Monday, April 15, 2013

Ott -- Knowing the subject of Yap

By Larry Wigge

Around the trade deadline last February -- everybody was after him. But most of the teams that were after Steve Ott were contending teams.

Some call him bellicose. Others say he is truculent. Clearly, his value is far from goals or assists. But, you can't say he has no impact ... with his mouth or with his play on the ice.

Truth be known, the Summerside, Prince Edward Island, native, is just plain yappy in his actions on the ice. Kind of like the mouth from the South, East ...

Ott played for the Dallas Stars for nine years. His best previous season was 2009-10, when he scored 22 goals. Then, last July, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for center Derek Roy and defenseman Adam Pardy.

When the Sabres acquired the 6-foot, 190-pound, Buffalo wanted the best agitator in the NHL. Bar none.

A center by trade, Ott works opposing centermen like a drum in the faceoff circle -- winning 57.0 percent of the draws. He has two game-winning goals in the last dozen game, despite the Sabres poor won-lost record. In 43 games through April 15, he has eight goals, 15 assists and a plus-minus ranking at plus-seven.

But ...

Once he gets that pretty scary snarl on his face on the ice, good things can happen. Off the ice, always seems to have a smile on his face as he loves to talk about gamesmanship, about playing with an edge, about getting a player off his game or under his skin and about the challenge he relishes of trying to shut down one of his opponent's best players.

"Just give me a shot at playing head up against a Jarome Iginla or Joe Thornton or a Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg," the 30-year-old mucker told me with a determined look. "I'm not going to be a 50-goal scorer, so I had to find my role -- and that seems to be trying to take an opponent off his game, whether its with a big hit or some trash-talking. I don't care.

"All I know is I love to take on guys like that in the compete level. That's my favorite part of the game."

Former Dallas captain Brenden Morrow agrees, "When we look for energy, Otto's one of the guys we look to. He hits, he agitates, he buzzes, he is a presence in front."

I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I asked Ott if there was a particular art to agitating and trash-talking in hockey. It's not unlike an actor trying to play a particular role. Or ...

"It's no different from a fighter doing his homework, watching tape to know the moves of his opponent better. It's all art," Ott explained. "Put me up against an Iginla or Thornton and it can escalate into a real battle of physicality, especially in the playoffs when I just can't pass up the opportunity to hit one of those guys.

"The other guys, the high-skilled, less-physical guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg? Well, words are not the best way to try to get into their heads. You have to just outwork them."

Ott laughed after he mentioned his mom. "My mom's the sparkplug. She's the one who provides the energy in the family," Ott said. "She loves it when I score a goal more than the fighting. But I also think it's funny, when she wants to know I said to a guy before a fight and what the other guy said to me."

Inquisitive and studious? It does run in the family. And how about this character player with the quick whit?

Smart and fighter? No, it's not a misprint. It could come from his background as the son of two Air Force parents, going from base to base and place to place before winding up in Windsor.

Butch Ott was a warrant officer in the Canadian Air Force. Debby, Steve's mom, was also in the Air Force. Currently, Butch is an ice manager at a rink in Windsor. Both parents were obviously big influences on Steve's life.

Before beginning his professional hockey career, Ott raced kneeldown outboard hydroplanes and runabouts in the American Power Boat Association (APBA). His father is the former world champion and a past national champion in the Outboard Performance Craft -- SST 45 class. He pit crews for his father during his off-season in the summer.

Butch Ott once said that he thought Steve started being the agitator when he was living in Winnipeg when he was about five-years-old.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Ott said, shaking his head. "To me, becoming an agitator all comes from being competitive and working hard. You make a big hit and there's going to be some yapping back and forth. You know?

"With me, the hit or the confrontation comes first, then the yapping," he said, making that point perfectly clear. "To me, there's a fine line I have to skate on between playing good, hard-working hockey and, well, the crossing over the line. I'm trying to stay on the straight and narrow. I want to stay on the ice."

Still, there are those times when ...

"There are times out there when guys on the other side want to kill him," laughed his former teammate Stephane Robidas.

Those layers we talked about earlier. Well, there's one more. I found out about it when I asked Steve Ott when he would be doing for a living if he wasn't a hockey player.

Surprisingly, he said, "I would have liked to have been a jet fighter pilot. But I don't think that would have worked out."

The next part of the answer is the knockout, when he said, "If I'm being realistic, I probably would have become a police officer. It's something where you are still in a teamwork atmosphere."

"Otto's strengths are his grittiness and work ethic," observed Dave Tippett, now now coach the Phoenix Coyotes but a former coach with Dallas.

Believe it or not, Ott scored 50 goals for Windsor -- in 55 games -- the season after he was drafted by Dallas. That was second in the Ontario Hockey League.

"Emotion," Tippett continued, "is a good thing -- and he brings good, positive emotion. It's an emotion that often drags a lot of his teammates along with him. Did I say often?

"There's no doubt we love the passion and impact he brings every night. What I like most is that he's in the middle of the gutsiest part of the game ... all the time."

Steve Ott defies the rules that a guy who primarily uses his fists can also be a pretty smart fellow.

"His comments to the other team are pretty funny sometimes," former St. Louis and Detroit winger Dallas Drake said. "He definitely digs into your background before playing against you. He knows a lot of things. But this season he kind of had a breakthrough as a player offensively.

"You know you don't find many 10-plus goal scorers and fighters. To me, it's a compliment the way he's improved his game."

He studies his opponents. He picks out certain points of their game.

Steve Ott has actually studied the French language, Swedish, Russian ...

"You never know what you are going to need," said Ott. "It may be one word of Swedish to get under an opponent's skin."

Smart guy, he is.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Rookie Huberdeau is quickly on the rise

By Larry Wigge

"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.'

Jonathan Huberdeau just laughs, when he considers his foot speed in hockey -- despite taking speed-skating lessons at a young age. He might still need some work.

"It was funny," he said. "I always came in last. I would jump out to a lead at the start, but then I'd always look over my shoulder and lose my speed. They'd all catch up and that was it."

Don't look back. Don't ever look back.

The Saint Jerome, Quebec, native, didn't know what he was saying was a phrase coined by Negro League baseball pitcher Satchel Paige years ago.

No doubt Huberdeau had to go home and look up Paige ... and see what it meant. 

"My mom and dad wanted me to learn how to skate before playing hockey," Huberdeau said, "so they enrolled me in these speed-skating classes."

Since Huberdeau didn't own a pair of speed skates, he used hockey skates instead. Needless to say, the results were hardly encouraging.

But his skating was good enough to score 43 and 30 goals for St. John's Sea Dogs of the Quebec Hockey League -- and good enough for Huberdeau to be drafted No. 3 overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers behind only Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog.

"This is another big piece of the puzzle," Panthers GM Dale Tallon said. "Great player, two-way player, unselfish, passionate, moves the puck and makes players better around him.

"He is a proven winner who leads by example both on and off the ice. He is a great two-way player, who shows passion for the game and makes players around him better. Jonathan had an excellent preseason and we look forward to his progress this season with Saint John."

As a rookie, the 6-1, 171-pounder has contributed 13 goals and 14 assists in 40 games through April 12. The 13 goals represents the most goal by any rookie.

"He's much stronger on his skates," said Scott Luce, the Panthers scouting supervisor. "Guys are having a hard time handling him."

Brian Skrudland, the team's director of player devopment, said, "He has vision that is special, and you see that come along once in a blue moon. We don't think there's a limit. The capabilities he showed last year in training camp, he's so unassuming, you watch and say, 'Wow.' He plays against bigger players and is up for the challenge."

In fact, the Panthers first pick became the first Florida player to score on two penalty shots in one season. His first came against Philadelphia's Ilya Bryzgalov on February 21 and the second came against Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec on March 5.

Said coach Kevin Dineen of his rookie star: "That was a pretty good snapshot of his high-end skill set. A fairly impressive debut to say the least."

Huberdeau's mother, Josee, said her son is modest about his accomplishments but also doesn't lack confidence.

"He's very disciplined. Always does his schoolwork ... and then his hockey work," she said. "He's very sociable and just wants to have success in whatever he does."

Huberdeau is the type of player who can change the outcome of a game suddenly and quickly. He's displayed unbelievably quick hands and an ability to set up and score goals. He definitely has NHL hands and playmaking ability.

Jonathan Huberdeau grew up about 25 miles away from where the Canadiens play yet didn't get to see many games in person.

Tickets are hard to get in Montreal as games are always sold out and prices on the secondary market are extremely high.

So, believe it or not, Huberdeau attended more Florida Panthers home games as a kid than Canadiens games in Montreal.

The Saint-Jerome, Quebec, native and his family spent time snowbirding in South Florida -- and being hockey fans, they found their way to the arena in Sunrise to check out whomever was in town. Sometimes it was the Canadiens.

"We were always there for Christmas,'' Huberdeau said.

In January, the Panthers' rookie winger had a pretty good view of things at the Bell Center as he played in his third NHL game on ice he was well accustomed to seeing -- from television, anyway.

"I grew up watching the Canadiens, so to play here is really cool,'' Huberdeau said after Florida's 4-1 loss.

Huberdeau's parents brought their Winnebago down to South Florida as they've followed their son's progress through training camp and watched his NHL debut last weekend at the BB&T Center.

There are those around the NHL that say Huberdeau reminds them of Tampa Bay's Vinny Lecavalier. 

"I have good vision and good skill with my hands ... and I can play both ways," Huberdeau said. "They can put me on penalty killing and I'll do the job on the power play. If the coach wants me to play defensively, I'll do that, it's not a problem. I think that's my strength."

Bu he is still a rookie. Still learning.

"I would say the execution is a lot faster here than junior," he said. "The size of the guys, too, is much bigger here and I'm trying to adapt and be quicker.

"I'm still learning. I have lots to learn. It just happens I had a good start, but I have to keep going and keep the tempo going."

Jonathan Huberdeau has the NHL buzzing about his progress.

Stempniak -- From Ivy League star to NHL longshot

By Larry Wigge

He is so smart that he graduated from an Ivy League school Dartmouth with an economics degree. But Lee Stempniak has never learned to be a consistent goal scorer.

With every hot streak ... a cold spell often would find him.

The slumps have gotten him traded from St. Louis to Toronto to Phoenix to Calgary.

But then, the Buffalo, N.Y., native, wasn't supposed to be NHL material at all. He was a fifth-round draft choice, 148th overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

He's been around, which goes to his quick stick and goal-scoring ability. He is 30 now. But ... he got a 27-goal season to his credit in St. Louis in his second season in 2006-07 and one better the year he got from the Maple Leafs to the Coyotes -- 14 goals for each team -- in 2009-10.

Stempniak, who spent his college career at Dartmouth, where he was a two-time all-America pick and team captain last season, looks at this opportunity like a continuing education. Pretty heady stuff for a young man who was also an all-ECAC and Ivy League all academic selection. He majored in economics, graduated with an impressive 3.6 grade-point average and interned after his junior year with Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.

"When you talk to him or watch the way he handles himself on and off the ice, I was surprised to find out he's only 22 (actually 23 now) ... not 27 or 28," said veteran goaltender Curtis Sanford said. "He's really smart and composed."

"The first impression I got about Lee was how strong he is on his skates, how strong he is at making a power move and then make a good shot or pinpoint pass," said former Blues captain Dallas Drake. "There aren't many rookies who shoot the puck on the move like he does."

Kids who show signs of stepping up above the normal rookie skills and nervousness have usually had a hard childhood or have an axe to grind. Stempniak falls into the latter category ... a little bit.

By his own admission, Lee was a late-bloomer.

"My parents wanted me to go to college, but the only school that showed an interest in me as a hockey player was Dartmouth," Stempniak said. "It was a program that had been down for a number of years and Bob Gaudet, the coach, sold me on the idea that I would get a great education and have the opportunity to be a big part of the team's resurgence."

Gaudet was right on both counts.

There are no scholarships in the Ivy League. But that didn't matter to Larry and Carla Stempniak. They had confidence that their son was going to be a success no matter what course he took in life. After all, Lee was the valedictorian of his senior class at St. Francis High School in Buffalo along with all sorts of other scholastic prizes.

Even though hockey is a big part of Stempniak's life right now, he definitely has a lot of options in other fields of business.

"Going to Dartmouth was an experience for me that I would never change," Lee said. "Dartmouth was truly higher education through and through. The atmosphere, the surroundings, the chance to grow and mature. Where else can you say that you graduated with a one friend who is writing music successfully and another who is just 21 and already is a published novelist? The whole four years there was a mind-blowing experience for me."

Stempniak lists golf and reading as his off-ice hobbies. But not just any light reading. When I sat down to interview Lee in mid-February, he told me he was reading a book called The Alchemist written by noted Brazilian storyteller Paulo Coelho.

Lee loves to give credit for what he's become to his parents for raising him to reach for the stars.

Larry Stempniak works in a book bindery factory and Carla works for the Buffalo postal department, the third shift that goes from 9:30 p.m. until 5:30 a.m.

"They drove to something like 33 of my 35 or 36 games at Dartmouth," Lee said with a very caring tone to his voice. "They are both big fans. They drove to Columbus and Detroit to see me play earlier in the season -- and they bought a satellite dish to watch Blues games.

"It isn't always easy for mom. Our home games start at 8 in Buffalo and she watches until 9 before she has to go to work. Sometimes dad will call her during the games if something big happens. Sometimes she will call home if it is an important game. Otherwise, he TiVos the games and she catches up on me when she gets home."

Larry and Carla Stempniak never pushed Lee into hockey. But it didn't take long for Lee to switch from baseball to hockey.

"I remember playing baseball as a kid, but my dad asked me one day if I wanted to play hockey," Stempniak said. "A week later, I was out there with a Sabres jersey on ... and I never looked back."

That was at a time when Pat LaFontaine, Dave Andreychuk, Alexander Mogilny were the Sabres big scorers and Dominik Hasek flashed his magical goaltending skills on a nightly basis.

One of Stempniak's biggest thrills this season was getting to face Andreychuk in Tampa on December 8.

"Dave was a rookie with the Sabres the year I was born, but I remember when I growing up watching and liking the fact that he could find so many ways to score goals," Stempniak said, finally showing a bit of the kid in him. "To end up on the ice against him was just unbelievable.

"After the game, I asked one of our trainers to ask for an autographed stick for me and Dave was more than happy to accommodate the request. That was really cool. It's a night I won't soon forget."

With each game, Lee Stempniak is adding memories he won't soon forget.

Stempniak laughed when I asked if he ever played lacrosse. It was my way of finding out if the great hands he shows for the Blues came from that sport that has helped produce some pretty good hockey players like Joe Nieuwendyk and Adam Oates.

"No lacrosse," he said. "I was lucky enough to know a couple of guys who ran the rink in our neighborhood in West Seneca, N.Y. They let me in to work on my skating and my puck skills. It was there that I think I developed the feel for the puck that I have and the hands you're talking about."

There are no shortcuts to success in the NHL ... and Lee Stempniak is still find out how tough it is.

To Ryan O'Reilly, his family is truly giving

By Larry Wigge

It was point/counterpoint in the eight-month contract dispute between Ryan O'Reilly and the Colorado Avalanche.

Let's use Doug Gilmour, who came into the NHL as a player who used character and skill. Like most youngsters, he used his work ethic to advance himself as a terrific all-around player -- others coming to mind Patrice Bergeron, Rod Brind'Amour, Ryan Getzlaf, Danny Briere and Jordan Staal.

Faceoffs. Hits. Blocked shots. All of the above excelled in each of those qualities.
O'Reilly, at 22, became a budding super star for the Avalanche. Simple as that. We all watched as he was about to take off as a full-blown leader in the NHL. Last season, his third the the NHL, Ryan lead Colorado in scoring with 18 goals and 37 assists -- a quantum leap from his 26 points in each of his first two years.

But ... the Avs still looked at O'Reilly as their No. 3 center -- behind No. 1 guy Matt Duchene and No. 2 guy Paul Stastny. 

It became an awkward situation for the Clinton, Ontario, native, who stepped right into Duchene's position and led the Avs in scoring. It was O'Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog. Things became even more awkward, because Stastny wasn't holding up his part of the bargain -- being overpaid at $6.6 million. 

The argument by the Avalanche was just off. Just plain wrong.

It proved to be on the February 28, when the Calgary Flames signed O'Reilly to an offer sheet. The Flames gave O'Reilly a two-year, $10 million contract -- which dwarfed the two-year, $7 million deal by the Avs or five-year, $17 million offer that they made.

Since the Avalanche matched the offer sheet, O'Reilly has scored four goals and 10 assists in 22 games. Remember this argument. Remember all those names of young, checking centers who became dominant -- Drury should be remembered by Avs fans. 

What I remember most is an interview I did with O'Reilly last spring. I asked him what was the best advice he had ever gotten.

"The best advice my dad gave to me was, 'It's not how people evaluate you, it's how you evaluate yourself. He always taught me to look inside inside myself.' "

This story of the O'Reilly clan is one of substance and loyalty, but most of all, one of love, charity and friendship.

You may not know about the O'Reilly's. But, there's a feel good story there. They foster the lives of others. They have opened their home as part of the Children's Aid Society of Ontario and served as foster parents to some 42 children. 

"It was a crowded house," Ryan O'Reilly said laughing. "But ..."

Their home in Clinton, Ontario, was filled with lot of love. Caring and understanding could be found inside the walls of their basement, which was converted into one big bedroom.

Brian, Ryan's dad, is a high performance life coach. Bonnie, his mom, is a social worker, who is employed by Ryerson College in Toronto. To Cal, his brother, who has also played in the NHL, and Ryan, their father started out as a strength coach. But his real life job includes working for companies with internal psychology and a drug testing counselor. Ask Cal and Ryan about their mother and they will tell you that she is the most competitive member of the family ... and an excellent broomball player as a collegian.

For Brian and Bonnie, their worked with foster kids is special to them -- something important enough the share with their own children.

"They were troubled kids, with lot of issues going on," Ryan explained. "My parents took them in. They were kids that homes don't want. 

"Amazing to see how strong of people they were ... just looking for a chance."

And to Cal and Ryan, they were just a group of extra brothers and sisters to them.

"For the first 14 years of my life there were wall to wall kids around the house," said Ryan, sporting a giant smile about the well-being of those kids. "It always seemed like there were four extra kids ... in addition to Cal."

They O'Reilly brothers never lacked company for endless hockey games. One such foster brother was named Jason Birch.

"Jason loved to go in the net. Once he came to our house, he started playing hockey for the first time and he just fell in love with it," Ryan said. "We'd have 4-on-4 hockey games at home every night. I was lucky to have other kids to play with like that, because it really did make me a better player. In a way, I have some of those kids to thank for where I am today."

The way HE is today.

To Ryan O'Reilly hockey is all good. Still, following Cal, who is 26, and his older friends around when he was growing up became commonplace.

"Cal and I were trained in being good brother and most important good human being by our parents," said Ryan.

So, you can see whatever happens, hockey is only a small part of what happens at the O'Reilly household. 

Cal was the first O'Reilly brother drafted, selected in the fourth round, 150th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Nashville Predators, while Ryan went in the second round, 33rd overall, in the 2009 draft to the Avalanche. 

"What he did I was always there hanging around, typically little brother," Ryan said of Cal. "None of the older fellows complained about me tagging along all the time. When he went to work out, I did too. 

"His commitment to the game -- showed me how much I had to do to get better."

Now, as we said before, it is Ryan O'Reilly's time to shine. At 6-feet, 200 pounds, Ryan has that protypical large lower body. He established himself as the typical rookie center, even though he became the first player since Boston's Patrice Bergeron -- you remember him -- to step right into the NHL from the second round of the draft in 2003. 

Ryan used his skills and patience to become a leader in Colorado. O'Reilly didn't have to shine as a center -- the Avs already had Stastny and first-round pick  Duchene ahead of him. Like most youngsters he used his work ethic to advance himself as a terrific all-around player. 

"He's shown last year that he's got a lot more to his game than being the solid two-way centerman that he's been the past two years," said Landeskog, last year's winner of the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year Gabriel Landeskog his linemate. "He showed us all just how mature he is and how he handles himself on and off the ice ... the way he prepares himself for games. I really look up to him."

Ryan won 52.8 of the faceoffs and led the team with 101 takeaways -- all a part of overall success.

"He's just a very consistent player," said Avalanche coach Joe Sacco. "The players that can play 200-feet, the ones that you can trust as a coach are the ones that are going to get the ice time. He's starting to mature. The last couple of seasons, he was more focused on the defensive side of the game and I think this season he's brought the element of offence into the game. He's one of those players that, as a coach, you can put in any situation."

With his father having worked with Olympic athletes in the past, O'Reilly got an early lesson on what it took to become a professional athlete.

Their are no signs of the work ethic, the level-headed approach to the game waning in Ryan O'Reilly short career. Nor should their be.

Looking back to what kind of life Brian and Bonnie O'Reilly have prepared him for, all systems are on green for this season. One of the most cherished things to Cal and Ryan O'Reilly is the experience their parents have presented to them. They have learned from every single episode in their lives ... from hockey, to being a better brother or sister to their foster relatives.

"I don't know how they do it, but it's amazing," Ryan O'Reilly said of their parents. "It's one of the best things that's ever happened to me. Doing the fostering and being a part of that, it's opened my world to more important things.

"If I'm like that at all, it's only because of my mom and dad."

So, you see, charity and hard work start at home for Ryan O'Reilly. And he is worth every penny he seeks.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Robidas -- He continues on like the warrior he is

By Larry Wigge

Sometimes the tea leaves are on the side of someone younger.

In other words, there are those who believe that 35-year-old defenseman Stephane Robidas' days may be numbered. But then, why has it, that the Sherbrooke, Quebec, minutes have been under 20 only twice in the first 39 games this season.

That one just goes on the positive side of the ledger for One tough Star, the career of Dallas' Stephane Robidas.

"I know we all get older, but I felt good and I think I can play lots of minutes," replied Robidas. "If they decide I need to to play 18 or 20 minutes, I'm fine with that, too."

There are certain players you trust -- and Robidas is one of them. The Stars know Steph's story and are proud of the stickt-to-it-tiveness, the passion and everything else that he has provided the people of Dallas.

But, most of all, they remember a particular night that turned into morning in May of 2008 against the San Jose Sharks in the playoffs.

The pass was quick, sharp and tape-to-tape. Most important, however, was the timing. That precision-like, assertive pass came at a time when a team that once let him go needed Stephane Robidas' contributions the most, seven periods into a game in which the Stars had blown a third-period lead for the third time in the series and most everyone on the ice was dragging.

With the clock ticking into the witching hours, Robidas forced the issue nine minutes into the fourth overtime of Game 6 in the Western Conference semifinals, stepping up from his defense position and whipping a perfect pass past San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov right to the stick of Brenden Morrow for a series-clinching power play tip-in at the edge of the goal crease.

Instant elation.

We'll all remember Morrow for the clinching goal. But there is still room for the little plays that help make up the defining moments in history, right?

" 'Robie' made a great, heads-up play, faked once, got the defender down and then slid it across to me just out of Nabokov's reach and I was there for an easy one. It's awfully tough to miss a setup like that," Morrow said. "When you get to that point of the game, you never know how much you have left. There's not a lot of oxygen going to the brain at that time of the game, but 'Robie' is one of those warriors ... and he found a way to make a great play." 

Obviously, the oxygen in Robidas' brain was working just fine as his creative juices were definitely still clicking, even after Stephane had played 50 minutes.

"Once you make that decision to jump into the play, you just go, go, go ... you follow the rhythm and don't really think," Robidas said

"When you get into period No. 7, there's not a lot of chalk talk you can do with the team," said former Stars coach Dave Tippett. "You trust your guys and tell them if they see an opportunity, you tell them to take it -- and boy did 'Robie' make the most of the opportunity he got on that power play."

"When you play in an overtime like that, you just got to play and don't think, you just keep going and keep trying to make the little plays and try to get the puck out and try to bring everything at the net," Robidas said with a big smile and a little grimace from the broken nose he suffered prior to Game 6 in the first round of the playoffs that caused him to wear a cage over his helmet for protection of the five, or is it six?, broken noses in his career.

Robidas got this devilish look on his face when I mentioned one step forward and two steps back.

"To me, you take one step ... and then run with it," he laughed.

Taking one step forward and two steps back had been the routine for the veteran, journeyman from Sherbrooke, who was one of those too-small-to-play-defense-at-the-NHL-level players at 5-foot-11, 189 pounds who can count Montreal, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Dallas again on his eight-year NHL career. He was almost an afterthought in the draft, going to his hometown Canadiens in the seventh round, 164th overall, of the 1995 Entry Draft.

He achieved his dream of playing for Les Habitants in one game in the 1999-2000 season and then spent two more seasons in Montreal before he was claimed in the waiver draft by Atlanta in October 2002. But he never played for the Thrashers. Instead he was traded to Dallas for future considerations. His vagabond lifestyle continued when the Stars traded him to Chicago in November 2003. After the lockout, the Blackhawks didn't qualify him and he was re-signed by Dallas again in August 2005.

Feel-good story? You bet.

"I don't know how many times my dad sat me down and told me not to listen to the people who said I was too small to play competitively on defense. My dad said never give in if you want something bad enough," Robidas said.

And who in their right mind wouldn't listen to the town's police chief? Constant Robidas, Robie's dad, was a cop when he was growing up in Sherbrooke. Now, he's the police chief.

Robidas was an all-round athlete as a kid. He played soccer, was a third baseman in Little League and one of those offensively skilled junior defensemen. There were no steps back at that time, with Montreal-born future Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque being Stephane's role model growing up.

No steps back? But wouldn't Robidas think twice about coming back to Dallas after the lockout?

"No," he said. "They gave me my first real chance in the NHL. They showed real interest in me. And besides, there weren't any other teams banging at my door offering me a contract after Chicago decided to left me go after the lockout."

Robidas said things couldn't have worked out better for him, in fact, because he was comfortable in Dallas, plus the rules change after the lockout were designed for skill and speed not size.

It was about that point after Game 4 that Robidas was talking specifically about never giving up.

"You've got to look at yourself in the mirror every day, knowing that you never quit," Robidas said.

I remember teammate Steve Ott walked by and heard that. He broke out laughing and said, "He takes hits, he makes hits, he blocks shots, he gets his nose in there. I'll tell you what, you don't get a nose like that from having a long stick."

Oh yes, the nose.

"It's not the first time," Robidas laughed, adding another wide smile and grimace. "Breathing's not great, but you learn to fight through injuries to stay on the ice at this time of the year."

Warrior. Competitor. Difference-maker. One step forward ... and more.

For Stephane Robidas, being creative during the dizzying pace in the National Hockey League, well, it's as plain as the nose on his face.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The size of your heart makes Patrick Kane better

By Larry Wigge

Size does matter in hockey. Well, not that huge size that defenseman 6-9, 250-pound Zdeno Chara. But ...

Each year in the NHL Entry Draft a player of size is named the first overall pick. That's why going into the 2007 draft there were questions about who would take center stage. Who would be the first pick? The name was still secret to Chicago Black Hawks GM Dale Tallon.

Even after we learned that Tallon had turned down an offer from the St. Louis Blues of three first-round picks -- the ninth, 20th and 26th picks.

I confirmed the Blues interest in the top pick ... and they were offering those three first-round picks for Patrick Kane. But St. Louis was told NO, NO and NO.

Kane was a modest 5-10, 163-pounds. But that didn't matter.

"It's the size of his heart that's more important," Tallon told me. "Guys his size that play the perimeter, you have concerns about moving up to the next level. But Pat gets his nose dirty, gets into the traffic areas and he doesn't get knocked down. He has a solid, wide base for his size, and when he gets stronger it's going to be even more difficult to knock him down.

"It was at the World Junior tournament where we really saw how good he was. That's an under-20 tournament, and 18-year-olds usually struggle. But he was one of the best players and one of the youngest players over there. That spoke volumes."

Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren agreed, saying; "I'm not sure his size is a factor, because of the way the game has changed in the NHL and small players with speed are excelling. In my opinion, he's a special player and is going to do just fine."

"I've been the little guy in a game of bigger guys all my life," Kane smiled. "I'm not going to change my game of trying to be assertive. I'm not taking anything from anybody."

"Patrick has put some expectations on himself," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's really in the right place. You really like how he challenges himself."

In just his sixth season in the NHL, Kane, the Buffalo, native, has already scored 20 goals in each season. And he has helped the Black Hawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010. The first Cup victory for Chicago since 1961.

As he faked right, left and right again, Kane glided until he was almost parallel to the goal. It was a seemingly impossible angle. Yet Patrick flicked the puck toward the net, where it slipped between goalie Michael Leighton's legs and vanished.

No red light went on ... and both teams had to wait several moments until the officials confirmed the goal after reviewing the replay and searching for the puck in the padding at the back of the net.

But Kane did not need a review.

"I shot, I saw it go right through the legs, sticking right under the pad in the net," he said. "I don't think anyone saw it in the net."

Kane went on to say, "I boogie it to the other end. I knew it was in. I tried to sell the celebration a bit."

The small kid from Buffalo had scored the overtime game-winning goal during Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals on June 9, 2010. No one was calling Kane too small to play the game.

The size of his heart was just fine. His playmaking is off-the-boards. His deceptiveness -- in and out of moves -- is exceptional.

So ... what do you not like about his game. Problems, maybe. What about his off-the-ice issues. 

On August 9, 2009, Kane and his cousin, James M. Kane, were arrested in Buffalo. According to a police report, Kane was apprehended around 5:00 a.m. after allegedly punching cab driver Jan Radecki, when he claimed to not have proper change for their trip fare. Kane and his cousin's cab fare came out to be $14.80 and they gave him $15.00.

Kane was charged with second-degree robbery, fourth-degree criminal mischief, and theft of services. He pled not guilty. On August 27, Kane and cousin pled guilty to noncriminal disorderly conduct charges, and were both given conditional discharges, avoiding any penalties if they stayed out of trouble for a year, and also ordered to apologize to Radecki.

He was in the wrong place last summer, when fans' cellphone cameras captured him drinking and partying in Madison, Wis. This came after Kane's least-productive season as a pro. It ended with him going without a playoff goal in a first-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.

"It's not who I want to be," Kane said. "I want to be somebody who can be a role model to kids and to everyone, for that matter. It's something I want to put behind me and be the best person and player I can be ... It was the end of the season and I was looking for a good weekend with my friends and things got a little out of control."

Role model to kids. He has been that this season. The Black Hawks and his family have become more vigilant in that area.

Current Black Hawks GM Stan Bowman recalled that, when Kane lived in his house, the 18-year-old rookie's life was essentially sleeping, playing for the Blackhawks and playing basement hockey with Bowman's two sons, Will and Cameron, 5 and 2 at the time.

"My kids would play shinny hockey with him in the basement," Bowman said. "He was a great big brother to them."

The change in Kane, Bowman said, was the acceptance that what he did away from the rink would affect his reputation as much as what he did on the ice.

"Everyone makes mistakes in their life, and he's under a different microscope than everyone else," Bowman said. "I would argue that he is one of the most recognizable athletes in the NHL."

He is the son of Patrick and Donna Kane. Patrick had a car dealership in Buffalo -- and once sold a car to Dominek Hasek. 

On one wall there is Patrick at 2 or 3, sitting in his father's lap in the background of a poster of American hockey great Pat LaFontaine.

In another picture, little Patrick is wearing the jersey of Hasek. There's also a picture of Patrick at 7 or 8 with his favorite player growing up, Joe Sakic.

After Patrick finished 3rd grade, the guy in charge of the house league told his father: "I have to give you your money back. We've had too many complaints. Your kid is scoring too many goals."

Patrick's father has a unique way of improving his son's reflexes, peripheral vision and hand eye coordination. He constantly throws a rubber ball that can be mistaken for a chew toy at Patrick unannouced. Sounds pretty annoying considering they travel everywhere together. It must be working because he's pretty much America's version of Wayne Gretzky.

In conversation, Kane mentions the word "elite" often, without prompting, only passion.

"If I'm one of the best players in the league, I want to become better," he says. "And I have a different version of what that might mean. I'd be lying if I told you goals and assists aren't important, but it's more than that. I want to be more consistent, more dominant, better at takeaways and on power plays, better in my own end, better at controlling the game when I have the puck. 

"I want to take the next step to get to another level and try to become one of the best two or three or four or five offensive players in the league. I want to become more focused, to concentrate more, and I think I can because this is what I love more than anything else: playing hockey."

Kane continued, "I watched a documentary on Mickey Mantle the other day. Great player, great talent, but he got caught up in the New York nightlife. You think about that. 

"People might be making too much of me maturing and growing. I'm still the same person. I still like to joke around and have fun in the locker room and on the road trips. I still get into arguments with Jonathan Toews because we both have strong opinions and we're both so comfortable with our relationship that we can argue and still have a healthy friendship."

Quenneville knows when Kane is at his best.

"He wants the puck. It seems like he has it a lot of times and he's dangerous," Quenneville said. "I think he's skating better and shooting the puck as well as I've ever seen him shoot it."

Patrick Kane takes it one step further.

"I just try not to be satisfied and keep getting better, even now," Kane said. "Hopefully that's what I'll keep bringing for the rest of the year, because so far it's been pretty good."

Gaborik believes he can succeed in a small pond

By Larry Wigge

Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond .... or a big fish in a small pond?

Marian Gaborik gone full cycle going from Minnesota to the Big Apple back to Columbus.

He's achieved success in both arena, which can teach us something about ourselves and give us a chance to expand our skills. He scored 42 goals and 41 goals in three-plus seasons with the New York Rangers ... and he also had 42 goals with the Minnesota Wild in 2007-08.

So, at 31, how does he succeed in the little pond again?

Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen understood the scenario.

"When a player of Gaborik's caliber became available, we were quite excited about it," Kekalainen said. "This is an explosive player. We worked on it for quite a while. We're looking at this as a long-term solution, not a rental. He's under contract through next season, and we would like to see the relationship continue beyond that."

The Trencin, Slovakia, native, is like a will-of-the-whisp type of player. Explosive bursts. Unbelievable speed. And surprisingly elusive in close to the goal ... kind of an under-the-radar attack.

"I feel good," Gaborik said. "It's hard. Everybody goes through some bumps and bruises, but I feel fine. My shoulder is fine (after offseason surgery). I feel confident going to Columbus and helping that team make the playoffs."

Gaborik had to OK a no-trade clause in his contract. He said he talked by phone to Vinny Prospal and Artem Anisimov, before agreeing to the trade for center Derick Brassard, right winger Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore and a sixth-round draft pick in 2014.

For some reason, Gaborik had been in a two-goal in 22 games slump with the Rangers, in which he had nine goals in 35 games. In his first game with Columbus, he netted the game-winning goal on a goal-mouth feed from Anisimov in a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators April 4.

Marian had two key goal for the Blue Jackets in their first four games to go along with three assists.

Said Animinov, "A great scorer. He knows how to put the puck in the back of the net. He can beat you in so, so many ways. And when skates? Wooosh! He just goes. He's just gone."

Some say he uses his speed to part the ways of the defense.

"I think he backed off their defensemen through the neutral zone," Jackets coach Todd Richards said. "You watch the way they play, they have a tight gap. But the threat of his speed wide and the playmaking ability backed them off and opened up some space for us in the neutral zone.

"The other thing it provided was an intangible. It's confidence among our group, having a guy who is a threat to score a goal at any minute."

Now, the Columbus Blue Jackets have that intangible ... to get a goal at any minute.

"I am the fourth oldest player on the  team," Gaborik laughed. "Like Minnesota, there are a lot of small, fast forwards, who can turn a game around."

We're back to the small pond way of thinking with Columbus. But that's OK with Gaborik.

In his first eight seasons after being picked third overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by the Minnesota Wild, the Trencin, Slovakia, winger had been wildly successful -- despite missing big portions of several season with hip and abdominal injuries. Still, he score 30 or more goals five times, including a career-high 42 goals in 2007-08. 

We first ran into Gaborik as he got off the bus at the 2002 All-Star Game. He was preparing to suit up for the YoungStars.

Several fans of the Wild asked for a photo of him. After the photo was taken, the fan's digital camera immediately displays the finished product, leading Gaborik to ask for a copy of the photo to send to his parents in Slovakia.

"You could see the 'Hollywood' sign on the mountain in the background," Gaborik says. "I have sent them photos of the White House, Liberty Bell, Niagara Falls and Gateway Arch, but I think they will like this one the best. I mean, how many times do you see that sign in a TV show or movie?"

Pavol Gaborik is in the furniture-making business back home in Slovakia. He still makes most the pieces by hand and sells them out of a little shop.

"Marian grew up playing hockey, but he spent just as much time creating art -- oil paintings, sculptures that are on display at home," Pavol said. 

So you've got not only a gifted skater, but much, much more in Marian Gaborik.

Former Montreal Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier once described him as, "Gaborik is like a Ferrari -- he's sleek and fast. He goes from a dead start to 60 mph faster than anyone in the game -- and he's got the hands to be one of the game's best playmakers."

While growing up in his native Slovakia, Gaborik idolized international stars Peter Stastny, Peter Bondra and Pavel Bure. But even if a player has the skills of Bure and comes from a foreign land, success isn't a given.

"It's like being in school," says Jaromir Jagr. "You be quiet and listen and learn. You can't be confident in your skills because you are not totally confident in how you act."

Gaborik was aimed in the right direction by the Wild, which tried to help him through the cultural transition. He says, however, a lot of his comfort level came from watching movies.

"Jennifer Lopez's parents learned English in the movie The Wedding Planner by joining a Scrabble club," Gaborik says. "I just watch the movies to learn ... to help me become more comfortable with the language."

Now it's Gaborik who is becoming the celebrity. His maturity is evident in how he approaches the game. He's a thinking-man's player, whose 6-1, 200-pound size doesn't hurt in the physical NHL game.

"Gaborik sees the ice and reacts to a potential play like a veteran," said former coach Pat Quinn says. "He no longer plays like a kid. He makes all the plays that a Mario Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr does."

Marian Gaborik is now 31-years-old. He still has the creative mind of an art major and that of a quality goal scorer.

Now, if only the Columbus Blue Jackets can harness that for Gaborik ... well, that will be quite a fit.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Seguin, From Stanley Cup to a developing star

By Larry Wigge

You could say hockey was a part of Tyler Seguin's life. You could say his hockey game grew up larger than life.

Sort of ...

Actually, you could say that Seguin doesn't remember what it feels like to be a normal person his age. At 18, he became involved with Taylor Hall in one of the best draft stories in years -- the Taylor vs. Tyler Sweepstakes for the nod as the top player in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft before being selected second by the Boston Bruins.

Then, at 19, he led the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup. 
Not too many players have such an opportunity.

"My first year, a lot of this was a whole new world for me," Seguin gushes. "It was a big learning curve ... with a lot of ups and downs."

All the Brampton, Ontario, native, has done is come into the NHL and score 11 goals in his rookie year, then lead the Bruins in scoring with 29 goals and 38 assists. In the process, Seguin became the youngest player in club history to do so.

"You can grow at your pace and not have the world expected of you," said Mark Recchi, one of Seguin's linemates in his rookie season. You'll never know what Recchi, who won a Cup with Pittsburgh, Carolina and then in his finale season with Boston, meant to Tyler.

"I think it's a lot better that way," said Recchi, a three-time champion. "I think it's easier, obviously."

This year, Seguin has 12 goals and 14 assists in 37 games through April 6, although he scored 25 times for Biel in 29 games in the Swiss League during the lockout.

Some might say that Tyler Seguin may have taken the fast track to the NHL. But ...

Seguin grew up with hockey in his blood. Paul, his father, suited up four years at the University of Vermont. And, Jackie, his mother played for a local team, the Brampton Canadettes, which his sisters played for as well.

Paul Seguin played at the University of Vermont, where he was the team captain and a roommate of future NHLer John LeClair. However, there was no comparison in the way father and son played the game.

"He was a fast defenseman who did a lot of fighting," Seguin recalled. "We're pretty much opposites that way."

Doing the every-day things was a must in the Seguin's family. He remembers the drive downtown from Brampton, while playing for the Toronto Young Nats. It included being dropped off at a bus stop by his mother, before starting an hour-and-a-half morning commute. And there were days when the young hockey player fell asleep and missed his next stop, elongating the trip.

Next was a walk through the Yorkdale Shopping Center to get to the subway, which he took to the St. Clair stop. From there, he walked to St. Michael's College School in Toronto. His family relocated from Whitby to Brampton so he could attend the school. 

Does that sound like a too-big-for-his-britches kid? Tyler did this bus journey every day at Toronto St. Mike's.

"Obviously every family has to make sacrifices for money. There were a lot more little things," Seguin said. "They made that sacrifice to move, it was only an hour-and-a-half, but to move for my hockey ... There were a lot of little things, sacrifices they had to make, just for me to have a chance to chase my dream."

In the year prior to the draft, the 6-1, 182-pound center-right wing scored 48 goals and 58 assists for a league-leading 106 points for the Plymouth Whalers.

"He's a terrific player," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. "He's got a terrific skill set. He's still growing. His improvement has been tremendous from one year to the next. He's very smart. Terrific hockey sense, good stick, very underrated wrist shot. He's got the whole package."

After his first year, Seguin said he saw things a little differently.

"I see the game differently now," he said. "Guys talk a lot about the game slowing down. I don"t know if it's like that for me, but I've learned some little tricks out there that have helped me."

One of those tricks, said Seguin, is knowing when to circle toward the net when he knows Patrice Bergeron has secured a puck along the wall or near the goal line.

Said Seguin, "My first year, a lot of this was a whole new world for me. It was a big learning curve with a lot of ups and downs."

"He was first on pucks, he was hard on pucks, he was battling, he was doing all the little things that people don't always see, but are huge," said Bergeron. "I told him that was one of his best games all year. He was awesome. He was strong, he was hard to keep up with he was so fast. He really was doing a great job with his vision, his speed but also his battle level."

Two seasons and one Stanley Cup later, it's hardly an old world for Seguin, but it is one with far more ups than downs.

"What happens with kids like this is, you've been the best player at every level and then you get to a level when you're not the best player and you get told you're not ready to play at that level," said Gary Roberts, the former NHL stalwart who now trains players in North York and works for the Dallas Stars. "Some kids mentally aren't prepared to do it. That's where the family comes in. That's where the upbringing comes in. If you've been brought up with good standards and morals and work ethic that matters. You just can't show up and play. Some kids aren't willing to do what they have to do and they squander their talents."

Roberts is impressed by what he's seen of Seguin.

"I'd say Tyler Seguin's figured it out," said Roberts. "Whatever he's been doing away from the ice and on the ice, it's all starting to click for him."

What Roberts was talking about was teen-agers playing men.

"It actually gets kind of annoying sometimes because I'm use to 30-year-old men all around me," he laughed. "I'm used to Zdeno Chara’s little jokes he laughs at that I don't laugh at, and then you go back to guys around your age and just the maturity level, of course. It gets a little weird."

As a rookie he had to become a professional. Playing against men. Giving of yourself for the guy next to you. It's something Seguin learned the hard way ... limited ice time. He wasn't used to that.

He actually was scratched in a game.

"I'm watched like a hawk. Paid lots of attention," Seguin said. "When you come here, I still have guys I can maybe I act my age with, but the only time I could really be a 20-year-old, which is what I take advantage of, is in the summer. I'm with kids all my age all time."

Team president Cam Neely and coach Claude Julien reiterated their intent to bring Seguin along slowly. Fans and media, mesmerized by the kid's bursts of skill, urged the Bruins to give the rookie more opportunities. Why not use the kid? The pressure mounted on Julien to put him in the lineup.

"It was a natural thing for people to want more, especially his friends and family," Julien said. "I know how frustrated they got at certain points. But I also knew there were some things Tyler had to work on."

The coach brought Seguin into the film room and ran the tapes of him skating into the corner. He wanted the rookie to see for himself.

"At times he'd put on the brakes and bail out," Julien said. "We showed him some video clips. Sometimes when you see what it looks like it, it's not fun to watch. It made him understand how far he still had to come."

Obstacles a young player must learn from and overcome.

When he was in seventh grade, Seguin got cut from the basketball team. He still uses that as a tool to overcome obstacles that you face to get where you are.

Said Seguin, "I freely admit I wasn't very good ... I never forgot it. I never forgot that feeling. It motivates me."

Lesson learned. 

The goal that Seguin scored that made me jump out of my seat. It came in Tyler's second season against Washington goalie Braden Holtby at 3:17 in overtime of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. The goal gave the Bruins a 4-3 victory.

"I saw the goalie challenging ... so I just tried to make a quick move," Seguin said.

Challenging was putting it mildly. Holtby was trying to smother the puck ... and he failed.

Said Seguin, "What I do remember is he was coming out far, so at the last instant I stopped and pushed it around him."

"When you're not producing you put enough pressure on yourself and you've got to know people are expecting you to do well," continued Seguin. "As a little kid your dream is to get the big goals."

The dreams of a little kid. Tyler Seguin has done it all.

Cup in hand, Gagne plans to add a little bit of experience

By Larry Wigge

Simon Gagne has been through it all.

He's spent 10 years with the Philadelphia Flyers through good times and bad. Yet, he had spent time with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Los Angeles Kings to see what the greener side of things. The greener side of life included a Stanley Cup with the Kings -- life's ultimate prize.

On February 26, he was reacquired by Philadelphia and while he may not be the seven-time 20-goal scorer he once was, but he has the experience and the prize.

"I had that chance of a lifetime to raise the Stanley Cup in victory," said Gagne. "It was like no other feeling. It was unique, because we finished with the eighth spot in the playoffs ... and won ..."

It was at this point Gagne broke up. His tears were of joy for all of those years when he was with the Flyers and they fell short. Even a concussion that sideline him early in the season.

Gagne finally recovered in time to speak haltingly about the feeling, saying, "Just being a part of it ... For the pure satisfaction ... To win the Cup ... It was all I hoped for and more."

With all of the adoration behind him, Gagne, knowing he wasn't finished and could still help a team, he was traded for a fourth-round draft choice, which could become a third if the Flyers could recover to make the playoffs. 

"I'm happy to get that chance," Gagne said. "It was tough not to play. I'm going to a place I know well."

And now he joins the Flyers ... with a little bit of knowledge to pass along to this young Philadelphia team.

"He improves our depth up front automatically," said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, who traded Gagne three years ago. "He is a good two-way player that can skate. ... Coaches have watched tape of him playing, so we feel comfortable that he is fine. He seems excited to be coming back, and looks forward to an opportunity to play and help us."

Gagne knows what to say to a young group of players. He showed he can still contribut, scoring a goal in his first game with the Flyers against the Washington Capitals February 27. He gotten only four goals in 18 games, but he adds the experience that most of these players only hope to achieve.

"I can still contribute," says Gagne. "But I'm not stubborn enough to say I should be getting power play time or minutes at key points of the game."

He comes back to the Flyers better prepared to lead them -- to guide them.

"It's that time of season, not only for young guys but for all the guys," Gagne said. "Maybe guys are a little nervous and watching what's going on. But it's part of the business and the older you get the more you get used to it."

Gagne is one of those rare athletes who can beat you with his speed on an odd-man rush up the ice. He can beat you with his shot ... from any angle. He can beat you with that innate vision he has on the ice that allows him to get into the right position a move or two before a play to make an impact. And he's also accountable on the defensive side of the game as well.

"Until you get a chance to coach Simon Gagne, I don't think you appreciate all the little things he does," former Flyers coach John Stevens said. "He's a world-class player on both sides of the puck."

The words, the compliments aren't out of place when speaking about the 33-year-old, 6-1, 195-pound winger from Ste-Foy, Quebec, who was the Philadelphia Flyers' first-round pick, 22nd overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. But the confidence that Simon Gagne would still be the same player who was coming off of seasons in which he scored 47 and 41 goals and was the MVP of the Philadelphia Flyers in each season, before he encountered a series of concussions.

He admits he learned about his own mortality the hard way ... 

"Not being able to play so much, I realized that some things I'd taken for granted ..."

Gagne paused as if to come up with just the right words to describe the mornings he would wake up with that familiar pounding headache -- and there was no pain pill to make it stop -- he felt while recovering from the concussions and the post-concussions symptoms that always follow before he continued, saying, "Coming into the season, I planned to be patient and maybe be back near full speed sometime after Christmas. Going eight months without playing, you just don't know if ... or when ... 

"You'll never know how scared I was when I played in my first exhibition game. The speed that I once thrived in, well, in that game, I had trouble keeping up with the rest of the guys.

"But that's life as a professional athlete. You want to play. You almost have to play. Until you go through a tough time like that, you know nothing about concussions.

"Now I know the brain takes a lot of time to heal."

Pardon the pun, but Simon Gagne is a heady player. He's smart. He's got that innate vision that star players have.

He's been a dangerous anytime he's on the ice, in any situation. You know, he might be even more dangerous now than he was when he had 40 or more goals earlier in his career, because of the attention other teams give to Simon Gagne, Jake Vorachek and Scott Hartnell now. He just kind of disappears ... and then -- BOOM -- he'll put the puck in the net against you.

Said Holmgren, "I remember the first time I saw him in juniors. He was skinny little guy with speed. I remember when we brought him into minicamp before his first training camp. He just looked like a hockey player. He was light on his feet, he handled the puck really well, and was calm.

"And all of a sudden this skinny little runt grew into a nice sized go-to player for us."

Overcoming obstacles is something every athlete has to overcome, even a Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. Simon Gagne has a little voice in his head that seems to pop up every time he needs a pep talk.

"The voice says, 'Never quit. Believe in your dreams.' "

"I think from the time I was on skates for the first time when I was two, my dad told me that ... at least it was the voice of reason for me," Gagne explained. "I'd rather not say the name of the coach. But when I was 14-15, I remember that coach telling me I was too small, too skinny to play at the next level. My dad's words carried me past that obstacle and I heard them again last summer when I was preparing for this season."

Pierre Gagne, Simon's dad, has more than a voice of reason. He's a policeman in Quebec City and he's obviously a voice of authority. Nicole Gagne was also a voice of authority and reason around home when she wasn't working as a life insurance salesperson.

"They were very important trying to keep my spirits up when the doctors told me I couldn't play. My parents have always been there for me," Gagne said.

Being able to carry out instructions on the ice to a 'T,' the quick-thinking Gagne got some pretty good advice from doctors on the dangers of post-concussion, but he went to former players to see what they did for their symptoms -- like former Flyers center Keith Primeau, who had to end his career because of the continuing difficulties he faced.

"What I learned is that I never lost my memory of the hits or anything. I never had trouble sleeping. The dizziness I'd feel once in a while wasn't debilitation like it is for some guys who have had concussions," Gagne continued. "That made me look at the recovery as a challenge or another obstacle to overcome, not a life-threatening situations."

Gagne was finding answers in a world of concussions where there are often no easy answers and force equals mass times acceleration -- with the greater the force, the greater the potential for injury.

One of the remedies for his neck pain, dizziness and headaches came when he was watching a health segment on the news and saw a special treatment that was being used at the Magaziner Center for Wellness and Anti-Aging in Cherry Hill, N.J. Simon's doctors gave him the go-ahead to see Dr. Scott Greenberg about an injection therapy called prolotherapy. Dr. Greenberg diagnosed the Jay Bouwmeester and Eric Staal hits as a sort of whiplash rather than more concussions.

Anti-inflammatory agents that help send white blood cells to the injured areas, regenerating the damaged tissue and strengthening the joints that were damaged.

And now Simon Gagne doesn't have to think what might have been if he lied to the doctors about how he felt and tried to play in the playoffs last spring. He's glad he took the time off -- and he looks around the Flyers locker room and knows he wants to be a big part of this team's playoff run this season.

All the Flyers are asking for is Simon Gagne, his wealth of talent, his words of wisdom and the experience he can provide.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

At 6-7, Bishop is more than just a big goalie

By Larry Wigge


Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman could have had a chance at standout, young goalie, Ben Bishop one year earlier.

That's right. But Yzerman wouldn't pay a second-round draft choice that the St. Louis Blues were asking for Bishop. Instead, the Blues went to the Ottawa Senators, who surrendered a second-round pick in 2013 for Bishop.

Yzerman still didn't pay a second-round draft choice for Bishop, but he did include rookie center Cory Conacher in a deadline deal prior to the 2013 trade deadline.

But you would have to wonder ... whether things would have been different for the Lightning ... wouldn't you?

Bishop, born in Denver, Colorado, but raised in St. Louis and became the Blues third-round pick, 85th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. At 6-7, 215 pounds, the tallest goaltender in the history of the NHL, lost in a backup race prior to the 2011-12 season with Brian Elliott. Elliott and Jaroslav Halak would go on to post the best goalie tandem in the NHL. ... And in Ottawa, he was sort of in the same predicament -- playing second fiddle behind Craig Anderson and fighting for the backup job with Robin Lehner.

But the 26-year-old goaltender had evolved. Thanks to the offseason work with David Alexander, the goaltending coach at the University of Maine, for his development. Alexander trained with the Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard, St. Louis rookie Jake Allen and Bishop.

In his debut game with the Lighting, Ben turned aside 45 shots in the Carolina Hurricanes, 5-0, April 4. Bishop tied Daren Puppa's franchise record for saves in a shutout and tying for the second-most saves in a game in franchise history.

It was quite a contrast for Cooper to see Bishop in his debut for Tampa Bay compared to when Cooper first saw the up-and-coming goaltender in the North American Hockey League. Back then, Bishop's Texas Tornado team was knocking out Cooper's Texarkana Bandits in the 2004-05 playoffs.

"I'll tell you, for somebody that size and you have to get up and down, up and down at 18 years old and your leg muscles are not developed yet, it's hard on you," Cooper said. "He was kind of a gangly kid back then, but he has really developed into his body, he's strong, his legs are strong, so now he's strong in all those areas and now he doesn't break down like he did when he was younger.

"So if tonight game is any indication of what he is going to be, it's going to bode well for us."

Ever the vigilante GM, Yzerman said that Bishop would have to outduel Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon for the No. 1 job.

"We're not going to anoint either of them the No. 1 guy," Yzerman said. "We'll let the situation evolve. They will all play. They can look to each other to have someone to ease the load that neither player is expected to go out and start 60 games. It's a good step for each of their careers."

Yzerman's still the sceptic.

Here's a little background of Bishop for you to peruse and make up your own mind.

Bishop is the son of Ben Bishop II, who runs Western Waterproofing, a construction company in St. Louis West County. Cindy, his mom, is a nurse. Bishop's grandfather was a tennis professional, who played in the US Open. Neither of Bishop's parents are nearly as tall as he is; his father is 6-1 and his mother is 5-3 tall.

He was a forward until age 8. Then, he switched to goaltender.

How often do you get asked how tall you are?

"A lot," he says, shaking his head. "It probably averages out to once a day."

Is size always an advantage to a goalie, or can it be a disadvantage?

"I think it's an advantage," he said. "I don't think there's anything that a smaller guy can do that I can't. And there's many things I can do that he can't. I mean, I like to think I'm just as athletic as those small guys, if not more athletic, so I don't think it's a disadvantage."

Former St. Louis goalie Curtis Joseph is his favorite player, growing up a fan of the Blues. Joseph's competitive attitude in goal was one of the things that Bishop remembers most.

But, during the lockout in May of 2005, Bishop was invited to replace Joseph in a Blues Alumni/NHL All-Star Celebrity game. Ben was on loan from the Texas Tornado.

This is THE most important thing Yzerman should have known about Bishop.

He stood taller than the 6-5, 200 pounds, he played at -- especially in a five-man shootout, when he was asked to stop Luc Robitaille, Jeremy Roenick, Rob Blake, Joe Nieuwendyk and Adam Foote.

Bishop flawlessly turned aside each and every one of those NHL stars.

"That was a dream night," he remembered.

He'll never forget Grant Standbrook and the efforts that he provided at Maine.

"From Day 1, he stressed that I use my size to be bigger in goal and my balance to have the quickness I'll need to go from side to side to play at the next level."

Strength and conditioning were first on Standbrook's agenda.

The best hockey advice given Bishop, "Challenge, angle, rebound control. It's like Grant Standbrook has drilled that in my head."

And then this past summer Bishop's training session with University of Maine goaltender coach David Alexander.

"He's big, and he plays big," said teammate Marty St. Louis. "He moves the puck. He's calm. He was tremendous."

Lightning wing B.J. Crombeen, Bishop's teammate in St. Louis, described Bishop as lanky, athletic, competitive and mobile.

"He covers a lot of net," Crombeen said. "You look at his numbers, it's a great pickup."

But Ben Bishop wasn't out for personal accolades. He looks at his chance in Tampa Bay as a chance to compete. Ever since he was eight -- and switched from forward to a goalie.

"This is big for the team, there are no individuals in here," Bishop said. "We are chasing a playoff spot so every game is important. I just wanted to get off on the right foot and do that with a win."

Ben Bishop stepped in with both feet in his debut with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Getting Regehr a key item for the champion Kings

Larry Wigge

It was not too long ago that opponents would fear coming down on the wrong side of the ice and run right into defenseman Robyn Regehr.

In 2009, when Mike Cammalleri joined Regehr on the Calgary Flames, he said his new teammate would sometimes scare the bejesus out of you.

"I would sooner dump the puck into the other end," said Cammalleri, remember his long career with the Los Angeles Kings. "He would scare the snot of me. He would look you in the eyes and I would freeze. Then, he's go right through you.

"For a little guy like me, Robyn was a monster to have to deal with."

A lot of battles have been won -- or lost -- against Regehr, for 11 seasons with the Calgary Flames and for the last two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. But you knew you'd be in a battle with him every time.

That session with Cammalleri came in 2009, he stick was visibly shaken at the thought of having to face Regehr.

"Oh, Robyn's name is known throughout the league," said Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi, who's had his share of battles with Regehr over the years. "Whenever you're coming to Calgary, you know you'd better have the turn on him when you're going down the wing, because if you don't, you'll be in the end boards pretty quickly.

"He's patented that move and stopped a lot of guys just because of that move. Guys pull up on him."

Being a shutdown defender in the NHL these days is no easy feat. Sure, a few years ago, you could hook and hold your way to success.

Now, it's about footwork, body position and smarts.

The 6-3, 225-pound defenseman -- soon to be 34 on April 19 -- was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche, first-round, 19th overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. Regehr led the Flames to the Stanley Cup finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.

At the time, the Rosthern, Saskatchewan, native, was a key performer on defense for Darryl Sutter. A recent trade from Buffalo to the Los Angeles Kings for second-round draft choices in 2013 and '14 reunites them.

"Experience, good guy in the back, fills our left side," Sutter said. "He's played a long time and he's a pretty strong identity. That's pretty clear."

Said Regehr, "It's rare to be traded to the defending Stanley Cup champions. Being in a position to win again and with a team that has proven it can do it in the past and wants to do it again. I'm very excited about that. Also familiar with Darryl as a coach and knowing his style and how demanding he is."

"Robyn gives us what Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell provided us with the physical element until there both injured," said GM Dean Lombardi. "This guy's character is off the charts. He is no picnic to play against. This is a guy you'd rather have on your side than to play against."

Lombardi went on to say, "I think there's a good chance we can retain him (Regehr will be an unrestricted free agent after this season). This wasn't looked at as just a player for a rental. We're looking at this as a guy that can fit with us for a number of years.

"We've got more physics projects going on the board than MIT in terms of trying to figure out how to make sure we keep our own." 

Ron Regehr, Robyn's father, is the insurance business. Edith, his mom, is a registered nurse. 

"They gave me my first Montreal Canadiens sweat shirt when I was a kid," Regehr recalled. "They knew I always like Larry Robinson."

Ron and Edith gave Robyn the chance to life his dream. Patience and determination were two of the key elements that they also gave their son. 

Those qualities became extremely important, when Robyn Regehr broke both of his legs in something of a minor miracle. The bigger miracle was that he wasn't killed, when his 1976 Chevy Nova was struck head-on by another car on the night of July 4, 1999.

Regehr was driving his brother and two friends home from a day of water skiing near his parents' home in Rosthern. The impact of the collision killed the two people in the other car and snapped Regehr's legs like a composite hockey stick.

When Regehr's father, Ron, went to look at his son's vehicle after the accident, he was stunned. He prayed for a quick recovery -- and wondered aloud how his sons were not killed. There, stuck between the brake pedal and car floor was one of Robyn's sandals. Try as he might, the father couldn't pry it loose from the Nova's mangled interior.

"I think the accident probably made me a stronger person," Regehr recalled. "You have a sense of being very fortunate, and I do feel fortunate to be here and playing hockey in the playoffs.

"When the accident happened, I wasn't worried about my career because there were more important things to worry about, like not knowing the health of my friends. But after (former Flames general manager) Al Coates saw me at the hospital and told me not to worry, I never had a doubt I'd play again. I didn't know how long it would take, but I knew I'd play.

"I was determined."

Actually, Robyn Regehr missed on 25 games in the 1999-2000 season. 

Being traded to Buffalo and then to Los Angeles is a breeze for the veteran. Getting to know his Kings teammates will happen sooner or later. Learning Sutter's system may be tougher.

"Darryl is a very demanding coach," Regehr said. "I think any player that plays under him, that's one of the first things that he would mention. But, that being said, when you do the kind of stuff that he asks of you, and you do it well, you put yourself in a position to succeed and also become a very good professional.

"I was excited to be back and have that opportunity. I know the type of style -- a very similar style -- of what he asked us to play in Calgary. I should be able to brush the rust off a little bit. It's been a few years and get out there and do it and do it well."

Regehr, no doubt, will scare opposition wingers in the upcoming games.