Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Giddy with excitement

Players, coach in upbeat mood despite sprint to season opener

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They're under the extraordinary pressure that comes with extraordinary times, attempting to compress into a sharply abbreviated six-day training camp what NHL teams usually have the better part of a month to accomplish.

But if you're looking for furrowed brows and bitten fingernails this week, the Winnipeg Jets dressing room is not the place you're going to find it.

On the contrary, the men who make up the local hockey team are a decidedly upbeat bunch as they prepare for the long-awaited, oft-delayed season opener this Saturday against the Ottawa Senators.

Chalk it up to the bottomless well of hope that always comes with a fresh, new season.

Or maybe it's the giddiness that comes with the relief of finally earning their first hockey paycheques this season.

Perhaps it's all just the trickle-down effect of playing for a head coach who never seems to take himself -- or, for that matter, the men and women in the media who cover him -- very seriously.

"Stallions," Claude Noel called out as he faced the media Tuesday for his regular post-practice news conference, "how are you doing today?"

Noel delivered his own punchline one beat later, as though he had just realized he was now in the presence of the rumpled media, not his team of million-dollar thoroughbreds: "Oh, sorry -- donkeys. Wrong group."

And so it went on Day 3 of training camp, as the grind on the ice during a split 150-minute session was quickly replaced by a much lighter atmosphere off of it.

As left-winger Evander Kane and right-winger Chris Thorburn -- who are locker neighbours this season -- mock-debated which of the two men is luckier this season to be basking in the other's presence, centre Bryan Little reflected on how utterly surreal it is that he and his teammates are going to be playing a regular-season game in just a few more days.

"It's pretty crazy," said Little. "A week ago we were at the Iceplex, just the six of us, going through drills. And now we're getting ready for a game."

But if it all seems like frozen water off a duck's back, looks are deceiving.

"I've never been so anxious and nervous at the same time for the opening puck-drop," Little admitted. "I think everyone's in different situations. Some guys haven't played in a long time, some guys just got back from Europe. But at the end of the day, it's the first NHL game of the season for everyone."

Newly acquired centre Olli Jokinen said one bright side to the recently concluded lockout was the extra time it afforded him to make the transition to a new team and a new city.

"The good thing this time was probably having the lockout so I had a good chance to get used to the surroundings and get to know the city and find some new friends outside hockey," said Jokinen.

You know you're seeing the glass half-full if you're finding silver linings in the lockout.

Whether all the optimism and positive vibes are self-delusion will emerge in the coming weeks, but a good attitude cannot hurt on a team Noel says is going to have to come together at a record pace in a 48-game regular season that's going to be more like a sprint than a marathon when the starting gun goes off on Saturday.

"We're going to be hitting the ground running -- like literally running," said Noel.

And that also applies to the head coach, who says he won't have nearly the patience for foul-ups this season that he demonstrated last season.

"That patience side is going to be shorter, just because of the situation," said Noel. "You don't have time to be that patient this year."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2013 C3

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