Jets’ Canadian, U.S. players swap potshots ahead of world junior championship

The Winnipeg Jets are only in Day 2 of training camp but their shots are already game ready.

The NHL team’s players have been chirping one another since the medal match-ups were finalized Monday night for the 2021 world junior hockey championship.

“Before I talked to the Canada guys, of course I had to talk to the Finnish guys and kind of rub it in their face this morning,” Nebraska-born defenceman Neal Pionk said following Tuesday’s training camp at the Bell MTS Iceplex.

The United States edged Finland in one of Monday’s two semifinal games, scoring with 1:16 remaining to win 4-3.

Canada, meanwhile, humbled Russia 5-0 in the other semifinal to advance to Tuesday’s gold-medal game against the U.S., which starts at 8:30 p.m. CT.

Neal Pionk, a big fan of the world junior hockey championships, is ready to deliver some ribbing to his Jets teammates. Pionk is one of 15 Americans on the NHL club’s roster. (Winnipeg Jets/Zoom)

Pionk said he’s always been a big fan of the world juniors and will “be tuning in for sure” to the championship game.

“As a kid, my brother and I would wake up, if the tournament was overseas, at 4 a.m. to watch the game,” he said, adding he’ll have his phone at the ready to talk smack to his Canadian teammates.

“I expect there will be a lot of texts tonight.”

Canada will try to defend the gold medal they won last year, while the U.S. is guaranteed to go home with a medal after being knocked out of the 2020 tournament in the quarterfinals by the Finns.

Two other Finnish Jets — Ville Heinola and Henri Nikkanen — play Russia in Tuesday’s bronze medal game, which started at 4:30 p.m. CT.

Mark Scheifele, who won bronze with Canada at the 2012 WJC and then placed fourth with the team in 2013, is expecting “a lot of wagers” to be made Tuesday night.

“Let’s hope that Canada comes through,” he said with a quick smile.

The Jets’ roster includes 12 Canadians, 15 Americans, six Finns and one Russian in goaltender Mikhail Berdin.

Scheifele said he’ll be cheering hard for his country but particularly for Canadian forward Cole Perfetti, selected 10th overall by the Jets in last year’s draft.

Perfetti has two goals and four assists, for six points in six games so far at the WJC.

“It’ll be fun to watch a Jets draft pick in the gold-medal game,” Scheifele said.

Mark Scheifele is looking forward to seeing future teammate Cole Perfetti play in Tuesday’s gold-medal game. (Winnipeg Jets/Zoom)

Although Scheifele and Perfetti have not yet met in person, they already have a connection. Both grew up in southern Ontario: Scheifele in Kitchener and Perfetti in Whitby.

When the Jets chose Perfetti, they had Crystal Hawerchuk, wife of the late Jets superstar Dale Hawerchuk, announce the selection.

“To be the 10th pick when he wore No. 10, that was pretty cool,” Perfetti said at the time.

It was Hawerchuk, Scheifele’s junior coach, who helped convince the Jets to make Scheifele the team’s first pick in 2011 after the franchise relocated from Atlanta.

Scheifele was projected to be drafted 21st overall but was taken seventh by the Jets, and has become a dominant member of the team and the NHL.

Perfetti has also been compared to Scheifele as being a student of the game — someone with a high hockey IQ who eats and breathes the sport, studying it to become the best he can.

“Anything I’ve heard from anyone is amazing things,” Scheifele said after Tuesday’s training camp. “Great kid, hard worker, loves the game. Instantly, when I hear that, that goes high up in my books.”

Soon after Perfetti was drafted, Scheifele texted him, welcoming him to the Jets organization.

And it was Scheifele again who reached out to the 18-year-old to wish him good luck before the WJC tournament began Christmas Day, and once again before the medal round began on Jan. 2.

“Let’s hope that when I get to meet Cole he’s a gold-medal winner,” Scheifele said.

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