Saturday, July 20, 2013

The wonderful world of Miikka Kiprusoff ... since 2003

By Larry Wigge

He was considered a Mystery Man.

Miikka Kiprusoff mask on or off was a contradiction in terms. He was a loner. Kept to himself. But ... he was a good interview if you took the time to listen and learn.

There's no masking the obvious, goaltending is never more important than in the playoffs, when every shift, every shot and every save is magnified 10,000 times. The recipe for playoff success is hard work, timely scoring, good defense, a few lucky bounces, shrewd coaching and great goaltending. Goaltending is the most important ingredient, because shaky goaltending can make a good team mediocre and great goaltending can transform a mediocre team into a champion.

For better than a decade, it was either Marty Brodeur or ...

Some would say Roberto Luongo or Ryan Miller or J.S Giguere or Marc-Andre Fleury, but they'd be wrong. Kiprusoff was, in fact, perhaps the most dominant goaltender of his time with his butterfly style and Gumby-like low-to-the-ice style of play.

He's a workhorse, leaned on as much as humanly possible by a fair-to-middling team. Miikka Kiprusoff made the Calgary Flames. They did not make him.

Miikka  played in 70 or more game in seven straight season with Calgary, showing his consistency and durabilty. There were individual awards, which Kiprusoff won: He was the Vezina Trophy winner in 2006, the William Jennings Trophy winner the same year, posting a near-record 10 shutouts. For a period beginning in 2005-06, he won 42, 40, 39 and 45 games. And, Miikka led the Flames on a fantastic run in 2003-04 that took Calgary to the Stanley Cup finals. After posting a brilliant league-leading 1.69 goals-against average -- he was one victory away from eliminating Tampa Bay in Game 7.

Little was known about the Turku, Finland, native, before he arrived in Calgary from San Jose for a second-round draft choice. After all, he had been himself a fifth-round draft choice, 116th overall, by the Sharks in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft.

Darryl Sutter, who had him as a backup when he coached the Sharks, pulled off what you might call the steal of the decade in acquiring Kiprusoff.

"I've never seen a goalie so calm and relaxed and confident -- a confidence that has carried over to the rest of the team," said the fiercely competitive Sutter.

And without his MVP-like performance the Flames likely would have missed the playoffs for the EIGHTH consecutive season. 

Who would have thought that his 7-9-2-2 start for Kiprusoff last season while Evgeny Nabokov was holding out? That didn't stop Sutter from grabbing him and proving San Jose they were wrong about him.

"I was there," Sutter told me. "You could have had God playing in goal those first 20 games, and it wouldn't have mattered."

A determined Sutter, who was fired by the Sharks in 2002-03, made that same dramatic statement a couple of times ... for emphasis, I guess.

Emphasis? Miikka Kiprusoff was the Calgary Flames for nine seasons. No one quite did it like Kipper.

"With some goalies you get a lot of baggage -- you know, quirky, superstitious, crazy," long-time Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. "With Miikka, we hardly know he's around most of the time. But on the ice, he can change the momentum of a game in a blink with one of his saves. Some of the saves he's made can, well, be contagious -- and we all get caught up in the momentum.

In this his epitaph story, the 36-year-old Kiprusoff -- "If Calgary has not announced it, you guys can do that," Kiprusoff is quoted as saying on June 25.

Thus, no Miikka Kiprusoff story is not complete without his acquisition from San Jose. That was so delicious. 

Kiprusoff was No. 3 on the Sharks depth chart behind Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, just wasting his time rattling around in that San Jose hotel room on that November 16, 2003 morning. If Sharks GM Doug Wilson risked trying to send Kiprusoff through waivers to send him to the minors, he surely would have lost him ... for nothing.

"I remember I was sitting there in my room, looking to see what movie I might watch, when the phone rang. For me, hockey had become monotonous. Practice, practice and more practice. No games. ... For what, five or six weeks ... " 

Kiprusoff told me after beating the Blues in St. Louis, 4-2, the other night,  his voice trailing off signifying the obvious frustration he was feeling on that Sunday morning in November.

"When I heard Doug Wilson’s voice on the phone, I got a little excited. I knew the Sharks had a decision to make with three goalies on the roster.

"When Doug said, 'Go to the rink, get your gear and head to the airport. You'll be in Calgary in about three hours.' Well, I ... uh ... well ... a million things were running through my head. But the best was that someone wanted me ... Darryl Sutter (his old coach with the Sharks) wanted me. I had a lot of people I wanted to call. But I didn't have time. I had to go."

That was the story that lived with him until he retired a Calgary Flame.

"I grew up watching hockey, watching my dad play goal," Kiprusoff says of his dad Jarmo's sputtering netminding career in Turku, Finland. "I remember always sitting in the stands watching hockey back then. I'd watch my dad and kind of rock to my left or right to make the same kind of save he was making on the ice -- and my wanting to become a goaltender kind of started there.

"In Finland, we had a lot of goalies. Hannu Kampurri and Jarmo Myllis made it to North America to play. But there were others who played for our country and stayed around to teach, sort of like the way Patrick Roy and his goalie coach (Francois Allaire) did with ALL of those young kids in Quebec. It seemed like goalies in Finland got special treatment. There would be a goalie coach around to work with me two or three times a week.

"It wasn't always the same style, either (like the butterfly of Roy in Quebec.) One coach would teach you to stand up a lot. Another would teach the butterfly. I guess that's why my style isn't exactly one or the other."

What makes Kipper better in Calgary?

"Everyone around me here seems to have confidence in me," Kiprusoff says with a self-assured smile. "That's important. Real important. I don't think I am playing that much differently than I did in San Jose. It's just getting the chance to get back in there regularly."

Kiprusoff forgot about how much better he is on rebounds.

"There are a lot of goalies who can stop the first shot," former 50-goal man Iginla says. "I remember getting a couple rebound goals on Kipper when he was in San Jose. But now, he stones me in practice all the time."

"His biggest asset is he stops lots of pucks. That's why he has a calming effect on players in front of him," said Sutter. 

Calm as a cucumber?

"Everyone says I'm calm. I guess I am. That's me," he said. "Everyone should be how they are most comfortable." 
He still remembers the razzes his dad heard from the crowd. 

"I also remember hearing fans around me, how you say ... yeah, razz, my dad after he let in a bad goal."

I remember asking Kiprusoff about obstacles he had to face in his career. He recalled one in particular. A goaltender coach he was at odds with.

Kipper recalled, "I remember the goalie coach we had on the Finnish national team telling me that I go down too much in the butterfly and I'll never make it as a goalie at a high level because of that."

The smile and calm and quiet approach of Kiprusoff shows that while he's an emotional man inside, he never lets the outside temperature and pressures let him boil over.

Miikka Kiprusoff has clearly been the face of the Flames franchise for the last nine seasons. He never brought Calgary a Stanley Cup ... but he came close.

Said coach Bob Hartley, "Looking at Kipper, what he's done in the past years for this organization, he's been a face of this organization and a very important part of this organization."

Next to Marty Broduer, Miikka Kiprusoff had been the most dominating goaltender in NHL history from 2003 on.

Enjoy you retirement. You deserve it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thanks for the memores Ilya Kovalchuk

By Larry Wigge

There are difficult stories we all have to tell you. But ...

This one, about Ilya Kovalchuk is a give-him-a-pat-on-the-back thank you story for all he has done for us.

All the times he has pulled us out of our seats with an exciting play or more than that in Kovalchuk a goal he he scored.

On Thursday afternoon, Kovalchuk shocked us all by announcing he retirement after 11 glorious seasons in the NHL. Kovalchuk had 12 years and $77 million remaining on the 15-year, $100 million contract he signed with New Jersey in September 2010, which was a re-working of the 17-year, $102 million deal he agreed to months earlier that had been voided by the NHL for circumvention of the salary cap.

You remember Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax and Ken Dryden -- all of whom retired at 30 or below. At 30, Kovalchuk stated a desire to return home to Russia.

Ilya, always the sniper, had 417 goals and 399 assists for 816 points in 816 games. After being taken by the Atlanta Thrashers with the first pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, Kovalchuk had 29 goals as a rookie in 2001-02. He scored at least 30 goals in each of the next nine seasons, including six in a row with at least 40 from 2002-03 to 2009-10.

He won the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2003-04 with 41 goals and scored a career-best 52 in 2005-06, when he also totaled a career-best 98 points.

"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia," Kovalchuk said. "Though I decided to return this past season, Lou Lamoriello was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.

"The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me."

The Tyer, Russia, native, left the NHL on a high -- scoring 37 goals and 46 assists in 77 games in 2011-12 on a Devils team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals but lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. His eight goals in the playoffs lead all scorers. 

I remember Kovalchuk telling me about how his father Valery had taught him the value of being fit ... but also being the best.

"Are you shooting the puck like I taught you?" said dear old dad.

Valery heard a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. "Your not talking ..."

The conversations were many over the years -- usually by phone from someplace in North America to Tyer in the Ukraine. Between Ilya and Valery Kovalchuk. They began in earning when the youngster was only 3 and he had been on dad's shoulder as they went to the gym. The two would do simple stretching exercises and coordination drills. But Valeri also taught his son the value of a positive mental approach in sports.

"My father never pushed me into one sport. He let me play basketball, soccer and street hockey," Kovalchuk said with a smile while recalling his younger days. "But I'll never forget one day, when I was 5, he got this big smile on his face when I was playing street hockey with my friends. I think he saw that I was pretty good. The next day ... he bought me a pair of skates."

Valery Kovalchuk also showed his son the right way to train and develop as a hockey player.

"The first thing he taught me was how important it was to shoot the puck accurately," Kovalchuk recalled, adding that his dad put up four targets on the side of their house -- one at each corner of what would be a makeshift net. "I would practice for hours and hours. It was always wrist shots and snap shots. No slap shots, because sticks were too expensive ... and I was afraid if I broke one we wouldn't be able to buy new ones.

"I remember my dad coaching me back then. He told me, 'It's better to miss the net than hit the goalie.' He was right. Maybe that's why I can pick the corners so well now."

Kovalchuk's draft stock started rising when he had 11 goals and four assists in six games during the World Under-18 Championship in Finland in 2001. Ilya was selected first overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by Atlanta.

Atlanta GM Don Waddell wasn't the only one who considered Kovalchuk head and shoulders above the rest in that draft. He had to get Kovalchuk away from the interpreter, who was always around. Waddell whisked Kovalchuk in a cab while the interpreter was preoccupied. 

Waddell wanted to know just how English he could comprehend on his own. The trick satisfied the Thrashers to make him their pick in 2001.

Waddell wasn't the only one to like Kovalchuk over Jason Spezza, who had gone into the draft as the favorite to the No. 1.

"All I know is that when you watch him play, there's a buzz in the stands when he's on the ice, when he's got the puck, when he goes around an opponent," former Winnipeg and Chicago GM Mike Smith told me. "It's like when Pavel Bure and Teemu Selanne broke into the NHL. All the eyes were on them, expecting something special to happen. And it usually did.

"The biggest difference in this kind of player is that very few players can score the goals they score or make the plays or moves they make."

A different perspective on Kovalchuk from former Atlanta coach John Anderson.

"I equate it to him playing on a three-level chess board and we're playing checkers," Anderson said. "He thinks the game differently. If you watch Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, they were kind of all over the place too, but they'd show up when the puck was there."

The difference between chess and checker is that the chess board is the game is quick and more mind-boggling -- mind-numbing because Kovalchuk began his career as a shooter and playmaker with youngster Dany Heatley.

The two talk still talk on the phone every couple of weeks. But the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal would bring back these Gold Dust Twins again.

"I could use a few good passes," Kovalchuk said with a laugh. "What made us so good together was he's such a good passer and I ... I just love to shoot."

"Hey, I love to shoot, too," chided Heatley, when told what Kovalchuk said. "As players, we fed off each other's game. Chemistry is a funny thing. Once we stepped on the ice, we clicked. A big part of that I'm sure is that we both think the game on the edge, looking to be creative, looking to be making a play while on the move."

And that kind of hockey communications needs no language, sometimes just a nod or a gesture.

Kovalchuk and Heatley were matching bookends who played their off wings, They didn't have much of a common vocabulary together, but ...

"There were no Russians on our team, so it was a little awkward for me at first because I didn't understand English at all," Kovalchuk remembered. "We were roommates and Dany was always trying to teach me new words. He cared. He'd work with me on words in our room, when we'd order food at a restaurant, watched TV, he'd point out things we saw out the window on the bus -- and I remember him buying me a book on the ABC's.

"Some of the teammates teased me, but not Dany. He knew how important it was to communicate in this game on and off the ice."

Proving that some thing's still get lost in translation so to speak, Heatley said, "Don't blame me for that one. Some of the guys were passing a children's book display and THEY bought the book for him."

The truth about the ABC's in hockey are that Ilya Kovalchuk can do oh so many things. He can shoot and score and he is definitely an 'A' player.

Thanks Ilya Kovalchuk for taking us through the ABC of scoring in you 11 short years in the NHL. We wish you the best.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

An important date in the life of Brendan Shanahan -- Hall of Famer

Larry Wigge

It was one day in the gloriously successful career of one Brendan Shanahan.

In 21 years spent New Jersey, St. Louis, Hartford, Detroit and the New York Rangers, the power forward's credential were impeccable. He won three Stanley Cups with Detroit in 1997, 1998 and 2002. He scored 656 goals, 698 assists in 1,524 games. Brendan is the only player in NHL history to combine for more than 600 goals and accumulate 2,000 penalty minutes -- showing his power in the game. He played in eight All-Star Games. He scored 40 or more goals six times in his career, including years of 51 and 52 for the St. Louis Blues.  

He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame last Tuesday.

I'll never forget how he chronicled one day for me ...

It was just supposed to be a warm and friendly visit between father and son. But it became so much more for Brendan Shanahan, his father and a third friend ...

The scene was set on a warm and humid Saturday afternoon in early August 1997 in Toronto. The sky is cloudy. Weathermen are talking about the possibility of thunderstorms. But for Shanahan, it is the most peaceful time he has spent in months.

The fun-loving Red Wings left winger helped Detroit get the first Stanley Cup since 1955 -- Detroit sweeping Philadelphia in four straight on June 7.

Each player gets to spend time with the Cup -- and the loquacious Shanahan celebrates the championship with friends and acquaintances, raising it above his head in front of hundreds of people. But ...

That's just window dressing. Shanahan saves a special time for himself, the Cup and his father, Donal, who died of Alzheimer's disease in 1990. After arriving at his father's grave August 9, Shanahan chokes on his words, he's so overcome with emotion:

"Dad, look what I've got."

"For a Saturday afternoon, the place was totally empty," Shanahan explained. "I stayed for about an hour. It was just me, my dad and Stanley."

For anyone who never thought of this 6-foot-3, 218-pound power forward as anything but a raw-boned macho player who makes his living dishing out checks and scoring goals, the passion that comes through is the side of Shanahan we don't often see.

The free spirit that we have come to know in his days with the Devils, Blues, Whalers and Red Wings is speaking from the heart. And it's this passion to the game, to life, that is one of the biggest reasons the Red Wings are trying to win their second Stanley Cup in the two years Shanahan has been with the team. He is more than just a 50-goal scorer; he's the reason the team's chemistry changed from playoff flop to playoff winner.

Overcoming adversity at home helps build character -- and that's part of what makes Shanahan a special player.

"It's tough going away to play hockey at 18," Shanahan said, misty-eyed, "knowing that when you come home your father might not remember anything you just said to him."

Brendan and Donal Shanahan surely never will forget that Saturday afternoon in Toronto.

The sensitive side of the players often gets shoved aside like a poorly executed hip check. But it's clear that every drop of blood leading up to the Stanley Cup finals is real. And acquiring players with passionate leadership is more than just lip service.

Trading a popular player such as center Keith Primeau, an icon such as defenseman Paul Coffey and a first-round draft choice in 1997 for Shanahan wasn't met with overwhelming support from Red Wings fans in October 1996. But the players knew they had just added their best chance to change their losing playoff image.

"The moment Brendan walked into our locker room, Marty Lapointe and I approached him with about a million questions about how we could be power forwards like him," right winger Darren McCarty said, laughing. "Up to that point it was just pick a fight once in a while to protect a teammate or go to the net and try to cause havoc, hoping that a shot might go in."

The questions were as simple as what kind of stick he uses, or how he knows when to jump into a hole for a scoring chance, or what is the key thing you look for in one-timing a shot like he and Brett Hull do so well.

"Brendan could have told us to take a flying leap, but he didn't," Lapointe says. "He calmly put up with every question. And he did it in a way that made us all feel more at ease."

In 1996, when the Red Wings were rolling to an NHL-record 62 wins, I said the team would not win the Stanley Cup because the environment in the locker room was nothing like the other championship teams I've covered. It was true, although no one wanted to admit it. Players were cocky and didn't really know the price they had to pay to win in the playoffs.

All of that changed when Shanahan came on board.

"You can see the Shanahan influence, the confidence, in the way McCarty, Lapointe, Kirk Maltby and some of the others are playing," Avalanche left winger Claude Lemieux said. "It's a complete turnaround for that team from the last couple of years."

You don't have to be a power forward to be passionate about the game. It's just that banging wingers who play on the edge, creating havoc in front of the net, catch our eye.

Go back to gritty power forwards Clark Gillies and Bob Nystrom of the Islanders during their Cup run (1980-83) and Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Esa Tikkanen, who put the fire into Edmonton's attack and helped the Oilers win five Cups in seven years from 1984 to '90.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Phoenix has another Domi ... with skill and talent

By Larry Wigge

It's safe to say that Max Domi plans to use his hands for good ... not evil.

No offense to his father Tie Domi, he is the complete opposite. Domi spent 17 seasons in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets.

No one ever questioned Domi's toughness or his ability to fight. Short in stature but not on guts, determination and flare, Tie's third all-time in NHL history with 3,515 penalty minutes, including a club-record 2,265 in 11 seasons with the Maple Leafs.

Max perks up and defends the notion that his father was not talented.

"I’ve never seen anyone with as much heart and work ethic as my dad had in the NHL," Max said. "He played 17 years in the NHL so he was doing something right, and he's probably one of the hardest workers I've ever met.

"He did whatever it took to win. I kind of take bits and pieces of what he did in his career ... and implement them into mine, hoping for the best. One thing I know, if I ever had a question for him he was there to give me an answer."

Now to the son.

Max Domi uses his hands to score or set up goals rather than administer justice. His offensive creativity convinced the Phoenix Coyotes to take the 18-year-old from Toronto native 12th overall in 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

"It was a dream come true," said Max. "It feels unbelievable. It's hard to put it into words.

"We're kind of opposites. But we wrestle quite a bit. I like to give him a go every so often. But ... he didn't really want me fighting."

The Toronto, native, has excellent hockey sense and is able to find openings in the offensive zone to unleash a quick and accurate wrist shot. His release is top notch and often fools opposing goaltenders. Domi drives the net and has great hands in tight allowing him to score goals in a number of ways.  

Domi also has has great anticipation and a great first step, which sees him pounce on a ton of loose pucks around the net. He is extremely dangerous with the puck and can beat defenders one on one. He also has excellent vision and passing ability which he uses to create openings for his teammates.

Domi is an elite skater who uses his shiftiness and changes of pace to confuse and beat defenders. He has a great first step and top notch acceleration. His edgework and agility is extremely good ... and Max maintains a low center of gravity at 5-9 and 195 pounds, which makes him very difficult to knock off the puck, despite his small size. He has a very strong, very powerful lower body.

The biggest obstacle for Domi is coping with Type 1 diabetes in an attempt to play the sport he loves. He wears an insulin pump attached to his hip during games and team doctors and GM Mark Hunter have helped monitor his blood glucose levels on the bench.

During intermission, Domi usually is gulping down sandwiches or drinking Gatorade in an attempt to maintain a proper glucose count.

"Five years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes," Domi said of his son. "When the doctor told him, the first thing Max said was 'Will I be able to play hockey?'

"The doctor looked at Max and said, 'Play hockey?' To which Max responded, 'Do you know Bobby Clarke had diabetes. He was one of the toughest players ever.' "

Know you know how tough it is to tell Max Domi he can't do this or that. Wearing the pump, helps Domi withstand his obstacle.

"It's not the easiest thing to handle, but as you go on with it and gain experience, it gets easier," Domi explains. "You just have to embrace it and kind of take it head-on. You can't look at it as adversity. It's something you can't change.

"It makes you more responsible and I have to take care of my body a lot more. For me, it's for the better ... and it helps me out a lot."

For Max Domi, growing up, he's had plenty of friends. But he's watched several of those players ... and learned a lot.

"A guy like Zach Parise or Martin St. Louis," he said. "They're not the biggest guys, but they can skate and make plays and put the puck in the back of the net."

And, of course, there bloodlines. DNA. All familiar ways to determine or predict ... which hockey players you might take a harder look at the annual NHL Draft. There's something to be said for growing up in a hockey environment -- in the dressing room of an NHL team and having the bloodlines of a famous father to help with the right words.

Or introduce you to Mats Sundin. Mario Lemieux or some other star who can give the kid incite to what it takes to be a good NHL.

With the London Knights, Max played and recorded 39 goals and 48 assists in 64 games.

Still, Leanne Domi, Max's mother, laid down the law to Tie.

"You let him grow," Leanne said. "You don't help him make the easy choices, you help him make the right choices.

"We wanted him to go to school. What parent doesn't? At the end of the day, it's Max's choice."

So Tie Domi sits in the least conspicuous spot he can find at the John Labatt Center.

"Have you seen me do any interviews this week?" Domi said. "This is really about him. It's his time."

As a young man, Max learned what it was like to be in a successful atmosphere.

"After every all-star game appearance Mats gave Max his helmet," Tie Domi said. "He has a shelf with those helmets. Mario took him on the ice and in the dressing room when they won the Stanley Cup and when Canada won the World Cup. You learn what it takes to be successful."

"He was pretty pumped," Max said of his father's reaction to going in the first round. "He's an emotional guy, obviously. He's very happy. He had a long, successful career in the NHL and he wants nothing less for me."

He calls his father his No. 1 fan.

"He's a big reason for me being what I am today. On and off the ice, he's a first-class guy. He didn't do the easiest job, but he found a way to do it. He was a great teammate every day ... I definitely take a lot of notes from him."

"We think he may be the most skilled player in our organization right now," Coyotes GM Don Maloney said. "He's a strong-bodied player. He's been playing in a terrific organization. We just think we got a very good young player ... and for a team that's searching for more offensive ability, he has it in spades."

That's quite a compliment for Domi. But ...

Domi's coach with the Knights, Dale Hunter -- also former Washington Capitals' coach -- described such skill in a recent interview.

"He has extensive offensive skills and his skating ability is -- and I hate to say it -- Sidney Crosby-esque," Hunter said. "You never want to compare a player to someone like that, but he has a very strong lower torso, so his center of gravity is amazing."

Hold up. Sidney Crosby? Really? It's certainly a lofty comparison, but if Domi's to have a pro to look up to, Crosby's not exactly a bad choice.

"Last summer I skated with Sid," Max said. "After only a couple of hours with Crosby you understand why he is the best in the world. He works extraordinarily hard.

"I was just like a sponge and soaked everything up and learned as much as I could."

Max Domi talking about what others can do to help him. Remember, he's already the most skilled player in the Coyotes organization.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nurse -- Look at the DNA to find an Edmonton prospect

By Larry Wigge

Darnell Nurse was relaxed, funny, and cordial, giving little hint that he is going to be a defenseman who will soon create havoc in NHL arenas with his rugged style of play.

Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he is cool, calm and calculating. He also big, strong, tough, mean and physical.

And ...

As much as any pick in the draft the fact that the Edmonton Oilers chose Nurse with the seventh pick overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft made so much sense. 

The kind of player he is, the kind of player he will be and the team he went to the Oilers with all those young offensive stars -- Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov they have drafted in recent years.

The Oilers want to play fast ... 

"I really believe that this guy's going to have an incredible impact on our team," Oilers GM Craig MacTavish said. "He really gives us an element that I feel we're sorely lacking. He's a guy that over time is going to provide us with the toughness. And he's the guy that will ride shotgun for a lot of our first overall picks, our skilled players, for a lot of years."

The 18-year-old from Hamilton, Ontario, is a prickly player who refuses to back down.

"I think I have a little bit of jam in my game," he said. "I've always had it. Like I said, it's better to give than receive. It creates a lot more room for yourself in the corners. Obviously with that said I'm going to get challenged based on the way I play, but I've never been scared to step up."

Nurse had 12 goals and 29 assists for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He also had six fights.

"I wish I could describe how excited I am, especially when you watch these guys on TV and see how gifted they are and how much of an impact they have," said Nurse. "For me this is a dream come true. I'm just going to work so that one day hopefully I have the opportunity to play alongside them."

But that's not the cool side of this selection. It a part genetic factor, a part bloodlines, a part DNA and pedigree.

These are all familiar ways to determine or predict ... which hockey players you might take a harder look at the annual NHL Draft. There's something to be said for growing up in a hockey environment -- in the dressing room of an NHL team and having the bloodlines of a famous father to help with the right words.

Defenseman Darnell Nurse also has impressive family ties -- from the gridiron and other athletic endeavors.

Richard Nurse, Darnell's father, played wide receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is his uncle by marriage. Cathy, his mom, played basketball at McMaster University and his sisters, Tamika and Kia, are both skilled on the court. His aunt, Raquel, was a star point guard at Syracuse.

Darnell says his parents told him -- no football. 

"That was more my Dad," Nurse explained. "My Mom, too."

He sees the toll football took on his father.

"His hands are mangled, he can't move some of his fingers and he's got an elbow that doesn't move right," Nurse continued. "I looked at that and though those are battle wounds. Something maybe one day I get to show my kid."

For Nurse, who is 6-4 and weighs 185 pounds, plays hard and fast. Most of his controlled mayhem is ... 

"Not at all," he said. "I think the biggest thing for them is I can probably control a little more hitting people in hockey than in football where you get hit every play. Put me on the back end and I get to control what happens."

The competitive nature of the Nurse family works miracles each and every day -- at the gym or in schoolwork.

"Being surrounded by people who have been through a lot of different experiences whether it's representing your country or playing in the pros, it's a really competitive household," Darnell Nurse explained. "Everyone's always pushing to get the best out of you whether it's on the ice, off the ice, in your schoolwork. It doesn't get much better than being around the people I have in my family. My dad pushes me a lot. My mom and my sisters, they give it to me if I don't win. It's a great household."

Who's the most competitive? "I've got to be the most. They can't want it as bad as me. I can't give them that."

The fact that the Oilers, the City of Champions with so many Stanley Cup champions to them -- five in fact, but none since 1990 and the Oilers haven't been to the playoffs since 2006.

Now, perhaps Nurse is the pick that puts them over the top.

"Unbelievable," said Nurse. "Organizations like this, when you're a kid, you grow up dreaming of being a part of. I wish I could describe how excited I am. You watch these guys on TV and see how gifted they are, how much of an impact they have, this is a dream come true."

Nurse grew up idolizing the likes of Scott Stevens and Jarome Iginla. So it comes as no surprise that he likes being a prickly opponent.

"One of the best part of my game is being someone who's hard to play against," he said. "I think the fights kind of come with just battles, and people trying to challenge me after I challenge them. Something I'm not afraid to do but at the same time it's not something I go out and look for."

There is a soft side to Nurse. He learned to play the guitar when he was in Grade 9 ... and shortly thereafter the piano followed. He likes any kind of music, yes, even classical music.

On his uncle, former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb ...

"He's someone who's been so influential in my life. He’s been there since I was real young," Nurse recalled. "As I've grown older and been placed into different situations and playing away from home, he's someone that I've talked to probably once or twice a week. No matter what the question is or no matter what I'm going through, he's always been available.

"If I can't get a hold of him at 10 o'clock in the morning, he'll call me back at 10:30. It's a relationship where we're always in touch and we always know what's going on in each other's lives. He's been someone that I've been real lucky to have."

On if he watched his uncle play as an Eagle.

"I used to come when I was younger once or twice a year," Nurse said. "I was able to get down and see him play and after the game in the locker room with some of his teammates. Those are experiences that you never forget and probably some of the most fond memories I have as a child."

On what McNabb has instilled in him.

"The biggest thing I've gotten advice on, not only from him but my parents and other people in my family, is the work that it takes," he admits. "It's easy to have talent. It's how hard that talent works that will make you successful. It's easy to sit back and say 'I'll just rely on my size or my ability to skate.' If you don't put in those extra hours of work, it will go to waste. That's the biggest thing, you have to come every day and give it all you have. If it's at the gym or on the ice, it's something you have to get better at on a daily basis."

Said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, "When you watch him play -- he's still a lot of elbows and knees, but he's a hard-nosed player. He can fight. He's pretty good with the puck, and he'll continue to get better."

Nurse figures that at his end goal of 210, 215 pounds, he'll have enough weight to throw around while being able to retain his quickness.

Nurse joked, "My Mom always has the fridge full, so it'll come."

He's always got a good bit of humor. Like when he took a shot at his uncle.

"He went higher than me, but I didn't get booed at my draft," Nurse said of his uncle Donavan being drafted second overall.

Said Nurse, "There's a lot of hard work ahead." 

Nurse said he hasn't been able to get McNabb onto the ice ... "Not quite -- anyway."

But McNabb has been there for Nurse.

"I've trained with him. He's a goal-oriented guy and he understands what's ahead of him," said McNabb. "What they're getting is a guy is someone who is ready to go ... and he's ready right now.

"It's about putting that extra time in. He wants to be the best out on the ice. Sidney Crosby and Alexandre Ovechkin -- they put in extra time. That's what makes them better ... and Darnell understands that." 

Where can you find Darnell Nurse the day after the draft?

"Back to work at the gym ... Hard work. That's what it takes."

Bloodlines. DNA. A genetical factor.

You don't have to look into Darnell Nurse's life to find a pedigree.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Seth Jones was No. 1 on the Nashville draft charts

By Larry Wigge

Every dad loves to watch his son's grow and live up to their father's legacy.

For Ronald "Popeye" Jones that would have been a career with a basketball in hand, while draining 20-foot jump shots like they were going out of style. But ...

Jones, a 6-foot-8 power forward, wowed nobody with mid-air theatrics or dazzling offensive moves in his basketball career, but made himself enough of a low-post presence to play for six NBA teams -- Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors, averaging 7.0 points and 7.4 boards.

So much for the legacy part of this story. 

While he was playing for the Nuggets, Jones introduced himself to Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche at the practice facility that both of the Denver professional team shared in 1999.

He told Sakic, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, that he had three young boys who wanted to play hockey and no clue how to help them.

Listening to Jones tell the next part is priceless.

"I don't think he knew who I was, but I knew who Joe was, and I stopped him and introduced myself," Popeye remembered. "He looked at me all the way up and into my eyes. He saw how big I was. He said, 'They've got to be huge. Make sure they knows how to skate.' "

Keeping up with the Joneses was going to be difficult after that conversation. The proud father enrolled Seth, Justin and Caleb in a figure-skating class. They then joined up for the Littleton and Lone Tree clubs for eight years.

So, you see, whether Sakic would like to admit it, he was responsible for defenseman Seth Jones meteoric career -- long before Jones became a top prospect and potential No. 1 overall pick by Joe's Avalanche.

The parents took him and his two brothers to nearby Beaver Creek for the Joneses first foray around the rink. The kid decided to try something new.

Those rental ice skates that Jones wore when he was 5 were perfect -- like big boy's golf clubs. He skated and skated. Even though, he looked like he needed help, he waved off his parents' attempt to get him to use one of those stabilizing walkers.

"You could see what a blast he was having, right from the start. He was pretty good on skates even then," Popeye recalls.

Eighteen months later, Seth Jones had another little epiphany, pounding on the glass behind the goal of Pepsi Arena, celebrating the Avalanche and their Game 7, Stanley Cup clinching victory over the New Jersey Devils, mesmerized by the speed and intensity and the virtuoso skills of the likes of Sakic, Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque and Peter Forsberg.

Hockey had stolen Seth's heart, no matter what line of work his dad was in.

Seth Jones said, "It just kind of took off from there."

After being drafted 42nd overall by the Houston Rockets, the Joneses went on their long-standing journey from city to city. Popeye, who never played for Houston, started his career with Dallas. It was in Plano, Texas, where Seth was born. Obviously, the younger Joneses had clearly found ice turns out to be much thicker than blood. 

Seth Jones explained: "I actually am pretty good at basketball, I have to admit. I have a nice two-way game ... and, one thing is certain, I know I can dunk."

Amy Jones, Seth's mother, revealed, "Seth loves playing basketball. When he gets home from the Combine, I guarantee you he and his brothers will be at the gym playing the next day. But he was adamant about not doing anything organized. It probably killed Popeye, because he saw the talent he had."

Seth Jones was surprised by how the draft went for him. He was not No. 1. Not No. 2. Not even No. 3. He was overlooked. Something he will long have a chip on his shoulder for being the No. 4 pick by the Nashville Predators.

"Oh for sure," said Jones. "I'll always have in the back of my mind: wanting to make those three teams regret not taking me."

David Poile, the GM of the Predators, couldn't have been happier that Jones fell to Nashville.

"I absolutely, 100 percent, 110 percent, said Seth was No. 1 on our list ... all year long," Poile explained. "I think he's the best player in the draft. Period ...

Trying to hold back the excitement of having Seth Jones with the fourth pick, caught Poile off-guard. But ...

"He's the whole package," Poile continued. "He has size, he has great skating, he has offensive abilities. I certainly think he's going to be an aggressive player. He can be a Norris Trophy winner ... and that's not to say the other guys couldn't be equally as good, but that's how I would have him -- as the best player in the draft.”

At 6-4, 208 pounds, Jones is a throwback. He matched Evander Kane of the Atlanta Thrasher (in 2009) being the highest-drafted black player in the 51-year history of the NHL draft.

Seth was a quick study, making his way through the youth ranks, standing out at every level, playing for the Midget Dallas Stars after the Joneses moved back to Texas in 2007. 

Jones acknowledged that the two sports did not have much in common, but said he learned from watching basketball players.

"The persons I watched closely were Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd," he said, recalling when his father was an assistant with the Mavericks. "You'd see Dirk back there behind the scenes taking jump shots before and after games, before and after practices. It just taught me to keep working hard when no ones's watching ... and the person you are behind the scenes is your true self."

Before long Jones was off to Ann Arbor at age 15, playing for USA Hockey’s U-17 and U-18 U.S. national teams. 

At Portland of the Western Hockey League, Jones topped out with 14 goals and 42 assists in 61 games. At the World Junior tournament in December and January, Seth played for the United States -- accounting for one goal and six assists in seven games.

It was there that Jones met Phil Housley, newly hired assistant coach of the Nashville Predators. Housley was a prototypical rushing defenseman in his stellar blue-line career. He had Jones on the U.S. junior team that won the world championship last winter, Jones leading all defensemen with six assists. Housley came away hugely impressed by his skating, shot, hockey instincts and ability to lead a rush, but he, too, was mostly taken by Jones' emotional steadiness.

"There's no panic level in his game," Housley says. "When he has the puck he's poised and calm. Just a great athlete and built for today's game. He's big, strong, physical, great defensively, has a good stick, makes an excellent first pass out of the zone and plays in all situations. He's the most well-rounded player.

"He will be physical at the right times to keep everyone honest. He will play in all situations and, at some point in his career, he could be the top defenseman in the league.

"I hate to put this on his lap, but I can see him becoming a Chris Pronger type."

In a nutshell, Seth has the rare combination of skill, size and power, which allows him to impact the game in multiple ways and in any situation. He is smart and can respond to the various challenges he is confronted with by understanding what his options are and then being able to carry them out. He is blessed with great athletic ability and he moves about the ice with ease and the ability to use his skating to his advantage either defensively or offensively.

And he enjoys ...

"I love the big stage and playing in the big games," he said. "You have to enjoy the position. I know a lot of people would enjoy being where I am, so I'm thankful for everything I have right now."

A couple of years ago, Popeye and Amy were divorced. With Popeye on the road so much his mother, Amy, steered her son down the right path from home.

"Mom taught me everything from how to be a young man, to a handshake, eye contact, all sorts of things," Seth said. "She just wanted me to be respectful."

Or as Amy Jones continued, "Whether you are a plumber or whatever you do, you always want to make sure you do the best job you can, because somebody else is always going to be ready to take your job."

Easy to say where his thoughtfulness comes from.

Some might say, that Seth Jones shows off his hockey/basketball build.

"I'm 6-4 and pretty lanky. I fit the basketball description visually," Jones said. "And I love the game. I play in the summer with my brothers but never had the drive to play organized basketball. I'm pretty good, believe it or not, but I never had the drive to play."

Seth had tried the other sports. Baseball. Football. Soccer. Basketball, too. None of them clicked. Hockey was different -- the pace it maintains, the focus it demands.

"A lot of my friends pushed me to play," Jones recalled. "They had started to play in elementary school. ... I liked the speed, the intensity. The game keeps you on your toes."

It's clear to say, Jones became infatuated.

"The intensity of the game -- it's nonstop," he continued. "You've always got to know what's going on -- the situation, the time of the game. From the moment you step onto the ice, there's no going back. You've got to be 100 percent mentally into the games."

Legacy ... or a genuine love for hockey.

Ask him what's his favorite team growing up? That's easy the Colorado Avalanche and their Stanley Cup in 2001. Ask him his favorite player? Nick Lidstrom of Detroit.

Seth Jones remembered back to his father meeting Joe Sakic. He revealed all the travel his father made during his days as a player and afterward as a scout and team executive ... in basketball.

He laughed at the uniqueness of his story ...

"I'd be shocked myself if I heard a story like that," Jones said, when asked if people are surprised by the combination of a basketball father and a hockey son. "Me and my two brothers all play hockey, so it was weird, I guess, that none of us played basketball."

Weird. Yes. But a good story nonetheless.

Colorado tabs MacKinnon. Explosive. Wants to be a difference-maker

By Larry Wigge

The first time Nathan MacKinnon met Sidney Crosby, they sort of crossed paths at the airport. Like an accidental meeting that could have been one of the most interesting rendezvous' in hockey history. 

Crosby was coming back from the Shattuck-St. Mary's high school in Faribault, Minnesota, where, at 15, he was already being talked about at the Next One. MacKinnon, who was seven or right, was going to Florida with his family.  

From that special meeting, MacKinnon still carries the photo of Crosby, himself, and Sarah, Nathan's sister, in his wallet.

The comparisons between the two centers from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, have been aplenty. MacKinnon was raised minutes away from the home where Crosby grew up. Both have unabashed talents and skills, worthy of the No. 1 pick in the NHL Entry Draft.

The 6-foot, 182-pound MacKinnon quips, "Cole Harbour had good PH levels, I think."

Graham and Kathy MacKinnon, the parents, spent plenty of time nurturing their son. Graham was an inspector on a Canadian National Railway and also was a small-town Junior B goalie. Kathy is an area recreation co-ordinator for the municipality for Cole Harbour.

It's their touch that has created what we see on the ice ... and humble.

MacKinnon said his dad's advice on the Crosby front was right on, "He said, 'You don't have to be as good as Sidney Crosby. But leave it to your work ethic. Work as hard as Sidney Crosby ... all the time. Then, you'll be OK.' "

MacKinnon won't compare himself to Crosby, but ...

"I'm a very competitive guy and always want to be the best I can be and have a love of the game," he said. "I skated the last two summers with Sidney Crosby ... and it seems like he's a machine out there. He never gets tired. And it's not just a natural skill, he worked at it and that's the exciting part."

Graham MacKinnon likes to joke. He says he still has the hockey card to prove the story is true.

When his son was 7 or 8 years old, he got a personalized hockey card made for Nathan. The front showed him in hockey gear posing for the camera, while the back had blank space to fill in personal information. What did young Nathan write?

"He said, 'I want to play for the Halifax Mooseheads, then I want to get drafted by Colorado and play with Joe Sakic,' " Graham said.

Said Nathan, "I was just a little kid then and it's amazing how things have turned out."

This whole Nathan MacKinnon-Sidney Crosby lovefest began long before the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, where the Colorado Avalanche were about to pick the No. 1 player.

Patrick Roy, who recently was named coach and GM of the Avalanche, knows MacKinnon very well -- having been the coach and GM of the Quebec Remparts. In fact, after Nathan was the first player 2011 QMJHL midget draft by Baie Comeau was put up for bidding. Roy got into the bidding, but it was the Halifax Mooseheads that won -- trading a top prospect and three first-round picks for MacKinnon.

"It would be tough for us not to take MacKinnon," said Patrick Roy, the new coach and GM of the Avalanche. "MacKinnon is ready to play ... tomorrow."

That point of view is shared by Joe Sakic, president of the Avalanche.

"Nathan has lived under the microscope for a long time and he's lived under pressure and has always risen to the occasion," Sakic said. "He's an electrifying player. He's the most explosive player in this draft. Whatever challenge he's faced, he risen his game to another level. He wants to be a difference-maker ... he is a difference-maker.

"He's definitely a skilled guy but he's a powerful skater. He can play a skill game, but he loves going to the net. He loves going to the hard areas ... and he's just a tremendous player."

Rick Pracey, Colorado's top amateur scout, put in his two cents worth, "One thing about Nathan, clearly his body of work throughout the year has been very good. He's a player who has withstood the pressures of a draft year. In the playoffs, seeing that push and seeing him elevate his game and carry a team to a Quebec League championship and then into the Memorial Cup is special."

And it all started with Nathan MacKinnon shooting a beat-up net with plastic milk jugs hanging off the crossbar for top-shelf targets. And it became much, much more.

He's a highly-skilled forward who plays with a lot of power. It's a nice combination to have. His skating is elite. He's a durable guy and he's been a terrific player and I really don’t know what more to say. He can play the game any way you want him to play it. He is a total package of skill, speed and power. He's such a gamer, a guy who gets better when there's a big moment. 

Like, for instance, the Memorial Cup  championship against Portland, when MacKinnon scored a hat trick and added two assists in the Mooseheads' 6-4 victory.

Further numbers in MacKinnon's favor -- he helped lead the Halifax Mooseheads to a 58-6-1 record during the regular season, plus postseason championships.

Nathan finished fourth in the QMJHL with 1.70 points-per-game and he totaled a tournament-best seven goals and 13 points over four games at the Memorial Cup to earn MVP honors.

"Nathan has great hands, soft hands. He has quick hands," said Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme. "He can fire pucks from anywhere so fast. His release is so quick. He surprises goalies with quick shots from anywhere."

God-given talent, plus don't forget the PH from Cole Harbour. 

"We live on a small lake, and in the wintertime I used to flood it every day," Graham MacKinnon said. "He was always out shooting pucks down on the lake. He just loved the game."

Kathy MacKinnon said he displayed remarkable hand-eye co-ordination and agility from an early age.

"He walked early ... and always had a stick or baseball bat or golf club or hockey stick the minute he could walk," said Mrs. MacKinnon.

While he had a clear love for hockey, Kathy said he also showed a talent for canoe racing, basketball, soccer and tennis.

"I knew there was no question he'd play sports," she said. "We just didn't know what sport it would be."

For Nathan, the stigma of playing in a small town such as Cole Harbour could be a disaster. But it wasn't for Crosby ... and MacKinnon made it a plus for his, too.

"The first time I realized I could make it, I went to Toronto when I was 9 or 10 in tournaments," said MacKinnon. "You kind of realize you can play with those guys. I was doing well against Toronto kids.

"You know their track record. That's when I figured I could play. I know I was young ... but I got focussed on the NHL."

The numbers from there became stratospheric for MacKinnon.

MacKinnon, who had 200 points in 50 games as an atom, played at the AAA bantam level in Cole Harbour when he was 12 years old -- against boys who were more than two years his senior -- and said he piled up 110 points.

"I was about 5-feet playing against 6-footers," MacKinnon said. "But I was on a great team. We won everything in our region. I had great linemates, so I just contributed and did my role."

After registering 145 points in 35 games as a 13-year-old, MacKinnon, like Crosby, moved on to Faribault, Minn., to play for Shattuck-St. Mary's, where he had 101 points in 58 games with its top bantam team last winter. This season he is averaging more than two points a game for its under-16 squad -- the second-best mark on the team despite being its second-youngest player.

Despite some injuries last season for the Mooseheads, he wound up with 41 goals and 64 assists in 49 games.

Everyone knows the journey that Sidney Crosby took. It has been more of the same for Nathan MacKinnon.

"For me, I knew what kind of player I was, and I knew I wasn't going to be Sidney Crosby," MacKinnon said. "But at the same time, I'm trying to be the best player I can be.

"I guess I never put too much thought into the comparisons or the expectations. I just have to be me."

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

No keeping Crawford from Chicago success

By Larry Wigge

Each save is an important one. Every save is crucial for Corey Crawford and the Chicago Blackhawks.

The playoffs are unlike no other marathon. You must get 16 wins -- by hook or by crook. And when that has been achieved ...

Said Crawford, "Make the next save and our we'll score on the next shot ... Constant repeat of that. Repeated that over and over and over."

That's the life of a goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs ... And in the end, you wrap your arms around the Stanley Cup.

It's been an up-and-down four years for Corey Crawford. A journey. When Chicago won the Cup in 2010, Anti Niemi was in goal and Crawford was in the stands as the team's third-stringer.

For Crawford obviously the goaltender gets the flak if a team comes up short, so for him and everything that he worked through to get to this point, what does this mean for him?
"We're happy for him," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "The scrutiny that he was under at the end of last year going into the season, if he was capable of getting through the regular season, let  alone the playoffs ..."

The coach wanted to this his next statement right, because after giving up several soft goals in the Phoenix series in the first round of the playoff, Crawford and Blackhawks goaltending coach Stephane Waite watched hours of film of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist to get it right.

"His preparation going into the year was in the right place," Quenneville continued. "I thought his consistency was great. I got a question the other day which kind of was surprising: "Who's going to play your next game?' It was obvious who's playing our next game because he was the reason we were playing the next game. It was that type
of year for him ... and I'm very happy for him."

Crawford's playoff record was nearly identical to the regular season. In the regular season, he a 19-5-5, with a .926 save percentage and a goals-against average of 1.94. In the playoffs, he had 16-7 record, with a .932 save percentage and a 1.84 goal-against average. He led the league with 16 wins and 1.84 GAA.

The biggest scrutiny of the Finals was Boston was scoring, when a thorough dissection of his glove side followed the Hawks' 6-5 victory in Game 4, when all of the Bruins' goals were aimed that way.

"I didn't listen to anybody," Crawford said. "What mattered was the guys in the room. Everyone was behind each other. We worked hard for each other all year, and I'm so proud of everyone in that room."

"Things were different this year ... and it was hard for him at times," said Sylvia Crawford, Corey mother. "But the way he finished, the way this team finished? It's just like magic. It's a magical ending."

Said Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya: "Corey's the guy that got us here. Everybody that doubted him? Well, he shoved it back to them."

It's a strange thing about goaltenders. Most of them ... anyway.

Goalies hide behind masks. They often face shots that often come at them at 100 mph. But most of them forget who there are playing ... it the opposing team's goalie.

"Yeah, it's competitive," said Crawford before facing Tuukka Rask and the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals. "You want to beat the other guy on the other side. My focus is more on their players, what they're doing ... but yeah, I definitely want to beat him."

Goalkeepers usually hide that last fact, saying they have no control over the other teams last line of defense. In truth, Crawford wants to be more competitive in goal than Rask in this best-of-seven series that began with the Blackhawks winning a triple overtime decision, 4-3, in Game 1. 

Crawford was the victor, making 29 of his 51 saves -- including 52:08 of overtime that seemed to last an eternity and made it feel like two separate games.

The Montreal, Quebec, native, could be forgiven. He is not like most puckstoppers. In fact, Crawford had designs on scoring goals rather than stopping them at an early age.

"I changed when I was about 8 years old," Crawford recalled. "I was a forward before. I thought I was pretty good."

So the question begs, what happened when Crawford was 8 that made him don the mask?

"Patrick Roy is pretty much the reason why I wanted to be a goalie," Crawford said of the Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. "He was the man back in the day. I wanted to be like him."

So, Trevor and Sylvia, Crawford's parents, had a dilemma on their hands. 

"I remember him watching Patrick Roy. We had this tape of the playoffs and he'd watch it over, over and over again," said Crawford's mother. "I knew he had a fascination. He'd watch it two, three times in a row."

Studying Roy was all the craze in Montreal at the time. He had just led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Finals over Los Angeles in 1993, his second Cup title with the Habs. 

Crawford's father, Trevor, wasn't thrilled by his son's new obsession.

"There is so much pressure on them," Trevor said. "They seem to be a scapegoat when things don't go well. I wasn't too keen on it at first. He was such a good forward ... But playing goalie is something he wanted to do."

Crawford, a classic late bloomer, hasn't been in the conversation as the best at his position until now. He was a second-round choice, 52nd overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Five seasons in the minor league are the qualifications that bring him to this season.

"Nothing, man," he replied when asked what elite teams he's played on in the past. "Other than regular-season junior hockey, AHL, NHL, other than that, there's not much."

"I think a number of top goalies, after a strong rookie season, seem to have an ordinary year the next year," Quenneville said. "Different challenges. Corey, with the expectations this year, came in with the right attitude. I loved the consistency of his approach. In net, game in, game out, the predictability has been in place.

"It's a different animal having the number one job, expectations changed. He had to answer a lot of questions this year going into the season. What about our goaltending? We said we're very comfortable with Corey.

"He always has been kind of together ... and always has been square. I think he has developed more each and every year. He's a good student of the game."

Crawford has evolved from being a guy characterized as a shot blocker and very technical to a more athletic goaltender under Waite, with whom he has worked since he was 15 and first attended Waite's goalie school in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

"I've been plugged into that boxy, shot blocker status," Crawford said. "That's what I've based my game off of. I've learned you have to battle and make those other saves, too. You can't just give up on plays. Players are too good and can make plays on you. You have to be able to read and react and be desperate at times."

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews calls Crawford Chicago's MVP, even before this playoff run. 

"If they didn't really before, I think everyone knows who Corey Crawford is now," Toews said. "The influence and the effect he's had on our team all season and through this Cup run that we’ve had. He's proven he's a pressure player. He's got the talent and the ability and the mental game to go with it."

He's doing what Niemi did three years ago -- giving the Blackhawks a chance.

"We felt he was capable of being an elite goalie, a top goalie," said Quenneville. "This year, he was ready to go. The consistency of his game was in place. He did what he had to do all year long and didn't change his approach whether there was a couple of goals go in. He hasn't had any games all year where we were disappointed with his contribution."

Since then, however, the goaltender pendulum has swung the other way.

"Can't even put that into words," Toews said after the overtime heroics. "He made some unbelievable saves. I can't remember if it was still in regulation time or not.
"Anyways, you know you're going to need some big stops. One went off the posts there. A couple times we gave up a few too many chances off the rush. He was there every single time.
"We needed Crowe to make those stops to keep the game going."

Game after game, save after save. Only Corey Crawford stands tall for the Blackhawks.

Toews: The beginnig of a legend at Hawks 2nd Cup

By Larry Wigge

You could say Jonathan Toews was playing in the moment. 

The moment could be characterized as center stage -- all on the line for the Stanley Cup. The Chicago Blackhawks captain wanted to put the Blackhawks on his shoulders. Every fiber of his soul, told you so.

Toews said, "You look at the great players who have worn the 'C' and there's always a defining moment."

I'm quizzing the third player selected overall in the 2006 Entry Draft -- drafted behind only Erik Johnson and Jordan Staal.

It was the second time in four years that Jonathan Toews led Chicago into the winner's circle.

Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux were names of famous captains that came to mind. All of them would not back away from a defining moment.

"Reality sinks in, you're not in dreamland anymore," Toews related in the best way. "You've got to earn every point and every chance. It's not easy.

"But it's not all on my shoulders. We're a young bunch ... with great goals."

For the Winnipeg, Manitoba, native, the scene was set with an iffy context. Toews had been held out in the third period of Game 5 with what coach Joel Quenneville called a "dinged noggin." Yet, Jonathan answered the bell.

He played 20:12 on the night. Toews broke out on a two-on-one break give the Blackhawks the tying second at 4:24 of the second period and, with 1:16 left, his sweat pass went right threw Zdeno Chara's legs to a waiting Bryan Bickle to knot the score once again at 2-2.

The stage was set by Jonathan Toews for Dave Bolland to finish off the 3-2 victory with 58.3 seconds left to put the final dagger into the Boston Bruins in six games.

Jonathan had just one shot in the game, three hits, two blocked shots and went 12-8 on faceoffs. Moreover, his playoff performance was highlighted by his two goals and three assists in the final three games, when all the pressure was on the line.

"He had a monster game," Quenneville said of Toews. "He looked ready to go at the end of the last game ... and he was ready to go. The bigger the game, the bigger the setting, you know what you're going to get from Jonathan Toews. He just knows how to play hockey."

He's getting older ... but he's getting better.

At 6-2, 208-pounds, the 25-year-old captain has got all the tools and willingness to compete.

"There's no part of the game he can't compete in," linemate Patrick Kane said. "He just does everything well. But what makes him so special to me is that I have never seen him give up on a single play ... and, believe me, that kind of attitude rubs off on everyone around him."

"He's just getting older ... getting that maturity just comes with age," said defenseman Duncan Keith said. "It's a lot of pressure on a young guy. He's just grown into that, matured. He's a great leader for us.

"He's more comfortable as he's gotten older. As you get older you get comfortable with who you are as a person, more sure of yourself, just a natural progression and maturity as a person and as a player. Not only helps your teammates, but it helps yourself and helps your confidence."

Added Rick Dudley, special assistant in Montreal, "He's one of those rare players, the kind of guy you see out there busting his butt play after play. If you're a teammate, you have to say; 'I'd better get my butt in gear.' "

"This group of guys makes you look good every day," said Toews. "It's a special group, special team and they deserve it more than anybody.

"It's awesome. We're going home. We've got the Cup."

Some could say that Toews performance created a remembrance of the 1970 NBA Finals, when Willis Reed limped onto the court to led the New York Knicks to a triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe so, but the Chicago captain came out full speed despite sitting out the entire third period of Game 5 because of concussion related items.

"He's got it, and he gets it," says Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks senior advisor of hockey operations whose next Stanley Cup will be his 13th. "And when you have what Jonathan has, age doesn't matter. It's the person, not the birth certificate."

How Toews developed his work ethic is no mystery, at least not to him. 

Bryan Toews, his father, and Bryan Toews is from farming stock in rural Manitoba and now works as an electrician for the University of Manitoba. Jonathan's mom, Andree-Gilbert, is from Quebec, where she studied to become the managing director and finance expert for a large credit union in the Winnipeg region. She’s smart and she is particularly proud of the work she has done in French relations in the Manitoba area for the bank.

Watching and learning is something Jonathan Toews has been good at since he was a kid.

"I remember taking Jonathan to his first NHL game when he was 4-years-old. You know how kids are at that age, they lose their attention span after a few minutes and want to do something else. But Jonathan didn't even want a treat when I offered to buy him a pop or hot dog. He said, 'Dad, all I want to do is watch the game,' " Bryan Toews said. "When it comes to hockey, he's always been driven and determined and very, very smart. He gets that from his mom."

You might think that a kid who grew up watching the Winnipeg Jets when he was little would idolize former captain Dale Hawerchuk, but Jonathan thought the game started and ended with Wayne Gretzky.

Quite a quantum leap from getting his first stick when he was 2-years-old and stickhandling a tin of petroleum jelly around the house without a misstep. He got his first pair of skates when he was 3 and was an instant whiz on the ice.

"Jonathan could see things you’d show him and then go right out there and do them better than I’d describe them," Bryan laughed. "I remember I had him on the lake when he was four. He had such a natural stride. I remember several parents coming up to me and asking, 'How old is that kid?' "

Jonathan maintains that he wasn't so natural.

"I never was one of the biggest kids, but I kind of found myself thinking of ways in my mind to beat them," he said. "I'd use my skating, my stickhandling, my wits to visualize ways to win."

Detroit's Dan Cleary has seen Toews development from the beginnig. He and Patrick Kane.

"Toews and Kane are a lot like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk." Cleary continued. "They are the Blackhawks two best players. Like Henrik and Pav, NO ONE works any harder than them. It's easy for the rest of the team to follow them."

Never one to pass along praise.

"The best advice I ever got was from Tom Ward, my coach at Shattuck St. Mary's, when he told me, 'You're not going to play the game forever, so it’s more important to be a good person,' " he said.

Level-headed. Smart. Driven. Determined. With a will to win as big as Winnipeg.

"I was like any kid in Canada growing up," he said. "My dad built a rink in our backyard. My brother, David, and I would play until it got so cold we couldn't feel our fingers. I'd dream that I was Gretzky ... in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final ... scoring the winning goal."

Jonathan Toews had two Stanley Cups to his credit. A lot has happened to the boy from Winnipeg, who told his dad at a young age, that he didn't want a pop or a hot dog.

He said, 'Dad, all I want to do is watch the game.'

The beginning of a legend.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Toews gets a little help from a friend

By Larry Wigge

Glen Seabrook and Jonathan Toews. One a defenseman, the other the team captain and do it all guy for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Strange as it seems, they are talking about scoring goals ...

After Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, Seabrook was basking the limelight after putting the Blackhawks even at two games apiece with a slap shot in overtime.

The story Seabrook told was a classic ... into the the deep, dark inner thoughts of two friends. 

It reminds us all that someone always knows more about you ... than you.

Wayne Gretzky pushed Mark Messier and vice versa. Mario Lemieux listened to Ron Francis. Steve Yzerman remembers hearing some sobering advice from Brendan Shanahan. And so on ... and so on.

It's just that its interesting that a guy like Jonathan Toews, whose scored more than 150 goals in six years with Chicago would listen to Brent Seabrook, who has just over 50 goals in the same time.

Toews, ever the steady, monotoned, unfailingly positive voice and captain of the 2010 Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks, has come unglued emotionally, letting a scoring slump affect his entire psyche.

Teammate Brent Seabrook did his best Dr. Phil on Toews, while sitting in the hotel lobby after three games of the Stanley Cup finals with the Blackhawks trailing the Boston Bruins two games to one.

"What are you thinking about?" Seabrook, a defenseman, asked.

"Nothing," Toews said. "What are you thinking about?"

It was the wrong answer.
"What are you thinking about?" Seabrook inquired again.
Toews then realized what Seabrook was fishing for.

"SCORING GOALS!" Toews snapped back ...

Seconds later, Toews finally admitted, "Absolutely, every waking moment it's something you think about. Just got to be hungry. No excuses. I have to find a way. I'll take whatever I can get."

Said Seabrook, "To be completely honest, I was sick and tired of hearing everybody talk about everything that Johnny's doing right. He's a great player. He's one of the best in the league. I just told him that, 'He's got to stop thinking about that, too. He's got to stop thinking about everything that he's doing right and stop worrying about not scoring goals. He's got to score goals for us. He's a big part of our team. When he's going, we have a chance to win as well as Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell, all our forwards have to be going ... and I knew he was going to be playing great.

"It wasn't about the little things that he does. It wasn't about his leadership that he brings. I just thought that maybe he needed to start thinking about scoring goals."

Toews had gone 10 games without a goal when he tipped in a shot by Michal Rozsival in the second period. That gave the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead, and he also had a hand in the game-winner, screening Boston's Tuukka Rask as Seabrook unleashed a slap shot 9:51 into overtime.

That was more like it for Chicago.

Toews is the captain of the Blackhawks. Seabrook is a leader, too, as one of the team's more vocal players in the pregame moments and a veteran willing to speak up if necessary -- even when it's to the player wearing the 'C'.

It was a flashback from the conversation the two had after Game 4 against the Detroit Red Wings, when Toews took three penalties in the second period and was coming unhinged. Seabrook skated over to the penalty box and attempted to calm him down -- Henrik Zetterberg of the Red Wings was getting under Toews' skin.

"If the rest of the group sees him like that it's going to trickle down so we need him to be focused and be ready," Seabrook said at the time.

The sage advice continued in conversations like the one on the hotel lounge. As Seabrook said during an off-day interview at the Stanley Cup Final, he was sick and tired of hearing the talk about what Toews wasn't doing.

Here's Seabrook: "He's gotta score goals for us. When he's going, we have a chance to win. I just felt like he needed to start thinking about scoring goals."

Toews said Seabrook has leadership qualities the media and fans don't see.

"He always has. He's one of the louder guys before the game, in the locker room and between periods. I think it's part of his ritual to get himself going," said Toews. "He tries to get the boys going ... and tried to do the same for me."

Two friends, going back to when Seabrook was Toews' roommate in the center's rookie year. Two leaders for the Blackhawks, leading them when they needed it the most.

Said Jonathan Toews, "He wasn't trying to get on me, I don't think. He was definitely just trying to spark me a little bit. I don't know if it's something that goes with the relationship and the friendship we've had over the years, rooming with him my rookie year here in Chicago. It goes a ways back already. But he's always looked after me that way.

"It’s good. He cares about his teammates. He wants his teammates to have success. And more than anybody, he wants to win this thing." 

A couple of days later, we're talking about this Dr. Phil consult ... like it meant something.

Well, it did.

Toews was still active in his assault on the Bruins net, assisting on both of Patrick Kane's Game 5 goals in a 3-1 victory over Boston.

The story goes one step further. 

Johnathan Toews did it in the first two periods of play in Game 5. He sat on the bench. Didn't even step on the ice for the third period, after being slammed to the ice by Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said that Toews was not concussed. Upper body injury. 

What wasn't reported: Jonathan Toews was paying the price to score in the playoffs.

Just as Brent Seabrook was telling him.