Friday, October 30, 2015

Andrew Cogliano has learned to play his role

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.

Well ...

"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

Victor Hedman: At 24, he is growing to legendary status

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."

But ...

"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

Connor McDavid -- the next once-in-a-lifetime player

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

Price is ready to put Montreal in the Stanley Cup picture

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.

Patrick Roy.

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.

And ...

"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

Byfuglien: Big players play big in big games

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

The scouting report on Jiri Hudler

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

Parise -- Living and honoring his famous father

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

Size doesn"t matter with Robby Fabbri

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.