Street. PAUL – The momentary relief was as palpable as the underlying frustration.
When asked earlier this week if he was playing, a smile appeared on Winnipeg Jets linebacker Phil Hainola.
For the first time this season, the 21-year-old Finn — Winnipeg’s top defensive player — was in for some NHL games later that night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Finally,” he said, letting some of that frustration melt away.
The word echoed around Gatesland once coach Rick Bowness made it official after 15 minutes or more during the pre-match period.
It’s been a long road here for Heinola, and there’s no guarantee the road is smooth moving forward either. Heinola is in the lineup because Dylan DeMelo remains sidelined with an upper-body injury, and DeMelo could be back as soon as Friday in Dallas.
It was a lesson in patience, knowing that life isn’t always fair and making it an NHL regular isn’t black and white.
Heinola, on merit, made the Jets’ 2019-20 opening night roster from training camp. At just 18, he’s shown huge promise, showing up well in this camp against veteran NHL talent in his Winnipeg stable.
His time with the team lasted eight games before the decision was made to send him to the Manitoba Moose, and eventually back to the Liga. The following year he played just five times on show, and over last year’s list of 82 matches, only 12 more.
The disappointment reared its head again after training camp, as Henola was among Winnipeg’s final cuts. A few weeks later in a story in The Hockey News, Heinola agent Allain Roy spoke up, suggesting his client deserved a long stint with the Jets.
“I think everyone who’s into hockey and has watched it play understands that it’s now at that point where it’s made the NHL expendable as a regular,” Allen Roy told the newspaper’s Jacob Stoller.
It’s tough work, said Hainola, who was dressed in the visitor’s dressing room on Wednesday.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You’re a hockey player. You want to play in the NHL. It’s been a long few years for me. It’s hard to deal with knowing you’ve been in my league for a bit, and you’ve played a couple of games.”
What stands out most about Heinola is his unwavering dedication despite his status. While others in office have come and gone, the moving blue line continues to endure.
“It motivates me to keep working hard to come back here and get that spot,” he said. “When I get sent out, the first thing I think about is getting ready for work. I want to be the guy who did everything to get that spot. That’s been my mindset for the past two years.”
Heinola and those around him are well aware of his talents.
Brenden Dillon held court on Wednesday in the booth next to Heinola’s.
“He’s a talented player with a lot of skill,” said the veteran Dillon. “Those are the things you want to be able to put those performances through, whether it’s power play or five-on-five.”
But Dillon saw what the planes wanted to see, and what Hainola worked on by keeping his head down.
“The other aspects of his game, he’s trying to improve on the defensive side of things,” said Dillon. “He’s asking more questions, he’s as attentive as he can be. He’s always asking questions, so he’s a great guy to be around.”
“For him, it was maybe a little frustrating, trying to be as patient as possible to find time to get into the lineup. When he gets in there, it’s not like he’s going to his first power play, right? You have to work your way up. I talked to him, he’ll keep going.” Seriously and hopefully he gets his chance.”
Bowness felt that Henola’s match on Monday at Canada Life Center was hesitant at first, which is to be expected.
“Listen, Carolina is one of the best teams in the league,” Bowness said. “They put a lot of pressure on, they’re big and fast and they attack you. So his first couple shifts, they come at you. So his first turnovers were… a little bit… fair to him, he’s out of the MLS, different pace and different structure.”
Perhaps more significant for Heinola, however, was that none of the aforementioned persons were arrested against him.
“As the game went on, I saw him do more with the puck and get a little bit more comfortable with the puck, and that’s what we want him to do,” Bowness said. “There were some turnovers early on, but we’re not going to hold that against him. It’s a call-up, it’s his first game, it’s the NHL. You need two games.”
Heinola wants more than a couple.
He admitted on Wednesday that his confidence isn’t where it needs to be — which isn’t surprising when you’re stuck in limbo.
There have been too many restrictions placed on the team’s other rookie defensemen over the past few years, and as Heinola’s agent suggested last month, he’d like his client to see the same opportunity.
“The more matches I play, the more confident I get, and he gets used to the pace,” said Hinola. “You learn to play in different situations, and what to do with the puck so you don’t have to think about it too much in the game. The game gets faster and easier. I’m sure it will come.”