Move over, Friendly Manitoba. Make room for Minnesota Nice.
Don’t look now, but your Winnipeg Jets are slowly but surely being infiltrated by our friends to the immediate south. Of the 40 players currently at training camp, seven of them hail from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. There’s captain Blake Wheeler, the pride of Plymouth. East Grand Forks native Tucker Poolman. Forest Lake resident C.J. Suess. Duluth’s Derek Forbort and Dominic Toninato. And Hermantown hockey heroes Neal Pionk and Dylan Samberg.
"What’s in the water? When it comes to hockey, the water freezes," Duluth Mayor Emily Larson told me Friday with a hearty laugh. I’d called her up, wanting to know the recipe for success in her community of approximately 86,000, along with the suburb of Hermantown (population 10,000), that was responsible for 10 per cent of Winnipeg’s current roster.
"We’re great outdoor people. When it gets below zero that’s when we hit our stride. That’s our secret sauce," she said.
It’s no secret Minnesota dubs itself the "State of Hockey," and they routinely lead the U.S. in the number of youth players and the number of adults who graduate to the pro ranks. But it struck me that having four players, including three who are all potential candidates to crack Winnipeg’s top six on the blue line, all hail from a pair of neighbouring communities that are only separated by a few miles was noteworthy.
It certainly is to Pionk, Forbort, Samberg and Toninato, who have trained together for years. And you won’t be surprised to hear there’s still the remnants of a long-standing, good-natured territorial feud dating back to their minor hockey days, even though they’re now all under the same NHL roof.
"With Toninato and Derek Forbort both coming from Duluth there, and Neal and I from Hermantown, obviously growing up there’s a good rivalry between us. It’s exciting to see some other familiar faces around here," said Samberg. The 21-year-old was drafted by the Jets in the second round in the 2017 NHL draft, while Pionk, 25, was acquired in a 2019 trade with the New York Rangers. Toninato, 26, and Forbort, 28, signed as free agents in the off-season.
"When I saw the first signings, I was pretty pumped. I got a couple of texts from friends that didn’t sign here — ‘What the heck are you telling these guys?’ But no, it’s great. I think the Duluth area in general has done a great job of producing not only pro players but college players and junior players as well," said Pionk.
"It’s got a culture of hockey. I grew up playing outside and playing on lakes and getting as much ice as possible and I know those guys did, too, so we all come from similar backgrounds in that sense."
Pionk has been paired with Forbort throughout training camp, and they look set to begin the year as a tandem.
"Yeah. I’m a little sick of him," Forbort joked Friday. "We are good buddies off the ice and the last couple summers we have been together a lot, just kind of doing little daytime things. We were never on the same team but we were just kind of bouncing things off each other back then. It’s pretty cool to be able to play with him right now and we’ve had a lot of chemistry playing together over the summer, so it’s been good."
Samberg is likely on the outside looking in when it comes to the Jets and the opening-night roster, but his time will soon arrive. He will likely start the year with the Manitoba Moose, but should quickly work his way into the equation, perhaps even in Forbort’s spot with Pionk.
Toninato, who is expected to compete for a depth forward position either on the roster or taxi squad, has been deemed "unfit to practise" during the first week of camp. His status isn’t clear, including whether this is related to an injury or COVID-19.
"It’s a huge sense of pride. When you have those guys work their way through high school hockey and then college hockey, it boosts our program. Our younger kids see those guys make it to the NHL, and it really helps drive our program," Marty Olson, president of the Hermantown Amateur Hockey Association, told me Friday.
And that means plenty of Winnipeg jerseys in his neck of the woods, despite the fact it’s Minnesota Wild territory.
"The younger kids look up to them so much. They’re huge Jets fans and huge fans of those players. They have been such great role models," he said.
Larson said the local love for Winnipeg speaks to another great trait of Minnesotans, besides their ability to churn out quality hockey players seemingly better than anyone.
"The only thing Minnesotans love more than cheering for their home team is cheering for people who are making good elsewhere. I’m excited to see these names and that they’re thriving up in Winnipeg," she said.
As for the other three Minnesotans, Wheeler is the heart and soul of the Jets, while Poolman is looking to take another big step forward, starting on the top pairing with Josh Morrissey. Suess is also a taxi squad/recall candidate.
Having spent plenty of time in the Jets dressing room over the years, following games and practices, I can tell you players take their roots seriously when it comes to bragging rights. The Michigan contingent, with Connor Hellebuyck, Andrew Copp and Kyle Connor, have had the run of the place for a while.
There’s also six players in camp from Ontario, led by Mark Scheifele, and a Finnish stable of five that includes Patrik Laine, Kristian Vesalainen, Sami Niku, Joona Luoto and Ville Heinola.
But none of them can compete with the ever-expanding Minnesota contingent, which would be happy if the roads towards pro hockey success keep pointing north to Winnipeg.
"Duluth has always been a really big hockey community and I just think that recently it has really just kind of taken off, as far as producing (NCAA Division 1) and NHL players. It’s been pretty cool to have a big group of us all around the same age that we can go back and skate together in the summer and work out together, it’s been really cool to see. Hopefully Duluth keeps pumping out players like this," said Forbort.
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.