OTTAWA, CANADA – Jesse Winchester was the fourth player to step onto the ice during the Ottawa Senators’ practice on Tuesday morning. He was among the last to step off the ice, too, and he couldn’t stop smiling. Since graduating from the Colgate University Raiders hockey program just over a week ago, Winchester’s going to take full advantage of his first shot at playing in the National Hockey League.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to make it to the NHL,” Winchester said in an interview exclusive to the Maroon-News after the practice. “It’s never going to be easy for a guy like me, but I’m prepared to do whatever it takes. I have fun doing it, so I couldn’t be luckier.”
Winchester’s NHL debut was last Saturday afternoon when the Senators faced off against the Boston Bruins in one of their final regular-season games. Winchester started the game alongside Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette. Fisher, a long-time Senator, had some advice for his rookie linemate, and spoke highly of him after the game.
“Obviously he’s going to be nervous, but I told him just play his game and do the little things,” Fisher said. “I thought he played well, he’s got pretty good hands, he sees the ice well, and seems like he’s going to be a great playmaker. He’s really going to help us.”
Winchester ended the game against Boston with 14 minutes of ice time-more than seasoned NHL veterans including Dean McAmmond, Martin Lapointe, Shean Donovan, and Chris Neil. In a game that ended with a 4-0 loss for the Senators, Winchester was one of few Ottawa players who didn’t end up on the negative side of the plus/minus scale. He added a shot-on-goal and one hit, and got on the score sheet (albeit not in the fashion he would have liked; Winchester took a boarding penalty mid-way through the third period).
“In warm-up, obviously, I was a little bit; well, I was really nervous.” Winchester admitted, with a laugh. “Once the game came around, I wasn’t nervous at all. I knew I just had to keep it simple, and do everything that I’ve done to get myself into this position. I had fun with it.”
When Winchester arrived in Boston, he was excited to hear that some of his family and former Colgate teammates had made the road trip and purchased tickets to see him play his first NHL game.
“I was so touched by all my teammates who came and watched my first game in Boston,” Winchester said. “My brothers drove down from Ottawa, and 10 or 12 of my teammates got tickets the day of the game, drove from Colgate-which was probably four-and-a-half hours-and that meant so much to me. I’ve got to thank them; they’re such a great group of guys.”
As if his first game wasn’t exciting enough, Winchester lined up alongside NHL All-Stars Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley in practice on Tuesday to form Ottawa’s first line. Heatley, who played two years in the NCAA for the University of Wisconsin before playing the NHL, said jumping from college hockey to the professional ranks isn’t as significant as people make it out to be.
“Once you get here it doesn’t matter where you came from,” Heatley said. “There’s a reason [Winchester]’s here, I thought he played pretty well in Boston. It’s fun to talk to him a little bit in practice, and to get the chance to play with him.”
Despite the fact that Winchester was never drafted, he never gave up on his dream to play professional hockey. While he valued his experiences at Colgate, Winchester maintained his focus on that one goal.
“I used college as a way to get better,” the Cornwall, Ontario-native said. “Of course Colgate is a great school, and I value everything that it had to offer for me. But when I went there I had a goal, and that was to become a professional hockey player. So far I’ve followed that dream a little bit, and I’m excited to see where I can go from here.”
Winchester was told that his second NHL game would have to wait at least a little while, as Senators Head Coach and General Manager Bryan Murray said that he wouldn’t be playing Tuesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. To soften the blow, however, Murray-whose penchant for signing undrafted free agents out of college has brought NHL regulars Chris Kunitz, Dustin Penner, and Curtis Glencross into the league-had nothing but positive things to say about the rookie.
“I think this kid’s going to be quite good for us,” Murray said. “He’s a young guy, he’s not a youngster, but he’s a guy coming out of college that will need some work at the pro level, just strength-wise. He’s smart, he’s got great hockey sense, and hands, and I think next year he’ll definitely be a player on our hockey team.”
Although Winchester isn’t eligible to play in the playoffs for the Senators or their American Hockey League-affiliate team in Binghamton, he says he’s just going to make his case as best as he can. In many ways, his play in these few games will go a long way in determining whether or not Winchester is given an NHL contract for the 2008-09 season. The taste of pro hockey he’s been given has further proven to Winchester that the NHL is where he wants to be.
“I just love showing up to the rink and gelling with these guys,” Winchester noted. “They have fun; even the older guys are just like kids, it’s so cool to be of a part of. Colgate was amazing, but this is a dream. To have an opportunity to be a part of something like this is pretty cool.”