It would be hard to imagine a more meaningless game – on paper.
It was a hockey game that had nothing to do with the standings. Goals and assists meant nothing, nor would the final score. It matched half of the Winnipeg Jets against half of the Columbus Blue Jackets – the visiting roster looking more like a list of available names for the witness protection program.
But the Winnipeg Jets are no longer on paper, no longer an idea, a hope, a prayer. As of 6:59 p.m. Central Time, when the reborn team skated out to a thunderous reception for merely the warm-up, they were once again the real, living Winnipeg Jets – even if none of the names on the new blue-and-white jerseys were Hawerchuk or Selanne, the two most popular names on the backs of the 15,004 fans who packed the rink for this meaningless yet highly symbolic game.
Instead of Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne, the local heroes of yesteryear, there were Andrew Ladd, the new captain, Dustin Byfuglien, the new face of the franchise, and 18-year-old Mark Scheifele, the future.
“In 2011,” the MTS Centre scoreboard read, “The NHL Returned to the Greatest Fans in the World.”
And certainly it seemed so. They screamed through the warm-up and sang O Canada as if the players on the ice had just won Olympic gold.
And then they really got loud. A mere 37 seconds into this meaningless game, Byfuglien levelled Columbus's Cody Bass with a single punch – Bass likely unaware of Byfuglien's mood, given that the big Winnipeg defenceman had been formally charged only hours earlier by Minnesota police for allegedly being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol while operating his boat in late August.
Once the fighting penalties had been served, it was Byfuglien setting up Paul Postma for a point shot that became the reborn Jets first goal – even if insignificant – of the new era.
Byfuglien then helped set up the rookie hero, Scheifele, for the game's second goal, as the new Jets very first draft pick, from Kitchener, Ont., continues to argue his case for staying in Winnipeg rather than being sent back to the junior Barrie Colts.
Scheifele said he went into the game promising not to “cheat” himself. Nor did he cheat his teammates, setting up speedy little Kevin Clark for a tip-in and the nicest goal of the night, then sending a perfect pass to Ivan Telegin for a 4-1 Winnipeg lead and Scheifele's third point of the game.
The rookie sensation then scored a second goal for his fourth point of this game, which ended 6-1 on a hard wrist shot from Ladd.
Winnipeg head coach Claude Noel had predicted this first-game-of-any-sort would get “pretty much as wild as you can get” and he was pretty much right. It featured sloppy hockey and good hockey, dumb fights and smart plays. Winnipeg fans saw the physical and playmaking presence that Byfuglien can be, cheered their prize rookie and surely took some comfort in the goaltending of young Ondrej Pavelec.
But they also saw what will cause coach Noel sleepless nights this inaugural season: Byfuglien skating to his own drummer; newly signed defenceman Zach Bogosian making moot decisions. They are still wondering where the scoring will come from beyond the defence and, this night, an 18-year-old prospect who normally would head back to junior.
“We're four days into training camp,” the coach said in a cautionary warning to those who might read too much into such matters.
“We want to see who can make decisions. Who can think and make plays.”
He said he himself needs such meaningless games so that he can take “the pulse of the bench” and see what sort of team these Winnipeg Jets will be.
There will be no need to take “the pulse of the crowd.”
It is once again alive.
Blue Jackets 5, Jets 1
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Evander Kane scored for Winnipeg, but Maksim Mayorov had a goal and an assist to help the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Jets 5-1 in the split-squad pre-season opener for both clubs Tuesday night.
Kane flicked home a backhand at 6:21 of the second period for Winnipeg's first goal since 1996, the year the NHL left town for Phoenix. The Atlanta Thrashers were purchased by True North Entertainment and Sports this off-season and moved to Winnipeg.
Nick Holden scored in the first period, and Boone Jenner, Mayorov, Antoine Vermette and Samuel Pahlsson added second-period goals for the Blue Jackets.
The Jets' John Albert nearly had the game's first goal, but it was waived off due to a goalie interference call on Carl Klingberg.
The other half of the split squads played in Winnipeg on Tuesday night.
The Associated Press