By Ryan Dixon in Winnipeg
By Ryan Dixon in Winnipeg
'Student of the Game' doesn’t cut it. Mark Scheifele is pro hockey’s biggest hockey fan.

Mark Scheifele has a message for the Philadelphia Flyers staff members working out in the Winnipeg Jets’ weight room: “Hey, this is our gym,” he says in a wink-wink way that probably makes the visitors feel more, not less, welcome.

It’s a league-mandated off-day for the Jets in advance of a mid-November tilt with Philly and Scheifele has just landed at Bell MTS Place from the Fairmont Winnipeg, where he attended a gala lunch in honour of his former coach and newly minted member of the Jets Hall of Fame, Dale Hawerchuk. After reciting some lines for a promotion taped in the press centre, Scheifele headed off to the players’ lounge and the shortest route there led him past the sweaty Flyers coaches. He looks sharp enough for a game day, wearing a crisp suit and sporting a haircut — buzzed on the side, long on top — his roommate Andrew Copp will later suggest is a little trendier than the 24-year-old usually opts for. Upon reaching his destination, Scheifele drapes his blue jacket over a bluer couch and sinks in for a conversation about, among other things, the ever-growing legend of his lust for hockey.

The chances are pretty good that, when his duties are fulfilled, Scheifele will retire to his Osborne Village condo and eventually watch an assortment of NHL action with Copp. Even if the equipment stays in the bag, there really is no such thing as a day without the game for the stud centre.

That was certainly the case in major junior, where Scheifele played for the Hawerchuk-coached Barrie Colts. Leaning forward with one hand in the other and his elbows resting on his thighs, Scheifele fondly recalls billeting with the Fraser family on Ladywood Way. The residence featured a backyard rink with chillers under the ice and a resurfacing machine that’s immortalized by the background on Scheifele’s Twitter profile. As far as living arrangements go, it was like an aspiring comedian crashing on the set of Seinfeld.

Barrie teams stocked with future NHLers like Aaron Ekblad and Tanner Pearson often held makeshift morning skates on game days at the Fraser rink. When there was no contest on the schedule, as many as 12 Colts would melt their evenings and a significant portion of their nights away on that ice — some of them skating to the Frasers’ neighbourhood atop a frozen Lake Simcoe. “We were literally playing hockey from after dinner to 11, 12 o’clock at night,” says Scheifele. “[They were] some of the best nights of my life.”

Shinny to all hours in his junior days made for "some of the best nights of my life," Scheifele says. Now, the Jets centre gets to play the game he loves for more than $6 million a season.

A mural-worthy setting like that could spur hyperbole in anybody, but the enthusiasm is authentic and endearing coming from Scheifele. If there’s something everyone agrees on when it comes to one of hockey’s more recently anointed mega-stars, it’s that the young man just can’t get enough of the game — even compared to other obsessive types. In that sense, Scheifele is perfectly placed, manning the top line for a team that’s gone from perpetual pretender to Western Conference contender in a city where hockey bites deeper than the cold. While his work ethic is unique, it’s not the only thing that sets Scheifele apart. You’ll never hear him curse, thanks to the values instilled by a family he’s very close to. That said, Scheifele needles, jaws and jokes with the best of them. He was always a quality teammate, but precisely the hockey player he would become wasn’t blatantly obvious at earlier stages of his development. If you were in the business of betting on people in general, however, the lanky kid with unwavering drive would have always been a top prospect.

Nothing illustrates how formidable a player’s talent is quite like those situations where everyone, even the people eating popcorn, know what’s coming, but the world-class athletes on the ice are still powerless to stop it. A day after Scheifele kidded the Flyers coaches, he was legitimately trying to ruin their night by bringing his team even late in a tight contest.

With Philadelphia up 2-1, roughly a minute to play in the third period and the Jets’ net empty, Scheifele and his running mate, Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler, went to work. Holding the puck about a dozen feet above the goal line along the right-wing wall, Wheeler looked to make a short pass to Scheifele at the faceoff circle, but thought better of it when Flyer Wayne Simmonds emerged on the scene. After a Patrik Laine point shot caromed to the right side 10 seconds later, Scheifele pounced on the puck and quickly backhanded it to Wheeler along the half-wall. As the latter scooted beneath the goal line, Scheifele pivoted back to the dot and cocked his stick. To create a little more room, No. 55 drifted toward the net Wheeler was about to slip behind. Just prior to being boxed out by the cage, Wheeler slid a feed to Scheifele, who whipped it past goalie Brian Elliott.

On the elevator down to the bowels of the rink following a 3-2 shootout win for Winnipeg, Jets assistant coach Todd Woodcroft — who watches from high above in the press box — stressed how often Scheifele works on the play that knotted the contest: “Every. Single. Day.” In the room, Wheeler talked about the division of labour with his middle man. “My job isn’t as hard as his,” he said. “I’ve just got to put it on his tape and he picks those corners.”

The effort that goes into refining that skill — to say nothing of the finer details Scheifele focuses on with skills coach Adam Oates — is something Jets bench boss Paul Maurice has marveled at for some time now. “He’s an unusual cat,” says Maurice. “He was a pro when he rolled into town. What Mark’s been able to do is take every aspect that might make him a good hockey player and dive headfirst into all of it. There isn’t a thing he doesn’t look at.

“The best part is he enjoys it. It doesn’t seem like it’s a job.”

Scheifele's eager willingness to dive into the details of the game meant he showed up in Winnipeg ready to go from Day 1. "He was a pro when he rolled into town," says Maurice.

Growing up the youngest of three siblings in Kitchener, Ont., Scheifele found extreme pleasure in sports. Hockey may be a singular focus now, but football was really the only thing he stayed away from as a youth. His dad, Brad, was a gridiron warrior in high school and Brad’s brother, Greg, played four years at the University of Guelph and may have taken a crack at the CFL had it been a more financially rewarding career in the early 1970s. Knowing the wear and tear the sport exacts, Brad steered Mark toward other activities and the youngster — often with brother Kyle, two years his senior — happily latched on. And anything Mark saw on TV — be it basketball, volleyball, lacrosse — he was emulating in the street or yard a short time later.

Often, he didn’t even need a ball to get him going. “In the summertime, he would live in his rollerblades,” says Mark’s mom, Mary Lou. “Him and his brother, they’d go out and play, he’d come in, but he’d leave his rollerblades on and put a piece of cardboard under the table to eat dinner, so he could go back out.”

Sometimes Kyle talked Mark into playing video games for an indoor change of pace. That usually lasted about 20 minutes before Scheifele’s all-consuming desire to get moving kicked in. His outlets even included less mainstream sports like badminton, as he and his high school doubles partner at Grand River Collegiate Institute formed a mean duo. “Whatever it was, he was intense,” says Mary Lou.

“My job isn’t as hard as his,” Wheeler, left, says of his alternate captain. “I’ve just got to put it on his tape and he picks those corners.”

While Mark plainly had the skills to match his determination, nobody was dreaming of the high life in the Scheifele household. First of all, they were too busy just trying to get all three children — Janelle, who’s six years older than Mark, was also immersed in sports — to their various commitments. Then there was the fact Mark, though tall as a young teen, was no broader than a broom handle. Mary Lou recalls a pool party for a lacrosse team where, upon seeing Mark without a jersey and shoulder pads, a few parents realized for the first time the feistiest kid on the roster was also perhaps the slightest. “Kyle had shoulders, whereas Mark never did,” says Brad.

Scheifele was a seventh-round pick of the Saginaw Spirit in the 2009 OHL draft, but was cut by the club after training camp. He played Jr. B that 2009–10 season for his hometown Kitchener Dutchmen and pretty soon the NCAA schools were calling about the youngster who registered 55 points in 51 games as a 16-year-old after tearing up the midget AAA ranks the season prior. Mary Lou remembers being with Kyle at a basketball game when Mark showed up glowing after being approached by a Division III college. Brad, who for 30 years co-owned a travel business that operated motor coach tours around North America, recalls stopping for lunch on a trip in Erie, Penn., and asking somebody who worked at the restaurant if they knew anything about nearby Mercyhurst University, one of the programs interested in his son. It was around that time Todd Hoffman, Mark’s Jr. B coach and the father of Ottawa Senators winger Mike Hoffman, suggested it was time the Scheifele family get some representation. “We were seeing area codes come up on our [call display] we never even knew existed,” says Brad.

For a while, Scheifele seemed destined to play NCAA hockey, leaving him more time to focus on bulking up. Ultimately, though, he opted for the OHL after his rights were traded to the rebuilding Colts. As a rookie, Scheifele put up 22 goals and 75 points in 66 outings to rocket up the NHL Draft rankings. Less than a month after the announcement that NHL hockey was returning to Winnipeg, the Jets 2.0 selected Scheifele seventh overall with their first pick of the 2011 draft.

Initially, it looked like Scheifele might be one-and-done in the OHL. He played seven games with Winnipeg in the fall of 2011 on the heels of a scorching pre-season performance — four goals and eight points in five contests — but was returned to Barrie. He spent the next two years powering a high-end Colts club and starring for Canada at the 2012 and ’13 World Junior Championships. He also started watching more NHL hockey at the prompting of his coach. “‘There’s free education on TV,’” Scheifele remembers Hawerchuk telling him, noting there were all kinds of things to be gleaned from watching the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. “‘See what they do in the neutral zone; see what they do on the power play; see what they do on faceoffs.’ That’s when I really started to fall in love with the game because there was something new to learn every day.”

Whatever Scheifele was picking up, it was bad news for the opposition. “He was outrageously good,” says Ekblad, now a Florida Panthers defenceman, of his old teammate. “He was scoring on demand.”

Family is central to the centre's life and Brad and Mary Lou's influence can be felt every time Scheifele opens his swear-free mouth.

If it’s unrealistic to expect goals to order at the NHL level, somebody forgot to tell Scheifele. The six-foot-three pivot now hangs an imposing 207 pounds on that frame and monitors his nutrition and sleep with a devotion to detail that would make a surgeon smile. His off-season regimen is built around workouts with Gary Roberts and a crew that includes, among others, Steven Stamkos and Scheifele’s good buddy Connor McDavid. In his first four full NHL years, Scheifele’s best faceoff winning percentage was 44.2; he’s pushed that to nearly 50 per cent this season. He knows which way an opposing third-pair defenceman shoots and what that blueliner’s tendencies are when pressured thanks to the clips he’s fed by Jets video coach Matt Prefontaine. He also fiddles to perfect the curve on his blade, often after consulting with Oates. In a field where “student of the game” gets tossed around like a tape ball in the dressing room, Scheifele is worthy of a less watered-down label. “I know everybody works hard, but he seems to constantly evolve his game and change his game to get better as trends happen,” says Woodcroft.

All that preparation started to pay off in the back half of the 2015–16 campaign, when Scheifele really hit his stride in his third full NHL season, finishing with 38 points in his final 34 appearances. Between that breakout and the time he first cracked the Jets roster four years prior, Scheifele endured some ups and downs that seem natural for a young player in hindsight, but weren’t always easy for a high draft pick to reconcile. “I definitely relied on my family a lot,” Scheifle says of coping with some of those early scoring struggles.

“He’s got aspirations to be McDavid- and Crosby-level, and I think he’s already there.”

That’s all water under the Osborne Street Bridge now. Since the start of last season, only four players — McDavid, Crosby, Patrick Kane and Nikita Kucherov — have more points than the 110 Scheifele has put up. If NHLers were representing Canada at the Olympics in February, his seat would be reserved. “He’s got aspirations to be McDavid- and Crosby-level, and I think he’s already there,” says Ekblad.

While Scheifele in no way hides his desire to be in the tastiest part of the upper crust, he’s not about to make any grand declarations about his place in the game. He says it’s all about guys pushing each other and wanting to respond when one of them creeps ahead by a nose. Besides, when he turns on the TV or flips open his iPad on the road to watch other teams, he’s as much a fan as a rival. “It’s not like I have notes,” he says.

Copp’s viewing and eating habits are very similar to his landlord’s. If they weren’t, the arrangement likely would have failed by now. “Every night we have multiple games going,” says Copp. “It’s kind of under his control. He gives me freedom when there’s football on. We kind of compromise that way. We’ll be sitting on the couch and he’ll go over to the computer and start watching film. He’s as big of a nerd as they say, for sure.”

Scheifele's grown by leaps and bounds the past two seasons, particularly in the faceoff circle where his winning percentage has climbed to nearly 50 per cent.

Scheifele says Copp is the only guy on the Jets he could actually live with, but Scheifele’s affable personality — some would even affectionately tag him “goofy” — means he’s at the centre of a lot of socializing. It’s a bit of a family trait. When Brad and Mary Lou visit, mother and son are often left tapping their watches after games while Brad makes the rounds, having a series of conversations with people like he’s back on one of those tour busses meandering down the highway. After Copp went from frequent visitor to official resident at Scheifele’s place, he got a big hug from Brad. When Mark invited his brother and sister to the World Championship in France last spring, it wasn’t long before other players’ families and friends wanted to join Kyle and Janelle on trips to the Louvre and other Paris sights. The three siblings are very tight and Scheifele has the gift of being equally comfortable in both large and small settings. “He has that ability to have connections with every guy on the team,” says Woodcroft. “He’ll have a private joke with [defenceman] Josh Morrissey and he’ll have a private joke with Patrik Laine.”

One of the Jets’ ongoing gags is to try and make Scheifele cave on his commitment not to swear. A lot of bets with one side dictating the stakes get proposed. Scheifele, however, didn’t come this far with a clean mouth only to explode his reputation with an F-bomb. “It’s just the way I was brought up,” he says. “I grew up in a good Christian family, so there’s definitely some words that are in the no-no category. I’m still staying strong.”

Mary Lou confirms they tried to set a tasteful standard at home, though she’s well aware of the kinds of things that get said on schoolyards, to say nothing of backyard rinks stocked with rowdy teenagers and practices run by hot-tempered NHL coaches. Her son’s ability to stay true to himself through it all is not lost on her.

“I might say I’m most proud of that,” she says.

No small comment, given the options.

Photo Credits

Jonathan Pushnik/Sportsnet; Codie McLachlan/Getty Images; Jonathan Pushnik/Sportsnet; Jamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty Images; Courtesy of the Scheifele family (2); Jonathan Kozub/NHLI/Getty Images
Photo Illustration and Design by Drew Lesiuczok