REGINA — The emotion from Bryan Little and Josh Morrissey was palpable as the two Saturday-night heroes sat side by side in the bowels of Mosaic Stadium.
One savoured a rare second chance, while the other cherished a return to his roots.
Little couldn’t have penned a finer storyline for the first outdoor NHL game of his 13-year career. His overtime winner lifted the Winnipeg Jets to a 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames at the blustery, wintry 2019 Heritage Classic in front of a sellout crowd of 33,518 at the home of the Riders.
The goal was his first of the year — coming in just his third game of the year — after he missed nine straight games due to a concussion sustained in the pre-season. The organization’s longest-serving player was also sidelined with a knee injury three years ago when the Jets hosted the Edmonton Oilers in the Heritage Classic at IG Field.
“It was definitely frustrating watching from the sidelines and not getting to experience it,” Little said during a post-game press conference he shared with Morrissey. “So, when I heard we were playing outside, I definitely had this one circled on my calendar and it definitely lived up to everything.”
Undeniably, the goal — a tap-in from the side of the crease off a sensational feed from Kyle Connor on a two-one-one break at 3:04 of the extra session — the comeback triumph for the “home” side and, frankly, just the opportunity to participate proved most satisfying for the veteran centre.
“It’s up there. It’s pretty cool,” Little said when asked to rate the significance of the OT tally in the context of his hockey career. “I felt like it was one of those games where I pretty much didn’t have any chances and then you get a two-on-one like that in overtime. And I’ll admit, I really didn’t do too much. I just went to the net and put my stick on the ice and Kyle made a great pass, so it was definitely a great feeling.”
Jets captain Blake Wheeler summed up the excitement for Little.
“Obviously, we were pumped to just see it go in the net. But, it’s real special to see Bryan get rewarded. He’s had to fight through some things. Bad luck at the beginning of the season,” Wheeler said.
Morrissey scored the tying goal from the left point with just over four minutes remaining in regulation time, cradling a pass from Patrik Laine before unleashing a laser that found the top corner behind goalie David Rittich.
It was the Jets’ first tally in an outdoor game, after getting blanked 3-0 by the Oilers in October 2016.
Morrissey, 24, a Calgary product who grew up adoring Saskatchewan’s CFL club and spent the bulk of his junior career with the Prince Albert Raiders, has deep family ties to Regina. His father, Tom, was raised in the provincial capital and his paternal grandparents called the community home until their passing.
“On a lot of levels, it was really exciting to come back,” Morrissey said. “I guess when I turned pro and made the NHL, I didn’t anticipate necessarily we’d get a chance to play back here in Saskatchewan, so I really tried to soak it in today.
“I thought a lot about my grandparents, who passed away before I made the NHL and they would have had a chance to watch me. So, to come back here where they lived their whole lives was pretty special.”
Never shy about singing the praises of Little and Morrissey, head coach Paul Maurice refused to let another chance go by.
“Such important people in our room, character guys, guys that are team-first all the time,” Maurice said. “Great leaders. They get to keep this. (Their) families are here. They get to share that with them after. Those are the people that should enjoy a game like (Saturday).”
Winnipeg fell behind 1-0 with just over five minutes left in the second period when Elias Lindholm scored on the power play, finishing off a brilliant pass across the low slot from Johnny Gaudreau.
That was the only puck goalie Connor Hellebuyck couldn’t handle on a brisk, snowy night under the lights. He shut the door as Gaudreau raced away on a breakaway in the contest’s opening minute and was solid the rest of the way, finishing with 29 saves.
During a chaotic sequence in the middle frame, he scrambled to make a toe save on a deflection in front and then stopped another shot with his face while flopped on his belly.
“It actually got me in the chin. That was crazy. I sort of saw it coming from the corner and I heard it hit something and then all of the sudden, it popped up in the crease,” he said. “It was a full-battle moment.
“I thought it was fantastic (night). The crowd was great. Our fans were amazing. I kept getting a couple of snowflakes in the eyes, so that was new. I thought it was really cool, a great experience and I’m going to cherish that one.”
Rittich was the busier of the two netminders and equally sensational, turning aside 43 drives.
Calgary snuffed out three man-advantage situations for Winnipeg. When defenceman Mark Giordano hauled down Mark Scheifele with 5:10 left in the game, Maurice called on Morrissey to replace Neal Pionk on the first power-play unit and the move paid dividends.
“We needed a guy to shoot. I felt comfortable saying that directly to Josh —that we wanted him to shoot that puck,” Maurice said. “It needed to be him because they take away Wheeler and they’re taking away (Patrik) Laine.”
Maurice heaped plenty of praise on the folks of Regina for being gracious hosts and was glowing in his assessment of a memorable weekend.
“I’ve been lucky. The one in Winnipeg was brilliant. This one… sometimes the best seat is right behind the bench because you get to see it all,” he said.
“The fireworks are going on, the (military) jets come over, O Canada is on, it’s snowing out. I had said earlier, you just needed Santa and the reindeer blasting over and it would have been the perfect scene.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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