Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Letang Has Magic in His Stick

By Larry Wigge

No matter how much offensive potential you have up front, the key is to find an offensive triggerman to make the any offense click.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have two of the game top headliners in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a load of other key pieces. But the playmaker who orchestrates the offense is a 6-0 foot, 201-pound named Kris Letang, a magical little defenseman who uses creativity and vision to rush the puck to set up Crosby and Malkin.

"Kris the best defenseman now in the league," Malkin explained. "He stars in the offensive zone. He makes our offense go." 

All great playmakers ad lib improvising. Letang can often be found working his magic in and around the net, at the mid-boards or at either of the point positions.

Some have said Kris Letang was too small to play in the big man's game. Others criticize him for becoming a better game on defense to rival his offensive numbers. Others simply say the Penguins have unleashed their latest pit bull on the rest of the NHL. 

To think, it wasn't until midget hockey that Letang grew from 5-9 to 6-0 feet tall and was switched from forward to defense. He was just developing on defense when when was the 61st chosen by the Penguins in the third-round of NHL Entry Draft in 2005.

"I was 5-9, 155 pounds when I switched to defense," the Montreal native explained. "I was still pretty small -- 5-10, 185 pounds when I was drafted. I worked out each year to build myself up. I don't want to be the small player."
It's the evolution of Letang's defensive game that has earned him a place in this team's core, making him a considerable candidate in the Norris Trophy race for the best defenseman in the game.  He's a very smart power-play quarterback and plays a clean, efficient, mistake-free game. He's a very subtle player, but very underrated. His poise under pressure, neat spin moves and great puck movement decisions give him a good shot to overcome the size handicap.

Last season, Letang was an offensive dynamo -- scoring eight goals and 42 assists for 50 points. He totaled 101 penalty minutes and produced an impressive plus-15. He produced only nine points after Jan. 12 last season, a finish as frustrating as the start that earned him a first All-Star Game selection was strong.

This season, he was on pace to crack down on all of those statistics -- and that came after he was sidelined with a concussion suffered at the hands of Montreal Max Pacioretty on November 26. Kris had dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity -- enough to keep him from even the lightest workouts. Since coming back on January 19, Kris has two goals, four points and a plus-minus rating of plus-3, along with six hit and 12 blocked shots, after missing 21 games. All four games back were Penguins wins.

"Kris is a guy who's always had the talent, the skating, the bite to his game. And now we're seeing the package," said coach Dan Bylsma.

Kris Letang came in his fifth season of pro hockey and 23. He has cast aside the shadows of Sergie Gonchar, who left as a free agent to Ottawa, and is remarkably like a young Nicklas Lidstrom on defense.

"When I broke into the lineup a couple of season's back, I was not using my skating ability," Letang explained. "I always had my head up, looking to make plays.

"Now, with the players around me, I'm always looking to make a great play. I have that confidence now. Defensively, I think I'm getting better. I'm playing against better players now than I was three years ago. I think I'm improving every day."

"I like what I see," GM Ray Shero said. "He's a smart player. Really good footwork. One of those new-rules guys, obviously. He's a puck-moving guy -- a really good puck-moving guy."

Letang's modest size means he must learn to use leverage and body position to neutralize opposing forwards.

"For my concussion, I've been through a month with a lot of symptoms and not being able to get out of bed," he said. "It was rough times. But as I was getting better and starting to get treated by different people, it just went better and better."

So what most scouts saw when they watched Letang play for Val d'Or in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the 2004-05 season was a smallish defenseman who showed flashes of promise, but who didn't seem any more intriguing than a lot of other teenaged prospects.

"The guys picked ahead of me were like 6 feet 1, 200 pounds," Letang said. "Now it's based on skating and skill, so I'd probably be drafted higher than the third round."
Bylsma saw the bigger is better -- and much, much more.

"We've talked about how good he can be," said Bylsma "His development isn't a shock to us. Every time he goes over the boards, as far as we're concerned, he's now a shutdown defenseman. The great thing is, Kris still has a long way to go. As good as Kris is, he's going to get better."

"My skating ability, how I see everything, how I see the ice," Letang said, "It's a big part of my game. I'm not a real quick skater. I'm a more powerful skater."

Kris said his overall play came in the playoffs. Postseason play is foremost on his mind now.

"It's a pretty high moment in my career, but it's just like any player," Letang said. "I want to improve my game and certain aspects. Every year I want to take more and more like a place in the dressing room and be an impact player.

"I want to give my 100 percent the whole shift. I don't want to do any coasting. I trained this summer to be able to go at a full pace for the full amount of time I spend on the ice."

Growing up, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were his favorite players.

"Mario came over and talked to me and gave me a lot of tips," Letang explained. "Even now that he’s retired, he still stops in our locker room all the time to make sure we’re never too nervous about a game."

Kris Letang has grown up a lot.

"When I was 5 my Mom (Christiane) was carrying me everywhere," Letang recalled with fondness. "I alawys had a passion for the game of hockey." 

Watch for Kris Letang, that little defenseman wearing No. 57, to be orchestrating another Pittsburgh Penguins attack.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Evolution of Patrice Bergeron to Star

By Larry Wigge

You see Patrice Bergeron in all crucial situations. This 6-4, 194-pound dynamo and captain for the Boston Bruins.

The situation is no different for the Boston Bruins without Bergeron than the Edmonton Oilers without Mark Messier or Wayne Gretzy or the Philadelphia Flyers without Bobby Clarke or the Pittsburgh Penguins without Mario Lemieux.  You need a goal late in the game, Bergeron is out there. Got to kill off a penalty, Bergeron is out there. Need a faceoff win, Bergeron is the guy.

Even when he was a second-round surprise in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft straight to the NHL, Bergeron showed the star power and leadership from the moment he stepped on the ice. 

But back in the early part of the 2007-08 season his career could have been over with a Grade 3 concussion, after Philadelphia's Randy Jones slammed him into the boards a jolting thud. In this concussion-crazed world we live in the sports today, Bergeron must remember how close he came to being finished.

Yet, he has recovered from the incident and scored two goals in a 4-0 victory in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to lead the Bruins to their first title since 1972. Bergeron has good memories beyond the concussion.

"After winning the Cup, I definitely believe that everything happens for a reason. I can handle adversity a lot better," explained Bergeron.

He looks at things with a 35-year-old mind, instead of just 26. He's overcome that fear of missing all but the first 10 games of 2007-08, a reminder of the concussion one year later and a glimpse of the symptoms causing him to miss the first three game of the Finals.

"I think we've all grown as players here experience-wise," he said. "Individually and as a team. It's experience you can't buy. It's definitely made me a better person. I think it makes me appreciate it even more."

During his seven seasons in the NHL, no one has every accused the 27-year-old center from Ancienne-Lorettta, Que., native, of looking for the offensive flow that comes with an All-Star. He topped out at 31 goals and 42 assists in 2005-06, his second year with the Bruins.
When you consider that had two goals three times in a seven-game span to get his totals to 15 goals and 38 assists at the All-Star break.

"Certain players really make you feel comfortable," Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien explained. "They always seem to be in the right place. Patrice is one of those guys that really reads the plays well. I don't have to go up to him on and correct him or tell him to make certain adjustments.

"When he does get caught out of position a little bit, his work ethic just kicks in -- he works twice as hard to get back. That’s why right now, he’s known around the league as one of the better two-way players. He just works so hard. You understand why at the end of a game he’s always exhausted, because he leaves it all out on the ice."

He listened to veteran star Mark Recchi and learned a lot from the veteran.

On the day before the biggest game of his life, Bergeron listened to what Recchi told him. Then he went out and helped the Boston Bruins win a Game 7 for the Stanley Cup.

"I was getting nervous," said Bergeron. "His advice was to relax, go out and play. Elevate your game. I did that."

He doesn't want to repeat the past -- yet he does because it's a part of his resume.

The pain kept Patrice Bergeron from watching his teammates play. Not from the press box, not from his TV at home after playing in 10 games in 2008-09.

"I couldn't do anything," Bergeron explained. "The light was bothering me. The noise was bothering me. Everything was.

"It was giving me headaches, making me dizzy. I couldn't do anything to pass the time. I was pretty much trying to go through the day, trying to sleep and rest -- and feel better."

Boston GM Peter Chiarelli praised the forward's mental toughness.

"He's a very strong person, strong-willed," Chiarelli said. "Quiet, but strong-willed."

Bergeron is getting his game timing back. He wants to prove he's the same player he was before the concussion. Even after the second concussion.

"The game speed is what I need to adjust to the most," Bergeron said. "All my skills are there. It's matter of finding the back of the net pretty much.

"That's the risk you take when you step out on the ice," Bergeron said, insisting he was never concerned the injury could be career-ending. "It never crossed my mind. I know I'll be back. I'll be back as soon as I can. Whatever happens, it's going to be the best for me, and I hope it will be this year."

He was fitted for a new one-piece helmet with softer padding that's designed to absorb the repeated hits that a player takes through the course of the game. And as far as getting cleared to play again, Bergeron believes that’s a mere formality.

At the worst point, Bergeron remembers making his way home to Quebec City, during his absence from hockey, the first time in some five weeks he strayed more than a few miles from his downtown Boston condo. With his mother, Sylvie Bergeron-Cleary, at the wheel, they motored the six-plus hours north, leaving behind both TD Banknorth Garden and a growing, irritating case of cabin fever.

"The walls were kind of closing in on me at the end," he recalled. "So it was good to get out of there, you know, to get a change of scenery, see my family. But most important, just be able to relax, have some quiet time . . . and just look at something different than those walls."

He said he stretched every day and goes for walks. With his improved concentration and focus, he has been able to make those walks a little longer each day.

Improvement a few steps at a time.

That in a nutshell is Patrice Bergeron. He explained that when he was drafted he took everything much more seriously, starting with nutrition and training his body.

"I realized I could get there and I could get to the next level," said Patrice. "I was always at the gym, but I felt that with a personal trainer, I would do the right things and they would teach me really what to do.

"Now, I’m working out with other NHL'ers and they have the same goal that I do. Having that makes you want it even more and sometimes you see them putting more weight than you on certain drills, so you want to catch up. 

"It’s just, I guess, a challenge for me in the summer and it helps me get ready for the season."

"Relentless," is the word that Julien used to describe Bergeron. 

The evolution of Patrice Bergeron, the high and lows, shows a very determined athlete just coming into his own.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Maturing Road of Ryan Kesler

By Larry Wigge

Pardon the interruption.

Ryan Kesler's amazing streak of scoring -- that included 41 goals and 32 assists in the regular season and seven goals and 12 assists in the playoffs -- could only be slowed down by a offseason hip surgery.

Bottom line: Only Ryan Kesler could stop Kesler, as you will see.

After missing the first five games this season, the 28-year-old veteran center from Livonia, Mich., is starting to heat it up again. Coming in a game at St. Louis January 12, Kesler was on a nine-goal, 13-assist record in his last 23 games.

Getting healthier. Getting stronger. Kesler is once again getting his 'A' game.

Take it from Nashville coach Barry Trotz, Kesler can be unstoppable in the Western Conference Finals.

"Naturally, you want to shut down the Sedins twin when you play Vancouver," Trotz said. "We used Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to shut them down. But Kesler's line was killing us.

"No matter what we did, he continued to score on us. So, we went with Weber and Suter against Kesler. Not even our two best shut down defenders could stop him."

To think, the 6-2, 202-pound center was just a third line checking center. He won the Frank J. Selke Award for top defensive forward in 2011 and finished runner-up on several other occasions.

Not until his fourth season did Kesler emerge for 21, 26 and 25 goals.

Four summers ago, he went back home to Michigan and decided he needed to work on it. He was a good player at that point, but to get to the next level, he believed he needed to fine-tune his shot. At his offseason home in West Bloomfield, Kesler set up shop in his garage with a shooting target and rarely took a day off.

"He literally has taken 100 to 200 shots a day every summer for the last three years," his father said. "He's really improved his shot."

During the offseason, he's practiced on to RapidShot (a high-end shooting training system).

There were other adjustments for Kesler.

At the conclusion of last season, which ended with another second-round exit against Chicago, GM Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault sat down with Kesler and teammate Alex Burrows. The message: Enough with the yapping on the ice.

Still it wasn't until Kesler heard from Makayala, his three-year old daughter, that caused her daddy to see the light.

No more yapping. Play to the end of the play. Stay focused on the play.

"That’s what I thought about in the summer," Kesler explained. "Me breaking my stick and getting pissed off, chirping on the ice, it was kind of: What would your kids think of you? What would my daughter think of the way I was acting?"

No parent wants his child to lash out in anger or behave disrespectfully. So Makayla probably wouldn’t approve of her dad smashing his stick at the Canucks bench, or berating referees or yelling at opponents until he looked like a clown and became more distracted than they were.

So, dad grew up.

"It's all about maturing," Kesler said about last year exit meetings. "I didn't take it in the wrong way at all; they want me to become a better player, a better leader every year. That was a big step for me to kind of leave that part of my game behind and focus on other parts of my game.

"I came into this league being a defensive specialist that got under other guys' skins. I think I just grew out of it and I'm just focusing on my game more. When you play whistle to whistle, it's a lot easier to play the game. The biggest reason why I changed is I was hurting the team. My play wasn’t where it needed to be."

A better shot during the offseason and a better human being during the season. Smart thinking.

The turning point to Kesler's career came in June of 2007, when Bobby Clarke, then the GM of the Philadelphia Flyers, shocked the rest of the league by signing Kesler to a one-year, $1.75 million restricted free-agent offer sheet. The total seemed outrageous for a guy who had just 2, 10 and 6 goals in his first three seasons with the Canucks.

"Bobby Clarke did me a favor," Kesler said. "That contract he signed me to motivated me as a person and player. I was glad the Canucks matched the offer sheet. It made me challenged myself to be a better player in Vancouver ... and that's just what I needed."

Voila! Power forward. Great wheels. And not just X, but X, Y and Z as a complete package.

Hard work has never been a problem for Kesler, who brings a Midwestern work ethic that was nurtured at home by his dad, Mike, a former Colorado College forward. Mike Kesler coaches a Junior B hockey when he's not working as a project manager for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Linda Kesler, Ryan's mom, owns her own shop in Detroit. That's where the hard work came from.

Ryan's work ethic then grew with the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, then in one year at Ohio State University before being selected by the Canucks with the 23rd pick of the 2003 Entry Draft.

The ABC's of Ryan Kesler's development started when he was six and he attended Mike's hockey school in Livonia each summer from then until he was 17. 

"I'd be on the ice for three hours a day during the hockey school and the first hour was power skating," says Kesler, who started skating at age four. "In the winter, we had a backyard rink, so it was skating, skating and more skating. My dad helped me fine-tune it."

But no player, not even Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby has had an obstacle to overcome to make him stronger as a person to get to the NHL For Kesler, it came when he was 13-14.

"I got cut from every Triple A team I tried out for," Ryan admitted. "Luckily, my dad, who was coaching a bantam team in Livonia, gave me a chance to play for him. It was against guys who were at least a year older than me. It was tough, but playing against those guys made me tougher."

The U.S. Development Program and Ohio State were the next big steps. But Kesler's biggest confidence builder in his young career came in 2002, when Ryan helped the U.S. World Junior team win the told medal in Helsinki, Finland, as Kesler scored the tying goal against Canada and was chosen the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

It was in the genes. It was hard work and listening to his daughter.

That has made Ryan Kesler what he is today.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Briere: A Big Man, Though He Stands 5-8 3/4

By Larry Wigge

Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has no problem seeing that passion and excitement in the face of veteran center Danny Briere.

In overtime January 7, Briere completed his first hat trick of the season by scoring with 5.4 seconds left in overtime to rally the Flyers for a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators. Oh, yeah, Danny topped of this night with the third fight of his 779-game.

"I saw the look on Danny's face. It almost like a smile," Laviolette said. "I seen it often enough to know that he's going to do something special."

Briere, who had 13 goals and 16 assists in 36 games this season, was on that night against Ottawa.

Briere recalled early in his life as coach of the Laviolette was on his side in December 2009.

"I remember facing yet another challenge," Briere said. "Things weren't going well for me and the Flyers. And coach Laviolette took me aside and said he wanted me to play my game. He said to be aggressive, force the play. He wanted an up-tempo offense.

"That meant the world to me. It's not something I've heard from the coach."

It's a given that you are going to hear the stories about how certain players worked to make their God-given talents better. And there are surprisingly a lot of other stories about how athletes overcome adversity to make it to the top. Well, Briere is a 5-8 3/4, 177-pounder, that most skeptics said was too small, too this or too that.

You know the story. It always ends with "but ..."

"Yeah, he's good, but he'll never make it at the next level."

"It started," Briere said, head held high after helping the Eastern Conference to victory at the All-Star Game in Dallas in 2007, "when I heard the parents of some of the players saying it. I was just 12 at the time. I was playing Peewee for the Gatineau Ambassadors."

No one is daft enough to question Briere's abilities these days. Not only is he a vital part of the Flyers.

"All a kid wants is recognition that he's playing hard and trying to win. Not stuff like, 'Yeah, but that's about as far as he'll go.' Or 'he's good, but he's still too small,' " Briere rattled off excuses he's heard through the years.

There also was a devilish little smile on the Gatineau, Quebec, native's face. But ...

"I heard it all the way through. I'd make the next level and it would be, 'He can't do this, he can't do that,' " Briere added. "You can't let it get you down, so you start to use it as motivation to show the doubters."

Making a positive out of a negative?

"Exactly," he added. "Who knows, if I was 6-2 or 6-3, I might not have the drive, the passion for the game that I do now."

I wondered if the 35-year-old center with soft hands an innate ability to survey the offensive zone to decide whether to make a play or take a shot believed in first impressions.

"Absolutely not," he said. "It's not how you look. It's how you perform."

No whispers. That was heartfelt praise for a player small in stature with a big, big heart. But times were often demanding in junior hockey and would continue to be rough.

"I remember when I started juniors, I was 140 and I was regularly battling with guys 200 and 220 pounds," Briere said of his time playing at Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at a time when bigger was believed to be better, where a good big man could lean on a good little player, legally or not, and neutralize him. "I was small, but it was something I was never afraid of. It didn't matter to me how big they were. I knew I wasn't there to fight those guys or outmuscle them. I learned how to play against big guys. Every once and a while, I got crunched, but I did pretty well staying out of trouble.

"GMs thought if you could find a guy who is 6-4, you could work with this guy and make him a player, where a guy who is 5-8, 150 pounds, they thought it would be hard to get height on him and add weight. For me personally, it was a good thing. I had a lot of people tell me that if I were 6-feet tall, I would have been the first overall draft pick, so I always had motivation to prove people wrong, people who said I was too small that I could play at the next level."

But the whispers, the innuendos, were still there -- even after Briere had an astounding 67-goal, 96-assist pre-draft season at Drummondville and led the league in goals, assists and points. Mind-boggling numbers. Still, he barely made it into the first round of the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, going 24th overall.

Briere grew up idolizing Wayne Gretzky for obvious reasons. But being down the road from Montreal, he also enjoyed watching Mats Naslund of the Canadiens. And Pat LaFontaine tore up the Quebec League.

"I felt that, 'If they could survive at their size and be stars in the NHL, maybe I can, too,' " Briere said confidently.

There are countless players who have had to overcome to become great. Just look at Martin St. Louis, the NHL's Most Valuable Player in 2003-04. Drive and inspiration from the too-small syndrome. It's not just size and speed. It's what's in a player's heart and stomach and head that allow the smaller guys to overcome the obstacles they've faced in trying to make it in the NHL.

New challenges. New obstacles ... like when Daniel cleared waivers in his fourth year in the NHL 2000-01 at Phoenix. A FOURTH time.

"Every single team passed me by," Briere said, clenching his fist a little. "That was probably the lowest point of my career. That was a big blow to my ego because you realize that nobody wants you. At the same time, it was a wakeup call that I needed to change some things. My goal after that was to prove everyone made a mistake, so that's been my attitude since then."

Big plans.

"I asked my dad if he could find someone I could train with, I wanted to work harder on my strengths, not just my strength," he said.

Robert Briere, Daniel's dad, asked Hugo Girard, who was a competitor in Canada's World's Strongest Man challenges who shares Gatineau as a hometown, if he knew someone. Girard volunteered for the job himself.

"I was blown away when he looked at me and said, 'I've been watching your career and I think you need this, this and that,' " Briere laughed. "Then he asked me, 'Why do you want to put yourself through the training? The pain? And more pain?'

"I said, 'I don't want to be just another third- or fourth-line guy who just checks in every night for a few minutes. I want be a top-six guy. I want to make a difference.' "

Briere quickly went from an 11-goal player in 2000-01 and waived through the NHL to a 32-goal scorer for the Coyotes. Hugo helped Daniel with his core strength. His legs. His quickness. His stamina.

"He's really driven, never stops working, fighting, scrapping, trying," said Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier. "I play next to a guy like that ... Martin St. Louis ... in Tampa every night. And Daniel is smart, just like Marty and shifty. Those characteristics, those intangibles, are difficult to defend."


It all started with Robert Briere, a hockey-playing wannabe, whose showed his son the right kind of passion for the game. Robert works as an insurance broker in Gatineau. Constance, his mom, showed her love for their family by teaching, nurturing kids at a neighborhood day-car center and she instilled the same kind of caring in her son.

"Confidence is the biggest thing in hockey," Briere said. "When you don't have it, you play scared. If you go out there afraid to make a mistake, you're useless. The best advice I ever got was from my Midget Coach, who said, 'Nothing is impossible, if you really, truly, believe in it.' "

First impressions of Daniel Briere? He wears passion on his sleeve and in his heart. He fearlessly challenges anything and anyone. Guts. Determination. Skill. He's a big talent and a bigger-than-life All-Star.

Up-tempo. He plays that way and his personality is that way.

And those in this big-man's game who believe there's no place for someone under 6-feet, you've just been taught a another little lesson in reality by the impact he's had on the Philadelphia Flyers and the rest of the NHL.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Versteeg Still Sticking to His Jagr Comparison

Competitive balance.

That's what it comes down to when a player is traded. How does he match up the player he was traded for?

When Kris Versteeg was sent by the Philadelphia Flyers to the Florida Panthers, the 25-year-old, fourth-year pro from Lethbridge, Alta., wondered aloud, "How does one respond when you've been traded for second-  (or second-round in 2012) and third-round picks in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft?"

It's no secret Jaromir Jagr came to mind.

"I was actually traded 10 minutes after Jaromir Jagr was brought into Philadelphia," explained Versteeg. "I was traded to make room for Jagr under the salary cap.

"Hey, he's a player I love watching."

Reaching for a giant comparison, a Hall of Famer, but that a little bit of a reach, don't you think?

GM Dale Tallon, who had Versteeg at Chicago, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2009-10, wouldn't dare say Versteeg's a cocky kid. He laughed at the comparison.

"He's got some spunk. He's got a fiery personality," Tallon recalled. "He has unbelievable skill. He's got a great personality. There's something about him I really like.

"And his numbers last season weren't bad. He was hurt. He had double hernia surgery."

During the 2009-10, Versteeg had 21 goals combined with Toronto and Philadelphia. With a double hernia surgery.

"I got a chance to see what life was like on the other side -- from the team against us in the Stanley Cup finals," Versteeg said of the Chicago opponent, the Flyers. "From the moment I got to Philadelphia, I had to deal with terrible back pains.

"Dr. Myers found two holes in my stomach. It was a blessing to find out what was wrong. If I had never gone to Philly, they might never have found what was wrong with me."

Surgery out of the way, you can now see why Versteeg is playing so well. Kris represents one of the good stories in Florida, playing on the No. 1 line with Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleishman. Clearly, it's the best scoring position he's ever been in.

At the halfway point of the season, Versteeg was leading Florida in scoring with 17 goal and 22. Better yet, he was a plus-11 and had four game-winning goals.

"Kris has been a big offensive threat for us," said coach Kevin Dineen. "Dale (Tallon) knew him from Chicago. And I'm good friends with Joel Quenneville. I got some real good reports, tipping me off on all of the intangibles and well as the production."

Not bad for a kid who was one of those too-small-to-play kids who was a fifth-round pick, 134th overall, by Boston in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

There's a chip-on-his-shoulder confidence that comes out with volume at full blast when you spend a few minutes with the Panthers' Versteeg. And I like it. He's clearly one of the most passionate athletes in sports today.

You don't just put a check next to the Lethbridge, Alberta, native's name and say he's too small or too weak at 5-10, 180 pounds. Not when a closer look will show those hands, the puckhandling skills, the shooting ability of a marksman and the never-give-in attitude ... with a bullet.

Tallon recalls Versteeg when he was in the Bruins minor leagues. "I remember going to Providence to scout another player in the American Hockey League one night midway through the 2006-07 season. But every time I started to get focused on the guy I went to see, this other kid kept flashing in front of my eyes. Kris was all over the place, the best player on the ice. He was leading the Bruins in scoring ... as a rookie.

"A few phone calls later, I remember being on the cell with (Bruins G.M.) Peter Chiarelli. He was looking for a veteran guy who might be able to help the Bruins in the playoffs. I mentioned Brandon Bochenski (then a 25-year-old journeyman who had shown a knack of scoring goals at the University of North Dakota and at the minor-league level). He said, 'What would you want for him?' And I said, "How about the Versteeg kid?' "

Long bumpy road to finally achieving success in the NHL?

"Well, no, I'd say things were pretty good until I turned 15-16," Versteeg said confidently. "Then, well, the road was suddenly filled with potholes ..."

And his lack of size?

"I wouldn't change a thing about my adventure," he continued. "The way I look at it there are always obstacles you have to overcome in life -- and seeing someone or something try to knock me down only made me stronger.

"It's funny, but my dad likes to say, 'It's not the size of the dog, but the size of the fight in the dog.' Yeah, I know that's cliche. But he says I've always kind of rebounded from those obstacles with 'piss and vinegar.' "

The first time anyone ever told Versteeg he was too small to make it to the next level? "I was trying out for the Crowsnest Pass Timberwolves (Alberta Junior Hockey League) and the coach told me I didn't have a chance to make his team," Kris recalled, steaming a little at the thought.

Crowsnest Pass? From there, Versteeg was cut from Team Alberta, a bantam Triple A team, when he was 15, and failed to make Southern Alberta's Zone team when one year later.

"I was a kid who knew I was a good player and that I was caught up in too much politics at that level," said Versteeg, who pointed out that the coach in question basically ruined the program that is no longer in Crowsnest Pass. Then, he eased the pain of being cut in one of those I'm-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore fit of rage. "Not making it left a pretty bitter taste in my mouth, so, when I got home I burned my jersey in a fire pit.

"To me, it's all a part of going out there with a chip on your shoulder and proving those people wrong."

There's nothing unconventional about Kris Versteeg. He's bright, loquacious and strong-willed ... with a ton on talent and a great stand-up-for-himself attitude.

The strength comes from his parents, Roy, a tractor salesman, and Marilyn, who is a Grade 4 teacher who runs a fine arts program that has put on some fine plays and musicals in Lethbridge. Roy got the hockey started for Kris when he gave him a min-stick when he was only 2. He used to always play roller hockey and street hockey when he was a kid, where he worked a lot on stickhandling. The athletic genes? Well, they probably come from mom's mom, who was is still famous in Alberta for her senior olympics feats in curling and lawn bowling at 70 years young.

Versteeg laughs when he compares his game to that of Peter Forsberg, two-time winner of Stanley Cups with the Colorado Avalanche. But it's the chip on his shoulders.

Kris remembered that his family had enough to get by when he was growing up, plus his parents made sure their boys had the opportunity to play sports and make friends.

His biggest moment? No, it wasn't being drafted.

"I wasn't rated very highly in juniors so it wasn't a certainty that I would even be drafted in 2004," he explained "But a couple of days before the draft, three or four teams told me they might take me. Having been through that kind of politics before, I stayed home and went to my safe graduation ... never even gave the draft a thought at the post-graduation party.

"The next morning my mom called to tell me that Boston had drafted me. She was so happy she was crying."

The adventure, the bumps along the road, the potholes ... all the way from Crowsnest Pass to Chicago, then Toronto, Philadelphia and now Florida. It's a great story.

And all you had to do is check under the hood to see what makes Kris Versteeg tick.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lupul: Anytime a Good Bet for Maple Leafs

Joe Chesterfield.

That was the name of the imaginary goaltender Joffrey Lupul used to wear out in his driveway in Edmonton, when he was growing up with illusions of someday playing in the NHL in the late 1980s.

That goalie was made from cushions rescued from an old couch. In fact, Lupul knocked the stuffing out of him a long time ago, when Joffrey couldn’t decide who he was going to be that day ... Mark Messier or Glenn Anderson.

Young Joffrey was born to shoot. Pucks under the crossbar. Top shelf. Picking corners. It was a knack.

Like the play on January 7, when Lupul got the puck at 7:10 of the third period and the score tied 3-3 with the Red Wings. Goalie Jimmy Howard was staring him down with the puck on his stick. In slow motion, Joffrey took his time, getting the puck on his backhand and lifting it under the crossbar.

Just like when he was 7 or 8 against Joe Chesterfield.

In a case of truth being stranger than fiction, when talking about Joffrey Lupul, a power forward, being reborn in Toronto.

"I think they thought of me as the injured guy all the time," he said, thinking back to last year at the time. "I didn’t really get the chance to come back.

"But what a difference a year makes. The trade here changed my career."

On February 9 of 2011, Lupul was traded to Toronto along with young defensemen Jake Gardiner for defenseman Francois Beauchemin. Lupul could have been considered a throw-in in the deal. Only Toronto GM Brian Burke wanted Lupul, who was once the seventh pick overall in the 2002 Entry Draft back when Burke was running the Ducks.

"He wasn't the same player," Burke exclaimed. "He had lost 30 pounds. He suffered two blood infections in December 2009 following surgery and again in 2010."

From December 2008, Lupul played 23 games for Anaheim -- before he had to shut it down for the second infection. Before the trade to Toronto, Joffrey had five goal and eight assist in 26 games. But look at him now, on the No. 1 line with Phil Kessel and David Steckel -- standing fourth in NHL scoring behind Herik Sedin, Kessel and Claude Giroux with 19 goals and 28 assists in 41 games.

The Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., native, whose best previous seasons included 28 and 25 goals in 2005-06 with Anaheim and 2008-29 with Philadelphia respectively. Also included in his early successes came in a playoff game on May 9, 2006, when Lupul became the first player in NHL history to score four goals in a playoff game that included the game-winner in overtime, giving the Ducks a 4-3 victory over Colorado goaltender Jose Theodore. 

But that was before he was forced to lie awake awake in his bed for months on end with those bad thoughts, creeping doubts, entering his mind. Is this how his career is supposed to end?

The back surgeries. Bacterial infection and IV antibiotics folowed. The 30something pound loss came because Lupul was not being able to train.

Lupul was just 26 years old. He should have been in the prime of his NHL playing career. He should not have been having thoughts like, "Is it over?"

But he did.

"I never down deep thought I'd retire. I just thought it was bad run of luck," explained Lupul. "I just having numbness down my right leg."

It should have been a routine recovery, but a staff infection restricted his return. He had to return to the hospital a second time.

Eight more weeks of IV antibiotics. Those months were spent with demons a second time. More rehab.

"He's becoming a real good power forward, always going for the net," coach Ron Wilson said. "And because he went through all of that adversity, he's dug in and made himself stronger mentally and physically.

"He's become a Top 6 forward. Before he was always on the bubble. Good thing Brian Burke kept up with Joffrey."

Said Lupul, "When I go the net more, when I’m outworking people and winning battles, it makes a difference in my game."

It's a wonderful comeback story. Something like Lupul is familiar with like when he was 15 when he was only 5-8 playing bantam. But a growth spurt -- what a growth spurt -- helped him reach his dreams.

"Oh ... it was about seven inches in 13 months ... " Lupul recalled. "My mom's tall, my dad's tall. So we felt it was just a matter of time. Finally, one year, I started to grow." 

This isn’t exactly what Craig Lupul, an Edmonton lawyer and Joffrey’s proud father had when he (pardon the spelling) named his son after English author Geoffrey Chaucer. Joffrey is writing his stories with his hands, a stick and a puck ... usually deposited somewhere that not even Joe Chesterfield could stop. 

The story of his trade to Toronto included a stipulation that unless Joffrey Lupul played on 40 or more game in 2012-13, the Maple Leafs would receive fourth- or sixth-round draft choice.

"You bet on people every time you make a trade," said Brian Burke. "I bet of Joffrey Lupul because of his character and skill level."

Joffrey Lupul, a great story and a good bet for the Maple Leafs.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Selanne Still Going Strong at 40

By Larry Wigge

For several years now, Teemu Selanne's brilliance has peaked coach Bruce Boudreau's interest -- from afar.

Boudreau has coached Alex Ovechkin while with the Washington Capitals, but Selanne's star was a new challenge when he took over the Anaheim Ducks. Selanne's career had spanned nearly two decades and his star was among the brightest of all galaxies.

"I find it amazing that a man his age can still skate the way he can," Boudreau gushed. "Having coached Ovechkin the last 4 1/2 season, I got see Ovie dig his skates with a powerful stride.

"Teemu's stride is like a feather the way he glides along the ice. Selanne's just a whisp on top of the ice. He doesn't look like he's even touching the ice."

Selanne's career once again reached a milestone, when he scored the 650th and 651st goals of his career in a 7-4 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nevertheless, the 41-year-old from Helsinki, Finland, was still going strong. He was leading the Ducks in scoring with 14 goals and 25 assists in 40 games.

Like Old Man River, Selanne just rolls along. He was the 10th player taken in the first round all the way back to the 1988 NHL Entry Draft.

Though he's not scoring 76 goals and 56 assists like he did as a rookie in 1982-83, Selanne is once again on pace of 30 goals -- which would be the 12th time in 19 seasons. This may -- or may note -- be his swan song, but Teemu is hardly intimating might be his last.

"When you get older, you absolutely think about the kind of commitment it takes to play at a high level," encourages Selanne. "I ride the bike a lot during the summer. The most you put into the game in the summer pays of for you during the season.

"I was young again ..."

Then, he stared me straight in the eyes and said and began laughing, "I've already said five times that I'm going to retire. But nobody believes me anymore."”

There aren't many athletes 41 still star in their sports. Forty-years in downright ancient. Age hasn't slowed Teemu Selanne, who remains an oldie-but-goodie.

At home, Selanne has sons Eemil (16), Eetu (13) and Leevi (12) to keep them thinking young. And to keep working on his game.

"They all play hockey at a high level -- and they never let me forget a good scoring chance that I don't cash in on," said the proud papa. "Two years ago, I got off to a slow start. You wouldn't believe the trash talk at the breakfast table. From all three of them. It was vicious.

"They had more goals. So, therefore, they were better than dad. They wouldn't let me hear the end of it."

Wife, Sirpa, acts as the go-between, reminding them of Teemu's 40 goal seasons -- eight times, including five times in his first six not (not counting the lockout shortened 1994-95 season).

It wasn't always that way. Back in 2004-05, Selanne has to take off to do a major knee surgery -- that coming after an ill-fated move along with teammate Paul Kariya to the Colorado Avalanche as a pair of free agents. Teemu had his career low of 16 goals and 16 assists.

Said Selanne, "I felt like I was racing a car with just three tires."

It was a lockout-lost season. But the NHL welcomed Selanne back to the Ducks a year later. New knee and all, Teemu returned to Anaheim with a 40-goal, 50-assist season in 2005-06.

His knee wasn't locking up any more. His moves were back. And Selanne still had the flair and goal-scoring knack.

With the Ducks in 2006-07 he won his first Stanley Cup.

"Everything starts with passion, if you don't have it, you shouldn't be playing," Selanne explained. "You can practice and develop it, but a lot of it is a gift. Sometimes you just have to have the magic. You can go a lot of games without scoring and you can get frustrated, but you stick with it.

"Alex Ovechkin can beat people from the blue line. I can't do that. A lot of people can't. With him it's both power and accuracy. Guys can shoot the puck hard but the key is accuracy, because there are only a few places where you can score."

Look at it as a fast-twitch response. It takes a phenomenal amount of athletic ability. You have to get rid of the puck so fast. It isn't surprising that Teemu drives cars so fast, because he has such hand-eye coordination and his reflexes are so quick. You can't really teach that part.

He's always had skating speed. The ability to score -- well, that's all Teemu.

Former Edmonton great Jari Kurri was always his hero.

"I had his poster on my wall when I was a young boy," said Selanne, who past his Finnish compatriot with 575 goals and 1,204 points in 1,126 NHL games. "Obviously, he's a buddy of mine too now, so that's pretty neat."

It also been pretty neat watching Teemu Selanne for nearly two decades. Living for skating on the slippery slope of a goal scorer. Where you are praised when the puck is going in and ridiculed when it isn't. Shooting is one thing. Scoring is another altogether. The best scorers have a definite plan in mind when they're bearing down on a goalie.

For Selanne, it's a knack, an innate ability to see a play develop before it happens and having the patience to cash in on that opportunity. 

Release ... accuracy ... skating speed. Those are the physical components of goal scoring.

Teemu Selanne has it all -- with spades.