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Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey (L) celebrates with goalie Chris Mason after they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes during NHL pre-season action in Winnipeg, September 28, 2011. (Fred Greenslade/Reuters)
Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey (L) celebrates with goalie Chris Mason after they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes during NHL pre-season action in Winnipeg, September 28, 2011. (Fred Greenslade/Reuters)

ROY MacGREGOR

Reborn Jets trade sticks for oars in search of team's identity Add to ...

“It’s only fitting,” Ralph Penner was saying, “that these guys come down here for a little instruction.”

Down here is at the water’s edge, the brown Red River as it spins and eddies toward the Forks, where the Assiniboine and Red rivers converge.

The reborn Jets have come to learn about blades and turns and teamwork, but here the water is definitely not frozen – not on a day of record-breaking October temperatures – and here there is no equipment apart from thin gloves on the hand and a long oar to grip instead of a hockey stick.

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“Don’t twirl them,” one of the other Winnipeg Rowing Club coaches shouts at the burly players heading down to the docks with their new tools.

“And don’t smack anybody with them!”

Penner, a long-time competitive coach with the club, says it is “fitting” that the hockey team come here for a day of team building in that, way back in 1904, the Winnipeg Rowing Club challenged Ottawa for the Stanley Cup – and came within a game of winning it. They weren’t taken seriously by Ottawa; but they believed absolutely in themselves.

Team building is nothing new in hockey. It is happening throughout the National Hockey League this week in the brief hiatus between training camps and the start of the regular season, which for the Jets is Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens.

The difference here is that all the other Canadian teams have a known identity, for good or bad, and this team is, in fact, a team with no identity at all other than the fact that their fans love them unreservedly.

There is precious little not known about the Canucks, the Flames, the Oilers, the Leafs, the Senators and the Canadiens apart from where they will finish this year. The Canadiens will be said to be “storied.” There will be the usual tired Leafs jokes. The Senators are “rebuilding.” The Oilers are “young.” The Flames are “inscrutable.” And the Canucks “in recovery” from their loss to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final.

But who the hell are the Jets?

The only thing the moderate Canadian fan would know is that they were a bad team – one playoff appearance in a dozen years, never won a single game – in a very bad city. The one visible star the former Atlanta Thrashers had, Ilya Kovalchuk, they traded away; their best players – Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien – were considered expendable by the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

The coaches will spout off the expected bromides of “work ethic” and “character” players, but the truth is that this team cannot yet have a tangible identity as a team usually takes on the identity of the city. Canadiens sophistication, Yankees swagger, Boston working class .

Canada has not witnessed the birth of an NHL team since the Ottawa Senators back in 1992, a team about to celebrate its 20th anniversary by inviting back to town several of those first-year players who made a terrible team so lovable: Darcy Loewen, whose own mother said “If the circus came to town, Darcy’d be the one they’d shoot outta the cannon”; Darren Rumble, who showed up for the first road trip with his own pillow and a homemade sandwich.

These Jets aren’t new to NHL hockey and they aren’t a team that will chase the worst records in hockey, but they are an unknown quantity as a team.

That identity may have begun this day as they raced eights – badly often, nearly tipping, the players delighted that the coaches lost – and the boat with Byfuglien as its “motor” blew away all comers.

“Not to be too corny about it,” said defenceman Mark Stuart, “but it was all about team working together.”

“So many lessons to learn,” added coach Claude Noël. “I’m just hoping our team becomes a better team because of it.”

Only the coming weeks will tell.

One immediate lesson learned could well belong to the coach himself, who Sunday afternoon at the MTS Centre will find himself in the centre of a civic explosion.

He might like to bring along one of those rowing megaphones.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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