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Competition fierce, long before game

Players warm up with round of two-touch

Winnipeg Jets fans will never see it, but deep in the bowels of the MTS Centre prior to a home game, the players are at each other's throats.

No punches are thrown, but there is a lot of kicking. And screaming. And finger pointing.

Alex Burmistrov controls the ball during Jets' traditional warm-up game of two-touch.

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRE

Alex Burmistrov controls the ball during Jets' traditional warm-up game of two-touch.

They're involved in the second-most competitive thing they'll do that day -- warming up for their on-ice opponents by playing two-touch, a.k.a. sewer ball, with a soccer ball. Some of the team's trainers often play, too.

The rules are pretty simple. (It's similar to hacky-sack, if anybody remembers that.) Standing in a circle down near the arena's loading docks, you use any part of your body -- except your hands, of course -- to play the ball and pass it off.

You can hit it once or twice but three times and you're out.

The pillars and the walls are in play. Failure to keep the ball in the air or booting it out of a teammate's range will also have you on the outside looking in.

Eventually, it comes down to two players. Once the victor has been declared, everybody is back in.

Each two-touch warm-up lasts about 20 minutes. Most of the team participates and, as you might expect with a group of professional athletes, there's a little bit of competition. Oh, and trash talking, too.

For example, who are the best players? In centre Alex Burmistrov's mind, there's no doubt it's the Europeans like himself, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and forward Nik Antropov. He does allow Canadian Kyle Wellwood is "pretty good."

Burmistrov knows what he's talking about, as he grew up playing the game and still plays "big" soccer in the summer with full 11-member squads.

Goaltender Al Montoya, a Cuban-American, defends his lack of soccer prowess on the fact baseball is Cuba's national pastime. But that doesn't mean he can't pick out a cheater when he sees one.

"The Russians are for sure the dirtiest players on the team," he said.

Montoya would like to add a few two-touch titles to his resumé but he knows his downfall -- it's his left foot.

"I don't want to say that too loud. I don't want the guys head-hunting me and coming for my left foot, but that's what I've been working on for the last 10 years. I use the outside butterfly a little bit better than I do on the inside," he said.

But just in case you thought the pre-game warm-up regularly turned into a Cold War between the Russians and the North Americans, defenceman Grant Clitsome is only too happy to throw a fellow Canuck under the bus.

When asked who the biggest cheater in two-touch is, he replied, "Probably Kaner," referring to winger Evander Kane. "Every time he's out, he has to argue; he can't just leave the circle."

Kane was quick to go on the offensive by calling out Burmistrov.

"Burmi is definitely a cheater. He stands in the corner where there's a chain (on the wall), so every time it hits the chain, he uses it as an excuse and the other guy is out," he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2013 A2

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