Sunday, April 29, 2012

Scuderi's Still the Missing Piece on Defense

By Larry Wigge

Back in the summer of 2009, when defenseman Rob Scuderi was about to sign a four-year, $13.6-million deal as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings, there was this video tape going around Scuderi's-then Pittsburgh Penguins teammates.

The gist of the video was that the previously unheralded defenseman Scuderi was known to Penguins teammates as, "Scudsy ... he's The Piece."

Sounds strangely intriguing doesn't it. Hmmmm!

Coach Dan Bylsma laughed at the suggestion. Later he just said, "Rob Scuderi doesn't go unnoticed for our team. He gets more notoriety for doing the job he's done in the playoffs against guys like Alex Ovechkin and Eric Staal.

"But he's a steady defender, he dives in front of a puck. He'll pay the price in the corners to get a puck out or make a play defensively. He's also excellent on the penalty kill. He's charged with our match-up situation on a lot of nights, and that's something you can't really put a value on if you're not really there in the trenches with him. He's a big part of our team, and a big part of our defensive corps. And a lot of nights sets the tone for how we play defense."

Such is the life of a member of the Stanley Cup champion -- now a valued piece of the Kings, who are facing the St. Louis Blues in the semifinal round of this year's playoffs. 

"Of the teams that were still offering I thought they had the most potential," Scuderi recalls. "I really liked their thought process and the direction the team was going and I wanted to be a part of it."

Kings GM Dean Lombardi raves about Scuderi's value to the team.

"He fits. He is a shut-down defenseman who breaks up plays and kills penalties," Lombardi said of Scuderi. "You can match him against tough top lines and still pair him with our good, puck-moving defensemen.

"He is a quiet leader. He is a professional who not only leads by example but he prepares himself well."

The 32-year-old veteran from Syosset, N.Y., is a perfect mentor for the Kings young defensemen like Doug Doughty, Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov.

Poised. Calm. Ready for every pressure-packed situation.

It's all a part of Scuderi's story. It wasn't like a scary good cop-bad cop Andy Sipowicz interrogation scene from NYPD Blue. No, when Bob Scuderi, a highway patrolman on Long Island, took his sons, Rob and Ken, to the station, it usually just meant something better was to come for the boys.

What that trip meant was the boys were just 10 minutes away from Nassau Coliseum -- and Bob would often stop off there to watch practice or a game.

"I was a little young for the Stanley Cup teams, but Denis Potvin and Mike Bossy and Pat LaFontaine and Kenny Morrow were still around," Scuderi told me. "I'll tell you something, my eyes were wide open. Going to the rink with my dad was my favorite thing to do.

"I grew up a huge Islanders fan. Hated the Rangers."

Years later, 6-1, 216-pound rearguard remembers those visits to Nassau Coliseum as a special bond between dad and sons. More important, they were part of the passion for the game that enabled a young athlete to choose hockey over lacrosse in high school.

And that's how the Kings shot-blocking, steady-as-a-rock defensive defenseman's career began.

Scouts who judge players in an instant would miss a player like Rob Scuderi. He doesn't stand out at first. He isn't a great skater. He doesn't have a hard shot. In fact, that's exactly what happened to Scuderi, as he went through the 1997 NHL Entry Draft without being picked in spite of scoring 42 goals and 70 assists in 82 games for New York Apple Core. One year later, after earning a scholarship to play at Boston College, the Penguins selected him in the fifth round, 134th overall, in the 1998 draft.

Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was a great fan of Scuderi.

"I can see where his skills might not jump out at you," Fleury laughed. "He's not the prettiest skater in the world. All I know is whenever I have a tough save to make, I'll look up and there's Rob right next to me trying his best to keep the puck out of the net.

"Believe me, I owe him more than a few goals over ..."

Brooks Orpik, another Penguins defenseman, offered this on his former defenseman. 

"He's like Mr. Anonymous," said Orpik, who played on defense at Boston College with Scuderi and also was drafted by the Penguins. "All I know it seems like he's never out of position. And in a game where we strive for consistency, that's Robbie."

And it all started near Bethpage on Long Island, where Bob and Leslie (a teacher) Scuderi gave their boys a happy homelife and the right kind of values to build on.

That passionate, dig-down and work-hard work ethic is a style that has helped teams Scuderi has been on compete for championships -- Boston College reached the Frozen Four all four years he was there, winning the NCAA title in 2001; in the American Hockey League, he was with Wilkes-Barre and went to the finals of the Calder Cup in 2004, before finally making it to the NHL, where the Penguins went to the Stanley Cup finals last spring.

Said Scuderi, "I play a very simple defensive defenseman game. But I've always been very confident in myself."

And that confidence -- even though a little more cockiness would likely get him more attention on such a high-flying offensive team -- Rob would rather just do his job and stay under the radar.

"I was a late bloomer," he said matter-of-factly. "Most of these guys in the NHL were playing some serious hockey and by 15 or 16 they were being looked at by college and NHL scouts. But no one was looking at Long Island."

To wit, his stay-hungry attitude.

"I'll never take anything for granted," he told me. "I go out there, in practices and in games, every day like I have to prove myself."

Late bloomer perhaps, but not too late. All Rob Scuderi has had to do at each stop along that learning curve up the yellow brick road to the NHL is find out where and how he fits into the team.

Best advice? "That's easy," Rob recalled. "My dad always told me, 'Play with your head and your heart and just go out there every shift and do your best.' "

That mutual admiration goes hand in hand for the Scuderis. When I asked Rob what he would be if he wasn't a hockey player, he said, "I'd be a policeman or a fireman. There's nothing better than devoting your life to helping people. I'll always admire what those guys do every day."

For Rob Scuderi there were no athletic genes to speak of in his family, only passion and a sports fan background. But now ...

"My father-in-law (Bill Schaefer) played in the NBA and it wouldn't surprise me if our kids would have some freaky athletic skills," Scuderi laughed.

All they have to do is watch their dad -- Mr. Anonymous -- and they would quickly learn that the skills and passion might someday lead them to a professional sports career as well.

Remember, Rob Scuderi is the piece or the missing piece that the Los Angeles Kings were hoping for.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Kid in Kreider is Growing Older All the Time

By Larry Wigge

What you want most in a hockey prospect is a pedigree. How is his hockey IQ? Does he bring along all the intangibles -- hard work and drive and passion? Does he play and act like a winner?

Chris Kreider has all of the above ... and in abundance.

The New York Rangers, who drafted Kreider in the first round, 19th overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. The are hoping the 6-3, 217-pound left winger brings plenty of that success to them as they signed him to a professional contract after his junior year at Boston College.

Twice in the last three seasons, Kreider helped the Eagles celebrate national championships. He scored a goal in the 2010 NCAA title game for BC as they defeated the University of Wisconsin. He also scored six goals for the gold medal winning United States World Junior Championship team in 2010. Kreider was chosen to represent the United States once again at the 2011 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, and led the team with four goals in six games as the USA won the bronze medal. Two of his goals were scored in the bronze medal game, and he was named the USA's best player for that game.

To be more precise, what the Rangers have in Kreider is a power forward extraordinaire and a big reason why Rick Nash is still a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Kreider is a can't-miss prospect ... the Rangers wouldn't trade even for Nash.

Eighteen days after his signing, he was in the Rangers lineup -- and he helped. Chris made his debut in the third game of the quarterfinal round series against the Ottawa Senators when rookie forward Carl Hagelin was suspended for three games for an illegal hit.

In Game 6, even though Kreider only played in 10:46, he scored the game-winner -- on a wrist shot from the left circle -- in a 3-2 victory.

"It didn't really hit me," said Kreider of his emotions. "Obviously it feels great in retrospect, but I'm just really happy we won the game."

"He has no fear. That's what I like about him," coach John Tortorella said of the rookie. "The biggest thing is his mindset. He's not here to test the waters. He's here to make a difference."

And Chris makes a difference as he did for the Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Washington Capitals, Kreider scored the game-winner seven minutes into the third period by unleashing a booming slap shot from just outside the top of the left circle that beat Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby to the glove side. Ninety seconds later, Kreider assisted on Brad Richards' insurance goal for a 3-1 victory.

"It's been a big change ... but I'm learning to adapt," Kreider said. "It was a surreal experience. I got goose bumps. 

"Pressure-filled games are the greatest. I imagine in New York they go to a different level."

Pressure packed games made of a youngster like Kreider.

"He's so fast, a big kid, you just let him go," Richards said of Kreider. "And he’s rode the momentum of what he did in college right into this."

Rookie winger Derek Stepan echoed that.

"He's got great legs. That's what makes Chris effective," he said. "He skates onto pucks and he creates loose pucks. He did it all night for us."

If he's looking to overcome an obstacle, Kreider grew six inches between his 9th and 10th grade seasons. That growth sport, took a smaller and yet competitive to the prime size as well. Even though he's only 20 -- he plays with excitement, poise and passion. Like most of those career-born players -- self-made players with the proper upbringing.

At the back of Dave and Kathy Kreider's garage in Boxboro, Mass., you can find any gadget available to a young boys heart. There's a pitchback screen, a lacrosse net and a soccer goal nestled in the corner.

Yes, there's also a well-worn hockey net, one that has been battered so much that the top crossbar is warped. 

"I can tell him where to shoot it," said Kathy. "Chris would hit it exactly where I ask him to every time."

His parents can see their son practicing his trade -- whatever the sport it may be.

Goal! Goal! Goal!

Each blast that has left a reminder on that crossbar or one of the posts — not to mention the thousands he's driven into the twine of that same net.

At the scouting combine in Toronto, he laughed at all the tests -- hardly what Kreider expected a hockey player to do.

"And you do it all with a smile on your face; it's a little like the Miss America Pageant," he said with a chuckle.

Chris will never forget his love of soccer, football, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, golf, volleyball.

"But those are just games. Hockey's a sport," Kreider said.

We won't argue the virtues of the other sports. Chris made his choice -- and hockey was it. It has created the pedigree we talked about earlier at Boston College, United States team in the World Junior and now the New York Rangers.

For Chris Kreider, the self-motivated, career-born player, he's starred against older, stronger competition at every turn by challenging himself.

He's still challenging himself.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Thrill of Victory will Always be there for Chara

By Larry Wigge

The thrill of victory ... and the agony of defeat.

For years, those were the intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports. The words could also apply to the words that symbolize just how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup.

Zdeno Chara was ecstatic about last year's run to the Cup for the Boston Bruins. Three playoffs were decided in Game 7's -- Montreal in the first round, Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference round and against the Vancouver Canucks in the final round.

Big Z pronounced was almost prophetical saying how you'd better be lucky and good to win it all once again.

"You don't know how hard is ... You're always hearing and ready about how hard it is    until you go through it and win," Chara revealed. "Then, you to a feeling ... This is what it really feels like. Not that you're not prepare for that, you are. You are preparing for it. It's something like when you are going to have you first child. It's something very unexpected. It's great. It's so rewarding. But you have to go through it you don't know."

From April 14 until June 15, the Bruins were fighting, scrapping, positioning themselves for the marathon that they call the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Chara is right in that you pull from your inner heart and soul for more energy to fight some more -- and once you are finished with one round ... there's another team that waiting for you.
"You never, ever, never give up," he explains. "Always follow your dream -- never give up. For us last year ... there were so many times we were close to being eliminated. Down 2-0 to Montreal team. Game 7 against Tampa and against Vancouver.

"So close. Every time, but just never, ever give up. Sometimes it's so hard. You're so tired. You think you're out of it, but your not. You think your tired, but your not. That's the greatest, greatest feeling in the world when you think ..."

It's easy to take Chara's pre-playoffs thoughts and make them work now because while they won it all last year ... this year's they couldn't get past the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the first round.

His passion last year could be expressed in this year's playoffs. It had been since 1972 that the Bruins had won the Cup. Now, one and down.

As we are now facing the second round, we are wondering about the first-round ouster of the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins last year's participants in the Cup finals. You look around and see that the first round was a disaster for a number of the top teams in the league -- the Detroit Red Wings, winners of the Cup in 2008, the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners in 2009, and the Chicago Blackhawks, winners in 2010. And the Bruins, winners in 2011.

The New York Rangers are waiting to see if they advance against the Ottawa Senators and the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils are awaiting Game 7's.

"You nod and you keep going," said Chara. "I think it's so rewarding, it so ..."

You can feeling the very thoughts of Zdeno come right out of this story as if he is reliving the run for the Cup one more time.

"You keep trying ... you keep trying," he continues. "Really, if you look at it the right way, every year there's five or six teams that can win. Any of those teams can do it, it's just a matter of which team has luck. If you don't have luck on your side and far as staying healthy and then get the bounces."

Any of five or six teams still remaining out of the final eight can win.

When Zdeno Chara speaks, you better listen. If you don't, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Boston Bruins captain is liable to do you bodily harm. And that would hurt. He's become an elite captain for the Bruins.

"Zdeno's leadership qualities have been apparent from the time he joined our players after we signed him as a free agent in 2006," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. "He leads by example, both on and off of the ice, and he has earned the respect of everyone in our dressing room."

He's no longer a big joke to some teammates, who watched him clumsily skate around the rink and laughed behind his back until he was about 22 and the rest of his body caught up with his height.

"I wasn't supposed to make it. I was too tall, too awkward, too everything," Chara said, shaking his head. "I couldn't make anyone in Slovakia believe I could play ... so I had to leave home."

It's not hard to miss that kind of skill coming in such a formidable package. But it was close in 1996, when the New York Islanders received a couple of crude game tapes of Chara from a contact they had in Slovakia. Chara's movement -- not just his size -- piqued the team's interest. Marshall Johnston, an Islanders scout at the time, liked what he saw. But he needed to know more about this giant risk/reward prospect before he would consider recommending that his team draft Chara.

"The size was obvious, but he seemed to play with a passion that caught my eye," Johnston told me a few years later. "I asked to interview him before the draft and his character and determination to prove he could play just jumped out at me."

The Islanders selected the tallest player in NHL history in the third round, 56th overall, in the 1996 Entry Draft. But the connection with Johnston didn't end there. After Chara came to North America and played junior hockey for Prince George of the Western Hockey League, he had five rather non-descript seasons in the Islanders' organization.

That's when Johnston, then the general manager in Ottawa, rescued him once again, asking for him from the Isles in a deal in June 2001 for center Alexei Yashin. Ottawa also received the Islanders' 2001 first-round pick (second overall), which they used to select Jason Spezza.

It was a steal of a deal for the Senators.

John Muckler, Ottawa's general manager before Murray, remembers Wayne Gretzky telling him when the two were working for the New York Rangers and Chara was just breaking into the NHL that the landscape was beginning to change for his 30-something body.

"I remember Gretz coming over to the bench and saying, 'Having to play against defensemen like that, guys built like basketball players, is the reason I'm quitting,'" Muckler said.

Chara clearly was a late-bloomer. He didn't begin skating until he was 7.  But he had some up-close-and-personal help in turning such an imposing body into such an imposing defenseman. It started with Zdenek Chara, Zdeno's father, who competed in Greco-Roman wrestling for Czechoslovakia in the 1976 Olympics. He was the national champion, in fact, for 11 years running. Wrestling, cycling and training came from his father's genes.

The will and determination, however, were all Zdeno.

"When he arrived in Ottawa, it was work, work, work," former teammate Marian Hossa said. "No one worked harder than 'Z.' He would run up steps in buildings, lift weights, mountain bike -- all to build up strength. But his footwork got better and better with all of the lateral stops and starts, quick-twitch exercises he did.

"Now, he's a contender for the Norris Trophy each year."

All those quick-twitch exercises have now made Zdeno Chara one of the most feared defenseman in the NHL. More passionate than the next guy -- and sure to make another run for the Stanley Cup.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Kovalchuk Tempts with So Many Offensive Talents

By Larry Wigge

Whenever Ilya Kovalchuk is looking for advice he pauses and ... Russia is calling.

Seems like Valery Kovalchuk and his New Jersey Devils son are always on the same page. Such was case after game three, as the Devils were down 2-1 to the Florida Panthers.

"Hey dad, there's something wrong," said Ilya Kovalchuk. "I don't seem to be producing. I'm not ..."

The 6-3, 230-pound winger had one goal and one assist and just six shots on goal against the Panthers in the first three games.

"Are you shooting the puck like I taught you?" said dear old dad.

Valery heard a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. "Your not talking ..."

That was the gist of the conversation. It was direct and to the point. Father talking to his son and wishing him a happy 29th birthday.

Ilya, the goal scorer, had gotten the message: Shoot.

It the next three game, Kovalchuk put four, six and four more shots on goal -- in Game 6 that resulted in Ilya scoring one of two first-period goals and ... 

As Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac crossed the blue line -- he drew two defenders before slipping a pass across the slot to Travis Zajac, who did not want to make a perfect shot as much as a quick shot. It went in at 5 minutes 39 seconds, lifting the Devils to a 3-2 triumph.

Kovalchuk's split-second decision saved the Devils' season.

"It was a great play by a great player, sucking two defenders in and then making the pass," said Devils first-year coach Peter DeBoer said of Kovalchuk's pass.

Series tied ... and everything was AOK between father and son.

It had been a long time since the Atlanta Thrashers made Ilya Kovalchuk the first pick of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He scored 50 or more goals twice and added another 40 or more goals four other times in his nearly eight season with the Thrashers before being traded to New Jersey on February 4, 2010.

This past season, he connected for 38 goals and 46 assists a true team player. 

In Game 6, the Devils needed him on the ice for a whopping 26 minutes, 25 seconds ... working for the series-knotting goal by Zajac.

The conversation between Ilya and Valery Kovalchuk began in earning when the youngster was only 3 and he had been on dad's shoulder as they went to the gym. The two would do simple stretching exercises and coordination drills. But Valeri also taught his son the value of a positive mental approach in sports.

"My father never pushed me into one sport. He let me play basketball, soccer and street hockey," Kovalchuk said with a smile while recalling his younger days. "But I'll never forget one day, when I was 5, he got this big smile on his face when I was playing street hockey with my friends. I think he saw that I was pretty good. The next day ... he bought me a pair of skates."

Valery Kovalchuk also showed his son the right way to train and develop as a hockey player.

"The first thing he taught me was how important it was to shoot the puck accurately," Kovalchuk recalled, adding that his dad put up four targets on the side of their house -- one at each corner of what would be a makeshift net. "I would practice for hours and hours. It was always wrist shots and snap shots. No slap shots, because sticks were too expensive ... and I was afraid if I broke one we wouldn't be able to buy new ones.

"I remember my dad coaching me back then. He told me, 'It's better to miss the net than hit the goalie.' He was right. Maybe that's why I can pick the corners so well now."

Kovalchuk's draft stock started rising when he had 11 goals and four assists in six games during the World Under-18 Championship in Finland in 2001. Atlanta GM Don Waddell wasn't the only one who considered Kovalchuk head and shoulders above the rest in that draft.

"All I know is that when you watch him play, there's a buzz in the stands when he's on the ice, when he's got the puck, when he goes around an opponent," former Winnipeg and Chicago GM Mike Smith told me. "It's like when Pavel Bure and Teemu Selanne broke into the NHL. All the eyes were on them, expecting something special to happen. And it usually did.

"The biggest difference in this kind of player is that very few players can score the goals they score or make the plays or moves they make."

A different perspective on Kovalchuk from former Atlanta coach John Anderson.

"I equate it to him playing on a three-level chess board and we're playing checkers," Anderson said. "He thinks the game differently. If you watch Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, they were kind of all over the place too, but they'd show up when the puck was there."

The difference between chess and checker is that the chess board is the game is quick and more mind-boggling -- mind-numbing because Kovalchuk began his career as a shooter and playmaker with youngster Dany Heatley.

The two talk still talk on the phone every couple of weeks. But the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal would bring back these Gold Dust Twins again.

"I could use a few good passes," Kovalchuk said with a laugh. "What made us so good together was he's such a good passer and I ... I just love to shoot."

"Hey, I love to shoot, too," chided Heatley, when told what Kovalchuk said. "As players, we fed off each other's game. Chemistry is a funny thing. Once we stepped on the ice, we clicked. A big part of that I'm sure is that we both think the game on the edge, looking to be creative, looking to be making a play while on the move."

And that kind of hockey communications needs no language, sometimes just a nod or a gesture.

Kovalchuk and Heatley were matching bookends who played their off wings, They didn't have much of a common vocabulary together, but ...

"There were no Russians on our team, so it was a little awkward for me at first because I didn't understand English at all," Kovalchuk remembered. "We were roommates and Dany was always trying to teach me new words. He cared. He'd work with me on words in our room, when we'd order food at a restaurant, watched TV, he'd point out things we saw out the window on the bus -- and I remember him buying me a book on the ABC's.

"Some of the teammates teased me, but not Dany. He knew how important it was to communicate in this game on and off the ice."

Proving that some thing's still get lost in translation so to speak, Heatley said, "Don't blame me for that one. Some of the guys were passing a children's book display and THEY bought the book for him."

The truth about the ABC's in hockey are that Ilya Kovalchuk can do oh so many things. He can shoot and score and he is definitely an 'A' player.

And he can draw quite a few defenders his way as we found out in Game 6 of the Devils quarterfinal round matchup April 24.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Doan: A Playoff Hero Finally after 16 Years

Larry Wigge

It was near ecstasy on the scarred, but venerable face of an old veteran.

Shane Doan had grown up and played his first season and playoffs with the Winnipeg Jets and through the next 16 years with the transplanted Phoenix Coyotes. Eight times his team went out on the first round of the playoffs.

Doan's feeling of exhilaration over eliminating the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the quarterfinal round matchp was mind-blowing. After all, he's the last remaining member from Winnipeg. Eight times his team went out on the first round of the playoffs.

"It's exciting," said the 35-year-old captain. "In other years, we were one and done. I know better than anyone wining the first round of the playoffs, it's the hardest to win ... because I've never done it."

And now ...

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

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

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

But we'll get back to that later. First, you have to be brought up to speed on a little bit of background from this famous -- and some may call infamous -- athletic family out there in the Old West.

Shane Doan is the captain of the Phoenix Coyotes. He's had a pretty remarkable career in the NHL since he was the first-round draft choice of the Winnipeg Jets in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft, playing his entire career with the same organization. But there are those out there in Canada's old West that swear that even if Shane made it to the Hall of Fame some day, he still wouldn't be the most famous member of his own family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 23, 2012

Scary Good, Giroux has Become NHL's MVP

By Larry Wigge

Some players are made for the moment ... others have to work at it. 

Claude Giroux volunteered for it. He had had enough of letting the Pittsburgh Penguins back in this series -- and he was about to due something about it.

"About 10 seconds before they dropped the puck, he came over and told me, 'Watch the first shift,' " teammate Danny Briere said. "He set the tone. That first shift, that was beautiful to see. That's the sign of a great leader."

Giroux looked for the first hit as the first shift began. It just happened to be Sidney Crosby, who was leveled near the boards.

Then 32 seconds into the game Claude scored the first goal. One goal and two assists later, the Philadelphia Flyers had a 5-1 victory over the Penguins -- and ousted their cross-state rivals in the first round of the playoffs.

"He's got a knack for being there when it matters most," Briere revealed. "That's not something you can teach. You have it or you don't. There's guys that score a lot when games are out of hand or they don't mean much. He always seems to score the big goals or make the big plays when it matters most."

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was flabbergasted.

"When the best player in the world comes up to you and says, 'I don't know who you're planning on starting, but I want that first shift,' that says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there," the coach said. "His game tonight was monstrous.

"He was so adamant he wanted that first shift. He wanted to make a statement. You see the skill, but sometimes you don't hear that, you don't know that, you don't get that feel for him. Or maybe you do, but we do. For him to come up and say that, that speaks volumes for him -- not just as a player but as a person."

The 24-year-old center is a rare combination of skill, grit, creativity, hockey intelligence and fearlessness.

He had already outplayed all-universe stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin throughout this series. Giroux scored six goals and assisted on eight others -- a Flyers record for points in a series.

"Anything you do, you want to be the best at it," Giroux said. "If that's to score goals or block shots or whatever it is, I'm going to try to do it ..."

Giroux said, honestly, "There's obviously pressure. Pressure? I hope so because I love pressure."

Said Scott Hartnell, "He's probably the biggest competitor I've ever played with. He wants to win so bad. I could tell right when I got to the rink this morning that he was fired up and ready to go. You hit like that first shift, you score like that first shift -- that's our best guy in here."

"He's our motor ... he's our engine ... we follow him everywhere," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said.

"He got this thing in his eyes where it was, ‘You can’t stop me," says Max Talbot. "He plays like Malkin but with the grit of Sid." 

Think about that for a second. Imagine the possibilities. And listen to Giroux say, "Anything you do, you want to be the best at it."

Giroux was the ultimate team player for the Flyers. It wasn't until late that Claude was surpassed by Malkin and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead in scoring. Still, 28 goals and 65 assists isn't too shabby.

Strange but true, the day that Claude Giroux was drafted by the Flyers has become a classic. There was former Flyers GM Bobby Clarke ... at a loss.

"Philadelphia selects, from Gatineau of the Quebec Junior League," Clarke paused, looked down at some paper, then glanced off to the side for some help. "I forget."

When the chuckles died down, Clarke made the announcement: Claude Giroux.

There are no mistakes about Giroux now, he was the Flyers first round pick, 22nd overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. In fact ...

When the Flyers traded captain Mike Richards and high-scoring Jeff Carter last June, it was a direct correlation to how much Claude Giroux had risen to being the face of the franchise.
"When Richie and Cartsy left, I had a little bit of pressure to kind of step up in the spotlight, and that's why you play -- to be the go-to guy and want to help the team," said Giroux. "And now that we're in the playoffs, we have to keep it going. We have a young team and have a lot of energy ... and we're having a fun time doing it."

The Richards and Carter departures became prominent when the Flyers were trying to sign free-agent Jaromir Jagr. Jagr had questions about the Flyers, where they were going and about Holmgren's philosophy on team building.

"He asked me why I traded those two guys," said GM Paul Holmren. "I just said we needed to get bigger in certain areas and we got some young guys we think are emerging, Claude Giroux being one."

There was a silence on the line.

Soon Jagr understood -- as he joined on the line with Giroux and Hartnell.

"Everybody thinks about the game a certain way," Hartnell said. "Then there are a few people, a few select people, who think about the game in a different way and how it should be played and where to go and the space that is available and where to be, how to support, how to give somebody space.

"They just think a little bit differently and I truly think that Claude and Jaromir think on the same level. They think the game the same way."

Everybody has had his say. Claude Giroux had become sainted or some sort of devilish power with skates and a stick.

Briere said simply, "He was possessed."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Beating Detroit has a Significant Reason for Legwand

By Larry Wigge

Not a game would pass when David and his dad would not either be glued to the TV or close by the radio, keeping abreast of what the Red Wings were doing. It was like a religion in the Legwand household in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. They talked about hockey all the time.

One problem: young David couldn't skate, so he couldn't play.

That's where the elder David Legwand, a banker, did his 6-year-old son the biggest favor of his life. Street hockey wasn't good enough for David Legwand Sr.'s son. He went out and built a backyard rink to help his son fulfill his aspirations to playing hockey someday. A 15-by-50-feet sheet of ice is narrow by normal standards, but it helped young David perfect his skating, his quick bursts. Quickly "Leggy", as his friends called him, passed the other kids on blades.

"I would spend all day out there, come in for dinner when my mom called and go back out all night until mom called me in to go to bed," Legwand told me. "We set up lights out there. I felt skating was the most important part of becoming a hockey player. So, basically, I’d watch the pros and try to copy their skating styles and strides. It took me about two years to get comfortable with my own skating style."

Tall at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, David Legwand made it look easy with that smooth, effortless long stride of his. He was one of those players that the puck seems to find. Then, he'd draw opponents toward him and, either make a quick acceleration around the defender or deftly sneak a pretty pass to a teammate. Scary smart.

On April 20 nearing midnight, it had to be David Legwand that put the dagger in the Red Wings season -- first sending a pass out from behind the net to linemate Alexander Radulov for Nashville's first goal of the game before breaking a 1-1 tie on a quick wrister for the game-clincher with 13 seconds left.

It couldn't have been any other way -- except if Game 5 in the quarterfinal round matchup had been at venerable old Joe Louis Arena.

"Leggy was a guy I knew could break out at some point in the series and be a difference maker," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "David Legwand had his 'A' game tonight."

For Legwand, his last four periods of this series were his finest.

He finished with two goals and two assists in five playoff games, after putting together a 19-goal, 34-assist regular season. Not his best, but next to 27 goals and 36 assist in the 2006-07 season.

For Legwand, the tiebreaking goal 13 seconds into the third period was the second straight game in which David scored a third-period goal -- his goal in the final minute wrapped up Nashville's 3-1 win in Game 4 at Detroit. Before that game Legwand had scored only two third-period goals in 40 career NHL playoff games.

"There's a toughness with this kid that I would say is greater than most young players you run into," said Trotz. "It's not a knock-them-down-on-their-butt kind of toughness. It's a mental toughness."
"He was our first first-round draft choice and in a lot of ways you could say he mirrors our franchise with the way he has steadily improved each season," GM David Poile said of Legwand, who was the Predators first pick, second overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft -- behind only Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier.

Legwand was not only a great hockey prospect and played baseball at 14-15 to devote his full attention to hockey. At 17, he was beginning to get scholarship offers from college hockey programs, including Michigan and Michigan State. He had an invitation to join the U.S. Under-18 team and national development program. Or, he could compete in the Ontario Hockey League against the best Canadian players, some as old as 20.

He chose the Plymouth (Mich.) Whalers and in his first year in the OHL and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player -- the first rookie in 24 years and only the second American to earn the honor.

"From the time he was a kid growing up in the Detroit area, you could see that he was going to be the best prospect from around here since Mike Modano," Detroit Red Wings Assistant General Manager Jim Nill told me. "David is a lot like Modano in that they're both great skaters, they move through people well.

"Legwand is very slippery. He's one of those guys you can't really hold up. He has a really nice scoring touch ... soft hands."

We quickly learned that the Modano comparisons stopped there for Legwand, who actually wanted to be just like his favorite Detroit player -- Steve Yzerman.

"I loved to watch him play," Legwand said. "I mean, here’s a guy who scored 60 goals twice and 155 points in a season, but all he wanted was a championship. So, he sacrificed his points to be an even better team player and helped the Red Wings win three Stanley Cups. To me, learning how to become a great two-way player is the path every kid growing up wanting to have a hockey career should look at."

That team-first mentality is part of what attracted the Predators to Legwand, not his great numbers in junior hockey. Legwand came into the NHL willing to learn the two-way game first, and now he’s beginning to put up career numbers offensively.

I remember Poile stopping short of calling Legwand a franchise player on draft day, he really, really, really wanted the kid from Grosse Pointe Woods.

"Our hearts stopped when we lost the second pick in the lottery in May," Poile admitted. "We were so bullish on Legwand that we had to take a step back -- and all of a sudden instead of thinking Lecavalier or Legwand, we had five or six players that were a step below those two.

"Actually, we had two or three trades in the works to drop down in the first round from the No. 3 pick to get some extra picks ... until the Sharks called. I've never breathed so well as I did when I got that phone call."

A lot of homework and due diligence goes into making such a high pick in pro sports. And in this case, the Predators learned of the great background that David came from -- his father being a banker and mother, Carol, being a nurse. Interviews with David showed Poile and his scouts that this was a youngster with great passion for the game and who had mapped out his career with the idea that he too would sacrifice, like Steve Yzerman, for the good of the team. They also learned that David Sr. had a football background and young David's sister, Carla, was a pretty good soccer player.

"In time, David Legwand is going to be the cornerstone of this franchise," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "He's an exciting player. He's quick and he's smart. He's the kind of player that will put people in the seats ... and pull them out with some of the things he does."

"I have goals and I have dreams," Legwand said of game-clinching goal against Detroit in the first-round of the playoffs. "I learned well watching those great Detroit teams when I was a youngster that team goals are the only ones that really count."

So, you see, dreams do come true. Even on 15-by-50-foot rinks in the backyard of houses where dad and son are glued to the TV or radio following their favorite hockey team.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Anderson: Always Looking to be a No. 1 Goalie

By Larry Wigge

When he was traded for goaltender Brian Elliott on February 18, 2011, Craig Anderson felt he had a chance in Ottawa. If he put up some numbers maybe he could make it work.

It was kind of trial and error for the potential unrestricted free-agent netminder the the next two months ...

The on-the-job-training turned into a 11-5-1 record with a 2.05 goals-against average in the finals 18 games. It was just the magic.


"We feel he's brought stability. The position is one that we need if you're going to retool, rebuild and improve this hockey club going forward," said GM Bryan Murray of a four-year, $12.75 million contract. "Craig has stepped in on our team to play the way we think we have to play. With that secure building block, now we can address some other issues.

"He was a guy that we felt we had a chance to sign. If ..."

In this year's playoffs series, which stands at 2-2, the Senators gained control of the quarterfinal round matchup against the New York Rangers.

"It was beast mode -- the come-from-behind victory," said Anderson of a 3-2 overtime victory.

"I thought he was our best player," coach Paul MacLean said. "He kept it at 2-0 and made two saves before the goal in overtime as well. I thought he was outstanding. I thought he showed great leadership and competitiveness for the team."

Craig Anderson was better than Henrik Lundvist ... yes.

Anderson could have a chip on his shoulder over never really being given an opportunity to be a No. 1 before he joined the Colorado Avalanche at the start of the 2009-10 season ... or for his first eight years in professional hockey.

Instead, he whimsically talks about the twists and turns in his life.

"If I wasn't a goalie, I'd probably be a race car driver. They only have to make left turns," Anderson laughed.

The 30-year-old netminder (he'll turn 32 on May 21) from Park Ridge, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, had some pretty good seasons in junior hockey at Guelph before the Blackhawks made him their third-round pick, 73rd overall, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. In his second season in the Chicago organization he posted a 15-11-5 record and a microscopic 1.94 goals-against average for Norfolk of the American Hockey League.

But as all goaltenders find out quickly, stopping pucks coming at them at 90-100 mph is more than just being the target in a shooting gallery. At just 24, Anderson was still waiting for a chance to play in the NHL midway through the 2005-06 season.

"People talk about obstacles you have to overcome in your life to get to the NHL," Anderson explained. "Mine was like playing tic-tac-toe with a travel agent for 16 days in January and early February of 2006, when I went from Chicago to Boston to St. Louis and then back to Chicago.

"It started when the Hawks put me on waivers to send me to Norfolk and I got a call at the airport telling me I should instead get on a plane to Boston. Twelve days later, I was with St. Louis for one day ... and then back to Chicago. It was easily the craziest few days of my career."

In June of that year, more twists and turns as the Blackhawks traded Craig to Florida for a sixth-round draft choice.

Anderson admitted that some folks might feel like picking up a newspaper and answer a want ad, but it doesn't work that way in sports.

"I admit there were a lot of times when I was playing behind Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago and Tomas Vokoun in Florida where my career seemed like it was on hold, but I never lost confidence that I could play at the NHL level," Anderson observed.

Craig took the lessons he learned in watching Khabibulin and Vokoun prepare to be their best and something began to click for him. In 2007-08, he had an 8-6-1 record in his minimal opportunities behind Vokoun. But that included a .935 save percentage and two shutouts. More light began to shine on Anderson's career last season, when at times he played ahead of Vokoun in Florida and had a 15-7-5 record with three more shutouts. His .928 save percentage over the last two seasons ranked as the best in the NHL, ahead of Boston's Tim Thomas at .927.

With the Avs in 2010-11, Anderson was a dominat force. He posted a 38-25-7 record -- and he guided Colorado to a six-game playoff loss to the San Jose Sharks. But, somehow, Craig proved that was a one-season wonder. Again he was lost and headed for Ottawa.

It is often said that goaltenders mature a little later than other positions in hockey.

"The best advice I ever got was from my dad," Anderson recalled. "He always told me, 'Never say never.' And he lived that his life to those words. He was the CFO of a company that was in the business of wire and he was still racing cars in his late 30s."

Like most hockey players, the hard-working values of Richard and Holly Anderson (she was in real estate sales) and the encouragement to follow their dreams led to sports for their sons, John and Craig.

"I was your typical kid brother tagging along with my brother, who was five years older than me," Anderson said, before breaking into a wide smile. "My brother was five years older than me and I would do anything to be involved with him and his friends ... even if it meant standing in front of our garage being the goalie and taking shots off my head."

And this wasn't just some pickup by average athletes. John Anderson was drafted as a middle infielder by the Boston Red Sox and played a number of years in Class A ball.

While looks may be deceiving sometimes, goaltenders are a strange breed. And off the ice, Anderson hardly looks like Colorado's latest best chance to find a solid puckstopper. He's 30, he's follically-impaired and he looks like a tall (at 6-2) and skinny man incapable of replacing a Patrick Roy.

"I learned a long time ago that you can't try to be someone else or replace a legend like Patrick," Anderson said, eyes focused on what he has to do to keep his No. 1 job in Colorado. "You have to prove yourself everyday at this level. There are no free passes."

Anderson would never presume to put himself in the same light as Patrick Roy, when, in fact, he grew up watching and idolizing the kick saves of Grant Fuhr and Roy.

"Watching those two great goaltenders gave me the itch to be a goaltender," Anderson continued. "And fighting to keep my dream of getting a chance to show I could be an NHL goalie made me stronger mentally."

And auto racing? You remember the left turns he's taken in his career.

"I've still got the itch for that, too," he said. "But it's not as strong as proving to everyone that I can be consistent as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL and keep the Avs in every game this season."

More twists and turns can wait for Craig Anderson's auto racing career long after he's finished with hockey.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Stall Elimation -- Jordan Staal Might do It

By Larry Wigge

It seems that when the Staal boys of Thunder Bay were growing up, their father, Henry, would ask each boy every year if he wanted to play hockey the following season and, if he did, away they'd go to register.

One year, when the third son, Jordan, was 9 or perhaps 10 years old, he surprised his father by informing him he wanted to play in the NHL one day.

The father dutifully told his son of the need for commitment, discipline and sacrifice and that if he had all of those in sufficient quantity, well, one day, he might realize his dream.

To which Jordan responded quizzically, "Can't you just sign me up?"

"I heard about that one day and I asked Jordan if it really happened," Pittsburh Penguins GM Ray Shero said yesterday with a huge smile. "He said, 'Uh-huh.' "

There is plenty of passion and heart and soul in Jordan Staal. After all, he was the second pick overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and he won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009. 

I asked if there might be a league rule passed that every Stanley Cup has to include a member of the Staal family. He laughed and said, "With four brothers owned by NHL teams now, we've got a pretty good shot at something like that."

This year they may be facing an uphill battle to win it again, digging themselves a 3-0 deficit before scoring eight unanswered goals in a 10-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers in the quarterfinal round matchup.

"You don't want to have any regrets."

That was a pretty powerful mantra that Staal had for the Penguins.

For the first time in his playoff career, Staal scored a hat trick -- giving him five goals in the last two games.

Noted as a terrific defensive center, somehow defensive tactics have been thrown out the window in this series. Which had always led us to the question, why couldn't Jordan Staal score more goals?

Even in spite of that great anecdote from Shero on Jordan Staal, the Penguins have an abundance of centers -- quality players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Prior to the 2006 draft, Shero didn't care about anything but adding Staal to the lineup.

"I wanted Jordan Staal," Shero said. "Our staff wanted Jordan. It was basically a consensus. I wasn't picking him to trade him because we already had Sid and Geno.

"They say you build from a position of strength. That was the process there, still is."

"When you talk about strength up the middle and the Penguins, it doesn't end with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby," Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg said. "Jordan Staal is a big guy and he's got great speed. He's another difference maker."

So what has happened to the Penguins? That position of strength has been neutralized ... up until now.

Coincidence? Not even close. Two young teams on the way up, with a swagger just looking to learn how to win ... and dominate the NHL. And you could say that the last time a teen began as the dominant player in a major team sport occurred in 1979-80, when Gretzky was Crosby's age.

"They've won Cups and, you know, and we've yet to do that," Crosby said, not wanting to get into a debate about this year's Penguins and the Oilers. "We still have some things to prove. It's a nice compliment, but ..."

"Crosby is very similar to Wayne," says Rangers GM Glen Sather, who coached the Great One for nine seasons at the start of Gretzky's NHL career. "Same kind of vision. Crosby sees the ice as well as anybody. And I've seen Sid do amazing things, like Wayne. He's feisty, and that's what I like about him too. Wayne was feisty in his way but not like this guy."

To prove that there will always be differing views, we asked Messier to give us his thoughts of a comparison. But how about the new kids on the block, Mess?

"I personally love the way Sid and Geno play. I think Crosby could play in any era. He'll take a hit to make a play. He's an honest throw-back player," Messier continued, referring to Crosby and Malkin. "I think Crosby could play in any era. He plays tough hockey. He plays very honest hockey. There are no frills about him. And Malkin, I love the way he uses his size. I think he's one of the most exciting players I've seen in a long time. I love his skill level. I love the amount of ice he covers. I love the way he forechecks. I just think he's a tremendous hockey player.

"That's a dynamic pair ... and you have to also mention the size, speed and skill of Jordan Staal. No one has had that kind of strength down the middle in a long, long time, if ever."

Henry and Linda Staal didn't raise fools. Just unassuming sons. They tore up the basement by shooting pucks off the insulation, but there was no over-the-top rambunctiousness. The last time anyone can remember a full-scale outbreak of sibling rivalry was 10 years ago, when Jordan scored a goal and Marc took exception by slugging him.

Thunder Bay is not a city as much as a fiefdom of 120,000 at the head of Lake Superior, connected to the wider world in almost random ways.

If you make a left out of Sunshine Sod Farm, then a quick right up an unpaved road to Highway 61, you have a few options. You can drive west eight hours to Winnipeg, east seven hours to Sault Ste. Marie, south 3 1/2 hours across the border to Duluth or six to Minneapolis. In other words, you do not leave Thunder Bay on a whim.

This is a self-contained world with a university, a brawny port, a famous land formation known as the Sleeping Giant, road signs that warn about moose at night, and hockey, a game that connects the disparate dots at the 48th Parallel.

It's amazing how many people play here," said Henry, a forward with a big heart and mediocre hands at local Lakehead University in the late '70s and early '80s. "Even guys my age still play scrub hockey."

If anyone is able to rebound from a 3-0 lead, it's would be one Henry and Linda Staal's boys.

Those Wonderful Sedins Twins -- Henrik and Daniel

By Larry Wigge

I asked Henrik Sedin to show me his driver's license or photo ID at the All-Star Game in Atlanta in 2008. He wouldn't ... but I knew it was not his identical twin brother, Daniel, because Daniel's wife was back home in Vancouver ready to give birth to their second child.

Aha! I got you.

There were no quick-switch parent trap-like changes in identity to fool unsuspecting reporters ... as they often have done in the past. The identity of the enormously creative and productive Sedins with the Vancouver Canucks was often muddled -- even by people the twins see in their own locker room every day.

What make the Sedins so good is that they do it together. Henrik won the Art Ross scoring title in 2010, en route to his Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP. Daniel won the Ross Trophy the following year.

It's been said that the two are so much alike that they often finish one another's sentences.

"Well ... it happens once in a while," Henrik winked.

More often than just awhile ...

But we're into the here and now -- with the Canucks on the verge of elimination in the first round of the playoffs in 2012 to the Los Angeles Kings. The reason the Canucks were down 3-0 was simple, Daniel has been out of the lineup since March 21 -- 12 games -- with concussion like symptoms the result of a hit by Chicago's Duncan Keith. 

In Game 4, Daniel returned to give Canucks a 3-1 victory. Henrik got Vancouver third goal, while Daniel set him up for it.

It was back to the future with the incomparable Sedins. While orchestrating the day-in, day-out offense of the Vancouver offense with their dazzling cycling -- weaving in and out of traffic, in constant motion, always looking for the right moment, when suddenly there's an open man and a goal-scoring opportunity. 

Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter put the loss more succinctly, "The difference was 22 and 33's performance."

Exactly. For those of you who must be introduce to Daniel and Henrik Sedin, they are No. 22 and No. 33.

"I was hesitant ... I hadn't played for a while," Daniel replied. "But ..."

He took a second to gather his thoughts.

"I think once in while we need some time away from each other," Daniel explained. "As crazy as it sounds, I think that's the case. I think when we play together for a long time ... we tend to rely on each other a lot and we forget to work on our own game, to beat guys one on one and shoot the puck. It was a perfect example two years ago when I broke my foot. I came back and he played great and I could just fit in nicely."

The mystery, as much as it is delicious, has gotten out, says Henrik, "Daniel makes such a big difference because he knows where the holes are and can get to them. It's great to have him back."

At the Atlanta All-Star Game, the questions for Henrik were wide-ranging as we finally got to know a little more about these remarkable twins -- minus one -- who were born in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, on September 26, 1980.

In reality, Henrik was born six minutes before Daniel.

"Yeah, that's another thing I was first at ... but just barely," Henrik laughed. "I was born first and, though he might disagree, I'm more organized."

The differences ...

"Daniel is better at poker and water sports," Henrik said, ticking off differences between the twins. "But I'm better at soccer and golf. I haven't lost to him in golf yet (Henrik said he's a 13 handicap)."

When they play tennis, it's like hockey, always together. Henrik and Daniel have been playing hockey together, same line almost always through the years, since they were 9.

"Nearly 21 years," Henrik said proudly.

The twins complement one another so well that they came into this season with nearly identical point totals -- Henrik had 666 points and Daniel had 651.

Obviously, Henrik is the passer and Daniel the shooter.

Have they ever swapped girlfriends? "Never," said Henrik.

Have they ever swapped jerseys? "No," said Henrik. "But once in Sweden I got thrown out of the faceoff circle, skated over to the boards and then went back in and took the faceoff ... and didn't get caught."

That was before Daniel started wearing No. 22 and Henrik put on his No. 33 sweater.

"One night in Vancouver, I scored a goal and was injured, so Daniel went out right after the game and did the interview for me," Henrik laughed.

How do the Sedins' parents Tommy and Tora tell the twins apart?

"I don't know, but they've never gotten us confused -- not even on the phone," Henrik smiled.

Reporters may have trouble, but Henrik swears teammates don't have the same difficulty identifying the twins.

"Teammates can tell us apart after a while," Henrik said. "But most of the coaches don't have a clue. They'll come up to Daniel and say he has to check a player quicker deep in our zone defensively ... and he'll have to come over to me and tell me what I did wrong."

Not that there's much wrong with the way either Henrik or Daniel Sedin have played for the last 11 seasons in Vancouver.

Want more about the fascinating Sedins?

"We have two older brothers," Henrik said of Peter and Stefan. "It was always us vs. them. And we'd win."

In case, you wonder who would win.

It seems like so long ago now, that day in June of 1999, when then Canucks GM Brian Burke made deals with Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Chicago to get two of the top three picks in the draft in Boston to have the right to pick both Sedins.

"What is so attractive about the Sedins is that it seems like they are able to find one another in a scary way," Burke told me back then. "It's sort of like radar. They find each other in some of the most impossible spots on the ice. I said all along, the sum of one Sedin reduces the value. But getting both is like a double whammy for a team. That's why I worked so hard at getting this deal done."

While Daniel and Henrik were once promising young players, they are something much, much more now.

"We've been lucky enough to see them grow from great prospects into amazing stars in this league," Canucks captain Markus Naslund once told me. "What they do with the puck is so imaginative and instinctive. It can catch you standing around watching sometimes.

"They can seemingly create a great scoring chance in the blink of an eye."

The Sedins, Naslund and Peter Forsberg and former greats Anders Hedberg and Thomas Gradin all grew up in Ornskoldsvik, a town of about 60,000 people.

"Our dream growing up was to play for MoDo (in the Swedish Elite League), just like Markus and Peter did," Henrik said.

Naslund and Forsberg both went to the NHL ... and the twins followed them here, too -- with a pulse-raising flair and creativity.

Henrik said the twins feel they really came into their own the season after the lockout, 2006-07. The last past couple of summers the Sedins have had fun trying to become harder to knock off the puck. They do it while roller-blading ... 60-yard wind sprints while carrying 45-pound weight plates. Uphill. Twice weekly, along with at least two other workout sessions and forms of weight training each day this past summer.

"We also felt we had tried to become North Americanized, dumping the puck in and chasing after it -- and that's not our game," Henrik added. "We decided we'd do more cycling and quick passing -- things that we were successful at in Sweden."

That kind of tough, imaginative workout shows you how much these red-headed Swedish forwards want clearly are determined to star at the NHL level.

Every year they come back wanting to do more. They're driven.

"Yeah," said Henrik. "We like a challenge."

And the challenge for the rest of the NHL is to stop the Sedins -- one or both.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

To McDonald, There is no Quit in the Heart of a Champion

By Larry Wigge

There is no quit in the heart of a champion. There's a resiliency, a relentless drive in the heart of a champion.

To Andy McDonald, it's a matter of cold, hard facts. To this veteran, it's those mentally tough intangibles that shows he has always battled some long odds in his career ... and succeeded.

He was once considered a too-small, undrafted product of a school that wasn't a hockey power. He also overcame a pretty fierce wallop to his head by rugged Colorado defenseman Adam Foote in January of 2003 that rattled him so severely he wondered if he'd ever play again.

Nothing slowed him down. It took Andy almost a full calendar year before he felt right again -- and not dizzy -- after the concussion. And again last October, a sixt concussion, nearly put him out of the game for good.

"Probably the first week or two I was out, I thought that I was probably done for good," McDonald said. "With the way I felt, there was just no way that I would ... with my history and with the way I felt at the time, there would be no way that I would come back."

Well, he did return. And there McDonald was showing reporters how much damage a hard check in Game 2 had done to his faceshield. He was in there with this touch of fearlessness.

Cold, hard facts.

How about the fact that McDonald -- even by today's standards is too small at 5-11, 190 pounds or is too old at 33. Too old, nonsense. Here he is a veteran of the 2007 Anaheim Ducks Stanley Cup champion and still scoring and shooting his way into the news in 2012.

The Strathroy, Ontario, native, now has 72 points in his last 73 games, including three playoff games. Included in that were 10 goals and 10 assists in 23 games to end the 2011-12 for the St. Louis Blues and two goals and four assists in three games of the playoffs to rank him second to Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.

"He's a really competitive professional player," said St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock. "To me, Andy is a throwback. He's the way you remember the older players in the league years ago. They were ultra-professional, they focused on their craft every day -- who put a lot into every part of the game -- off ice, on ice, nutrition. They're throwbacks. They're hard to find ..."

Hitchcock is also a throwback, but he continued about McDonald as a player. 

"He's a very effective player," continued Hitchcock. "We don't have a lot of those rush attack chances but when he's on the ice, we do. I think that's a threat that makes other teams nervous." 

It's the speed, the strength on the puck that make him so tough to stop.

"He'll back you off in an instant with his speed and strength on the puck," Montreal defenseman Tomas Kaberle explained. "I remember watching him in that Stanley Cup finals against Ottawa. He was dominant. He'd fly through the neutral zone and into the opposition end with Teemu Selanne on one side and Chris Kunitz on the other and ... well, seeing that can scare you."

McDonald had 10 goals in 21 games in that playoff run of 2007. He was a man on a mission that spring -- a caring and motivational leader for the Ducks.

Speed, heart, intelligence. Andy McDonald takes pride in making plays and he's got great speed. And we all know, speed kills.

What the left winger has brought to the Blues this season is a player whose skates sparkle when he turns on the after-burners. He's nifty with the puck, with pull-you-out-of-your-seat passes. And he's very, very smart.

"His effort and battle level make it seem like he's playing with a couple more inches and 10 pounds more when he plays against the bigger centers in the NHL," Toronto GM Brian Burke once told me. "It's definitely not a hindrance the way he works out there at a consistently high level every game."

Not when you get that "I'll-show-you" mentality when people keep telling a heart and soul player like McDonald that he's too small.

That's also where McDonald's smarts come in. He graduated from Colgate University with a degree in International Relations. But he also had some international acceptance to work on out on the hockey rink. To that end, he was the ECAC Player of the Year and a first-team All-America in 1999-2000, his senior season. He was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's Player of the Year. And he put up some mind-numbing statistics at Cincinnati in the American Hockey League before being promoted to the NHL.

"No one ever said it to my face, but I could sense the doubt that a small player like myself could succeed in this game because I'd have to outplay guys much bigger and stronger than myself," McDonald said.

But Andy's dad, Steve, a former policeman in Strathroy and McDonald's coach growing up, enrolled his son in a power skating program that gave Andy confidence that he could overcome just about anything.

"Genetics and my body type at 9 or 10 dictated that in order for me to compete with bigger and stronger kids I needed to emphasize skating ... and speed," McDonald remembered. "The speed gave me a power that a lot of the bigger guys didn't have -- and it helped me realize that I could do a lot of things in this game."

Power skating isn't the only offseason program he was involved in. As a high schooler and during each summer while at Colgate, McDonald and a few of his buddies would gather together in Southern Ontario and Michigan and help goaltenders. Yes, you heard me right. But ...

If you can't beat them ... you learn from them is the way McDonald put it.

"I did it each summer for nine or 10 weeks," Andy said. "It was a good way to get in shape after a long summer and a good way to make a little bit of money.  

"I learned a lot. I mean, it's surprising when you go to work with the goalies everyday, you're learning what their learning. How they stop the puck ... but ...

"You're learning the other aspect of it. How to score on them. I learned a lot of things and helped me on the offensive side."

Like robbing Peter to pay Paul ...

"It was a good way to stay on the ice and work on your shot -- learn how to shoot better," he said. "You work several hours a day working on your shot. At practice, in a team setting, you do a lot of team stuff. Here, you work on your shot."
There's something to learning about the cold, hard facts like Andy McDonald did so well. But ...

Putting the speed, the heart and the intelligence into motion is more the resiliency and relentless drive that leads to the heart of a champion.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rolston Wants One More Chance to win the Stanley Cup

By Larry Wigge

When you begin a conversation with Brian Rolston, the next 10 or 15 minutes could take you anywhere. But that's OK, because the Boston Bruins forward is one of those players who takes you inside the heart, soul and mind of a player who makes things happen on the ice.

And that's a good thing -- a real good thing.

I get teased for writing a lot about where players are from, what makes them tick and describing them in terms of passion, grit and all of those intangibles that help make this sport of grace, speed and split-second action so good. This definitely is not a pat-a-player-on-the-shoulder sort of game.

Brian Rolston clearly remembers the feeling he had winning a Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Devils 17 years ago this June ... and he's hoping he's in the same position with Boston at 39 years of age.

Can he do the same things now that he did then ... not quite.

But, Clearly what the Bruins were looking wasn't a top six forward, they were looking for another Mark Recchi, a leader on and off the ice. Recchi retired after last season at 42. He was a voice of the locker room for both the players and the coaching staff.

"This has been good," Rolston explained of his role. "To be put in this situation I feel like I've got a purpose ... what more can you ask for?"

And Rolston is hoping to help Boston repeat as Stanley Cup champions. If he does, he can recast his Bruins legacy, so he won't be remembered only as the guy who was traded from the Colorado Avalanche for Ray Bourque in March 2000 ... instead of being part of a package that include Martin Grenier and Sammy Pahlsson.

"Brian wasn't playing a lot on Long Island," said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, noting that Rolston wasn't one of Boston's primary targets leading up to the trade deadline, but ...

"That's often the way it is with guys. If you remember, Recchi was struggling in Tampa when we traded for him," continued Chiarelli. "So it's our job to figure out what part of a guy's game can help us ... and Rolston had the legs and the shot.

"But let's be honest. It's not like we can claim him as some great discovery, because a lot of clubs knew they could have him if they wanted him."

Actually, Rolston, who had gone through waivers two times in the last two years, said he was thinking of retirement.

"I'll tell you what, to be honest, it definitely crossed my mind," mused Rolston. "I thought when I got to the Island that I'd have a little more responsibility than I did. But it didn't work out that way. Then all of a sudden it didn't look like I had anything.

"So to get this new opportunity has been great. I feel like I"ve taken advantage of the opportunity. I feel great. It's been rejuvenating."

After posting just nine points (four goals and five assists) in 49 games with the Islanders, Rolston has gotten himself in better shape and made himself helpful for the Bruins -- getting three goals and 12 assists in 21 game with Boston. In the playoffs, Brian has contributed one goals in each of the first two games plus he looked 21-year-old in driving the rebound goal to give the Bruins a 3-2 lead early in the third period of Game 3.

"But it wasn't a long learning curve, because this is a defense-first type of team," Rolston reasoned. "After playing for Jacques Lemaire ... Claude Julien has a little different approach, of course, but overall it’s the same school."

Rolston has seen a lot in his hockey career, including an NCAA championship with Lake Superior State in 1992, where he scored the winning goal against Wisconsin. He nearly helped Lake State to another title one year later, only to lose to Maine in the final. In the first of his nearly 12 NHL seasons, Rolston showed he is a winner again when the Devils beat Detroit for the Stanley Cup in 1995. He was a first-round pick by New Jersey in the 1991 Entry Draft and has displayed the five tools all hockey players seek -- speed, strength, intelligence, lots of skills and a presence on the ice.

Inside the intelligence category comes all of the intangibles hockey scouts most want in a player -- character, hockey sense, common sense and an ability to explain a player’s feelings when they are at the top of their game.

"You don’t get this far without thinking about team," the Flint, Michigan, native, said. "This isn't tennis or golf, where you're in the spotlight on your own. It's a team game and thinking about anything else is selfish."

St. Louis Blues President John Davidson looks at Rolston on the ice and just smiles. Davidson was working as a color analyst for the New York Rangers and most of the top national TV broadcasts in the United States and Canada back in those days. He remembers marveling at the skills and many thought-provoking conversations with Rolston through the years.

"You see a player and person grow, which I think is what is so great about our sport. Everything is out there in the open, if you care to check it out," Davidson said. "I remember thinking about all of Brian's skills and how he could be oh-so-much-better.

"And then, after he got traded from Colorado to Boston I saw it. Not right away. But the next season. I saw a commitment to the game that made me smile."

Most players who achieve in this game have to overcome some sort of obstacle at some point in their life to become hungrier that helps them take off. Being traded by New Jersey to Colorado in November 1999 and then being dealt again from Colorado to Boston in March 2000 was that obstacle for Brian.

"I struggled with it a lot," Rolston recalled. "Life. Hockey. Where I was headed."

But ...

"That summer Brian made a commitment to quitting junk food, eating right, getting his body and mind right -- and it showed on the ice," Davidson said. "There's such a fine line in making such a commitment and just playing the game and playing at an elite level. And that's where that commitment took Brian."

Rolston had a then-career-high of 31 goals and 62 points in his second full season with the Bruins in 2001-02 and helped the United States to a silver medal at the Olympics in Salt Lake City, the second of three trips to the Olympics for Ron and Joyce’s boy. He followed that with 27 and 19 goals with Boston and had seasons of 34, 31 and 31 goals with Minnesota through 2007-08.

You know how we’ve talked about his magical hands and skills on the ice? Well, Brian used those hands a little differently in his first year with the Wild.

"I built a 20-by-40 foot rink in the backyard," he said. "I remember I was feeling pretty good about myself when I was putting up the boards and painting the ice.

"Then, I'm out there one night, it's freezing cold, and I'm painting the red line. It was about then that Ryder, who was 3 at the time, said; 'But dad, where's the dots. The faceoff dots.' I'm caught off-guard. I felt like saying; 'Hey, I gave you a red line. What more do you want?' "

Red line or not, Rolston connects the dots for the Bruins.

Seems like it's been forever, instead of just four years ago. He is thriving rather than just picking up a paycheck since joining the Bruins -- his second time in Boston.

"This team is a completely different situation of where this organization is," Rolston said. "Obviously with the success they had last year and what they expect out of their team. It's a different animal than when I was here last time.

"Depth is huge in the playoffs. Guys get hurt. Things happen. I think this was a depth move, as well, for them."

Brian Rolston. Older. Wiser. One thing we know for certain: he loves to listen, learn and talk about the game.