Michigan-based players lift NHL’s Jets to new heights

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Jacob Trouba, right, has been teammates with Jets forward Andrew Copp during travel hockey and collegiately at Michigan.

Detroit — They’re the Winnipeg Jets but with a definite Michigan influence.

Four Jets players — goalie Connor Hellebuyck, defenseman Jacob Trouba and forwards Andrew Copp and Kyle Connor — are from southeast Michigan.

Trouba and Copp, in fact, have been teammates on Compuware travel teams or collegiately at Michigan (and now in Winnipeg) for 13 of the past 15 years.

All four grew up, basically, within an hour of each other — Copp in Ann Arbor, and Hellebuyck (Commerce Township), Trouba (Rochester) and Connor (Shelby Township) not far away — and now are key members on one of the NHL’s best teams.

“It’s a million in one shot to make it to the NHL,” said John Trouba, who along with his wife Kristy were in Las Vegas to watch the last two games of the Western Conference final series. “So it’s unique that four kids from Michigan, within an hour of each other, are playing on the same team.

“The chances, I would say, are very slim.”

With the Red Wings not in the playoffs, hockey fans around Metro Detroit, generally, aren’t going through the daily roller-coaster of emotions that postseason hockey can bring.

That’s not the case, necessarily, with these families, fully invested in what’s happening in Winnipeg, and with the Jets.

“I talk to Kyle and he’s so calm,” said Kathy Connor, mother of the Jets’ goal-scoring forward, who was able to visit her son in Nashville during the exciting second-round series. “I’m thinking, ‘How can you be so calm?’ Some of these games, I’m not calm.”

How do you know it’s a game night at the Connor household?

Kathy’s ex-husband Joe’s sister, Laura, will be texting with Kathy nonstop during games. It gives both of them an outlet to discuss great plays, or bad officiating calls, or relieving the tension.

“It’s like, ‘Looking good tonight’, and then, something bad happens,” Kathy Connor said. “We’ll just keep texting.”

For the parents and family members, this particular playoff run is a unique, enjoyable and memorable two-month journey.

One reason, of course, is because of the Michigan angle.

But, also, the excitement it’s generating in Winnipeg, one of the smallest yet passionate, markets in the NHL.

The Connor Clan: Tyler, cousin (left); Brendon, brother; Jacob, brother; Brittany, (holding catfish) cousin; Bridget, aunt; Kathy, mother; and Krystal, sister; gather after the Jets’ Game 5 victory over the Predators in the Western Conference semifinals.

Never have the Jets gotten this far in the NHL playoffs. Since the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011 — the Jets didn’t have a team for 15 years — the organization had been stuck in neutral.

All that’s changed this season, and this spring.

Andy Copp and wife Anne Marie attended Games 3 and 4 of the second-round series in Winnipeg, and won’t easily forget it.

“Game 3 was the one they came from behind (three goals down) and the place was just absolutely insane,” Andy Copp said. “I’ve never experienced anything so loud in my life.

“You just walk around the streets, even on non game days, and I’d say 50 percent or more of the people you pass on the street are wearing Jets stuff.

“They’re so into it, and then, the street parties outside the arena. But, inside, obviously I’ve been to rock concerts but for the start of the games, with the crowd cheering, my ears hurt so it was so loud.”

Jets fans are passionate and enthusiastic beyond belief. All the parents, agree, though, that the Winnipeg fans are respectful and courteous when seeing a Jets player — like their sons — in public.

“I have to say, everyone in the city is just so nice,” Kathy Connor said, noting a positive experience during a family dinner at a Winnipeg restaurant.

Said John Trouba: “If there’s 80 people in a grocery store, 79 of them will know he plays for the Jets. But they respect these guys’ (privacy), they don’t bother them. They respect the fact they’re just there to get groceries.”

The families know each other — the Troubas and Copps are obviously closer because of the youth teams being together — but, nobody is attending these games on a nightly basis, from one road trip to the next.

This isn’t travel hockey, in that respect.

“It gets expensive,” Andy Copp said.

There’s also everyday life coming into the equation, with watching hockey just one part of a day’s calendar.

“That’s probably the biggest misconception out there,” Chuck Hellebuyck said. “I’ll get a call from someone asking me whether I’m in Nashville. Um, no. I have a job, I have family obligations, there’s stuff to get done.

“You just can’t necessarily get up and go.”

Chuck and his wife Erin attend several games a year — like everyone else with the Jets they’re hoping for a Stanley Cup series — but believe a timely phone call or text can do wonders during a difficult regular season.

They’ve watched their goaltender son begin his journey at Walled Lake Northern before playing junior hockey, then at UMass-Lowell for college, before playing professionally.

It’s been a difficult grind at times.

“That can be as important as anything else, sometimes, just a little support,” Chuck Hellebuyck said. “A little encouragement. You sit back and have a front row seat to watch them do their job, pursue something they love and have worked hard so for.”

When Andy Copp, who was then coaching at Compuware, asked Jacob Trouba to join his team — which had Andrew Copp on it — some 15 years ago, it was the start of a long, close relationship between the families.

“Andy asked him to play in a tournament in Russia when they were about 10 and it’s just gone from there,” John Trouba said. “Jacob has a great group of coaches, and he and Andrew have been together at the (USA) National Development program, and Michigan.

“It’s just been incredible.”

Said Andy Copp, who was a youth coach for over 20 years before stepping aside this season: “There’s a good camaraderie among that group. We had many players drafted off that particular team. For the two of them to end up all the way through together, it’s special for them and, it’s been fun to watch them go through it all together, and obviously, we’ve developed a great friendship with the Troubas.”

Talking to all the parents, though, it’s obvious they are hockey parents at heart.

Of that, there’s no mistake. They’re proud of their hockey players — but equally proud of the siblings and their accomplishments.

Hoping the team, in this case the Jets, wins. Maybe not attending as many games, at this level, as they used to when the players were kids.

But cheering just as hard, wearing the jerseys, and making great memories.

This particular playoff spring won’t be forgotten soon.

“Kristy and I will be sitting stands watching hockey,” said John Trouba, hours before the start of Game 4 in Las Vegas. “It’s what we’ve done forever.”