WINNIPEG — At the Jets home rink here in Winnipeg, they capture the sound of pucks on sticks and carving blades down at ice level, and pipe the audio through the giant speakers atop the scoreboard. In a world where teams usually assault their fans’ senses with ads and obnoxious “in-game hosts,” it’s an innovative touch that makes every seat feel that much closer to the action.
They may have done this throughout the playoffs last spring, but honestly, it would be impossible to know. The building then, like the city surrounding it, was so electric, so brimming with energy and anticipation, that any sound as subtle as a Patrik Laine skate blade, or Mark Scheifele accepting a Blake Wheeler pass, was lost in the cacophony of what us Canadians love to call “playoff hockey.”
With the Edmonton Oilers in town on a Tuesday night in October however, Nikolaj Ehlers won’t have to get to the rink early because they have closed off the downtown streets. The place won’t be packed for warmups, and Hockey Night in Canada won’t be on hand with Mayor Scott Oake presiding over his people here in the Manitoba capital.
It’s Game 6 of the season. Not Game 6 of a playoff series.
“It’s different for sure. Everything is different,” Ehlers admits. “The city is different, the games are different.”
Of course, we’ve seen these struggles before.
We have watched teams have break-out seasons, with multiple career years by players that had never been anywhere near a Conference Final before. Then they arrive the next season and play the way the Jets did against Carolina on Sunday night — loose defensively, mostly (but not fully) committed to a game plan, and generally lacking in emotion.
Calgary, three years ago. Edmonton last season. Ottawa.
Head coach Paul Maurice had a front row seat when his Carolina Hurricanes went to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit, then finished dead last in the entire NHL the following year. He knows.
“I’ve been through it and I watched it,” he said Monday, his team sitting at 3-2 after some larceny by backup goalie Laurent Brossoit allowed Winnipeg to abscond with two points from Carolina the night before. “We paid close attention to Edmonton and Ottawa last year, and are very aware — especially with a young group — of how we handle our play.
“We lost five 30 year olds that moved on from our team,” Maurice points out. “We got quite a bit younger than we were last year and understood that when we come back, the expectations (have changed) completely around us.”
When you are the Jets this season, or the Oilers last, they pick you to win Stanley Cups. Or they make up categories like, “Canada’s Best Team” and hang that around your necks as well.
As a team you pretend that you barely notice. But the problem is, every one of your opponents does. It becomes fuel for them, and if it begins to slip away — if you never reclaim your game the way the Oilers did not last season — it becomes a yoke you carry around the league until, mercifully, the playoffs begin and you get to go home.
“The way the fans and media were taking, you know, about a Stanley Cup this year,” began useful Jets centreman Bryan Little. “We’ve got to get there first. You can’t win a Cup if you’re watching the playoffs from home.”
So the process has begun here in Winnipeg.
No, you don’t play May hockey in October. Nobody does. But you begin with a firm idea of what the end result is supposed to look like, and you try to re-lay the foundation so that, by, say, Christmas, you’re back to playing that level of hockey. To being that contender again.
But in these early days, you need to manufacture the emotions. They don’t come for free, the way they did last spring with street parties, car flags on Portage Ave., and springtime patios of priming fans.
“It’s an every-day thing,” Little said. “You go from playing in the Conference Final, these really big games, and starting all over again. Game 1, Game 2… It’s a long time before you’re playing those big games again.”
“The challenge is,” began Maurice, “everybody came back, and they were all (going to score) 50. Well, it’s five games in and a bunch of guys aren’t on that track. So there is a tension that’s built into that.”
He tells the story of coaching in Carolina, where they made it to a Conference Final in ’09 and then missed the playoffs entirely the next season. After a successful playoff run, his players would buck Maurice’s defensive wishes, “until mid-November. And then (team captain) Ronnie Francis used to come into my office and say, ‘We give. We’re not that good offensively. We’ll play defence now.’”
There is little continuation after a year like the one they enjoyed here in Winnipeg last season. Really, the most valuable lesson is that it took 82 games to build the product that was so potent last spring.
So, the recipe they have. Now, it’s about coming up with the ingredients.
“We’re never meeting the expectations bar here, because the game that we do that, it will be ‘How come you didn’t play like that in all of these other games?’” Maurice said. “I’m not getting into that fight. We’re going to take our game, live it a day at a time and get better every day.”
There are a lot of days. Turn up the sound effects.