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.