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Jim Slater was in the grocery store this week when a woman he assumed wasn't in the demographics for a die-hard hockey fan approached him.
"She came up to me and said, 'We love the Jets and we love you. You're my favorite player.'"
Welcome to Winnipeg, where a forward who plays just under 15 minutes per game is a celebrity in the supermarket. "We knew it was going to be crazy, but now they know this team's for real, so it's totally taken off," said Slater, 29.
Of course, Jim Slater's not just a random contributor to the inaugural season of Jets 2.0, in which Winnipeg is currently tied in points for the Southeast Division lead with the Florida Panthers. The Petoskey, Mich., native is in his seventh NHL season, all spent with the Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets. He's one third of the "GST Line" with Tanner Glass and Chris Thorburn, one of the best energy lines in the NHL this season and an instant fan favorite in the 'Peg.
We talked to Slater about the Jets' fortunes this season; the demise of the Atlanta Thrashers; the Words With Friends battles among Jets players; his "Take Jim Slater To Work" day shenanigans; the rabid nature of Winnipeg fans; and his desire to travel into outer space. Enjoy.
Q. You may have thought before the season that the Jets would be in the playoff hunt. Did you honestly think they'd be challenging for a division title?
SLATER: I totally did. Last year, we really went downhill in January, but for the first half of the season we were playing some great hockey and were top of our division the whole time. Then January hit, and we just took a downspin from there. So we had a lot of the same players as last year — I thought for sure we could be close to a Southeastern championship this year.
Home ice has been a hell of an advantage this year, huh?
It's hard not to play well in front of these fans. They're really knowledgeable about the game, so we definitely want to put our best effort out there. When they see the little things that we do, they really appreciate it. They're also some of the loudest fans I've ever heard while playing hockey.
Is there still a honeymoon period for the Jets from fans and the media, being that it's the inaugural season?
Listening to different radio stations, reading different newspapers, there are a couple of sets of fans.
You have the fans that are just happy to have a team here; you have another set that really wants the team to do well; and then you have a third set that wants you to win the Stanley Cup in the first year.
Obviously, you're going to have fans that want the most. And as players, we want the most. We would love to win a Stanley Cup this year. You're also going to have fair-weather fans that are just happy that a team's here and don't care if we lose every game of the season; and you're going to have fans that want to see you do well and make the playoffs.
If there's one guy who's had a big change in coverage from Atlanta to Winnipeg, it's probably been Evander Kane. He's taken heat on and off the ice in the local media. How has he handled it?
People are going to come up with stories and try to bring down a player like Kaner. I know him. He's one of my teammates. They're going to be hard on a young kid like that, but he's actually really mature for his age. He handles situations really well. It's just going to make him stronger as he gets older.
Does it still make your head spin that the relocation from Atlanta to Winnipeg happened so quickly at the end of last season?
Atlanta was always in the talks. We always knew we were going to be moved at some point, we just didn't know where. We always thought it was going to be Phoenix [moving] first, but then Phoenix dropped off and that week it was done.
It was quick, but Winnipeg management here made it easy — to get accustomed to the city. It was a very smooth transition.
When it first happened, I didn't know what to expect at all with Winnipeg.
Were you like Bryzgalov, thinking that you'd just been relocated to a land with no parks and with a series of tunnels that protected you from the arctic chill?
[Laughs] To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. I had no clue what it was all about. But I went up with an open mind. Have fun with it. And it's been a great experience. I can see myself living here now.
Where did the GST Line originate?
It was early in the year and we were playing some real good hockey. These guys that do a radio show here, Illegal Curve, came up with it. I thought it was cool. It just kinda took off. It's been great.
Energy lines that do the grunt work start to develop cult followings. Bobby Holik, who you played with in Atlanta, was on The Crash Line in New Jersey that played a integral role in their 1995 Cup run.
Coach has given us all a pretty good opportunity, playing the minutes that we play and playing against other team's top lines. He's got good belief in us. A lot of respect. We love it, because we wanted this for awhile.
With Thorburn, I've played with him for about four years. Glass was an easy fit on that left side because we're all similar type players: Get in on the forecheck, hit anything that moves, and we're pretty responsible defensively. It's worked out well.
Tanner Glass was famous for his Scrabble prowess in Vancouver. Have you challenged him on Words With Friends?
[Laughs] I'm actually playing him right now! He is actually pretty good. He's beaten me twice already.
A lot of guys on the team play it. There are two guys that are really good. Randy Jones has beaten me 22 straight times. Chris Mason is really good, too. He'll come up with great words and he'll just have good placement with them.
That's what kills me on that game: the placement. I can never pull off the side by side words for the big points.
That's what Jonesy does. The way he plays, we call it "the New Jersey Devils trap."
You were cut on the leg against the New York Islanders earlier this season. Was that the worst skate slice you've suffered in a game?
That's the first one I've ever had, so it was the worst one.
I knew a skate hit me, but I didn't think I was cut. I could feel something wasn't right. I skated to the bench, put my glove down and felt there, just to see if there was any blood. And there was just a little bit of blood.
I went back to the bench, sat down and pulled my pant leg up. [The wound] was wide open. The trainer was like, 'Whoops, we gotta go!"
I went in there and the doctors did a good job stitching me up — I came back with 3 minutes left in the third period, but we were down by a goal and I didn't play for the rest of the game.
It was scary. The doctor said the cut was an inch away from my artery. It's crazy … I just think there's gotta be some way to make some piece of equipment that will prevent that from happening.
Whenever we get an incident — like when Richard Zednik was cut — there's always renewed debate about better protecting players again skate cuts. Are you in favor of having more gear that specifically guards against cuts?
We have some stuff right now, like socks that go up all the way to your calf. But nothing really on the thighs. I've started wearing things on my wrists now. You get cut once and it scares you. It's amazing that it doesn't happen more often, with skates flying around.
You tweeted an photo of you injury (NSFW), which has to be my favorite NHL player trend on social media. Is there an informal competition between you guys to see who can horrify the fans most?
[Laughs] You're not supposed to post injury pictures. I remember Adrian Peterson (of the Minnesota Vikings) tweeted a photo of his injured shoulder. But this isn't an injury that was going to prevent me from playing, so I just tweeted and showed the fans that it could happen in the game.
I got some good feedback on it.
You seem like you've really taken to Twitter.
I was on it for about three months before I came out into the public. Evander Kane was all over me about getting on there. One night I just figured I'd do it. He tweeted that I was on there, and in the first hour I got 2,000 followers. It's pretty addicting now. I use it for community service events I'm doing, or things I want to get out there. Nothing too personal.
You mentioned community service: Where did "Take Jim Slater To Work Day" come from?
Last year I was living by myself, and I'd get kinda bored in the afternoons. So last year in Atlanta I started something, but it was more corporate. This year I wanted to do it more intimate with the fans and the hard-working people of Winnipeg.
I've done two and the experiences have been great. We've got four more planned. It lets you get out in the public and see what other people do for a living.
It made big headlines in the Globe & Mail that you would spend $250,000 to go to outer space for 30 seconds, rather than buying a new car. For real?
I think it's unbelievable that you're able to leave this Earth, go to outer space. For me, a memory like that is more priceless than a Bentley. That's just who I am.
I think the Virgin Mobile guy, Richard Branson, has a thing that shoots up high, turns around and comes back down. I haven't really looked into it yet, but it's something that I would really, really consider doing.
Are you completely sure that [Winnipeg Jets owner and billionaire] David Thomson doesn't own a spaceship?
[Laughs] He owns everything else, but I don't know about a spaceship.
As a Michigan State boy, your thoughts on the Winter Classic coming to Ann Arbor?
It's cool. Obviously, Ann Arbor has the biggest stadium. It's going to be a great weekend. Detroit needs something like this. And I always go back to when it started: The Cold War, Michigan and Michigan State. We started it.
Were you a Wings fan growing up?
Yeah. My family and I had season tickets, and even though we lived an hour and a half away we made every game. I remember watching Steve Yzerman, Bob Probert and all those guys. I grew up with these guys. It's all I was ever around, and it's all I ever wanted to do. Watch hockey and play hockey. I could probably still name you every player that's come through the Wings organization.
What are you listening to these days?
I don't really listen to my iPod, but if I did … Rhianna's pretty popular. I like Metallica. Pearl Jam. Tom Petty.
What are you watching on the road?
I watch whatever they throw on. But I sit next to Randy Jones, and we've been playing Tiger Woods golf a lot.
The one fast food item you can't live without?
I don't eat fast food. I'm a healthy, organic guy. I actually just went to four different grocery stores today to get my shopping done.
Last good movie you saw?
And finally … your adult beverage of choice?
My adult beverage of choice would be Grolsch.
Readily available in Winnipeg?
Haven't found it. [Laughs]