At the risk of getting overly sappy and sentimental here — although I’d suggest we all could use a bit more of that in our lives these days — I can’t help but be struck by what’s happening with the Winnipeg Jets lately.
We can debate how solid the on-ice product is until we’re blue in the face, going back and forth about whether this is truly a Stanley Cup contender or even a playoff team. About player usage and lineup decisions and systems. Fill your boots on those fronts, folks. That’s kind of what we do around here.
But there’s no disputing this is a tight-knit group that has become united in loss and grief. One I’d suggest has not only made them more relatable to the public, but also easy to root for, for reasons that have nothing to do with hockey.
Josh Morrissey’s father, Tom, lost his battle with brain cancer just a few weeks before training camp began. Kyle Connor’s dad, Joe, passed away around the same time. Associate coach Jamie Kompon’s father, Melvin, died suddenly on New Year’s Day. His wife, Tina, is in a fight against breast cancer. Nikolaj Ehlers lost his grandfather earlier this month.
If being part of a team is like having a second family, this clan is leaning on each other more than ever these days.
The list doesn’t end there. The heart and soul of the club, Blake Wheeler, suffered a serious injury that knocked him out of the lineup indefinitely. The face and voice of the organization, Paul Maurice, stunned everyone with his departure. More than 20 players, coaches and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, including several who’ve had to be left behind to quarantine in another country. The team’s routine and schedule have been thrown into chaos, spending nearly a month straight playing exclusively on the road.
In so many ways, the Jets are a microcosm of society in general these days. Lots of hurting and suffering and unexpected change they have no control over. We’ve seen no shortage of touching examples of kindness lately, moments that remind us these are human beings in addition to highly paid athletes.
Members of the organization have taken to wearing clothing bearing a pink ribbon and "Tina" written on it, in support of the Kompons. Jamie has taken two separate leaves this season — the first at the start to be by his wife’s side as she underwent treatment in California, and most recently last week during a three-game road trip through Vegas, Phoenix and Denver following the loss of his father. He was back behind the bench Thursday night in Detroit, no doubt with a heavy heart, and there’s no question the players are rallying around him right now.
Just as they have around Ehlers, who had tears in his eyes after he scored an empty-net goal in Arizona last week. It came just a few hours after he said goodbye to his beloved ‘bedstefar’, who was in hospice care thousands of miles away in Denmark. Teammate Mark Scheifele was seen on camera consoling him.
Ehlers was also taken in over Christmas by veteran forward Paul Stastny, his wife, Haley, and their two young children, who didn’t want him to be alone for the holidays. They even called Ehlers’ mother to find out what his favourite traditional dishes were, then carefully prepared them.
"For him, at his age, when you’re that young and still a kid, you want to be with your family," Stastny said of the gesture. "I think Christmas is always a special time. Especially with him being European, me being European, I think we both grew up with the same values, same principles. It was an easy invite. I love Christmas and I knew he would."
Someone get Hallmark on the line — seems like we’ve got a hit movie in the making here. Ehlers, who is truly one of the good guys in the game, was floored.
"That’s what the holidays are all about. So, for the Stastny family to do that for me, I mean, there’s no words for that," he said.
The guy known as ‘Fly’ to his teammates only had one word — "Wow!" — after Morrissey and his fiancée, Margot, delivered a homemade lasagna earlier this week as he was stuck in quarantine, the result of a positive COVID-19 test on Monday. He shared the gesture on his social media.
“Thankfully it was Margot’s. She’s a much better cook than I am. If I made it, COVID might not have been Nikky’s only worry.” – Josh Morrissey
"It definitely wasn’t mine, that’s for sure," Morrissey said when I asked whose recipe was behind the good deed. "Thankfully it was Margot’s. She’s a much better cook than I am. If I made it, COVID might not have been Nikky’s only worry."
It helps to have some genuinely good humans around, and Winnipeg has several of those on the roster in addition to Ehlers, Stastny and Morrissey. Nate Schmidt is a breath of fresh air, a guy who can bring levity to any situation. Did you see him in a scrum against the Red Wings, simultaneously throwing hands while also appearing to crack everyone up, including the linesmen trying to break up the mini-melee? This is the same player who told me on Black Friday in St. Paul, Minn., he hoped he wouldn’t be "leaking gravy" all over the ice following a Thanksgiving feast in his home state a day earlier.
Evgeny Svechnikov is up there as well, the young Russian going viral earlier this season after he was mic’d up during a game and showed off a dynamic personality.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. This is your captain speaking. Saturday night, in sunny Winnipeg. Let’s do this baby. Buckle up for this beautiful flight. Make sure you get nice ice-cold beer and a bag of popcorn because we’re going to have some good times baby," Svechnikov said as he skated laps during the pre-game warmup.
Look, none of this matters one iota when it comes to how the team ultimately performs. But that’s the point. As much as sports is about wins and losses — it can be a cold-blooded, results-oriented business after all — that’s never been what’s drawn me to the games and athletes, either as a fan in my younger years and now as a journalist.
It’s the stories of overcoming adversity, of tragedy and triumph, which really move the needle. And there’s been no shortage of them on the Jets beat this season.
Given the current state of our world, I’ll take humanity over hockey any day of the week.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.