The Winnipeg Jets have certainly had, and continue to have, plenty of young stars and up-and-comers due to their adeptness at the draft.
Related: Jets NHL Draft Days Ranked
However, they’ve also had their share of grizzled veterans and guys who have been around the block a couple of times, either to provide stability and mentorship, because they were affordable, or simply because they were playing out their contracts.
This piece is a look at the latter: the oldest player to play for the team in each of their eight seasons since relocating from Atlanta.
2011-12: Chris Mason
When True North Sports & Entertainment bought the Thrashers and relocated them to Winnipeg prior to the 2011-12 season, they inherited a number of older players and added a few of their own in the offseason. In total, seven players that suited up for the team were 30 or older. The oldest of the bunch was goaltender Chris Mason.
The 35-year-old had just completed the first year of a two-year deal he signed with the Thrashers prior to their final season in the Peach State. The inaugural Jets’ season was the Red Deer, Alberta native’s — chosen all the way back in the 1995 NHL Draft — 14th professional hockey campaign.
Mason, backup to Ondrej Pavelec, started 15 games and appeared in 20. He posted an 8-7-1 record, 2.59 goals against average, and a .898 save percentage. He also had a pair of shutouts; one against the Los Angeles Kings in late December and one against the Ottawa Senators in mid-January.
The 2011-12 season was Mason’s only in a Jets jersey, as his contract expired and was not renewed. He’d go on to play only 11 more NHL games, all with the Nashville Predators in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, before having stints in Italy and Germany.
Mason retired in 2015 and is currently a colour commentator for FOX Sports Tennessee’s Predators’ broadcast team.
2012-13, 2013-14: Olli Jokinen
On Free Agent Frenzy day in 2012, the Jets made their biggest signing to that point in their fledgling franchise, inking then-33-year-old Olli Jokinen to a two-year, $9 million dollar contract.
Jokinen, who turned 34 in Dec. 2012 while the pesky NHL lockout was still preventing the 30 teams from playing any puck, had just come off a strong, 61-point season with the Calgary Flames.
When hockey finally did get underway in Jan. 2013, the Finn failed to live up to offensive expectations, posting just 14 points in 45 games. Jokinen admitted his choice to not play in Europe during the lockout slowed him down.
“While others kept their legs moving at game pace, Jokinen remained in Winnipeg and when the season resumed, he was behind. And he stayed behind all season,” wrote then-Winnipeg Free Press sportswriter Gary Lawless prior to the 2013-14 season.
“It was an eye-opener for a player that works hard on his fitness and has always been one of the fastest in the pack. Age is something Jokinen is aware of but never had it been so clearly defined as a factor.” (from ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 09/05/13.)
Jokinen vowed to Jets fans that “you ain’t seen nothing yet” and had a bounce-back 2013-14, playing all 82 games and finishing fifth in team scoring with 43 points.
However, due to having Bryan Little and the emergence of 2011 first-round pick Mark Scheifele, the Jets decided, at the end of the season, they didn’t need Jokinen’s services at centre going forward — he wasn’t particularly strong in the dot and only won 46 per cent of his 2013-14 draws. That ended his reign as the Jets’ oldest player.
2014-15: Jim Slater
Upon Jokinen’s departure, checking centre Jim Slater was left as the Jets’ most senior member.
Slater turned 32 in Dec. 2014 and was the longest-tenured player in the Thrashers/Jets organization at the time, having been there since 2005-06.
In 2014-15 — the last year of the three-year contract he signed with the team in 2012 — the face-off specialist recorded five goals and eight assists for 13 points, his best output since the 2011-12 season, and won 59.7 per cent of his draws. The Jets opted not to re-sign Slater after that, so he went overseas, where he’s found a second wind.
Slater has played the last four seasons in the Swiss National League. He spent 2015-16 and 2016-17 with Genève-Servette HC, and spent the last two seasons with Fribourg-Gotteron HC. Despite being 36 now, he has never been the oldest player on either squad.
2015-16, 2016-17: Chris Thorburn
Slater’s departure left Chris Thorburn as the Jets’ elder statesman in both 2015-16 and 2016-17. Thorburn spent 10 seasons in the Thrashers/Jets organization, between the ages of 23 and 33.
“Thorbz,” as he was often referred to in Winnipeg, was drafted 50th-overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft and was mostly known for his willingness to defend his teammates by engaging in fisticuffs. He’s far and away the Jets’ leader in fighting majors with 55, and also leads the Thrashers/Jets franchise in penalty minutes with 832 (Dustin Byfuglien, however, is just six behind at 826.)
Thorburn didn’t have much offensive ability (his highest output with the Jets was 14 points in 2014-15) but he could still snap people to attention with a pretty goalevery once in a blue moon.
Thorburn was also notable for being part of the early Jets’ GST line alongside Tanner Glass and the aforementioned Jim Slater, a line perhaps loved more for its catchy name than its on-ice ability. Despite not being a star, he was well-respected and well-liked.
“Thorburn is a player with great character,” Jetsnation’s Garret Hohl wrote in 2017. “I’ve heard many, many positive stories and anecdotes on his personality and attitude. He always gives his fullest effort and left everything on the ice. It also takes a tonne of guts to do what he does every game-day for years.”
As the role of enforcers waned and the Jets’ young talent blossomed into stars, they aged out of needing Thorburn. He became a free agent and signed with the St. Louis Blues, playing 40 games in 2017-18. In 2018-19, Thorburn played just one game for the Blues but was called up just prior to the team’s Stanley Cup run.
Despite not playing a single minute in the playoffs, the Blues gave Thorburn his moment with the Cup. Calling him up also ensured Thorburn’s NHL medical coverage for his son, Bennett, who has autism, kicked back in. If the now-36-year-old’s career is over, the Blues made sure it ended on a classy note.
2017-18, 2018-19: Matt Hendricks
When the Jets signed 36-year-old Matt Hendricks to a one-year deal prior to the 2017-18 season, he became the oldest player ever to play for the franchise.
That season, Hendricks, known as a gritty centre and a good locker room presence, suited up for 60 games. The two-time Bill Masterson Memorial Trophy nominee recorded 13 points in a fourth-line role.
In the 2018 offseason, Hendricks left the Jets and signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild, leaving Dustin Byfuglien as the oldest player. However, at this February’s trade deadline, Byfuglien was reverted back to “spring chicken” status as the Jets re-acquired Hendricks, now 37.
The move to re-add Hendricks was seen as an attempt to rectify a locker room reported to be divided and snag a leader who could right a team that was listless and lifeless down the stretch. It didn’t work: Hendricks played just four games and the Jets were dispatched in Round 1.
In June, Hendricks announced his retirement and joined the Wild in a player development role.
2019-20: Dustin Byfuglien
It doesn’t look like Byfuglien’s going to get away with not holding the title of “Jets’ oldest player” for the entirety of the upcoming season, barring any unforeseen veteran additions. At 34 years old, he’s the oldest player on the current roster by more than a year.
Byfuglien was hampered by a couple of injuries last season and was limited to 42 games. However, don’t go calling him over-the-hill or “old man” just yet.
The towering d-man, entering his 10th season with the Thrashers/Jets organization, has been generally healthy throughout his career. If his 2018 playoffs are any indication, he still has plenty left in the tank. Given the Jets’ recent defensive departures, he will be in their top-four for the foreseeable future.