By Scott Billeck – @scottbilleck
If Canada’s gold medal was Sunday’s main course, then the Winnipeg Jets outdoor practice at the historic Forks was the decadent desert that capped of a remarkable day for fans of the frozen game.
Over 2,500 people braved the elements — -15 degrees centigrade with brisk winds pushing that to feel like -28 — to take part in the first outdoor practice held by the Jets since returning to Winnipeg in 2011.
“I was always a guy out on outdoor rinks so it is a lot of fun to be out here,” said Mark Scheifele, who was wrapped in a balaclava and looked a little cumbersome. “I am trying to get on the ice as much as I can, being on the bench isn’t too great.”
The fan support was exceptional for the hour-long public event with folks oohing, awing and cheering for their hometown team.
“It’s huge,” said Scheifele of the support. “To have people out here in this weather and watch us practice is pretty cool.
“It is a little bit shocking, the sheer number of them, and there is an ice breeze here today and they seem to be sticking around,” added Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “But that is true of this team, that is what is special about Winnipeg here and you feel it in the building on game night and then you see it out in an outdoor practice; the team is loved by the citizens in the community and that is fantastic.”
The backdrop of the collision of Red and Assiniboine Rivers made for an intimate location for fans and players alike and Maurice made it clear that the event was “purely for fun” for his players.
“There is no practice out here today, this is all fun for them, outdoor rink and the way it should be,” Maurice explained.
Maurice said that the open air atmosphere felt like a throwback to his childhood and the childhoods of many Canadians who grew up playing on outdoor sheets of ice.
“I think everybody did, that is all I really remember,” said Maurice of playing outside. “I had one in my backyard, every elementary school had one, high school’s had them, 85 percent of the time we were on outdoor rinks and that is where we learned to have fun with the game.”
One of the remarkable moments of the afternoon was the inclusion the Portage La Prairie Atom 1’s. The team comprised of 12-year-olds won a contest to play against their heroes in a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“(The) kids had an absolute blast,” said head coach Dean Calder, who entered his squad into the contest. “We played Friday night, so I told them we had practice Sunday and they were like ‘ugh’ and I said it is outdoor practice and the team we normally practice with won’t be able to make it so we got another team to practice with. They were like ‘who?’ and I said the Jets.”
Calder’s son, Evan, was lost for words — and maybe a little camera shy — but said his favourite moment playing against the Jets was hitting 6-foot-5, 265-pound Dustin Byfuglien, adding that his favourite Jet was captain Andrew Ladd.