Practising for the fans: Open workouts give Jets faithful a chance to see players up close and personal
Like proud hockey parents, dozens of fans find joy in watching Winnipeg's NHL stars go through their paces
He has the familiar look of a hockey dad who has hauled a child dreaming of stardom many times to chilly rinks, while downing stale coffee as locker-room sweat hangs in the air.
Except today, Brad Bernus, hunched forward as a symphony of skates carve the icy canvas in front of him, isn't looking at any child of his.
He is keeping watch over the likes of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler in a setting that conjures up images of young boys and girls learning the game, more than one of role models at the height of their profession.
Cup of joe in hand, Bernus, 37, is among those watching an open practice of the Winnipeg Jets — the city's favourite hockey sons.
Around 30 Jets fans, mostly men, are here on a recent morning at the Bell MTS Iceplex, like hockey parents — even though none of them have a son of their own on the team. Their credentials as fans are demonstrated by the fact they've bothered to be here at all.
There isn't a set schedule for the beloved NHL team's open Iceplex practices, which can make catching one tricky.
"I'm on vacation so I'm just here," Bernus said, chuckling. "Hanging out, watching the Jets practise."
He does have his own kids — a 12-year-old daughter who doesn't play the game, and a two-year-old daughter who may want to.
He says he's saving up money just in case his youngest chooses to play hockey. It's an expensive sport to love.
But he doesn't have to worry about his wallet when it comes to a Jets practice.
"It's a lot cheaper than a game," Bernus quips.
Never enough hockey
Standing along the back wall, Kelly Gordon knows rinks like this well, as the father of a 14-year-old who plays AAA hockey and is seemingly on the ice year-round.
Gordon isn't starving for hockey when he takes in an up-tempo practice for an NHL team mired in a funk that's unbecoming of the names on the roster.
"It either means I'm crazy or I'm just a big hockey fan," he said.
Yet there's an appeal to watching the stars ply their trade in a more intimate setting: you see drills to refine a power-play unit that's gone stagnant; players hollering when sniper Laine finds the twine that's eluded him at many recent games.
And then there's the speed.
Keith Mikkelson, a Jets season-ticket holder, ran many a practice for his sons when they were little.
A Jets practice, on the other hand, is "not even close to what I used to do," he said, laughing quietly at the comparison. "Mine was just little guys' coaching, so you're kind of just getting them to skate."
Mikkelson keeps abreast of open practice times by scanning the Jets website or Twitter account, but the team's tune-ups can be cancelled just hours before they're supposed to happen.
The recent retiree expected a practice on Louis Riel Day, but he and his grandson, 7, watched Dustin Byfuglien and one of the Jets defenceman's own tykes take to the ice instead.
Practices can be community events
Many teams in the NHL open practices to fans for free. Some, like the Chicago Blackhawks, hold a few sessions a month, while other clubs like the Toronto Maple Leafs make an event of the occasion by riding a subway in full hockey gear to their outdoor practice in front of city hall.
In Winnipeg, the Jets bar entry to their practices at the downtown Bell MTS Place, but welcome the public to the team's training facility on Portage Avenue, just west of the Perimeter Highway.
Katelin Baron has thought about showing up to a practice for a few years. The Estevan, Sask., resident was in Steinbach to visit family, and thought the practice would be a teaching opportunity for her son, Skylar Booker, 5, who dreams of snagging wristers with his glove.
"When they're this small, they lay down on the ice and do snow angels," she said. "We're kind of showing him, 'Hey, if you watch the goalie, he never lays down in the net.'"
The fans seem to appreciate the intimate nature of the practices — and they also seem optimistic the team is better than a recent slump suggests.
Events like this make the players seem more like one of us, the fans say.
After practice, Catlin Lang sits on a cement ledge outside the door where players will file out of the building and head to their vehicles.
He's carrying a navy blue jersey bearing Scheifele's name. It's not for him, but his upcoming wedding social. The groom-to-be can make the sweater a top prize with Scheifele's signature on it, he hopes.
Sent by a security guard to wait in his truck, the 25-year-old police officer watches as nearly every Jet, shunning winter coats, shuffles outside in a suit and tie.
So close, yet so far away
Before long, the first-ever Jets 2.0 draft pick slips out of the building and heads left.
Lang decides to try to flag Scheifele down as he drives off, but it doesn't work. Scheifele speeds off as if a lonely puck needed to be smacked into an open net.
The security guard tries to make excuses for what happened: there's plenty of demands already on one of the city's most popular Jets, the team's in a slump and Scheifele has a flight to catch.
Lang shrugs it off. He isn't bothered. He tried his best to get an autograph.
"Maybe I should have got a Laine jersey," he jokes.
The Jets' next open practice is on March 2.