Winnipeg hockey fans are funny.
A little cruel, perhaps. But damn funny.
Since returning to the NHL lodge they’ve cheered on their Jets like crazy and, from time to time, managed to co-ordinate some of the most pointed cheers, chants and jeers aimed at opponents.
There’s the giant cutout of an overcaffeinated John Tortorella that greets the fiery coach behind the bench anytime he shows up coaching one team or another.
Legend has it, Tortorella once even looked at it and smiled.
And there were the times Ryan Miller skated in Winnipeg in the wake of the 2010 Winter Olympics and was greeted with “Sil-ver Med-al” all night long.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Evander Kane’s turn.
Kane wanted out of Winnipeg last season and got his wish, leaving lots of bad feelings behind even though the pieces acquired for Kane and rearguard Zach Bogosian in the Feb. 11 trade by Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff - notably winger Drew Stafford and defenceman Tyler Myers - helped fuel Winnipeg's charge to the post-season.
Kane scored 30 goals one season in a Jets uniform, but eventually he didn’t see Winnipeg as the place he wanted to be around the same time the hockey club decided it needed to move on. So what does he expect when he returns to play in a Buffalo Sabres uniform on Sunday?
“It was my first time being traded, so it will be a new experience for me going back and playing against a team I used to play for. It will be interesting and, uh, entertaining,” he said with a smile.
“I’ll probably be just as entertained as everyone else. I just have to wait to see what the entertainment is going to be. But I know there’s going to be a hockey game and I’ll be participating in that.”
True enough, and one between a Jets team that expected to be much further ahead of Buffalo in the standings than it is right now.
But there could well be a cringe factor, too, depending on how upset Winnipeg fans remain from Kane’s exit, how personally these Manitobans took this episode in their beloved team’s history.
“I will be one person in the rink who doesn’t enjoy it. I just want the game to be played and move on,” said Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice. “There’s gonna be some extra energy. That’s just a fact. It’s been one of those stories that won’t go away.”
Kane doesn’t exactly get to return as a conquering hero, either. He’s acknowledged he hasn’t produced this season at the level the Sabres need for this to have been a good trade — a knee injury and a broken toe haven’t helped — and there’s the matter of sexual assault allegations hanging in the air from an alleged incident just after Christmas. No charges have been laid, and police say they are investigating.
One suspects Winnipeg fans may not view this subject as out-of-bounds. Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks was the subject of “She said no!” chants from Philadelphia Flyers fans in October while police were investigating sexual assault allegations against him, also from an incident that occurred in Buffalo.
For Evander Kane, meanwhile, one report suggests there’s already a Twitter campaign encouraging fans to wear track suits to Sunday afternoon’s game, a reference to the story that Kane was suspended by the Jets for wearing a track suit to a team function shortly before being traded.
So we’ll see. This was a player who was once this team’s franchise player, the No. 4 pick by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009 who was viewed as the biggest jewel heading to Manitoba when the Thrashers packed up and moved north in 2011.
“It’s been a nice change,” was all he wished to say regarding the move to Buffalo.
Maurice, for one, holds no bad feelings towards the left winger.
“Evander was a very coachable player,” he said. “He just wanted to have a bigger role somewhere. All the other stories and parts of this were, in my mind, really small and secondary.”
Caught in the crossfire on Sunday, meanwhile, will be Bogosian, another high pick by the Thrashers. Now 25, he’s had one injury-plagued season after another and really hasn’t yet performed as would have been hoped for the player drafted immediately after Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty, and before Alex Pietrangelo, in 2008.
It’s unlikely Bogosian will be targeted at all by fans.
“I’m not sure. Haven’t put too much thought into it,” he said. “They’re a pretty loud crowd. Whatever they come up with, I’m sure it will be fun for them. I won’t pay too much attention to it. But that’s just me speaking for myself. I don’t know how Evander feels about it. But I’m there to play a game and get the two points and get out.”
The big rearguard also asked for a move out of Winnipeg, but his request wasn’t interpreted in the same way as Kane’s.
“Things went a little stale for me there in Winnipeg. I just looked at (the trade) as a new opportunity,” he said. “I wasn’t comparing who went for who, or whatever. There were a lot of people involved.
“But it was a really cool experience to be part of that team that came back to a city that really wanted hockey. It was definitely a whirlwind, moving from Atlanta to Winnipeg. It was really two different ends of the spectrum as far as hockey markets go.”
Bogosian is once again part of a young team trying to learn to win — very much the story of his career.
“If you look at the teams I’ve played on, I’m eight years in now and still clutching and grabbing to get into the playoffs,” he said. “I’ve never played in a playoff series. It’s not really fun that way. But you want to be the player who helps your team turn that around.
“The eight years has gone by pretty quick.”
It’s just 11 months since the blockbuster trade, and while it looks good from a Winnipeg standpoint now, it will take more time for it to be properly evaluated, like all big deals. Kane and Bogosian moved east along with NCAA goalie prospect Jason Kasdorf, while Winnipeg received Myers, Stafford (who re-signed with the Jets last summer), minor league prospect Joel Armia, junior winger Brendan Lemieux (son of Claude) and a first round pick, which turned into U.S. National Team Development Program winger Jack Roslovic, who’s now playing his freshman season at Miami (Ohio).
Armia is with the Jets these days, while Lemieux was recently traded from Barrie to Windsor and was named the OHL’s player-of-the-month for December.
“Both Myers and Stafford played huge roles in getting us to the playoffs last year, scored big goals,” said Maurice. “They gave us two more weapons. They walked into our room from a tough situation and they were great and happy from Day One.”
Sunday, however, won’t be about who won or lost the trade. It will be about venting, about the relationship between a star player and a rabid hockey city, and how fans are left feeling when the star decides he’d rather play somewhere else.
It won’t be about right and wrong, or what’s fair. It could be funny, it could get mean.
But it will most definitely be loud.