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Winnipeg fans, players excited for preseason opener

Tuesday, 09.20.2011 / 10:27 AM / 2011-2012 Season Preview

By Patrick Williams - NHL.com Correspondent

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Winnipeg fans, players excited for preseason opener
It's only the preseason opener, but the Winnipeg players expect a loud, excited crowd tonight when they play their first home game.
WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets' "real" home-opener still is 19 days away, which is a common school of thought around the club this week.

However, the buzz surrounding Tuesday's preseason-opening game against the Columbus Blue Jackets certainly resembles that of a regular-season game. Winnipeg hockey fans circled the date in June, when the Jets released their preseason slate, and a packed MTS Centre will greet the two clubs. The Jets' cable broadcast outlet, TSN Jets, will televise the game live, and a full press contingent is expected.

There was as much action off the ice as on the ice when the Jets practiced at the MTS Centre on Monday. All throughout the building, arena employees and contractors hustled to put some of the finishing touches on the building necessary to host an NHL game.

"You can't say enough about it. The city is just on fire. Everywhere you go, everywhere you see, it's all Winnipeg Jets. It makes you feel pretty special to be a part of it. That first (regular-season home) game, I can't speak for guys who have played in the Stanley Cup Final, but it's going to probably be one of the craziest games that any of us have played in." -- Blake Wheeler

This game marks the first Winnipeg Jets home game since April 28, 1996, when the original Jets finished a 17-season NHL run. The game also will serve as the first of three trial runs before the Montreal Canadiens arrive for Winnipeg's official regular-season re-entry into the League on Oct. 9.

Right wing Blake Wheeler won't be in Winnipeg on Tuesday, as he will be part of a separate contingent that flew to Columbus on Monday to meet the Blue Jackets in the other half of the teams' split-squad series. But Wheeler still is excited.

"It's outstanding," he said. "You can't say enough about it. The city is just on fire. Everywhere you go, everywhere you see, it's all Winnipeg Jets. It makes you feel pretty special to be a part of it. That first (regular-season home) game, I can't speak for guys who have played in the Stanley Cup Final, but it's going to probably be one of the craziest games that any of us have played in."

Jets coach Claude Noel and Winnipeg management will be doing their part to show Winnipeg hockey fans some of the best and most intriguing talent the organization has to offer.

Captain Andrew Ladd headlines the Jets that remained in Winnipeg. Along with veteran Nik Antropov, Jets management and fans will get their first in-game look at center Mark Scheifele, the seventh pick of the 2011 Entry Draft.

"It's going to be fun to get everyone in the building and finally start playing some games," Ladd said after Monday's practice. "I'm assuming it's going to be crazy in here. It's going to be the fans' first opportunity to show what they bring to the table and the excitement that they have for this team, so it should be fun."

Top goaltender Ondrej Pavelec will team with training-camp invite David Aebischer for the Winnipeg game. Noel said after Monday's practice that he expects Pavelec to play two periods against the Blue Jackets.

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On the blue line, the recently re-signed Zach Bogosian will dress along with Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Stuart. Bogosian's older brother, Aaron, is a Columbus prospect and will be with the Blue Jackets' Winnipeg-bound contingent, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Also staying in Winnipeg is a quartet of Manitoba hockey products. Among them is left wing Troy Bodie, who notched 59 NHL games last season with the Anaheim Ducks and Carolina Hurricanes, and is in camp on a tryout deal. His parents and brother will drive in from nearby Portage la Prairie, Man.

An opportunity to don a Winnipeg jersey and skate in his home province will be "very special," Bodie said.

A pair of Winnipeggers, chippy right wing Kevin Clark and left wing Jason Gregoire, also are expected to be in the Winnipeg lineup. Clark spent last season with the Manitoba Moose, the city’s former American league team. Gregoire will be playing his first pro season after a strong collegiate career two hours south of Winnipeg at the University of North Dakota.

Noel admitted his team is in uncharted waters, to some extent, given the city's NHL history and the significance of the game.

"I don't know what to expect," Noel said. "I have a pretty good idea of what to expect for the Montreal game. I think it will be good. I think it will be enthusiastic. If it's anything like our first practice, goodness, I thought our first practice was fabulous."

A potential pitfall for the home team would be trying to impress the crowd or over-complicate the game. Noel, however, sees the possible distractions as positive challenges to his club.

"I think it's all good," Noel said when asked about the game's significance possibly affecting his club. "I don't think it will be a distraction. I think, if anything, it will be a big help for us. I think you'll be able to see who is nervous, who has trouble in front of this excitable crowd. Those are the things that you want to look at and see how the response is."
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