Opinion

What happens if you throw a huge party and the guests of honour are in no mood to celebrate? Or, even worse, a bunch of them don't even show up?

What happens if you throw a huge party and the guests of honour are in no mood to celebrate? Or, even worse, a bunch of them don't even show up?

Such is the current state of the Winnipeg Jets, who are set to play a regular-season home game in front of fans Thursday for the first time in more than 19 months — 591 long days, and nights, for those of you keeping score at home.

It's the kind of night folks have been dreaming about during the pandemic. A crowd of more than 15,000 fully-vaccinated spectators inside Canada Life Centre ready to cheer on a hockey team picked to make plenty of noise this season. A jacked-up game-day production, with True North set to show off some new bells and whistles in the form of state-of-the-art projection that will turn the ice surface into Manitoba's biggest movie screen.

Alex Kormann / Star Tribune via AP</p><p>Minnesota Wild fans were ecstatic Tuesday after Joel Eriksson Ek (left) bulged the twine in overtime to give the Wild a 6-5 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.</p>

Alex Kormann / Star Tribune via AP

Minnesota Wild fans were ecstatic Tuesday after Joel Eriksson Ek (left) bulged the twine in overtime to give the Wild a 6-5 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

A night full of magic and memories nearly two years in the making, right? Well, at the risk of raining all over the parade, the timing of it all has become a storyline.

For starters, the Jets are limping into action, having just dropped all three games of a season-opening road trip. And the way the latest one occurred on Tuesday night in St. Paul, Minn., might not be so easy to simply shrug off and move on from. I've been around the locker room following a lot of losses over the years, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a more stunned group than the one in the bowels of Xcel Energy Center.

Jets rumoured to have more COVID-19 cases

Click to Expand
MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS						</p>																	<p>Jets captain Blake Wheeler is out of action until he recovers from COVID-19.						</p>
MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jets captain Blake Wheeler is out of action until he recovers from COVID-19.

Posted: 5:50 PM Oct. 20, 2021

The Winnipeg Jets are refusing comment on a recent report there could be more players testing positive for COVID-19.

On Wednesday, Daily Faceoff's Frank Seravalli posted on Twitter he has heard the Jets are bracing for more positive COVID-19 tests within the locker room. He added the team is waiting on additional lab-based results that are being processed overnight and that a clearer picture of what they could be facing will be determined Thursday.

Read Full Story

I couldn't help but chuckle at an email I got Wednesday from a reader, who said he shut the television off when Mark Scheifele seemingly sealed the victory with an empty-net goal that gave the Jets a 6-4 lead with just over a minute to play. "Then this morning I see through your article that the Jets lost. My God," he wrote. Sorry for the jolt to start your day. As my story would go on to reveal, that goal ended up getting called back for offside, Minnesota then tied the game seconds later, and the home club sent its fans into a frenzy by completing the improbable comeback in overtime.

"Tonight was not the end of the suffering. Only the beginning," another reader emailed me Tuesday night, just moments after the final buzzer sounded. "They are a bad team and the bleeding will continue." Sheesh, tell us how you really feel. This tortured soul went on to say he'd have to "stick daggers into my eye sockets after watching the highlights," and then listed, in great detail, every thing that's wrong with the team. A real ray of sunshine.

Despite the disappointing results to date, I still believe this is a solid squad that should find its way sooner rather than later. Connor Hellebuyck isn't going to give up 14 goals over three games very often. Nor do I expect the club to keep surrendering two or three power play goals per night, just like I don't see Nikolaj Ehlers being held off the scoresheet much longer. In other words, the results in this extremely small sample size should start to balance out and revert to the expected norms.

Perhaps some home cooking is just what the Jets need to get the young season back on track. They're only 0-2-1 — not 0-20-1 for goodness sakes — with 79 games left to play. A couple wins to close out the week at the downtown barn would go a long way to calming the nerves, and calming the masses.

Minnesota Wild's Marcus Foligno celebrates a goal against the Winnipeg Jets during the third period Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn.

(CARLOS GONZALEZ/STAR TRIBUNE VIA AP)

Minnesota Wild's Marcus Foligno celebrates a goal against the Winnipeg Jets during the third period Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn.

The Jets just watched their first three opponents skate off the ice triumphant at their home openers, no doubt buoyed by the return of their own fans as absence definitely made the hearts grow fonder — and perhaps the voices grow louder. Forward Andrew Copp told me earlier this week how the Saturday night tilt in San Jose felt like a playoff game simply because of the atmosphere. I would concur. All three buildings were rocking, and it was music to these deprived ears.

Don't forget that the Jets played all 56 regular-season games last season in eerie silence, save for some canned sound effects inside otherwise empty Canadian arenas. Getting back to the way it used to be after such a prolonged absence certainly takes some getting used to, so they'll no doubt be looking to use the momentum from their own raucous crowd to their advantage, the way the Ducks, Sharks and Wild have done so far.

Take care of business against Anaheim, follow it up with a strong effort Saturday against Nashville, and there will be no need for even the most fickle of fans to be reaching for a sharp implement. So, party on, right? Not quite.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck lets in one of six goals against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday. Hellebuyck has given up 14 goals over the first three games this season.

(AP PHOTO/JIM MONE)

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck lets in one of six goals against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday. Hellebuyck has given up 14 goals over the first three games this season.

Blake Wheeler will be conspicuous by his absence, and the organization is holding its collective breath that the captain — who was left behind in Minnesota this week — won't soon have company in quarantine. Wheeler, 35, tested positive for COVID-19 Monday and now must spend at least 10 days in isolation. But there's mounting concern the number of infections is going to grow within the Jets, the way we saw happen last season with several NHL teams suffering outbreaks.

I asked Jets coach Paul Maurice on Tuesday, following the morning skate in which Wheeler's status was revealed, how nervous he was about other potential cases. His response was to knock on wood — quite literally, in fact, on the podium in front of him. It may not have worked. Although all other players tested negative in the immediate aftermath, that apparently wasn't the case when daily testing happened on Wednesday back in Winnipeg.

This, more than the club's spotty play through the first week of a seven-month regular-season, is the greater area of concern.

And so, even as fans gather at the rink for a night of escapism from the real world — assuming the number of cases doesn't grow to such an extreme that a postponement is necessary — we'll all be served up a sobering reminder that the pandemic still isn't over and we're not out of the woods just yet.

My advice to all who are going: Make all the noise you want and have fun. You deserve it, especially with what we've been through as a society. Just don't be surprised if the festivities are a bit more muted than initially expected, given everything that's going on right now.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.