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This article was published 3/3/2017 (1258 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
No more questions about his childhood: how a scrawny kid from a small town in southern Ontario went from playing on outdoor rinks to excelling on the NHL’s biggest stages.
No more talk about his rise from apparent bust to undeniable boom, and transition from relative unknown to household name.
For the 23-year-old Winnipeg Jets centre, hockey has always been more than just a game; it’s true love. With the Jets on the brink of missing the playoffs again, and Scheifele, the team’s leading scorer, mired in a four-game slump, it was hard to blame him for not wanting to overshare with a curious reporter.
"Sorry," he says, as our interview ends. "It probably would have been better if I was doing better and the team was doing better."
I wouldn’t realize it then, but that brief exchange would be as good a view as any into Scheifele’s world; while apologizing for not being himself, he couldn’t have been more himself.
Scheifele seems to be hard-wired to want the best, to be the best. Now, consciously or not, he had been calculating ways for my story to be better. And, by extension, how he could be better.
It has been well documented that Scheifele is a hockey nerd — his words, even if he hates how often they’re used now — but the term does little to illuminate what’s been a lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of greatness.
As a child, Scheifele worked tirelessly to outdo his older siblings, treating every activity as though some sort of imaginary world championship was on the line. That inner fire only intensified as a teenager, where a hatred for losing transformed into a deep desire for improvement. Now, as an adult, that passion has taken the form of searching out new and innovative ways — a change in diet, a new workout plan, the creation of an all-star support group — to gain whatever extra edge he can.
"It’s all about investing in yourself," Scheifele explains. "Whatever can make you better, whatever can give you the best chance to be successful, that’s what’s always on my mind."
Though Scheifele pictures big things for himself, he’s no dreamer. If anything, he’s a realist. Because nothing has ever been handed to him, he knows that he’ll have to earn everything he gets.
Last summer, Jets management rewarded Scheifele’s commitment to the game by giving him the same in return — signing the 6-3, 207-pound centreman to the richest contract in team history – an eight-year deal worth US$49 million.
Three-quarters into the first year of the deal, the returns have exceeded expectations, though, to be sure, neither side is surprised by what’s transpired.
"He’s an impact player," is how Jets captain Blake Wheeler puts it. "He’s made strides every year and it’s exciting to watch."
Now in his fourth season in the NHL, Scheifele heads into Friday night's game leading the Jets with 65 points in 61 games and is in the thick of the NHL's scoring race; nose-to-nose with generational players such as Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Patrick Kane. He has already surpassed his point total from last season, in which he finished with 61 points in 71 games. He needs just four more goals to reach 30 for the first time in his career.
Not long ago, Mike Babcock, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and one of the main architects behind Canada’s gold-medal runs at the last two Olympics, called Scheifele "one of the best centres in the league."
"You can never be satisfied with just being good," says Scheifele. "You always have to push to be great and that’s an everyday thing."
When he returns to his hometown of Kitchener, Ont., those closest to him are not fazed by his celebrity, nor are they surprised by how far he’s come.
To them, he is simply Mark. The kid who always gave everything he had to everything he ever did and who stood out on every team he played on. The kid who couldn’t stand to lose, even at something as minor as a race up the stairs (and when he did, stomped off in anger, but only after throwing a serious hissy-fit).
"I was always the worst loser," he admits. "Anytime I lost it was a big ordeal... I just couldn’t stand for losing."
The family has lost count of the number of tennis rackets and golf clubs he has destroyed during tantrums over the years. Off limits, though, were his hockey sticks, too expensive to end up as shrapnel. (When they saw him break a stick on the ice, Scheifele's parents — like most middle-class hockey moms and dads — had their fingers crossed, desperately hoping it was within the 30-day warranty period.)
Because Scheifele was the baby of the family and had such a short fuse, he was also an easy target. When his brother and sister battled him in sports, his size and age difference was rarely taken into consideration. Scheifele was too competitive to coddle, too intense not to want to push down. No matter how banged-up and bruised he’d get, he always got back up.
"We always thought Mark was going to be a fighter because he was such a spitfire and so competitive. He took everything very personally," says Scheifele’s sister Janelle, 29, chuckling at her desk in Toronto, where she works for a non-profit organization.
"I also remember thinking if anyone was going to make it somewhere in sports, it was going to be Mark."
As the oldest, Janelle was the designated teacher. Whenever it was time for her to learn something new — a layup in basketball, how to throw a baseball — Mark was eager to learn, too. It was Kyle, Mark's two-years-older brother, who did most of the button-pushing.
Because of their closeness in age, they shared a lot of the same friends. Like any brothers who spend a lot time together, spontaneous fights were regular occurrences. As the youngest Scheifele got older, and the games more intense, his anger after losing fuelled his drive for improvement.
"He just had another gear to him," Kyle says from his Kitchener home. "If he was losing, he was either going to rage or work that much harder to try and win."
All of the pressure to succeed was internal; Scheifele’s parents were as supportive as they come. When Scheifele started to play sports at the age of four, and it became impossible to manage the hectic sports schedule of three kids, Mary-Lou left her nursing job for a decade to reduce the chaos. Brad never criticized a bad game. When driving back from rinks or fields, the Scheifeles sang. All the way home.
In fact, there were only two rules in the Scheifele household when it came to sports: play more than one; and have fun. (A third, rarely invoked rule, was that if you wanted to quit a team, you had to call the coach yourself.)
Because there were no limits to how often or how many sports he could play, Scheifele played them all — soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, track and field and, of course, hockey. While his siblings would often lose interest over time, he played competitively right through to the early years of high school.
"You wanted them to get as much exposure as they could and to get away from playing just one particular sport," Brad says. "We only wanted our kids to enjoy themselves. But for some reason Mark always had an inward desire to compete. He was just really intense."
Having only heard good things about a 16-year-old named Mark Scheifele — mainly that he’d been holding his own in a league against men — he travelled to Kitchener to see it first-hand.
"Right away I saw he had hockey instincts," the former Winnipeg Jets captain says. "Sometimes, when you watch players, you start thinking, "Why is he going here when he should be there? With Mark, everywhere I thought he should be going, he was going. I knew there was a lot to work with."
Earlier that year, Scheifele was picked in the seventh round of the 2009 Ontario Hockey League draft, but was sent home by the Saginaw Spirit shortly after training camp. Playing Junior B hockey with the Kitchener Dutchmen, he finished the season with 18 goals and 55 points in 51 games and was named the league’s rookie of the year.
Hawerchuk played 16 seasons in the NHL over his Hall of Fame career. Selected by the Jets with the first overall pick in 1981, he played nine years in Winnipeg. Now, he was a rookie again, only this time as the new head coach of the Barrie Colts.
Tasked with restocking a Colts team in the midst of a building year — Barrie had finished the OHL season in first place, but got swept in the finals by the Windsor Spitfires — Hawerchuk hoped Scheifele could be part of that rejuvenation. But he needed to be sure of what he was getting. So he approached Todd Hoffman, who coached Scheifele at the minor midget level. When he took a job as an assistant with the Dutchmen, the following year he insisted Scheifele join him.
Over the years, Hoffman had become a trusted friend of the Scheifele family. When Mark started to get some attention from scouts, Hoffman was there to provide direction. He set them up with an agent and introduced them to some of his hockey contacts.
It was all new for Scheifele and his parents, but Hoffman had already gone through a similar process with his son Mike, now a forward with the Ottawa Senators.
Hawerchuk wanted to know whether Hoffman believed Scheifele was suited for the next level — Junior A — and where he might fit in a young Colts lineup.
"So I gave him my honest opinion: that he’ll come in as probably a bottom-six player," Hoffman says. "But by Christmas-time, he’ll be a top-six player for you, no questions asked."
Hoffman was confident in his assessment because he had witnessed a similar transition take place behind the Dutchmen bench. In a matter of weeks, Scheifele went from being "who's that guy?" to centring the top line.
"And he did it by being the first guy to arrive at the rink and the last one to leave. He was always looking for extra ice, always doing the little bit extra off the ice," says Hoffman. "That’s why he is where he is today. He’s just that type of guy that wants to be the best and he’ll do whatever it takes to get there."
The Colts acquired Scheifele’s rights from Saginaw a few days later. Hawerchuk arranged a meeting with Scheifele, who had already committed to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., to try to convince him to join the Colts. Hawerchuk offered the one thing he knew Scheifele couldn’t resist: an opportunity.
"He said, 'I can’t promise you ice time, I can’t promise you power play, I can't promise you anything,'" Scheifele recalls. "'But if you come in, you put in the work and you’re willing to learn, you’ll be given all of that.' That’s the biggest thing that got me."
He remembers the blisters on his wife’s feet from wearing the kind of high-heel shoes that look much better than they feel. He remembers the pain he felt in his side after ditching the cane doctors were adamant he use during rehab from hip surgery months before.
Most of all, though, he remembers the excitement, the joy and the shock his family felt when Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff stepped up to the microphone at the 2011 NHL draft at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
"The Winnipeg Jets are proud to select from the Barrie Colts, Mark Scheifele!"
"When it happened, it just felt so surreal," Brad recalls. "I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing. We all were."
It was the seventh overall pick, and the Scheifeles weren't alone in experiencing that surreal moment. It was also the franchise's first pick after relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta barely a month earlier.
Thousands of emotional fans celebrated the event in the seats at the MTS Centre, where the event was broadcast live on the scoreboard screens; untold thousands more watched elsewhere or listened on the radio. It didn’t matter that many of them had no idea who he was a few minutes before. The Jets were back for real and "Scheifele" was a household name.
More critical, however, were the analysts and scouts, many of whom felt the Jets had blundered with their first-round selection. Scheifele was a skinny 18-year-old centre, a baby-faced kid fresh off his rookie season with a Colts team that finished last in the OHL. He performed well in Barrie, finishing with 75 points in 66 games, and had climbed considerably in the draft rankings throughout the year. But even then, he was viewed more as a mid- to late-first round pick in St. Paul.
But that was just outside noise to Cheveldayoff. Inside the meeting rooms at the MTS Centre, the new, then-rookie GM and his staff believed they had found a hidden gem, one packed with potential who possessed a high degree of character, unlike most of the prospects they had seen and interviewed.
"There was a very genuine humbleness to him," Cheveldayoff says. "There’s still a very genuine aspect of Mark that makes him the person and the player that he is. If you have met his family and you have met his friends, you understand what, where and why he comes from that. He loves the game, loves to play it and is willing to do the work."
Cheveldayoff heard the stories from the year before — stories about Scheifele’s tireless work ethic and his drive to be the best. Stories such as those Mackenzie Braid relates from the rookie season with the Colts he and Scheifele shared as roommates.
"He was always, always working on his game: extra shots after practice, or in the gym," says Braid, now a defenceman with the Brampton Beast of the ECHL. "At home, he would be watching hockey 24/7... knowing every player in the NHL’s stats, knowing everything.
"He had a fun side, but he was just really intense."
Hawerchuk insists he played no role in convincing the Jets to take Scheifele, but his impact was obvious. In his first year in Barrie, Hawerchuk admits he was hard on the kid at times, pushing him to limits he never knew he had. He also instilled a level of maturity that kept Scheifele focused and impressed the Jets every time they met.
"The biggest thing he ever taught me was you can never be satisfied with just being good; you always have to push to be great," says Scheifele. "If you’re having a rough game, turn that bad game into a good game. If you’re having a good game, turn that good game into a great game. If you’re having a great game, then push to be even better. That’s something that has stuck with me and it probably will for the rest of my career."
Although Scheifele seemed to check off every box, that didn’t mean the Jets didn’t have concerns. Cheveldayoff was fully aware of the pressure his team was under to make the correct pick. It’s why he gives full credit to the scouting team, particularly the efforts of Marcel Comeau and Mark Hillier, each of whom stuck out their neck for Scheifele, knowing he might not be the most popular pick to others.
Cheveldayoff also understood that the lanky forward who, at 175 pounds still needed time to grow into his body, might need time to develop. Knowing it could take years before he was a full-time NHLer, Cheveldayoff made sure he had the support of co-owner Mark Chipman.
"I said, if we’re picking this player here, the chances are — and it’s not 100 per cent because he could come to camp and blow us away —but chances are we’re going to have to send him back to junior and are you OK with that?" he says, adding Chipman trusted their judgment and, therefore, was an easy sell.
"Everyone wants it quick, everyone wants it now," he says. "There’s a tendency (to think) that if they don’t play at 18 then something must not be right."
Roberts was a fitness freak who was now as famous for working with the game’s top athletes as he was during his 21 seasons in the NHL.
They were the perfect match.
"A really humble, respectful guy," Roberts says. "I remember the conversation was really about his strength, with some work on his skating."
That had been the one knock on Scheifele: could be become strong enough for the rigours of the NHL? Sure, he had dominated in Barrie, including leading the Colts from the basement to the OHL final in his three seasons there (Scheifele was knocked out of Game 7 with a concussion). That didn’t mean he was ready for the big time.
Scheifele was determined as any player his age. But with Roberts, he would be required to take it to a whole other level.
"'It’s a commitment from the moment you wake up to the moment you lay down,'" Roberts remembers telling him. "I said, 'If you want to be the best, there’s so much more to it that working out and playing hockey.'"
Before he put Scheifele through DNA tests to come up with a specialized diet, and before he stressed the importance of recovery through yoga sessions and massage, and before he analyzed his sleep patterns to ensure he was at optimal levels each morning, Roberts asked him to do one simple thing: come in 15 minutes early every day and watch.
So Scheifele did, and what he would see changed his view on the game forever. There was Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos displaying a level of commitment Scheifele had never seen before. Like Scheifele, Stamkos hated to lose and he showed it. He huffed when someone beat him on a run, he hated when he saw someone push harder than him in the gym.
"That really helped him and from then on, he’s been 24/7," says Roberts. "It’s the lifestyle Mark Scheifele has created for himself that’s given him his success."
Scheifele was now transformed into an obsessive gym-rat, working six days a week with a small group that included Stamkos and Edmonton Oilers superstar captain Connor McDavid. Together, they pushed each other. Together, they strived to be the best.
"They do everything they can, every part of the day, to be the best players they can be," says Roberts.
Never satisfied, Scheifele is constantly studying, tweaking and challenging his game.
In 2015, he hired NHL Hall of Famer Adam Oates as his personal skills coach. Scheifele says the two talk every day, sometimes twice a day.
Their relationship has created a nightly post-game ritual: After every game, Scheifele leaves the rink with video clips already downloaded to his computer. He goes through them, shift by shift.
If he's too tired, he focuses more on specific plays — good and bad — and analyzes them.
The next morning, he calls Oates and together they go through a similar process. Or they go over clips from other players around the league. It’s a never-ending routine, but one Scheifele wouldn’t change
"You realize after a certain amount of years you develop a team that’s there to help you be the best," No. 55 says. "And it’s still a work in progress."
Scheifele has become the player the Jets believed he would be when Cheveldayoff announced his name in St. Paul. They’re also banking that the lessons he has learned and the success he has been able to achieve will influence others in a room he’s already start to lead.
"Seeing what he’s been able to do just shows that if you believe and you work hard enough you’re game is going to continue to grow," says rookie Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. "He’s proof that if you believe in yourself, if you do the right things and you work hard, you can take your game to the next level."
One of the final questions I asked Scheifele was how he pictured his role with the Jets and what he felt he could teach the others around him.
"Every year I feel I’ve evolved as a player and as a person. I’m just going to continue with that, I’m going to continue to be the person that I am," he said. "I don’t think I was given an A (he and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien are alternate captains) to be the person that I could be, I was given an A for the person that I am. That’s the way I’m going to continue to be.
"Hopefully what I show all the younger guys is that it didn’t just come, that it didn’t just come overnight. That I’ve had to work each and every day to get to this point and will continue to work each and every day to get better."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Friday, March 3, 2017 at 1:27 PM CST: Updates image, fixes typo.
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