Hockey fans in Manitoba revelled in the big reveal May 31, 2011 that Atlanta’s NHL franchise was pulling up stakes and heading north.
But three former Thrashers forwards, in conversation with the Free Press recently, all say the stunning development wasn’t initially on their radar.
"I found out through social media. I had no prior knowledge until the announcement. It wasn’t a drawn-out process. There was a lot of shock ... it caught everyone by surprise," recalls former Jets captain Andrew Ladd.
"As players, we really didn’t hear any rumblings it was gonna happen. It felt like it came in a hurry, especially when you’re fully expecting to go back to Atlanta."
True North Sports & Entertainment announced the deal during a packed news conference at Winnipeg’s downtown arena, sparking a raucous celebration in the Manitoba capital.
The city lost the Jets in 1996 when the team was sold to a Phoenix group and relocated to the desert.
Ladd, a two time Stanley Cup champion (Carolina Hurricanes 2006, Chicago Blackhawks 2010), was home in Summerland, B.C., after wrapping up his first season in a Thrashers jersey — the most productive of his career in terms of offence (29G, 30A) — when news of the relocation broke.
"For a lot of us, it was a pretty quick turnaround and a surprise that it actually happened. Right way, you had a quick mindset shift. Some guys had wives and kids and they’re trying to co-ordinate the move and their lives for the next year," says the 35-year-old winger. "Then it’s a shift to, ‘Let’s see what Winnipeg’s all about’ and just excited about being back in a Canadian market.
"I was getting married that summer (in Las Vegas). My wife (Brandy) had been in optometry school (Boston) and she was really engrained in studying and graduating. So, it was our first time to really live together post-school for her, so it was a great time for both of us to start out in a new place. We ended up renting Jonathan Toews’ condo for the first couple of years.
"The lead-up from the time they got the team, you could feel the energy coming to the city as a player and how excited everyone was to have the Jets back and how fast the season tickets sold out. As a player you got caught up in that."
“As you get older, you look back at different moments in your career and how that shapes you as a person and a hockey player, and Winnipeg was such a big part of that for me. I look back with some fond memories." ‐ Andrew Ladd
Ladd suited up for 348 regular-season games with the Jets, registering 110 goals and 136 assists, but was a pending unrestricted free agent in 2016 and, ultimately, dealt to Chicago just days before the trade deadline. The Jets obtained forward Marko Dano and a first-round draft pick (2016), which later landed the organization defenceman Logan Stanley.
Two of the couple’s three children were born in Winnipeg during Ladd’s stint with team. He says "the group of misfits" that first season north of the border developed some tight bonds.
"I still have a lot of really great friends from the organization, whether that’s Blake (Wheeler) or Bryan (Little) or Buff (Dustin Byfuglien). We had a really close group, and the unique thing about us is we all started having kids at the same time, so the wives were really close and the guys were really close at that time, guys to lean on and to play with," Ladd says. "It was a great part of my career and something I really enjoyed."
Ladd, who played for just four regular-season games and one post-season contest with the New York Islanders during the ‘19-20 season, is now at the tail end of his career. He was on the Islanders taxi squad during the abbreviated 2021 campaign but is now considered a healthy scratch during the playoffs. He still has two more years with an annual cap hit of US$5.5 million.
"As you get older, you look back at different moments in your career and how that shapes you as a person and a hockey player, and Winnipeg was such a big part of that for me. I look back with some fond memories," he says
"One of the things Brandy and I talk about all the time is how great the people were in Winnipeg, the amount of care everyone has for one another in the community, looking out for one another. That’s something you come away from with a lot of respect for. It’s one of those things you don’t really understand until it’s gone."
Bryan Little, 33, played parts of four years with the Thrashers — highlighted by a sensational 31-goal harvest during the 2008-09 season. The skilled, multi-purpose centre admits he had no inkling he and his teammates would be on the move.
"I know I was back home (near Cambridge, Ont.) when we heard the news. I remember leaving Atlanta that year and there was like no indication that we wouldn’t be back. As far as we knew, we'd be back in a few months for training camp. I feel like it took a few months to process things," Little remembers. "I was sad because we were living in Atlanta for a few years and that’s where I had started my pro hockey career. I was saying goodbye to all the trainers and other people you got to know.
"For me, I’d never been to Winnipeg and didn’t know anything about it, other than how cold it was. But it was exciting once we got to the city and seeing how excited the fans were. As a Canadian kid, you always kind of dream about playing in Canada, so after the initial shock to the system I was pretty pumped to play in front of a crowd like we had at the MTS Centre. Going from 5,000 to a sold-out arena every night was pretty awesome. We figured out pretty quickly this was going to be fun."
Little, selected 12th overall in 2006 by Atlanta, hasn’t played since late 2019 after being struck in the side of the head by an errant shot by teammate Nikolaj Ehlers. He was hospitalized with a brain bleed, and suffered a ruptured ear drum and numerous other side effects including vertigo.
He remains sidelined indefinitely, and a resumption of his career is doubtful.
Little was the club’s top middle man for the lion’s share of eight full seasons — playing 843 regular-season games, while collecting 217 goals and 304 assists. But he was a spectator for a wild debut by the Jets with the Columbus Blue Jackets visiting first during the 2011 preseason.
Fans were chanting "Go Jets Go" before the team stepped on the ice. Just six seconds in, Byfuglien pulverized Matt Calvert with an open-ice hit, and then the 6-5, 260-pound bulldozer and teammate Mark Stuart each got into fights before the game was a minute old.
"I’d never seen anything like this for an exhibition game. It was like a playoff game. I couldn’t believe it," says Little. "I couldn’t believe the energy every home game. You’d think it would die down a bit, but every every home game had playoff atmosphere. Playoffs were nuts. You hear about the ‘Whiteout’ but to see it, to play with that all around you, it was crazy."
Tight restrictions in Ontario owing to the COVID-19 pandemic have given Little and his wife, Brittany, plenty of time to spend with two-year-old daughter, Parker.
But one of the franchise’s most hard-working and dedicated players on the ice, and thoughtful and well-spoken off it, is totally tuned in on Winnipeg’s current playoff run in the all-Canadian Division.
He concedes it’s a struggle not being part of the excitement.
"The toughest part is not being around the team right now. If there wasn’t a pandemic but still in the same situation, I’d probably be in Winnipeg right now, around the guys, going to games," he says. "Right now, I’m just a fan watching on TV and it’s been exciting cheering the guys on.
"I texted with guys a little more during the regular season, because once you get to the playoffs you’re in hyper-focused mode so you don’t want to bug them too much. The only game (of the series with the Edmonton Oilers) I didn’t see the end of was the triple-overtime one (Game 4) because I just couldn’t stay up. I’ve gotta get up at 6:30 (a.m.) and be a dad.
"I made it to the end of the second period and I was like, ‘I trust these guys to get it done.’"
Tim Stapleton wasn’t dressed for that first pre-season test, either. In fact, the now 38-year-old who hails from just outside Chicago, came over with the Thrashers but was placed on waivers late in Jets training camp. His bags were packed and he was waiting for flight information to get to St. John’s, N.L., to join the organization’s American Hockey League affiliate, the IceCaps, when Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff had a change of heart.
"I cleared waiver and they told me to get to practice. Even (head coach) Claude (Noel) was surprised to see me. He goes, ‘You’re still here!’ The whole training camp was me waiting for them to tell me I was gone," says Stapleton. "When I got to the room, on the white board they had all the lines with the guys’ numbers and then way at the bottom, not even close to the lineup, was my number and for those four days I was a total fill-in for drills.
"I remember I took a shot from Toby Enstrom off my stick and it rode up and hit me under the visor and I ended up getting 10 stitches by my eyelid. That about summed it up."
After a strong college career at the University of Minnesota (Duluth), Stapleton played two seasons with Jokerit Helsinki of the Finnish elite league before inking his first pro deal this side of the pond with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He played the bulk of the 2008-09 season with the AHL’s Marlies before getting dealt to Atlanta.
Finally, in his second year there he made inroads with the brass of the Southeast Division squad. The last thing the diminutive forward needed was another change of scenery.
"I literally found out at a bar. I was having a few summer drinks with some buddies and some guy says, ‘Hey you just got sold to Winnipeg’ and I was like, ‘What?’ That’s how I found out. I was single, so for me the move to Winnipeg for me was pretty easy. I was living out of a hockey bag and suitcase, anyway," says Stapleton, who puts a hilarious spin on every tale he tells.
"In Atlanta, I was finally playing more ... a guy who was more on the bubble and who had finally made an impression. My exit interviews were all very positive and I was in the mindset of knowing I was in a good spot. Then, all of a sudden the team gets sold and all these guys that trusted me and were rooting for me got fired."
But he had a supporter in Noel, who played him 63 times in what would be his final year in North America. After an 11-goal, 27-point season, he signed for more money with Minsk Dynamo of the KHL.
“Misfits is a perfect word for that team, a bunch of clowns. I thought the locker room was so awesome and we all got along but jabbed each other a lot." ‐ Tim Stapleton
"We all knew there would be a lockout (2012), so I sold myself to the devil and chased a little more money in Russia," says Stapleton, who spent six years overseas before retiring in 2018.
He’s now part-owner of a company that makes biltong, a healthier type of beef jerky. He and his wife, Marissa, are raising two kids in Long Beach, Ind., located on the shore of Lake Michigan, about 100 kilometres east of Chicago.
Stapleton says the franchise relocation and inaugural season of the Jets 2.0 produced some of his best hockey memories.
"I was basically a nobody compared to some of the guys on the team, but just going to a grocery store people knew who you were. They lived and breathed hockey. I’d take my suits to the drycleaner and the guy starts complaining to me about our power play, and giving me advice. And he’s right! I was ready to invite him to our next video session," he says, laughing.
"Misfits is a perfect word for that team, a bunch of clowns. I thought the locker room was so awesome and we all got along but jabbed each other a lot. I remember Tanner Glass — I sat next to him in the corner with Jim Slater — we’re all friends and one day he just looks at me and he’s like, "You have this look that I just want to punch you in the face.’
"We’d all have a good time and there were no cliques, no odd man out. That first year we were like the lovable losers, no real expectations. Everyone was just happy the Jets were back."