It’s halftime. Most of the National Hockey League’s 30 teams have played 41 of 82 games and for some of the teams, it’s been quite a ride. For a load of others, of course, it’s been a nightmare.
For instance, the Anaheim Ducks were fourth in the West last spring with 99 points. At the midway mark of 2011-12, the Ducks have only 11 wins and 28 points. Last year, the Atlanta Thrashers were in the midst of a downward spiral, set to miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. This year, the Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets and after a win in their 41st game of the season on Saturday night, they sit in ninth place in the East, just a point below the post-season line.
This being a website called www.jestnation.ca, we’ll stay close to home, but make no mistake, there have been many interesting stories in the first half of the 2011-12 season: the collapse of the Ducks, the emergence of the great young star Claude Giroux, the firing of six coaches, the great play of so many teenaged stars, the league’s realignment plans and the NHLPA’s rejection of those plans, the incredible mess in Montreal, concussions, Shanahan’s justice and the loss of Sidney Crosby.
However, we’re here to talk Jets and we will. So without any further adieu, here’s a look at the Top 10 Winnipeg Jets Stories at the midway point of the 2011-12 NHL season:
10. At the Halfway Point, the Jets Are Contenders: The Atlanta Thrashers team that arrived in Winnipeg on Sept. 17 was not very good. The team was young and there was certainly hope, but the team had missed the playoffs for four consecutive years and most observers would not have been surprised if the Jets missed the post-season for a fifth consecutive year. They still might, but after 41 games, this club has a chance to be a legitimate playoff contender. They are 20-16-5 after 41 games and are ninth in the NHL, just one point out of eighth. They don’t score enough (2.6 goals per game) and they have some wild defensive lapses – especially on the road where they are 6-10-4 — but for the most part, these young Jets have played better than expected.
9. The Emergence of Evander Kane: The No. 1 draft pick of the Thrashers in 2009 (fourth overall), the Vancouver-born son of an amateur boxer (dad) and a university basketball star (mom), Kane was all size, speed an potential when he arrived in Winnipeg. He had 14 goals in 66 games in 2009-10 and 19 goals in 73 games in 2010-11. He was a good player, but not a great one. This year, however, he has 18 goals in the first 41 games of the season and has a legitimate shot at 40. Of course, on a team that doesn’t score much, 40 would be a blessing. He’s loved by the fans, but he’s the Jets leading scorer and yet he’s 53rd in the NHL. That’s not good.
8. The Name of the Team And the First Draft Pick: On June 24, 2011, the chairman and governor of the new Winnipeg NHL franchise, Mark Chipman, stood on the podium at Xcel Energy Centre in St. Paul, Minn., and announced that the new hockey team in Winnipeg will be called “The Winnipeg Jets.” The team’s new general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, then stepped up to the dais and announced that the Jets had selected Mark Scheifele of the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts as the team’s first draft choice.
7. The Play of Ondrej Pavelec: He doesn’t have great numbers: his .909 save percentage is 29th in the NHL while his 2.88 goals against average is 34th. Still, Ondrej Pavelec, the 24-year-old goalie from Kladno, Czech Republic, is a fan favorite at MTS Centre. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has shaky games on the road and outstanding games at home: When he plays at MTS Centre, he brings the crowd to its feet because his GAA at home is 2.34 (3.40 on the road) and his save percentage at home is .923 (.897 on the road). This man has emerged as an important member of the Jets, but he has to pick up his game away from the friendly confines. As it is, Winnipeg fans love him.
6. The Unveiling of the Jerseys: On Sept. 6, the Jets called the media and its closest friends to a landing strip near a hangar at 17 Wing and unveiled the team’s new uniforms. The home uniforms would be deep blue and simple. The road jerseys would be white and even simpler. The logo, a team mark that had been released in July, was also a simple button that featured a fighter Jet inside a target with a red maple leaf and a tiny piece of the True North logo at the top. Almost immediately, fans went to the Jets Gear store and started loading up. “The colour is great,” Ladd told reporters at the unveiling. “This jersey is going to look sharp on the ice. I think they’ve done a great job with the patches and the lines on the shoulders. This is our identity. It’s what we’re going to be wearing every night and what fans are going to be wearing when they come to the rink. I’m excited about it.”
5. The Opening of Training Camp: On Sept. 17, 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers existed no more. The new Winnipeg Jets stepped onto the ice at MTS centre and opened their inaugural training camp. It started to feel as if the new team was real.
4. The First Pre-Season Game: On Sept. 20, 2011, the Jets played their first pre-season game at MTS Centre against former Manitoba Moose head coach and former Jets and Moose player, Scott Arniel, and his Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jets won 6-1, big Dustin Byfuglien had a goal, a big hit and a fight in his first shift and the crowd was in hockey heaven.
3. The Season-Opener Against Montreal: On Oct. 9. 2011, it all began for real. The Jets 2.0 played their first regular-season game and while 15,004 spectators went absolutely crazy, the Jets lost 5-1 to the Montreal Canadiens. Nobody cared. They were all just happy to be there as the NHL officially returned to Winnipeg. For those who keep track of these things: Jim Slater took the Jets first penalty and Nik Antropov scored the Jets first goal (in this case, the only Jets’ goal of the inaugural game). Amazingly, the last game the Manitoba Moose ever played at MTS Centre was against the Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. The Habs farm team beat the Moose 5-1. What really mattered, however, was that the Jets were back and all was right with the world.
2. The Incredible Crowd at the MTS Centre: The crowd at MTS Centre is so loud, enthusiastic, fun and intelligent that it has become an international story unto itself. Every night, 15,004 spectators show up at MTS Centre and start screaming early and often. It is so loud inside the arena that many workers and media members have taken to wearing ear plugs. When Teemu Selanne arrived in Winnipeg, he said the first thing he wanted to see was “the crowd at MTS Centre because I hear it’s unbelievable.” It is and it was quite welcoming for Selanne, a player most Jets fans would love to see come back home.
1. The Return of the Winnipeg Jets: It was one of the biggest stories in Canadian sport in 2011. On May 31, Mark Chipman and David Thompson stood at the dais at the MTS Centre and announced that they had acquired the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL and they were going to move the team to Winnipeg. They sold out the season tickets at the MTS Centre – for five years! – in just 17 minutes. Since then they have won 19 of their first 41 games (19-16-5) and remain a legitimate playoff threat. After 16 years without an NHL team, Winnipeg had its beloveds back again and Canada had a seventh franchise.