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DETROIT — There’s no place like home. And for four members of the Winnipeg Jets, the annual regular-season trek to Detroit will always be special, a chance to remember where they came from and how far they’ve come.
“We definitely have a little bit of a Michigan-versus-the-world vibe in the room for sure,” forward Andrew Copp, the 24-year-old from nearby Ann Arbor, said before tonight’s meeting with the Red Wings.
Between Copp’s family and friends, and those of fellow Michigan natives Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba and Kyle Connor, you could probably have blocked off an entire cheering section at spacious new Little Caesars Arena.
“There will be quite a few,” said Connor, 21, the pride of Shelby Township, referring to the expected contingent in the crowd. “We got in around four-ish (Thursday) and got back home. Had dinner back there and saw some family.”
Trouba, 24, from nearby Rochester, has the most experience playing in his home state and said he now just tries to treat it like “any other game” despite the sentimental feelings that come with it. Both he and Copp also played their college hockey at the University of Michigan before turning pro.
Hellebuyck, from Commerce, is the only one who probably won’t see action tonight. The 25-year-old was in the backup role to Laurent Brossoit.
“A really expensive night for them,” coach Paul Maurice said jokingly of what it means for players to return to their roots. “It is (special). Family comes and they get to spend some time. When your raise a hockey player and they make it to the National Hockey league and you get to throw on your kid’s name and it’s the same as yours and you get to walk around the rink with your sweater on, it’s a pretty good day.”
Detroit also holds a special place in Maurice’s heart. He played and then coached junior hockey in nearby Windsor between 1984 and 1990, then spent another five years coaching the Detroit Junior Red Wings before landing his first NHL gig as an assistant in Hartford. He also led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup final in the spring of 2002, where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings.
“In so many ways this is home for me. Spent 11 years here,” he said. He was quick to praise the new rink in downtown Detroit, which is in its second season and replaced historic Joe Louis Arena.
“You make it to the Stanley Cup final and the coach’s office is in the restroom underneath the stands at Joe Louis Arena, so this is a considerable upgrade,” he said.
Connor was also impressed.
“With the new rink, it’s phenomenal, they did a great job. You realize it when you walk in, you see all the pictures of the old players and everything. It’s great to see,” he said.
Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, who is from Detroit, got to know Copp, Hellebuyck and Trouba when coaching them at the World Championships a few seasons ago. He also spent some time chatting with Connor over the summer when their paths crossed at a Detroit Tigers baseball game.
“They’re all great representatives of Michigan and the great hockey we have here in the state,” he said.
HIGH PRAISE FOR HELM: These are tough times in Hockeytown, with the Red Wings going through a painful rebuilding phase and a bit of a youth movement. And that’s where veterans such as Darren Helm, from St. Andrews just north of Winnipeg, can make a difference.
Although the speedy 31-year-old forward may not have the offensive numbers to show for it — just one goal and two assists heading into tonight’s game — his coach had plenty of praise for his efforts.
“Darren’s been excellent. He’s consistent in his work ethic. Consistent in his compete. He’s played up-and-down our lineup as he has throughout his career. He’s been a good penalty killer for us. He’s quick on the forecheck, hard on the forecheck. A real net-presence guy. He just competes and works every night,” said Blashill.
Helm is coming off one of his best offensive seasons, scoring 13 times and adding 18 assists last year. Tonight’s game is the 578th of his career.
“I think in the end the best way to separate yourself in this league as a player or as a team is work every night. It’s hard to do it every single night. Most guys can’t, most guys don’t. He seems to do it almost every single night,” said Blashill.
RECRUITS FOR FINLAND: The Jets plan to recall two players Saturday from the Manitoba Moose to join them on their overseas trip to Finland. Winnipeg is currently carrying 22 on the roster, one under the league-maximum. That gives the club just one healthy extra forward and defenceman.
Maurice said a skater will be added to beef up those numbers, and it’s a good chance rookie forward Kristian Vesalainen will get the invite. The Finnish teen began the season with the Jets but was sent down last week to get some playing time rather than sit idle as a healthy scratch after posting just one assist in his first five NHL games.
Obviously it would be special to bring him to his homeland with the big club — especially since he does have an out clause in his contract that allows him to return to Europe rather than stay with the Moose, where he has four assists through two games. So far, that has not been an issue but it’s a situation that’s worth monitoring.
As well, Winnipeg and Florida are allowed to bring a third goalie with them who won’t count against the roster, just in the event of an emergency, given the difficulty of a quick recall if the need should arise. That will likely be Eric Comrie’s role.
The Jets and Panthers play next Thursday and Friday in Helsinki. Winnipeg will fly to Finland immediately after Saturday’s game in Toronto.
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.