It had been 308 days since they last stepped foot inside their hockey home. And while much has changed between then and now, the Winnipeg Jets were just happy to have a bit of normalcy creep back into their routine Monday.
The final stages of training camp have moved to Bell MTS Place ahead of Thursday’s season-opener against the Calgary Flames. It’s safe to say the first of 28 games at the downtown rink this winter will look and sound and feel a lot different than that 4-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes on March 9, when COVID-19 was just starting to take hold in North America.
Players and coaches didn’t have to look beyond the big blue tarps covering the lower bowl seats for a vivid reminder, not to mention the string of health and safety protocols they had to follow just to get into the building itself.
"We had a scrimmage (Monday) and I’m standing behind the bench and part way through it, it just hits you again. We’re really happy to be back, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t anywhere near as much fun when there’s no fans. It changes the dynamic completely with no fans in the building," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
He was quick to point out he wasn’t complaining, but rather wishing for the speedy return of what makes playing in this town so special.
"I’m glad we’re back playing. I’m glad the league worked so hard to figure out a way that we can play without (the fans). The job isn’t nearly as much fun because that energy is what makes the NHL fun. It’s a full building and we have that here, and it’s the excitement and you can feel it. In Winnipeg as much as any other city, it’s just such an awesome building, the crowd’s wired up, they’re excited and that drives the game for everybody," said Maurice.
Jets centre Mark Scheifele certainly savoured every moment Monday, staying long after practice had ended to work on one-timers with Andrew Copp and Josh Morrissey. As he spoke with media after, he got emotional discussing the tribute to Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, who died of stomach cancer last year, in the form of his number painted at centre ice.
"Obviously what happened in the summer with Dale is something that’s very tough for me. But that’s something where you know he’s watching over us, he’s watching down on me. He’ll be taking care of me from heaven," said Scheifele, who was coached in junior by Hawerchuk prior to being drafted by Winnipeg in 2011.
"All you can do is try to work your hardest every single day on that ice and know that you’re doing everything to honour him, his name and his family."
Much is typically made of home-ice advantage in sports, and that’s certainly been true here in Winnipeg. From clever chants to playoff Whiteouts, the Jets have one of the loudest and most loyal home bases. So what does that mean for the coming season, where the only tactical advantage will be getting the last change for the purposes of line matching?
"You kind of see it in the NFL, in the playoffs, the home-field advantage isn’t that different with not a lot of fans in the building screaming and yelling. I think you have to create that home-ice advantage by being comfortable in your building, being comfortable in your own dressing room and in your own home and own bed," said Scheifele.
"I think that’s going to be the determining factor, who rests the most. There’s going to be a lot of games in very few days, and when we’re home you have to use that time to rest and recuperate and be ready for the next stretch of games."
Defenceman Nathan Beaulieu said going to the bubble in Edmonton last summer was one thing. But playing home games in a much more familiar setting will take some additional getting used to.
"Winnipeg is known for having the best fans in the league, just how loud this building gets and how they rally around come playoff time. We know our fan base is going to be watching closely, not as close as we would like, but it was definitely nice to get out on the game rink (Monday) and get a feel for it," said Beaulieu.
"It’s not gonna be the same. That was one of the weirdest things going into the bubble, not having fans there. It’s definitely gonna be different but this is a passionate city so I think we’ll feel them from the outside in."
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.