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."
"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.