December 30, 2011
Crazy 'Peg fans fuel Jets
By Rob Longley, QMI Agency
WINNIPEG - At first, it barely felt like home at all.
There were accommodations to settle, families to move and a new coaching staff to grow accustomed to.
There was the shock to the system of being uprooted from indifferent Atlanta to a hockey hotbed where their every move would be under the microscope.
And the early results of the upheaval weren’t exactly inspiring as the Winnipeg Jets dropped five of their first six games, awkward October steps in their new residence.
But once the players became truly grounded, as their new fans stuck by them, they are quickly becoming one of the big stories of this NHL season.
“We were all over the map,” coach Claude Noel said following the Jets’ morning practice here on Friday. “Whether it was the move or the city, it reflected in our game.
“I would say we are way mentally tougher (now) than we were at the beginning.”
The fans are a big part of it, of course, as you need only watch a Jets game on TV or talk to a player or fan who has been in the MTS Centre on game night to understand the impact. The players knew they were coming into a city with a hockey pedigree, but they had no idea how profound that influence would be, first on their lives and later on their game.
“It’s everything,” Jets centre Bryan Little said on Friday when asked to explain the home-ice edge. “The fans are very knowledgeable. They know what’s going on in the game. The know a good call, they know a bad call. They’re so involved in the game in every aspect, it’s fun for the players.”
Fun and fruitful, it turns out.
On Saturday night, the Jets will end a 13 of 15 games run at home, a stretch that has seen them go 9-4-1 so far. The travel schedule is far from easy for a midwest based team playing a Southeast Division schedule, but the Jets have made the best of the break this month. So far, they’ve piled up 19 points in December which has allowed them to climb into a tie for seventh with the Leafs as each have 41 points and identical 18-14-5 records.
“It was big for us, the month of December,” Little said. “We needed to take advantage of (the home games) and we did a great job of harnessing that energy and using it the right way.”
The fuel provided by the fans may have an even more profound effect as the playoff races heat up. Remember last season when this group was the Thrashers, a team that slid out of contention in the second half? Presumably the good fans of the ‘Peg will reduce the likelihood of that happening this time.
It certainly hasn’t taken long for the buzz to circulate around the league about the atmosphere here on game night. Fans have been known to relentlessly dog opposition superstars, goaltenders and of course the game officials.
“It’s known league-wide how crazy the fans are, especially on New Year’s night,” Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said. “We’re looking forward to it and obviously Winnipeg has a great home record so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
A first-look at an empty MTC Centre on Friday revealed a building without a bad seat and one built to circulate noise when filled to capacity. Jets forward Kyle Wellwood has been a Maple Leaf and a Canuck in his journeyman career but says this rink and the folks who populate it, top them all.
“I think it’s the best,” Wellwood said. “Certainly Toronto and Vancouver are great and Montreal is probably the loudest building, but Winnipeg fans are just happy about the game and happy to have a team.
“There’s such a positive energy in the building. In other places, there’s a lull in the play and you sense the fans start getting negative on the team. That just doesn’t happen here.”
WINNIPEG — It may be their first year back in the NHL, but the Jets are keeping a time-honoured hockey tradition in the city.
Word is Jets brass lobbied the NHL schedule makers to ensure that they had a home game on New Year’s Eve. Not only did the league deliver, but they offered a bonus with the Original Six Maple Leafs making their first visit here in a decade and a half.
The chance to ring out the old year with a pro hockey game dates back to the original incarnation of the Jets franchise, one which continued with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.
“It’s a New Year’s Eve game which is a big event here in Winnipeg,” Jets coach Claude Noel said. “I know with my association with the (Moose) that it was always a big night here.
“What more can you say to the fans who are usually in a frenzy to begin with? I can’t imagine what that’s going to be like.”