“That,” Blake Wheeler says, “is the great unknown.”
By “that,” the Winnipeg Jets forward means hockey’s slipperiest substance, its least knowable quality, its necessary magic: chemistry.
Chemistry resides in no single individual, arrives often when least expected and can depart just as quickly – and yet is considered as necessary to success, perhaps even more so, as an elite goaltender or a top goal scorer.
It is a quality that, as Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla once tried to put it, “awakens something you never even knew you had” – something you recognize immediately when it’s there but can only rarely be recalled once it has fled.
“It gives you so much energy and confidence,” Wheeler says as the former Atlanta Thrashers turned Jets ended their practice-only camp and began to prepare for Tuesday’s first exhibition game, with half the team travelling to Columbus to take on half the Blue Jackets and half the Columbus team travelling to Winnipeg to take on the remaining Jets.
As practices go, this Monday morning class received an even worse mark than the 31 I nailed in Grade 12 chemistry, back when there only six NHL teams (and none of them named after birds or airplanes).
Working on 5-on-2 rushes, they had trouble penetrating centre ice. Passes were sloppy, reads rare and the players often confused as to what to do in the next drill.
In the scrimmage that followed, the “A” team – the team that will be kept in Winnipeg as a showcase for Tuesday’s exhibition game, the first Jets hockey in 15 years – was pounded 4-0 by the weaker-on-paper “B” team that was to fly later in the day to Columbus.
On an NHL team that has already wondered where the goals will come from, last year’s leading scorer, team captain Andrew Ladd, flubbed a breakaway. Back-up goaltender Chris Mason – on the “B” team, but called “Group A” – was, well, superb, while designated starting goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, on the “A” team, was, well, not so good.
It all, of course, means nothing.
Practice is often as mysterious as chemistry itself in hockey. Brett Hull once said the “morning skate” was perhaps the worst invention hockey ever came up with, a pregame drill that is barely half a true practice. Eric Lindros, on the other hand, argued: “It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts – it’s what you put into the practice.”
These Jets require both vast amounts of time and vast amounts of effort if they are to be successful. As the Thrashers, they went from division leader last December to missing the playoffs by 13 points at season’s end, a year that could be broken down into two halves that bear next-to-no resemblance to each other. In all their 11 seasons as an NHL franchise, the Thrashers only made the playoffs once, and then fell in four consecutive games to the New York Rangers.
They are, however, young and maturing. And learning. The players are not only in new uniforms in a new city in a new country, they have all new coaches.
“It’s a bit different this year,” Ladd says, in an enormous understatement.
Not only do they need to tune into new voices barking out orders at practice, but head coach Claude Noel has his own ideas on the fore-check, on neutral-zone play, on breakouts.
“As players,” Ladd adds, “we just have to adjust to that and get it wrapped around our heads.”
Chemistry might be a while coming, but passion is already here – especially among the fans.
“The city’s just on fire,” Wheeler says. “Everywhere you go it’s ‘Winnipeg Jets!’ ”
As for Tuesday’s meaningless exhibition match, it actually has meaning under such circumstances, even if chemistry may still be a way’s off.
“It’s going to be one of the craziest games guys have ever played in,” Wheeler predicts.