Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler struggled for an answer, and head coach Claude Noel could only guess. But they agreed on one thing – they have never seen a team win so often at home and fare so badly on the road.
“I’ve personally never seen it before,” Wheeler said. “I’ve played on teams that have played way better on the road than at home. So I don’t know.”
Noel added: “I’ve seen it before, but this is a little bit different because of the fans. … It’s a good place to play.”
The numbers are startling. The Jets don’t just win at the MTS Centre – 22 times this season, which is only two fewer home wins than the New York Rangers – they have developed a habit of crushing clubs that arrive on winning streaks. Take the Dallas Stars, for example. The Stars came into Winnipeg on Wednesday as one of the hottest team in the NHL having won six consecutive games and earning points in 11. The Jets won easily, beating the Stars 5-2. And that’s just the start.
Buffalo arrived on March 5 with an eight-game point streak and lost 3-1. Four days earlier, Florida came to town on a three-game winning spree and was pummelled 7-0. Boston had its 15-game point streak end in Winnipeg last December, while Minnesota, once the hottest team in the league, lost in Winnipeg last fall after going six games without a loss. Now the Washington Capitals are here Friday in the midst of a four-game win streak, having gone 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. A perfect scenario for the Jets.
Winnipeg does almost everything better at home than on the road. It wins more, scores more, hits more, loses less, and runs the power play better. And often by a wide margin.
So what’s going on? The crowd has something to do with it as the MTS Centre has become notorious for its boisterous fans even though it is the smallest venue in the NHL with just 15,004 seats. Just ask Stars defenceman Stéphane Robidas. “Obviously, it’s not so fun when you’re on the losing side,” he said after Wednesday’s game. “But I thought the atmosphere was unbelievable.”
Researchers say there’s much more to the story than just noisy fans. “There are a variety of reasons” teams do well at home, said Justin Carré, an assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former U.S. college hockey player. He cited referee bias, travel, crowd density, familiarity with surroundings and something else: biology.
Carré has done studies on hockey players that show their testosterone level increases significantly before home games. Testosterone levels were also higher after victories at home than on the road, his studies showed. Other research has shown players can increase their testosterone levels by watching a video of their team winning. But if that happens before a road game, Carré has found that players actually perform worse than at home. He isn’t sure why, but he suspects that the aggressive play turns into penalties on the road and smarter plays at home.
Carré said plenty of other studies have shown similar traits in animals. Tests on mice indicate they protect their “home” cages far more vigorously, and even fish put up more of a fight at home.
Wheeler pointed to psychology and said the Jets just have more confidence at home. “The mindset at home is we are going to win,” he said. “On the road it’s like we’re trying our darnedest to make it work.”
Noel cited accountability and said players feel more responsible in front of fans. “There’s an accountability factor at home,” he said. “There is on the road, but the accountability factor on the road is more internal, like in the locker room.’
Whatever the reason, the Jets are hoping that one day they can replicate their home success on the road. “If we can figure that out, then we are going to be a really dangerous team,” Wheeler said.