Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Germany OK, 'Peg great: Wheeler

European stint just a nice diversion for Jets winger

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First things first -- Blake Wheeler will readily admit his German adventure was most excellent.

Munich, where he spent a good chunk of his lockout days with the Red Bulls of the German Elite League, is a cosmopolitan, world-class city. And while there, he learned some key Bavarian phrases, like:

"First one is Servus, which is like Bavarain greeting," began the Winnipeg Jets winger on Friday. "You walk into the locker-room and everybody says 'Servus.' It's kind of the same as a 'Hey, what's up guys?'

"Then there's Morgen or Guten morgen, which is morning or good morning. And, of course, there is Prost! which is a German toast like 'Cheers!'

"That's a cultural thing. They love their beer there."

But here's the thing: As much as the Jets' leading scorer from last season enjoyed Germany, he -- like just about every other player who pulled on Jets colours a year ago -- absolutely couldn't wait to get back to work right here in little ol' River City.

And so Thursday, when 19 players took to the freshly painted ice at the MTS Centre, had a first-day-of-school feel to it.

"There's a lot of smiles and fun faces in here right now," said Wheeler as a media posse worked its way around the Jet dressing room. "Everyone is so excited about being back. It was a tough stretch there for everyone. All the guys are just so happy to have that behind us and to be back and playing the game we love.

"I don't want to say we took it for granted before, but when you lose something like that you really learn what you had. The guys know we have a good thing going here and that's why we're truly happy to be back."

And, of course, there's another connection in play here. Wheeler's stint in Munich was temporary. It's in Winnipeg where he is not only carving out a career, but going to battle every day with teammates all chasing the same thing. That may sound cornball, but it's real.

"Here we're all kind of building toward something together. It's been a process," he said. "We're all working our way up to something. That's what makes this game fun: Trying to figure out how to win as a team and push yourself to the ultimate goal. That's what we're doing here."

Evander Kane and Kyle Wellwood are expected to be in Winnipeg on Friday in advance of the anticipated opening of NHL training camps on Sunday, following the ratification vote by the players. That would just leave KHLers Nik Antropov and Alex Ponikarovsky and junior star Mark Scheifele as the last three yet to report.

That crew of players also included defencemen Paul Postma and Zach Redmond and forwards Spencer Machacek and Maxime Macenauer, all of whom have been called up from the St. John's IceCaps.

Jets head coach Claude Noel and his staff cannot be on the ice with the team until the new CBA is in place and so J.P. Vigier -- the former NHLer who has been training the crew at the MTS Iceplex during the lockout -- ran a spirited practice on Friday.

All this means the Jets, just like their 19 NHL rivals, will have little time to gear up for their opener, a matinee on Saturday, Jan. 19 versus the Ottawa Senators.

"I can't wait," said Wheeler, whose wife gave birth to their first son, Louie, back in October. "All of us are just chomping at the bit to get back out here. Everyone felt (the lockout) had gone on too long and it had gotten to be a little bit of a joke, almost. We were just really happy to get back on the ice and do what we love to do.

"That first game is going to be pretty special."

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

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 C1

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Updated on Friday, January 11, 2013 at 7:50 AM CST: replaces photos

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