A day before he and his teammates opened the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mark Scheifele was talking about pressure and the Winnipeg Jets.
"Hey, in any Canadian city there's going to be pressure to succeed," said Scheifele, perhaps the biggest star the greater NHL public has yet to discover. "That's what makes you better. That's what makes you motivated.
"You don't take that pressure and crumble under it. We're all competitive people. We all use that pressure as motivation."
Forty-eight hours later, Scheifele and his fellow Jets had all the motivation they needed. Despite swarming the Leafs out of the gate on Wednesday night, the Jets proved to be terrible in all of the areas they vowed they were fixing in training camp – taking bad penalties and then failing to kill them off, sloppy defensive play compounded by mediocre goaltending – and were embarrassed by a 7-2 margin in front of their own fans.
The Bell MTS Place is the smallest arena in the NHL by capacity but all of those 15,321 seats are sold for every Jets game and no team can boast louder or more passionate fans. They are also known for their inventive chants. When an instant rivalry sprang up last season between rookie sensations Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs and Patrik Laine of the Jets, the Winnipeg crowd took up the chant "Laine's better, Laine's better" one year ago in their first NHL confrontation when the young Finn outscored Matthews with three goals, including the overtime winner.
But there was only silence and a few boos by the end of Wednesday's season opener, which left Laine saying he was "embarrassed" and "ashamed." He was not paying lip service. There is a strong sense, from the players' dressing room up to team co-owner Mark Chipman's suite, that this is the season, six years after the Thrashers fled Atlanta to become the Winnipeg Jets, the team rewards the fans' loyalty and patience.
With Scheifele emerging as one of the best young forwards in the NHL and Laine giving Matthews a good run for last year's rookie-of-the-year honours, plus a few other young offensive stars, the Jets were considered a playoff team. But injuries, along with the above-mentioned problems, stalled the drive at ninth place in the Western Conference, seven points out of the last playoff spot with a 40-35-7 record. The Jets are expected to make a better challenge this season, even if they do play in the tough Central Division.
"I think that's the way we're all looking at it," Chipman said. "I think last year we thought we had a chance to take a step forward. A number of things didn't go our way."
One NHL general manager told Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman he considers the Jets "a sleeping giant." This provoked some mirth in the Jets dressing room, although it is clear the players are keenly aware of their fans' expectations. That is hard to miss in this city of 812,000 where the Jets elbowed aside even the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL as the most popular team.
"Somebody better get us some coffee, then," Jets centre Bryan Little said when apprised of the GM's assessment. "I don't know what to make of that comment. I think it's kind of a fair analysis. I think we had the team last year to do something good and it didn't work out. On paper we're a team that should be in the mix for the playoffs.
"The fans want to see a team in the playoffs. They want to have a team to cheer for and we haven't given them a lot since we've been here. You can tell the fans want to see a winning product on the ice. They deserve a team that goes out there to compete every night for a spot in the playoffs. We owe that to them as well as to have a good season."
Chipman thinks the honeymoon period is still on with the fans, though. Losing the original Jets to Phoenix in 1996 was a trauma that lingered, so there are lots of fans just happy to have an NHL team.
"I think losing this team back in '96 left a real mark on this community," he said. "I think people recognize now that it's an honour for our community to be playing in the National Hockey League.
"Obviously our fans want us to succeed and I don't think anybody feels that more than we do. There's an awesome sense of responsibility that we carry to make people feel good about the investment they made in the team."
The string of sellouts that began with the Jets' first game continues and there is a waiting list of 4,000 for season's tickets. Chipman says the season-ticket renewals remain strong as does the commitment by local sponsors.
However, the lack of any playoff action is getting worrisome, not to mention aggravating to at least some fans, although Chipman thinks there is a difference between those who call talk-radio shows and those who buy season's tickets.
"You're always going to have detractors, and some people say it hasn't come soon enough and I can accept that," he said. "I think for the most part our fans who are season-ticket holders are in lock step with us."
Since the Thrashers became the Jets in the 2011-12 season, they have only one playoff appearance, in 2014-15 after finishing out of the running in their first two years in Winnipeg. They lost in the first round and then missed the playoffs again for the next two seasons.
But this was just a continuation of what the Thrashers did in Atlanta. Since joining the league in 1999-2000, they made the playoffs once in 11 seasons and were swept in the first round.
What people tend to forget is that, while Winnipeg landed an existing NHL team rather than an expansion franchise, it was a franchise with a history of mediocrity and few prospects in the system. The rebuilding plan is now into its seventh year and only four original Thrashers are still regulars on the roster – Little, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom.
"I think as informed as we are as Canadians, or as we think we are as hockey fans, there wasn't an understanding of the extent to which that asset had been diminished," Chipman said. "There was nobody in the minor system we brought that is with us. There are a couple of guys still around but that is one thing we didn't get. The cupboards were bare in terms of developable assets. We really had to start from square one."
The plan is for this season to be the payoff to the fans. The weaknesses were addressed in the off-season and training camp. Free agent Steve Mason was signed to allow Connor Hellebuyck, the designated goaltender of the future, to develop at a slower pace, retired NHL referee Paul Devorski was brought to training camp to show the Jets how to avoid bad penalties and head coach Paul Maurice spent a lot of time on the defensive game and penalty killing.
More commitment to the fans was shown this week when winger Nikolaj Ehlers, 21, another of the Jets' young scoring stars with 64 points last season, was signed to a seven-year, $42-million (U.S.) contract.
Maurice said a lot of work was put into teaching players such as Laine and Ehlers "they're not going to score less" once they learn how to play a good defensive game.
"They've learned on the offensive side as well but, as their games round out, they become pros," Maurice said. "So we've invested two years in a lot of young players and we can see it in how they practise, how they're able to get through the driving parts, the hard parts of practice they can drive through. The next day they come back and they're fresh again, they're stronger men.
"So we believe we're stronger. Last year, we had over 900 games by players under the age of 25. We're expecting those players to be better incrementally in all parts of the game."
The loss to the Leafs showed the lessons still need more time to sink in. After a strong start that was rebuffed by Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, the Jets' discipline and defensive game collapsed, with Mason causing some worries with a mediocre night that resulted in the hook. Even the reputable power play was snuffed out by the Leafs, going 0-for-8.
As embarrassing as it was in front of the home crowd, Maurice can argue it's a young team and there are still 81 more games to show what they have learned. It's also a good idea the team got out of town Saturday for a three-game road trip. But just to make sure he expects them to learn quickly, the coach gave his players a good old-fashioned bag skate the morning after the loss.
"So we're not sitting and waiting three weeks," Maurice said. "Got to get it going. I told them we'll deal with this every day, all year. Because this franchise doesn't move forward until it can defend.
"You can put all the talent in the world on the ice, and you're not winning a damn thing until you've got a real good comfort level to defend."