Boston netminding coach Bob Essensa spent parts of six seasons playing in Winnipeg, and he, like many, is enthusiastic that the NHL appears on the verge of returning to the prairie city.
"As a Canadian, you felt a loss when you see teams move from Quebec and Manitoba, where people love the game of hockey. So it was a loss there. From a purely hockey standpoint, it's nice to see them get another team in the market," he said.
"They're already inheriting a nice hockey club. I was speaking with [Atlanta head coach] Craig Ramsey just recently. He's excited about going back. It's a wonderful opportunity for them to see what a very good hockey club has. Canadian hockey fans will love it," Essensa said Friday.
A Michigan State Spartan, Essensa was drafted by Winnipeg with the 69th overall pick in 1983. He said the experience of playing in Winnipeg was different than anywhere else he played.
"There's something to be said for those small-town Canadian teams that the players and the community really rally around. Certainly my best years hockeywise were in Winnipeg, and certainly my most enjoyable years from a community standpoint and team standpoint were there in Winnipeg, just because the players band together. They don't have maybe as many distractions as a big American city. From that standpoint, you're focused on hockey, you're focused on your teammates, and I think the team and the city is better off because of it," Essensa said.
He acknowledged that perhaps some free agents will shy away from signing on in Winnipeg.
"It's tough to say. Certainly in this day and age, with salary caps and whatnot, if I'm getting X-amount of dollars in Tampa and the same amount of money in Winnipeg, maybe I'm leaning towards going to Tampa. But like I said, I think there's a quality to playing to Winnipeg that can't be matched anywhere else. The community will really rally around them, rightfully so, and everybody will feel at home very quickly," he said.
While most of the discussion surrounding the potential relocation has been on the excitement in Canada, Boston forward Rich Peverley saw his career resurrected in Atlanta when the Thrashers picked him up on waivers from Nashville during the 2008-09 season, and he said the news has saddened him.
"Yeah, it does. I think it could be a successful franchise. Obviously, making the playoffs one out of 10 years can be tough. I think there's hockey fans there; I just think there's a lot of transports from other cities," Peverley said.
Even though he no longer plays for the team, he said he will likewise be sad if it is no longer an NHL stop.
"I think so. Atlanta's a great city. It's got a lot of things to do. I really enjoyed my time there. It's too bad that the league couldn't find a way to make it work," he said.
Malone's fond memories of Winnepeg
Tampa forward Ryan Malone had an interesting memory from Winnipeg; he recalled taking a spring break trip with some hockey buddies from St. Cloud State after his first year at the Minnesota college.
"Freshman year at St. Cloud, we drove a Winnebago for spring break to Winnipeg. Try that on. We drove to Winnipeg in a Winnebago," he said. "So, decided to take a weekend trip up there. The beer's a little stronger up there."
A good time was apparently had by all, and Malone said he can understand why there is excitement at the prospect of Winnipeg returning to the NHL.
"You see the Canadian cities, you see how much hockey means to everybody up north. It's a great thing. I'm sure they're not looking too hard for everyone to get season tickets. Obviously, if it doesn't work out in Atlanta -- obviously Atlanta had their opportunity, obviously they tried to do the best they could do there, and if that's how it happened, so be it. Go somewhere where you might sell out the rink, right?" Malone said.
So, just where did the Winnebago get parked?
"On my buddy's front lawn, actually," he said. "I just know because there wasn't snow; I remember there was grass. There was grass. It was a long time ago."