Winnipeggers part of new fleet

by Don Power || AHL On The Beat Archive

St. John’s IceCaps forward Kevin Clark was at the Winnipeg Jets’ final game back in 1996.

Just eight years old at the time, Clark’s memories of the old Jets are limited to players like Keith Tkachuk and a few others. What he does remember, however, is the somber tone of his hometown once the realization hit that the NHL had left the ’Peg.

Now that Winnipeg is back in the National Hockey League, Clark is excited for a number of reasons. First, he’s proud his home town is an NHL city again, but more importantly, he’s excited to be part of the new Jets organization.

Clark is one of a handful of former Manitoba Moose players who have been signed by Winnipeg and assigned to the St. John’s IceCaps.

“Definitely it is kind of cool,” Clark said following practice one morning while taping a stick. “Being able to start my career a year and a half ago at home, playing for the Moose, was kind of surreal. Then with the Jets coming back, it’s a different atmosphere, but it’s pretty cool to be part of.”

Jason Gregoire is another Winnipeg native who remembers that feeling when the Jets fled for Phoenix. Two years younger than Clark, Gregoire never had the chance to attend a Jets game. But the Winnipeg native felt the loss through his parents, both hockey players and big fans.

“When they left, I certainly remember the town being distraught,” Gregoire said. “Everyone was so upset.

“When the Moose came around, it was a sigh of relief getting a hockey team. I kind of felt bad because some of those guys put everything they could into the Moose, but still the fans couldn’t accept them for being like an NHL team.”

Neither player’s young and fledgling allegiance to the Jets followed the franchise to Phoenix. Clark focused on players around the NHL he liked, “small, skilled guys,” says the five-foot-eight winger. However, both guys are proud of their new affiliation with the Jets.

Gregoire, a New York Islanders third round draft pick (76th overall) in 2007, signed with Winnipeg this summer. He was in his hometown when word came that the city had landed an NHL club, and remembers the entire city buzzing with the news.

“I remember when they announced it,” he recalled. “The Forks is a pretty main spot in Winnipeg and everyone skipped work. It was all over the news, people saying into the camera, ‘I don’t care if my boss finds out, I’m out here supporting the Jets.’ It was unbelievable.

“Then at Portage and Main, probably the busiest intersection, the cops had to close the streets down. It was just unbelievable to see.

“I wish I could have been here to see the fans and everyone rallying being the idea that St. John’s was having a team back. I heard the summer was pretty nuts.”

Clark’s experience was similar. He was already familiar with the team’s organization, having played a year and a bit for the Manitoba Moose. But when word came that Winnipeg had an NHL club, the excitement level zoomed.

“I was in Winnipeg the whole summer and seeing the whole atmosphere and just the way people are passionate about hockey being back,” Clark related. “When guys got here, it was the same thing. We’re playing in front of packed houses and everybody wants to know how the team is doing. The guys really like it here. Obviously everybody wants to be there (in Winnipeg, in the NHL), but this is a heck of a place to play hockey.”

Gregoire says his family and friends are more excited about the fact he’s with the Jets organization. His father tempers that excitement in front of the son, but Gregoire knows that his dad Norm is beaming at home.

“I think they hold it back, honestly,” he said of his parents. “My dad’s really reserved. If I ever caught him saying ‘This is so cool,’ I think he’d be worried that it would trickle down to me. I’m sure he’s excited with his buddies, but he’s pretty reserved when talking to me. Even my sister is excited and proud of me, so I appreciate that.

“It’s my first year so I don’t want to get caught looking at the stars and dreaming and stuff. Some of my friends don’t let me forget it: ‘Oh it’d be so cool to have you playing for the Jets, your hometown team.’ They’re so excited. For me, I’m just doing something that I love.”

Clark feels the same way.

“It was comfortable going into camp (having played with the Moose), knowing the coaches there. That always helps. It gave me a little bit more motivation to put a strong camp in, play well down here and hopefully get a chance to play there.”

Both guys recognize their good fortune in playing for their hometown organization, and both dream of the day when that potential call comes. However, both are cautious about their dreams, realizing that the work done in St. John’s is what will lead to that possible promotion.

And with the Jets already calling up five IceCaps so far this season, that dream could eventually become a reality.

“I don’t know (how I’d react to a call up),” said Clark. “I probably wouldn’t take it seriously if they asked me at the start. But that’s obviously the goal. Hopefully when that time comes, I can tell you.”

“It’s a huge added thing for me being from Winnipeg, seeing the rise and fall and the rise again of the Jets, and just being part of the organization,” Gregoire admitted. “I think it’s a pretty unique situation, especially for me, to play here with and for some awesome people and unbelievable guy … and hopefully one day to be able to get called up to the Jets and play in my hometown.”