Unless something catastrophic happened during the morning skate, everyone knew the news of the day was going to be about a player who hasn't played a single game for the Winnipeg Jets this season — Dustin Byfuglien.
Prior to Tuesday night's game at Bell MTS Place against the Nashville Predators, players were made available to the media for the first time since TSN's Frank Seravalli broke the news on Monday that Byfuglien and the Jets are working toward a mutual contract termination.
One by one, Andrew Copp, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Josh Morrissey (captain Blake Wheeler left immediately after practice) shared their favourite memories of their now likely former teammate and brushed off the idea of Byfuglien's absence ever being a distraction.
Head coach Paul Maurice, who will usually give the quote you need and then some, was more reserved in his comments.
Posted: 03/02/2020 7:00 PM
It wasn't supposed to end this way. There were to be more thunderous bodychecks. More dazzling end-to-end rushes. More rag-dolling two opponents at the same time. More penalty box sing-a-longs. And maybe, just maybe, a Stanley Cup celebration.
Instead, the Dustin Byfuglien era in Winnipeg is about to come to an unceremonious end as the big Jets defenceman with the even bigger personality goes out with a whimper, and not a bang.
"I would wait until something happens until I write too many stories about what might happen. I was surprised when he walked in the day (on the eve of training camp) and said he wasn't playing hockey, so you learn not to be surprised about anything else that happens after that, and that's kind of where I'm at with it. We'll see. We'll see what happens."
When asked what he learned about Byfuglien over the years, Maurice added, "Call it the epitaph, the obit, whatever it is, if he's not a Winnipeg Jet at some point in next 10 years, we'll do all that when the time comes."
While the Byfuglien saga has been a talking point since training camp, Copp said that hasn't been the case inside the locker room.
"Honestly, the only times that I would talk about it or think about it is when you guys come in and ask questions," Copp said.
"Totally out of sight, out of mind. I didn't put too much thought into what would happen."
But for a can't-miss player like Byfuglien, how is it possible to move on without him so quickly?
"The same way Brandon Tanev is out of sight, out of mind now. Same way Jacob Trouba is out of sight, out of mind now. Same way Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers (are out of sight, out of mind now)," Copp said of former teammates.
"We lost seven or eight guys from last year's team. It's just this is a totally new team and he hasn't been here. The group we have now is completely different than the group that he was a part of. Not to say we have ill feelings at all, we respect his decision. He was a great player and all that but at the same time, you're emotional, you're confused by it maybe in the beginning, but you're just offering support if he's not mentally into playing. That's kind of it. We don't want to force him to be here, but at the same time, this is a totally new group than it has been the last two years, three years, so that's probably why."
Morrissey said coming into the season, he'd have a hard time believing that he wouldn't get to play alongside Byfuglien again. He credited Byfuglien's veteran presence for helping him when he was a young player in the league and talked about what stood out to him during their time together.
"For me, probably my first five games or so in the league. You're kind of nervous and maybe you're taking shorter shifts than I would now," Morrissey recalled.
"I remember skating up the ice one time and we had been on, I don't know, maybe only like 30 seconds, and I'm going to change and we're going into the o-zone offensively, and Buff yelled at me like 'Hey! Stay out here!' And then on top of that, I think the first time we got scored on, obviously, you never like to get scored on, he just said 'Hey, welcome to the NHL. Now you've been scored on, you've made it. So, there's going to be more (times) you get scored on.' We had a very cool relationship and we still do. I'll definitely cherish those memories for sure of playing with him."
Laine shared a similar sentiment.
"As an 18-year-old, he's joking around with you and kind of doing pranks and stuff. Even though you're 18 years old and he doesn't know you and I don't know him, he still does those things. It feels like I've (known) him for many years. He was a great guy for all the guys in the room, especially for the young guys. It was fun playing with him," Laine said.
Scheifele admitted the Byfuglien story has hovered over the team's head, but they haven't dwelled on the situation. It wasn't in their control so they focused on doing their jobs. The last chapter of Byfuglien's time with the Jets may have been less than ideal for all parties involved, but it doesn't sound like the sour ending has tarnished his legacy, at least in Scheifele's eyes.
"Those memories and experiences will never go away. He was obviously an unbelievable player and did a lot for this team. Like I said before, you just gotta wish him the best in his life. You just wish happiness and healthiness for him and his family and that's about it," Scheifele said.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
Updated on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 at 2:40 PM CST: Photo added.