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.

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