Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Now... I'm the enemy'

Leafs coach thrilled to be back, but expect love-in to end when puck drops

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Professional hockey doesn't usually cater to sentimental moments.

The axe falls when it falls and too bad about the best-laid plans.

Such was the case when Randy Carlyle was fired by the Anaheim Ducks last season, just two weeks prior to the team's visit to Winnipeg and his first meeting with the resurrected Jets.

Now coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Carlyle will get his chance tonight to see how Winnipeg wears the NHL these days and Jets fans will have the opportunity to pay one of the province's greatest friends in hockey his due.

Carlyle, who arrived in Winnipeg early Wednesday morning, was made available to the media late in the afternoon in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel.

"I guess I'm the enemy now," chuckled Carlyle, looking a little older than when we last saw him in Winnipeg but still in good form and tidily turned out in a tailored suit. "It's great to return to this area. I enjoyed my time here and it was a very special place for me and my family and it's always nice to come back."

The Ducks fired Carlyle in late November and came to Winnipeg without him in mid-December. Former Jets winger and Ducks star Teemu Selanne was treated to an emotional welcome few could forget.

Carlyle was the face of professional hockey in Winnipeg for close to 20 years, from his playing time with the Jets to coaching and building the Manitoba Moose franchise. He was asked how he expects fans in Winnipeg to treat him tonight.

"I hear they boo people," said Carlyle, with a shrug of his shoulders and a quizzical smile. "I don't know, it's one of those things now that I'm the enemy. We've got a job to do."

Carlyle turned to his wry sense of humour when asked about missing out on last year's Jets-Ducks game following his firing.

"Well, something got in the way last year. I actually had a conversation with (Jets assistant GM) Craig Heisinger probably 10 days before the event (his firing) happened and I said to him, 'I don't know, the way things keep going I might be sitting beside you in the press box when the Ducks come to Manitoba.' It just so happens I went fishing in the mountains," said Carlyle. "Those things happen in this game and I'm no different than anybody else -- it hurts. But you have to be prepared to pick up and move on."

A former Norris Trophy winner and coach of the 2007 Stanley Cup champion Ducks, Carlyle had a sizable impact on pro hockey in Winnipeg. Jets owner Mark Chipman, who hired Carlyle twice to be his coach with the Manitoba Moose, says Carlyle played a key role in the NHL's return.

"We had that date circled on the calendar last year and it was unfortunate that he didn't get here with Anaheim," said Chipman.

"On the other hand, it's kind of nice that he's going to get his own moment. Randy became a very close friend and continues to be to this day. He helped build what we have here today and I'm looking forward to our crowd giving him the reception he deserves," said Chipman.

"Randy gave the Moose credibility and he gave us success, which allowed us to grow and become an organization worthy of the NHL's attention and eventual acceptance. I don't know if we could have done it without him. To say I owe him a debt is a great understatement."

Craig Heisinger views Carlyle as a key piece in the progression of the Moose and True North's ascension to the NHL.

"This visit has meaning for me because I know it does for Randy. He's a close friend and I know last year he was looking forward to coming but he was released by Anaheim," said Heisinger. "Randy was the face of the Manitoba Moose franchise and was one the main reasons for the Jets return. You can't overlook what he did here."

Carlyle was with the Jets as an assistant coach when the team relocated to Phoenix and remembers that final night with clarity.

"That was an emotional night. The one thing that is still vivid in my mind is not only the amount of emotion pouring out of the people in the stands but also out of the people on the ice," said Carlyle. "You probably didn't get to see a lot of that. The camera wouldn't pan to every face. It was hard. It was one of those events that changed your life. Not just one or two people but a whole community. It was heart-wrenching. Business happens and things happen for a reason and that's history."

Chipman and Carlyle will no doubt spend some time together prior to the game but the love-in will stop once the action begins.

"We all have friends in other organizations but when the puck drops it's game on," said Chipman. "I know Randy will get his moment from the crowd and I'll be happy to see it. But then, and I'm sure he'd tell you the same thing, our objective is to win. It is every night."

Carlyle says he won't get caught up in any emotion tonight.

"My job is to coach the team. The emotion and all that has to be a subplot," said Carlyle. "To me it's all about getting our hockey club ready and making sure I have the right people on the ice. The emotion is just a sidebar."

Easy for Randy Carlyle to say. But not so easy for the fans of the Winnipeg Jets, owner of the Jets and coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs to live.

Expect a moment. Expect a memorable one.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2013 D2

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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