Mark Scheifele taps his feet, shuffles in his chair and looks at his imaginary wristwatch.
The Winnipeg Jets‘ star centre goes stir-crazy like this whenever he’s not skating. Three days without hockey, and he’s bored.
Ten days after his team’s final game, the 30-goal scorer began preparing for 2017-18, with the help of off-ice trainer Gary Roberts and personal coach Adam Oates.
Scheifele, 24, is off to defend Canadian gold at the world championships next month. Before jetting to Paris, he’ll take in a Raptors playoff game and promote Play On!, the world’s largest road hockey tournament, which is set to hit Toronto on May 6.
We sat down with the Kitchener, Ont., native to talk about his early ball-hockey dreams, the Jets’ goaltending, his Stanley Cup pick, the Olympics he won’t be going to, and the mystical powers of Adam Oates.
A little insight into the mind of “one of the best centres in the league” as he tries to become the best player in the world.
SPORTSNET.CA: You’re the ambassador of the Play On! tournament. What role did street hockey play in your development as a kid?
MARK SCHEIFELE: That’s what you do for fun. When you’re younger, you’re not practising every day like in junior. You’re not on the ice a lot, so if you want more hockey in your life, you hone your skill on the street. My brother and I used to play a lot on Rollerblades. We’d be Steve Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom.
You’d be Yzerman.
Well, we’d fight for Yzerman. We’d just do passing plays for hours. We’d come in, eat dinner in our Rollerblades and go back out. We’d put cardboard down so we didn’t dirty the floor. Me and my brother loved playing road hockey. I’m sure if we were together more, we’d probably still play.
So if you’re Yzerman scoring the Cup-winning goal on the streets of Kitchener, who are you scoring it against?
Toronto, probably. We weren’t Maple Leafs fans, but they were closest to us. Toronto-Detroit, two Original Six teams. That was the battle.
“They take the brunt of the blame because they’re goalies and that’s what they signed up for and they’re crazy like that.”
Why do you wear 55?
I wore it in minor hockey for seven years. My brother also wore 55 — that’s why I started. When I joined the Jets I wanted 19 for Steve Yzerman, but that was taken by Jim Slater. Fifty-five was unique, and me and my brother wore it before.
Why are you going to the world championships in May? You already won gold there last year.
Even if you have one gold medal… for one thing, I don’t think I could just train all summer. I need to be playing games. Obviously, I’d like to be playing right now. I look at it as, those guys are getting better than you by playing playoff hockey, so you have to get better. Getting the chance to wear the maple leaf, you can’t take that for granted.
“The Olympics is a big honour, and for us to turn that honour down is junky.”
You’ve always been a good soldier for the national team. Olympic coach Mike Babcock said some flattering things about you. There’s a strong chance you’d make Team Canada in 2018. So you get the news there’s no Olympic participation. What runs through your mind?
Rattled, for sure. I was definitely disappointed. I don’t know what went on in negotiations, but I dreamed of playing in the Olympics one day. It was something I’ve been striving for, so I’m definitely very disappointed.
Do you regret not having participation written into the CBA, then?
I wasn’t part of it then. I was 19 going into my 20-year-old year, so I wasn’t in on [negotiations]. Obviously, if I was, I might’ve raised my voice.
What’s been the message from PA chief Donald Fehr to the players regarding the Olympics?
You know what? I haven’t heard anything. I hear the news, but I’m kind of a guy that doesn’t get involved too much. We trust in our PA and trust in our team representatives, [like the Jets’] Adam Lowry, so what I’ve heard is in the media already. I look at it as it’s misrepresenting our sport. I think [Jonathan] Toews said that. The Olympics is a big honour, and for us to turn that honour down is junky.
Personal hopes for China, then?
Obviously. The Olympics is big for the NHL and for growing the game. We gotta push for it.
“Imagine people rallying around not even a country but just good hockey players.”
You mentioned your interest in the Maple Leafs. What other story of these playoffs grabs you?
I’m watching a lot of Edmonton.
Because you’re close with Connor.
Close with Connor, and I like to see him do well because he’s such a good kid. He’s one of those guys you want to root for because he’s so humble and the best player in the world. Well, arguably. Him and Crosby. I like to follow buddies. I like to see good guys do well. I also have a good buddy in Chris Tierney; we work out in the summer and still talk.
He’s the one who got stuck in the privates by Leon Draisaitl.
He’s fine now, but we were giving him a little bit of ribbing. Not a play he expected.
How bad is that, in terms of hockey code? Is it the dirtiest thing you can do?
Realistically, I don’t things guys mean to do that exactly. It’s more of a slash. You cringe for the guy who has it happen to him because you know exactly how it feels.
Who’s going to win the Cup?
Pitt. I think Pitt’s gonna repeat.
No Kris Letang, though.
[Evgeni] Malkin’s unbelievable. The line with Crosby is insane. [Conor] Sheary came out of nowhere, [Jake] Guentzel out of nowhere, and they’ve fit so well. They’re a fun team to watch. Pittsburgh’s really good.
Talking fit, give me your best Patrik Laine story from this season.
The game in Toronto. I gave him a pass and he scored. We get to the bench, and he’s like [whispers], “Hey, can you get me one more.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “It would be my 30th.” I said, “OK, we can do that.” He ended up getting the 30th right at the end of the second. That was funny. His shot is outrageous.
How much does he care about the Calder?
Everyone does. People love personal accolades. I don’t think it’s the only thing on his mind. As competitors, you want to win, no matter it is. You want to win the race to the ice cream tub, whatever it is. It’s not on your mind like: “Hey, I gotta do this to win the Calder.” But it’s like: “I play well, our team plays well, I win the Calder.” That chain reaction.
Who gets your Norris vote?
I love [Erik] Karlsson, but I think [Brent] Burns did it for longer. I love Karlsson. I love the way he plays and think he’s awesome. Burns gets it for me.
Last two years, the Jets have been out of the race but keep racking up wins. People look at this two ways: you’re showing tons of character when mathematically out of it, or you’re only winning once the games are meaningless.
I don’t think it’s something to be concerned about. It shows character. We don’t want to be embarrassed. We want to show our pride. For one thing: You’re getting paid. You can’t just mail it in. The other thing: Other teams are fighting for a playoff spot, so you’re playing against teams fighting for their lives and you want to be spoiler. There’s lots of reasons to play your best. That’s the brotherhood we have. You don’t give up, because you might hurt someone else. Maybe this guy’s out of a job next year. Maybe this guy isn’t re-signed because of it. There’s always something to play for.
Things have gotten ugly in places like Colorado and Buffalo, other teams that have missed the playoffs for a couple years. We don’t see finger-pointing in the Jets room. Why is there more patience in Winnipeg?
We know we’re young and inexperienced, but there’s some growing pains that haven’t been ideal for a guy like [captain Blake] Wheeler, who obviously wants to win. Buff [Dustin Byfuglien] wants to win. No one wants to take a step back, but the character we have in the room is, our team losing isn’t based on one thing. Not a player or a position. It’s all of us. We live by the rules. You never sewer a teammate. We’re in it together. It’s never one person’s fault. Get scored on, it’s the team’s fault. If you lose a game, it’s on the team. Guys might shoulder blame, but it’s always on the team. Good teams need that.
“Maybe this guy’s out of a job next year. Maybe this guy isn’t re-signed because of it. There’s always something to play for.”
Is that rule ever spoken explicitly?
It’s understood. It’s passed down from Laddy [former captain Andrew Ladd] to Wheels, now I’ve learned it. You want Patty [Laine] to learn it, Nicky [Ehlers] to learn it. You want our draft pick three years from now to learn it. That’s how we build this team.
The goaltending is, from the outside, an obvious weak spot. That’s not Connor Hellebuyck’s fault—he’s young and developing. But how much, as a player, do you want him to have support next season from an experienced goalie?
It’s on the team. It’s not on Connor. It’s not on Hutch [Michael Hutchinson]. It’s not on anyone specific; it’s on the team. Look at it another way: Our forwards can’t turn the puck over as much. The defence can’t pinch as much. There’s always something that happens before a goal, and the goalies are just the last line. They take the brunt of the blame because they’re goalies and that’s what they signed up for and they’re crazy like that. But you can’t point the blame at our goaltenders. They both worked hard and never gave up on us. We all have to take blame for our weaknesses.
What is your relationship with GM Kevin Cheveldayoff like? Do you talk regularly?
Not really. I’m a guy, I go out, work my butt off. If I see you in the hallway, I say hi. My relationship is, I’m a player and I’ll do whatever I can to make this team win. Be a better player for you, for Paul [Maurice], for Wheels, for Buff. I want to become the best player I can for my whole team and the whole organization. If I make myself 10 per cent better in the summer, I just made my team 10 per cent better. That’s how teams grow now. Trades and free agents, yeah, but it’s on us to be better players for our owner, our GM, our coach.
Some talented forwards are becoming restricted free agents this summer. You did well in negotiations and have lived up to your paycheque, but not everyone does. Any advice for how they should approach this?
You can’t be complacent. Don’t be satisfied with signing a new ticket or passing another contract year. In my mind, when I signed that contract, I got to be better. No matter the money or the years, Mark Scheifele has to become one of the best players in the world. Because that’s what I expect of myself. That’s what I go out and do every summer. I train with the best trainer. I skate with the best personal coach. I eat the best food. That’s going to make me the best player I can be. The best player I can be, to my standard, is the best player in the world.
“Mark Scheifele has to become one of the best players in the world.”
What’s your weakness?
[laughs] Face-offs is a big thing. That comes with being a savvy veteran and getting that experience. It’s shot, it’s passing, it’s skating, it’s the defensive game, the whole spectrum. You see Sidney Crosby do it. You see McDavid. It’s not one aspect; it’s the full spectrum. Make your good skills great and your bad skills good. That’s what Patrick Kane does, all those bona fide stars.
What does Adam Oates work with you on specifically?
Everything. In the summer, there’s drills we’ll do that he comes up with, and we’ll work on them one-on-one or with a group of guys. During the season, we go over video of everything: D-zone, face-offs, O-zone, what things to try, what to think about. He’s a smart mind to learn from, so I’m happy to have him in my corner.
In-season, how does that work?
Phone calls and video. I’ll get my shifts and certain clips sent to me, and we’ll be on the phone: “At 16:35 on the clock, look at your positioning here. You have to think about taking this angle instead of that angle.” Stuff like that.
Personally, you had your best season. How much credit should Oates get for that?
A lot. He’s done so much for my game and taught me so much about the game. He’s also taught me how to think about the game—not just from my perspective or the other teams’ perspective but the whole spectrum. His drills and skills have helped me a lot. He’s a good friend. I now talk to him almost every day, and I owe him.
What do the Jets think about that?
They’re fine with it. Oatesy’s only here to make me a better player, not to go against the structure of our team or the strategy of our team. It’s to teach me how to be a better hockey player—certain tips in the offensive zone, certain angles to take in the defensive zone so I’m not getting beat back to the net. Intricacies of the game to help me. That’s something that gets misconstrued. He’s an ex-coach, but he’s out there to make Mark Scheifele a better hockey player; he’s not trying to teach Mark Scheifele to play the Adam Oates way. He understands me and how I play really well, so he’s making Mark Scheifele the best player he can be, which makes him a better player for the team he plays on.
How many others does Oates work with?
A lot. He’s got a big crew of guys working with him. In the summer we’ll go for a skate, and it’ll be me, Stammer [Steven Stamkos], [Max] Domi and [Darnell] Nurse with him for a session. [Max] Pacioretty came to Toronto one week and skated with me, Teddy Purcell and Nurse. Obviously, the Toronto guys skate more often tighter. Sometimes it’s one-on-one, just me and Oatesy. I love it. I skated with him on Tuesday and my hands are already sore. I’m back excited for another summer with him.
How strong are the relationships you formed with Team North America at the World Cup?
You always stay in touch with a few guys, and you say what’s up during the year and for the rest of your life, because you played that Cup with them. Me and Troubs [Jacob Trouba] always talk about that tournament as one of the funnest times in hockey ever. So fast, so skilled, exciting. Till the end of this year, we were like, “Man, that was fun hockey.” Something we’ll always remember.
Did you really understand how unique that team was in the moment?
I don’t think we reflected on how cool it was until months after. Man, that was pretty cool we did that, and that our team was that exciting. We were the team to watch. The sales for Team North America gear was through the roof. They couldn’t manufacture it fast enough. Imagine people rallying around not even a country but just good hockey players.
What’d you keep?
A jersey signed by everyone and a signed stick, too.
Generally, do you collect sticks from players?
I have a Datsyuk and a Zetterberg stick. Those are the two. Tried to get a Crosby but couldn’t get one.
As a diehard Red Wings fan, what was your last day at The Joe like this year?
I was talking about this earlier today. Me and my family were like, “This is the spot we watched hockey games since I was six years old. This is pretty special.” I thought about it the whole day: This is my last time at The Joe. You get emotional about it. We won that game.
A goal and two assists. I had a good game. That was the first time my family was at a Red Wings game and the Red Wings didn’t win. My first three years we lost at The Joe. So my mom, dad, brother, sister had never been to a Wings games and they lost.
What do you do to relax?
I like to golf, wakesurf. I don’t have a cottage, but I have friends who have cottages. Hockey’s kinda 24/7. If I’m away from the rink, I get… is it Monday yet? I love it. It’s so much fun to me. I love the idea of getting better. I love being around the guys.
Have you always been this way, like, since you were five?
Sixteen years old is when I started really loving hockey. I didn’t care much about hockey before. I didn’t breathe it. I loved basketball and lacrosse and volleyball.
But hockey came easiest?
Yeah, hockey was my best sport, but I loved lots of them.
Besides hockey, what sport do you watch the most?
What’s your team?
Thing is, everyone thinks I’m a bandwagonner but my first football game was New England was against Oakland, and Rich Gannon was the quarterback for the Raiders [circa 2002]. That’s when I became a Pats fan. At least I can say I’ve been a fan for a while.
The score was 28-3. Did you believe?
I didn’t. I was at my condo and a bunch of the boys came over. We started tuning out a bit, and one buddy was just lying in the chair not even watching. Then… bang, bang, bang. “What? Is this going to happen?” By the end we were so excited. Super pumped.
If you could meet one athlete…
I’ve met Steve Yzerman. I’ve been wanting to meet Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Two guys I really want to meet.
He scares me.
He scares everyone. I’m really going to try if I get the chance.