MIGHT the entire populace of Morweena, Man. — around 150 people at last count — be inside the MTS Centre tonight?
It will be close, says goaltender James Reimer, the pride of the tiny farming town just 90 minutes north of Winnipeg. The only way everyone from the Interlake community could make the game between the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs was if he could find more tickets.
As of Friday afternoon, he had about 16 in his hand. He’ll gladly take more.
"It’s a pretty hard barn to get tickets in," said Reimer.
It’s becoming a "hard barn" for netminders to work in, as well. Visiting goaltenders hear their name jeeringly mocked on most nights, and when you get a game of New Year’s Eve magnitude — having a villain of Toronto proportions only adds to that — the volume is certain to be even higher.
Reimer has heard the scouting report on the crowd.
"Use it as motivation," he said, surrounded by a huge throng of local and visiting media. "I always like to play well, I like to play well for my teammates and play well for everyone, but especially when your family is in town. It gives you a little extra jump in your step. I’ll use it as a positive and hopefully I can use their support to my advantage."
No pressure, Reimer family.
Reimer loved the Jets growing up, but said his first NHL game in his home province isn’t about playing against the team he followed. It’s not the same, the 23-year-old points out, and the transfer of those childhood memories isn’t just as simple as embracing a different logo and a new coat of paint. His Jets are Selanne and Doan, not Kane and Ladd.
"I played against them last year as the Atlanta Thrashers, so it’s not like I’m playing the old Jets," Reimer said.
"It’s fun to come back here and play, it’s great to have family in here... that’s what makes it special. With the team, you know, it still kind of feels like the Thrashers."
When Leafs head coach Ron Wilson decided to start Reimer is unclear, but he did let his goaltender know the game was his after Friday’s practice.
Based on recent history, the decision wasn’t a slam dunk.
Reimer has struggled in his last few outings, allowing at least three goals in seven of his last 10 starts. With a 7-3-4 record, a 3.00 goals against average and .899 save percentage, the shine is starting to come off Reimer’s breakthrough season last year.
Wilson nearly said as much.
"He’s got every reason to have his best game (tonight)," he quipped.
Wilson thought about sitting the struggling Reimer for Jonas Gustavsson but decided against it because the move might be taken the wrong way; not by media, fans or even members of Reimer’s entourage in attendance — but by Reimer himself.
"It wouldn’t be fair to him," the coach said.
"The player would always take that the wrong way. He wants to play in this game; he’s probably marked that himself at the beginning of the season. I’m not going to take that opportunity away from any player."
The happy-go-lucky Reimer, who missed 18 games with a concussion this season, was asked if he expects to get a pass from the crowd, seeing as he’s a Manitoba product and all that.
He practically laughed at the question, before handing out some flattery that played to the crowd in a different way.
"They have some really good fans here — I used to be one of them in the stands," he said. "It’s a great hockey city. They love the game, they’re well-educated, and they love to cheer for the home team and do whatever they can to give the home team an advantage."
Nice try, James.