Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ain't no Buff-er zone for Jets in Peg

Players will feel fans' wrath for screwups

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There is no place to hide for the Winnipeg Jets.

The thirst for news on the Jets, even prior to puck drop is insatiable. People want to talk about the Jets nonstop and information is needed to feed the beast. What goes in the machine and gets served to the public is up to the players.

How this spotlight is handled is also the players' choice, as they can elect to use it as an excuse by citing excessive pressure or make it a cause for accountability in terms of their actions on and off the ice.

Do good and reap the rewards. Do bad and suffer the consequences.

Cough the puck up at a critical moment and expect to read about it the next day in the paper.

Pick up a hat trick? Don't expect to pick up a restaurant cheque for a while.

Get popped for a DUI or some other driving infraction and Twitter will explode.

Visit a sick kid at a hospital and hear all about it on the news as you drive home.

Miss an open net or let in a softie on a Saturday night in front of a Winnipeg audience and let us advise you to order in rather than head to Safeway for a few groceries the next day. Even the checkout girl will want to grill you.

This is not Atlanta where you can dissolve into the masses. You are NHL players in a city that will revere you as gods and then turn on you like a rabid dog should you disappoint.

With a population right around 700,000, we're just a big small town and getting lost can be tough. Maybe you'll find a neighbourhood joint with a corner booth and a waitress that won't recognize you, but it's doubtful. Expect to be recognized everywhere you go and be politely harassed.

Dustin Byfuglien got into a little jam on Lake Minnetonka Wednesday night and by 9 a.m. Thursday he was trending on Twitter in the Peg.

The water cooler talk around town quickly skipped over the fact he'd been detained on suspicion of boating under the influence to get to the Twitter rumour that he was weighed by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and came in at a less than svelte 286 pounds. Big Buff indeed.

Two weeks from the start of Jets training camp and Byfuglien, if the rumours are accurate, isn't exactly in skating shape, and Winnipeggers want to know why.

Byfuglien's fate and whether charges will even come down are yet to be determined. But he's already lost in the court of public opinion. Fair? Certainly not.

But it's reality for these players and they will have to find a way to adjust. If the difference between Atlanta and Winnipeg as hockey markets wasn't already obvious to the new Jets it will have sunk in now.

 

There's an upside -- 15,000-plus at every home game and a roar in the building that will have folks wadding up toilet paper to clog their ears -- and there's a downside.

Byfuglien is learning that right now and it can't be fun. We all make mistakes but most of us get to do it in the quiet of our own little lives. Not the Jets.

Fighting this phenomena of celebrity is futile. Everyone with a cell phone is a potential paparazzi and Twitter can make a person famous for the right or wrong reasons quicker than you can spell Minnetonka.

But the hot spotlight can also be a positive. This is professional sport with profit derived from the amount of attention a franchise can generate and translate into ticket sales, sponsorship money and broadcast rights, among many other revenue streams.

The undisputed No. 1 way to gain this coveted popularity is winning. Play well and win and watch the accolades and cash roll in.

That's the whole purpose of being a professional athlete in a nutshell.

So don't bother complaining about the heat. It's what you signed up for and the rewards are handsome.

Deal with the notoriety or don't. But know this -- the pressure is not going away. Not in Winnipeg.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2011 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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