Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Players who got their chance and ran with it

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There is an untold backstory behind how Derek Meech, the only locally born player on the current Jets roster, finally came to play his first home game for the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night.

Actually, it's a story that began before Derek was born 29 years ago next month. And given what we say about there only being one degree of separation between people in Winnipeg, it's a story that could only have happened here.

-- -- --

A couple of years back, not long after the Winnipeg Jets were reborn in the National Hockey League, I chanced to meet Derek Meech's father, Dennis Meech, at the Grove Pub on Stafford. The affable, elder Meech and his wife, Faye Harden-Meech, were in the process of moving furniture to their new home in Phoenix.

While I had never met Dennis, I knew former football teammates of mine who played with him during the late 1960s, when the St. Vital Bulldogs were a formidable force in Canadian senior football.

We got to talking.

Naturally, Derek's name came up.

In part, it was because I knew that in 2008, after he spent part of the season with the Detroit Red Wings when they won the Stanley Cup, Derek brought the cup home to the Dakota Community Centre, where he played hockey as a kid.

But there was another reason Dennis and I started talking about Derek. It had to do with his dad Dennis's long-standing relationship with Jets co-owner Mark Chipman.

More than 35 years ago, Mark played football for Dennis at St. Paul's High School.

It was Dennis's first year as head coach and Mark asked him if he could play quarterback. The way I recall Dennis explaining it, Mark and the previous head coach did not get along.

Dennis believed in him, though, and gave him a chance.

Mark would lead the Crusaders in battle in September 1977 and throughout the season and go on to play football at the University of North Dakota.

While he was still in second-year law at UND, Mark would tell a Free Press reporter what his other goal in life had been back then.

"More than anything," he said, "I wanted the chance to try out for the Bombers."

By the time of the interview, Mark had already accomplished that. In 1983, as a wide receiver, he had gone to the Bombers training camp, only to be cut after the first exhibition game.

"I got that chance, and that was the important thing," he said back then. "I would have always wondered, otherwise."

Of course Dennis Meech had given him a chance, too, at St. Paul's.

Maybe that's the reason they would remain friends over the years and why Mark still greets Dennis as "Coach" when they see each other or occasionally meet for lunch.

It had been over lunch one day, after Winnipeg learned the Jets were returning, that Dennis said Mark asked him a question. How would he like it if Derek ended up playing for his hometown team?

Not long after, on July 1, 2011, the Winnipeg Jets signed Derek Meech as a free agent.

 

Last year, Derek only got into a couple of out-of-town games with the Jets before injuring his knee. Then came this year's NHL lockout. It took time, patience, and playing with distinction for the Jets farm team in Newfoundland, but late last month Derek Meech got his chance again. He was called up, given sweater No. 7 and paired up with another defenceman.

In Derek's personal home opener, with nearly a dozen family members and who knows how many friends watching, Derek was a big plus player on the blue-line as the Jets outscored the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2. After the game, during a TV interview, he was asked what it was like to play at home for the first time as a Winnipeg Jet.

Later, he would humbly tell a TV interviewer how it felt.

"It was a special night. It was nice."

-- -- --

Derek didn't want to be interviewed for this story. Mark Chipman declined, too. I assume it's because Derek is concerned how fans and teammates might look at him, as if there was some favouritism shown him. But the truth is, he played himself on this team. He wasn't given any favours, other than one.

A chance.

A chance is what we all hope for and deserve in life, whether we're a pro hockey player or a kid from an impoverished neighbourhood. That, and someone kind enough to offer us one.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2013 B1

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