammates seem to have brought more than just their sticks and skates from Atlanta to Winnipeg.
They’ve also brought October weather straight out of the Deep South to the Canadian Prairie.
The Winnipeg Jets spent Wednesday afternoon on the water instead of the ice, basking in record temperatures of 30.8 degrees Celsius as they took a crash course in rowing on the Red River that head coach Claude Noel termed a “team-building exercise.”
Antropov still remembers his first visit to Winnipeg, as a member of the Kazakh team at the 1999 world junior hockey championship, when temperatures at times dipped below -30 C.
“I remember it was cold,” said the 31-year-old forward who is entering his 12th NHL season. “That’s about all I remember. I’m afraid we’re going to pay for this in the winter.”
But the longtime Toronto Maple Leaf isn’t complaining. He’s just happy to be entering a season feeling completely healthy in a market that’s obsessed with hockey.
“Hockey-wise, it’s on the same level as Toronto for sure,” said Antropov, who was traded from the Leafs to the New York Rangers in 2009 before signing a four-year free-agent contract with Atlanta that summer. “The fans are loyal here, and they’ve been dreaming about hockey here for the last 15 years.”
Antropov has experienced life as a professional hockey player in one of the league’s most intense media fishbowls and in near anonymity. He says he’s learned to handle himself the same way no matter how many people are watching.
“An NHL city is an NHL city,” said the Jets’ tallest player at six-foot-six. “Whether it’s Toronto or New York or Columbus it doesn’t matter.”
Antropov’s first season with the Thrashers was the most productive of his career offensively, as he scored 24 goals and added 43 assists. He says he never felt 100 per cent after undergoing hip surgery last summer, and it showed on the stats sheet. His 41 points last season in 76 games were his fewest since 2006-07.
“I had a really good summer working out,” Antropov said of this off-season. “I think on the same page now as I was a couple years ago, so we’ll see how it goes.”
While scoring from the top two lines is a prime concern for the Jets, Noel is looking for more than just offensive statistics from Antropov, whose ability to play both centre and right-wing is a valuable tool.
“I just hope he has a productive year,” Noel said. “For me it’s not only scoring. I know he’s a scorer-type, but he’s a reliable player. If he scores, great. If he doesn’t, we’ll help him score.”
That help is likely to come in the form of young linemates Alexander Burmistrov, 19, and Patrice Cormier, 21, early in the season.
Antropov is the oldest player on the Jets’ roster next to backup goalie Chris Mason, but he doesn’t think his age automatically gives him added leadership responsibilities.
“It’s not just one or two or three guys,” he said. “It’s 23 guys. That’s how we do it.”
Leadership was one of the themes of the Jets’ day, and Noel said he was looking forward to hearing feedback from the players on what they learned on the river’s choppy waters.
“I’ve never done this before,” Noel said.
He was speaking about the rowing, but he could have meant guiding an NHL team through training camp—in a new city, no less.
“There’s so many lessons to learn. I’m hoping our team becomes a better team.”