Asham finally plays on home ice

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Penguins winger Arron Asham is 33, playing for his fifth NHL team and is three games from the 700th of his career. Tonight, he experiences something new.

Asham will be playing back home for the first time when the Penguins face Winnipeg.

He grew up in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, about an hour west of Winnipeg. He was playing junior hockey when the Winnipeg Jets moved more than 1,000 miles south and became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996, the same summer Asham was drafted in the third round by Montreal.

"It was tough," Asham said. "To see them leave because of how the economy was, it hurt. A lot of people wanted them there, but they just couldn't afford them."


Scouting report
  • Matchup: Penguins vs. Winnipeg Jets, 8:38 p.m. today, MTS Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
  • TV/Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ondrej Pavelec for Jets.
  • Penguins: Are 2-0-1 on road. ... Among NHL leaders with 33.3 shots per game. ... Jordan Staal is three goals shy of 100 for his career.
  • Jets: As Atlanta Thrashers, lost 11 of past 12 vs. Penguins. ... Have been outscored, 13-5. ... Are 0 for 13 on power play.
  • Hidden stat: This is the Penguins' seventh game, just the Jets' fourth.

When the Atlanta Thrashers foundered financially, they were moved to Winnipeg after last season. The franchise took the name the Winnipeg team had before. The Canadian dollar is much stronger than it was in the mid-1990s, worth slightly more than the United States dollar.

"Maybe this 15-year layoff was exactly what they needed," Asham said. "They're back. They're excited to have their team back, and they're showing it by the way they're supporting them.

"It's great. The city's really excited for it. The fans are there. The support is there. So, hopefully, they can keep getting that, and the Canadian dollar stays strong."

Winnipeg has a newer arena, MTS Centre, and its home opener Oct. 9 drew a raucous, overflow crowd.

Drawing from a metropolitan area population of about 750,000 and less than 1.3 million in the province, ownership group True North Sports and Entertainment could find things to be fragile long term.

Asham sees the Jets as a means for growth.

"When I was younger, whenever everyone would go to the city, we'd go there," he said. "It's a nice city. This team is only going to help them."

It hasn't been a glamorous beginning on the ice. Winnipeg is 0-3 and is being badly outscored and outplayed.

"Our numbers reflect exactly where we've played," first-year coach Claude Noel told the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday after the Jets' 4-1 loss at Phoenix in a meeting of the new and former Winnipeg teams.

"I believe we're better than that, but we haven't proved it to ourselves yet. I'm not sure what we're waiting for."

Although there has been turnover in management since the move from Atlanta, the team remains largely the same. Key players who relocated from Georgia include forwards Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Nic Antropov, Johnny Oduya and former Penguin Chris Thorburn; defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Ron Hainsey; and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.

Forward Richard Park, 35, is the only Penguins player who participated in an NHL game in Winnipeg before the original Jets cleared out. He has some mixed feelings about the relocation, not wanting to forget about Atlanta.

"It's always someone's loss that is someone's gain. It's kind of twofold," Park said.

"As a player and a fan, anytime that the game can be brought to Canada, you look at that. There's no denying that it's a very passionate country about the sport. Like every player, I'm very happy to see the NHL go to a market that is yearning for a team."

Park doesn't have vivid recollections of Winnipeg.

"Not too many," he said. "Just cold.

"I do remember we went to a Ukrainian restaurant that was pretty good. Other than that, not much."

He doesn't expect tonight's game to be a trip down memory lane.

"It's a different building, different team, different organization," Park said.

But it's still Winnipeg, home to infamous Portage and Main, an intersection in the heart of downtown.

"The coldest corner in the world," Asham said, reciting the spot's reputation.

"Let me tell you, once you get down there and feel that wind whipping through there, it's cold."

NHL realignment is on the way, but for this season the Jets are maintaining a Southeast Division schedule. That means two trips there for the Penguins, who can expect to experience the deep freeze the city offers for their game Dec. 23.

For his first NHL game there, Asham is finding himself to be a popular man. As of Saturday, he had 40 ticket requests and counting.

"It's going to be good," he said. "I have a lot of people going.

"I've been around a long time now, so for me it's just going to be another game. For friends and family, it's going to be something special for them, and it's going to be fun to be a part of."


For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly


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