Young guns draw media focus on road
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/11/2016 (2383 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They come for the Laine, they stay for the Scheifele.
As home to the NHL’s leading goal scorer in Patrik Laine and the leading point-getter in Mark Scheifele, a Winnipeg Jets team that has traditionally been one of the NHL’s worst draws on the road — sandwiched somewhere below Buffalo and above Carolina — has suddenly become the ‘it’ team everyone wants to see.
And with all that new-found cachet has come a corresponding onslaught of media attention the likes of which the Jets haven’t seen since, well, the last time a Finnish rookie grabbed the NHL by the throat.
The sudden media interest has taken everyone by surprise, not least of all the reporters around the league who are suddenly finding themselves compelled to cover a team they used to be able to safely ignore.
Consider this opening paragraph from a story this week on the popular American website, Deadspin, that ran under the headline, ‘You Guys, I Think the Winnipeg Jets Might Be… Good?’:
“I feel entirely uncomfortable even noting this development, wary of some quantum-observer effect in which quantifying Winnipeg’s success will cause them to go back to the futility with which the franchise has come to be synonymous. The Jets are a delicate baby bird, to be cupped ever so gently for fear of crushing them before they learn to fly. But, hell, let’s get this out there: they are playing some damn good hockey.”
Indeed they are, and the result has been — to the delight of the Jets (more on that later) — that Winnipeg is now getting the same kind of big-league media treatment that is normally reserved for the Pittsburghs and Chicagos and L.A.s of the NHL.
It has become a game-day ritual this season as reliable as the morning skate: reporters covering whatever team the Jets happen to be playing on any given night — as well as national and international media, who are also now regularly parachuting in — set up camp at the locker stall of Laine, the Jets’ rookie phenom.
They all come seeking the same thing: good copy from a prodigious kid who less than 20 games into his pro career has already accomplished the impossible, somehow actually exceeding the stratospheric expectations people had for him in the first place.
Laine’s reputation precedes him, of course.
On the ice, he has forced the whole league to sit up and take notice of an otherworldly shot that brings tears to the eyes of grown men and goaltenders alike. Off the ice, Laine has also proven himself an uncommonly straight shooter, answering every question the only way he seems to know how: honestly. That, suffice to say, is a rarity in the world of pro sports.
Quick tangent: a Jets staffer told me this week the refreshing and rare frankness in Laine’s answers is at least in part a function of the fact that English is his second language, and he doesn’t yet have enough command of the language to, well, answer reporters’ questions without actually answering them.
He’ll learn. They all do.
In the meantime, the media all want a piece of Laine: the local beat guys covering other teams see a compelling game-day feature; the magazine guys all see a quirky and interesting long read; and the national guys just want to get to know Laine and get in on the ground floor of a gift to sports journalism that many have already concluded will keep giving for decades to come.
And then there’s the Finnish media. While the contraction of the media landscape in Canada has become a worrying and ever-worsening phenomenon, it is apparently somehow still the golden age of journalism in Finland these days, judging by the seemingly never-ending stream of reporters the country has sent over here this fall to interview Laine.
Just when you think you’ve surely seen the last of the Finns, another crew shows up looking for Laine. This week, it was a bunch from the Finnish national broadcaster who flew into Winnipeg and descended on the Jets dressing room Tuesday morning to corner the biggest sports story in Helsinki right now.
Laine didn’t disappoint, standing in for the better part of a half-hour in his native language and then scoring a goal later that night in a 4-0 Jets win over the Chicago Blackhawks, thereby making sure his countrymen had some good B-roll to go with their interview.
It’s all catnip to the Finns, who cannot get enough of the Jets rookie and insist that as good an interview as Laine is in English, he’s actually even better in his native tongue.
“He’s very funny. He has this really dark humour,” explained Finnish reporter Kimmo Porttila. “And unless you know the meanings and hidden meanings of these words in Finnish, it doesn’t translate to English.
“The stuff he says in Finnish is very funny. But if you translate it to English, even I don’t get it.”
Sooner or later — always later — the Laine media scrum wraps up, at which point — like clockwork — the visiting reporters look around the Jets dressing room, and you can almost see the light bulb go on: ‘Holy! That’s the leading scorer in the NHL sitting over there. I should probably talk to him, too.”
And with that, it’s rinse and repeat, as the scrum migrates over to Scheifele’s stall.
It’s an interesting subplot: while Scheifele is five years older than Laine and playing in his fourth full season in the NHL, all the media attention this year is actually newer to him than it is to Laine, who’s been the centre of attention, especially in Europe, for a couple of years now.
Scheifele has embraced it all as an opportunity to build his brand outside the Perimeter Highway.
“It’s a chance for me,” he said this week, “to get my name out there.”
The difference in media styles between Laine and Scheifele couldn’t be more striking. Laine is all Donald Trump, speaking off the top of his head and not worrying a whole lot about the consequences, while Scheifele is Hillary Clinton, a master practitioner of the art of saying a lot while revealing very little.
Scheifele is a guy who spends his summers grinding out reps at Gary Roberts’ fitness academy — and he seems to be taking the same approach this season to all those repetitive interviews, dispensing with them like just another set of crunches.
True story: the Jets told me Scheifele had requests to do six national media interviews over the phone Monday. He did them all, and I asked Scheifele Tuesday if that was a nuisance, coming as it did in the midst of what’s already an impossible Jets schedule this month.
“Not really,” Scheifele replied. “It only took a half-hour.”
Now, I’m not sure what the recipients of those assembly-line interviews got out of the experience, but man, you’ve got to admire the ruthless efficiency of that.
But it does raise an interesting question: does there come a point this season where all this media attention becomes a problem and the Jets have to step in as an organization and start actually saying no?
It hasn’t happened yet. To this point, the Jets have stayed out of it, believing there’s a lot more upside to the entire franchise from this new-found media attention than any downside that comes with the time commitment it requires of a couple of players.
And that’s an important point in all this: one of the biggest challenges the Jets have faced in their return to the NHL is in making a small city in a small media market with a ridiculous winter an attractive place to play that top NHL players will come to regard as a destination.
When Artemi Panarin went looking for a place to play a couple of years ago, he picked Chicago because of its winning tradition. Last summer, free agent Milan Lucic chose Edmonton for the chance to play with Connor McDavid.
The Jets are hoping the message Laine and Scheifele are sending to players across the NHL right now is the same one they’re sending to the media:
Come for the Laine, stay for the Scheifele.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
Updated on Friday, November 18, 2016 8:04 PM CST: adds crop to photo