TORONTO — Back before his days as a mainstay in Washington, before he became a Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh or a reliable depth piece in Minnesota, Eric Fehr was a child prodigy for the Winnipeg Jets.
At least, that’s what he told his young classmates at the time.
“I grew up a Winnipeg Jets fan and always wanted to play for the Jets. I remember even telling my friends in kindergarten that I did play for the Winnipeg Jets,” Fehr says of his early days in Manitoba. “And they all believed me.”
Born and raised in Winkler, Man., the site of this weekend’s Rogers Hometown Hockey festivities, Fehr’s young fandom overlapped with the heyday of the NHL club an hour-and-a-half drive away. The days of a 22-year-old Teemu Selanne pouring 132 points into Manitoba hockey lore — of Dale Hawerchuk, and then Phil Housley, and then Keith Tkachuk.
For young skaters around the province like Fehr — who stuck around through juniors, too, playing four seasons for the Brandon Wheat Kings — the big-league dream came wrapped in red, white and blue trimming, with that old-school Jets logo stamped front and centre.
That wasn’t really how it shook out for Fehr, though. It was Washington who brought him into the NHL — the Jets long gone by that point — and it was with Alex Ovechkin and Co. that Fehr went on to establish himself as an everyday NHLer. Then came the awkward jersey swap with his Metropolitan rivals in Pittsburgh, as he wound up claiming a championship with Sidney Crosby’s side, before brief stints with the Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks brought him to his present stop in Minnesota.
But sandwiched in between all that, tucked away slyly during his Capitals tenure, was one wild, life-altering year back in his home province — one single, tumultuous campaign that managed to both fulfill Fehr’s childhood dreams and challenge him in a way no other season in his 14-year career did.
The first inklings of that tumultuous ride came in May 2011, when it was announced that Winnipeg was getting its beloved team back, with the Atlanta Thrashers set to relocate. In June, at the NHL Entry Draft, the plot thickened, as the club made official its intention to bring back the only name that ever made sense: the “Jets.”
One month later, the excitement surrounding the team was brought right to Fehr’s doorstep when GM Kevin Cheveldayoff acquired him from the Capitals for a fourth-round draft pick and prospect Danick Paquette. Manitoba’s own was coming home.
“It was kind of surreal when I got traded there,” Fehr recalls. “It was a little bit chaotic with being at home…. But just the fact that Winnipeg got a hockey team back was huge for the community and for everybody.”
Chaotic can’t begin to describe the scene around the city, and the province for that matter, as fans from all over Manitoba got straight to figuring out how they could flock to the then-MTS Centre.
“Oh, I remember getting calls from just about everybody wanting to get tickets. It was the hottest ticket ever,” Fehr recalls. “It was tough to get into the game unless you had somebody on the inside.”
Jordan Driedger, the Recreation Programmer for Fehr’s hometown of Winkler, remembers the buzz around the province that summer.
“I was actually a student in Winnipeg when the announcement was made that the Jets were returning to Winnipeg. I was doing my fieldwork placement downtown, so I could feel it from my little cubicle,” he says.
“As the inaugural Jets season got closer, you could start to see the excitement. There were more and more Jets hats, T-shirts, jerseys.”
And the announcement of Fehr’s involvement with that grand return didn’t go unnoticed by Jets fans.
“We now had a hometown guy on our hometown team,” he says of the sentiment around town after news of the trade dropped. “Couldn’t have scripted it better.”
It was no surprise, then, that Fehr was a centrepiece of some of the club’s bigger off-season events, despite him being one of the few on the roster who hadn’t come over from Atlanta.
“I remember doing the jersey unveil, when we walked off the plane,” he says of the lavish event that consisted of him, Mark Stuart, Andrew Ladd and Nik Antropov walking off an actual military jet wearing the team’s new sweater. “That was pretty special, to be a part of the group that showed off the jersey for the first time.
“It kind of made it feel, to the fans, like it was real. And I got to be a part of that.”
Once the off-season shifted to game time, though, things went off the rails for Fehr. Shoulder surgery in October delayed his start to the season, and Fehr struggled to find his game in the wake of the long layoff. He played just 35 games in total. It wound up being the most difficult season of his career — and his least-productive — by a mile.
The Jets chose not to bring him back at the end of the year, rendering Fehr an unrestricted free agent. But as the league descended into a lockout, he was thrown a lifeline — a chance to go abroad and right the ship. He swapped out his Jets colours for the bright orange threads of Finland’s HPK Hameenlinna, the hometown club of Jets teammate Antti Miettinen.
There, far from the grind of the NHL, the big-bodied winger found his touch, potting 13 goals and 25 points through 21 games in the Finnish league. That revival granted him a one-year deal to return to the Capitals, which led to another two-year deal in Washington and, finally, four more seasons spread across several NHL locales.
But looking back, despite the tumult that came in Winnipeg, Fehr says he’s simply thankful he got the chance to be part of his home province’s hockey history.
“It’s just special because I know how important it is to the city of Winnipeg. Obviously, [I was] devastated when they lost the team the first time — everybody was working so hard to try to get the team back. And when we finally got the team back, to be a part of it in some way was really awesome,” he says. “When I end up retiring, going back to Winnipeg, it’s going to be cool to know that I played for them at one point.”
Fehr did end up getting the chance to pay homage to his roots through hockey, however, eventually bringing the Stanley Cup back to Manitoba after climbing the championship summit with the Penguins in 2016.
First came photos in Winnipeg with a local hockey camp and some friends around the city, then a limo down to Winkler with the family, where he showed off the Cup at the local mall. The turnout was hefty, as Winklerites from all around swung by to see the city’s favourite son and his prize.
The night ended with Fehr and his closest family and friends back on the farm where he grew up.
“I’ve always felt the support from Winkler,” Fehr says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m having a good year or a bad year, or where I am. The city seems to support me, which does not go unappreciated.”
“Eric is so well-known in our community, so everyone has connected with him in some way,” says Driedger, who attended outdoor viewing parties in Winkler to watch Fehr’s championship run, and was there to see the Cup when it came home. “He grew up playing hockey in Winkler, he went to school here, his parents live in a small village just outside of Winkler.
“We were proud to see one of our hometown heroes raise the Cup.”