Friday, March 9, 2012

Cole Succeeds with a Down-home Attitude

By Larry Wigge

For the better part of 10 years, Erik Cole called Raleigh home. He once scored 30 goals there and even won a Stanley Cup in North Carolina with the Hurricanes in 2006.

The guy with the great straight ahead speed and good size at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds who married a former state trooper did it -- got on the fast track to NHL stardom after being selected in the third round, 71st overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. 

Grit. Determination. Heart and soul.

"It's a speed game with him and kind of opens up the ice. ... He brings that powerful stride where he can catch a defender and go wide and take it to the net," said Carolina teammate Eric Staal. "That speed element really backs off teams. We've brought that speed to the game, and that fire ... and it's helped create a lot of  offense and helped our team win some important games."

The Oswego, N.Y. native, who played his college hockey at Clarkson University, was Rookie of the Year in the ECAC and second team All-American for the Golden Knights. His pro career was enlightening to say the least. It was almost a culture shock, learning to play fifth fiddle to NCAA basketball and football, NASCAR racing and NFL football.

He didn't have to concern himself with Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest. Basketball and football at each. Most of all, he'll never forget Dale Jr.

"You've got three major colleges, four if you want to count Wake Forest," Cole explained. "There's NC State, the UNC Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils. You've got people who have lived there for generations supporting one of those three teams. So there's a lot of competition.

"It's the Hurricanes' job to try to get fans from three different schools to come and be hockey fans. They've had two runs to the Cup in four years.

"It's like a lot of cities: If you're winning, you're going to be a hot ticket."

That was the life of Cole -- and he and his family enjoyed it.

Even when he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in July of 2008, Cole was traded back -- after 63 games with the Oilers. He had a reawakening, of sorts, with the Hurricanes, when he was sent back.

Cole admitted playing for the Oilers was like a religion. Everyone followed them. 

"My buddy (former Calgary Flame and Hurricane) Cory Stillman called me when I was traded to Edmonoton and said 'It's going to be great, you're going to love it,' " recalled Cole. "He was telling me that even in the summer, everything the Oilers do is front page news, that I'm really going into a great situation."

"I raised a family here, I was involved in a lot of different community affairs -- things that help you grow as a person and a player," he said, memories flowing. "To come into the league and sit on the bench with Ron Francis was a pretty amazing thing."

This season, Cole moved North once again ... to Montreal.

After 10 seasons -- minus 63 games while he was with Edmonton -- Cole signed a free agent with the Montreal Canadiens. This time, there was no trade deadline deal back to Tobacco Road.

Erik Cole, who signed a four-year, $18 million contract, knew life in Montreal was going to be quite a bit different. But ...

The 32-year-old free agent knew he had a lot of success at Bell Center -- 14 goals and 25 points in 28 games.

"It's my favourite building to play in," he said. "The feeling you get going into Montreal, the passion, the city, it just has an aura about it.

"I don't know how you can go in there and not play well. It's a passion that can drive the team north or south."

But he learned how much people in Montreal cared so much for the Canadiens after a slow start. He got a call form his kids school. From the school custodian. Of all folks.

"I knew everyone cared so much about hockey in Montreal," Cole explained. "But I was picking up my kids from school one day and the school custodian says, 'Why does the coach hate you so much?'

"I was completely shocked by the question. I said to my kids, 'In the car, let's go!'

"That's when I knew it was a different place."

After that slow start, Cole has move to the forefront with the Habs -- scoring 23 goals and 23 assists in 66 games.

Said Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier, "He's fast, big and likes to go to the net. He's a good complement to our finesse players."

"With Carolina, I was always going, going, going, getting in on the forecheck," Cole explained. "Here, with the systems it's more read and react. But I'm getting more opportunities now and my confidence has grown."

What a difference a few years makes. Carolina, Edmonton back to Carolina and on to Montreal.

A bio on the 32-year-old Cole cannot go without mentioning the career-threatening neck injury, when he was crushed head-first into the boards by Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik -- the check produced a compound fracture of Cole's C5 vertebra, a hit from behind that doctors said came within fractions of an inch of paralyzing him.

That was during the Canes '06 playoff run. From there ...

Sixteen months after Cole suffered a compression fracture of the C5 vertebra in his neck after a hit from behind, he continues to strengthen his back and neck muscles to build stability in his neck.

"I didn't know that my neck was broken," Cole recalled. "I've been hit hard before, and I've had stingers. But the jolt that went down my arms was a lot more severe than anything I've ever felt." 

He was transported to a Pittsburgh hospital, and returned home the following day wearing only a collar, which included a plastic and steel support that's been clamped to him almost every minute since early March.

He joked after getting the contraption off, "I'm going to run over it a few times with my Cadillac. And then I'm going to drive at least a few miles down the highway, dragging it behind the car."

Small town boy. Grew up and made it to the NHL.

Erik Cole made a success of himself in Carolina and now in Montreal.

Even the school custodian is feeling happier about Cole's success.

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