Sunday, June 3, 2012

Doughty's Always Working at Being the Best

By Larry Wigge

He skated past the first forechecker, then went around another New Jersey player just outside the blue line. There were still two Devils players back ... but they couldn't stop multi-talented defenseman Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Doughty beat four of the New Jersey defenders, clearly a great individual effort. In the Cup finals, when the pressure is always on. To some young players, the pressure's always on ... and they like it that way to perform their best. On this occasion, he beat Marty Brodeur with a screened shot in the first period.

But ...

If anyone thinks his holdout for an eight-year, $56 million contract is too much for the 22-year-old Doughty, the time is right to doubt the doubters. That's ancient history.

Doughty himself was ticked off at himself for letting his holdout in training camp get to him.

"Missing camp obviously wasn't a good thing," the London, Ontario, native,
explained. "I wasn't happy I had to do that and I definitely wasn't myself. Throughout the year, I had to live up to expectations. I signed the biggest contract on the team. If you're doing that, you have to be the best player on the team.

“I think I definitely felt the pressure a little bit. The pressure got to me and I wasn't myself."

If there was a turnaround this season, it came not long after Darryl Sutter replaced Terry Murray. Sutter opted for subtle changes with a taste for some old-fashioned father-son advice. Recognizing Doughty's world-class talent, he helped the young superstar reinforce his defensive game while stressing that there was enough talent around him that there wouldn't be a need to win games on his own.

Thus ...

"The game began to slow down for me," Doughty continued. "I can see those seams open up, I can see plays developing before they happen.

"I just figured it out that I need to forget about it and just play the way I used to play, just kind of carefree, having found out there. Once I started to have fun out there, that's when I hit my stride."

Sutter has constantly revisited Doughty's goals.

"I think the expectations that are put on him, they're not real," said Sutter. "It's not like he's 30 year old and been in the league for 10 years. Because he's an offensive player and a high-paid player, there's a lot of pressure that comes with that. You take a little bit of that off by just minimizing what they have to do on the ice. 

"To get them to use their skill set, make sure he  was a better-prepared player on a game-to-game basis, practice to practice."

That said, Doughty, who was the second pick overall to Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, has already been on the gold-medal winning Canadian Olympic Team for 2010 and is now only two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup.

He already has three goals and nine assists in 16 playoff games.

"I've never seen him play poorly, I think that's part of the problem," Sutter said. "So many high-end, top players, they're sort of thrown into the spotlight instead of actually learning how to handle it."

Paul and Connie Doughty were proud parents. He was introduced to hockey when he was given a mini stick for his first birthday, was skating by the age of two and was playing before he was four.

Sensing GM Dean Lombardi's skepticism, Connie took Lombardi, and the rest of the Kings' management team who had traveled to their home, upstairs to Doughty's room and opened the doors to a scene straight out of a 1990s Kings catalogue.

Lombardi knew he had a keeper in Drew Doughty before he drafted him. There was a Kings pillowcase, a Kings phone, old jerseys of Wayne Gretzky and Kelly Hrudey pinned to a wall and a couple of Gretzky posters taped to another wall. These weren't items he had just purchased to impress the Kings' brass, these were dusty collectables Doughty had accumulated over the years.

"My mom hasn't changed my room since I was a little kid," Doughty said. "I haven't lived there since I was 15, so my mom never changed it, but I was a big Kings fan growing up because of Wayne Gretzky. He's my favorite player, and when I was really young he played for the Kings and that became my team."

Doughty made his own commitment prior to the draft. There were concerns about his weight. So Doughty shed 25 pounds and by the time the draft. He quickly lost his nickname of "Doughnuts." 

So as Lombardi sat with Doughty at the scouting combine three weeks before the draft in Ottawa, Lombardi played a game of fill-in-the-blank with Doughty:

"Wayne Gretzky was a ...?" he asked.

Doughty shot out one noun after another but none of them was the one Lombardi wanted to hear.

"Champion," Doughty said. "Playmaker. ... Role model. ..."

Finally, Doughty blurted it out: "Winner!"

That's all Lombardi wanted to hear. Doughty had passed the impromptu test.

Strange, but true, Doughty always wanted to play forward. He switched from forward to defense when I was 12, because the coach, Brad Ostrom, was a little short on d-men. They wanted me to play D in camp because they were a little short on defensem. The coach told him he could be a complete player: scorer, playmaker and defender, and eventually Doughty started to embrace the role.

"I think one of my best attributes is my vision," said Doughty, who was named after Drew Pearson, the former Dallas Cowboys receiver who was his mom's favorite player. "As a goalie in soccer you have to read situations and see where other players are and I think playing soccer for all those years did help me be a better defenseman. I've always been blessed with great vision. I don't know what it is, but it's probably the best thing about my game."

First Hockey Memory: "I remember I was really, really young. I loved the game of hockey, but I wasn't very good. I remember looking up at the clock -- I wasn't a good skater -- and looking up at the clock, kinda wanting to get off the ice. Just because I couldn't keep up with the other guys."

How old was he? "Probably three."

That anecdote, plus the one following, is true about all young players with aspirations to be great. They do whatever it takes to work and improve at their game.

"As a young kid, I just picked up a stick and was playing in the basement all the time," Doughty recalled. "And no one in my family had previously played. This was more than just watching hockey on TV."

Lombardi talks a lot about what Doughty's has that makes him so special. He follows the talk with different tests of his.

"What he's got, you can't teach," Lombardi says. "His poise level and the subtleties, I mean, you ask me what it feels like to have him on our team, No. 1, it's comforting, and No. 2, we feel pretty lucky to watch him every night. These guys don't grow on trees."

Furthermore, Lombardi remembers talking to him at the draft. 

"You want to be a King, well, they haven't won in 40 years. We'll take you with this pick, but some day, you'll be responsible for winning," Lombardi told the 18-year-old. "The great ones all take that challenge in all sports. The great players are truly, truly judged by wins and losses. There truly aren't that many great athletes that play the game with only that in mind, and I think he's that type of kid. You see it during times in a game when he recognizes that he has to take matters in his own hands."

If you think it takes more than just talking and comparing these youngsters to Ray Bourque, Larry Robinson, Denis Potvin, Bobby Orr and Nicklas Lidstrom it does.

If you think, working with Darryl Sutter can be taxing and hard to get approval from, try assistant coach John Stevens. 

"When he first came in, we'd kind of butt heads all the time," Doughty says. "We kind of didn't agree on plays."

"I was just trying to get him really focused in on the details, the preparation and the practice habits and all that stuff that I knew could make him an even better player," Stevens recalled. "On top of that, Drew might be one of the most gifted, talented players ever, and I was probably one of the least gifted, talented players ever, so we have two different personalities.

"I was really trying to get a marriage of his really great, God-given talent and his commitment to focus on details and fundamentals. To his credit, he has done that."

"I think the No. 1 thing was my practice habits. I'd go into practice just going through the motions, just kind of doing what I had to do to perform well in practice, I guess you could say," Doughty says. "He kind of made me realize that you're not going to get anywhere, you're not going to get any better, just going through the motions. You have to work on your shot. You have to work on making sure every pass is tape-to-tape and you've almost got to focus in practice like you do in a game, and I'm a lot better at that.

"I'm feeling great on the ice. I'm jumping in the play more than I ever have in my career and I'm able to do that pretty easily. I'm not getting tired. I can play those big minutes and be able to do that every shift. A lot of that has to do with really pushing myself in practice."

Hockey has always been fun to Drew Doughty. Just as during the holdout, there is always a lesson to be learned in the business. Simply put, you have to work at getting better. 

Talk about the evolution of a great young hockey player ... and it always takes hard work.

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