Winnipeg Jets a dying breed

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:07 AM ET

It’s a club whose membership has been closed for 15 years, its ranks, like veterans from the world wars, dwindling.

A year ago it was Teppo Numminen dropping out.

This year, Keith Tkachuk scratched his name from the list.

Next year, perhaps the greatest of them all may follow, disappearing into the sunset, taking with him one more piece of history.

“I think about it all the time,” Teemu Selanne said. “Almost every day. I tell the stories to my younger teammates.”

Stories that must sound like fairy-tales to their fresh ears.

A rookie scoring 76 goals? Ridiculous.

Soon, no players will be around to tell these stories. Stories about a team on the Canadian prairie that would electrify its fans one night, drive them to despair the next — and break their hearts in the end.

Just four former Winnipeg Jets are still playing in the NHL, scattered across the continent like seeds in a southern Manitoba wind.

You’ll find them in Anaheim, where Selanne was traded during The Last Season; in Phoenix, where Shane Doan still toils with the same hard-luck franchise; in Edmonton, where goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin hangs on; and in Detroit, where Kris Draper continues to fight off Father Time.

“I was wondering who the fourth guy was,” Khabibulin said. “It’s amazing there are still four guys that are playing.”

Stationed miles apart, they share a common bond: it all started at an NHL outpost where the winters were bitter but the feelings for its team warm as the hearth in front of a crackling fire.

No, that old rink wasn’t sold out very often, despite what the revisionist historians say. But when it was, and when the games mattered, there might not have been a louder building in hockey.

“I’m so happy I started my career in a place where hockey was No. 1,” Selanne said. “You got a perspective of how important hockey can be for people in Canada. It’s minus-40 outside and there are people waiting a couple of hours to get autographs. It’s hard to explain to everybody. There’s so much passion.”

It seems the passion for that team remains, as Selanne continues to sign his name to Jets merchandise all the time.

“When I go on the road, at the hotel where hockey fans are, over half of what they ask me to sign is Winnipeg stuff,” he said. “The last couple of years, I started seeing more and more.”

Doan sees the same thing from Phoenix. The old Jets logo is as hot as ever.

“I’ve signed more Winnipeg things, jerseys and pictures and hats and T-shirts, than you can probably imagine,” the Coyotes captain said. “It’s big.”

Not long ago a member of the World Series finalist Texas Rangers, pitcher Derek Holland, told Doan he’d like to swap a Rangers jersey for an original Jets one.

“He’s a season-ticket holder in Phoenix and just wanted an original jersey of the team,” Doan explained. “He really liked the uniform. Everyone does.”

All four surviving Jets, three of whom have won Stanley Cups elsewhere, have hung onto at least some of their Winnipeg memorabilia, Selanne saying he has “almost everything.”

“It’s funny, my boys love that stuff,” the Finnish Flash said. “They’re at the age where they’re interested in my Winnipeg life.”

Same for Doan, who buys Jets gear for his kids.

Doan and Khabibulin say they still have original Jets workout shirts in their packages, unopened and perfectly preserved, like some museum relic.

“The old ‘Property of the Winnipeg Jets’ shirts,” Doan said. “I’m down to one or two of them left. They’re a big hit whenever people see them.”

Those old rags obviously still hold some meaning to these aging rink rats.

But why?

“I don’t know,” Khabibulin said. “Maybe in 20, 25 years they’ll be very cool to have, a real T-shirt from Winnipeg. They were laying around for 15 years. I don’t know if anybody will get to wear it now. It’s too precious, now.”

So are the memories.

This is where Khabibulin came of age, discovering during that final season, especially in the playoffs against Detroit, that he was good enough.

“I really felt after that season that I belonged in the NHL.”

Nobody who experienced it will soon forget that last series.

“I remember when they were announcing the starting lineup, I tried to say something to myself and I really, literally, could not hear myself,” Khabibulin recalled. “It was that loud.”

For Doan, the memory stands out more, even, than his first goal.

“The energy in that building in the playoffs was phenomenal,” he said.

Draper experienced it as a visitor — having been traded to the Red Wings two years earlier — and says he would have thought a city which cared that much would have another team by now.

“It was just a great playoff hockey atmosphere,” Draper said. “I am surprised that a team hasn’t got back there.”

Apparently, even a 16-year Red Wing who’s won four Stanley Cups still has a special place for his Jets stuff.

“I was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets, and back at my parents’ house they have that draft picture of when I put the jersey on,” Draper said. “My first game, I scored, I got in a fight. After that, my pace dropped off big-time — on goals and on fights.”

Draper laughed at the memory of a 19-year-old from Toronto trying to find his way.

He’s 39 now, while Selanne’s 40, Khabibulin, 37.

Doan, 34, is the baby of the bunch.

“Hopefully Doan is playing for a long time,” Selanne said. “Because for Draper and myself, it’s almost the end.”

It’s a dying breed, that’s for sure.

“But it’s a special breed,” Numminen, still the franchise’s all-time leader in games played, said.

The quiet Finn finished his career in Buffalo in ’09, and still lives there.

But a part of him never left Winnipeg.

“It’s a big part of NHL hockey, a big part of Canadian hockey. Everybody has that little special thing.”

That special connection to a city that really cared.

Contact Paul at paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca or 632-2788

Twitter@friesensunmedia


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