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Eakin's Winnipeg roots make West Final with Golden Knights more special

Center 'loving it' when Jets fans get loud

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

WINNIPEG -- This quote is from Vegas Golden Knights center Cody Eakin about skating at Bell MTS Place in his hometown of Winnipeg: "This is the best thing ever. It's unreal. So many fans. It's so loud. It's crazy."

Except he didn't say it Saturday, when the Golden Knights played the Winnipeg Jets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final -- 15,321 fans in the stands, 27,000 more on the shut-down streets outside, virtually all wearing the same color for the whiteout.

He said it Jan. 31, 2006, when he was 14 and stole the show at the 2006 CCM AHL All-Star Skills Competition.

 

[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Golden Knights series coverage]

 

At the time, Eakin was playing AAA bantam and one of four local kids invited to participate in the skills event the day before the 2006 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic at what was then known as MTS Centre.

He got to dress in the Manitoba locker room with the pros. He got to perform with them in front of 14,738 fans, with the glass removed so everyone could get a closer look. And he got to show what he could do.

In the Rbk Fastest Skater, he posted a time of 14.704 seconds, not far behind the winning time of 14.084 seconds by Portland's Ryan Shannon. In the Rbk Accuracy Shooting, he broke four targets in five shots -- better than any pro. The official winners were Lowell's Keith Aucoin and Norfolk's Martin St. Pierre, who each broke four targets in eight shots.

The headline in the Winnipeg Free Press: "Bantam player, 14, whips pros in accurate shooting competition."

Eakin might have seemed destined for pro hockey. But who would have thought he would be here now, back in his hometown, back in the same rink, playing in the NHL's final four in front of family and friends?
The NHL didn't have a team in Winnipeg, let alone Las Vegas.

"To be here in Winnipeg is probably, like, crazy," said his mother, Myrna Eakin. "Never, ever would have thought that."

Said his sister Cassidy Eakin: "It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What are the odds?"

* * * * *

Cody never got to see the original Jets play at the old Winnipeg Arena. He was 4, almost 5, when they played their final game April 28, 1996, and too young to understand when they left to become the Phoenix Coyotes.

Playing for the Jets was more fantasy than dream.

"The icon of the Jets was always something I was in love with," he said. "But they were never around, so …"

So he rooted for players like Mike Modano more than teams, and he focused on playing.

He came from a hockey family. Bruce Eakin, his uncle, played nine games for the Calgary Flames from 1981-85 and four for the Detroit Red Wings in 1985-86. Cassidy and Chelsea Eakin, his older sisters, played competitive hockey. Cassidy played one season at Robert Morris College in Chicago and still plays in a rec league.

"I would always beat him up, and then all of a sudden, he just grew one day and he was taller than me," Cassidy said. "And we stopped."

She laughed.

"Our whole family was just, you get home from school, and everyone goes to their organized sports," she said. "There was never much time -- and I'm speaking for myself, especially, but the same with Cody -- there was never much time to watch hockey because we were always playing, and we were all at the highest level you could play. There was tons of events we were in all the time."

When Cody was about 7, he made the Winnipeg Junior Jets. For years, instead of going on summer vacations, the Eakin family would go to tournaments in places like Edmonton and Regina, Saskatchewan.

"Making the Junior Jets was huge," his mother said. "That was, in my mind, the dream team to make for summer hockey, elite hockey."

Cody left home at 16 to play for Swift Current of the Western Hockey League. The Washington Capitals selected him in the third round (No. 85) of the 2009 NHL Draft.

Then in 2011-12, just as he was beginning his pro career, the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and became the new version of the Jets. While his friends were in downtown Winnipeg for the new Jets' first game Oct. 9, 2011, he watched in Hershey, Pennsylvania, home of the Capitals' AHL affiliate.

He got called up less than a month later, and his seventh NHL game was in Winnipeg on Nov. 17, 2011. The night before, he and forward Mathieu Perreault, then his roommate and Capitals teammate, went to his childhood home for dinner. His mother made pierogis.

"It was everything I thought it [would be]," Cody said. "Scared. Nervous. … The first game [in Winnipeg] obviously was pretty insane. It was pretty exciting."

* * * * *

This is pretty insane and exciting too.

The Capitals traded Eakin to the Dallas Stars on June 22, 2012. He spent five seasons with them and established himself as an NHL player, with 146 points (61 goals, 85 assists) in 349 games. But he was left unprotected in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft -- and claimed by Vegas general manager George McPhee, his GM in Washington.

"In the beginning, when that day came where they said he was going to Vegas, it's kind of like you think he's a castoff," his mother said. "And I'm sure everybody thought that for all those players that were put unprotected or whatever. But once he got there, when I'd text him and stuff like that, he'd just say, 'This is just awesome.'"

Eakin became the third-line center as Vegas shattered records for first-year teams, won the Pacific Division and made the conference final. He had 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in 80 regular-season games. He has four points (three goals, one assist) in 11 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Right now, Cody is playing with a lot of confidence," assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon said. "He's a great skater. He has great work ethic. Those are the strengths of his game. He's a big part of our penalty kill. He's played on a line where we've got good production through the playoffs. … He's had a lot of poise. You need players to elevate their game at certain times of the year. Right now, Cody's really been doing that."

Right now, he's in Winnipeg, in the NHL, in the conference final, and it's funny how things work out. The reporter who wrote the article on him in the Free Press when he stole the show in the skills competition? Gary Lawless? He works for the Golden Knights now as their insider. The roommate and Capitals teammate who came over for pierogis? Mathieu Perreault? He plays for the Jets now.

Cody is all business, seeing his mother briefly for Mother's Day, turning down requests from friends to meet up. Still, during warmups Saturday, he checked out the stands to see if he recognized anyone. He saw his mother and sister Cassidy, wearing Vegas gear and looking like, as his mother said, "two peppercorns in a sea of salt."

This quote is from Vegas Golden Knights center Cody Eakin about skating at Bell MTS Place in his hometown of Winnipeg, and it's from Sunday despite a 4-2 loss Saturday.

"I've been here a few times," he said. "I've seen it get real loud in here. When I was in Dallas, there were some big games. But I haven't heard it that loud. The anthems were great. I'm always fairly loose. I try and enjoy every minute. So when they get loud, I'm loving it."

***

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