WINNIPEG - Arron Asham got to be first.
The Portage la Prairie product was the first Manitoban to return to his province to play a regular-season NHL game against the reborn Winnipeg Jets.
The Pittsburgh Penguins forward said he was going to be battling the nerves early on in Monday’s contest, which had more to do with playing in front of family and friends than moving up to the second and third lines due to injuries that are plaguing his team’s lineup these days.
“I was a huge Jets fan,” Asham said after Monday’s morning skate. “I was crushed when they left, but I couldn’t be happier for the city now that they’ve got the team back.
“I grew up wanting to be a Winnipeg Jet, and it’s going to be nice to actually get a chance to play against them.”
Asham, who was expecting to have 50 friends and family members at MTS Centre on Monday night, returned to his home province after making national headlines last week for celebrating his knockout punch of Washington Capitals forward Jay Beagle with WWE wrestler CM Punk’s “go to sleep” move. That consisted of doing baseball’s safe sign and then putting his hands next to his cheek and closing his eyes as if to sleep.
The fact Beagle had been knocked cold and was lying face down in his own blood made Asham’s celebration appear to be in poor taste.
Asham didn’t disagree afterward, calling his actions “classless” and “bush league.” That earned him plenty of support throughout the NHL.
“It wasn’t one of these apologies where I was forced into it. It was sincere,” Asham said. “It was total bush league on my part. I had a good conversation with (NHL disciplinarian Brendan) Shanahan (Sunday) about it, and I guaranteed him that it’s not going to happen again.
“I’m still going to fight, but just none of that ridiculousness that happened after.”
Asham really hopes he’s not remembered for his three-second lapse in judgment.
“It’s not the kind of guy I am,” he said. “Emotions got the best of me. I can only apologize so much. The first two nights after it happened I was definitely having a tough time sleeping.”
If anything, Monday’s return home gave him a chance to get a little more moral support from friends and family. “I got a lot of nice phone calls after the incident, showing me support, so I just want to thank them all,” he said.
He showed his thanks by somehow scoring 50 tickets in an arena that is sold out for the next five years. Turns out he had a man on the inside, which never hurts.
“I have a buddy who works in the ticket office here with the Jets, so he helped me out quite a bit,” Asham said. “Give him a plug. Mitch Brennan. Top notch.”
Those Portage guys. They always stick together.