The team. The city. The fans.
The decision was easy.
After experiencing a magical run to the playoffs and briefly settling in his new home here in Winnipeg, re-signing with the Jets was Drew Stafford’s top priority.
Set to become an unrestricted free agent last July 1, Stafford opted not to test the open market, officially putting pen to paper on a new two-year deal with an average annual value of $4.35 million on June 30.
From there, the excitement grew.
Stafford had a goal (celebration pictured here) and an assist in the playoffs (Getty Images)
“My experience last spring played a big role in the decision,” Stafford said. “I had the opportunity to play with some great players and every day I was around some of the best and most professional people in hockey. This is a very well run organization from top to bottom, and that was obvious to me from Day 1. (General Manager) Kevin (Cheveldayoff) showed a lot of respect for me and, in turn, I had a lot of respect for him and everyone else on the staff.
“Of course, getting that taste of being back in the playoffs, especially with how things went in Buffalo the last few years, that was special. Missing out on the playoffs is never fun and unfortunately it had been a few years for me.
“All things considered, it was an easy decision. Winnipeg was where I wanted to be.”
The Wisconsin product made his Jets debut on Feb. 12, 2015 against the Nashville Predators – just one day after the blockbuster trade was announced.
Chauffeured by Jets Team Services Coordinator Chris Kreviazuk, Stafford and fellow Buffalo transplant, defenceman Tyler Myers, joined the team after traveling nearly six hours on the night of the 11th, finally unpacking their bags at about 11:00pm local time in the heart of the Music City.
But the forward’s night was far from over.
After all, a trade – the anatomy of which we can’t imagine – can affect real life more than anything else in the sport.
In Stafford’s case it was even more difficult. Just three weeks prior, he and his wife, Hali, gave birth to a little baby boy. Excited, of course, about joining the hunt after a disappointing end to his tenure as a Buffalo Sabre, there was work to be done back home.
“It’s a strange feeling leaving on the same day,” Stafford said. “One minute I’m here, the next I’m there. Pack a bag, a few hugs and kisses and you’re off to the airport. I was literally on a plane to Nashville while my wife was moving out of the house and getting everything all organized. She was a rock star.
“There were a lot of little things that went into it — things that you wouldn’t automatically think of. My little guy had to get a passport, all that stuff. It was a pretty big process to get my family up here. For me, I was just focusing on hockey and trying to do my best to produce and help these guys win games.”
|Stafford & Tyler Myers each recorded points in just their second games as Jets, a 5-4 SO win over Detroit (Getty Images) |
Five days after the trade, Stafford finally arrived in Winnipeg after scoring the deciding goal in a 5-4 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings. For the next several weeks, he lived at the Fairmont at Portage and Main, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his family after going far too long without seeing them.
“Thankfully it didn’t take too long for me to get settled,” he said. “Once everything was taken care of back in Buffalo, I rented a house here and we were together again. I’m glad we could all experience our run the playoffs as a family.”
Stafford remembers that first home game – a wild, back-and-forth affair against the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 16. Strengthening their grasp on a wild-card playoff spot, the Jets won 5-4 in a shootout before one of the loudest crowds of the regular season.
It was then that he fully embraced the magnitude of the market.
“I had a pretty good idea of what to expect,” Stafford said. “Playing here against the Jets over the years, the MTS Centre was one I’d always had circled on the calendar. Even coming in as the enemy, it’s one of the most special – and challenging – places to play.
“Being on the other side of it now is even more exciting. The playoffs – man, that was on a whole other level. The fans are incredible and I’m lucky to play here.”
Stafford had an immediate impact, recording nine goals and 19 points in just 26 games. Returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the 29-year-old made an impression there, too, adding a goal and assist, finishing in a tie for third in team scoring in the opening-round series against the Anaheim Ducks.
Five months later, he’s convinced the Jets are ready to take the next step – and that he, a rejuvenated vet, can be a key contributor on a perennial playoff contender.
“We definitely want to get back (to the playoffs), but our main focus is playing the right way,” Stafford said. “We want to play the game hard, play the game fast and continue to improve on the little things that might have held us back last year. We’ve already addressed a few of those things and have adjusted our system accordingly.
Stafford finished the year with 10 goals and 21 points in 30 games with the Jets (Getty Images)
“We have incredibly high expectations of ourselves, but we’re not putting the cart before the horse. This is a tough division with some of the best teams in the National Hockey League, so we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on ‘the process’ to ensure we’re maximizing our potential, night in and night out.
“I honestly believe we’re building something special here. I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.”
It took nearly 100 points to make the playoffs last season in the Western Conference. Stafford says it would be foolish to expect anything less again this year, what with the moves made around the league and within the division, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks’ effort to reload following the effects of the inevitable summer cap crunch.
The Jets, meanwhile, are a team on the rise, guided in part by a host of young stars in pivotal positions. They’re another year older, more experienced and mature, especially after having a taste of that intense playoff competition.
At 29, Stafford feels he’s just entering his prime, and that he’s the perfect fit on an already talented group budding with potential.
“We know what we’re up against. It’s the most difficult division in hockey and that’s not likely to change anytime soon,” Stafford said. “That said, there’s no reason to believe we can’t beat any of the teams we’re talking about. Chicago, Dallas, Colorado, Nashville, St. Louis… We had success against these teams. We played tight, competitive games against them and we’re prepared to do it again.
“Both individually and as a team, you’re always trying to prove yourself in the NHL. We’re just going to have to do it again and take one step further.”
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com