Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Matt Cullen ... 39 and still Stanley Cup strong

By Larry Wigge

This was going to be it ... one last kick at the Stanley Cup can for 39-year old Matt Cullen.

But ... then he had second thoughts ... about returning to play at all and to play against the Pittsurgh Penguins.

"Pittsburgh is where I want to go," Cullen explained. "It was a pretty special place for me, and it was a great fit for me and my family. I would really like for it to work out there."

Cullen played this season on a one-year, $800,000 deal. Presumably, the same kind of deal can be arranged.

There aren't many positions open for a 6-1, 200-pound fourth-line center, who appeared in all 82 games, scoring 16 goals and 32 points, and finished second to Sidney Crosby in faceoffs won. He scored the game-winning goals four times.

Being behind Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino made for a unique position for the Penguins. But Cullen added another four goals and two assists in the playoffs -- twice providing the game-winning goals.

Cullen had topped out in his career with Carolina, posting 25 goals and 24 assists in 2005-06 -- the last time Matt won the Cup.

In July 31, the day the Cup was supposed to follow Cullen around all day, he still had not heard back from Pens GM Jim Rutherford with a new contract.

"When the stakes are high, he is about as even-keeled a player as you can find," Rutherford said.

"I don't know if I have ever had more fun playing the game," Cullen said. "I'm appreciating the opportunity a lot more. And it's just all about making another run trying to win another Cup.

"It's brought me a lot more clarity at this point in my career."

Growing up in the Iron Range in the mid-1980s of Minnesota, Cullen and his two younger brothers fell in love with the Oilers, the front-running Edmonton team -- not the North Stars.

The Cullen’s father, Terry, a former high school hockey coach who played three years semi-pro in Green Bay of the old United States Hockey League, would flood the backyard of their Virginia, Minnesota home.

He recalled those days at the end of July.

"We had knee-high boards so we'd lose the pucks in the snow banks because the snow would be up to our heads," Matt Cullen recalled with a giant smile.

Like thousands of other kids, the Cullen Brothers strapped on their skates, threw on some elbow pads and grabbed their sticks for hours upon hours of imagination and merriment.

"I was Gretzky because I was the oldest, so I had first pick," Matt said. "Mark, the next youngest, he usually was Mark Messier. And the youngest, Joe, he'd usually be Jari Kurri."

And Matt says 32-year-old sister, Anne, may just be the best athlete of the four. She was a national champion and All-America diver at Concordia, where she just graduated.

Cullen played for the Stanley Cup in their backyard like they did so many times after Matt won the Cup in 2006 when the Carolina Hurricanes won it all.

"We played hockey in the backyard," he remembered. "We had silver buckets ... we carried them around like the Stanley Cup.

"It was everything that you would hope."

Still ...

The best advice from my dad. He always said, "Work hard and have fun. You can't do one without the other."

That always seemed to apply.

Some take the Stanley Cup out for a night on the town. Others take it down waterslides or for an afternoon of fishing or to their favorite tavern.

Matt Cullen of the Penguins had his day with the Cup this weekend. After some family time with the trophy Friday night and Saturday morning, Cullen brought Lord Stanley to Moorhead on Saturday afternoon for local fans to enjoy. And boy did they.

But this day for Cullen's three young boys ... and it started with eating Lucky Charms with a whole gallon of milk on top. Later, Brooks, 9, Wyatt, 7, and Joey, 6, were spottedd drinking Root Beer out of it.

Bridget, Matt's wife, was pregnant with the first son in 2006 when they were in Carolina.

"This one ... meant more ... because of the boys," Bridget recalled. "They were using metal spoons at the lake and they were clanking off the bottom of the Cup. The keeper (Phil Pritchard) of the Cup was like 'Ease up on the spoons, ease up on the spoons.' And then they ate the whole bowl in about five minutes."

There's nothing like Lucky Charms to fill an empty stomach.

Now, it's the three boys that capture all of Cullen's attention.

"On a normal game day, I'll wake up around 7 a.m. and my boys will already be on the couch watching NHL on the Fly. Every morning, without fail," he said, laughing. "They're little experts. I'll make some bacon and sit down with my cup of coffee while they give me a rundown of what happened in the NHL last night -- "Dad, this guy made a terrible turnover. You just can't make that play.

"It's hilarious."

A look at the walls in Matt Cullen's room:

There are multiple Pierre Turgeon posters, one of Doug Gilmour and, of course, a Gretzky. Every hooked-on-hockey kid growing up in the 1980s and ’90s had a Wayne Gretzky poster as the centerpiece of his collection.

Oddly out of place among all the vintage 1990s NHL superstars papering the walls of Matt Cullen's old -- and still untouched after all these years -- Moorhead bedroom is a picture of Mike Antonovich.

Mike Antonovich?

"Besides hockey, I played football and baseball in high school (in Moorhead, Minn.)," remembered Cullen. "I was a quarterback, but the football and hockey seasons got so close. I didn't play football my junior or senior year because I was trying to get ready for hockey.

"The football coaches weren't overly pleased, but I think they understood. I played baseball through my senior year. I was a shortstop. I really liked baseball a lot -- loved it."

But Matt Cullen was more than just another Mike Antonovich from Moorhead.

I want my epitaph to say, "Here lies Matt Cullen, who was an honest and good family man, and a genuine, hard-working person who made the most of what he had."

I think we'll all agree to the truth of that epitaph.

But ... he may have another tour -- adding more things to a near 40-year-olds epitaph.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Chris Kunitz afterthought now 3-time Stanley Cup champ

By Larry Wigge

Chris Kunitz has always been one of my favorite stories.

He's this pugnacious player. He's still throwing his body around. He's still winning battles in the corners for pucks and doing all of the little things that has Kunitz a success in the NHL.

Not bad for a guy who not only was passed over in his NHL draft year ... and once went on waivers twice in 14 days.

"I've never been drafted at any level," Kunitz said. "So it wasn't something you were disappointed with."

But here he was, at 36-years-old, a three-time Stanley Cup champion -- 2007 in Anaheim and 2009 and 2016 in Pittsburgh.

Long road, sometimes even longer journey.

Beating the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks en route to a 16-8 record.

Yet, there were Kunitz in Game 1 against San Jose, laying a big hit on Joel Ward ... and then swiping the puck from and thwarting a potential breakaway. Kunitz also set up Pittsburgh for the first goals of the series.

"I think it's not a surprise," Sidney Crosby said. "He's found maybe more of a scoring touch than he's had in the past, but I think he's doing a lot of the same things and it's just nice he's getting results and getting recognized. Because he does a lot of things out there that leads to success."

Assistant coach Rick Tocchet said Kunitz was THE MAN who beat Tampa Bay, "He just kept going at them. Tampa had no answer for him. He kept getting in on the forecheck. He was hitting. I think he wore down a lot of their defense with his hits. He's a small guy, but he hits like a truck."

Long roads ... long journeys.

The Penguins went 33-16-5 after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston in December, an impressive record that grows in stature when you consider they lost the first four games he coached. They were 14-2-0 in their last 16 games of the regular season, including 15 without Evgeni Malkin.

The Stanley Cup journey went from Chicago to Regina for Kunitz. While in Chicago, his family and friends gathered for dinner with hockey's greatest prize. In Regina, maybe it will inspire a young player to do the same one day and it gives him a chance to say thank you to his hometown that gave him the love for the game.

Sounds like the start of Kunitz' career.

He signed with Anaheim as a free agent in 2003 after four years at Ferris State, and put up some pretty fair numbers over parts of two seasons in the American Hockey League.

It was a promising start to his pro career ... until the franchise changed hands in Atlanta and once again wound up back in Anaheim.

In his 12th NHL season, he Kunitz has something to offer a Penguins team. Call it the IT factor.

Four goals and seven assists through the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup after scoring 17 goals and 23 assists during the regular season.

So, he is a character player, filled with energy.

Like ...

At Anaheim, he combined on a line with Andy McDonald and Teemu Selanne. In Pittsburgh, the left winger from Regina, Saskatchewan, has either played on a line with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

"You begin to think you've got security at one place and then BOOM, new city, new coach, new everything, a completely fresh plate," said Kunitz, who has made a home for himself with his wife Maureen.

"My road to the NHL has been kind of a work in progress," Kunitz explained. "Growing up, coaches and scouts always said I was too small to make it at the next level. My goal ever since elementary school was to get a college scholarship, go play college hockey and get an education. From there, it turned into having a great team, having success individually and team success, and from that the dream grew."

He followed his older brother, David, who matriculated to college via a soccer scholarship. At Ferris State, Chris wound up becoming the CCHA Player of the Year at Ferris State in 2002-03, being named a first team NCAA West All-American and was a finalist for the 2003 Hobey Baker Award, given to the U.S. College Player of the Year.

Said Kunitz, "It wasn't until I started playing well at the college level that scouts started to come around. And, even though I wasn't drafted, I started to become comfortable with the idea that there might be something in pro hockey for me after college. I began to visualize the success I could have when I looked around and saw that the Ducks had another undrafted free agent like Andy McDonald playing big situations and big minutes."

Don't look at the statistics alone to see what Kunitz is doing for the Penguins ... his 35-goal season in 2013-14 along with 33 assists represent his single-season NHL high.

"Chris Kunitz is a guy who will end up on the scoresheet," said former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, now with Buffalo. "But his role is straight-line, aggressive, go-to-the-net hockey. We want him to be physical. If things aren't going well for him, he should always make sure he returns to that foundation."

Kunitz smiled me he heard that description from his coach and said, "I pride myself on being a blue-collar worker. If I don't hit and go to the net and bang some opponents then I'm not trying hard enough. If any of those things is missing from my game, I usually get uptight and hit and bang a little harder."

And that's the main strength of his game -- hard work, character and a winning attitude.

Said Kunitz, "Things were great after I got to know the guys in Pittsburgh -- and I've felt a little like I was in heaven since the morning of Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia, when our new son, Zachary, arrived."

The changes in Chris Kunitz' life and in hockey going from Anaheim to Pittsburgh were immediately upbeat, whether he was playing with Crosby or Malkin.

"My goal ever since elementary school was to get a college scholarship ... and go play college hockey and get an education," Kunitz said. "From there, it turned into having a great team, having success individually and team success, and from that the dream grew.

"Definitely a late bloomer. I didn't even think myself that the NHL was something that could be realistic until I signed out of college. I played Tier 2 junior, nobody very often gets drafted out of the SJHL."

Kunitz continued to talk ...

"The fact that I played in the game where we won it made up for it all," said Kunitz. "I would have liked to score a goal or make more of a contribution. But the team reassured me that I was there because I helped during the season."

Said coach Sullivan, "He's obviously an important player for us. I think he plays a lot bigger than he is. He brings a physical element to the line that he’s on. He forces turnovers, he can play with pace. So, I think he helps with the speed game with the line that he's on."

Someone is always there, it seems, to speak up and give Chris Kunitz a chance to play.

Enter David McNab. The longtime Anaheim Ducks executive -- who was assistant GM at the time -- deserves the credit for spotting Kunitz and seeing something in him that many other NHL teams did not.

"Definitely, I talked to him quite a bit starting near the end of my junior year and then throughout my senior year," Kunitz said. "I sat down and had talks with him and he told me they were interested in me and certainly he was definitely an integral part."

McNab, who worked under GM Bryan Murray at the time, signed Kunitz to his first pro contract on April 1, 2003. It was no April Fool's joke.

No April Fool's joke ... for anyone.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Brad Richards ... 15 year and two Stanley Cups later

By Larry Wigge

Brad Richards is one of those marvelous quick-twitch, now-you-see-him, now-you-don't athletes who can quickly flit in and out of the picture and in between something pretty special is likely to happen.

And it's just that kind of magic that he brought to the NHL in the playoffs, when hearts are beating faster and faster, pumping more and more adrenaline into every part of the body. The collisions are more physical, each and every battle testing the will and the body to its limit.

The playoffs is where Brad Richards made his mark for 15 seasons -- playing 1,126 games over 15 seasons with Tampa Bay, Dallas Stars, New York Rangers, Chicago and Detroit Red Wings. He wound with with 298 goals and 932 points.

Chicago's Patrick Kane remembered both Stanley Cups won by Brad Richards in 2004 for Tampa Bay and in 2015 for Chicago.

"Congrats Brad Richards," Kane recalled. "I'll never forget watching you win with Tampa in 2004 and for your no-look pass to me for the clinching goal in Game 6, 2015.

"Playing with Brad, he just makes a lot of really good plays. Plays you don't really expect most guys to make."

Instant impact. Productivity.

"This is the time of the year when you want to make an impact," Richards explained of making a pass to Kane for the clinching goal in Game 6. "The playoffs, where risk and reward become the battle cry, where paying the price to win on the ice comes into play on each shift. It was just a play of instincts."

Richards is one of those players who isn't open to hyperbole. He's like a silent assassin.

"Even though he's a quiet guy, you can see the poise and patience he obviously got from his mom and dad," Tampa Bay teammate Vincent Lecavalier told me. "The whole family is pretty down to earth ... and focused, really focused."

"He's really cerebral, always seems to be thinking about five seconds ahead of every play," Lightning captain Martin St. Louis added. "It must look to him like the rest of us are playing in slow motion."

In Game 4 of the Finals, Brad rocketed a 30-footer off Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff's left shoulder high into the net just 2:48 into the game.

Richards exploits landed him in the record book, surpassing the previous mark of six playoff game-winners in one season set by Joe Sakic in 1996 and tied by Joe Nieuwendyk in 1999. Richards' seventh game-winning goal of the playoffs tied the Stanley Cup Finals at two games apiece.

"His vision is extraordinary," explained Calgary coach Darryl Sutter. "He makes plays that you don't expect, that you don't anticipate. He's a game-breaker for sure."

Richards, Lecavalier and St. Louis captured Tampa Bay's first-and-only Stanley Cup championship in 2004, collecting 26 points in 23 playoff games and earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the postseason.

He was the first player in history to begin his career 8-0 in playoff Game 7's.

Richards was selected by the Lightning in the third round of the 1998 NHL draft. He made his NHL debut two years later and after helping Rimouski Oceanic win consecutive Canadian Junior Memorial Cup titles.

Richards scored a career-best 28 goals with Dallas in 2010-11 and he twice totaled 91 points in 2005-06 with Tampa Bay and again four seasons later with Dallas.

"As far as I'm concerned, Brad Richards is a sure thing," co-G.M. Brett Hull added after acquiring Richards from Tampa Bay. "We have a guy who has won the Stanley Cup, won the Olympic Gold Medal, won the Conn Smythe Trophy being the MVP of the NHL playoffs. To me, there's no risk, not when you're adding a player like this who is in the prime of his career."

Said Detroit Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Listrom, "You can't take your eyes off of Brad for a moment. He lulls you into thinking he's just looking to make a pass. That's when he lets go of one of his sneaky-quick wrist shots."

"Richie is an opportunistic guy, a special player," Arizona coach Dave Tippett, who was with Richards in Dallas, said. "A lot of times, he not only creates the turnover, but then makes the play that results in a goal."

Ryan McDonagh was with Richards when he played for the Rangers.

"He just really tried to show his passion for the game," McDonagh said. "His love and his work ethic is something you definitely can’t teach a player. You either have it or you don't, and he tried to spread that throughout the room so guys could all buy in and make sure they’re that much more prepared and that much more focused for the game."

Said Jon Tortorello, who coach him at Tampa Bay: "I've known him since he was a kid. You could see that he had that intangible as a young player. He makes big plays at big times."

Richards used to laugh about how his parents, Glen and Delite, and how they followed his career. You see, lobster fishing is in the blood of the Richards family -- so is their 46-foot boat that is named "Brad and Paige" after Glen's children. Brad understands his dad's dilemma.

From an early age, Brad Richards knew his future didn't lie in lobster traps.

"I'm the son of a fourth-generation lobster man ... but I don't like waking up at 4 a.m. to go out there," he said with a smile. "My dad had me on the boat a few times, but he'd be the first one to tell you it was never something I got excited about doing.

"But a lot of my friends have turned out to be fishermen. Maybe that's what drove me out of there to maybe make it the NHL. I'm not sure."

But he knew his parents watched and followed his career.

"They watch all the games," Richards said. "Even if it might mean that in staying up late the night before to watch the game that they sleep in a little longer the next morning."

Sleep in?

"Yeah," Brad Richards said laughing a bit to himself. "On those days they probably don't head to the boat until like 4:30 or 5 a.m."

Like abracadabra or magic, Brad Richards 15-year NHL career was filled with memories.

Now, POOF, they're gone.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Phil Kessel ... Stanley Cup add-on who made it work

By Larry Wigge

Exhiliration. Finally, winning the Stanley Cup was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

"Who could have dreamed a year ago this could have happened?" explained Kessel. "The feeling is unreal."

After nine seasons of success, when you consider 30 goals or more as success. Kessel had achieved 30 or more goals six times in his first nine seasons in the NHL -- twice putting up 37 goals. Phil the Thrill went to the Pittsburgh Penguins and, while it was a complete turnaround, those feelings of being misjudged, mischaracterized.

POOF!!! It disappeared.

"I mean, how can you ask for anything better than this?" Kessel said. "Winning the Stanley Cup is what you dream of and what you play for."

Those three years at Boston and six at Toronto were forgotten -- as was the first two-and-one-half months in Pittsburgh after Kessel just didn't mix with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and a coaching change had to be made.

As a member of the Stanley Cup champion Penguins he was given two days with the Cup. He chosen Madison, Wisconsin, his birthplace, and also the Toronto SickKid's Hospital. Kessel, who survived testicular cancer after being diagnosed in 2006, was involved with the hospital during his six seasons with the Maple Leafs from 2009-15.

Kessel was selected fifth overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by Boston. He last season with Pittsburgh with 26 goals and 33 assists, including 19 goals and 25 assists after the coaching change.

He more than made up for that by tallying a club-high 12 goals and 21 assists in 24 games to give Kessel 23 goals and 20 assists in 46 career playoff games.

From persona non grata in Toronto 12 months earlier to key contributor in a Stanley Cup march in Pittsburgh -- just unreal, right?

"I felt fine with this deal from Day 1," GM Jim Rutherford said of trading prospects Nick Spaling, Kasperi Kaspanen and Scott Harrington to Toronto. "It's hard to find guys that can score goals or set them up. If it's not happening every game, I guess some people think it should. That's not the way sports works. We did what we needed to do where our team is. Toronto did what they needed to do with what they're trying to do.

"I really like how Kessel has fit into the team. We have top players -- the best player in the game -- but we also have a team concept. Phil's bought into that right from the start. So I like how he's fit into the team. The rest of the stuff? You see it on the ice."

Even sweeter for Rutherford and the Penguins is that the Leafs are paying $1.2 million a year of his $8 million cap hit. At a $6.8 million cap hit, Kessel was easily worth every dime in his first year in Pittsburgh.

Including in that clutch performance by Keseel, it was the game-winning assists on a goal by Nick Bonino in overtime to eliminate the Washington Capitals. Kessel, Bonino and Carl Hagelin were a third-line that put up first-line numbers.

Matt Cullen, who won a Stanley Cup at Carolina in 2006, was able to fit in as well ... as a fourth-line center.

"He's been so good," raved Cullen. "He's playing such a complete game right now. He's just such a dynamic player. Whenever he touches the puck, something good happens and it's not just shooting the puck. He's creating, things happen with his speed, he's finding open guys. He's such a challenge for defensemen to handle. He's been awesome."

Mike Sullivan got all the credit, taking over for Mike Johnston at midseason. Much of it was deserved, of course, for putting in working order. But ...

"Phil deserves the credit for his contribution to helping this team win. I didn't do anything," said Sullivan. "We have a very transparent relationship. I try to challenge him in areas of his game where we think he can improve, get better, help our team win.

"I think Phil has made a complete commitment to this team. We don't get to where we're at if Phil doesn't play the type of hockey that he's played here throughout the course of this playoffs. He scores big goals. His offense speaks for itself. He's dangerous on the power play. He's dangerous off the rush. But I think what his teammates admire and respect, what his coaching staff certainly does -- his commitment away from the puck and to play at both ends of the rink. He's a complete player right now. When he plays that way, he's one of the more elite players in the league, in our opinion."

Speaking of captain Crosby, "He just doesn't necessarily want to be in front of the camera. But I think he is pretty easy going, laid back and funny to be around."

St. Louis center David Backes raved about Kessel.

"He's definitely got a special ability and that's why he's got 30 goals in the NHL already and that's why he's able to score like he did," Backes said. "He's always around the puck, he's got great timing to arrive right when it does and his finish is great as well."

Backes has detected a difference in Phil within the context of the Team USA dressing room -- where all the key elements of the 2010 Olympic silver medal team are four years older and far more mature as players.

"Everyone's really had a lot of growth in their personal lives and in the poise they're showing on the ice and he's no exception," Backes said. "He's a guy that's grown as a person and shown on the ice that he can handle big-time situations. He's a player that's out there and making plays all the time."

"I'm so thrilled," a beaming Kessel said. "I, I, I don't even know what to say.

"The Cup was way heavier than I thought it was going to be. It's so special. You dream your whole life for this."

Kessel is very understated about his exploits, but his eyes light up when you discuss his favorite topic, skating.

"My parents were both good athletes, so I think I get some of my ability from the them," Kessel said. "My dad, Phil Sr., was a college quarterback and he played in the Canadian football league. My mom, Kathy, ran track in college. I think I get my speed from my mother. I just always loved to skate, loved it right from the beginning when I was a little kid. Back then, I was always saying, "Mom, I'm going skating." For me, it was always my favorite thing to do, skating."

Phil Kessel Sr. attended Northern Michigan University from 1976-81. Steve Mariucci was the NMU quarterback in Kessel's freshman season and stayed on as a graduate assistant. Mariucci helped coach Kessel in his senior year. Kessel was drafted by the Washington Redskins and spent his first year on injured reserve. The second season, "They found out I wasn't very good and released me." He went to Calgary and played for the Stampeders in the Canadian Football League and then Birmingham in the old USHL.

Amanda, his sister, herself a world-class hockey player, who won a silver medal with the U.S. team in Sochi --- also posted a picture of herself drinking from the trophy.

The father is as glib and analytical as the son is brief and shy. Dad was asked if the reticence comes from Mom.

"I was exactly the same way when I was his age," said Kessel Sr. "I really wasn't comfortable talking until almost my mid-20s. "Phil says what happens on the ice is what matters. Mostly all we heard from him when he was a kid was, 'Mom, I'm going skating.'"

Since 1996, only 13 players have produced more points per game in the postseason (minimum 40 games) than Phil Kessel (0.94). The Wisconsin native sits a touch below Alex Ovechkin (0.98), but ahead of similar scorers, past and present, such as Dany Heatley, Corey Perry, Paul Kariya and Brett Hull, albeit in significantly fewer games.

One of the NHL's most polarizing figures of the past decade pinched his eyes to try to stop the tears, the hugs from his family members only making it harder to do so.

Phil Kessel, Stanley Cup champion, playoff warrior, and now forever more seen in a different light.

"I mean, it's an unbelievable feeling, obviously it's special," said the teary-eyed Kessel.

"It's been a journey," Kessel later added, a lump in his throat.

Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux credited Jim Rutherford after the Cup win.

"He deserves a lot of the credit, starting with the Phil Kessel trade," Lemieux said. "That was a big piece. You saw how he played in the playoffs, just an amazing competitor."

Saturday, July 16, 2016

At nearly 40, Shane Doan just gets hockey

By Larry Wigge

Shane Doan simply gets it.

Whether it's using his 6-1, 223-pound frame for outmuscling an opponent in from the the nets or using his quickness. It clearly works.

When it came down to the 39-year-old captain to step aside and let the younger players like Max Domi and Anthony Boisclair to move up the pecking order on offense, he helped the young players with the confidence he he learned on the job.

"He's captain, our leader, someone who brings everyone to the next level," Coyotes GM John Chayka said. "We're excited to reach an agreement with him and get him on a team we feel has a chance to be real good by the end of the season."

The 39-year-old Doan is coming off one of his best seasons, leading Arizona with 28 goals and finishing with 19 assists in 72 games. He has spent his entire 20-year career with the franchise, starting when it was in Winnipeg in 1995, and is its all-time leader in goals (296), points (945) and games (1,466).

Doan signed a one-year contract with a base salary of $2.5 million to give the Coyotes flexibility at a time when Chicago and St. Louis were fighting the salary cap level.

"I'm aware that in order for our team to be successful I'm going to take a lesser and lesser role," Doan said, he said tickling off other Dylan Strome, the third pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, and Brandon Perlini, the 12th pick in the 2014 draft. "There are going to be young guys that are going to take bigger and bigger roles ... which has already started to happen."

"Shane Doan had a great year," Chayka reasoned. "The way he impacts our team overall, I think they're all better players because of Shane."

"I can't stress enough on how the young guys made me feel relevant," he added about the young core that made big strides last season. "It could be hard being the old guy in the group. They are all ultra-respectful and eager to learn."

Doan's 31 goals in 2008-09 and 30 goals in '05-06 were clearly better, but the last three season have wound up with 13, 23 and 14. It was upbeat that Doan had 28 goals while the younger player were growing.

"He deserves it," coach Dave Tippett said. "When you look at what he's done for this franchise, it's incredible. His personal characteristics equal his abilities as a hockey player. That's an unbelievable combination. To do it for one organization for 20 years is incredible."

Whether it's in Southwest Arizona with Shane and his wife, Andrea, or it's in Southwestern Alberta with his parents, it's still home.

He talks about the exhilation of making the playoffs ...

"It's a relief, because you just want to get a chance to do something in the playoffs and make some noise," he says. "Everyone always talks about if you get out of the first round anything can happen. Now we've got to find a way to win that next round and that's really our next goal ... to win four more games. If we do that, we'll regroup again. Now, we've got that chance."

It's a long journey for a heart and soul player ... one very much worth the wait.

There's a plaque -- probably covered in dust in a closet back home at Bernie and Bernice Doan's Circle Square Ranch in Halkirk, Alberta, which doubles as a Christian camp for kids of all ages, where the youngsters come to ride horses, swim and do archery -- that chronicles a pretty interesting and intense hockey rivalry that not many people know about.

Five other members of Doan's family are already in Halls of Fame -- starting with his grandfather Muff Doan, who was the bareback champion at the Calgary Stampede back in 1937 and steer-riding champion in 1944, followed by great uncles Jack Wade, Urban and Earl and uncle Phil Doan -- all of whom are members of the Canadian Rodeo Hall of fame. But the feats of athleticism don't stop there. Shane's younger sister, Leighann, set an Alberta province record in the shot put and was a standout in the 100 meter dash before she turned her attention to basketball and led the French women's pro basketball league in scoring.

And that doesn't even take into consideration the hockey threads that marvelously are intertwined between the extended family that include the Ellerbys and Prices.

That puck history started with Shane's dad, Bernie, a defenseman who was picked in the sixth round of the 1971 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues and also includes the first-rounders -- Shane by Winnipeg, Carey Price by Montreal in 2005 and Keaton Ellerby by Florida in 2007. Plus, Ellerby's dad, Cal, played for the Calgary Wranglers junior team. His uncle, Dallas Ellerby, skated for Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria in the Western Hockey League. And Price's dad, Jerry, was a Calgary junior goalie, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Instead of calf roping and bullriding, the 6-2, 216-pound Doan chose to be an NHL power forward and crash the net, bang in the corners and hammer defensemen. In 2004, Shane made it to an All-Star Game for the first time. Now he's back in 1999 ... and Price, his second cousin, just happens to be on the other side.

Knowing the history of this highly-competitive family, I wondered if Shane had already sent a warning shot out to Price to his Cup-wandering cousin.

"No I haven't warned him about wiring a high hard one at his head, if that's what you mean," Doan said with a mischievous smile on his face.

"Nothing would surprise me with Shane. He's a great guy. I always looked up to him when I was growing up. But I really do expect him to pull something out of his hat that's a little different if he had a great scoring chance against me," Price shot back. "Every year about this time they show that All-Star Game highlight of Owen Nolan pointing at Dominik Hasek (from the 1997 All-Star Game in San Jose) and then putting the puck right where he was pointing. I can see Shane trying something like that."

Not so, said Doan, adding, "I don't have those kinds of skills. I have to keep both hands on the stick at the same time."

Typical soft-peddling added Price, saying, "Shane's got better hands than he's letting on."

Do I hear a little bit of trash-talking? Well, sort of.

Said Doan, "All I know is Carey is 2-0 against the Coyotes ... but I've got goals in both games."

Feeling that another but was coming, I encourage Shane to continue, "And in the game he won this year, I broke up his shutout bid in the third period, which kind of ticked him off a little."

The Doans, Ellerbys and Prices have a history of hard-working, hotly-competitive, argumentative parties over the years. It's not as fabled as the Hatfields and McCoys or as bloody as the McCartys and Lemieuxs, but ...

That plaque we spoke of represents a series of hockey battles between the Doans and the Ellerbys.

"Every year on Boxing Day for about five or six years between 1988 and 1994, we'd have a family party that wound up on the ice," Doan recalled, with this vicious look on his face and lively memories to spare. "It would start out like a picnic. But then it would get pretty competitive when we took out our hostilities on the ice."

"I remember one year my cousin Darcy ran over my dad," Shane said with fire in his eyes. "I HAD to get back at him for that.

"Another year my uncle Cal was creamed. And I had to stand up for my teammate in that situation, too."

And that plaque? "It shows that the Ellerbys won most of those games," Shane said proudly.

Wait a minute, Shane. Don't you mean the Doans?

"No, back in 1988, I was only 12 and the Doans thought they were the greatest thing in hockey since Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard and they didn't want a kid on their team," Shane laughed. "The Ellerbys didn't have as many players as the Doans and my dad (whose wife is an Ellerby) said they would be glad to have me play for them.

"After a few years, the Doans wanted me to change sides and play for them. But I told them, 'No way. You had your chance.' "

Price was only four or five when he got his first taste of the family rivalry ... but only as a fan of those games.

"I always thought that Shane was always the best player," Price added. "Those games were hotly competitive. I remember a couple of games were real bloodbaths.

"The men in our family are not known for having soft hands -- not when they all were a bunch of farmers and ranchers."

I wondered if Shane Doan had ever thought about following in the footsteps of his uncles and being a rodeo star.

"Not me," he laughed. "They're all tougher than me. It takes a different breed to do that."

I think we'd all agree that Shane is a different breed as well -- great character, leader, hard to play against.

Shane Doan and his wife have a similar type of ranch in Phoenix. Call it Halkirk East, which doubles as a Christian camp for kids of all ages, where the youngsters come to ride horses, swim and do archery.

So you see, Shane has those same hard hands of a farmer or ranchers. But you see, the goals his parents set forth make him a true human being.

And 40 is not retirement age for Doan, who is four goals shy of 400 and 15 points shy of 1,000 for his career.

"The big thing that sticks out for me is probably his work ethic," said Coyotes rookie Max Domi. "I mean, he's out there right now taking one-timers, trying to get better, and he's been in the league for 20 years. That just shows how much he wants to help the team and how much he wants to be the best.

"Hes's a guy that I've kind of grown up idolizing and now to get to play with him, it's pretty sweet. To get a front-row seat to watch him make history is pretty sweet, too."

Home games on makeshift rinks made with spray from the volunteer fire department's hoses, leisurely rounds of golf with buddies, marbles --whatever it is, Doan is coming after you.

"You name the game, he wants to win," said Colorado Avalanche veteran Jarome Iginla, Doan’s teammate at Kamloops and Team Canada. "Any little game and he's very competitive at whatever we’re playing. I have to bow out when it’s wrestling, though. He likes to wrestle, too, but I have to bow out against him in that."

Hockey players are usually down-to-earth and hardworking, at least as the stereotype goes. Many come from small Canadian outposts, where failing to pull your weight isn't an option and the only way to make a name for yourself is the dirt-under-the-fingernail route.

Doan is the personification.

Growing up on a ranch was a blast because he got to play all the games like the other kids and didn’t have to abide by all the same rules. But running the Circle Square Ranch, one of several across Canada, wasn't just for fun, it was a business. Everyone in the family had to chip in, so Doan spent most of his days working in the barn, taking saddles on and off, leading rides around the ranch, then cleaning up at the end of the day.

Secret to his longevity?

"I really like to play," Shane Doan replied. "I mean, I'm going to play hockey when I'm done playing in this league -- I'll play somewhere else. It's fun to play. That's the biggest thing. I enjoy coming to the rink. If you enjoy the game, it makes it a lot easier."

You see, Shane Doan get's it.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A cinch ... Matthew Tkachuk ... POWER to draw from

By Larry Wigge

Keith Tkachuk's basement used to carry on some heated battles.

The battles were intense. The walls would shake, rattle and roll as the former St. Louis Blues power forward would play host the one or more or his rookie roomies David Backes, Lee Stempniak and Philip McRae all lived in the Tkachuk basement when they first joined the team ... and Matthew Tkachuk has pictures with all of them on the wall of his room.

"I used to play hockey in their basement with him with mini-sticks," explained Backes. "I can't believe he's going to be draft eligible."

Tkachuk was actually chosen sixth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames.

"He was kind of a reckless ball of energy," Backes continued. "He just kept on going and I think that's served him well in his growth in the game and his prospects for playing pro hockey."

Basil McRae remembers those days.

"Matthew's what I would call a modern-day power forward," says McRae, GM of the London Knights team Tkachuk suited up for last tseason. "He scores nice goals and makes nice plays ... but he's also kind of a junk-yard dog in front of the net."

You could see the kid shaping up an intimidating power forward much like his father. And you could see Backes and Tkackuk's learning from the feet of the master power player with some nifty moves down in Keith and Chantel's basement.

Keith Tkachuk high was 52 goals in 1996-97 -- twice he topped the 50-goal mark and two more time he had 40-goals as he combined with power forwards ... Phil Esposito and Tim Kerr, Cam Neely and Kevin Stevens, Joe Nieuwendyk and Dave Andreychuk, Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr, and Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

Backes has exceeded 30 goals twice in his career. Watching Tkachuk and Backes could show a young-and-inspired power forward some nifty moves growing up.

Scoring in front of the nets, where the truly great power players get down and dirty. Finding the right spots -- holes in the defenses as well. If anything is missing -- it's the snarly look from Tkachuk.

Matthew contributed 38 goals for the US Development Program in 2014, after getting 13 goals for the US Juniors in 2014-15. He moved on to the London Knight in 2015-16 and won the junior championship. First, he scored 30 goals and 77 assists for London and in the playoffs 20 goals and 20 assists in 18 games.

"He's a huge influence. I mean I look to him whenever there's a problem, whenever there's something good ... I tell him everything," said Matthew. "He's been there every step of the way for me so far and he'll continue to be."

As an NHL player, Dale Hunter saw first-hand the skills that made Keith Tkachuk an elite power forward.

"You see Keith's stature," London coach Dale Hunter said. "He could score goals, played hard. He finds good areas to score and he plays hard and he's hard to play against.

"He's in front of the net, he's got no fear, he's got great hands in tight. He gets them off the rush but he also gets them NHL style, standing in front, tipping pucks and winning battles."

Hunter continued, "Keith was very hard to play against, he's a lot like his son. They're sort of a spitting image."

That attitude was instilled in him by his father. The advice he handed out was always the same.

"Whenever we drove home after practice, or talked about hockey, he would just always say compete hard and be a good teammate ...

"His two main points of focus, always, is about compete and be a good teammate," Matthew Tkachuk explained. "So that's what I focus on every day."

Keith Tkachuk was one of the best power forwards of his era. He made his debut with the Winnipeg Jets in 1991-92 and finished his career with 538 goals and 527 assists in 1,201 games with Winnipeg/Arizona, St. Louis and Atlanta.

He was an all-star five times. Internationally, he represented the United States at four Olympic Games and helped the Americans win the 1996 World Cup.

Like Matthew, Brady, the youngest son, is a product of the suddenly fertile St. Louis minor hockey system. Unlike his brother, he's headed for BU next year, where his grandparents and an army of aunts, uncles and cousins await.

Keith’s father, John, was a Boston firefighter who worked the bulldog crew at the old Boston Garden, putting down the parquet floor for Celtics games after Bruins games. His mother, Gerry, is the aunt of former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald.

"They wanted one of us to go (to BU)," Matthew says. "They're all excited."

Keith says, "He's doing a good job. At the end of the day it's not easy for him. He's been at the mercy of his brother and his father. He's got the Boston temper and I'm trying to manage that a bit."

He's asked about his father and whether that name has been a burden or a blessing.

"It's never been a negative," says Tkachuk. "The only way it would be a negative is if I compare myself to him. I don't do that. I'm my own player. I know that. He knows that. But I think I'm on the right track to achieve some of the things he achieved.'

And that’s an enticing thought for anyone who drafts the left winger.

Matthew is 6-1, weighs in at 195 pounds.

"He's the best player in the draft from the (faceoff) dots in,' says Canucks GM Jim Benning, who's seen Tkachuk play 15 times this season. Just saying.

"He's more skilled than I was," Keith says. "These kids do stuff at a young age I couldn't do as a pro .... I just wish I got a chance to see him more."

The growth of Matthew Tkackuk.

"I was 3 when I started playing hockey," Tkachuk said. "I just fell in love with it from the beginning. I used to go to my dad's games and he forced me into skates but I just loved it.

"Being around the guys and seeing how they cared about themselves as professionals. I saw what it takes to be a pro hockey player."

After Keith finished his pro career, he served as one of Matthew’s hockey coaches for a few seasons.

"It wasn't easy, but he wants the best for me. He pushed just as hard and didn't give me anything easy," Matthew said. "I feel because of that I have become stronger and better because of him. It's unbelievable when I look back. I wouldn't be here without him or my mom."

Matthew, who hails from St. Louis, credits the NHL's Blues for making his hometown a "hockey hotbed" for the next generation of players.

"Growing up, when I was really young, the Blues were not that good," he said. "Not everybody was into hockey. In the last five years, the former pros have really been promoting the game around St. Louis, helping out with youth teams and camps.

"They are making St. Louis a hockey hotbed. I look at the players that have made it, playing for Team USA and going onto the pros. They want to do the same things. It is the coaching and parents who are willing to do whatever
for us."

Director of amateur scouting for the Flames Tod Button explains, "We call him an 'inside-the-dots' player. He's got really good hands and he can make good plays in traffic. He's got really, really soft hands and he can make soft little passes in tight areas which is a skill in itself. But he can also play hard. He can get the shot off in traffic when guys are cross-checking him and hacking him. He's always in the mix and always in the middle. It's a hard game he plays. He plays hard and it's not easy to succeed that way.

"He's got a great compliment in the two guys he plays with but he adds a lot to that line with his physicality and creating space for those guys."

Another of Keith's favorite teammates was Jeremy Roenick. He, too, has connections with Matthew.

"His compete level and intelligence really stood out," Roenick said. "If you watch him, he plays a lot like Keith Tkachuk. He's not the fastest, but because of his hockey sense he puts himself in good position. That's engrained in his blood from dad.

"I was there when Matthew was born and watched him grow up and then I saw his name on the list and made a couple phone calls to make sure he was on my team," Roenick continued. "Keith said, 'You better play my kid a lot, he needs to get drafted high.' I said, 'Don't worry, I'm gonna try and get him to play the whole game.' "

Matthew Tkachuk went through the first ordeal to the draft. Next ...

"I'm a guy who's a winner," he said. "I can contribute on offense and be an offensive weapon. If I play my game, I think I can be one of the best in the draft."


With such father as Keith Tkachuk to draw POWER from ...

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Whether he No. 1, 2 or 3 Pierre-Luc Dubois is climbing fast

By Larry Wigge

So much for those favorite TV lists.

Going into the NHL Entry Draft last weekend somebody listed Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi were the Top 3 picks in the draft.


Do your own scouting. Don't take for granted that the Top 3 players are right there for you to scoop up.

"Everybody keeps assuming, everybody keeps asking me the same question," explained Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. "For me, it's the excitement of picking the best possible player for the Blue Jackets that counts."

It's funny because Kekalainen is from Finland and Laine and Puljujarvi both are former countrymen.

"I'm proud of country," Kekainen continued. "I'm not giving up my citizenship."

Kekalainen has worked to Ottawa, St. Louis and now Columbus. He and Ville Siren, his chief scout who also comes from Finland, so they are not going to give you the stock answer.

"That's all right, I don't need to go to Helsinki and walk around the city," Kekaainen answered. "I really don't think of that, to be honest with you. I work for the Columbus Blue Jackets and I want to get the best possible player for the Columbus Blue Jackets. That's my only priority."

The question not was speculative and Kekainen doesn't buy into that. If the Blue Jackets had the No. 2 pick in the draft would they have passed on Laine.

I'll answer it for Jarmo. He would have taken Pierre-Luc Dubois second after Auston Matthews.

Dubois showed me Jamie Benn is a Cape Breton uniform last season -- 42 goals and 57 assists for 99 points with 112 penalty minutes and a +40 plus/minus rating in 62 regular season games. He's a Benn-like attacker, a big, fast, skilled guy with some real determination and savvy, especially when he gets the pucks on his stick. He's at his best on the rush or making a quick stickhandling move to free himself for a shot.

But the major aspect of his game is stickhandling, deking and getting off shots. Dubois has excellent stickhandling skills, absolutely fantastic, and he flashes them now and then to great advantage.

Now, Jarmo you can answer:

"We believe in skill and character -- and Dubois has it," Kekainen said. "To me, character and skill make a player stand out. That's why are here today."

The Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec native has recorded 52-92-144 with 170 penalty minutes and a +44 plus/minus rating in 116 games since making his junior debut with Cape Breton in 2014-15.

Futhermore ...

"It's harder to find centermen and defensemen, that's for sure, and we always take the best player available in our opinion," he said, "so I don't think we would have taken a center just to get a center if we had a winger ahead of him. He was No. 3 and that's why we picked him and that's why we didn't want to take any chance of moving down unless we knew for sure we were going to get him."

"Everyone talks to you about rumours and stuff like that and you try not to pay attention to it that much," added Kekalainen.

The big news was the rise of Cape Breton left wing-center Pierre-Luc Dubois from No. 7 among North American skaters in the mid-term to No. 1.

Dubois has blossomed into a two-way forward who depends as much on his size and snarl as his skill in patrolling all 200 feet of ice.

"In the corners, I had to out-think the opposition, out-skill them," said Dubois. "Now, I can outsmart them and be doing it with my strength. It helped a lot."

In his second season in the QMJHL, Dubois finished third overall in scoring with 42 goals and 99 points. The strong finish came after a post-Christmas position change from the wing to center. That's a position now that he feels very confident in playing at the NHL level.

"I'm a fast learner," Dubois admitted. "I'm a guy that can play any position anywhere on the ice in any situation. In the long run I think I have the skillset to play center.

"I haven't touched my ceiling and my potential is still far away. You're drafting for what you're going to be -- not for what you are now."

His coach Marc-Andre Dumont said, "He takes care of his body. He's a smart player. What does that tell you? His hockey IQ is outstanding."

"He's a big man and I really like the presence he brings to the room when he enters and the leadership qualities he has at that age," said Kekalainen. "Everything screamed, 'This is our guy.' "

Hockey runs in the Dubois family. Eric Dubois played 11 seasons in North American minor leagues and in Europe. He met his wife Jill while he was playing for Atlanta in the International Hockey League. As a child Pierre-Luc played baseball, soccer, golf and football, but he loved hockey the most.

"I am a dual citizen, Canadian and American. My mother was born and raised in Georgia," says Dubois.

"Right from the start you could see he had a passion for hockey," his father said. "You tell he loved being around the rink."

Pierre-Luc's earliest hockey memories were skating in Germany, where his father's pro career ended. He also recalls the different coaching stops Eric has made in the QMJHL, from Baie-Comeau to Acadie-Bathurst to Rimouski, where he's been since the 2012-13 season.

"I grew up in junior rinks with my dad, watching his teams play," he said. "I'm still like that today, even though he's in Rimouski and I'm in Cape Breton. I still follow pretty much everybody in the CHL."

Eric Dubois said he watches his son via the Internet as much as his job allows. He said he's learned to pick his spots when it comes to fatherly advice.

His son may be a left-shot forward while he was a right-shot defenseman, but Eric knows the game. He was selected by the Quebec Nordiques in the fourth round (No. 76) of the 1989 NHL Draft, and in 1990 he helped Laval of the QMJHL advance to the Memorial Cup.

"First and foremost I want to relate to my son as a dad, not a coach," Eric said. "He has a coach. If he wants to talk about hockey, ask me for advice, then we will talk. But I'm not going to force the issue."

Dubois' favorite player is Claude Giroux. Though now he likes to study the game of Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn. Benn is listed at 6-2 and 210 pounds, so there's a similar build to Dubois. Dubois said he likes the two-way game of last season's Art Ross Trophy winner.

"I think I'm working in the right direction," he said. "I see myself as a power forward with strong offensive ability. I like using my size to drive the puck to the net. I’m a competitor who likes to be a difference-maker in a game.

"Every week in the summer, I take part in four power-skating sessions in Rimouski and another one in Quebec City. I'm also planning on taking part in a clinic organized by Pierre Aubry later this summer in Shawinigan."

Jamie Benn look out. Pierre-Luc Dubois has the rest of the NHL in his sites for 2016-17.