Monday, December 28, 2015
By Larry Wigge
Max Domi's father was a complicated man ... sort of.
Tie Domi was a champion of a lost art in hockey. He'd drop his gloves in a Toronto minute just to get even for a teammate or because an opponent would sideways at him.
For most of Tie's career, which also included 104 goals and 141 assists, penalty minutes was his specialty -- some 3,515 penalty minutes in his 15-year NHL career with the Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets.
Thus when I asked Max what kind of message did his impart to his son when he was the 12th pick overall in the 2013 NHL draft by the Arizona Coyotes.
Max said simply, "My dad always says: Keep your head up and make smart plays."
Keeping his head up sound like Tie. The other advice seems strange, but it not so strange when you consider Max Domi plans to use his hands for good ... not evil.
And it's the next generation away from Tie, who finished his career in 2005-06 ... and basically Tiger Williams, Marty McSorley, Bob Probert, Chris Nilan and the Broad Street Bullies are extinct.
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 observes. "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."
If you get the feeling that Max will defend his dad to the end ...
"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."
Max Domi was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Domi's resume is one of an up-and-coming terrific playmaker. Max is second among NHL rookie point producers, with 26 points, behind the Chicago Blackhawks' Artemi Panarin, who has 31 points.
That's where the familiarity or glad-handing comes in. It's not uncommon that Domi is seen chatting with Mario Lemieux or Mats Sundin or Mark Messier or Alex Steen -- players who the youngster became life-long friends with because of his dad.
Domi remembers one night at at Toronto hotel. Messier got up in the hotel restaurant and told Max he would teach him some of the finer points of the faceoff ... and so the two did a little drill right in the restaurant.
"I was 15 years old and here we were in the middle of the restaurant at the hotel," Domi said, amazingly. "I don't think I lost a draw the rest of the year."
Just listen to Shane Doan, longtime Coyotes captain in his 20th NHL season, on Domi:
"Young guys coming in sometimes have a feeling of entitlement," Doan said. "There's a lot of recognition that comes with somebody that's had as much success as he's had on the ice already ... and there is not one ounce of that. And every single vet in the room is as big a fan of him as anybody. It's just human nature in sports when the new guy comes in to feel a little bit, I don't know, you want them to earn it, I don't know how to express it other than there can sometimes be resentment from the veteran guys.
"It has made our room so much fun ... They've just been so eager to learn and at the same time they're driving the bus for us, so they've had the right to feel some entitlement. It's pretty awesome."
Said Coach Dave Tippett: "He's not in awe of anything. He takes responsibility for things. He's been around it his whole life. ... His speed and skill stand out"
When it comes time for Tie Domi to stand up for his son, he remembers one day when Max was 12.
"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.' "
Domi changed his uniform No. 13 to 16, a tribute to another mould-breaker, in diabetes Bobby Clarke. In fact, Max plays a lot like Clarke, the longtime captain of the Flyers -- his tenacity on retrieving pucks.
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.
Clarke was retired and in the stands watching his grandson play, when Domi's mom, Leanne, spotted him at the game. She wanted Clarke to say hello to Max.
Max recalled that time: "She said she'd never done that before because obviously she knows what it feels like to bugged during family time like that. But, he came over and said hi. Pretty cool."
Considering the impact Clarke's visit had on Domi, he was eager to meet with sometimes 10 kids after games. Some would even ask him to sign their insulin pumps.
Now, Domi appears on TV commercials in Canada, a face of Bayer's diabetes care campaign. With every video share online, Bayer makes a $1 donation to diabetes research. Even actor Mark Wahlberg -- a family friend of the Domi's -- posted the link on social media.
"He was pretty happy with my acting skills," Domi said.
Off the ice, Domi has a best friend named Orion, a yellow Labrador retriever that serves as a constant companion helping this Coyote control his diabetes.
"So, he's a service dog, and he actually alerts me when my blood sugar gets too low ... and he's right 99.9 percent of the time," said Domi.
How does he know for sure?
"You give off a scent in your saliva that he's been trained to pick up. It's amazing how smart he is," Domi said. "It's amazing the connection you have with your dog."
Max is in touch with the trainer and doctor of the Coyotes. By taking insulin shots and constantly checking his blood sugar, something he does up to 30 times a day.
An underdose of insulin could make him ill.
To get to where Max Domi is there is little doubt that Tie had something to do with it.
"I am who I am and my dad is who he is," Max said. "I've been asked about that a lot. We're two different people."
"Being drafted into the NHL was a dream come true," said Max. "It's hard to put it into words."
Tie and Max ...
"We're kind of opposites," said Max. "But we wrestle quite a bit. I like to give him a go every so often. But ... he didn't really want me fighting."
Then, Max laughs at that thought, saying, "I wouldn't tell him that to his face, but I was more of a Mats Sundin fan (the uniform No. 13 once wore comes into play earlier in this story)."
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.
For Max Domi, growing up at 5-9, 193 pounds, 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.
"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 London 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."
When your dealing with DNA and father's and sons, sometimes that facts get in the way ... if you know what I mean.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
By Larry Wigge
There are certain players you HAVE to have ... no matter how long it takes to make a deal.
Roberto Luongo is one such player that Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon had to have. It took the better part of two years before Tallon re-acquired Roberto Luongo from Vancouver in March of 2014.
The time spent in acquiring one of the game's elite goaltenders was time well spent, according to Tallon, who had been the architect for three Stanley Cups in six seasons at Chicago.
Rebuilding the Panthers was Tallon's latest project ...
"Roberto won a gold medal for Canada in 2006. He took Vancouver to the Cup finals in 2011 ... got beat in Game 7 by Boston," Tallon gushed. "His numbers are phenomenal."
Tallon paused and said, "This is the beginning of something special for this Florida Panthers organization, having Roberto back in the fold and back in Florida where he belongs. We're going to grow together and win many championships."
On this December 1 night, Luongo made 29 saves in a 3-1 Florida Panthers victory at St. Louis, including 17 in the third period, for his 16th career win against the Blues.
"The days of saying; 'I'm young and I'm this or that' are over," he said. "I look forward to the pressure of the expectations fans have for me, but ... "
It was just a split-second between thoughts before he revealed his real aspirations, saying; "I want people to compare me to the Marty Brodeurs and Patrick Roys and Grant Fuhrs of this game. That's my goal ... to be the best goalie in the world."
Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr and Glenn Hall have been passed by Luongo -- and soon Tony Esposito on the all-time wins list for eighth overall.
The 36-year-old from Montreal has not won a Stanley Cup like Brodeur and Roy and Fuhr have, but Luongo Luongo is in the NHL's upper echelon in the puck-stopping business.
"I pride myself on being an ultimate competitor," Luongo said. "Everything I do I want to win ... whether it's playing hockey, poker or golf or any other sport."
So does anything scare Luongo? Well ...
"I would say heights," he said, blushing a little. "I never go on roller coasters. I'd never try sky-diving. I get scared of heights."
Quick wit. Quiet confidence. That's Roberto Luongo.
When you're a goaltender, you learn to look beyond what's in your sight. There are often a half-dozen legs and arms between you and the shooter ... and your job is to be in a position to stop the puck no matter where it comes from, no matter how many deflections, how many screens. And Roberto Luongo's vision of where he's at and what he wants is very clear.
Luongo looks you straight in the eyes when he speaks, not like most athletes -- whose eyes waver.
On the floor of his Montreal he grew up in, Luongo used to watch and marvel at Edmonton's Grant Fuhr.
"I used to watch Grant Fuhr on television all the time, watching him make those glove saves. So that's really what attracted me to being a goalie. I just found it so spectacular and exciting," Luongo remembered. "Any time I was playing street hockey with my friends, I tried to make those kind of saves.
"My parents wanted me to skate and move around the ice and not just stand in the net. That's how it was back in the day. But after the third year, I really wanted to switch over. I started playing goalie when I was 12."
Antonio, his dad, worked in the construction and delivery of furniture. Pasqualina, his mom, worked in the marketing for Air Canada.
Luongo quickly became a solid netminder. He was drafted fourth overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. Then, in the summer of 2000, he was traded to Florida.
While playing with Panthers, Luongo would spend at Pizza Time Trattoria. Being an Italian, it felt like home.
"When I went in there, the owner, was Italian, so we started talking in Italian," Luongo said, of his burgeoning friendship with Umberto Cerbone. "It was right next to my townhouse, so I started going there every day ..."
The friendship became more ...
"After a while, they felt like family even though I'd just started dating Gina, his daughter," said Luongo. "I was friends with the whole family before I met her.
"Italians are always close to their families. That's the way we're brought up."
Now Roberto and Gina two childen -- they have Gabriella, who is eight years old, and Gianni, who will turns six on December 27.
At a time when we constantly read about how a team is looking to get its top players a rest, Luongo threw me a curveball.
"Not at all," Luongo said. "When you're winning, you stay energized. You don't look at the number of games you've played or getting a breather here or there. You want to be in there every night.
"Years ago, I played a ton in the regular season ... and I was more than ready to go in the playoffs. You play all your career to perform in the playoffs, so there's no way you feel tired when the playoffs begin."
What? Worry about being tired? No way, according to Luongo.
That's the kind of refreshing frame of mind I think you'd hear from most players who live for hockey ... and live for the playoffs -- even if we in the media have built these myths that a player has to be ultra-fresh for the potential two-month run in the playoffs.
"I dreamed as a kid of playing in the NHL, playing in the playoffs and playing in an overtime game in the playoffs," Luongo continued, smiling from ear-to-ear. "What a rush! Extra pressure makes you want to thrive even more."
You can feel the fire in his voice, can't you? The fight of a champion. The hunger to win. And now, he's ready for more.
"Lou's and boos all sound the same," Luongo said, kiddingly. "I won't be able to tell the difference. I just want to enjoy the game."
Roberto Luongo wears a mask. In Florida, he plays in goal with a mask and a purpose ... to win.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
By Larry Wigge
Ever since Ryan O'Reilly entered the NHL as a second-round pick, 33rd overall, in the 2009 Entry Draft, he has been trying to prove to everyone that he was a premier center.
Unfortunately for the 6-foot, 200-pounder from Clinton, Ontario, he has had Paul Stastny and Matt Duchesne and later Duchesne and Nathan MacKinnon for ice time -- leaving him No. 3 center ice time.
In Denver, O'Reilly had to fight recognition.
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.
In 2013-14, he poured in 28 goals and 38 assists to finish third among the Colorado Avalanche in scoring behind Duchesne and Gabriel Landeskog in scoring. But, he always had the salary -- two years at $3.575 million -- that he held out that caused him to miss 13 games at the start of 2013.
It was like he was being held hostage for earning that kind of contract theoretically.
But in June, he was traded with Jamie McGinn for Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko. Not exactly what you would expect for such a productive second- or third-line center for the first six years of his career.
The Sabres quickly rewarded O'Reilly a seven-year, $52.5 million contract -- along with plenty of No. 1 center ice time.
"It's a relief coming to camp. It's just nice to kind of get on the ice and kind of focus on hockey, which is the most important thing for me," said the 24-year-old center.
Less than two weeks later, Ryan O'Reilly was arrested and charged with impaired driving and leaving the scene of an accident after allegedly driving his vintage pickup truck into the side of a Tim Hortons coffee shop near London, Ontario.
But that led to the season -- and a relief for O'Reilly.
O’Reilly has been carving his reputation as a hard worker and standout. He contributed a team-leading seven goals and nine assists in his first 19 games. He was also leading the NHL in takeaways, shooting for a fourth consecutive season leading the league in that category.
He also ranked first in the NHL in power-play points (seven), faceoff wins (160 for a 59 percent success rate) and ice time among forwards (21:32 per game).
"Coming here and seeing what they expected me to be, I have to be hard on myself," O’Reilly said. "On teams previous, I don't think my role was as big, so here being brought in to be seen as one of those key guys offensively, I think there’s more pressure on myself, which I enjoy, but at the same time I have to be better."
Who gave him his best advice?
"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. Ryan's brother Cal, who has played in the NHL for Nashville, Phoenix and Pittsburgh.
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.
"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.
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.
"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 three years," said Landeskog. "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."
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.
Monday, November 23, 2015
By Larry Wigge
Every successful athlete knows that timing is important. He must BE IN the moment.
Take 36-year-old Patrick Marleau.
A little more than 18 years ago, Marleau was the second pick overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft by the San Jose Sharks held at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena, which was located across Centre Avenue from where Consol Energy Center is now.
On November 21, Marleau added two assists in a 3-1 San Jose Sharks victory over the Penguins. His first assist seven minutes into the game set up Joel Ward, who in turn, dished a pass Brent Burns for a 1-0 lead.
"That's really cool," Marleau said. "Being drafted here and getting the 1,000 points here, there's some significance here in Pittsburgh. It's something I'll always remember."
Joe Thornton, who just happened to be the No. 1 overall pick ahead of Marleau, said that Patrick is a quiet star, not like so many of the others over the years.
"You can look for someone who has a loud voice and big persona. But players look for someone who is a quiet leader, someone who knows the right thing to say ... and when to say it," explained Thornton. "Patty plays hard EVERY DAY -- at practice and in the games.
"He's an example for all of us to follow. You want someone who symbolizes that work ethic."
Marleau was in the moment in 1997... just as he is today.
The Aneroid, Saskatchewan, native, accumulated a total of 461 goals, 539 assists in 1,349 games gave him 1,001 points -- all with the Sharks.
He didn't accomplish the feat with a wrist shot or a slap shot like you would expect. But setting up a goal ...
"It's funny, but I remember watching this kid with so much potential, so many skills, as a junior player," Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson said, breaking out in a wide smile. "We were sold on his character and the type of person he was, but the total package is what we drafted."
There may not be any more 30-plus goal seasons like the seven the 6-2, 220-pound forward produced in his first 16 seasons. Last season, the 6-2, 220-pound forward had 19 goals. But ...
"This guy is one of the best players in the last 10 or 15 years," said coach Peter DeBoer. "He's in great shape. I think last year was a bit of an aberration. He's come out with a lot of other guys to prove that."
"Marleau is big, strong and fast. Give him a step and he's gone," Predators defenseman Shea Weber told me.
"He gets on you pretty fast," Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller added.
Look no farther than his six goals and seven assists in the first 20 games this season. Three of those goals have been game winners -- 90 game-winning goals in his career.
In the moment ...
You can predict certain things from watching a 17-year-old player. But the intangibles that translate into a leader normally can be traced back to a player's upbringing. For Patrick Marleau, that's being brought up by Denis and Jeanette, his parents, whose farm in tiny Aneroid concentrates on cattle, grain and wheat.
"I’ll never forget those days when we would come home from school, get our chores done and then go out to the dugout, shovel off the snow and play hockey until it got dark," Marleau said. "School, chores and then hockey. That’s what my dad always reminded my brother, Richard, and me."
It was a culture that breeds hard work and solid citizens.
There’s a post office, a general store that serves gas, a grain elevator and Shaw's hotel, which has seven guest rooms in Aneroid (population 40). But there's no stop light and the nearest high school was more than an hour away in Swift Current.
"I'll never forget where I came from. Never," Marleau said recently. "I remember when I left for San Jose hearing my dad say, 'Son, never forget your roots.' "
Marleau paused and kind of hinted that Aneroid will always be a part of him. Like learning to skate in the dugout -- where the cattle would go for water. When the water would freeze over, Patrick and Richard Marleau had some really competitive games of one-on-on. They also became good friends with the caretaker of the local skating rink.
"We called him Tony Zamboni," Marleau recalled. "We were always knocking at his door. I think he would wait for us sometimes, then would let us in."
Sort of like Patrick Marleau’s own little Field of Dreams story -- at the dugout and the their own little skating rink in town.
"I was small until I was 15-16, something like 5-9, 5-10," Marleau recalled. "Then I had a spurt, when I was 16 and grew to 6-0, 6-1. I felt bigger and stronger and more confident."
Now, Patrick is one of the most difficult players in the NHL to game plan because of his size and speed.
After rotating the captaincy, Patrick Marleau became the Sharks' full-time captain during the 2003-04 season.
Marleau will tell you that he thinks he really grew up when he met his bride, Christina, a couple years ago and then they were blessed with a son, Landon Patrick, just before this season.
"It's been unbelievable, something you can't begin to describe. It's just joy. When you're on the road for a while, you can't wait to be at home, holding him. Especially now when he's starting to do facial expressions, laughing and giggling," said Marleau, who wanted to let us know that he scored one goal and added an assist in the first game young Landon attended. "It’s easier to go home and get my mind off the game ... all the worries ... and come back refreshed."
He laughed at the thought of his youngster, saying, "I'm not too bad at diapers."
Never once has Patrick Marleau lost that little boy’s desire. He’ll never forget that shoveling the snow off the dugout so he and his brother could skate after school. He'll never forget getting personal access to the town rink thanks to Tony Zamboni.
But hard work is something Patrick Marleau is not allergic to. And that drive and competitiveness all started back on that 1,600 acre farm in Aneroid, Saskatchewan.
Friday, November 13, 2015
By Larry Wigge
James Neal is just lurking.
He's hiding behind some bushes waiting to ambush the nearest goaltender.
"For me, I want to score ... I've got to score," says Neal, who in on pace to score 20 goals for the eighth straight season.
"When the opportunities are there, you want to bury them."
The 6-2, 208-pound right winger for the Nashville Predators said after notching seven goals in first 10 games this seasons. Neal has one of the best one-timers in the NHL -- in 2011-12 he netted 40 goals.
"When you're in the zone, you're feeling it, you almost feel like tapping you stick ... you want it," gushed Neal. "You want the puck a lot because you feel like everything's going to go in when you shoot it."
Their are six players that join Neal as 20-goal scorers since joining the NHL -- Jaromir Jagr, Alexander Ovechkin, Thomas Vanek, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews.
"I think he's one of the best goal scorers in the league," says Predators GM David Poile. "I think his record supports that.
"I like his speed, I like the fact he's dangerous all the time he is out there."
When Neal is moving his feet. He has been physically engaged, disrupting opposing plays in Nashville's offensive zone with a strong forecheck.
Linemate Philip Forsberg says, "Today, I just gave him the puck twice and he put it in the back of the net twice. That's the type of player he is."
Poile believes there is nothing wrong with Neal. Brett Hull played with Calgary, St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit and Phoenix. But, in his later days, Hull won a Stanley in Dallas and Detroit.
"I'm aware of how he plays," Poile sayis. "I like taking players for what they are and what they do. I'm not big on trying to change players. If I wanted to change a guy, I probably wouldn't trade for him."
For me, I'll never forget seeing Neal in the locker room as a rookie in 2009 in Montreal, head on a swivel making sure he did not miss anything. He didn't have a locker. Neal's position in the room was near a pole and he had a metal chair to sit on ... and his nameplate was written on paper and was fastened to pole.
Around him where Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf, Scott Niedermayer, Roberto Luongo, Shane Doan, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Mike Modano.
While he looked in awe, this Whitby, Ontario, native, was part of the YoungStars in the Montreal.
"I don't know what to say ... or who to say it too," said the 22-year-old Neal. "I'm just going to soak up all of the action."
Neal has the skills to go along with it. Good shot. Nose for the net. He battles hard and competes at a high pace. He finishes around the net with his stick ... and his grit. All of the intangibles made him a second-round pick, 33rd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
"When I'm playing with that confidence, playing with that attitude, you can visualize," Neal said. "When you get the puck, you know exactly where you want to put it. You do it before the game, too. I try to visualize all different kinds of shots, angles, you name it."
And they all go in? Don't they.
"That's the thing," he added with a grin. "And once I have that visualization when I'm on the ice, I just try to get the shot off quickly."
"James is dangerous from anywhere," says his former Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. "I think you could teach a lesson with getting open and releasing."
"His wrist shot is probably the best in I've seen," said teammate Pascal Dupuis.
Said Neal, "I just try to bring a physical aspect, I think I can put the puck in the net and be good around the net -- and be physical and play hard every shift."
Neal's father, Peter, coached him for the major part of his minor hockey. Peter is a real estate agent. His mom, Debra, runs the house. James has three younger brothers (Michael, Peter, and Nicholas) and one younger sister (Rebecca). Michael, plays in the Dallas organization was drafted in the fifth round, 149th overall, in 2007.
"He put a puck through his garage door," said Peter, who laughed ... and then sort of shook his head at the constant repair of the garage.
Saying he got tired of fixing the whole garage, so, "I used to just fix the hole."
Neal said he learned to be focused from his father. He learned to always be ready to play each shift whistle-to-whistle.
Obstacles? Most players have them. Neal said he was small.
"When I was younger, I was smaller and kind of developed the hands and tried to be a little more skilled, but once I started to grow and get bigger I kind of changed my game into a power forward," Neal said.
He didn't have to worry about being too small for too long. At 16, Neal started working out during the summers with Gary Roberts and Adam Foote.
"Growing up, it was all hockey," Neal recalled. "The fact I had an opportunity to train with guys like Gary Roberts and Adam Foote was as good as it gets. I started training with Roberts when I was 16 by going to his gym in Toronto -- and I got to know him very well.
"When I finished up in Toronto, I started training with Foote, who lived right around the corner from me in Whitby."
That self-proclaimed confidence is why they call James Neal, "The Real Deal."
Thursday, November 12, 2015
By Larry Wigge
It was a strange and yet eery little conversation. It was something I never to forget.
Here it is ...
During the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hosted an NHL Entry Draft preview of the top prospects. Patrick Kane and five of the world best talents were there at a luncheon. One of them was Sam Gagner.
Sam was the son of Dave Gagner, who for nearly 15 years toiled for the New York Rangers, Minnesota, Dallas, Toronto, Calgary, Florida and Vancouver. The elder Gagner, who was also there, you might remember him as slick center. A thinking man's player.
As it happens Sam Gagner went sixth overall to the Edmonton Oilers. But ...
Dave and Sam both let me know about the up-close-at-personal information I am about to share with you.
The Gagners backyard rink in Oakville a number of the best players in the Ontario Hockey League. It seems that John Tavares was Sam's best friend and rival. They lived in the same neighborhood.
And if you needed an advance scouting report on Tavares just listen:
"John is bigger and stronger than Sam and sometimes ... the way he plays is downright ruthless," Dave Gagner said of the six-foot, 183-pound Tavares.
"We had some pretty heated one-one-one battles on the rink," Sam said with a confident grin.
"He'd tell you he won most of them, but he'd be lying."
The stakes were more than about bragging rights, however. These anything-goes contests sometimes had no rules, no fouls, in which goals would only be counted if the puck was banked off a goalpost and in.
"The games were supposed to go to five ... but ended up going to 20," Sam Gagner said with a competitive smile.
"Whoever lost wanted to keep the game going."
That's when Dave Gagner would turn out the lights and, in essence, the game would be over.
The remembrance I seem to recall would resurface like fine wine ... Taveras did become the first pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders.
"His hockey game speaks for itself," Islanders GM Garth Snow gushed. "Anyone that watches him play realizes he's a special talent. But ..."
Leaving all of those scouting assignments behind him.
Snow continues, "But behind the scenes, the character that John is, it's probably the biggest attribute he's brought to our organization."
Now we take you from the way back part of this story ...
On November 10, John Tavares started and finished the scoring for the Islanders in a 4-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks. They was his sixth and seventh goals this season.
"Growing up, I was always a really heavily offensive player," Tavares said. "But I've realized more and more that to play professional hockey and to be a very good NHL player, to try to be one of the best in the league, you have to be good on both sides of the puck.
"And my play away from the puck is something I've worked really hard at. My overall skating and the tempo of my game, pace of my game, has improved."
The "ruthless" youngster entered the NHL with 24 goals and 30 assists in 2009-10. Last season, some five years later, Tavares topped 24 goals in each season.
Tavares addressed his only significant weakness by improving his skating last season in 2011-12 -- his first season at the All-Star Game and a work stoppage in which he spent some time in Bern, Switzerland. But Tavares worked hard during the summer months in California to improve his skating stride.
That the way it is with John Tavares -- working hard to achieve his own legend, not someone else like Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky.
In 2014-15, John finished with 22 points in 13 games. That put him at -- a career-high 38 goals and 48 assists -- one point behind Dallas' Jamie Benn for the NHL scoring lead, 87 to 86 points.
"If you look at Sidney Crosby and you look at Alexander Ovechkin ... it would be tough not to put Johnny in that category, as the face of the New York Islanders," said Islanders coach Jack Capuano.
No one could handle his combination of power and speed. No one has that special radar that Tavares displays around the net. That come his love for lacrosse, which was special to Tavares.
It was lacrosse that taught him how to spin off checks and battle in traffic -- skills he says transferred easily to hockey and helped make him such a feared threat around the net.
As a youngster, John Tavares was an extremely competitive boy. He seemed headed for greatness in lacrosse. His uncle, also named John Tavares, was a prolific goal-scorer in the National Lacrosse League when John was young. He ended up as the NLL’s all-time leading scorer. For one year, Tavares served as a ball-boy for the Buffalo Bandits, when his uncle played there.
John learned the game from his father, Joe. His mother, Barbara, was also integral part of his career. She drove him to practice and games, regardless of the destination.
"My dad's job was very physically demanding. They were tough hours of the day and he sacrificed a lot of time with our family," Tavares said. "He wasn't there every game, every practice. It was mostly my mom taking me to do those things. But I knew how much he wanted to be there and watch me grow up."
Barbara described lacrosse games and soccer games where John would play so hard, he would be thrown out of games for simply running over other players. He was 5.
"As soon as he played organized hockey, he stood out from the rest," she said. "It was one of the reasons why I moved him up an age. I had to. He played so aggressively and he was so strong."
Said Tavares, laughing at his mothers suggestion, "That's part of the game. Sometime that gets the blood going a little bit. Sometimes it gets you a little pissed off."
Still, there are the comparisons that come along ever four or five years. Better than Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky or ...
Shortly after the All-Star Game in Columbus in 2015, where John Tavares scored a hat trick, Toroto defenseman Dion Phaneuf remarked about how swifty Tavares had come along.
"Johnny is a great player. I played with him at the Worlds Championships last year," Phaneuf said. "I'm always matched up against him, so I see a lot of him when I'm playing against him and I know how skilled he is.
"He has got another extra step of speed that's very noticeable."
Noticeable. That's John Tavares every time he step onto the ice.
"John Tavares wants to win the Stanley Cup with the Islanders," said Moulson. "He's not the type of guy who bails ship. He wants to win here."
From skating in a backyard rink in Oakville, Ontario, to starring in the NHL, John Tavares has proven to everyone just how special he is.
Friday, November 6, 2015
By Larry Wigge
With each and every shift ... it seemed like Jeff Carter was becoming a huge part of it.
The 6-4, 210-pound center had to produce for the Los Angeles Kings because center No. 1 center Anze Kopitar went out of the game early in the first period with a head injury and ...
"The coach kept tapping on the shoulder," Carter said of coach Darryl Sutter calling on him.
"No, I never got tired of it."
Carter has become a more effective player with the Kings. More involved. Dynamic even, since his February 2012 trade from Columbus.
On this night in St. Louis, more than just the life of a power forward. Getting to the net. Getting in that heavy traffic. It takes a lot of work to take a pounding ... sometimes.
But Carter, using his big reach snapped a hard shot short side, for the game's first goal in a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
Jeff has played in all of the 151 games played by the Kings since his trade from the Blue Jackets -- becoming the club's ironman. Against St. Louis, he scored his fifth goal in 12 games -- his second game-winning goals in the last three games.
The London, Ontario, native, finally used his long reach to flick a shot high short-side over Jake Allen while the Kings and Blues were both shorthanded at 15:52 of the second period.
And ... it was the second game in as many days for the Kings. But, there he stood in the middle of the locker room after the game.
In just a few words ... he felt involved, wanted, determined to be a big factor.
"Whenever a player goes out off the lineup like Kopitar did, every body steps in and takes the odd shift," Carter said. "I'd rather take the extra shifts that sit on the bench.
"I want to play."
Carter, who is in his 11th season in the NHL, plays the game like his is 16 going on 30. Jeff has scored 46 goals in 2008-09. He has score more than 25 goals eight times. Jeff Carter took the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010 and won the Cup twice with the Kings.
You get this impression of him as a KID.
Carter has made the most of his time with the Kings -- they won in the Stanley Cup in 2012 and again in 2014.
"Anywhere you grow up in Canada, it's everyone's dream to win the Stanley Cup," the Los Angeles Kings forward said. "You hear the stories about what it's like and when it actually happened, I remember skating around the ice for four or five minutes and my mind just went blank.
"Everyone's going crazy and celebrating and you just don't know what to think. It's a pretty different feeling."
Sutter said. "He has become a leader. It's good to see a player become a role model."
Down the stretch of two Stanley Cup titles, GM Dean Lombardi said he also had seen the new Carter. It was different from 2012. In 2014, Carter was different from the one in Philadelphia where Lombardi first saw him while working in the Flyers front office.
"He's like a gunslinger -- a potential goal scorer every time he's on the ice," the GM said. "That was the one element we thought we were lacking last year.
"I've known Jeff since he was 17. He kind of always just played ..."
At this point, Lombardi, who had scouted Jeff when he was on the staff of the Flyers that picked Carter in the first round of the 2003 draft, recalled the weight loss wasn't the only thing that was different in Carter.
"When he came back and trained," Lombardi continued. "I've never seen him work so hard. It was like a total about face.
"He's really grown up. I think we starting to see some leadership. I remember watching his training. Watching him run. I've never seen such a commitment from Jeff.
"We were getting more that we bargained for."
The goal on this night was a classic goal-scorer's move.
"It's good to see him score," said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. "He's a goal-scorer. You're counting on him to score a big goal."
"Jeff Carter is not going to come in and be the cavalry," Lombardi said. "It's not easy to go out in the marketplace and find a guy with the potential to score 40 goals who is 27 and a cap number ($5.2 million per season) that's very favorable in terms of me keeping this nucleus together."
Part of Carter's upbringing was his father's influence.
Jim Carter's claim to fame was being selected between Mike Gartner and Dino Ciccarelli in the 1976 Ontario Hockey League draft. Gartner and Ciccarelli went on to become NHL superstars, combining for more than 1,300 goals and 2,500 points. Jim Carter, a 5-8, 145-pound forward, endured the worst season in Oshawa Generals history, hung up his skates, and went to work at a local copper mill.
"He coached me from the time I could skate until I was 16," said Jeff. "It was awesome.
"He was never one of those dads who just pushes, pushes, pushes. With him, you go play, you go home and you leave the game at the rink. He just wanted me to go out and have fun and it all worked out."
"He'd score 75 or 100 goals in a season," Jim Carter said. "You could tell he was a natural because things came to him fairly easy."
As a coach, Jim Carter said he stressed the fundamentals of the game with an emphasis on skating and positioning.
Carter's best advice to his son, Jeff, "If you can't skate ... you can't play."
Jeff Carter has certainly shown his ability to play -- and lead. If you happen to get his in a talkative mood, you can learn a lot about him.
Friday, October 30, 2015
By Larry Wigge
Everyone in the NHL has his place. Everyone.
The NHL is not made up of all Wayne Gretzky's, who can score bushels of goals and assists.
You have scorers and passers. That's why the NHL is made up of four lines, each of whom has their own role.
Andrew Cogliano is one player who had to learn what his job was the hard way.
The Toronto, Ontario, native was a former first round draft choice, 25th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
"The house kind of erupted," Cogliano gushed, recalling that the was selected in the first round by the Edmonton Oilers in 2005 Draft was held late because of the NHL players strike and not many players had been invited.
"I can honestly say I didn't hear my name."
You couldn't tell all those fans and Cogliano house that he couldn't skate like the wind -- similiar to the way Pavel Bure did. Or that he hadn't put up mind-dropping numbers like 93 points in 58 games and 175 points in 85 games.
The 5-9, 179-pounder center remembers all of that. Little did he know that that un-Godly-Gretzky-like numbers were for St. Mike's Junior B's.
Four seasons with Edmonton didn't make him think -- that everyone in the NHL has his place. Still, that facts were clear.
From 45 points down to 38 to 28 and 35 with the Oilers. Then ...
Cogliano was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for a second-round pick in July of 2011. Still struggling ...
"I was playing every position," he said. "I would play right wing one game, left wing the next game and center the game after that.
"I had a talk with (head coach) Bruce (Boudreau) about that this summer and before the season. He understood that was tough to do. I just wanted a role to do and one I could focus on.
"This summer he mapped it out for me in terms of giving me a role, where I needed to play well defensively, be dependable and chip in offensively."
Cogliano says, "I've matured in a sense that I know how I'm going to be successful in the league. I just want to make myself a player who a team needs."
That light that clicked on for Cogliano took advantage of all his assets -- the Bure-like speed, the numbers offensively.
Reliability. Stick-to-it-iveness. A role model any coach can count on.
Andy Hebenton -- long of the New York Rangers -- recently had his consecutive-game streak snapped by Cogliano at 630.
Their are six names ahead of Andrew on that ironman record list -- Doug Jarvis at 964, Garry Unger at 914, Steve Larmer at 884, Craig Ramsey at 776, Jay Bouwmeester at 737 and Henrik Sedin at 679.
You could say that Andrew Cogliano knows something about the subject. Cogs studied kinesiology for two years at the University of Michigan. The scientific study of human movement.
"I'll knock on wood," Cogliano joked. "I think I've talked about it so many times that it is what it is.
"To play more than 600 games consecutively is a pretty incredible feat for me to even think about."
He says he gets some advice on the subject for his mother, Teri Cogliano, who is a physical fitness therapist.
"I've had a few neck things happen and a couple of shoulder things and an ankle sprain," Cogliano said, knocking on wood. "That's just normal."
Carmen and Teri, Andrew's parents, come from Woodbridge, Ontario. Carm came to Canada from Italy.
Andrew's favorite food is pizza. His favorite musical act is Bob Dylan? Followed by Van Morrison? This guy is still only 28, right? Dylan and Morrison have age spots older than that.
"I like old music for some reason," Cogliano said. "I never really got into rap and dance stuff. I think the more I've played hockey and the more I've filled my iPod. I just like the old-school kind of stuff."
Living the California style, Cogliano is into surfing.
Andrew Cogliano's favorite players when he was growing up -- Joe Sakic and Sergei Fedorov.
But Cogs had to erase those stars and ...
"I think sometimes he just used his speed and went helter, skelter, all over the place," said Boudreau. "Now he's thinking the game a lot more ... and I think that comes with games maturity and playing a lot of games."
Former Ducks defenseman once said of Cogliano and his toughness in playing 600 consecutive games:
"People see that he's a little guy. But I played with him for a few years in Edmonton and now here. I've seen him battle through a lot of things that a lot of guys can use as an excuse to not play. He's a tough little bugger.
"His hockey socks are probably pretty wet at the end of every game. He gets knocked around out there but he keeps getting up."
Like the energizer bunny, Andrew Cogliano keeps going and going.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
By Larry Wigge
Goaltender Ben Bishop was in the catbird seat. He could hear Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman shouting at one another and could see their skillful solution take shape just before his eyes.
Stamkos to Hedman back to Stamkos and over to Ondrei Palat for a tip in of a 3-on-1 in overtime of Tampa Bay's 4-3 victory over Winnipeg.
"Watching Victor Hedman on that play was like seeing Chris Pronger in his heyday, when I was a kid growing up in St. Louis," gushed Bishop.
Pronger takes his brilliant career into the Hockey Hall of Fame with him later this month.
Now, cunningly similar, Hedman a 6-6, 233-pound defenseman from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. He was the second overall pick in 2009 NHL Entry Draft -- remarkably similar to Pronger being the second pick in 1993 to Alexandre Daigle.
On this night against the Jets, Hedman had three assists, giving him nine assists for the first seven games.
"He's the kind of defenseman that every team needs and wants," Palat said afterward. "He's got a big body and he can skate. He's just an overall great player."
Hedman came into his own in 2013-14, scoring a career high in goals and points with 13 goals and 42 assists. He emerged as force last season, leading the Lightning to the Stanley Cup finals against the Chicago Black Hawks.
"I want to be a leader. I want to be a difference maker on the ice," Hedman said. "That's kind of the way I approach it and approached the game in last year's playoffs.
"I felt confident on both ends of the ice."
"I don't think you get to this part of the season without having a top, elite-tier defenseman," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "And he is that for us.
"He plays the whole 200 feet. He's blessed with the size, the skill, the speed."
Defense wins championships in the NHL.
Nicklas Lidstrom won with Detroit, Ray Bourque with Colorado and Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim in recent years it's become cliche with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrooke and Niklas Hjalmarsson in Chicago, Drew Doughty in Los Angeles and Zdeno Chara in Boston.
Ornskoldsvik? The town of 25,000 in northern Sweden has produced star hockey players like Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Anders Hedberg, Sammuel Pahlsson come from.
Olle Hedman, Victor's dad, jokes it's "It's something in the water."
Olle still works at the big paper mill. His mom Elisabeth is a pre-school teacher. They religiously watch every Lightning game on TV despite how the time difference mangles sleep patterns.
"It usually starts about 2 o'clock in the morning," said Olle. "I go up to bed at half past 4 and sleep until 7."
"In the Montreal series, they went double overtime, and I had to leave for work before it was over," Olle chuckled.
"My mom and dad never pushed me," said Hedman. "They said 'just follow your dreams and do whatever you want,' pretty much."
Ironically, Victor started out as a goaltender. He would take shots against his brothers in the family's basement according to his day, which always resulted in Hedman running away crying.
One promise Victor made to Olle was that he would quit stopping pucks.
So, Hedman began his career as a defenseman. But ... a six-inch growth spurt posed problems that his body couldn't keep up.
"I was tall and skinny and had trouble with co-ordination," laughed Hedman. "I had to train a lot when I was younger to get control of my body and learn to skate well.
"Now, every summer, I try to get better and faster. But when I was 13 or 14, things just fell into place."
Even in the summer months, Hedman is working. "I can't take any days off with that, because I need to keep improving."
When he got to the NHL, it was revealed that he would wear number 77 on his jersey, in honour of Ray Bourque who was one of his favourite defensemen, along with Nicklas Lidstrom, growing up.
The growth spurt forced him to focus on improving his skating and he's now arguably the most mobile 6-foot-6 defenseman in the NHL.
"He's one guy on the ice that could ice the puck and beat it out himself," said Cooper. "He can lead the rush and be the first guy back. It's just this explosiveness.
"It's like shooting him out of a cannon."
Steven Stamkos, first overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, says that trying to fit into the NHL as a defenseman is twice as hard.
"He was kind of thrown into the fire," said Stamkos. "Victor's matured as a player, matured as a person. You see the confidence that he has now. He steps up in all big moments."
Which leads up to his play vs. Lidstrom, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner.
"Victor's offensive skills and his speed have been impressive," Lidstrom said in an e-mail. "It seems like he's been carrying the puck up the ice and making plays.
"He's got great feet and it's hard to stop him when he's coming with that speed. I've seen on more than a couple of occasions when he's jumping up in the play. He pushes the other team to back off with his speed."
The look on Hedman's face ... was one of wonderment.
Said Victor: "He made everything look so easy. So calm with the puck. His head up all the time. He made those hard plays look so easy. He won four Cups, Norris Trophies, everything."
But the best advice Hedman has gotten. It came from Forsberg.
Forsberg told Hedman, "Play with passion. Play to win. The killer instinct."
The new model of Hedman, playing with a passion and killer instinct is on stage every night.
"People are starting to see Victor on a world stage now," said Stamkos. "But in this room, we knew he was that player all along. It takes time in this league.
"He's been an absolute beast for us out there. Very rarely do you see the combination of size and speed and smarts."
And very rarely do you see Victor Hedman rushing up the ice on a 3-on-1 for the winning goal.
Friday, October 23, 2015
By Larry Wigge
The comparisons were one-in-a-lifetime performers.
Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby -- players who turned franchises around. But ...
Everyone claimed 18-year-old Connor McDavid was that generational players. More than just the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He can be an adequate skater, but if you have great vision and smarts you can be an elite hockey player.
But can he leap tall buildings in a single bound ...
"He's strong, but it’s different when you're playing against NHL players," warned Edmonton Oilers G.M. Peter Chiarelli. "There are going to be battles he loses, he's not Superman."
The 6-1, 190-pound center from Richmond Hill, Ontario, made history for putting up points in bushels. He scored 44 goals and 76 assists for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League last season in just 47 games. McDavid also led Canada to a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"He's the best player to come into the NHL in the last 30 years, the best to come along since Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby," Gretzky said. "When a guy can almost average three points a game in junior hockey in this day and age, that's telling you this guy's a pretty good hockey player ... he's a phenom. He can definitely change a franchise's fortunes."
Florida Panthers G.M. Dale Tallon, who had once been selected No. 2 overall in 1970 by Vancouver reasoned: "You're in a fishbowl in the Canadian markets. Expectations are higher -- there is less room for error.
"The Oilers have been down a long time. This kid is going to be their savior. Now, that's pressure. He is going to be under the microscope. But I think Connor can handle it."
The leap to the NHL was not without a few hiccups ... he scored one point (a goal in his third game), before he totaled two goals and an assist in a 5-2 victory against the Calgary. Then, came a little of the consistency.
The Oilers haven't made it to the playoffs since 2005-06. Like Tallon said, Edmonton has been down for a long time.
Heck, Edmonton's pick in the NHL draft had been No. 1 overall four times since 2010. In 2010, the Oilers selected Taylor Hall, in 2011, they picked Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2012 (Nail Yakupov), before reaching out for McDavid.
With McDavid in the lineup, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov had different roles on the Oilers.
Things had to look up.
After McDavid's three point night against the Flames, he added an assist in a 2-1 win over Vancouver and tallied the game-winning goals against Detroit. Astonishingly, the woebegone Oilers had a three-game winning streak.
"We'd be crazy to not want the offense to go through Connor," volunteered coach Todd McLellan. "We want the puck in his hands. He probably understands now that our players want that, they want him to succeed. They're not trying to suppress him or put him back into his rookie position."
Bobby Orr happens to be McDavid's client.
"He's not Sidney Crosby. Sidney Crosby is Sidney Crosby," said Orr. "Connor McDavid is Connor McDavid. Give him time to put his own stamp on the game, whatever it is.
"He's so smart. Watch how he gets up on his skates. How he sees the ice, how he passes the puck, how he shoots it. He just loves to play. As long as he keeps that passion and never loses it, as long as he is able to play at his level. Our job is to talk to him, keep his feet on the ground."
Unlike Crosby, who learned to shoot in his youth by firing pucks into a dryer in the basement, McDavid banged shots off the garage wall and mastered stickhandling by navigating through elaborate obstacle courses that his dad set up in the driveway.
Through thousands of repetitions, he acquired his ability to dangle and deke and dupe defensemen with a dip of a shoulder.
From the time Connor was young, Brian McDavid, doting dad and youth hockey coach, told his wife their youngest son was a whirlwind well beyond his years. Kelly would nod -- and then suggest to her husband that he was a tad touched.
"He kept saying, 'He’s special,' " she remembers. "I would say, 'Oh, for goodness sakes. Every kid thinks they are going to play in the NHL. Get that thought out of your head.' "
Mom had her share of stories, too.
At three years old, Connor McDavid would don rollerblades and slap pucks at nets placed at either end, often guarded by his mother or grandmother.
"I would be in the kitchen and he would yell up to me, 'Mom, I just scored the winning goal in the Stanley Cup finals!' " Kelly says. "I would yell back, 'That's very nice, honey.' "
When McDavid was 6, the hockey association in his hometown of Newmarket would not let him play above his age group. Instead of having him play in the lower level, McDavid's parents enrolled him with a team in nearby Aurora, where he played against players as old as 9.
At 15, Connor was just 5-7, 160 pounds. He's 6-1, 190 now.
McDavid compares his skills with someone other than the other greats. He'll watch a Philadelphia Flyers game and say he admires captain Claude Giroux for his 200-foot game and offensive ability.
"He's so reliable in his own zone," McDavid gushes. "He can be put out there in the last two minutes of a game -- to either score a goal or to defend the goal."
Great vision and smarts on the ice and off of it.
"You just have to say 'Screw it,' to losing and get that mentality that we can win games here," said McDavid, who says he can feel the Oilers getting stronger ever night. "That change of mindset is a big difference. You're not hoping to win, you're expecting to win.
"There's a big difference when you're heading into games thinking the other way."
"There's a big difference when you're heading into games thinking the other way."
"He's got all the tools to take over a game," says teammate Hall. "It's not pressure, it's fun pressure and I think he really seemed to enjoy it and we need more of that. It was a lot of fun to watch."
The antipation ...
Take it from a veteran coach like St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, whose Blues blanked McDavid at the Scottrade Center and in Edmonton so far this season.
"I'd say Mike Modano would be a really good comparison for Connor," said Hitchcock, who coached the center in Dallas where they won a Stanley Cup in 1999.
"Mike knew when to turn and burn."
Hitchcock then chimed in with ...
"With both Mike and Joe Nieuwendyk ... that was their strength, their anticipation.
That's the same with Connor. You think you are going to score, and next thing is you're looking at a 2-on-1 or a breakaway against.
"Dangerous. There's lots of guys who can skate, but he's dangerous. If you don't manage the puck well in all those 50-50 puck battles, he's gone."
So the Oilers finally have something special, something other than their seven consecutive season without a playoff berth.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
By Larry Wigge
Unusual or uncanny?
There is a mural painted on the wall over his Cary Price's shoulder of the last of the great Montreal Canadiens goaltenders.
Gives you an eery feeling that maybe the ghosts of the old Montreal Forum have moved crosstown to the Bell Centre.
"It's not daunting at all," Price said matter of factly as if to say he don't believe in any darn spirits of the dead. "It's kind of like my way to motivate myself. It's a great job ... if you do it right. And that's what I'm trying to do.
"You can't compare me with Patrick Roy, because I haven't done anything yet."
The 28-year-old Price was born in Anahim Lake, Saskatchewan. This is his seventh NHL season with the Montreal Canadiens. Carey was made of the Habs as his fifth overall position called for in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.
Growing up, Price was schooled in the fine art of goaltending by his father Jerry, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the eighth round, 126th overall, in the 1978 NHL Amateur Draft.
"My dad showed me a lot," Carey remembers. "There's lessons he taught me at an early age that I still use today.
"I do remember having a set of little goalie pads and I would bring my pads and play with him. We used to work on an outdoor rink in Anahim Lake. Pretty cold. We had a chicken wire fence around the outside of the rink. It got to be minus-20 and lower -- and believe me when a puck hits you, you feel it.
"My dad didn't push me. When I was growing up, he always asked me if I wanted to keep playing hockey. I just decided to go in the pipes one day and I've been there ever since."
From there to the legends of the Habs puckstoppers. In Montreal, everyone remembers the goalies who helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup. Nothing less.
Georges Vezina, George Hainsworth, Bill Durnan, Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley, Rogie Vachon, Ken Dryden or Roy, winners of 24 Stanley Cups.
2013-14 season, Price put up numbers strictly for the stratophere. He became the first goaltender since Dominik Hasek in 1998 to be named NHL MVP (Hart Trophy), top goaltender (Vezina Trophy) and most outstanding player as voted by the NHLPA.
In addition to these great stats, Price backstopped a gold medal for Canada in February of 2014 at Socchi, Russia . Price gave up just three goals in five games – two on tip-ins, one on a breakaway.
But, he'd trade everything for a Stanley Cup.
"That's my ultimate goal," Price said without hesitation. "I'd trade all four of these in for that one."
Headed for another standout season, Price was off to a 6-0 start following a 3-0 victory over St. Louis, stopping
an incredible 38 shots.
It was his second shutout in the last three games and lowered Carey's goal-against average to a miniscule 1.00 per game.
Carey Price has proved that if he can see a puck, he'll likely stop it.
Price was raised in a community in the northern Chilcotin wilderness so tiny it barely rates a dot on most road maps. His mother, Lynda, is serving her second term as chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation there. She is the first woman to serve on the executive of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, and believes her son can become an example to native children facing challenges.
There was no organized hockey for Carey until he was 11. But his dad drove long and far to make sure his son would get the right kind of competition to help achieve his dream of playing in goal in the NHL. To that end, Jerry Price once bought a plane to fly Carey to elite-level hockey in Williams Lake, B.C., some 300 miles away. But Carey Price obviously made up for lost time in the competition department with the aid of his dad.
While Price said he admired Roy, Martin Brodeur and Curtis Joseph when he was growing up, he said his style is his own.
"I'm a mix of a little butterfly and standup," he added. "I'm big and I take up some room and I try to be in the right position, have the right angle."
What you may not know about Carey Price is that he's a kid who loves to play video games, play a guitar and relax in the big city of Montreal.
Lost behind the pads and goalie equipment, Price would fish and hunt at one of the nearby ranches. He was infamous for his displays of bow-hunting and he grew up riding horses as well.
After the playoff debacle in 2008, a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
"I packed away my hockey gear, turned off my cellphone and jumped in my truck and drove west," he told me. "There was a trip to Mexico with friends and a trip home to fish with my dad. Then I got back to work in late June, working out hard with my cousin, Keaton Ellerby."
According to Carey, there was a positive attempt to lose weight to help his quickness in goal and the strength of his core and legs -- which is important to all butterfly-style goaltenders. The weight-loss part of this story came at the suggestion of the Montreal training staff. He also spent several weeks of goaltending sessions with Eli Wilson, who runs a summer school for goaltenders that specializes in leg strength and recovery rate.
"The talk around the locker room now is that Carey is no longer enjoying no more late-night burgers, chocolate bars and other sorts of junk food," Price said, shaking his head. "That may be an exaggeration. I did work hard and began to eat right. When I reported to training camp I was 28 pounds lighter."
And then there's Stephane Waite. Price's goaltending coach at Montreal. Waits won Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013 in Chicago working with Anti Niemi and Corey Crawford.
So Even if Price the person didn't change a whole lot, it's pretty clear that Price the goaltender did.
"Things just started to go well. You find a zone," Price emphasized. "I don't know if it's just maturity or just knowing you have the ability or whatever it is, you just go out there and do your job. Obviously you need a team in front of you to play well. I totally trust the guys that are playing around me, and that's the God’s honest truth. All I worry about is making that first save, and when you're doing that it really simplifies things."
At 28, Carey Price seems ready to take it to a different level ... Stanley Cup.
"He can be a real difference-maker if he chooses to be," said Canadian Olympic team coch Mike Babcock. "It looks like he has that fire."
Maybe the Patrick Roy mural will feel more like home for Carey Price.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
By Larry Wigge
All Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice could do was shake his head in amazement.
"It's so unusual for a man that big to do some of the things that he can do, at high rates of speed," Maurice gushed at how nimble defenseman Dustin Byfuglin on putting the Jets up with a backhanded goal with 1:28 remaining.
"The second half of that game," said Maurice, "he was really good all over the ice. ... In his own end and making plays."
Byfuglien forced an offensive-zone turnover by Calgary forward Johnny Gaudreau, carried the puck across the blue line before backhanding a shot from the left-wing board that slipped past goaltender Karri Ramo.
"I never worry about Buff," chimed in captain Andew Ladd, responding to several questions about Byfuglien's weight.
"For us, it's a non-issue. I've worked out with him and the things he can do are just incredible, for a man of his size.
"Just watch him skate, he's not slow out there."
Big players play big in big games.
That's a phrase that is usually reserved for playoff performances by players who command huge salaries. But Byfuglien isn't big in the wallet ... just everywhere else physically.
At somewhere upwards of 6-3, 250 or 260 pounds, Big Buff has always had a big body with big dreams.
The story of Dustin Byfuglien didn't begin on some backyard rink or pond in Canada. It began more modestly at the door of a trailer on a 10-acre trucking farm behind his grandparents' house five miles outside of Roseau on Minnesota Route 11, where Byfuglien was the son of a single mother who drove a forklift at a snowmobile plant.
But then ... that's just painting a picture that grew to Paul Bunyanesque proportions for Byfuglien in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Byfuglien might be confused with a baggage handler by some folks, but not those who have seen him play for the Chicago Blackhawks and win a Stanley Cup title in 2010.
His story is one of those true diamond-in-the-rough dramas that truly fits the meaning of the words. You know, long odds ... and big results. Byfuglien came from nowhere. He was an eight-round pick, 245th overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft
But ... back to the beginning.
The big kid didn't get too excited about anything in life. He played hockey because that's what all the kids in Minnesota seemed to do. Money was tight and he was growing so fast that it seemed ridiculous to Dustin's mom, Cheryl, to buy skates that he'd soon grow out of. So, she worked out a deal with a sporting goods store down the road in Grand Forks, N.D., to rent skates for her son.
She'd leave for work about 5:30 each morning and drop Dustin off at the rink. Often times, he'd be sitting on the steps in the dark and bitter cold for more than a half-hour waiting for the coach for a 6:30 practice.
School? That was a bad word.
"I just wasn't into school. I hated it, didn't see a need for it," Byfuglien told me. "After ninth grade, I really didn't think about it anymore. Teachers were always yelling at me to pay attention, and I just kind of sat there. I wouldn't participate or give an effort. Nothing."
The problem? Dustin didn't meet academic requirements, so he couldn't play for the Roseau Rams, follow in the footsteps of his cousin ... and the more famous family in town that included Neal, Aaron and Paul Broten, each of whom made it to the NHL.
"Looking back on it," he said wistfully, "I wish I had spent more time paying attention in school. I missed doing the things my cousin did when he played for Roseau High School against Warroad in the state championship."
Byfuglien eventually made his way to a midget team in Chicago when he turned 16. That's where a scout saw him and invited him for tryouts with the Brandon and Prince George teams in the Western Hockey League. He made enough of an impression in Prince George to earn a spot on the team -- and, in the process, earned his high school diploma.
"It seemed like I had a gift for the sport," Dustin said. Then he laughed and added; "Hockey was beginning to look like a chance to me to do something with my life, although some will tell you that I was far from NHL material back then when I weighed about 275 pounds and never worked out.
"I remember guys always telling me that they thought I'd be quicker if I'd lose about 20 pounds, so ..."
Byfuglien says he was brought up on hot dogs and other assorted junk food he could get at the rink or across the street at the American Legion Hall, where his grandmother worked.
Eating better and working out started to round the big kid into hockey shape. Still, NHL scouts were leery of his bulk. But the Blackhawks saw a big man with soft hands.
Going from defense to wing made him work harder.
"This playing up front, it's a big difference from what I've known," Dustin said. "There's definitely a lot more skating. Since I made the move, I've been watching some of the other bigger guys in the League. I've noticed how they use their size to make room for their teammates. I can do that."
Dustin came by some of his size and athletic ability from his dad, Rick Spencer, who once drove for the Byfuglien Trucking Co. Rick met Cheryl when he was playing baseball and football at St. Cloud State. With no father around, Big Buff looked up to his older cousin, Derrick, who was drafted by Ottawa 122nd overall in 2000.
"It was just hard, not to have a dad," said Dustin, who credits his grandparents with helping rear him. "They were there for me when mom had something to do after work."
The next two seasons with the Black Hawks have been more than NHL 101 for Dustin Byfuglien.
"When I left Roseau to pursue my hockey career, I told myself I'd never look back," he said. "But now everyone seems to want to make me look back.
"To me, it's not the rags-to-riches story people want to make it out to be. My mom and I got along fine. I grew up cheering for the North Stars and dreaming that I might grow up to be a player just like Mike Modano, like a lot of kids in Minnesota. I don't look at my upbringing as a hardship. I grew up the same as most everyone did."
Trailer park. Hated school. Loved his hot dogs too much. All the ingredients for a real rags to riches story.
"Buf is a big guy, all right," whistles Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook. "He has a heavy shot, skates well and is blessed with good hands."
The 33-year-old Byfuglien already scored 11 goals in 22 in 22 games for Chicago -- playing forward.
"His story is one of those true diamond-in-the-rough dramas that truly fits the meaning of the words," said Rick Dudley, who was with Chicago then became the G.M. with the Atlanta Thrashers. "You know, long odds ... and big results."
Dudley said he had thing long-winded conversation with Denis Savard about Byfuglien in Chicago. Dudley knew that Big Buff wanted to play defense.
It became an argument for Dudley ... that he would win.
"In Chicago, Denis Savard needed Dustin up front and he moved to forward and did pretty well, obviously," continued Dudley. "He's an inordinately talented guy. I won't deny that. He's very effective.
"I once had this conversation with Savvy. 'Dud's, he's a forward. He's got 19 goals as a forward.' But then, I said, 'What if he had a 15-goal season as a defenseman?' "
Now, that's the kind of story we all seem to like on Dustin Byfuglien.
Saturday, October 17, 2015
By Larry Wigge
Explosive. Quick off his mark. Talented in the open. Gutsy ... with a get-even attitude.
That's the kind of scouting report we often heard about Jiri Hudler in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
He was too small. To this, too that. But, it's clear that the 5-9, 178-pounder was a difference maker, even if teams kept passing on him until the Wings picked him in the second round, 58th overall.
"Hockey is not about size," Hudler said, with a smile.
"If you play smart, if you play with good players, you can play in any league."
Hudler had career-highs with 23 goals and 34 assists in the 2008-09 season ... not bad for a guy who usually plays on Detroit's third line.
We're not about to say that his eight seasons with the Red Wings were mis-spent. He won a Stanley Cup for Detroit in 2008 and played for a contender each year in Detroit. But ...
He for the Calgary Flames in 2014-15, Hudler clearly emerged as one of the game's best -- scoring 31 goals and 45 assists. He finished eighth among league scoring leaders. Then, he added four goals and four assists in 11 playoff games for the Flames.
"He's a little guy, but he's competitive. He's strong. He holds onto pucks. He's as good as anybody in finding the space to make a dynamic play," gushed former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock last year about Hudler. "What I like about Huds most is that he had continued to challenge himself to get better."
Challenge? Hudler showed the guts and gumption he knew he always had.
"I have been a leader since I was young," Hudler said matter-of-factly. "I started playing professional hockey when I was 16 in Czech, in elite league.
"It's tough to be a leader in Detroit, right? I started when Steve Yzerman was there, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom. You are not going to stand out in that group. The Red Wings had groomed Pavol Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to be the next leaders.
"That is why I signed in Calgary. I want to be Calgary's Datsyuk, or Calgary's Zetterberg. I want to be around a young group like we have and show them the ropes."
In recording these big numbers, Hudler received 52 first-place votes to finish ahead of Datsyuk and Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar in the voting for the Lady Byng Award, for gentlemanly play.
"Pav is a beautiful person, a beautiful human being and my favorite player I ever played with or played against," Hudler said. "When I heard I was nominated for this award against him and Kopitar ... I'll take it any day."
Hudler started for reminisce. He began watching and following the NHL ... the Stanley Cup finals ... since he was 9 in Olomouc in the Czech Republic.
"My dad would wake me up. Then sometimes he'd tell me to wake him up if something happens, Hudler said. "There was a lot of excitement. I'd wake up at three in the morning and watch. I'd fall asleep and wake up again. I had to go to school, and sometimes we'd watch the overtimes at school. It's big back home."
Hudler was referring to the Montreal-Los Angeles finals in 1993, when Wayne Gretzky played for the Kings who were beaten by Larry Robinson and Guy Carbonneau.
"Playing in the NHL is a dream of every hockey player," Hudler observed. "I was lucky I got an opportunity to see the speed and skill of the NHL in one of my first years in North America. I was lucky it was Detroit that drafted me and not someone else. I got to learn on the job, learn the right way to do things.
"I just had to have patience. At first, I admit, you look around and see all the talent and wonder if you're good enough to get a shot at the big leagues. But the Red Wings put young guys in a position to gain confidence. And, when you're ready, you're going to play."
Hudler was born in the industrial city in east central Czech Republic, an ancient town that was once the leading city of Moravia and today is known for its candy, chocolate and many fountains. He moved to Vsetin when he was 12-years-old, living with his father, also named Jiri, after his parents divorced. A defenseman in his playing days, Hudler's father coached his son before the boy graduated to the Czech Elite League at 16.
"I always played with older players, sometimes three years older, even when I was really small," Hudler said. "So I knew I could compete against better players. I just had to prove it ... to a lot of people.
"Now, I get pumped knowing I"m going to play. It feels great. I feel more confident right now. It's the real season now. I love the atmosphere, the competition."
And Jiri Hudler continues to produce big plays for the Flames.
At a time when the pace of NHL play has never been faster, Hudler, now 31, has that Gretzky-like ability to slow things down. He thinks the game on a higher plane than most players and the net result is, he has become the offensive catalyst on the Flames’ No. 1 line, which also includes its two best prospects, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
"He's not the fastest guy, but he makes up for it with his brain," said Flames G.M. Brad Treliving. "He's able to think the game at a high level.
"The biggest revelation for me was his competitiveness. He's driven to win and he's a fiercely competitive guy, and he's really been good with our younger players."
Thinking aloud for a minute, Treliving says, "The other really intriguing thing for me is, he's wont at Detroit. You can't duplicate that experience. He's played in these types of games before. ... We may get all excited, but he knows it's only going to get harder because he's been there and done that. He knows the trail."
Hudler's been there and done that, but ...
"I like to play with players who are hungry for the puck, who want to score. I see these kids I'm playing to score. I love that feeling, when they're fist pumping. Sometimes, I tell them that it's embarrassing, the way they celebrate, but ... I do that too. It's just the natural reaction of human beings -- that happiness."
That Jiri Hudler. Too small. Too slow. But ... just plain good.
Friday, October 16, 2015
By Larry Wigge
Hockey-playing fathers have a habit of teaching their sons the right way to play. From the pratfalls of learning to stand up on their feet on skates ... to the glory of playing hockey for real.
Zach was born here in Minneapolis, raised here and makes his offseason home in Orono. He will wear the same jersey number — 11 — that his dad wore as a member of the North Stars.
Zach plays exactly the same way as his dad J.P. did for so many years around the NHL. Just watch him on the ice working on tip-ins, redirects, poke-ins, wrist shots from close in. Parise has spent hundreds of hours before and after practice working on the same things -- the hard-workers guide to playing shinny.
Blood and sweat are the keywords that define Zach Parise's game.
Type Parise into the search engine of your computer and you simply get a hard-working, reliable, two-way player and posted six 30-goal seasons (45 in 2008-09 high) in 10 NHL seasons. But it's more than just statistics that young Parise is noted for. It's the way he plays -- with aggression, style, hard work.
To top things off, the Minneapolis native signed a 13-year, $98 million dollar contract with the Wild as a free agent in June 2012.
"I still play the same way as I was taught by my dad," said Zach Parise.
J.P. Parise retired with 238 goals and 594 points in 890 regular-season games and had 27 goals and 58 points in 86 playoff games.
"He wasn't flashy as a player, he wasn't a superstar, he just played hard every night ... and I think I kind of inherited that trait from him," Zach said.
Zach Parise scored three goals in the third period of the Wild's 5-4 victory in the opener against the Colorado Avalache and he contributed the go-ahead the next game in a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues and he added his fifth goal of the season in his third game, a 4-3 victory over Arizona.
For comparison, Parise had 45 goals in 2008-09 and he had not totaled five goals in seven game -- not just three.
Wild coach Mike Yeo just his his head in talking about his captain.
"That's what we've come to know with Zach," gushed Yeo. "We use the word relentless an awful lot. I think that was a great example of that."
Relentless and tenacious in every thing Parise does on the ice. Remaining determined playing whistle-to-whistle.
Everything he does brings up something J.P. Parise said or did -- because Zach lost his father last January following a year-long battle with cancer. J.P. was 73.
Zach Parise touches a white friendship bracelet on his right wrist. He turns it over and reveals the special inscription: "la vie a ses bons moments."
"It means, 'Life has its good moments,' " Parise says, staring intently at the words.
When Zach left the University of North Dakota to begin his pro career, J.P. had some simple words of wisdom for son.
"One of the things you can always control is to be one of the hardest-working players on the team," said Parise.
Zach is a coach's player. He's someone you love to coach because, every day, he does what's asked of him. He leaves it all out there. He works his tail off game in, game out, practice in, practice out. He's the first on the ice, the last one off.
Zach led the Wild to the second round of the playoffs last spring, adding four goals in 10 games, after knocking in 33 goals and 29 assists in the regular season.
"His game is courage," said Ilya Kovalchuk, who starred with Parise on the New Jersey Devils. "He's got a great shot, but he's always in those spots where you score the goals. He was our leader all the way."
Take it from Peter DeBoer, who know coaches the Vancouver Canucks but previously was behind the bench with the Devils when Parise was there.
"He was the heartbeat of our team," DeBoer gushed. "He set the tone for us. He leads and everyone follows. When your captain is your hardest-working player, he drags people with him and it's a great situation to be in as a coach."
Parise is a graduate of the famous Shattuck St. Mary's program in Minnesota and two years at North Dakota before he was chosen with the 17th overall selection in the first round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
"Year by year, I think I'm a little more patient with the puck," he said. "I think I'm making better decisions, and that goes with being more comfortable. Your first couple of years, you don't want to make mistakes, but then you get more comfortable, want to try different things, different moves."
Now, you clearly get the picture of this left winger who is more than just a run-of-the-mill player.
He's showing you he's got a real hunger and drive for the net. He doesn't appear to be a really big guy yet he goes to the net as hard as any forward I know in the game. He's got great hands.
Parise says patience with the puck and maturity have come along with experience -- not to mention the five goal in three games.
Said David Conte, the vice-president of hockey relations with the Devils: "With Zach, what you see today is what you always see -- 100 percent tenacity with an exceptional skill level. That's a tough combination not to succeed with."
You see, Zach Parise is a chip off the old block in every way.
Friday, October 9, 2015
By Larry Wigge
As quick as a strike of lightning, Robby Fabbri darted through the offensive zone and took a no-look, behind-the-back pass from center Jori Lehtera and put the puck high into the Edmonton net to break a 1-1 tie and give the St. Louis Blues a 3-1 opening-night victory.
"I came off the bench and I saw the play there," an excited Fabbri said. I wasn't sure if (Lehtera) saw or heard me, so for him to make that play, it was an amazing pass."
Such poise for a 19-year-old kid with stardom in his NHL future.
Deep inside of every great athlete there beats the heart of a champion. Some of those players you have to dig very deeply to find that heartbeat ... that skill that makes them tick.
There's something ticking inside of Fabbri's soul.
You see every tool that he has in his tool chest: Good speed. An attack mode that others would love to mold. He plays hard and goes into the tough areas. He's a player who takes the initiative to be a factor in winning.
Voila! Some inside information ...
"Robby loved doing whatever his big brother Lenny did, so from a very young age you could always find Robby at the arena watching his big brother play hockey," Robby"s mother Stef says. "When Robby was finally enrolled in a skating program, the instructor wanted all the kids to follow the leader and pick up the stuffed animals that had been placed on the ice ... ”
She added: "That was short lived, because all Robby wanted to do was pick up a plastic hockey stick and skate around pretending that he was playing hockey."
Tick. Tick. Tick.
From there, you get from the too small tag Fabbri -- 5'10, 170 pounds -- had going against him when he was expected to be drafted somewhere between pick 15 and pick 20 in the 2014 NHL draft, after scoring 87 points in his second season in the Ontario Hockey League and being named MVP of the OHL playoffs after scoring another 28 points in 16 games. Actually, the Mississauga, Ontario, native, was selected No 21 by the Blues.
On October 8 in St. Louis, Len and Stef, Fabbri's parents in attendance.
Len recalls his son regularly took a transistor radio to bed in order to listen to call of the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds in their hometown.
Forget about the too-small, too-slow excuses that scouts normally use.
Too small? From recently retired Martin St. Louis (former NHL MVP in 2004, to winner of the Hart Trophy as leading scorer in the NHL in 2004 and again in 2013 in his years in Tampa Bay) to Zach Parise, Jordan Eberele, Ryan Callahan, Brian Gionta and Jeff Skinner.
"I really enjoy watching Jeff Skinner," Fabbri said. "Actually, I try to model my game after him. He's not a big guy, like me. Watching him, I've been able to see a few things that I can add to my game for my advantage."
You do whatever it takes to makes you into the best you can be.
"I think that I've adjusted well," Fabbri says. "I've competed hard and haven't shied away from the physical part of the game ... so I've been able to hold my own against them."
It's sometimes hard to get young players to open up, but Fabbri is a super intelligent player.
He said, "Getting the chance to play against those guys has been great for my experience and just knowing that I can compete with them is a confidence booster for sure."
The confident athlete added that none of this could have come without hard work during the summer months last year and this year.
"I worked for three months building myself up," Fabbri said. "In addition to the work on the ice with Alex Pietrangelo and some of the local members of the team, came eating right. I can thank Nelson Ayotte (strength and conditioning coach) for that."
Fabbri had grown to 5'll, 175 pounds.
After the opening-night success, Pietrangelo chimed in on the former first-round pick, "The amount of skill he has, he's going to make plays. Robby's going to make an impact night-in, night-out. It's a great pass by Jori though -- hopefully he gets more of those. Those are easy ones though, a goal scorer like that."
"He's a tenacious player," Blues G.M. Doug Armstrong said. "He's got a lot of what we like to call 'gamesmanship.' A little bit undersized, but it doesn't hold him back.
"When a player performs like he did in the Memorial Cup and through that tournament, it shows a lot about his character and his will to win."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had an idea of what Fabbri was capable of after talking to his former junior coach, Guelph Storm's Scott Walker, a former NHLer.
"I talked to Scott Walker, and he said, 'He'll shock you how good he is and how competitive he is, how much he rises to the occasion,' " Hitchcock said. "It's not the play so much. It's this moxie on the ice.
"Sometimes he does things that a 35-year-old does. Not an 19-year-old."
Walker continues, "If he were a few inches taller, he'd be in the top five of the draft. I understand the NHL's love of size, that all things being equal, an NHL team will always take the bigger player. But you can’t do anything about size ...
"He wants to be a winner, pressure doesn’t seem to bother him."
"It's an inspiration, the game's not all about size," Fabbri said. "When you have small guys with big heart and grit, it's equal to being six-foot-five, when you're not scared to go into corners and play bigger than your size."
Going into a corner, Robby Fabbri will no doubt dig the puck out and send a no-look, backhanded pass to another member of the Blues in years to come.
Saturday, August 29, 2015
Do you want to know why Daniel Briere was such a special player for 17 seasons in the NHL?
The 5-9, 174-pounds whirling-devish learned at every age not to let anything said or did bother him. Some players let the too-small comparisons get to them.
"It started, when I heard the parents of some of the players saying it. I was just 12 at the time. I was playing Peewee for the Gatineau Ambassadors, remembered Briere.
Daniel Briere was playing for the Eastern Conference All-Star Team at Dallas in 2007 at the time. Representing the Buffalo Sabres at the time, the Gatineau, Quebec. native, went wild that day. All he has accomplished at the game's best was one goal and four assists. He was voted the MVP that day.
"All a kid wants is recognition that he's playing hard and trying to win. Not stuff like, 'Yeah, but that's about as far as he'll go.' Or 'he's good, but he's still too small,' " Briere rattled off excuses he's heard through the years.
There also was a devilish little smile on the Briere's face.
"I heard it all the way through. I'd make the next level and it would be, 'He can't do this, he can't do that,' " Briere added. "You can't let it get you down, so you start to use it as motivation to show the doubters."
Making a positive out of a negative?
"Exactly," he added. "Who knows, if I was 6-2 or 6-3, I might not have the drive, the passion for the game that I do now."
Last week after 17 seasons in the NHL for the Phoenix, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Montreal Canadiens and Colorado, Briere announced he was retiring. He scored 307 goals, 645 assists for 977 career points, with his best season coming in 2006-07 when he had 32 goals and 63 assists for 97 points. Three times he topped the 30-goal mark, with 34 goals in 2009-10 in Philadelphia leading the way.
"The bigger the game, the better he got," marveled Philadelphia Wayne Simmonds.
"You could say it was a little guy making a big impression," laughed former Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff. "A really big impression."
You could underscore that. He scored 12 goals and 18 assists for a league-leading 30 points in 23 playoff games for the Flyers in 2009-10. Heck, he scored 53 goals and 63 assists in 124 postseason games.
I wondered if the veteran center with soft hands an innate ability to survey the offensive zone to decide whether to make a play or take a shot believed in first impressions.
"Absolutely not," he said. "It's not how you look. It's how you perform."
No whispers. That was heartfelt praise for a player small in stature with a big, big heart. But times were often demanding in junior hockey and would continue to be rough.
"I remember when I started juniors, I was 140 and I was regularly battling with guys 200 and 220 pounds," Briere said of his time playing at Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at a time when bigger was believed to be better, where a good big man could lean on a good little player, legally or not, and neutralize him. "I was small, but it was something I was never afraid of. It didn't matter to me how big they were. I knew I wasn't there to fight those guys or outmuscle them. I learned how to play against big guys. Every once and a while, I got crunched, but I did pretty well staying out of trouble.
"GMs thought if you could find a guy who is 6-4, you could work with this guy and make him a player, where a guy who is 5-8, 150 pounds, they thought it would be hard to get height on him and add weight. For me personally, it was a good thing. I had a lot of people tell me that if I were 6-feet tall, I would have been the first overall draft pick, so I always had motivation to prove people wrong, people who said I was too small that I could play at the next level."
But the whispers, the innuendos, were still there -- even after Briere had an astounding 67-goal, 96-assist pre-draft season at Drummondville and led the league in goals, assists and points. Mind-boggling numbers. Still, he barely made it into the first round of the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, going 24th overall.
Briere grew up idolizing Wayne Gretzky for obvious reasons. But being down the road from Montreal, he also enjoyed watching Mats Naslund of the Canadiens. And Pat LaFontaine tore up the Quebec League.
"I felt that, 'If they could survive at their size and be stars in the NHL, maybe I can, too,' " Briere said confidently.
There are countless players who have had to overcome to become great. Just look at Martin St. Louis, the NHL's Most Valuable Player in 2003-04. Drive and inspiration from the too-small syndrome. It's not just size and speed. It's what's in a player's heart and stomach and head that allow the smaller guys to overcome the obstacles they've faced in trying to make it in the NHL.
New challenges. New obstacles ... like when Daniel cleared waivers in his fourth year in the NHL 2000-01 at Phoenix. A FOURTH time.
"Every single team passed me by," Briere said, clenching his fist a little. "That was probably the lowest point of my career. That was a big blow to my ego because you realize that nobody wants you. At the same time, it was a wakeup call that I needed to change some things. My goal after that was to prove everyone made a mistake, so that's been my attitude since then."
Big plans. He felt that he need some help.
"I asked my dad if he could find someone I could train with, I wanted to work harder on my strengths, not just my strength," he said.
Robert Briere, Daniel's dad, asked Hugo Girard, who was a competitor in Canada's World's Strongest Man challenges who shares Gatineau as a hometown, if he knew someone. Girard volunteered for the job himself.
"I was blown away when he looked at me and said, 'I've been watching your career and I think you need this, this and that,' " Briere laughed. "Then he asked me, 'Why do you want to put yourself through the training? The pain? And more pain?'
"I said, 'I don't want to be just another third- or fourth-line guy who just checks in every night for a few minutes. I want be a top-six guy. I want to make a difference.' "
Briere quickly went from an 11-goal player in 2000-01 and waived through the NHL by to a 32-goal scorer for the Coyotes. Hugo helped Daniel with his core strength. His legs. His quickness. His stamina.
"He's really driven, never stops working, fighting, scrapping, trying," said longtime Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier. "I play next to a guy like that ... Martin St. Louis ... in Tampa every night. And Daniel is smart, just like Marty and shifty. Those characteristics, those intangibles, are difficult to defend."
It all started with Robert Briere, a hockey-playing wannabe, whose showed his son the right kind of passion for the game. Robert works as an insurance broker in Gatineau. Constance, his mom, showed her love for their family by teaching, nurturing kids at a neighborhood day-car center and she instilled the same kind of caring in her son.
"Confidence is the biggest thing in hockey," Briere said. "When you don't have it, you play scared. If you go out there afraid to make a mistake, you're useless. The best advice I ever got was from my Midget Coach, who said, 'Nothing is impossible, if you really, truly, believe in it.' "
Lasting impressions of Daniel Briere, learned to wear passion on his sleeve and in his heart. He fearlessly challenges anything and anyone. Guts. Determination. Skill. He's a big talent and a bigger-than-life All-Star.