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Bowness says rift with players is over: 'We all want to be Winnipeg Jets'


WINNIPEG — Rick Bowness has moved on from being criticized by some Winnipeg Jets at the end of his first season as head coach.

On the eve of his second training camp, Bowness told reporters Wednesday that he spoke to players over the summer about comments made after the team was eliminated in its first-round playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights.

"We’ve already addressed all of that," Bowness said. "We’ve all moved on from that. That’s four and a half months ago, so that’s not even an issue.

"We talked. We put everything on the table and we moved on."

After the Jets were eliminated by Vegas with a 4-1 loss in Game 5, Bowness told reporters he was "so disappointed and disgusted right now."

"As soon as we were challenging for first place and teams were coming after us, we had no pushback," he said at the time. "This series we had no pushback. Their better players were so much better than ours, it's not even close."

Players such as Blake Wheeler, who was stripped of his captaincy before last season in favour of three alternate captains, criticized Bowness’s comments in exit interviews with media.

"I think he could have been honest with us," Wheeler had said. "We could have had those discussions behind closed doors. So I didn't agree with how he handled himself after that game."

Asked for his take, goalie Connor Hellebuyck had replied, "Yeah, he said it perfectly," referring to Wheeler sitting beside him.

Wheeler is no longer with the Jets after the NHL club put him on waivers June 30 to buy out his contract. The veteran forward signed a one-year deal the next day with the New York Rangers.

Hellebuyck is still with the Jets, one of six regular players on expiring contracts.

Forward Adam Lowry was recently named the club’s new captain after he was one of the alternates last season with defenceman Josh Morrissey and top-line centre Mark Scheifele, who’s also a potential unrestricted free agent next summer.

Bowness said Wednesday there are good vibes among the team heading into this season.

"I do know this, and this is the most important thing, is that all want to be Winnipeg Jets. And I just love hearing that," said Bowness, who’s in the final year of his two-year deal with the club.

"And they're all good players, they're all good people and they're very happy to be here in Winnipeg. They're very proud to be a Winnipeg Jet and that's the most important thing, so we look forward to working with them."

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff also talked to reporters Wednesday and said he doesn’t think there is any negativity lingering in the players’ relationships with Bowness.

"I think that (Bowness) is pretty clear that, ‘I’m going to hold you to a high standard and I’m going to be fair,’" Cheveldayoff said.

"Again, there’s going to be a level of acceptability and accountability that needs to come from the players first and that’s what we want to establish here."

The Jets had sat atop the Western Conference in mid-January last season before starting a slide. They only grabbed the second wild-card spot in Game 81 and finished 46-33-3.

The team was hit by injuries before and during the playoffs to Morrissey, Scheifele and winger Nikolaj Ehlers.

Cheveldayoff said he had no time frame on contract talks with Hellebuyck or Scheifele. The team’s other four potential UFAs include defencemen Brenden Dillion and Dylan DeMelo, forward Nino Niederreiter and newly acquired goalie Laurent Brossoit.

He did have a "good" meeting with Hellebuyck when the veteran netminder arrived in Winnipeg for camp.

"A lot of the focus from the meeting is what I said, ‘We’re going to try to win,’" Cheveldayoff said.

There will be some battles at camp in Winnipeg’s forward group with the departure of Wheeler, as well as the trade of second-line centre Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Los Angeles Kings for forwards Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafollo and Rasmus Kupari.

Bowness said a difference at this year’s camp will be his familiarity with most of the players and their knowledge of the system.

"We did a lot of good things last year that we will build on," he said. "That being said, you can't lose sight of the fact that we didn't win the Stanley Cup. Like 31 other teams, we've got to get better.

"We've got to demand more from ourselves, we've got to expect more from ourselves and that's what we're going to be pushing here in training camp."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.