Winnipeg native Jason Gregoire will be battling in training camp for a spot this season on the Jets' roster. (Photo: Marissa Baecker /Getty Images)
"I think I found about college hockey when I was 15," said Gregoire. "By then you're already drafted by the WHL, and you have this Western League mentality. Talking to younger kids, I wish there was more exposure to the college route, because for some kids that's definitely the better route for them. Someone like me, who's not the biggest guy on the ice, you need those extra years to mature physically and mentally. I think that's one of the biggest assets I've taken from college hockey."
Now fully grown, Gregoire elected to forgo his senior season at UND to chase an NHL job this fall. A 2007 third-round pick of the New York Islanders, he failed to come to terms with the team and became an unrestricted free agent. That allowed him the opportunity to sign with his hometown club.
"I was a really tough decision," said Gregoire. "It's probably the greatest program in college hockey. It was two hours door-to-door from my house in Winnipeg; greatest situation ever. It was a tough decision to leave. Timing-wise it just fit for the route I went, free agency, just seeing what was out there for other teams. I think coming off the three seasons I had, the confidence I had this summer -- It was time to leave college hockey and go on to the pro ranks."
That Gregoire ended up in Winnipeg is serendipity. There weren't many people in Manitoba that thought the NHL would return after the club moved to Phoenix in the summer of 1996. Even as speculation grew this off-season, many still harboured doubts.
"I didn't really think there was a chance for Winnipeg to get an NHL team, there was so much talk about Phoenix leaving and then that got kyboshed," said Gregoire. "It seemed back and forth and up and down for Winnipeg fans; by the end we all just kind of let go of hope. Everything timing-wise, just for the four years to go by, and free agency, and Atlanta and now Winnipeg being a good fit for me as a player. Everything just kind of fell in line. It was actually pretty cool."
While Gregoire liked the looks of the Jets, Winnipeg Director of Amateur Scouting Marcel Comeau liked Gregoire as a player.
"They (UND) spoke very highly of the player; not only of his abilities, but of him as a person and a teammate," said Comeau. "They just had a lot of good things to say about him, which really made him that much more attractive to us."
"I think we have to add some people who bring a bit more offensive game on a more consistent basis. Certainly he looks like a player who will fit in well. There's opportunity here, and that's likely a reason he's with us." -- Marcel ComeauThe early results from the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, B.C., have been positive, as Gregoire has been an offensive catalyst, amassing points alongside 2011 first-round pick Mark Scheifele.
"We've really like what we've seen here; certainly his offensive hockey sense, his hands, his feet. He plays a very mature game, and when he has the puck, he makes a play," said Comeau. "He's not a guy that when he gets the puck, the play ends. It never ends with him. He makes a play all the time. He's a very creative player."
Gregoire was quick to point out that selecting to sign with Winnipeg didn't have much to do with it being his hometown, but more the fit for his skills and the organization's needs. Comeau shared those sentiments and explained why Gregoire is such a good fit with the Jets.
"We have to improve offensively. I think he's the type of player -- a skill player -- that has a good scoring history, and a good track record of creating offense," said Comeau. "I think we have to add some people who bring a bit more offensive game on a more consistent basis. Certainly he looks like a player who will fit in well. There's opportunity here, and that's likely a reason he's with us."