He was the conscience of the Winnipeg Jets, a valued veteran who didn’t speak often but whose voice carried tremendous weight.
The epitome of a true professional, a guy who showed up to work and did everything he was asked to do – and more.
A rare player who has spent his entire career with one organization, even if that included a franchise move.
When that franchise relocated to Winnipeg, this player took it upon himself to change his number, knowing that a Jets 1.0 franchise icon was synonymous with No. 10.
If those clues didn’t lead you to the logical conclusion, the player in question is none other than Bryan Little and he was back in the building last weekend as the Jets took on the Edmonton Oilers.
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He mostly arrived unannounced and in typical Little fashion, his preference was to remain mostly anonymous.
And though he made an exception for an appearance with Sara Orlesky on TSN during the first intermission, Little didn’t want to draw attention to himself by making more media availability to provide an update on the way he was doing or the latest news. his recovery was.
But during one of the stoppages, the internal camera focused on Little, who was wearing a Tragically Hip t-shirt with a maple leaf logo under his blazer and he nonchalantly waved to the crowd and waved. allowed himself to crack a smile.
As people inside the building took a moment to acknowledge that Little was displayed on the scoreboard, the polite applause turned into a roar and many fans rose to their feet to show their appreciation.
” It’s awesome. He was such a great player, a great person for this organization. After playing with him for a while, it puts a smile on your face,” Jets center Adam Lowry said.
“I think that’s kind of the person he was, the player he was. Kind of flying under the radar. You were always playing with other guys who were getting recognition; he was always okay with He just likes to be in the back of the room, out of the spotlight, letting the other guys take credit for it. Kind of doesn’t want to be in the public eye.
“As you see and start to realize that they really recognize who he was and what he meant to our team and the city. You realize what he meant to the fans, that they thanked him and really appreciated his presence. It’s quite a moving moment. »
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It was likely an emotional moment for Little, whose last game with the Jets was on November 4, 2019 when he was shot in the head/ear, resulting in a serious injury that more than likely ended his NHL career.
Hearing that roar from the crowd is something many athletes miss when it comes time to hang up the blades, the type of moment that can send shivers down your spine.
It’s also a reminder of what Little left behind, a game that brought him so much joy, long before the Atlanta Thrashers made him the 12th overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
One day you’re riding as a second-line center for an NHL team and then it comes to a screeching halt, but not before you try to get medical clearance to make a comeback.
It must not be easy to cross.
But in Little’s way, he was upbeat and expressing his gratitude for his health when I passed him in the hallway during the game during intermission.
It was not an official farewell for Little; it will surely come at a later date and be complete with a bit more of the pomp and circumstance needed to celebrate the contributions of a player whose name is littered throughout the franchise’s record books.
While many of those numbers are impressive, including 843 games played in 13 NHL seasons, 217 goals and 521 points, Little was always the type of player whose value was enhanced by the intangibles.
When critics questioned whether he was a true No. 1 center, Little took the comments lightly and anchored the front line with Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd.
When it was time for Mark Scheifele to reprise the role, Little didn’t knock on the coach’s office door and ask for more ice time or to be moved, he took on the role of providing defensive zone coverage when lined up with offensively gifted wingers Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.
When the Jets set a franchise record for wins and points in 2017-18, he didn’t flinch when the acquisition of Paul Stastny in a term deal meant he had now been pushed in the third and fourth lines. .
When the Jets looked to bolster center depth a year later by bringing in Kevin Hayes, Little again said all the right things and backed those words up with actions, earning his job before the series ended with the Jets. St. Louis Blues.
The following offseason he was back at center of the second line and just under two weeks before suffering the horrific injury, Little was in the spotlight, delivering the overtime winner for the Jets in the Heritage Classic away game against the Calgary Flames.
It was a highlight for Little, especially as an injury kept him out of the 2016 Heritage Classic in Winnipeg.
With snow falling in Regina and much of Canada watching, Little provided a Kodak moment that will last a lifetime.
No, it wasn’t the Stanley Cup Finals winner, but it was the kind of thing a lot of people dream of when they play on an outdoor rink and dream of becoming an NHL player.
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Perhaps more importantly, Little left a legacy for some of the young players he served as an example.
“It was amazing. For me as a young man, Bryan’s work ethic, his commitment to the game and being a pro, doing the same thing every day over and over, his level fitness, all of those things were things that as a young player you strive to try to keep up with,” said Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey, who became a key part of the leadership group as a assistant captain.
“He’s not a guy who says a lot of things. We joked on the bench that getting on the Jumbotron, while it probably meant a lot to him, was probably the last thing he wanted.
“But I learned so much from him. Looking back, anyone who’s played with him, when you ask them, can’t help but say he’s a great guy, a great person. That meant a lot of to see him there. Just terrible obviously how lucky he was. But his impact on my career, on all of us who arrived, would say the same thing.
“The impact lasted with us and lasted with our team. It’s good to see him being recognized. »
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Not only was Little an honest player who did so many little things right, in his dealings with the media he was always open and told it like it was whether things were going well or there was a bump. on the road to cross.
It was one of the many things I appreciated about him during his time with the Jets and was happy to pass that on during our chat.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.
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