By Larry Wigge
It's a little unusual to see fans wearing the jersey of a visiting player who had only scored eight goals in his only NHL season. But with Milan Lucic ... well, anything's possible.
On a late October swing through Western Canada, there were more and more Boston No. 17 jerseys in the crowd at Edmonton, Vancouver and then Calgary. And there was an occasional LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU raining down from the crowds.
"I was a little nervous in each city. My legs felt like they were in quicksand at home in Vancouver. But when I'd look up in the stands and see the odd No. 17 and hear some of the fans cheer for me," Lucic's smile widened after each game as he paused to gather his emotions. "Well, it caught me by surpise. But it also made me feel at home."
But that was back in Lucic's rookie season. The 24-year-old, now finishing out his fifth in the NHL, had 26 goals and 35 assists going into the final weekend of the season, including six points (two goals and four assists) in his last six games. Last season, Milan topped out at 30 goals and the Boston Bruins beat his hometown Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup.
Lucic isn't the most fluid skater. Neither is he the most naturally talented athlete on the ice. But ...
There are two goals to Lucic's season -- 20 goals and 100 penalty minutes. The Vancouver native has no plans to abandon the physical side of his game.
"That's a part of my game and you know it's something I've worked hard at in creating my space since I was a rookie," Lucic explained. "It's been there, definitely this year, and I need to keep that physical side to it because I don't think I get the one thing without the other. So I've just got to focus on being physical and doing those types of things."
Said Bruins coach Claude Julien, "I guess, as you mature in this league and you become, more of a wily veteran, you understand that all of those parts of your game are important. What I like about him, a couple things. His skating is No. 1, and then he's physical. He's finishing his checks, he's punishing people. And what that does is it keeps other teams on their heels. But it also keeps him at the top of his game. When he's physically involved and he's skating, that's when he's at his best. I think he's figured out those two things go hand in hand and he's been giving us that for quite a while now."
That personality is what has helped Milan Lucic grow to kind of a cult figure in Western Canada ... and New England.
"I think he's already becoming an icon in Boston," Bruins G.M. Peter Chiarelli said with a smile.
"He's so big in Boston that people are beginning to talk about his hits and hits fights and his goals as they did power forwards like Cam Neely and Terry O'Reilly," Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara said.
The 6-3, 228-pound battling LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCIC gained fame in his junior days with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League with his punchouts, hits and 30 goals and 38 assists in helping the Giants win junior hockey's Memorial Cup championship in 2007 -- less than a year after the Bruins spotted his talent and selected him in the second round, 50th pick overall, of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
It's the personality and workmanlike attitude that endears Lucic to everyone he meets. Milan's dad, Dobro, is a longshoreman in Vancouver who immigrated to North America from his native Serbia when he was 27. His mom, Snezana, came to Vancouver when her parents moved from Serbia when she was just two.
"My dad was a soccer guy, but he saw that hockey was a big sport in Canada so he said it was OK for me to play. Besides ... "
Lucic chuckled to himself before completing his thought, "My uncle played in the NHL. So, if it was good for Dan, it was good for my dad."
The Dan in question is former journeyman defenseman Dan Kesa, who played a total of 139 games with Vancouver, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
In one brief question and answer session, Lucic answered my break-the-ice questions. Hockey genes, workmanlike parents to drive a prospective young hockey player. But he didn't answer the one about the obstacle he had to overcome to make it to the NHL.
"I've never been what you'd call a natural," Lucic laughed. "I'll never forget being passed over in the bantam draft. And then, I was cut by the Coquitlam Jr. B team five years ago."
When the Vancouver Giants saw him playing pickup hockey in a Vancouver rink, they put him on their protected list and sent him back to Coquitlam, where he worked on his skating and shooting and, well, everything.
"Is that it?" I wondered, hoping for something more.
He said, "Have you seen me skate? Well, I don't exactly have the best form. That ..."
Here's where the rise from a real obstacle comes in. "When I was 15, my mom noticed I couldn't straighten up. My back, it was crooked. Doctors did some tests and told me I had something called Scheuermann's disease. They tell me it's a condition that, while painless, causes the upper back to curve."
Milan's bubbly personality is what this story is all about. He's a natural, even if he doesn't think so. A natural in the way he treats people.
Like the two children who was injured in Boston after the glass shattered on Lucic's check of Toronto's Mike Van Ryn earlier in his rookie season. What you might not know is that he visited them later that night and gave them jerseys, hats and T-shirts. He never forgets to do the right thing, even if he's got that tough guy persona on the ice. There are countless other stories like that that go back to Milan's junior days.
The bottom line here is that Milan Lucic stays the same off the ice while he improves every step of the way on the ice.
"When he came to our training camp last year, we could see he had a good future ahead of him, but we didn't think he was ready for the NHL," Julien recalled. "But he forced us to keep him with his competitive nature. By the end of the season anybody that watched up could see he was one of our best players in the playoffs."
I said no more about Lucic's big nose, but at one point last season Julien couldn't find anyone to room with the rookie after his broke his nose because ...
"Two games in the league and I already had my own room ... because of my snoring," Milan laughed loudly. "Some of the guys said they could hear me snoring outside the hotel"
Off the ice, it's not surprising that Lucic likes the water, being from Vancouver. He likes boating and wakeboarding.
The Vancouver connection was perfect ... just as perfect as Boston was when Lucic heard his name at the draft in Vancouver in June of 2006.
"I knew all about the Big, Bad Bruins reputation. Stanley Cups. Hard hitters. Fighters. Guys who could beat the crap out of people," he said with a big smile. "That sounds a little like me, don't you think?"
A quizzical look replaced the smile before Milan added, "But it's not like I have hands of stone. When I'm around the net, I think I have the ability to finish off a scoring chance. I've just got to show people."
"He's a natural born leader," Calgary Flames coach Brent Sutter said of Lucic, whom he named captain of Canada's Junior team against Russia in the Super Series of 2006. "When you think about where he was at six years ago to where he is now, it's pretty amazing. It's strictly because of his determination and his heart."
That determination, that personality, that competitive nature, all the sign of a Big Bad Bruin.
If you've seen the attention Milan Lucic gets in Boston for being himself, well, you know why.