For what will merely be a preseason opener on Sept. 20, there is a great deal of anticipation building up for multiple reasons. Big time hockey returns to Winnipeg after a sabbatical of sorts.
The Jets' inaugural night dance partners will be the Columbus Blue Jackets. There are half a dozen or more plots and sub-plots leading up to these pair of games that will be played in both Winnipeg and Columbus on the same night under a split squad arrangement.
Claude Noel, the new head coach of the Winnipeg Jets franchise and an all too familiar face in Columbus, will likely be oozing with "joy" (one of Coach Noel's signature words when he was the interim head coach for the Blue Jackets) on opening night. Needless to say, he will almost certainly be with the squad at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg and will send his top assistant to Columbus for the other match up.
Can't blame Noel, as he will definitely want to be in front of the home crowd in "the Peg," which will be going nuts, and that is probably an understatement. A Stanley Cup Finals atmosphere will prevail, except that both these teams' odds of actually getting invited to Lord Stanley's gala are remote at best.
Being the class act that he is, I am not sure if Claude Noel would say this, but the word "vindication" comes to mind, as he was rebuffed by the Columbus Blue Jackets brass in favor of Scott Arniel for the head coaching position. What better way to start the preseason for Noel than to settle it on the ice with a victory! Perhaps it was Noel's candidness outside the locker room regarding the Jackets' deficit with physical conditioning that may have been the kiss of death. Be it as it may, he was right. The Jackets conditioning was not up to par, and they paid for it dearly in the latter part of games by conceding unnecessary goals.
Noel is one of a kind hockey coach that almost has a professorial look and feel to him, and yet he has seen through many a young player from the outer reaches of the hockey universe to the pinnacle of the top hockey league in the world. You cannot help but like Noel the man, and I wish him all the success with his first bona-fide NHL head coaching gig!
Let's not count out Scott Arniel, who came to Ohio's capital city by the way of Manitoba's capital city after a string of noteworthy successes. It is ironic how things turned out after Ken Hitchcock got the old heave-ho from the Blue Jackets. While the Jackets had their eyes on Guy Boucher but got stiffed like a jilted prom queen, they quickly signed up Scott Arniel before too much pride was lost. As it turns out, Arniel previously coached the Manitoba Moose and arrived in Columbus only to see the Jackets jettison Noel, who then landed in Arniel's old job with the Moose in Winnipeg. The Moose is gone, but the professor is still in "the Peg" heading up the new big-league team in town.
And now, here we are counting down the days, hours and seconds to the preseason opener for both clubs. Who would have guessed Winnipeg and Columbus would have so much in common by the way of their head coaches? I wonder if Noel presented Arniel with a personalized guide to gallivanting around "C-Bus" and if Arniel did the same for Noel with respect to "the Peg".
Thanks to the Noels and Arniels of the world, Manitobans and Ohioans can boast of a special level of camaraderie. Matter of fact, I saw a fellow at the R-Bar hockey pub in the Arena District in downtown Columbus a couple of months ago sporting the old Winnipeg Jets jersey! I wonder if there is a Manitoban adorned in a Columbus Blue Jackets jersey at a watering hole in Winnipeg. And, wouldn't it be just fantastic if there were a few Jets fans at Nationwide Arena and a few Blue Jackets fans at the MTS Centre for the split squad extravaganza on game night?
There is no doubt that the excitement and euphoria inside the MTS Centre will match or exceed what I experienced at the Nationwide Arena when the Blue Jackets played their very first game ever. Not to be overlooked, I would suspect that there will be plenty of cheering and optimism in the air at Nationwide Arena for the first split squad game as Jackets fans welcome all-star Jeff Carter to Columbus. James Wisniewski and Vaclav Prospal are the other two much anticipated additions to the Jackets squad.
Will the face of the Blue Jackets franchise, Rick Nash opt to be in Winnipeg to personally witness this historic game? Or will Arniel elect to try out the young lads and let the stars bristle around in their Giorgio Armani suits with their trophy wives dangling by their arms? And, what will Claude Noel have up his sleeves? No matter what, it will make for one of the most spectacular and anticipated preseason openers in NHL history.
In fact, due to the historic significance of the NHL returning to Winnipeg, I would submit that Winnipeg and Columbus should vie for a standing trophy that could become a new tradition for both franchises and the league. The trophy could be a stuffed moose; no pun intended! The winner would be determined by the aggregate score of both split-squad games.
Welcome back to the big-league, Winnipeg!