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This article was published 22/10/2016 (1387 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Blake Wheeler craves normalcy, but he accepts the uniqueness of being a member of the Winnipeg Jets this week.
On the heels on Wednesday's thrill-filled comeback win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets have been preparing themselves for Sunday's Heritage Classic outdoor game against the Edmonton Oilers at Investors Group Field.
The game, as these NHL's outdoor events often do, has taken on a life of its own.
"It’s been a circus since the Toronto game," said Wheeler following Saturday afternoon's outdoor practice. "We haven’t really had a whole lot of time as a team to try to focus ourselves. But I think once we come into the rink (Sunday), it’s going to be pretty clear what the objective is. The circumstances and the big stage aside, it is just another game and we need to be prepared to play a certain way if we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win (Sunday)."
The weather co-operated for Saturday's alumni game and Sunday's forecast looks promising. Environment Canada advised the overnight rain was to end by early morning but clouds will remain for the rest of the day. The afternoon high is expected to be 8 C.
The Jets took time Saturday to acquaint themselves with the idiosyncracies of playing outside. Getting a firm grasp of the ice conditions and the sun's glare were high on the to-do list.
"Obviously the eye black," said centre Mark Scheifele when asked what measures he took for practice. "A tinted visor, depending on whether it's sunny or not for the glare... The ice conditions aren't going to be amazing but both teams are playing on the same ice. The biggest part is you gotta keep it simple. You can't try to do too much on a big stage, you gotta keep it simple and play a regular game."
The quality of the ice surprised some. Sophomore winger Nikolaj Ehlers has played in two outdoor games as a junior with HC Biel in Switzerland and he was pleasantly surprised Saturday.
"It was good. I didn't think it was gonna be that good, to be honest," said Ehlers, who noticed an improvement in his vision with a tinted visor. "The puck was bouncing over your sticks sometimes and that's just the way it is."
Rookie phenom Patrik Laine said he didn't notice any different on the playing surface.
"I feel slow on every ice," said the 18-year-old, who broke out with a superb three-goal effort against the Maple Leafs Wednesday. "I don't notice the difference. I think it's going to be just fine."
Jets head coach Paul Maurice was asked if he had any advice for Laine, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
"I hope he takes it all in," said Maurice. "This is something this young man, to get to where he is, has a dealt with a version of it. He didn't sneak into the two hole. It's going to be part of his life."
Clearly, the Jets are content to let Laine find his own way through the distractions of breaking into the NHL.
"We're more interested in making sure he's part of the team, one of the team and we're not working with him every day," said Maurice. "We'd like to leave him alone and let him experience it. That's a kid who's gotta jump in the deep end and swim. That's part of being the number two overall and part of being as gifted as he is."
Another rookie, blue-liner Josh Morrissey, was sporting a gash on his left cheek and seems to been adjusting seemlessly to the NHL grind.
"Against Toronto, got hit behind the net and my visor came down and clipped me," said Morrissey. "Seven (stitches). It’s the best league in the world, it’s physical, it’s fast and things happen in a hurry. It was one of those things. I look like a hockey player in these old-time games for sure.
"I’m pretty fortunate to be playing in NHL game No. 6 for me in an outdoor game. That’s pretty cool. It’s definitely exciting to meet some of the alumni this weekend, and there’s obviously great history between the two teams. It’s a great venue and it’s just really exciting."
Morrissey's defence partner, Dustin Byfuglien, is clearly relishing the outdoor experience.
"It’s fun," said Byfuglien. "Any time you get to go skate on an outdoor rink being an NHLer, it’s fun. The day was perfect."
Byfuglien's approach to Sunday's game was a common theme amongst players and coaches.
"Not trying to be real fancy," he said. "Everything’s just got to be simple. The puck’s just got to keep moving forward, and shooting pucks as much as you can. There’s different glares that you get, but for the most part hopefully the puck stays on your stick and you’ve just got to keep moving it."
The Jets enter the game with a 2-2-0 record. The Oilers, meanwhile, are hot out of the gate with four wins in five games.
"(They have) a lot of firepower, they skate really well, and like a lot of teams if you give them opportunities they’re going to make you pay for it. We need to be cognizant of the way they skate, the way they move the puck, and try to make them play on our terms," said Wheeler. "Try to replicate that third period from the other night three times (and) we should have a good shot."
NOTES -- Maurice was unable to give an injury update on the status of centre Bryan Little, who is listed as week-to-week with a lower body suffered in Winnipeg's regular-season opener. "I'll give you a better answer in a week," said Maurice.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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