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Jets, kids team heat up The Forks

Icy, outdoor practice draws crowd of 2,500

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Andrew Ladd strode up to a media throng valiantly attempting to keep microphones and cameras from shaking in the cold and struggling to spit out questions between frozen lips.

Opening question, on a day in which the Winnipeg Jets gathered for their first outdoor practice at The Forks in front of about 2,500 fans:

Can you still feel your face?

"I can still feel my face... my hands, not so much," said Ladd, grinning/wincing. "It's a great venue. The train tracks in the background and with everybody out here... it's cool. It would have been nicer if it was a little warmer, but I think the guys are having fun just playing a little game of shinny."

Asked if he had ever played on a venue like this while growing up, Ladd added:

"No. I grew up in Vancouver so we were lucky if the ice froze."

And so it went for the Jets on a sunny but frigid afternoon on the Red River Mutual Trail. Fans lined both banks of the river and the bridge overhead and cheered from the moment the squad stepped on the ice to their exit about an hour later.

The session did not include any drills, but simply featured the Jets trying to stay warm while flashing their skills. That was followed up by a visit from the Portage A-1 Atoms, who won a contest that gave their kids the chance to skate with their idols.

"The kids had an absolute blast. They were pumped," said Dean Calder, the club's head coach. "We played Friday night and I told them we had practice on Sunday and they were like, 'Oh...' Then I told them it was an outdoor practice and the team we normally practise with won't be able to make it so I got a different team to practise with. They were like, 'Who?' And then I said, 'The Jets.' Actually, Jack, one of our players, said 'The real Jets?'

'Pretty excited'

"They were pretty excited to get the chance to come out here and play. It's a great chance for the kids to come out and see the players they admire on TV."

Added Evan Calder -- who called the experience "awesome" -- when asked what his favourite part of the on-ice practice with the Jets was:

"Hitting (Dustin) Byfuglien. And I tripped someone, but I don't know who it was."

The temperature Sunday afternoon hovered around -22 C -- it felt about 10 degrees colder with the wind chill -- and the players seemed more eager to be on the ice working up a sweat than standing still on the sideline near heaters.

The other key to staying warm, of course, was obvious.

"Layers," said Keaton Ellerby. "I've got got gloves on (underneath his hockey gloves), toques and about five shirts and three pairs of pants."

Asked how that affected his mobility out there, Ellerby grinned: "Not good. I can barely feel anything."

Added forward Mark Scheifele, when quizzed if the outdoor session took him back to when he was 10: "This takes me back to 10 days ago (he skated outside back in Kitchener during the Olympic break.)"

"I was always a guy on the outdoor rinks so it's pretty fun to be out here."

The Jets have been on the ice since last Wednesday with some gruelling, training-camp like sessions, but will have today off before a final push for a playoff spot begins Thursday with a home date against the Phoenix Coyotes.

And so Sunday's event was one final mental break before the real grind begins.

"It's a break in the Olympic practices," said coach Paul Maurice. "They've had enough of that, I think we all have and we'd like to play some games now. This is fun.

"I think everybody (played on an outdoor rink). That's all I really remember. I had one in my backyard, every elementary school had one, high schools had one... 85 per cent of the time we were on the ice it was at outdoor rinks. That's where we learned to have fun with the game. It gets cold, but they get their hockey equipment on and get out here almost reluctantly and five minutes later they can't control themselves and they're calling each other names and they're doing it like it used to be." Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2014 0

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