REGINA — It’s being described as a major celebration of hockey — although I don’t suspect the Winnipeg Jets are in much of a partying mood these days. Winning just one of its past five games, all on home ice, tends to have a downer effect on a team.
Perhaps a change of scenery can turn those frowns upside down.
There’s no question the Queen City is ready for its close-up, with signage and banners and promotional material at every turn. Heck, even the elevators at our hotel have been painted over with Heritage Classic logos, lest anyone forget why they’re in town.
Mosaic Stadium is all gussied up as well, ready to welcome both the Jets and Calgary Flames for outdoor practices this afternoon, followed by the main event on Saturday at 9 p.m.
It’s a good look, sure. But regardless of the pomp and ceremony, you wonder how close is the NHL coming to jumping the shark when it comes to outdoor games? What was once a novelty has now become a staple of every regular season, which becomes evident when you hear that Jets forward Mathieu Perreault will be competing in his fourth.
At least they’re moving these things around, giving cities such as Regina a chance to shine. The hope, no doubt, was that plenty of fans from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta would converge to take in the festivities.
The game is not sold out. A scan of Ticketmaster on Thursday showed approximately 2,000 seats available for purchase, at prices ranging from $106 to $653, including fees and taxes.
Still, it should be a huge crowd, and maybe the Jets — who will technically be the home team for the game — can have a bit more luck than they have at Bell MTS Place, with just a 2-10-0 record over the past dozen games dating back to last season.
“We signed up for these things because the NHL knows we have a good, young, fast team and the NHL likes that kind of hockey on TV. It will be a spectacle, it will be fun and then we’ll learn, as a group, how to handle this,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said after his team dropped a disappointing 3-2 decision to the Los Angeles Kings.
“We’ll get our practices right, which will be good and we’ll get in there and play a hell of a lot better than we did.”
They certainly can’t do any worse than their first crack at a Heritage Classic in 2016 at IG Field, when the Jets failed to light the lamp in a 3-0 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
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It’s not just the game, of course. There’s all kinds of other bells and whistles associated with the event, with Regina currently in the midst of what’s been proclaimed as “Hockey Week.”
The scene at Mosaic on Thursday afternoon was a busy one, as final work was being completed on both the outdoor rink and the fan festival just outside the stadium grounds.
Unlike past Heritage Classic events, including the Jets-Oilers clash in 2016, there is no alumni game attached to this. However, there will be a hot-stove panel involving former members of the Jets and Flames. Former Jets Thomas Steen and Dave Ellett and ex-Flames Lanny McDonald and Jamie Macoun, once fierce rivals on the ice, will break bread together and swap stories from the past as part of today’s Heritage Classic Legacy Luncheon.
Expect a few tall tales to be told — but at least none of the oldtimers are at risk of a groin pull or muscle spasm.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will also speak at the event, while Jets executive chairman and governor Mark Chipman and Flames president and COO John Bean will unveil details of the 2019 “Legacy Project.”
It’s become an almost-daily question for the Jets: Who’s playing defence next game?
Fact is, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the top six is going to look like on any given night. And it’s probably going to get even more confusing in the coming days.
Nathan Beaulieu, who has yet to play this season due to an upper-body injury, is getting closer to a return and has started skating with the team. He’ll step into the lineup possibly as early as next weekend in either San Jose or Vegas.
Luca Sbisa, picked up off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday, is expected to join the club in Regina and will be an option once he gets acclimatized to his new team, although the Jets should be hoping the journeyman’s services aren’t required very often if they have any hopes of sustained success.
Add those two to a mix that already includes Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dmitry Kulikov, Tucker Poolman, Ville Heinola, Anthony Bitetto and another previous waiver-wire addition in Carl Dahlstrom and Winnipeg could soon have nine healthy bodies in the mix.
If so, someone’s gotta go.
Heinola’s next game will be his ninth of the season, putting the 18-year-old on the threshold of burning the first year of his three-year entry-level deal. Are the Jets going to allow him to hit 10?
The writing is likely on the wall, and Heinola’s swan song for this season may be the Heritage Classic. After that, a reassignment to either the Manitoba Moose or back to his pro team in Finland seems increasingly likely for the teen.
Further complicating matters is the Sami Niku situation. The talented Finn was expected to be a big part of the team this season but has played just one game with the Jets as he deals with a nagging groin injury that started in training camp.
Niku was dispatched to the Moose for conditioning only to suffer a setback. He’s resumed skating this week and could play as early as this weekend, so how he factors in remains to be seen. Expect him up with the big club in the near future.
There’s also the ever-present Dustin Byfuglien question, and whether the veteran is leaning towards a return in lieu of early retirement.
Add it all up and it seems like the blue line could very much remain a work in progress. And, aside from a few lineup staples such as Morrissey and Pionk, nobody should be getting too comfortable.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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