WINNIPEG - Nik Antropov lay sprawled out on the deck, bare arms and legs soaking up the impossibly warm day as the river gently lapped at his boat.
Just another 30-degree October day in Winnipeg, right?
“Now it’s like Atlanta,” the Winnipeg Jets forward said, barely opening his eyes before returning to his state of bliss.
It’s Wednesday on the shores of the Red River, the hot south breeze belying the shades of autumn along the banks.
Antropov and the rest of the Jets have gathered at the Winnipeg Rowing Club in St. Boniface, although it must have felt like they were back in their old southern U.S. haunt instead of the coldest big city on the planet.
But there will be no ice on this day. The highly anticipated NHL season opener against the Montreal Canadiens may be just four days away, but the Jets aren’t going near a puck.
Instead, it’s row, row, row their boats not-so-gently down the stream, in a day designed to produce some off-ice chemistry in a group still finding its legs in a new home.
This exercise was head coach Claude Noel’s idea, and while everybody in the NHL does team-building activities, learning how to row is believed to be a first.
“It’s tough to find original things and not do the same things over and over,” captain Andrew Ladd said, recalling a trip to an army base when he was with Carolina. “But this was definitely something I don’t think anyone has ever done.”
Leave it to Noel to spurn the usual for something a little more cerebral.
“I figured the first time I’d be in a boat in Winnipeg would be fishing,” defenceman Mark Stuart said. “Or out on a lake, ice-fishing.”
There was certainly a method to Noel’s madness.
As finely tuned as these athletes are, it was comical to see them wobbling as they first got into the four boats, about seven players in each, rowing in all kinds of directions except the right one.
The lead comic was none other than the coach, who showed up wearing a T-shirt that read: Beatings will continue until morale improves.
“Wave at the tourists,” Noel yelled as a tour boat carrying media types cruised by.
“We’ve got it figured out. The secrets are right here,” Noel said, fingers aimed at his head after a pre-race practice outing in a boat led by Jets owner Mark Chipman.
Alas, brass played second fiddle to brawn, as the boat led by Stuart ruled the day.
Asked for the key to the win, Stuart pointed to the man they call “Beefcake.”
“Our motor in the middle — Big Buff,” Stuart said. “He’s just all power.”
Yes, Dustin Byfuglien and Co. looked right at home in their boat (hold the one-liners, please), while Noel knew where the blame sat in his.
“Bad leader,” the coach said.
But a good idea.
“It was a great exercise,” Noel said. “There are so many lessons to learn. I’m just hoping our team becomes a better team because of it. I think we will.”
Never one to let a potential lesson go unlearned, Noel planned to question his players to find out what lessons they picked up along Winnipeg’s major waterway.
“It was tough,” Ladd said. “You watch it on TV and it definitely looks a lot easier than it was out there. Everyone’s gotta be balanced and rowing at the same time.
“It’s nice to get away from the rink and see guys in a different setting, a little more relaxed. It’s all just about getting to know each other and working together.”
Stuart recalled a similar, rope-climbing expedition when he was with Boston.
“It’s important. It goes a long way to bringing a team together,” Stuart said. “Obviously, we need the practice time, but days away from the rink are sometimes just as important or more important.
“You wouldn’t think so, but you can relate so much of this to what we’re doing, just as far as teamwork. I mean, that boat doesn’t go unless everyone’s working together. Off the start in the second race we almost tipped over because we were kind of out of whack. But once we got our rhythm we were fine.”
Beginning Sunday, as this city dips its oar into the NHL waters for the first time in 15 years, being out of whack at the start could cost two points in the standings, not just some good-natured ribbing from teammates.
So if the bond between players strengthened, even a bit, Wednesday’s outing will have been worth it.
At the very least, they enjoyed one last blast of a seemingly endless Winnipeg summer.
Because as Antropov said, come December this won’t be Atlanta anymore.