It was a rare show of raw emotion from a professional athlete. But veteran Winnipeg Jets forward Nate Thompson choked up Friday when asked to identify what he’s missed the most during this most unusual hockey season.
His six-year-old son, Teague.
"I haven’t been able to see him because of the border, the quarantine. He’s in school and, yeah, it’s been tough," Thompson, 36, said while fighting back tears following the morning skate at Bell MTS Place.
The boy lives in Minnesota with his mother, and Thompson had previously touted the proximity to Winnipeg as one of the main reasons he signed here as a free agent after splitting last season between Montreal and Philadelphia. But the global pandemic had other plans, and the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border to non-essential traffic couple with the tight restrictions NHL players must follow made an in-season visit impossible.
"I know I’m not the only guy. Those are kind of things that I think people don’t realize that some guys are going through, not seeing family members. And for me not seeing my son, I haven’t seen him since before the season started. So, that’s, uh, yeah, that’s a tough one," said Thompson.
"I don’t really have much else to say about it, except that it’s hard. But it is what it is, and we have to do a job. Luckily technology, we FaceTime. So I FaceTime quite a bit."
There’s no question it’s been a tough four-month grind, especially for players in Canada who continue to be under lockdown compared to their mostly-vaccinated colleagues in the 24 markets south of the border, all of which welcomed fans back into the rink during the regular-season.
"The hardest part is the isolation. It’s all hockey, all the time. You don’t have friends coming in, you don’t have family coming in. Not only for ourselves, but think about the guys who have wives and kids at home. They’re not allowed to do anything, really. They can do the necessary things and the essential things, but they really can’t do much out of their homes, so it’s been a tough year for everyone," defenceman Neal Pionk said Friday.
Some perspective is important, which Jets coach Paul Maurice was quick to offer.
"There’s a whole bunch of people out there going through way more than we are. So we don’t have, because we’re working, any of those concerns about paying bills. All those things. People have lost their jobs. There’s real struggles out there. But there’s also the exact same thing that everybody else is going through that we’re going through," said Maurice.
"Maybe the simplest way is the interaction with the fans. You come to a game, it’s not like you’re walking around the stands shaking everybody’s hands saying hello. But there’s a real interaction there, a sense of community, a sense of togetherness that’s completely gone. And these guys, it’s basically just them. You get home, and if you’ve got a significant other at home, they’re not hanging out with the significant others of all the other players. They’re isolated."
Maurice said that has brought a whole new wave of challenges "from a mental health point of view" that they haven’t previously dealt with.
"It’s just not as much fun, right. And it hasn’t been two weeks, man. It was March 11 last year when this thing started. So, uncle. We all feel it. It’s been a challenge, for sure," he said.
The playoffs are traditionally the most exciting time of the year, and the Jets will look to create some of that buzz next week despite not being able to play the Edmonton Oilers in front of a traditional "Whiteout." Whether it lasts as little as two weeks, or as long as two months, remains to be seen. But the Jets say they’d happily spend as much time as necessary in their own little bubble if it brings them closer to their ultimate goal.
"This is the best time of the season. This is what you work out for, this is what you train for. What you dream about as a kid is playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So I don’t think that changes the mentality of any of us," said Thompson.
"You don’t get a lot of opportunities to play in the playoffs. I’ve said this to younger guys and older guys said this to me when I was a younger guy. When you do get in the playoffs you have to make the most of it and take advantage of the opportunity. Because it’s hard to make the playoffs. You have to just enjoy the moment," said Thompson.
He ended his media session on a lighter note, taking a scribe up on his question as to who will be growing the gnarliest playoff-beard.
"Second-best, behind me, I’d probably give it to Frenchie, to Mathieu Perreault. He’s got a pretty good beard. I feel like he shaves his beard and then tomorrow it’ll be full again. We have very similar beards that way, so he’ll probably be second-best," said Thompson.
HANDING OUT THE HARDWARE: The Jets announced their end-of-season award winners prior to Friday night’s finale against Toronto. Pionk won the Dan Snyder Memorial Award, given annually to the player who embodies perseverance, dedication and hard work without reward or recognition. Connor Hellebuyck took home the Three Stars Award for leading the club in that honour. And captain Blake Wheeler received the Community Service Award for his volunteer efforts.
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