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Opinion

Forget Vegas flu — NHL teams sick of playing here

Vegas Golden Knights Erik Haula (56) and Winnipeg Jets' Andrew Copp (9) collide during third period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, February 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods</p>

Vegas Golden Knights Erik Haula (56) and Winnipeg Jets' Andrew Copp (9) collide during third period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, February 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/2/2018 (529 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In an effort to explain the inexplicable — how a bunch of hockey castoffs came to be the most successful first-year expansion team in North American pro sports history — there has been much discussion recently about a phenomenon known as ‘Vegas Flu.’

Basically, the idea is that NHL teams travelling to Las Vegas to play the Western Conference-leading Golden Knights are getting caught up in the glitz, glamour and temptations of the Vegas Strip and forgetting that they are, after all, supposed to be on a business trip.

The result of this uniquely Vegas affliction? A Golden Knights team with the best home record in the NHL, an eye-popping 19-3-2 in their inaugural season at T-Mobile Arena.

Asked about the phenomenon during all-star weekend, Washington Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin got excited about how exciting it is to play in Vegas.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/2/2018 (529 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In an effort to explain the inexplicable — how a bunch of hockey castoffs came to be the most successful first-year expansion team in North American pro sports history — there has been much discussion recently about a phenomenon known as ‘Vegas Flu.’

Basically, the idea is that NHL teams travelling to Las Vegas to play the Western Conference-leading Golden Knights are getting caught up in the glitz, glamour and temptations of the Vegas Strip and forgetting that they are, after all, supposed to be on a business trip.

The result of this uniquely Vegas affliction? A Golden Knights team with the best home record in the NHL, an eye-popping 19-3-2 in their inaugural season at T-Mobile Arena.

Asked about the phenomenon during all-star weekend, Washington Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin got excited about how exciting it is to play in Vegas.

"I think it’s the atmosphere over there," Ovechkin said. "It’s not a regular rink. It’s kind of like an unbelievable show, you get excited. It’s like you in a nightclub. It’s like a party. Everybody dancing over there. It’s like, ‘Holy Jesus, are we in a hockey game or is this like a pool party out there?’"

So if Vegas flu is the reason the Golden Knights have the best home record in the NHL, is a variation known as ‘Winnipeg flu’ the reason the Jets have the second-best winning percentage at home at 18-3-2?

If so, what would a Winnipeg flu that didn’t include patients lining the hallways of Health Sciences Centre even look like?

Let’s face it: Portage and Main is not exactly the Vegas Strip and this city’s light show begins two weeks before Christmas and ends two days afterward.

Looking for a rush in Winnipeg? There’s a couple of tacky casinos but if you really want to gamble, your best bet is to leave a couple of loonies visible in your change tray and then park your car downtown.

We are not overwhelming visiting hockey teams with our delightful regional theatre scene is what I’m saying.

And yet, a 3-2 overtime loss to the visiting Knights at Bell MTS Place Thursday night was just the second loss at home for the Jets in the last 16 games — and even that took the divine intervention of a referee who did not judge the attempted decapitation of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck to constitute goaltender interference on Vegas’ go-ahead goal in the second period.

To be fair, it wasn’t goaltender interference so much as it was aggravated assault. But the final result was the same — a rare loss for the Jets at home, made all the more rare by the fact it came in a game in which the Jets had scored first.

The Jets have a 23-1-6 record this season when scoring first and that formula — getting the early lead at home — has been an almost unbeatable recipe for Winnipeg this season.

It’s a recipe that Sidney Crosby mused last weekend has had more to do with the Jets’ success at home this season than anything the visitors are up to off the ice when they visit Winnipeg.

"They feed off their crowd," the Pittsburgh Penguins captain said of the Jets during all-star weekend.

"They get off to good starts and feed off their energy. They’ve always had great crowds."

Still, you have to wonder whether there is something to the idea that we are baffling visiting teams with boredom here in Winnipeg in the same way Vegas is titillating visiting teams with, ummm, twinkle?

The San Jose Sharks seemed to be suggesting as much a couple weeks ago when a couple players went off on Twitter about how much they hate playing in Winnipeg.

As the Sharks described it, Winnipeg is a frozen hellscape with lousy internet. That’s outrageous, of course — our internet is actually pretty good.

"Winnipeg. Dark. Cold. Hotel is a little questionable," offered Sharks defenceman Justin Braun. "Internet doesn’t work ever. I don’t know if they have wifi there yet."

"(I)t’s so dark and cold there. I don’t like it there," was how Sharks forward Tomas Hertl summed it up.

You know what — it is dark and cold in Winnipeg. And unless you’re heavily — and permanently — medicated, there’s probably times you don’t much like it here either.

But Winnipeg is also a place not without its charm and at the moment, the most charming thing about it has been the way the local hockey team is handing visitors their asses on a nightly basis.

Disappointment looked especially good this week on the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday and we’ll just have to wonder how things might have turned out differently for the Jets against Vegas Thursday night if the small matter of breaking a stick over Hellebuyck’s head wasn’t declared legal for one night only.

Still, you’ve got to give the Knights credit. The strength of this Vegas team — just like the Jets — has been their play at home this season. But they’ve been no slouches either on the road, where the Knights now have a 15-9-2 record.

Put it all together and the stats crunchers over at fivethirtyeight.com have christened the Knights the greatest expansion team of all time in terms of win percentage by a first-year team.

But if Vegas is the most surprising story in hockey this season, the Jets are surely the second-most surprising.

Only a committed optimist — emphasis on the committed — expected these Jets to have a playoff spot all but locked down at the start of February, and yet here we are.

They have used the same formula as Vegas to get here: a dominating home record coupled with better-than-average play on the road (12-10-7).

Hockey is a simple game when you’re playing better than .500 on the road and averaging one loss at home a month.

Is it sustainable? It has been so far.

But look — I’ve lived here as long as you have. This place is a marathon, not a sprint.

We’re a bit dark, a bit bland and a lot cold. But it works for us, more or less.

And if there really is a Winnipeg flu afflicting visiting NHL teams, our weakness might also be our greatest strength.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

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.

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History

Updated on Friday, February 2, 2018 at 11:47 AM CST: Adds photo

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