Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What Makes Patrik Elias Tick

By Larry Wigge

With all great players there is a self-motivation that drives them to do the marvelous things they do on the ice. For Patrik Elias, it's also a matter of playing his entire NHL career with the New Jersey Devils

More than 1,000 games. Elias, 35, is the Devils' all-time leader in regular-season goals 354, assists 520, points 884 through late February and holds the club record for single-season points (96) He has won two Stanley Cups and made three All-Star appearances since being drafted in the second round (51st overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.

With Elias, there's no stereotype. He's a flashy Czech playmaker who has the grit to go to the net, get into a goal-scoring hole or fire from long-distance and still be effective. Most important, he's just as valuable killing penalties and playing his position five-on-five.

"It's pretty easy to tell you what makes Patrik Elias tick," Devils G.M. Lou Lamoriello explained. "He wants to be the best at what he does. He doesn't so much compete against the others players as he competes against himself."

Getting the most out of himself. It takes a drive. A passion. A reason.

Every player has obstacles to overcome to get to this high level. If you ask the 35-year-old from Trebic, Czech Republic, he'll look you square in the eyes, then Patrik's voice raises to show how important it is to tell his story.

"I'll never forget the words," Elias told me. "I was with Kladno in the Czech Elite League and I told them I was going to North America to try to make it in the NHL. I'll never forget one of the coaches saying to another member of the staff after I walked away, 'He'll be begging us to take him back.' "

While those words were spoken more than 17 years ago, Elias lets them drive his every breathtaking move.

There was no return to Kladno.

"He has played at a high level for a long time," coach Pete DeDoer said. "That's the one thing that I've been amazed at. He's 35 years old. He looks like he's 25 -- and he's playing like that. I think he's more efficient than when he was younger with his energy.

"He's smarter. I think the fact he's so intelligent. He's like a coach out there. I think it's easier for guys like that to play longer."
While Patrik had to spend the better part of two seasons with Albany of the American Hockey League at the start of his career in North America, he made it big when Robbie Ftorek, who had coached Elias in the AHL, became the head coach of the Devils. That was 1997-98, when Patrik had 18 goals and 19 assists and he was named to the NHL's All-Rookie team. Other notable achievements have included his league-leading plus-45 in 2000-01. But the bottom-line results that Elias is most proud of are Stanley Cups in 2000 and 2003 and the fact that his 39 playoff goals are a club record, not to mention that his 110 career playoff points is 35 more than any other Devils player. 

The part of Patrik's game that might stand out more than the rest is his ability to score key goals late in games and in overtime -- like the famous no-look pass to linemate Jason Arnott in double overtime of Game 6 against Dallas to give the Devils a 2-1 victory and the Stanley Cup. He is also in the mix for most all-time record of overtime goals.

"I just try to relax," Elias said with a smile. "I just try to settle the play down and wait for my chance. I love to be in the position when the game is on the line. In the clutch, I want to work the puck ... and to try to create a good scoring opportunity."

"With some players they just feed on the pressure to make a play -- and Patty's like that," added former teammate Jamie Langenbrunner. "He a clutch player. He really steps up and elevates his game."

He's quick. He's fast. Like most European players, he's very good at making things happen because he learned how to play the game on the bigger ice surface, where he'll find a shooting or passing angle on an opponent. His vision and ability to see a play like a chessmaster -- two or three plays ahead of time -- is incredible.

He's like a hunter out there on the ice. Some of the best players can be defended because they slow down, hesitate. Not Patrik Elias. He's special because he's so smart ... with the puck or without it. He never stops moving. You've always got to keep an eye on him because he's always hunting for an open spot to create a play.

In 2001 Stanley Cup finals against the Colorado Avalanche, he was so good protecting the puck that you couldn't get it away from him. All he needs is one chance to make a play.

Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador said he only remembers playing against Elias a couple of times when he was with St. Louis in the Western Conference. Seeing him every day gives Salvador a greater appreciation of the skills and smarts Patrik possesses.

"I've played with a lot of smart players over the years, but Patty's really special. I've never seen a star player watch so much video to try to get an edge on an opponent," Salvador explained. "He'll be watching the game of a team we're about to play and he'll yell at me, 'Hey, look at this!' If he sees something that will help me, he let's me know about it.

"With Patrik Elias, you see the skill right away. Then, you notice he does everything well ... in every facet of the game."

The story began in a small Czech town, where Zdenek Elias, a housebuilder, and his wife, Zdena, who cleaned homes for a living, made sure their three sons got a chance to be boys -- even if Patrik always wore his older brothers' hand-me-down clothes. They all played soccer like their dad. But it didn't take long for Patrik to show everyone how skilled he was in hockey. When he was 14, he had a very difficult decision to make -- continue hockey or go to school in the Czech Republic.

Elias remembers that decision fondly, "My parents said, 'Go ahead and give it a shot in hockey.' Their confidence in me really meant a lot."

Even though he was homesick at first, Elias went to the same academy in Kladno that Czech hero Jaromir Jagr did when he was starting out. That's where Patrik met Petr Sykora, who combined along with Arnott for a highly-productive A-Line during the Devils Stanley Cup runs in 2000 and 2001.

Small guy makes good? You bet.

"Patty was about a buck-27 at the time, but he never backed down from anybody," Sykora recalled. To which, Elias added, "When I was growing up, I was almost always the smallest guy on the team. But I didn't let that bother me."

Playing in the Czech Elite League was Elias' dream. There was no NHL on TV where Patrik came from. In fact, he didn't start thinking about the NHL until he was 16 and was playing on the Czech national team and he'd hear about scouts from the NHL watching some of his team's better players. In 1994, when he was 18, this 168-pound hunter was picked in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft, 51st overall, by the Devils.

It was at that time that Jagr, who had been Elias' favorite player, was replaced by Detroit captain Steve Yzerman as the player he most liked to watch.

"You saw his great skills," Elias explained. "But what I liked most about him is the way he carried himself as a leader of the Red Wings."

Sounds a lot like how others describe Elias now, doesn't it?

"There another side to Patty, too," said Jason Arnott, former linemate and now the with the St. Louis Blues. "He's a character. He loves joking around, playing pranks. He loves reciting lines from movies like 'Dumb and Dumber' and 'Austin Powers.' He's fun to be around.

"Ask him about his dog." Arnott continued. "After we lost Game 4 to Toronto in the 2000 playoffs, he went home and chased his Labrador retriever around his condo to take his mind off of losing 3-2 that night. There he was on all fours in his living room, barking right back at his dog. He's got a way about him to remove pressure. And that was one of the funniest."

"That's me," Elias says. "If you make things too serious, you're not going to able to do your job. I have fun on and off the ice. You should enjoy yourself."

But hockey as a business isn't just one joyride -- as Elias found out during the lockout in the summer of 2005, when he was playing in Russia. It was there that he contracted Hepatitis A and there was fear that the illness might end his career. Not this self-motivated player. After missing the first 39 games of the 2005-06 season, he kept his point-per-game average with 16 goals and 29 assists in just 38 games.

"I don't even think I realized how sick I was," Elias explained. "I didn't realize how dangerous it was."

He found out later that if he had had a vaccine, the effects of hepatitis wouldn't have been so hard on him. That's also when Elias learned of many other cases where people don't get the right treatment -- and that led Patrik to become a goodwill ambassador for the U.N Children's Fund (UNICEF). He makes it a point each summer to go to a foreign country and help out however he can.

"You get older, you have more of an opportunity to help others," Elias said.

Patrik's trying to recruit other athletes to follow his lead. Last summer Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara followed Elias to Belize in Central America, bordering Guatemala and Mexico.

"Travel brochures will show you the nice beaches and photos of the waterfront, but there were orphanages there that had just 18 beds ... but housed 60 children," Elias told me. The poverty is so bad ... they're eating garbage."

We've heard how special Patrik Elias is as a player, but at 6-1, 200 pounds, he has also built a life for himself in this far-away land aside from being a big-game player. And he's grown as a man.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Tall Tale for Myers to be an NHL Defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Tyler Myers. He's big -- oh yes he is -- at 6-foot-7 and 227 pounds. And as a first-year player, the defenseman won the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year. His future is ahead of him.

There are at times when Myers looks like he could stretch from left wing circle to the right wing circle. That is a quality thought of in terms of Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara, both of whom also have a wingspan Tyler's. It's bigger than life.

Think about it, covering from the left wing faceoff circle and the right one. But that just a part of Myers, the 12th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He multi-facited. And he 22 years old.

"His stride, he just came out of his own end and skated right by guys," explained Chicago executive Scotty Bowman. "I couldn't believe how fast he was. I haven't seen many guys in my time that big who was such a fluid skater. He gets up and down the ice so fast."

The Katy, Texas, native, tallied 11 goals and 37 assists and was a plus 13 player for the Sabres in 2009-10. After signing a seven-year, $38.5 million extension in the offseason, the Sabres made it clear that they viewed him as one of the cornerstones of this franchise for the foreseeable future.

But with the expectations this fanbase places on his shoulders, he slumped to 37 points as a sophomore and was even worse this year -- six goals and 11 assists.

"Part of our attack is the absence of Tyler Myers," said Coach Lindy Ruff of the oft-injured Myers. "He's one guy that gets up the ice and makes things happen for us offensively."

Again he is 6-foot-7 and 227 pound of promise. Give the kid a break.

It's a long way from Katy, Texas, to Calgary and an even longer distance to the NHL. But, when 6-7 defenseman Tyler Myers looked out on the ice during the Stanley Cup finals and saw 6-7 Hal Gill playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing that shutdown defensive job, it was only that he wondered if maybe he wasn't getting closer to his dream of playing an important role in the NHL.

With the Red Wings displaying the skills of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and the Penguins showing off the talent of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the job of shutdown defenseman has become paramount in the NHL these days -- and Myers just happens to be one of the top prospects available in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft along with fellow defensemen Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo.

So it's safe to say the emphasis at the top of this draft is going to be on find the next defensemen who can potentially help to neutralize stars like those on the Wings and Penguins for Buffalo.

Tyler Myers becomes an even more intriguing story for two reasons -- he was born in the not-so-hockey hotbed of Katy, Texas, about 20 minutes from Houston, after his dad, Paul, moved the family there from Bethlehem, Pa., to work in the oil industry.

Not exactly the normal route nor dimensions of your typical hockey talent. But it fits. Tyler has grown into his beautiful skating stride and in only his third year of playing defense he excites more scouts with the upside he presents.

"I had never really seen hockey until my dad took me to an (International Hockey League) game with the Houston Aeros when I was six years old," Myers said. "By the second period, I was bugging my dad to let me play. The next day, we went to buy hockey equipment at the local pro shop."

Tyler's hockey career struggled in the non-hockey Houston area. But when the family relocated again -- this time to Calgary -- hockey and Myers took off.

"Talk about a culture shock," Myers said, with a hint of sarcasm about the move to Canada as a 10-year-old. "When I was playing hockey in Houston, there were three teams in my age bracket in a city of about three million people. When I got to Alberta, there were 13 teams I could play on in my community alone."

Talk about obstacles, the looks that folks gave him because of his size -- he grew three inches in grade 10 alone -- plus the Texas background made some hockey coaches look askance at him. But not for long.

"I guess, because I was from Texas, they started me out skating in Division 7 -- thinking it would be too tough for me," he laughed, in retrospect. "But there I was still on the ice four or five hours later. Only this time, it was with the Division I players.

"It was a long day ... but it was one of the most rewarding days of my hockey-playing career."

Oh, yeah, there's one more twist to this story. He grew up a big fan and admirer of the play of Dallas Stars center Mike Modano and Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman. And that was different, of course, since this highly-rated defenseman played up front until his second year of bantam -- or about 14-years-old.

"It's funny, but when I turned from forward to defense, I started to appreciate more of the defensemen in the NHL," he admitted. "I've heard a lot of comparisons with Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger, probably because of our height similarity. Honestly, I've always liked the way Nicklas Lidstrom plays. The way he plays at both ends of the ice, he's so poised, that it’s fun to watch.

"When you watch a guy like that, you realize just how far you have to go to make it in the NHL. I just focus on using my skating ability and using my stick and long reach as a big advantage."

Paul Myers played hockey up to the university level and was all for Tyler to take on work in athletics ... as long as his schoolwork didn't suffer. Spoken like a typical geologist, eh?

"What I'm most proud of Tyler for is that he's a pretty smart kid," the elder Myers told me. "He's a math student and he's very analytical in his way of thinking. He asks a lot of questions and really works hard at doing the things he likes.

"I knew he was going to be a good athlete when I saw him play soccer at a young age. And then the way he pushed himself to be a better athlete -- hockey player -- when he was about 14, when he switched from forward to defense. It was at that point when he really became competitive. It was like he didn't want to let anyone score on him."

Actually, I think it’s helped me, my starting out as a forward. I have a bit of a mind for what it's like on the other side and I'm able to use that. At the start, when I first switched, I was trying too much to jump into plays. I had to learn to play defense first and let the offense come. 
Analytically speaking, of course.

Myers has had a typical learning curve for a player of his physical stature, going through growing spurts. When he is on his game, he can be a dominant player, especially in the defensive zone. He credits a great improvement in his positioning on defense to former NHL defenseman Jeff Finley, who is currently an assistant coach at Kelowna.

"For a younger guy, especially a younger guy at a new position, he's got a lot of composure with the puck," Finley said. "I think that's one of the reasons a lot of NHL scouts are high on him."

"He really plays one-on-ones well," added Kelowna defenseman Luke Schenn, who said of his junior teammate Myers. "He's one of the toughest guys to beat in the league with that reach of his. He's a great skater and when he gets a chance to finish a hit or a chance to get a shot on goal, he's quick to react and makes opponents pay for coming into his area." 

When you see those long arms and legs bearing down on an opposing forward, you don't think about him being too thin. Not with that Texas-sized athletic ability.

Tall. Athletic. Smart. Analytical. Inquisitive. Confident and yes, hungry.

Tyler Myers is a big defenseman growing into the NHL game. Look how long it took Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara and Hal Gill to be sucessful NHL defensemen.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Whitney: From Stick Boy to Stanley Cup Champion

By Larry Wigge

Literally growing up in the locker room of the five-time Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers you have a lot to take in.

Being a stick boy and all-round boy in the same locker room as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr to talk to ... and learn from.

Growing up in that atmosphere was special. I learned a lot about winning, what it takes to have a successful team and being a good teammate. I remember seeing how much they had to sacrifice to be a good team ... and what it took to get to win the Stanley Cup. 

I was a very lucky kid. I saw it up close and I got to use it. I still swear it helped me avoid a lot of the pressures my teammates had when we got into big-game, big-pressure situations ...

Ray Whitney still uses all those important intangibles -- even at the ripe old age of 39. He leads the Phoenix Coyotes in scoring with 17 goals and 39 assists. And he has a plus 22 rating. He's won a Stanley Cup himself -- in 2005-06 his Carolina Hurricanes beat the Oilers in seven games. 

It's been more than 20 years since he was a stick boy and his father Floyd, an Edmonton cop, served as the Oilers practice goalie and a member of the support staff who opens the dressing room door to let the media in after every game. Ryan was a stick boy for the third and fourth Cup titles.

The Fort Saskatchewan native still uses that apprenticeship as a positive, taking his first-hand knowledge of an NHL locker room as a plus. This year, he can feel the competition for a playoff spot -- and how it may be slipping away. 

On February 23, his Coyotes had fallen behind 2-0 to Calgary. Then, Whitney set up Daymond Langkow to get on the board and with 9:33 left the Flames lost the puck to him. He scored on a breakaway for a 3-2 lead.

But that wasn't enough. The Flames tied it later in the third period. Then, it went to a shootout.

Look who stepped front and center.

The Wizard did. He beat Miikka Kiprusoff for the game-winner.

The 39-year-old winger used all of his wiles to will the victory for a 4-3 victory.

"Ray's game is all hands," said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. "He's such a good pro; his conditioning is top-notch. He thinks the game very well, very dedicated -- sometimes that's what pushes some players out of the game, because they don't have the dedication toward doing what you have to do to prepare to do things right. He prepares every day."

The Stanley Cup run is a marathon. Even to a stick boy. It's a long ride. A winding ride. 

In his 20th season in the NHL, Whitney can count the teams he's played for -- Sharks, Oilers, Panthers, Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Hurricanes and Coyotes -- the many happy moments and the invariable excuse he was too small to get that much money.

At that point he remembers the Oilers days. A kid looking ahead for a future.

"It was pretty cool," he recalls. "I probably took it for granted a little bit, considering I was around the team since I was 10 or 11. But I was still awestruck.

"I mean, they were that much better than everybody else. Coff was very good at treating you normal and talking to you, Gretz was very nice ... they were all nice and pleasant guys to you, but you saw what they did every night, you had to be in awe of them. I was very quiet and respectful around them -- I didn't go in and say, 'Hi, Mess. Hi, Gretz, what's going on?' I went about my business and stayed the hell out of the way and spoke when I was spoken to."

Whitney lets his young teammates into the cone of silence. But he still has something to contribute. He isn't just a cheerleader.

There are reasons why Ray Whitney is known as "The Wizard."

One second he's behind the net, the next he's along the boards. Then, before you know it, he's in the circle making a backhand pass that leads to a goal.

"He is clever," Coyotes GM Dave Maloney said. "The biggest lacking we had last season was our power play, our power play production, and I think Ray is one of the best in the league in his creativity with the puck."

Said Peter Laviolette, his Carolina coach, "I think he's one of our more creative players in small spaces. Whitney has brought offense his whole career. He's a smart thinker of the game."

For the rest of the season, the Phoenix Coyotes will head in the right direction -- as long as they listen to Ryan Whitney.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Surprise Chimera Playing at MVP Pace for Capitals

By Larry Wigge

A wise old coach once told me to look past the obvious. He went on to say that a checking winger extra-ordinare with 15- to 20-goals might sometimes mean more to a team that a 30- or 40-goal scorer.


For instance, a look at the Washington Capitals lineup one might begin with Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble on offense and Mike Green and John Carlson and Karl Alzner or Dennis Wideman on defense. But ...

It might come as a surprise that many members of the Capitals entourage were talking about Jason Chimera as the team's Most Valuable Player. Yes, Chimera and his 15 goals and 13 assists in 60 games. But three of those goals were game-winners.

Seventeen goals is his single-season high -- that coming way back in 2005-06 in his first year with Columbus.

"He's been playing hard for us, going to the net hard, and he's getting good results from it," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "He's a big guy that can skate, and he gets in on the forecheck and creates problems for the other team."

Chimera, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs in at 206 pounds, has become just the sort of hard-to-play-against NHL player he grew up idolizing. He's one of those special hard-work, never-take-off players you want on your side when something important is being played for.

"Chimera's a great teammate," said Tampa Bay's Eric Brewer. "He's like the Energizer Bunny, always in motion. He's a high-energy, physical player -- very hard to play against. When you're on the ice with him, he just makes you want to play harder, like him.

"He's one of those guys who has the gift of speed. He's big and he's strong and if he gets that outside lane on you and goes hard, good luck trying to stop him. He's just scary fast."

"I'd take another 10 guys on my team with Jason's work ethic," said then-Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock, now with the St. Louis Blues.

The same 32-year- old Edmonton native that was once the fifth choice, 121st overall, in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft by the Oilers.

Playing for the Oilers for the first four years of his career was a dream come true.

"Edmonton was great. It was surreal getting drafted by the team I grew up rooting for," Chimera said. "I remember I used to go to the West Edmonton Mall and watch the Oilers practice and wait to get autographs. I was a huge fan.

"When you get traded from your home town, it's tough to take. I loved it there. But by the end of the 2003-04 season, I knew I was ready to play in the NHL. All I wanted was a chance and I didn't care where."

But everything turned out fine when the inexperienced, high-energy winger went to the Blue Jackets with all confidence in the world.

"Earlier in my career, I was playing not to make a mistake. I was playing scared and you can't do that," Chimera said. "Now I just treat every shift as a new shift, every game a new game. And, if I make a mistake, big deal, I can go out and make it up the next shift."

Wonder where Jason gets that team-first attitude? Likely from his hard-working dad, Don, who was a pipe fitter, and his mom, Audrey, who was a teacher's aide. That kind of upbringing, plus a hunger that grew inside this south-side Edmonton kid, who was often told that at 140 pounds this skinny kid wasn't made for hockey.

"When we drafted him, he was a skinny, small kid. A bit of a long shot but a good late-round pick," Oilers GM Kevin Lowe said.

"He's got big speed and uses his shot off the wing really well," continued Lowe. "We didn't have the time to give him. We were loaded on the left side. But everyone in the room liked him and we wanted to give him a chance somewhere else."

Never daunted. Never-say-die attitude.

"My dad always told me; 'Don't be afraid to be a dreamer,' " Chimera said. "He said; 'Dream and try to reach that dream with everything you've got.' "

Chimera, who weighed 140-pounds when he was drafted, had obstacles to overcome, but never thought of the lack of size as an impediment.

"To me, your head is the biggest obstacle to overcome," Chimera said. "As a kid, I just played. Then, in Edmonton, I worried. I began to wonder where I fit in. Once you learn that you make your own breaks in this world, you're just fine."

But call it an-over-30-attitude-change. Chimera mostly creates problems when he puts the puck in the net.

"I've been going to the net more than I have. So I'm getting rewarded," Chimera said. "Ten of of those goals came from right in the paint. You have to get there. Hopefully I can keep it going all year."

So what’s the difference now?

"Well, I’ve just always had it. Was just going to wait until my later, mid-30s to get it going," Chimera joked. "I don't want to peak too early. I want to keep playing until I"m 45 so hopefully I'll keep on getting better."

It's funny, but things seem to be going a little faster on the ice when Jason Chimera is out there. He's got a way to get everyone's heartbeat beating a little faster with his enthusiasm.

Seeing a 32-year-old player busting his but all the time has a way of catching on.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Eric Staal Is the Oldest and Best of Staal Family

By Larry Wigge

It sounded like an episode of CSI New York and CSI Carolina. DNA and epithelials were tested. It was of the same family type. Hockey rarely apologizes for the way it values tough guys. A brother sidelining his own brother? Blood vs. blood. 

This was it ...

Eric Staal claims he didn't know it was his kid brother, Marc, there along the boards with his head down, fighting another Carolina Hurricane player for the puck in the February 22 game against the New York Rangers.

Things happen fast in a hockey game, everyone later sighed heavily and agreed. Eric just saw a player in a white shirt. And he hit him. Hard. The raw force of the collision is clear even from still images of that February 22 check, not just the gasp of the crowd that comes across loud and clear. The impact lifted Rangers defenseman off his feet, snapped back his head and sent him pinwheeling to the ice face down, with his helmet askew.

After a season, which has been unforgettable for all the of Staals -- Marc out until January 2, Pittsburgh Jordan sidelined several times with injuries and Eric playing unlike himself.

There are those who will tell you that Eric's woes center are Marc's injury.

"It's tough for him; it's tough for me; it's tough for everyone in the family," Eric explained. "But ..."

For Staal's usual 35.8 goals during his six stellar seasons and point-per-game, Eric's numbers were languishing at three goals and two assists with a minus 16 mark through the first 15 games.

He said he wasn't haunted or paralyzed by regrets.

"Has nothing to do with it," Staal said emphatically. "I've ... just not being able to find the groove offensively.

"As far as that being on my mind, it's not even close. Hopefully for me, I'll stay with it, get it turned around and help us win games."

But the longer the slump lingered on, it was obviously something wrong in the DNA department. It wasn't until February 8 that things started to look better -- during a seven-game stretch in which Eric counted six goals and five assists to bring his season's total to 18 goals and 31 assists in 60 games. Down from the usual 35-40 goals for Eric.

"He's a horse right now," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said after a 5-0 triumph over Washington February 20. "When he goes, the whole team goes and he's really elevated his game the last three weeks."

Many of the other players and coaches on both teams -- not just the Staals -- still find the whole thing admittedly confusing. What should they do?

"It's definitely a weird situation because normally, if a guy took liberties with one of our star players like that, we'd key on him the next time we played," said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. "But this ... it's brothers. It's different, you know? Obviously, I don't think he wanted to hurt him, or meant to do it."

Could Callahan tell if Eric was playing any differently?

"Aw, I don't know -- it's hard to get inside another player's head, so I don't want to speak for him," Callahan said. "But, at the same time, I think it's got to be definitely weighing on him because, you know, his brother's out, and he caused it. I know that would affect me. I mean, how could it not?"

Whether Eric was or he wasn't playing any differently ... was in one or another head ... is the number one question that wasn't going to have an answer.

Until now, their family story unfurled like something of a sports fairy tale. 

Eric was the second overall pick in the 2003 Draft. Marc was the 12th overall pick in the 2005 and Jordan was second overall in 2006. Eric has already won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and a gold medal with Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics of 2010. Jordan won his Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. Marc is playing for the top-rated Rangers this season. In many ways the Staals have become the unofficial first family of hockey in the active players division, anyway, taking over where the Sutters left off. All four Staals are blond, 6-4 and so similar in looks and bearing that they can be difficult to tell apart.

In games or just at the rink built by their father, Henry, you wouldn't see a negative thought -- against a brother or anyone else.

"I wouldn't say it has kept me awake at night, but it's tough," Eric Staal said. "If I could take it back I probably wouldn't hit him knowing where we've gone and what has gone on since then. But it was one of those plays, bang-bang, happens so quickly, and I hit him hard."

Still, the familial feelings remain. The DNA is intact. 

It's had been a long time since the 2008 season, when the question for the Staal family was: "Is this the year?"

The one line that could perhaps be answered without a single goal, assist or save remained on the lips of Eric Staal.

"Is this the year we find out who is dad’s favorite?" Eric asks on the commercial, making the most of an old Smothers Brothers routine about who mom liked best that always got a few laughs.

Eric and Marc were both involved in the All-Star Game at Atlanta in 2008. Henry was there ... Linda was at home in Thunder Bay.

Since Henry was in the building for the All-Star Game -- sitting in the stands with Marc (Is that a clue there? I’m not sure yet.) -- and unable to be reached before the game, we dialed up the 807 area code and mom Linda was there to tell us that ... 

But who does mom like best? "No comment," Linda laughed. "Is that OK to say?"

After the second period, I was finally successful in reaching the patriarch of the Staal family and discussed this situation amid the blare of a band playing inside the Philips Arena.

"Yeah, I love that commercial," Henry said, then he laughed and added, "My answer? Well, you may never find out."

"There was no time for my parents to think about comparing the Staals to the Sutters," Eric laughed. "They were too busy all over the map watching hockey."

Is this the year? What Henry Staal didn’t know is that his oldest son isn’t beyond bribing his dad for affection.

Listen to Eric as he smiled after being named All-Star MVP and continued, remembering his line in the commercial: "I was saying to the guys on the ice, if I do give it (the car as MVP) to my parents, I would, for sure, be the favorite of the family ... for at least a while. But we’ll see what happens."

Eric did not have to buy his father's love. Neither do Jordan and Marc. 

The competitive boys from Thunder Bay say it all when it counts. Family counts.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ribeiro's One-on-One Skills are Magically Bewitching

By Larry Wigge

Sleight of hand and manipulation. Those of terms of magic. There are also hockey terms. Try abracadra and presto chango. Voila!

Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin and Rich Nash will certainly go down in history as Barishnykov's on ice, but Dallas Stars center Mike Ribeiro belongs in that company. And that could be underscored by Ribeiro's one-on-one skills in shootouts and magically making plays with bewitching playmaking talent as well.

On February 16, Ribeiro used his quick hands to dig the puck off of the left wing boards to get the puck away from one Calgary defender and in-an-instant made a behind-the-back maneuver to pass to himself, probably even showing his tightroping and or even a pirorohet skills to keep his balance. Then, he worked him way to the right point his up to blister a screened shot past Miikka Kiprusoff for the winning goal with only 2:01 left in overtime of Dallas 3-2 over Calgary.

Highlight reel moves. Wizardry. Shake-n-bake and probably even a toe-drag thrown in there for good measure.

"That's just the way he lives, greasy Ribeiro," teammate Steve Ott said. "That was unbelievable, what an unbelievable individual effort by him. That was just phenomenal. I'm still in awe. I thought I blacked out on the bench."

It was Ribeiro's 12th goal to go along with 27 assists in 50 games. The stretch gave him six goals and six assists in the last 12 games.

Rookie coach Glen Gulutzan chimed in, "I don't know if it was a little Gordie Howe-ish there where he was changing hands and then changing back. I'm glad he shot it, because we bug him to shoot all the time, and it was a real nice shot. I can't get my head around it quite, the stick maneuver there. I'll have to see the replay."

Ribeiro often talks about the amazing skills he sees at the All-Star Game at the skills competition. He never missed one, even when he was a kid growing up in Montreal. He was always thrilled by that dazing moves the All-Stars pulled off. He got to live his dream at All-Star Game in Atlanta.

"What can I say? Where else do you see a player bring down the house like Alex Ovechkin?" Ribeiro told me. "He lifted the puck on his stick ..."

Ovechkin, the Washington winger, won the newest style points shootout event by lifting the puck on his stick, flipping it in the air a few times like Tiger Woods does with a golf ball, and then attempted to spin around and bat the puck into the goal. He missed. But it didn’t matter for entertainment value.

"I can lift the puck in the air," Ribeiro said with the laugh, "but I don't think I could do it in front of so many people."

His quick hands, which rival any in the NHL, go along with his nifty footwork. That's what Ribeiro takes from his family bonding growing up. You see, Ribeiro's father, Alberto, played professional soccer in Portugal and late for the Montreal Manic of the North American Soccer League.

When he was a kid, Ribeiro played soccer and baseball as a youngster, but hockey was always No. 1.

"Dad was always there to tell me to always believe in myself ... at whatever I did," Ribeiro recalled, saying that he still hears his father’s voice repeating that advice any time he faces tough times or a tough decision.

Of being a Montreal native and wearing a Canadiens T-shirt and dreaming he was Guy Lafleur at the age of 4. Or at 13, playing on a team sponsored by the Habs, and getting the chance of a lifetime to score on Patrick Roy.

"I'm a teen-ager and we’re having a scrimmage with the Canadiens," Ribeiro recalled, sounding almost as excited as he must have been when he was 13. "Our goaltender gets a chance to stop Denis Savard and then, well, I get to shoot against Patrick Roy.

"I didn’t score. Not even close. But it didn’t matter ... not when you get to shoot against!"

That what it's like growing up in the hockey capital of the world.

Born in Montreal, raised a Canadiens fan and the best was yet to come -- being drafted by Montreal and then playing for Les Habitants. Ribeiro had that opportunity -- to be drafted the the Habs, when he was picked in the second round, 45th overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft by Montreal. 

"He was a pretty good player in Montreal, don't forget that," said Hall of Fame winger Michel Goulet, who also grew up in Quebec and now is an assistant to Colorado Avalanche GM Greg Sherman. "There's a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations for French kids who grow up in Quebec and play there. Sometimes the expectations can be too much.

"I loved it. It pushed me, but that isn't always the case with players."

"The scrutiny can make you feel like you're living in a fishbowl," Ribeiro said. "Don't get me wrong. I loved being a Canadien. It was surreal playing in my hometown. But I was there five years (parts of six seasons) and I never felt like I got the chance I should have. I said it at the time and I'll continue to say it. They traded me too soon."

He meant it, too. Montreal gave up on him too soon.

Ribeiro stickhandled neatly around that fishbowl theory when it came to letting him be himself on the ice in Montreal. But now he feels more focused because everything is about his wife, Tamara, and three children, Mikael, Noah and Viktoria.

"My wife and kids and I are closer than ever," Ribeiro said. "There are no outside distractions. I feel more focused ... maybe more responsible for our life as a family than I ever have. Maybe that's made me more mature, more accountable on the ice."

Closeness? Ribeiro has a baby tattoo in the likeness of his son Mikael on his left arm and one of Noah on his right. And ...

"I'm waiting for Viktoria's hair to grow out before I add a tattoo of her," Mike chuckled.

He was traded by Montreal in a lopsided deal for in 2006 for defenseman Janne Niinimaa. His fast start with Dallas helped him earn Ribeiro a new five-year, $25-million contract extension.

"I always knew I had this in me, but ... "

Ribeiro’s voice kind of trailed off at that point in our conversation. It was all those he-can't-do-this-or-can't-do-that obstacles that Mike remembered.

"Yeah, I've heard; ‘You're too small’ or ‘You're too slow’ at every level from squirts to pee-wees to midgets to juniors and then in the NHL," he said. "I was just 150 pounds when I reported to my first Montreal Canadiens camp in 1999.

"But that's OK, I worked at it, putting on five pounds each year ..."

The math may be off a little, but Ribeiro’s now 6-foot, 178 pounds or so.

"You can either let the criticism get you down ... or use it as a source of motivation," Ribeiro smiled, saying that he doesn't really feel like he's playing any differently this season, but that he is more confident and more comfortable in Dallas now.

Those around the team say Ribeiro's puck strength is freakish. He's grittier, more competitive than most thought he was during his time in Montreal.

Though the years in Dallas, Mike had led the Stars in goals and assists. He's at the top of the team in plus-minus as well.

Giving a little flex, Ribeiro laughed. "I'm skinny strong."

"To me, it's all about a continued maturity," former coach Dave Tippett said. "He's gone from being a small, skilled forward to a small, very skilled forward that competes and uses his energy and instincts to go to the puck and make things happen on offense and defense."

Added Los Angeles King center Anze Kopitar, "Mike has great hands and vision. He's always been tough to play against."

Magic? One-time success? Or no fluke?

And to think, all it took was a surprise trade for the rest of us to find out about the real Mike Ribeiro.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Power Forward in Waiting, Wheeler Coming on Strong

By Larry Wigge

Blake Wheeler has that power forward body at 6-5, 220-pounds. But he doesn't consistently show the power of this position -- crashing and smashing opponents like Cam Neely did for all of those years when he was with the Boston Bruins.

Yet, the Robbinsdale, Minnesota, native, is growing into that one-on-one growling-in-his-gut power forward at 25 years of age.

Wheeler is currently the leading scorer on the Winnipeg Jets with 11 goals and 31 assists, with his one-goal and two-assist performance against his former Bruins teammates February 17. That Neely comparison is coming -- even if the Winnipeg comparison is Keith Tkachuk. He didn't endear himself to the Winnipeg fans, with no goal in his first 18 games. But ...

Since then Wheeler has combined with center Brian Little to from a potent scoring unit and has two goals and eight assists in his last nine games.

"It seems like he can play with anyone," Little said of Wheeler. "Once he uses his size and his speed, it's hard to stop him. He's a really fast guy and we saw his playmaking ability."

That big body with good puck skills has always attracted teams to Wheeler. It's what grabbed the Phoenix Coyotes to pick him with the 5th overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. It's what drew the Boston Bruins to sign him as a free agent, after three years at the University of Minnesota. And it's the then-Atlanta Thrashers to trade center Rich Peverley and defense prospect Boris Valabik from Boston just over a year ago near the NHL trading deadline.

"It's flown by, it really has," Wheeler explained. "It's crazy to think that a year ago at this time, the big move was made."

Deadline deal? That deal followed the Bruins obtaining the contract of veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle. Looking for cap space ...

"It was tough," Wheeler recalled. "I was sitting there right after the morning skate in Ottawa and the Kaberle deal had just been done. So I thought I had dodged a bullet there. But then, the phone rang and I was told, 'I'm off to Atlanta.' ''

Blake Wheeler has had 21 goals in his rookie season of 2008-09, followed by 18 goals the next season and 18 goals combined with the Bruins and Thrashers last season.

Being picked by an American team in Phoenix was like Wheeler's 15 minutes of fame. It was no less important that that that Coyotes team was run by Wayne Gretzky.

I'll never forget the shocked look and surreal thoughts Wheeler had on his face.

"A month ago I was standing in line in the cafeteria at Breck High School, trying to get some food -- and the other night I was having dinner with Mr. Gretzky," Wheeler said in his best gee-whiz tone of voice. "This week has been a series of those moments you want to freeze in your mind so you never forget any of it.

"I was completely caught offguard. I thought I'd be picked in the late first round, early second round. I was trying not to have too many expectations coming in because I didn't want to be too disappointed. Then, I hear Wayne Gretzky announce my name. That's like having Michael Jordan announce your name in basketball. All I know is I have a closet full of Wayne Gretzky cards -- and this, well, it's the highest high a kid could ever feel."

There are no guarantees that go along with high draft selections in professional sports, where scouts are predicting the future of a teen-ager. It's sort of like saying a teen will be the next great heart doctor or Nobel prize winner. You could say it was a big risk for the Coyotes, because even though Wheeler notched 45 goals and 55 assists and a state-high 100 points in just 30 games, well, it was hard to find his name in most of the well-respected draft preview publications.

The confidence of youth. It's an amazing thing. But Wheeler, who said after getting only 15 goals and 20 assists as a junior at the University of Minnesota, said he knew he was ready for the big jump from college to professional hockey, maybe even the NHL -- even if others wondered. After negotiations with the Coyotes, Blake and his representative failed to reach contract terms. But they were already in the fast-forward mode to the future and they used a little-known out-clause in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows a college player to opt for free agency after a failed attempt at coming to terms on a contract for one full month.

This faceoff win for the big center/winger allowed Wheeler to seek his own deal, which he did -- signing a two-year entry level contract with the Boston Bruins for $875,000 per season.

After seamlessly moving to the NHL with Boston, Wheeler was not only a Rookie of the Year candidate.

"The key to me was being able to find a traditional hockey market where I could compete and push myself," said Wheeler. "The Bruins offered the opportunity of playing for an Original Six team that was on the rise."

The feeling was mutual by the Bruins, who reportedly outbid Montreal, Minnesota, New Jersey and the New York Rangers to sign Wheeler. For a few weeks before he signed with the Bruins on July 1, Blake presented all the intrigue of a Stephen King novel -- interesting prospect, who skates well for his size, has good finishing skill and shows some willingness to toss his weight around.

What team wouldn't want to add those skills to its lineup?

Fifteen minutes of fame? Not on your life. Blake Wheeler is one of those kids who just has IT. Oh, he has those physical skills every scout is looking for. But what drives him is a tool-box full of intangibles.

"That's a big thing with me," Blake explained. "I'm always working hard and always trying to compete. Using my size the best way is something that hasn't always been a natural thing for me. It's something I worked at very hard last summer. Using my size to protect the puck and to get to the net is new. But it's exciting to me.

"And what's so great about the pro game is that if you make a mistake you get to play the next day and make up for it. It's not like college where you'd have a week to stew over the mistake and try to make up for it."

There was a smile on Blake's face and a fire in his eyes when you said those last competitive words.

In this faster-paced NHL game, no one is doing laps around this Minnesota kid. But the makeup of Wheeler made him ready for this boys vs. men battle of the fittest, where its not just playing quicker and smarter, but a quicker and smarter mental mindset at the highest level for hockey.

What did fellow teammate Phil Kessel tell Wheeler?

"He basically just said, 'Don't be nervous, play your game,' " Wheeler recalled. "You never play your game when you are nervous and hesitate. So, I just tried to play to have fun and use my instincts."

If Blake Wheeler sounds too good to be true, or wise beyond his years, you're right. It's no accident either. And that's the best part of this story.

Those highly-valued intangibles that Blake displays on the ice for the Bruins each night start with his parents. Jim, his dad, is from Michigan and works as a sales manager for On-Cor Foods. Pat, Blake's mom, is one of those strong stay-at-home moms who grew up knowing that hockey and Minnesota were synonymous.

There are some erroneous reports out that that dad got tired of watching his boy being dragged by mom to his sister's dance classes and recitals and suggested that hockey could help Blake grow. Couldn't be further from the truth.

"I always knew I was going to put Blake in a hockey program, but in Minnesota you can't enroll your son in a organized program until they are five," Blake's proud mom in a phone conversation. "I remember when I told my husband that Blake was going to play hockey, he said, "Are you sure you want to do this?' You see, he's from Michigan and didn't grow up playing hockey."

Pat's words became very loud and clear over the phone, "I remember telling him, 'This is Minnesota ... and we play hockey.' "

Now, you see where all of that competitive spirit Blake has comes from.

"I put both of them in skating classes -- Brooke (who is 1 1/2 years older than Blake) in figure skating and Blake in hockey," Pat Wheeler said proudly. "They grew up skating together and becoming best friends as well as brother and sister.

"I remember Jim, I and Brooke all went to Blake's first game and we were all thrilled at hockey quickly he took to hockey. Jim even said he was fooled a thousand percent after he saw how much Blake enjoyed hockey."

Now, the only dances you see from Blake Wheeler come after he or a linemate scores a great goal for the Winnipeg Jets.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

No Afterthought, McDonagh a Shutdown Defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Who got the best of the deal? Inquiring minds want to know. It's what every newspaper and radio talk show is interested in. It makes us look like meteorologists or stock brokers -- and you know how often they're advice leads you wrong. 

Instant analysis.

Often times, the best trades are the ones that are made for the future. I'll give you this player and you give me that one. And then comes the unknown, or unexpected, the prospect included in the deal that turns the tables.

This deal came down June 30, 2009. First you have the headliners. Scott Gomez and Chris Higgins were the keys, Gomez going from the New York Rangers to the Montreal Canadiens. Money and length of contracts also played an important part from the Gomez end. 

And then you have the prospects -- Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto to Montreal and Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko to the Rangers.

Gomez had been a two-time Stanley Cup champion with New Jersey. You add his speed, how he would back off defenders and set up teammates for 50 or more assists four times in his career. But ...

Fast forward it this season, 2 1/2 years later, Gomez has been a no-show, having just one goal this season, in Montreal. And Higgins has been passed aside to Florida and then Vancouver. But McDonagh, a 6-1, 213-pound defensemen who was selected with the 12th pick overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft from St. Paul, Minn., has been the real deal.

When they lost Marc Staal for the first 36 games with concussion symptoms, it was defensemen Dan Girardi and McDonagh who picked up the No. 1 baton for the Rangers -- shutting down the opponents top line. McDonagh picked up five goals and 15 assists in 54 games. Plus, he was playing 25:19 per game (next in line to Girari) and was plus 23 and was one of the league best shot blockers at 139.

"He's matured. He's matured off the ice, first, as far as how he handles himself: What it is to be a pro, learning to be a pro," coach John Tortorella said. "I think his focus off the ice, I think his focus on the ice has gone in a different direction this year. I think he has a much better understanding of how to handle himself where he doesn't get too high, he doesn't get too low. He's certainly brought a whole different level of stiffness to his game as far as defending."

Midway through his first season as a professional, McDonagh was called up. He found his stride quickly, playing a steady, physical game that resulted in a plus-8 rating in a seven-game span. It took the Rangers less than two weeks to see that McDonagh was ready for Broadway on a permanent basis. They shipped defenseman Michal Rozsival off to Phoenix.

Originally, Ryan was enamored with the idea of playing for Montreal. He added French to his studies at Wisconsin, for instance. The Canadiens apparently expected McDonagh to become a dominant offensive player when they drafted him and, for whatever reason, were not satisfied with his development as a two-way defenseman.

"They'd come to a few games to scout me during that season, but I didn't hear from them at all that summer about signing," McDonagh said. "I was actually on my way to their summer camp and figured I'd find out what their thoughts were, but that's when I was traded, so I never got there and I never asked the question.

"It's not like I had played there and then was traded. The way I looked at it, the Rangers wanted me."

Raising the question of why Montreal took him. Columbus, at No. 7, and St. Louis, at No. 9, had expressed interest in McDonagh.

Rangers chief scout Gordie Clark fell in love at first sight. 

"In my time at the combine, he’s been the single most impressive guy ever," Clark exclaimed. "He's just a smaller version of Marc Staal.

"We did not have him as a point-producing guy. In the NHL, this guy is going to be a shutdown defenseman with his skating ability."

Nuff said. Forget those long skating forays down the ice. He was an all-round defender and a shutdown defenseman.

McDonagh was the winner of Minnesota High School's prestigious Mr. Hockey honor as the best high player this season in 2007. He had 10 goals and 23 assists in 23 games for Cretin-Derham.

When asked to describe the kind of defenseman he aspires to be, he added, "I look to guys like Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios -- Chelios for his leadership and the respect he commands and Lidstrom because he is a guy that can play in any situation and he's a guy you can count on late in the game when you need a goal or when you're holding on to a victory.

"The combination of those two guys is what I look up to for my style of play."

Again, responsible in his own zone, plus a leader -- wanting to out there when his team was holding a lead late in the game.

His play a Cretin-Derham, in leading the Pioneers to the 3A State championship in hockey as a junior, plus a 2A State baseball championship as a senior. He had two sacrifice flies in Cretin-Derham's 4-3 victory over Eden Prairie as a DH. 

It was a case of just carrying on in the family tradition, said St. Louis Blues scout Mike Antonovich.

"His great grandfather set the school record by lettering 12 times," Antonovich said. "And his uncle is Steve Walsh, the former NFL quarterback, who also attended Cretin."

McDonagh said when he was younger he loved watching Walsh play.

"When I got older, he'd often pull be aside and tell me to always respect the people who helped me get here," McDonagh said. "He also said to just keep working on the things I did to get here."

McDonagh's career at Cretin-Derham didn't start out exactly as he planned. When then-coach Sean Toomey switched Ryan from defense to the wing as a freshman and sophomore, McDonagh looked upon this move as the first adversity he'd have to face in his career.

"It felt strange. I didn't like it," he remembered. "But then when they put me back on defense in my junior year, I actually felt like the strange journey helped me. It helped me learn how to carry the puck into the offensive zone, something I didn't do a lot of before I started playing up front. My skating and my ability to play one-on-one defense also improved because I had to learn to go in deep to pursue the puck.

"Touching the puck, handling the puck more; challenging the opposition in on the forecheck. It all added a new dimension to the way I played when I got back on defense."

There's clearly a sense of hard work to get where you want to go in the mind of Ryan McDonagh.

Part of that work ethic comes from Ryan's dad, Sean, who is a golf course superintendent. Even more comes from his mom, Patricia, who is in cafeteria service.

"I certainly never starved in high school with my mom serving the food," McDonagh laughed. "She'd pile on all sorts of extras that the other kids didn't get, if you know what I mean."

Ryan McDonagh's hunger on the ice is insatiable. He want to win -- and he has the Rangers in a good position right now. 

Little wonder why the Rangers had McDonagh rated so highly in the 2007 draft. 

Better that any forecast by a meteorologist or stock broker, the Rangers had Ryan McDonagh more that just as afterthought in the Gomez deal.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Franzen Always Sneaky and Go-To Guy for Wings

By Larry Wigge

A master of being at the right place at the right time.

Call it magic. He could be called escape artist. Now you see him ... now you don't. 

Johan Franzen, a second- , third-chance player who was drafted into the NHL at 25. Yes, that's right.

On this night in February, the 6-3, 222-pound right wing from Landsbro, Sweden, suddenly appeared for the winning goal 52 seconds in the third period to give the Detroit Red Wings a 4-3 triumph -- a victory which extended Detroit's home-ice winning streak to 20 games.

Picture it ... simply ... Henrik Zetterberg with the puck at the right point, rocketing a pass across the seam through a maze of sticks to Nicklas Listrom, who was parked down at the left-wing faceoff circle and as quickly as Lidstrom got the puck, he relayed it to Franzen for a goal-mouth pass and goal to the right edge of the goal crease.

Three marvelous players made the impossible happen. 

It was Franzen's 22nd goal of the season. But, more important, it was his 10th game-winning goal.

"If I wouldn't have gotten it ... someone else was going to," Franzen explained of Detoit's home-ice mastery. "That was the feeling tonight. I'm sure somebody else would have gotten the winner."

A winner. Franzen, escaped into his now-you-see-him-now-you-don't, uniform.

A couple months ago, Johan admitted to me, "You have to be a little s-n-e-a-k-y. Do it as quicky and as quietly as possible."

Back on February 12 ... said Lidstrom, "I knew Mule was there."

Tic, tack, toe passing play. Magic. Or sneaky.

A playful smile cut across Franzen face. Protecting his now-you-see-him-now-you-don't artistry. Ten game-winning goals in 22 chances. There's more to this ...

There's nothing sneaky or suspicious about Franzen. Along with his 22-goal, 24-assist in 57 games, he has a plus 25 rating.

Back in the 2008-09 season, at the ripe old age of 29, Franzen emerged as a big-time player, signing an 11-year contract, worth around $4 million per year.

Think about it, the old Mule went from a 1-goal-in-10-or-15-games player in 2007-08, the Wings latest Stanley Cup year, to a league-leading 13 goals in 13 playoff games and 28 goals in 29 games since March 2.

From a developmental player to fourth-line player to a top six forward. With power forwards Dan Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom out for significant amounts of Franzen played his way to the top of Detroit lineup.

To think, this good-natured guy finally making it to the stardom at 28 or 29 ...

"I figured I could make a good living playing in the Swedish Elite League. Never gave the NHL a thought until that day in June in 2004 when I got a call from Hakan Andersson to tell me that Detroit had picked me in the draft," Franzen recalled. "I was 25 at the time. I didn't know exactly what it meant, but everyone back home knows about the success of the Red Wings because of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and the rest of the players they've picked from Sweden and around the world. So, that made me wonder if I had a chance."

Franzen still wondered what this all meant.

"Yeah," he continued. "I was a real late bloomer. Didn't start playing hockey at anything other than a lower tier hockey back home until I was 19. I wasn't drafted by the NHL until I was 25. I'd say that's a late bloomer, wouldn't you?

"Back in Landsbro, I had to get a job in the summer. I remember working at a metal factory. I also remember working in a window company. And I hated every minute of it. I guess you could say that was motivation for me to work harder at my hockey career."

Jobs in a metal factory and working for a window company ... how far has he come.

From a perception in the Red Wings locker room that Johan Franzen still might not realize how good he could be was reality. He kind of shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn't know how to answer that question.

"Do you mean do I realize I might not be that guy who gets one goal ever 10 or 15 games any more?" laughs the power forward with speed and the touch of a gifted football tight end who can turn any play into a touchdown with his combination of size and speed. "Well, yeah. I'm pretty confident now. I guess I go out there with the mindset that I can do this, because I have proven I can. Amazing isn't it?"

"He's going to be the best power forward in the world," teammate Cleary raved. "He didn't realize how big and strong and talented he was. Now he does. He's got hands that are so strong ... only they're capable of this soft skill, if you know what I mean."

And Cleary wasn't finished.

"He can play on any line and in any situation," Cleary continued. "He's got that net presence that not too many can handle because its such a heavy traffic area where life can be difficult. I don't like to compare players, but he's faster than John LeClair was. If he gets mad he can be like Keith Tkachuk only faster.

"All I know is this isn't a one-time thing for Johan. This is just the beginning."

"We are thrilled," Wings GM Ken Holland said. "He's a power forward. There's not a lot of those guys on the open market. He's a unique player. There aren't many guys who are 6-3, 220 pounds and can score 30 goals."

Drafted at the age of 25 after being passed over six times by NHL scouts. Six times undrafted by the NHL. He went from never having scored more than 12 goals in any season in the first 2 1/2 seasons. Until March 2, 2008.

Back to the 2007-08 season. When Franzen was sidelined with headaches, he had scored goals in five straight games, tying a team record shared by legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Howe accomplished the feat in 1949 and repeated it in 1964 and Lindsay in 1952. He had nine goals in the four-game sweep of the Colorado Avalanche, setting another franchise record for goals in a playoff series set by Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, who had eight goals in a seven-game series back in 1949. Franzen also became the first player to get two hat tricks in the same series since Edmonton's Hall of Famer Jari Kurri tricked Chicago twice 23 years ago.

There are those in Hockeytown trying to compare Franzen's burst onto the scene with another Swedish power forward some 10 years ago. But Holmstrom, known for his infamous tactics of screening goalies and tipping in shots and scoring on rebounds, never had the speed and skills that Franzen does.

It didn't come about without hard work. When Franzen looked around the Wings locker room as a rookie in 2004 and saw the skills of guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Heck ... everyone.

"That's when I decided to use my size and be more physical," he remembered.

He also worked on his footwork, because Coach Mike Babcock kept putting him out there with players who had much more speed than him.

"Now, I realize how smart he is," Babcock told me. "Look at how much he's worked at his game since he came here in his first training camp in 2004. He's watched and learned. He's gotten quicker by watching our skill guys -- and he's gained a physical edge by watching a guy like Tomas Holmstrom.

"I'll tell you one thing: You don't find many players 6-3, 200-plus pounds who can do the things he can offensively and defensively."

This stubborn-as-a-Mule performance is simply a great story of perseverance.

"Every game Johan Franzen makes two or three game-changing plays," said Lidstrom.

More work to stay ahead of the game for Franzen.

"The challenge for him every night is to skate and be physical. If he skates and is physical the rest looks after itself," Babcock said. "He’s got one of the best shots in the league and can wire it like nobody.

"Mule’s one of those guys that has to decide if he’s going to be a great player in the league or a good player in the league for a long, long time. If he wants to be a great player then you have to call on yourself every single night. The great players dig in every night."

Johan Franzen.

Right place ... right time.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Moment for All Ages, Sam Gagner

By Larry Wigge

Most athletes face a defining moment early in their career. Others wait and wait ...

For Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner, that moment might have come on a June night in 2007, when he was selected sixth overall by the Edmonton Oilers to put him into the same club as his father Dave in the NHL. Others thought it might have been a night when he scored three goals and one assist in 2009 against Colorado.

The moment? Not yet.

People forget. The kid from London, Ontario, has just turned 22 before this season. He never played a moment in the minors.

With so much potential, why would the Oilers have invested 335 games developing Gagner, when he could have returned to junior and could have played a year or two in the minors and just been starting his NHL career?

In his first five seasons, Gagner had just 58 goals. Then, all of a sudden, bang. Gagner's magic touch strikes four goals and four assists.

The last time anyone in the NHL achieved eight points was Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. He connected on all eight Oilers goals in a 8-4 victory over Chicago.

"At one point out there, I thought 'This is a joke,' " Gagner explained. "I can't really explain it. Everything I touched went in. It was a pretty surreal feeling. I’d never been a part of anything like this before. All year I've had a lot of chances but not much was going in."
Hey, people looking up stuff in the record book which hadn’t been looked up around here in three decades.

"My mom (JoAnne) usually falls asleep by the third period, but she stayed up and watched the whole game," he continued. "It was a pretty special night for her and my dad as well.

"He always reminds me that he scored four points in a playoff period once and that he holds that record with Wayne and a couple of other guys. I share that with my dad now and that's a pretty special feeling to be in that class -- even if it's just for one day."

Sam I am had reached the defining moment of his career -- and then some.

Gagner’s 11 points on 11 consecutive goals is a new Oilers record. Wayne Gretzky had a streak of 10 twice (December 26-30, 1984 and October 15-19, 1986). For the record, Gagner followed his eight-point night with two goal and one assist against Detroit, one assist against Toronto and two goals again against Detroit.

Coach Tom Renney said he thought Gagner's magic might take hold and carry him on to bigger and better things -- and make the trade rumors end.

"It just shows you how badly Sam wants to be part of what's going on here," said Renney. 

"Those trade rumours are tough to deal with. I haven't really dealt with that in my career, so it weighs on you," said Gagner. "Hopefully, this will allow me to just go out and play and not worry about it."

Texts, e-mail and twitter accounts went wild. Gagner cherished a text from Gretzky.

"To get a text like that from the best player of all time is really special for me," Gagner said. "He didn't have to do that."

When you get a chance to see this 5-10, 191-pound center work his playmaking magic on the ice, the first thing you notice is his vision. Then you see his soft hands at work, his passing, his ice-cool demeanor and his ability to read the play and make something happen. It's almost like he can probe the defense and see what is playing out in front of him as if it was all moving in slow motion for him.

That's what made him such a prized prospect in the draft.

There's a subtle patience that belies the creative juices of all standout playmakers. Sam Gagner hasn't always been so methodical. So patient.

"Yeah," laughed Dave Gagner, Sam's dad and a former center in the NHL for 15 seasons with the New York Rangers, Minnesota, Dallas, Toronto, Calgary, Florida and Vancouver. "You could say that Sam is never late for anything. But ..."

But Sam had other ideas, when his mom had to report to the hospital earl. Dave and JoAnne had all the plans for the birth in Septemeber, when Dave would be in camp in Minnesota.

"But Sam had other ideas," Dave continued. "We were still at our cottage in Oakville when JoAnne started getting contractions and said; 'It looks like Sam isn't going to wait until training camp. He wants out now.'

"The rest of that day was like a blur. There was no hospital around the corner. All the plans ... well, they were dashed. The drive from the cottage to the hospital in London usually takes 40 minutes. I got there in 25 minutes.

"We knew from that day on that this was going to be a very special kid."

Special kid indeed. It's clear that Sam is a thinking man's player. He's a throwback to days gone by when kids spent hours on a backyard rink learning to love and respect the game. Something Dave Gagner became familiar when he retired. He began a new career in building custom-designed rinks and started a company called Custom Ice, mostly involved in the refrigeration of these custom-designed rinks.

It was on one of these rinks in the Gagner's backyard that Sam honed his skills. His backyard was a hockey rink version of baseball's field of dreams. It had steel nets and painted lines and floodlights. It had ads on the boards. And perhaps best of all, its ice was refrigerated, good 12 months of the year.

Sam's dad has always been there for him. In fact, he served as an assistant coach for Dale Hunter's London Knights this past season.

"My dad always taught me you need to be intense, work hard every shift," Sam recalled. "I try and bring a positive attitude to the rink every day. Whatever happens, happens. Yesterday’s mistakes are gone and forgotten. When you think that way, it usually works out for the best because you're not putting too much pressure on yourself. You can go out, relax and have fun."

The symbiotic relationship, being the son of an NHL player has its very huge benefits.

"There's no way I would have been able to meet and talk to professionals like Jarome Iginla, J.P. Parise, and so many others," Sam said. "I remember J.P. saying to me; 'It's important to have soft hands to go around people, but you always have to have strong hands on your stick to got through them.'

"You don't get inside-the-box information from just anyone."

That backyard rink in Oakville was home-ice for a number of the best players in the Ontario Hockey League. Sam's best friend and foe is another OHL center named John Tavares, who lived in the same neighborhood. Tavares played for Oshawa this past season. But the key to this friendship/rivalry is that Sam Gagner got to play one-on-one with Tavares, a budding superstar whom scouts predicted would go No. 1 in the 2009 draft.

"John is bigger and stronger than Sam and sometimes ... the way he plays is downright ruthless," Dave Gagner said.

"We had some pretty heated one-one-one battles on the rink. He'd tell you he won most of them, but he'd be lying," Sam said with a confident wink.

The stakes were more than about bragging rights, however. These anything-goes contests sometimes had no rules, no fouls, in which goals would only be counted if the puck was banked off a goalpost and in.

"The games were supposed to go to five ... but ended up going to 20," Sam Gagner said with a competitive smile. "Whoever lost wanted to keep the game going."

Patrick Kane, another teammate of Gagner's at London, happened to be on the ice for Sam Gagner's defining moment against Chicago.

"He was just giving me stare downs," said Gagner. "I don’t think he was happy I one-upped him like that. We have a competition going and so far, in our (NHL) career, he’s won every one. It’s nice to get that one on him tonight."

The game, this moment, was one for the ages. It all belong to Sam Gagner.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Kopitar is Clearly a World Beater

By Larry Wigge

Darryl Sutter was GM of the Calgary Flames when Anze Kopitar was selected with the 11th pick overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He wished he had a chance to sign Jesenice, Slovenia, native, but the Los Angeles Kings got lucky enough to draft him.

In the ensuing years, Sutter got to know the big center as a fierce competitor and a No. 1 center most teams would love to have. Now, that Sutter is now the coach of Kings, he thanks his lucky stars.

"He is a big No. 1 center with skill and talent. Most other teams would drool over having him," Sutter explained. "He plays the minutes big minutes on offense and chips in on defense.

"He's a presence ... all the times."

Sutter points to the coaching of Andy Murray and Terry Murray as helping to make Kopitar so well adjusted. Four years ago, under Terry Murray, the big center sacrificed some offense to learn how to play the checking game. After that, Kopitar grew into the skill and hard working aspects and became a complete player.

"He's big and strong," Terry Murray said of Kopitar, after recently being being fired as coach of the Kings. "When he's on his game, there's not many players that can take the puck away from him.

"He's that powerful, that big, that strong. When he makes plays to the net like he can, you just say 'What a powerful player.' "

Kopitar had 17 goals and 30 assists this season. He had managed five straight 20-goal seasons -- he topped the 30-goal mark in his second season with 32 and 34 in 2009-10. 

Murray and Sutter never really knew about his dream to play in the NHL. They knew about his intellectual label, that he could speak five languages -- Slovenian, Serbian, German, Swedish and English, something his grandmother, who was a schoolteacher, told him at an early age would be important to him.

As a youngster, Anze Kopitar would wake up in the morning, walk out on the balcony of his family’s home in Jesenice, a town of about 21,000 people on the Adriatic Sea. Kopitar says its not unlike a young boy growing up in North America with his nose pressed against the window, looking in the distance. Only Anze wanted to see more than just the countryside in his native Slovenia, which gained its independence and split from Yugoslavia in 1991. He wondered what was out there in the distance beyond the tunnel that separated the former Yugoslavia and Austria ... for him.

"I was five minutes from Austria and 25 minutes from Italy, but ..."

Kopitar paused to reflect on the whole big world that his family helped him to reach, from the hockey rink Matjaz, his dad, built for him to learn to skate and refine his skills and where he taught him a lot of the 1-on-1 drills he used as a hockey coach in Austria, to the discipline he learned working at his mom, Mateja’s, restaurant to the insistence of his grandmother, a schoolteacher, that Anze take English as a second language.

Anze Kopitar wasn’t dreaming about the NHL, when he was growing up in the tiny border town of Jesenice. His parents wouldn’t let him stay up at night to watch any NHL games that might be shown on Slovenian TV. That didn’t stop Anze from waking up in the morning and getting on-line to study the scores and stories of a game that seemed so far off.

Kopitar grew up reading about how Sergei Fedorov defected from his Russian team in Seattle before the Goodwill Games in 1990. He watched and followed Fedorov’s career with the Detroit Red Wings. He dreamed that he might someday also make his way to the NHL.

"It was really helpful to have a dad who knew so much about hockey," Anze said. "He gave me great advice. I remember we spent a lot of time watching old tapes. We’d watch different NHL players, Fedorov was one of my favorites. I’d watch his stride, his skills, his disciplined among others. Then my dad and I would try to work on certain parts of my game and use the tapes as a learning tool."

A few minutes with Kopitar and you come away thinking he’s 19 going on about 30. He’s bright, outgoing, smart and always looking to challenge himself to do more. The problem some European players have with adjusting to the culture, the language, the bigness of everything over here doesn’t seem to affect Anze. Nothing seems to bother him.

Like his first game in the NHL, October 6 2006, at Anaheim, when, midway through the second period, Kopitar took a breakout pass from teammate Dustin Brown in stride. He looked up for an instant and saw All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger in his way to the net. Instead of pausing to wonder what he might do, Anze blew past Pronger, then put a nifty move on Ducks goaltender J.S. Giguere and scored his first NHL goal.

"I knew it was Pronger, but I didn’t want to think about it. I told myself going into the game that I wasn’t going to be scared or nervous, so I just reacted quickly the way I’d normally react to that kind of situation," he said. Then he smiled and added, "I didn’t get scared until I watched it on replay after the game and saw exactly what I did ... and who I beat."

Actually, Kopitar scored twice in that opening-night loss to Anaheim and then he followed up that debut with three assists in a 4-1 triumph over St. Louis at Los Angeles.

At 6-4, 220 pounds, Kopitar is the big, skilled center with leadership ability that every team wants. But the shred of mystery over coming from Slovenia enabled Anze to slip out of the top five or six in the draft to the Los Angeles Kings with the 11th pick in the first round.

"Anze was in our training camp a year ago," said Andy Murray of 2005-06 when he came to camp with the Kings. "He was our best center in camp. He could skate, pass and shoot. He had the whole package. We wanted him to play for us right away, but he had a commitment to play one more year for his team in Sweden.

"Let me tell you: There were a lot of tears shed by our coaching staff last September when we had to let Anze go."

Obviously, he was worth the wait for the Kings. Kopitar is a very special player.

"The first time I saw Anze Kopitar he stood out as a talent and a difference maker at the World Junior Championships, when he was just 16," said Craig Button, former Calgary Flames GM. "He had five goals in five games. But, from the first time I saw him to today, it’s clear that his biggest asset is how he challenges himself to be better and how he makes the players around him better.

"Without his desire and passion and skill for the game, Slovenia wouldn’t have stayed in the ‘A’ Pool of that tournament. He willed them to respectability."

Matjaz Kopitar realized that, at 15, Anze was already playing in a men's league, and it was obvious he was at a crossroads and needed a bigger challenge.

"I reached my goals in Slovenia," Anze recalled, "so I knew I had to go somewhere else and step forward. It was a big challenge, because I had to leave home and live on my own. I really missed my mom’s cooking."

But his hunger for the NHL grew.

First, he went to Sodertalje, Sweden, to play, with a junior affiliate. But then quickly graduated to the Swedish Elite League when he was just 17.

If it seems like this is a kid who was poured into a hockey-only world. But he also played soccer and basketball. His brother, Gasper (also hockey player) and grandparents were once basketball players. And, oh yes, you’ve got to hear about his job at his mom’s restaurant, which specializes in pasta and steak but you can find a lot of other foods as well.

"My mom made sure I worked hard, but also had some fun," Anze laughed, who would take orders sometimes, but ...

"Some of the waitresses weren’t strong enough to handle more than a couple of plates," Kopitar said. "Three or four plates filled with pasta or with a huge steak got too heavy for them. But I got to be good enough that I could carry about four plates at a time."

And the balance from those plates ...

"Yeah, it didn’t hurt my balance on skates, either," Anze joked.

And in school, Kopitar not only worked on his native Slovenian language, but he added English and German to his repertoire.

"Grandma was right," Kopitar said. "There are so many things knowing different languages can open up to you in life."

He junior coach, Per Nygards, gave him lot of confidence to survive away from home.

"I’ll never forget what he told me," said Kopitar. "He said, ‘Don’t hope. Make things happen. You can only hope to win the lottery.’ "

Andy Murray, Terry Murray and Daryl Sutter were surprised to see the strength and confidence Kopitar came over hear with. But each one of them looked at the talent and skill as limitless.

Clearly, the Kings must feel like they won the lottery with Kopitar making a difference for them nearly every night.

Sergie Fedorov was Kopitar's favorite. He defected form Russia at the Goodwill Games in Seattle. Anze Kopitar didn't have to defect, but finding his way to the NHL via Slovenia and Sweden was a tremendous way to go. Learning English was a plus.

"My grandmother and grandfather were strong people," said Kapitar.

Now, when he wakes up in the morning and looks out the window, he must enjoy knowing how old dreams have been reached ... and finding new dreams that are oh-so-close to being conquered as well.

Anze Kopitar clearly is a difference-maker.