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Jets' hangar is empty, remaining players can't wait for takeoff clearance

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Imagine, if you can, what the Winnipeg Jets clubhouse might look like right now if the owners and players weren't arguing over everything from hockey-related revenue to regulating the number of dudes to a room on road trips.

Under normal circumstances the joint would be buzzing, with the curtain scheduled to be lifted on the Jets' 2012-13 regular season next Saturday with the Carolina Hurricanes in town.

Yes, in those moments when the media weren't cramming the place looking for insight and juicy sound bites, the music would be blaring, laughter would be dominant and brilliant -- or not-so-brilliant -- pranks would be either unfolding or deviously hatched.

Instead, the NHL lockout has the Jets spread out all over the globe. They are hanging their hats in places like Minsk and ñrnskldsvik, Liberec and Atlanta, Minneapolis and, yes, Winnipeg. And instead of sporting the Jets' double blue and white, they are wearing practice sweaters with the NHLPA logo stamped on them or European jerseys featuring more advertising than a NASCAR ride.

"We have a close team," said Andrew Ladd. "And so it sucks to not have the guys together and getting ready to start a year right now.

"But that's the situation we're in and there's nothing we can do about it. Everybody is doing their own thing and doing what they think is best. That's just the way it is."

Most pro sport teams are part army battalion, part frat house. There is a camaraderie that builds from practising together daily, from wandering through airports from San Jose to Boston to Edmonton to Sunrise, Fla.

Ask any athlete who walks away from the game about what they'll miss most and many point not to the roaring crowds, but to the card games on the plane and those times in the room when guys are just hanging out after a practice.

"I'm missing everything about the game right now," said veteran Olli Jokinen, who joined the Jets as a free agent in July and has been waiting for his teammates to join him in Winnipeg for almost two months.

"Being a hockey player, it's our lives. And during the off-season you get your calendar out and say, 'OK, this is the first day of training camp... this is when the season is going to start... this is when you are going to a new city or this is when you are going back to a city where you played before.'

"It's the time of year when you get to see the guys again. That's the toughest part -- not having the guys around and not being able to work."

Ladd, the likable-brother type who wears the captain's 'C', has been trying to keep in touch with as many of his teammates as possible. He talked to Alex Burmistrov not long after he left the gang working out at MTS Iceplex for the opening of St. John's IceCaps training camp in Corner Brook, N.L. He's called and texted his pals Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler, now working out with Minnesota Wild players in Minneapolis.

But tapping out a message on an iPhone can't and won't replace a slap on the back, a skate boot full of shaving cream or a pint and a chunk of red meat on a road trip.

Even Jokinen, who you'd think had seen it all during a long career that has seen him suit up for 1,042 NHL games with Los Angeles, the New York Islanders and Rangers, Florida, Phoenix and Calgary, admits the start of training camp is like a first day of school.

"In camp, you get to know the players and each other," said the 33-year-old Finn. "I've been on different teams, but hockey guys, everywhere you go, they're all good guys. You get to know each other very fast.

"You spend a lot of time together and obviously now with the situation we have and only having a few guys here... you miss that part. You miss training camp, you miss not just the games, but all that other stuff.

"It's tough," Jokinen added, shaking his head, "but there's not much we can do about it now. All we can do is hope this is over soon."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 C3

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