Mark Scheifele is living the dream and trying to ignore that clock ticking in the background.
The latest chapter in that dream came Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre when he scored his first NHL goal for the Winnipeg Jets in front of a crowd of 19,514 that included his mother, sister, brother and 10 other relatives and friends who made the one-hour drive from Kitchener. Scheifele’s father Brad missed the big moment against the Toronto Maple Leafs because he’s a tour operator who had to be in Myrtle Beach.
“Yeah, it was definitely special,” said Scheifele, 18, who had a little of the lustre taken off his feat when the Jets blew a two-goal lead in the second period and lost 4-3 in a shootout. “Still, it would have been nice to get the win.
“My dad is [away]and that definitely sucks. It’s definitely bittersweet.”
The clock in this case is counting down to Thursday, Oct. 27 when the Jets pay a visit to the Philadelphia Flyers. That will probably mark Scheifele’s ninth NHL game and decision time for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Claude Noel – do they keep their first-round draft pick or send him back to the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League?
Under NHL rules, rookies who are still eligible to play junior hockey are considered first-year professionals once they hit the 10-game mark, which means they are one year closer to qualifying for salary arbitration and free agency. Thus teams have to think hard about young players who may not be ready for the NHL.
But even if the Jets send him back to Barrie – the Jets brass said Wednesday it’s still up in the air - Scheifele will take a great memory with him. While it was nice to score his first goal close to home, it did take five games and was the source of increasing worry.
“It was a big relief,” Scheifele said. “It feels like kind of a behind-you moment. It was a big step and I want to continue to progress.”
Earlier in the day, Scheifele stepped on the Air Canada Centre ice for the first time and admitted he could feel the butterflies.
“You get nervous before a big game but probably with this game I’m a little more nervous because it’s close to home,” he said.
This game was a little costlier than usual, too, since he picked up the tab for some of the folks who came down from Kitchener. His only disappointment was that none of his pals from Barrie could make it, as it’s the night before a Colts game.
“I think I have to pay for six [tickets] so that’s a little bit if extra cash gone, and I have 13 people coming,” Scheifele said. “None of the Barrie guys could come. That kind of sucks.”
One thing that took a little edge off Scheifele’s nerves was that he didn’t face the team he grew up worshipping despite living so close to Toronto. “I was a Red Wing fan,” he said.
Scheifele was taken seventh overall by the Jets in last June’s entry draft thanks to a glowing recommendation from Colts head coach and Winnipeg icon Dale Hawerchuk. He turned a lot of heads by scoring at will in the pre-season games but his first NHL goal is his only point after five games. But Sheifele, who plays centre on the third line between wingers Evander Kane and Brett MacLean on the Jets’ third line, finished Wednesday with 10 minutes, 27 seconds of ice time, three minutes better than his previous outing.
However, indications are the Jets do not want to rush him along, so a trip to Barrie looks likely after that Flyers game. But Scheifele is trying not to think about that.
“I try to keep it in the back of my mind as much as possible,” he said. “I try to take it day by day. I try to get out there each day and work my hardest, to prove to them each day what I can do.”
Scheifele says the difference between junior and the NHL is as big as you would expect, although it’s not necessarily in the size and speed of the players.
“It’s faster and everyone’s stronger but probably the biggest thing is everyone is smarter,” he said. “They all know the game. It’s tough to be able to [fool]people because they know the game so well.”
There are two other former Colts on the team, Alexander Burmistrov and Bryan Little, who Scheifele turns to for advice. Burmistrov gets most of the questions since he made the same jump as a teenager a year ago.
“I just tell him don’t think about goals or points in every game,” Burmistrov said. “Work hard, don’t do turnovers.”