After all five contests of the Jets’ skills competition had been won, after the $8,500 50/50 ticket had been chosen and the pint-sized fans had toddled off towards home, Grant Clitsome met the media in jeans, hands tucked into his pockets and looking totally relaxed.
This was so unlike game aftermaths, when the air is usually split by either tension or triumph, and the media swollen into a throng of pointing arms. On Wednesday night, everything seemed cozy, there were a few grins, the players lounged kinda chill. "It’s good for us to kinda just go out there, and have some fun, and be laid back," Clitsome said, after sampling his first skills competition in Jets colours.
It was the second time the Jets have held the lighthearted contest at the MTS Centre. They held their first in 2011, but nixed it last season under the pressure of a schedule already squeezed by the lockout. When they slated this year’s competition, they didn’t know it would come at such a frustrating point in the season, with the Jets limping back home after a scrambly loss to the basement-dwelling Buffalo Sabres one night before.
The skills competition wasn’t about that, though, not about wins or losses or final scores. This one was for the kids.
More than 12,000 people flooded into the MTS Centre on Wednesday night, an even more robust turnout than the first edition of the competition, and most of those fans were young. So the beer taps largely stayed dry but the pizza lines were long, and inside the arena, small hands reached out for autographs where the rink glass would usually be. The Jets took it down for the event, so fans could watch their heroes without the fishbowl wall in between.
Oh, and tickets for this one maxed out at $15, a more wallet-friendly night for young families than games. The players knew this, and so they visited the boards between events, smiling and signing autographs. "I think it’s great for (the fans), because they get to have that interactive experience with us and see us close up," Clitsome said. "It’s probably a lot of people that don’t get the chance to come out to games."
So who, of all the Jets, did the fans come to see? In several arena seats, young fans waved hand-painted signs pledging admiration for blue-eyed rookie Mark Scheifele. When the players were introduced, his name drew the biggest roar. It didn’t go unnoticed. "Me and Troubs (Jacob Trouba) were going at it, we started a battle between each other, so that was fun," Scheifele said, of the crowd noise in his favour. "It was a fun night."
Scheifele put some joy in joyland too after he whipped around the ice to earn the title of fastest skater, his leading 13.673-second time trailed closely by lightning skater Blake Wheeler. The rookie would entertain again in the breakaway competition at the end of the night, when he tried a little lacrosse flip with his stick but goalie Al Montoya wouldn’t bite. "He’s just a kid," Montoya quipped into the microphone after, as the crowd giggled in delight.
"I was just going out there, gonna work my hardest, leave it all on the ice and hope for the best," Scheifele said after, echoing his usual mantra from actual games. "I’m happy I won, for sure."
Of course, the wins don’t mean much, they’re all just for fun. But if anything surprised, fans and players agreed, it was the results of the hardest shot competition. Brawny blueliner Dustin Byfuglien was the defending champion, having rifled off a 103 mph shot two years before. This time, he came up light, as crash-bang winger Anthony Peluso’s bomb shot punched in at 103.9 mph. Most on the team were betting Buff to win again.
"Peluso’s shot," Trouba said later, with an impish grin. "I know he’s a big strong guy, but he’s not really known to have a really strong shot. But yeah, he showed he did." (For the record, the 19-year-old Trouba did well for himself in that contest, placing third with a 99.7 mph rocket.)
Thursday it’s back to business, with a Friday night game against the visiting Florida Panthers to prepare for and the last road trip to revisit. But Wednesday night at least, a chance for the team to take some trick shots, toss out free hats, watch smiles spread across fans’ faces and just... relax.
"That was cool, I didn’t really know what to expect," Trouba said. "Everybody enjoyed it, I know the players enjoyed it, and I hope the fans did as well."