Thrashers excited to call Winnipeg home
Players look forward to heading north, playing before bigger crowds
Rob Schremp can't wait to get settled in his third National Hockey League city in eight months.
During the 2006-07 American Hockey League season, the Thrashers centre played two games at Winnipeg's MTS Centre against the Manitoba Moose as a member of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and remembers a passionate and supportive crowd.
"It was a good experience. They had a good fan base and were excited about the game," Schremp said over the phone shortly after the NHL announced Tuesday's sale and relocation of the Atlanta squad to Winnipeg-based True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd., pending June 21 approval by the league's board of governors.
"What I like about playing in Canada is the fans hold you accountable. They know when you've done something good and they give it to you when you've done something bad. You don't want to get booed out of your building or have your own fans at the grocery store telling you how bad you played.
"I think the guys are real excited about it. It's a chance to play in Canada and there's a lot of Canadian guys on the team."
The 24-year-old Schremp isn't one of them, although the native of Fulton, N.Y., knows all about the thirst for hockey in Canada after spending his junior days as a standout in the Ontario Hockey League with Mississauga and London.
Evander Kane, 19, appreciates the chance to move closer to his Vancouver home, and the Thrashers left-winger — fresh off a 19-goal, 43-point season — could quickly become a fan favourite in Winnipeg.
Under the microscope
"I think playing in Canada is obviously pretty special," said Kane, who set a Vancouver Giants single-season record with 48 goals during the 2008-09 Western Hockey League campaign. "You're definitely going to be under the microscope a lot more and I'm looking forward to that.
"I enjoy the pressure and there's definitely going to be pressure on us to perform and represent the City of Winnipeg and Province of Manitoba."
Right-winger Blake Wheeler played just two months in Atlanta after being part of a four-player trade between the Thrashers and Boston Bruins.
He understands the agony of losing a team and the thrill of seeing it return, having grown up in Minnesota, where the North Stars moved from Bloomington to Dallas for the 1993-94 season. Four years later, Minnesota was awarded an expansion franchise and began play in 2000 in St. Paul as the Minnesota Wild.
"It's the nature of the business of the game to try to expand to new places," Wheeler said, "but ultimately these teams had to come back and Minnesota and Winnipeg now have hockey teams, and that's the way it should be."
Wheeler, 24, has never visited Winnipeg despite the fact he spent his childhood and college years about a seven-hour drive away in Minnesota.
'Quite an experience'
"These fans have been waiting for a team for 15 years, so it's going to be really exciting to finally see what everyone's thinking up there," said Wheeler, a restricted free agent this summer. "And to see that building [the 15,000-seat MTS Centre] the first night is going to be quite an experience."
It'll be a lot more fun than playing in half-empty arenas that Schremp has experienced in his NHL career with the New York Islanders and Thrashers.
"Those home games really feel like home games when you got 17,000 or 18,000 in the building going crazy for you. That's what gives you an advantage," said Schremp, who played to crowds of 16,000-plus in his seven-game stint with Edmonton over three seasons. Atlanta plucked him off waivers from New York on Feb. 28.
Kane expressed some disappointment leaving Atlanta, saying the city boasts a strong core group of fans that supported the Thrashers. But the fact the team never won a playoff game over 11 seasons didn't help grow its fan base.
"I enjoyed the city … and envisioned a long part of my career in Atlanta," said Kane, who the Thrashers drafted fourth overall in 2009. "What I'll remember the most is my draft and going there for my first training camp.
"[But] I'm really looking forward to embracing the city [of Winnipeg] and having a successful team."
So, too, are long-suffering Winnipeggers.