Sunday, January 31, 2016

Shea Weber more than a big shooter

By Larry Wigge

It went from Ryan Johansen to Roman Josi to Shea Weber quick and easy. Almost like around the horn in baseball for a double play.

Weber was waiting to crank another bomb. He went to one knee before letting go with a slapper-heard-round-the-world high into the net over the catching shoulder of Calgary goaltender Kari Ramo.

It came on a Nashville power play with 2:23 remaining in the second period of a game won by the Predators 2-1 January 27 just before the All-Star break.

Shea Weber's shot is loud and lethal. His bodychecks are noisy and downright nasty. Simply put, there's nothing quiet about the way he plays. The 6-3, 213-pounder from Sicamous, B.C., makes an impact at either end of the rink.

At the break, Weber had 12 goals and 19 assists for 31 points. But he and fellow Nashville defenseman Roman Josi show a production on the Predators power play the makes them a team to watch. Weber has nine power-play goals and Josi six.

At last season All-Star skills competition, Weber let of his rocket shots fly at 108.5 mph. It's the second-hardest shot in the history of the All-Star skills competition, narrowly missing the record of 108.8 mph set by Zdeno Chara.

"I was surprised," Weber said. "I knew I got it. It's tough. You never know how hard it is until it registers on the gun. I got pretty much all I could into and you just hope for the best."

He watched and studied Hall of Famer Al MacInnis.

"I remember watching Al MacInnis shoot the puck," Weber recalled. "I remember watching his technique. His weight shift. His hands. Everything."

For a moment anyway, Shea allowed himself to think back ... and then ahead. He thought back to his dad purchasing an old net from the local arena in Sicamous, and turning his boys loose. They'd practice for hours and hours.

"My dad brought home the plywood that would serve as our launching pad to practice our shooting," Weber said with a big smile on his face. "That kept me and my brother and my friends busy. We would have all kinds of competitions. Me and my brother would tie cans up for targets. In the winters, we'd flood the yard to make a little rink and work on it that way. I remember my mom would have a heckuva time getting us to come in to eat. Usually, the food was cold when we finally went in the house, but we didn't care. We were ready to go back outside after we got a bite to eat."

James, Shea's father, was a sawmill worker. Tracy, his mom, was a hairdresser.

Tracy Weber, who dedicated her every waking day to her second chance at life. Shea was 15 when his mom started to have headaches. An MRI revealed a large tumor on her brain.

It didn’t take long after her last round of treatments before the pain subsided and life returned to normal for Tracy Weber, who dedicated her every waking day to her second chance at life. She never once failed to appreciate the opportunity to see her two boys grow into young men.

Further tests, however, revealed the cancer had spread to an inoperable place on her brain and chemo was no longer an option. Tracy was 47 when she died nine months ago.

Shea said, "Whether it was driving us to hockey practice at six in the morning when dad was working or up in the stands cheering us on in freezing cold arenas, she was an inspiration and instrumental in getting us to believe we could play hockey and making sure we just love what we do.

"I know she's still watching from up above cheering me on and getting mad at me when I make mistake."

Shea Weber hasn't made many mistakes ... but he has had his little battles to overcome.

The determined young defenseman had to overcome one more little problem -- he was just 5-9 when he went to a tryout help by the Prince George Raiders of the Western Hockey League when he was 15 and was sent home. Between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, Weber grew 5 inches, from 5-9 to 6-2. That just made Shea stronger of body and mind and increased his desire and work ethic to show the skeptics he could excel at any level.

Still, scouts were not sure -- Weber was chosen by the Predators in the second round, 49th pick overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

"You have to know Shea," said former coach Barry Trotz. "There are no hidden agendas with him. He is well grounded. Just a kid from Sicamous. No frills. No outward display."

Trotz told Weber he didn't want him to change after his last contract.

"I told him, 'I don't want you to change,'" Trotz added. "Your pay scale changed, but you don't have to any different than you have done for us. You don't have to be twice the player you were last season. Be yourself. That's all."

This is more than just a Sicomous to an NHL prospect story.

"I played forward and defense until my second year of bantam," he said of his 15th birthday, when he was a slight 5-9. "I was cut from my first junior team in Prince Albert. But ...

"Somehow, I was put on the Kelowna list -- and the rest in history."

The best advice I ever got was from my parents?

"I don't know how many times they both told me, 'It doesn't matter where you come from ... if you work hard everything will be OK,' " Shea recalled.

"Coming from a small town, I guess there were questions. But ..."

Now, Shea Weber looks back at an NHL career.

He's asked, what is the hardest player for you to play against and what makes playing against them such a challenge?

"I guess I'd have to go with Sidney Crosby because he's such a dynamic player," Weber said. "He's so good with the puck. It's almost impossible to knock him off the puck. He's a complete player. He can do everything you'd ever want to do with a hockey puck."

And, what do you like better, making a bit hit or ripping a big slap shot?

"Hmm, tough choice, but probably a big hit," Shea said. "I've always enjoyed to get in the nice big collision and make the other guys think twice about coming down ice my way."

The Calgary Flames might think otherwise, remembering the rocket shot Shea Weber fired over the shoulder of Kari Ramo.

Patrick Kane showing off his skills

By Larry Wigge

Now you see him ... now you don't.

Great goal scorers have that ability to make themselves invisible and suddenly appear somewhere else where you least expect them.

Wayne Gretzky had that ability. So did Gordie Howe and Brett Hull and Jaromir Jagr, the top four goal scorers in NHL history.

"Patrick Kane is very good at kind of finding those quiet areas ... and sliding into the right spot," commented Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien. "That's why he’s a good player and scores a lot of goals.

"We just maybe have to have a little bit more awareness around our net."

Julien was shaking his head when he said that about Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks during the Stanley Cup finals in 2013.

Now, Kane has got that invisible look about him more often that he is more experienced at 27 -- and is finding those quiet areas more often. At the All-Star break, the Buffalo, N.Y., native, has 30 goals and 43 assists for 73 points. That's 15 points better than his nearest rival Jamie Benn of Dallas.

"Everybody wants to be that guy in big-time games and I've been lucky enough to be that guy a couple times," recalled Kane, whose Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup three times over that last six seasons.

But Kane knows what kind of a season he is having and the milestones he can attain along the way. He would become the first American to reach 50 goals and win the scoring title -- Zach Parise had 45 goals in the 2008-09.

Kane also had a 26-game point streak earlier this season.

"It's hard not to notice when he's doing what he's doing," said Dallas' Jamie Benn said. "It just goes to show you he's the best player in this league right now."

"Kaner has got high-end skill," coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's dangerous with the puck, his anticipation without it offensively is high end. I think reading off those guys in the offensive zone has been very effective for him.

"But guys that have that kind of innate skill of scoring. They anticipate like the rest of us would like to."

Patrick Sharp plays for Dallas now. He was with Kane in Chicago for the last eight seasons.

"He's the same kid, hockey wise," said Sharp. "The thing people don't realize about him is how much he cares about the game. How much he knows about every player in the league and the commitment to it away from the rink.

"It's nice to see him getting some credit for that."

The 30 goals that Kane has equals his high water mark, set in 2010. In that same season, Patrick had 88 points -- some 15 points better than he has now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can all remember his Stanley Cup clinching goal, 4-3, against Philadelphia in Game 4.

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

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

But Kane did not need a review.

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

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

At that point, no one was calling Kane too small to play the game. The size of his heart was just fine. His playmaking is off-the-boards. His deceptiveness -- in and out of moves -- is exceptional.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I’ve been the little guy in a game of bigger guys all my life," Kane smiled, as if to say that he knows this is the NHL, but this is just the challenge he needs at this time in his young life. "I’m not going to change my game of trying to be assertive. I’m not taking anything from anybody."
He looked around the Blackhawks locker room and added: "We’ve got a few big guys in here who have my back if something happens."

More than four months after Kane was alleged to have raped a young woman at his Buffalo area home and more than a month after local prosecutors sharply questioned the veracity of the claims against Kane in deciding not to bring criminal charges, the incident remains a shadow trailing the league's leading scorer.

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

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

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

"Everyone makes mistakes in their life and he's under a different microscope than everyone else," Bowman said.

Even then, he was not invisible and three Stanley Cups later and a potential goal scoring and point title ahead of him, Patrick Kane is out to prove he's just another guy playing hockey at at higher level than anyone else.

And he's doing it ... front and center.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sharks defenseman Brent Burns ,,, an impressive guy

By Larry Wigge

It was not one of those pick-em hockey games you played with friends when you were kids.

The game was for real: it was Toronto against San Jose Janury 9.

After getting a perfect tape-to-tape pass from San Jose teammate Paul Martin near the center ice line, defenseman Brent Burns playfully proceeded to tap the puck through the legs of Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri ... to himself.

With a burst of speed and powere he went around defensemen Dion Phaneuf, before firing a quick shot right under the crossbar to beat Jonathan Bernier.

Burns scored the all-important first goal early in the second period of San Jose's 7-0 win.

"That was huge, because I thought we were a little tentative," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said of Burns' goal. "We were almost in that waiting-for-something-to-go-wrong mindset. He just said, 'Screw it,' and took the puck.

"That changed the game for us. It really did. That was a world-class play by a world-class player."

The 30-year-old now leads NHL defensemen with 18 goals and ranks second with 41 points in 48 games. He's tied for third among NHL players with 21 power-play points.

Looking like a cross between Grizzly Adams and Sasquatch, it's hard for the heavily bearded, tatted-up Brent Burns to go anywhere without being recognized.

Because of that shaggy beard that seems to go on forever, the San Jose Sharks star blue-liner may be the most identifiable NHLer anywhere.

On the ice, Burns is 6-5, 230 pounds born in Ajax, Ontario. He was was a lot of late development in his last year in juniors. Yet, he was chosen by the Minnesota Wild as the 20th pick overall in the first round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

The Wild knew that he'd played a little bit of defense, but we had no intentions of drafting him to play defense. The team saw the size and speed and shot and figured he could be a power forward once he developed. But Burns just wanted to play. He didn't care where.

You ask him about his favorite player growing up. He says quickly: "Mark Messier. Great leader. Big. Strong. Great skater. What a blast it was for me in my first preseason game with the Wild. First shift. I'm lining up across from Messier. I was so nervous I couldn't move, you know?"

We also learned that reading is Brent's greatest passion outside of hockey.

"I've loved to read since I was a kid," Brent said, looking for a look of astonishment from me when he gave me that answer. "Seriously, I remember when I was growing up, we had a loft in the garage that had a fort up there. But I always seemed to be attracted to several huge boxes my dad had up there filled with books -- most of them war books. I'd sit there all day and read them."

Burns actually got interested in war stories by listening to Patrick Burns, his grandfather, who was an artilleryman in World War II. Like with everything else in Brent's life, the list of books in his library cover an assortment of subjects. The military tomes start back in the Roman Empire and include topics on the Civil War, World War I and II. He even has a book about the Viet Cong. Plus, he told me he has the complete Harry Potter series, nearly every word that has been written by or about Lance Armstrong and most of John Grisham's mystery thrillers.

Clearly, variety is the spice of life.

There's more.

Burns has five tattoos in all. He owns three guitars, two expensive racing bikes to quench his love for cycling and interest in the life of Lance Armstrong. Plus, he's got his own little Noah's Ark -- two huskies, two cats, two large fast-talking birds and a large and unique sampling of fish that includes a shark.

He clearly was born to be a hockey player, literally and physically. Gaby, his mom, went into labor with him while she was at a rink watching her husband, Rob, play in a recreational league game back in March of 1985.

Rob Burns was a metal factory worker by trade. But after the couple had three kids (Brent has a younger brother named Brad and a sister named Kori) a need to supplement the family income ensued. It's one of those delicious little tidbits we learned about in a couple of conversations with Burns this season. The extra job turned out to be a paper route that Brent and his dad had delivering copies of the Toronto Star ... and they did it early each morning on roller blades.

The best part of the plot of Brent Burns the hockey player came in his draft year when he grew a remarkable five inches and gained 15 pounds. It was at that point that he moved up front, started piling up points and rocketed up the scouting charts.

But making a change back to defense wasn't always without tests for Lemaire. I'll never forget the coach throwing his arms in the air in confusion over a bad turnover Brent made in a game in St. Louis. Reporters wondered when the experiment might end. To which then-coach Jacques Lemaire replied, "Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day."

After getting a few laughs at Burns' expense, I remember asking Jacques about the trial and error of such an experiment. He smiled and said, "All they asked racehorses to do is run, right? Well, not quite. Brent Burns is at a part of the development stage for a young defenseman. What I like most about Burnzie is that he just has fun playing hockey. And I really love his attitude to learn on the job."

He was later traded to the Sharks from Minnesota with a second-round pick for forwards Devon Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick in June of 2011.

Burns' 18 goals puts him four back of his career high, set in 2013-14. He was a right wing then.

Ask Burns for something new?

"We got a new 'D' coach this year. Bob Boughner has been great, helping me," he said. "Systematically, positionally, confidence-wise, feeling good about my game. I think those are all really, really important, to learn new things but to also feel good about yourself."

Sounds like the position change for right wing is over. Sounds like it.

Makes you want to know a little more about Brent Burns, right?

Any superstitions? "When I get to the rink before each game, I try to focus on the players I'm going against. Their strengths and weaknesses. And ... I usually listen to the same CD's. Something to get my blood flowing like Good Charlotte or Guns & Roses."

If you weren't a hockey player, what would you be? "If hockey didn't work out, I'd probably be a lifer in the military. Infantry ... like my grandfather."

Lots of beliefs. So many interests. What is the one thing people would be most surprised about you? "Maybe that I believe in reincarnation ..."

Whoa! Even I had to pause for that one, before he continued, saying, "I don't know what I was in a past life. But I'd like to believe I was a lion or a tiger. Some sort of big predator, you know what I mean?"

Well ... no.

Just another day in the life of Brent Burns, star defenseman of the San Jose Sharks.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sidney Crosby ... never does anything ordinary

By Larry Wigge

The play came out of nowhere.

A shot by defeneman Kris Letang richoted off forward Patric Hornqvist. Sidney Crosby was just there at a near-impossible angle for an almost near-impossible goal. He fired an off-balanced on the goal line and sent shot past New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene and a diving goaltender Cory Schneider before Crosby crashed into the backboards.

It came with 4:33 remaining in the Pittsburgh Penguins final game before the All-Star break for a 1-0 lead in a 2-0 victory, giving Sid the Kid 11 goals and eight assists in 15 games since the club started 0-4 under new coach Mike Sullivan.

"Sid's playing with passion. He's playing hard. He's playing in the battle areas like tonight," said Sullivan. "When he plays at his best, he plays with emotion. You can see it in his game and can see it on the bench.

"He's emotionally invested in the game."

But Sid's not going to the All-Star Game at Nashville. His invisibility is viewed in Pittsburgh as the reason for firing coach Mike Johnston. The reason why the Penguins have had to go on a run of 9-3-4 during Crosby's hot streak.

Clearly, Sid the Kid loves challenges. He's a strong leader, not a rah-rah cheerleader type. But he's a strong individual. And like Gretzky, he's ahead of the curve when it comes to knowing how to make the next quantum leap. To underscore that fact, Crosby, with great awareness of the situation, knew how long it took Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Michael Jordan to win their first championships before we asked.

Look in his eyes. Everything you need to know about him is right there. The focus. The fire. Just like you would find in the eyes of greats from Rocket Richard to Gordie Howe to Jean Beliveau to Bobby Orr to Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier to Mario Lemieux to Crosby and all the rest of today's legion of young stars like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and the rest.

So, where does Crosby stand in what seems like a meteoric rise in the NHL? Even if his evolution were to inexplicably flatline, Crosby would go down as a great.

"What doesn't he do?" asked Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom before Game 7 in 2009 when the Penguins won their last Cup. "He's good on the puck. He's quick, he's strong, he's got a great shot and he knows how to find his teammates. He backs you off defensively with his skills. He's a special, special player.

"Winning a Stanley Cup is often the defining moment for a player. In this case, Sid was already on his way."

Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg, who has been primarily responsible for matching up with Crosby in the last two Final series, said he doesn't see anything new that surprises him from No. 87.

"The same skills are there that were there in last year's series," Zetterberg said. "If anything, he's been more determined. What I appreciate most about him is how hard he works -- and the fact that he never gives up on a play.

"Those are the traits of a champion."

Unlike Lemieux and Gretzky, who slowed the game down, Crosby plays quickly. He bursts from his own zone. Teammates tell you they have to always be alert, because he'll find your stick with a pass in a split second.

It seems like just yesterday -- instead of of the summer of 2005 and the NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa -- when Sid was about to be picked first overall by the Penguins and his dad, Troy, was talking about building a roller-blade rink in the family basement, and how his kid pounded pucks off the washer and dryer all night long. Amazingly, the dryer still worked.

But I knew this Kid was different when, a few moments later, I ran into then-Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke, who lost out on winning the lottery and wound up with the second pick -- and I'll never forget what Burke told me.

"I stopped breathing there for a minute, because we were that close to getting him," Burke explained, holding two fingers as tightly together as possible. "I knew what a difference a guy like him could make to a franchise. He's got winner written all over him."

When I hear superlatives like that, I take notice. And Sidney Crosby has truly been a winner on the ice and winner, like Super Mario, in helping to save the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

Not an All-Star non-starter.

Confident. A leader. Seeing Sid the Kid growing up in front of us while sitting at center stage on the ice and in front of a throng of media a couple of times leading up to the biggest game of his life Friday, Crosby had the look of a champion. His answers were well thought out, even on the fly -- more than just stick-handling around the obvious. He looked like a leader and sounded like one as well.

"All the big games you play, you try to draw on the experiences," he said succinctly. "Hopefully, this is where it shows through individually and as a team."

On playing in a winner-take-all Game 7, he added, "We've all dreamed of having this opportunity. What I remember the most about the Stanley Cup is the previous captains who have lifted the Cup. I remember when I was really young seeing my favorite team win it -- Montreal in 1993. Also, I'll never forget seeing Doug Weight lift the Stanley Cup with a separated shoulder and barely getting the Cup over his head. That's the kind of determination you need to win.

"You want to go in there and make sure you've done everything to prepare. Then you just go out there and you've got to empty the tank."

You can see and feel the passion in his voice. His vision seems never-ending, on the ice and off.

"I don't accept being average," he said -- and then added, "I have to be one play ahead."

Like Gretzky, or Lemieux.

"To me, what has been overlooked is how young he is and what he's accomplished in such a short period of time at such a young age," said former Penguins GM Ray Shero.

Crosby was caught a little off-guard by the question of his place in the game, considering it was less than four short years ago that he was chosen by the Penguins.

"Honestly, I don't think I was even close to looking this far ahead," he responded about his draft-day marathon of interviews and contemplation.
Place in history. Crosby's still having too much fun at 28 years of age. Tomorrows are clearly on his side.

It's like the rite of spring to compare one great athlete to another or look at the evolution chain, you know, wondering where this player is compared to, say, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux or ...

There's no truer measuring stick than winning championships to crown the next star a great or a legend. And comparisons are the nature of the beast.

Yet to spend any time with Crosby is to understand that, when cornered, he can laugh, cry, and make his feelings known as honestly as anyone. He wept when he returned home to Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, with the Stanley Cup and he was eloquent in describing hockey's hold.

"I saw a six-year old kid clapping and going nuts when the Cup was going by ... and then I remember seeing a 90-year-old lady sitting under an umbrella doing the exact same thing," Crosby remembered the parade after the Penguins won it all. "That right there said it all: From the youngest kid dreaming and wanting to play to a lady who's still following it to this day -- maybe because her brother played or because -- who knows? -- maybe she played herself. Everyone has a connection to hockey. That's what we love and are crazy about."

"He's like Mario and Wayne," Florida GM Dale Tallon said. "Those guys have tremendous vision and see the ice better than anyone. ... Crosby never makes a bad pass, and they're tough passes. He's in the corner and, bang, it's across the ice and on a guy's stick in front of the net. He's really, really, really creative."

I wondered if it's fair to say Crosby is less confident in his finishing ability than other parts of his game.

"I don't think less confident. No," he said. "I like my chances around the net. I believe in myself. I know I'm capable of scoring goals. But I also know that a lot of times my first instinct is to pass because that's what's more natural to me. I mean, trying to see the ice, trying to read plays, I'm looking where other guys are. Sometimes I probably should be looking at the net or looking to find a shooting lane.

"I think that's something you have to learn with experience and having that mentality. With time, I'll get better at that."

"Crosby's very similar to Wayne," says retired Rangers general manager Glen Sather, who coached the Great One for nine seasons at the start of Gretzky's NHL career. "Same kind of vision. Crosby sees the ice as well as anybody. And I've seen Crosby do amazing things, like Wayne. He's feisty and that's what I like about him too. Wayne was feisty in his way but not like this guy."

Or, as big Chris Pronger put it: "Guys like that find a way."

From a near impossible angle near the goal line before Sidney Crosby crashes into the end boards.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Claude Giroux: He's come a long way to the Flyers

By Larry Wigge

Every time Claude Giroux runs into Bobby Clarke, the longtime Philadelphia Flyer great, he reintroduces himself.

Strange ... but true.

In happened in Vancouver at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. The Flyers wanted honor Clarke, who was their former GM, by letting him announce their first pick.


"Philadelphia selects, from Gatineau of the Quebec Junior League," Clarke paused, looked down at some paper, then glanced off to the side for some help. "I forget."

When the chuckles died down, Clarke made the announcement: Claude Giroux.

There are no mistakes about Giroux now, he was the Flyers first round pick, 22nd overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. In fact ...

He was a competitive kid ... never gives up ... always around the puck... makes good plays around the puck ... bigger than he looks.

That last complement of Giroux was the reason Claude was ranked 38th on the NHL Central Scouting Bureau's final draft-eligible rankings, moving all the way from 72nd in the mid-season report.

In the fall of 2005, Giroux, who was born in Hearst, Ontario, arriving to the game in his Gatineau jersey as a kind of free agent ... nobody in the Ontario Hockey League had drafted him.


"He was too small, I guess," said Flyers scout Simon Nolet says.
"Yes, 140 pounds.

"I began scouting Claude ... and I'm thinking that he's a little small. You go back and see him again. And again. And again. And then you make up your mind."

At 17, he was 140. Giroux now 5-11, 185 pounds. He packs a giant punch with every check he throws -- whether the opponent is 6-5. 250 pounds.

Traditionally, the Flyers have targeted bigger, more physical players. But Giroux plays big. He view him as an excellent blend of skill and smarts and a player and a very competitive attitude and a definite desire to win.

"Claude's the best player in the world," said former Flyers coach Peter Laviolette.

At 17, he was 140. Giroux now 5-11, 185 pounds.

Some players are made for the moment ... others have to work at it.

Claude Giroux volunteered for it in the 2010 playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins to play the first shift against Sidney Crosby. He didn't just volunteer, he demanded that Laviolette put him in the starting lineup.

"About 10 seconds before they dropped the puck, he came over and told me, 'Watch the first shift,' " former teammate Danny Briere said. "He set the tone. That first shift, that was beautiful to see. That's the sign of a great leader."

Giroux looked for the first hit as the first shift began. It just happened to be Crosby, who was leveled near the boards.

Then 32 seconds into the game Claude scored the first goal. One goal and two assists later, the Flyers had a 5-1 victory over the Penguins -- and ousted their cross-state rivals in the first round of the playoffs.

"He's got a knack for being there when it matters most," Briere revealed. "That's not something you can teach. You have it or you don't. There's guys that score a lot when games are out of hand or they don't mean much. He always seems to score the big goals or make the big plays when it matters most."

"Anything you do, you want to be the best at it," Giroux said. "If that's to score goals or block shots or whatever it is, I'm going to try to do it ..."

Giroux said, honestly, "There's obviously pressure. Pressure? I hope so because I love pressure."

"He's our motor ... he's our engine ... we follow him everywhere," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said.

"He got this thing in his eyes where it was, 'You can't stop me,'" says Max Talbot. "He plays like Malkin but with the grit of Sid."

Think about that for a second. Imagine the possibilities. And listen to Giroux say, "Anything you do, you want to be the best at it."

Raymond, Giroux dad, who was an electrician, never thought his son would make it in the NHL. But ...

"We never expected him to be in the NHL at first," said Raymond. "According to lots of people, he was too small to be in the NHL."

"Shortly after I was born, I think, my dad put a stick in my hand and skates on my feet," Giroux said. "I'm not sure exactly how old I was when I started playing in an organized league, but I was probably four or five. I played my minor hockey in Hearst, up through peewee and have great memories of those years."

Not surprisingly, given the cultural and geographical logistics of his upbringing, Giroux was a fan of the Montreal Canadiens while growing up. Unfortunately, though, he was only five when the Habs captured the Stanley Cup in 1993, and didn't get to experience the full impact of the occasion.

"Obviously, the Canadiens are the most popular team where I'm from," Giroux said. "I always followed the team very closely and had a number of players I really admired."

But who, specifically, was his favorite player?

"Pavel Bure," explained Giroux. "He was just such an exciting player. I loved the way he used his speed and quickness. He would always do something different with the puck, something you maybe never saw before -– a fancy deke, a quick pass to an open teammate.

"He was just awesome on breakaways. I used to love to watch him play, a little in Vancouver, then with Florida and the Rangers. The way he could just fly around the rink was really impressive, and something I always wanted to emulate."

Claude Giroux made his name by his fearlessness. He revealed part of his violence on the ice was learned from Chris Pronger, a Hall of Fame player who won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim. Giroux said he learned about the power play at the end of his career was with the Flyers.

"He gave me a pretty good slash," Giroux recalled. "When you play against him, you don't realize how smart and good he is."

He paused to think about how good an influence Pronger was as a teammate.

"He was tough, he didn't talk a lot but when he did, guys listened," Giroux said. "When something had to be said, he was dead on it.

"He knew how to win and sometimes to win, you have to use tough love. ... When you play with him, it makes your job so much easier. I'm talking offensively. He is one of the best defensively, but you don’t realize how he was offensively.

"When we were on the power play, there was good structure. Me and him communicated real well. We kinda moved the puck and got shots through. I learned a lot on the power play from him."

Claude Giroux didn't get from 5-10, 140 pounds. Lots of hard work ... and plenty of good tips from guys like Chris Pronger.

Even Bobby Clarke know Giroux now.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lee Stempniak has proven to be a smart goal scorer in NHL

By Larry Wigge

Some things change ... others, well, they just don't.

Like that way Lee Stempniak converted a pretty two-on-one break, shoveling the puck into the net in the first period, or in the third period when he tipped a shot by Adam Henrique for a 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

The two-goal game gave Stempniak five goals and two assists in his last six games and 14 goals for the season with the New Jersey Devils. He has 16 points in his last 25 games (nine goals, nine assists).

The Jets did not re-sign Stempniak, a late-season addition in a trade with the New York Rangers, after he had six goals in 18 regular-season games to help the Jets reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

In fact, it seems that every time he looks up the soon to be 34-year-old Stempniak is playing a former team -- St. Louis, Toronto, Phoenix, Calgary, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers or Winnipeg.

"This past summer not signing, it was hard in a sense. But at the same time, I had a lot of confidence in myself last season and a strong finish in Winnipeg and knew I could play," the 5-11, 196 pounder from West Seneca, N.Y. said. "New Jersey was the best fit, not just to make the team but to play a big role on a team. I've embraced that. I think I've earned the coaches' trust and we're a good team."

I recall very early in Stempniak's career in St. Louis Al MacInnis singling him out to then coach Andy Murray.

"We've got a young player who I think should be playing on the first power-play unit. He's got really good hands, a great shot and a knack of finding a way to get the puck in the net," MacInnis said excitedly. He then shook his had and said, "I can't remember his name ... but I can give you his number ... it's No. 12."

Lee Stempniak broke into the NHL with 14 and 27 goals. He now in his 11th season.

This is no rink rat. Stempniak was valedictorian of his senior class at St. Francis High School in Buffalo and majored in economics at Dartmouth, graduating with an impressive 3.6 grade-point average. He interned after his junior year with Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.

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

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

Gaudet was right on both counts. Stempniak was a two-time all-America pick and team captain at Dartmouth. You have to remember there are no scholarships in the Ivy League.

Smart, inquisitive, willing to learn ... and very talented. I often joked that he always had a book at his locker. Something I could not pronounce.

"Just trying to keep up with the world," Stempniak said.

This is a hard-working, stay-in-the-rink-until-I-get-it-right youngster. That's how he developed his power move and balance on blades, while getting ready for professional hockey before his breakout season of 27 goals.

"I knew the guy who ran the rink in West Seneca and he'd let me in whenever I wanted," Stempniak smiled. "That's where I worked on my skating and balance and that's where I developed a feel for the puck, handling it myself in different drills I made up."

This summer it was back to the rink for plyometrics, to make Stempniak leaner, stronger and quicker to helphim get through the bigger bodies he has to face in the NHL.

Stempniak, who was selected in the fifth round, with the 148th pick overall, in the 2003 Entry Draft, didn't get his work ethic from books. He learned it from watching his parents, Larry, who works at Quebecor World Printing, a book bindery company in Depew, just outside of Buffalo, and Carla, who works for the Buffalo postal department, the third shift that goes from 9:30 p.m. until 5:30 a.m.

"They drove to something like 33 of my 35 or 36 games at Dartmouth," Lee remembered. "When I was called up to St. Louis, they went out and bought a satellite dish so they could watch Blues games."

Lee said his parents wanted to keep up with he and his brother Jay, who was a defenseman at Division III Johnson and Wales College in Rochester, N.Y.

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

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

His first real chance to play in the NHL was against Calgary, when he lifted a shot that eluded Miikka Kiprusoff's quick glove hand to win a shootout.

"Who was that kid?" Kiprusoff asked afterward. "I thought I had him. But he waited and waited like a veteran -- and then he showed some nice hands when he pulled the puck back and lifted it over my glove."

"We knew coming into the season that he was a player that he has good NHL experience, he's a good pro," Devils coach John Hynes said. "He's got good hockey sense and skill and he's been fortunate enough to earn the right to play in some important situations -- a top six role and special teams -- and he's been very consistent and productive in those roles."

Eleven years had been a long time. Stempniak admits it's become more difficult to change teams so often, however, since his twin daughters, Reese and Lucy, were born two years ago.

"The last two years have been hard because we have kids," he said. "My daughters were in the hospital for a month when they were born and I got traded when they were five days old from Calgary to Pittsburgh."

You could feel the apprehension that Stempniak had.

"To not be with them when they were in the hospital or when they came home was hard," Stempniak continued. "And then last year I got traded to Winnipeg, they stayed in New York. So I didn't see them for two and a half months. It's a bit easier when it's just yourself or at least married without kids. You can sort of move more easily. But, it's hard to do it when you have children."

And they've got grandparents said Stempniak. "We see mom and dad more often ... now that we've got the twins."

Life in the NHL hasn't always been kind to Lee Stempniak. But he's left his mark -- as goal scorer.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Jaroslav Halak is still stopping all the pucks

By Larry Wigge

Short-term memory. That's what makes a good goaltender.

A goalkeeper can't let a goal that an Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby or Evgeny Malkin or Claude Giroux get into his mind because he would be facing someone just as tough to stop the next night.

Or maybe he would be facing Ovechkin's Capitals, Crosby and Malkin's Penguins or Giroux's Flyers again the next evening in the playoffs.

It was supposed to be Carey Price and his fifth overall selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft who should have been the fixture in the Montreal Canadiens net. But Jarolslav Halak burst on the hockey scene in 2010.

Halak was the 11th round choice, 271st in the 2003 NHL Draft, but the Bratislava, Slovakian, netminder was the one facing Washington, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the playoffs instead of Price.

Halak remembered something his granddad once told him.

"When I was younger, when I had a bad game, I didn't talk to my parents. I was mad at myself," Halak said, a little sheepishly. "My granddad said, 'If you have a bad game, just think about it until midnight. After that, it's a new day and a new game.' He was right."

The trick works ....

Knowing that Price was their goaltender, the Canadiens dealt Halak to St. Louis. He spent time in Washington before landing with the New York Islanders in the spring of 2014, where he has once again begun to put up mind-boggling numbers.

Like ...

The measuring stick of eight consecutive victories over New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with a 3-1 win, stopping 34 shots January 14.

"He's played well," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of Halak. "He's a guy that gives us a chance to win.

"I thought it was a gut-check for our team. We played extremely hard against a good team."

"Jaro shut them down," said Islanders winger Brock Nelson.

The middle son of Jaroslav and Jarmila Halak's three boys, he loved the equipment and the mask. He lived to stop the ball on the street and the puck on the rink. Patrick Roy was his hero, no surprise there. But former St. Louis goaltender Curtis Joseph was another of his favorites because of his acrobatic style.

"Both goaltenders played extremely well, but in the space of four minutes we made two mistakes, and it cost us," Rangers Coach Alain Vigneault said. "You have to give Halak credit."

Right wing Mike Cammalleri was with Montreal in 2010. He and several of his Habs teammates played a trick in practice ... that backfired.

Cammalleri and defenseman Andrei Markov were running a drill where the defenseman takes a point drive and the forward drives for the rebound. Cammalleri decided he would change signals -- getting the rebound and passing to another player on the back side of the net.

Easy goal, right?

Now most goalies take pride in stopping every shot, be it in a game or in practice. But this time, Halak was mad. So he channeled that anger into excellence and stopped the joking by beating the backside shot every time from then on.

"In a game, a goaltender doesn't have the time to get over for the rebound," Cammalleri said. "It was unfair of us ... but then Halak has the last laugh. If you do that to some goalies, they'll go right out of their net, into the locker room and they won't talk to you for two days."

But Halak made his point.

"He's such a fun goalie to watch," Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson said, remembering him from his days in St. Louis. "He's so effortless in his motions, and there's no wasted energy with him. We feel so confident with him and he's so cool, calm and collected.

"We know that we can go in the offensive zone and attack there if we have any hiccups, so he's been a great, great asset for us."

Halak has always had a goaltenders mentality.

Halak always has been a late-blooming afterthought in the goaltending business. In 2003, he was just beginning to become known when he backstopped Slovakia to the silver medal in the Under-18 World Championships. In the semifinals, the Slovaks knocked off Russia in a shootout, 2-1, with Halak denying Alexander Ovechkin's shootout attempt.

"I remember that as being a big step for me," Halak said. "I thought maybe one day I'll get a chance to play in the NHL."

The following summer, Halak took the next leap, being drafted by the Canadiens. He didn't hear his name, though, until 270 others had been called. He was the 25th goalie out of 27.

"I watched the first six rounds," Halak said. "When I didn't see my name, I stopped watching. Then my agent called me and said I got drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. I was kind of disappointed I got drafted in the ninth round ... but I still had a chance."

And Henrik Lundqvist is one player who wonders, "Why, me?"

Jaroslav Halak will have to tell Lundqvist his granddad's advice. Won't he.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Daniel and Henrik Sedin together one great team

By Larry Wigge

For a second only, we'd like to ask our readers who is more important to the Vancouver Canucks history?

I'm sure there will be the Pavel Bure supporters for his exciting years with the Canucks. Same with Trevor Linden or Roberto Luongo or Kirk McLean or Stan Smyl.

As much as anyone would like to single them out, Daniel and Henrik Sedin come in tandem. As a pair of uniquely skilled forwards. And to say that the Sedins indeed are the most important member of the Canucks history.

And that comes at a time when Daniel Sedin has become the all-time leading goal scorer for the Canucks breaking a 2-2 tie by scoring his 347th NHL goal and adding an empty net with 23 seconds left of a 4-2 victory. No. 348 put him ahead of Markus Naslund.

"We've been lucky enough to see them grow from great prospects into amazing stars in this league," Canucks captain Markus Naslund once told me. "What they do with the puck is so imaginative and instinctive. It can catch you standing around watching sometimes.

"They can seemingly create a great scoring chance in the blink of an eye."

The mystery, as much as it is delicious, has gotten out. Daniel and Henrik Sedin are twice as good as a tandem then others are alone.


I asked Henrik Sedin to show me his driver's license or photo ID at the All-Star Game in Atlanta in 2008. He wouldn't ... but I knew it was not his identical twin brother, Daniel, because Daniel's wife was back home in Vancouver ready to give birth to their second child.

Aha! I got you.

There were no quick-switch parent trap-like changes in identity to fool unsuspecting reporters ... as they often have done in the past. The identity of the enormously creative and productive Sedins with the Vancouver Canucks was often muddled -- even by people the twins see in their own locker room every day.

And this year, Daniel will be going to All-Star Game, taking his 21 goals. Henrik will be sidelined with a chest or shoulder injury.

"What is so attractive about the Sedins is that it seems like they are able to find one another in a scary way," former Canucks GM Brian Burke told me. "It's sort of like radar. They find each other in some of the most impossible spots on the ice. I said all along, the sum of one Sedin reduces the value. But getting both is like a double whammy for a team. That's why I worked so hard at getting this deal done."

Daniel went second and Henrik went third in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft in Boston.

What make the Sedins so good is that they do it together. Henrik won the Art Ross scoring title in 2010, en route to his Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP. Daniel won the Ross Trophy the following year.

It's been said that the two are so much alike that they often finish one another's sentences.

"Well ... it happens once in a while," Henrik winked.

More often than just awhile ...

But we're into the here and now -- with the Canucks on the verge of elimination in the first round of the playoffs in 2012 to the Los Angeles Kings. The reason the Canucks were down 3-0 was simple, Daniel has been out of the lineup since March 21 -- 12 games -- with concussion like symptoms the result of a hit by Chicago's Duncan Keith.

In Game 4, Daniel returned to give Canucks a 3-1 victory. Henrik got Vancouver third goal, while Daniel set him up for it.

It was back to the future with the incomparable Sedins. While orchestrating the day-in, day-out offense of the Vancouver offense with their dazzling cycling -- weaving in and out of traffic, in constant motion, always looking for the right moment, when suddenly there's an open man and a goal-scoring opportunity.

Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter put the loss more succinctly, "The difference was 22 and 33's performance."

Exactly. For those of you who must be introduce to Daniel and Henrik Sedin, they are No. 22 and No. 33.

"I was hesitant ... I hadn't played for a while," Daniel replied. "But ..."

He took a second to gather his thoughts.

"I think once in while we need some time away from each other," Daniel explained. "As crazy as it sounds, I think that's the case. I think when we play together for a long time ... we tend to rely on each other a lot and we forget to work on our own game, to beat guys one on one and shoot the puck. It was a perfect example two years ago when I broke my foot. I came back and he played great and I could just fit in nicely."

The mystery, as much as it is delicious, has gotten out, says Henrik, "Daniel makes such a big difference because he knows where the holes are and can get to them. It's great to have him back."

At the Atlanta All-Star Game, the questions for Henrik were wide-ranging as we finally got to know a little more about these remarkable twins -- minus one -- who were born in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, on September 26, 1980.

In reality, Henrik was born six minutes before Daniel.

"Yeah, that's another thing I was first at ... but just barely," Henrik laughed. "I was born first and, though he might disagree, I'm more organized."

The differences ...

"Daniel is better at poker and water sports," Henrik said, ticking off differences between the twins. "But I'm better at soccer and golf. I haven't lost to him in golf yet (Henrik said he's a 13 handicap)."

When they play tennis, it's like hockey, always together. Henrik and Daniel have been playing hockey together, same line almost always through the years, since they were 9.

"Nearly 21 years," Henrik said proudly.

The twins complement one another so well that they came into this season with nearly identical point totals -- Henrik had 915 points and Daniel had 881.

Obviously, Henrik is the passer and Daniel the shooter.

Have they ever swapped girlfriends? "Never," said Henrik.

Have they ever swapped jerseys? "No," said Henrik. "But once in Sweden I got thrown out of the faceoff circle, skated over to the boards and then went back in and took the faceoff ... and didn't get caught."

That was before Daniel started wearing No. 22 and Henrik put on his No. 33 sweater.

"One night in Vancouver, I scored a goal and was injured, so Daniel went out right after the game and did the interview for me," Henrik laughed.

How do the Sedins' parents Tommy and Tora tell the twins apart?

"I don't know, but they've never gotten us confused -- not even on the phone," Henrik smiled.

Reporters may have trouble, but Henrik swears teammates don't have the same difficulty identifying the twins.

"Teammates can tell us apart after a while," Henrik said. "But most of the coaches don't have a clue. They'll come up to Daniel and say he has to check a player quicker deep in our zone defensively ... and he'll have to come over to me and tell me what I did wrong."

Not that there's much wrong with the way either Henrik or Daniel Sedin have played for the last 15 seasons in Vancouver.

Want more about the fascinating Sedins?

"We have two older brothers," Henrik said of Peter and Stefan. "It was always us vs. them. And we'd win."

In case, you wonder who would win.

It seems like so long ago now, that day in June of 1999, when then Burke made deals with Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Chicago to get two of the top three picks in the draft in Boston to have the right to pick both Sedins.

The Sedins, Naslund and Peter Forsberg and former greats Anders Hedberg and Thomas Gradin all grew up in Ornskoldsvik, a town of about 60,000 people.

"Our dream growing up was to play for MoDo (in the Swedish Elite League), just like Markus and Peter did," Henrik said.

Naslund and Forsberg both went to the NHL ... and the twins followed them here, too -- with a pulse-raising flair and creativity.

Henrik said the twins feel they really came into their own the season after the lockout, 2006-07. The last past couple of summers the Sedins have had fun trying to become harder to knock off the puck. They do it while roller-blading ... 60-yard wind sprints while carrying 45-pound weight plates. Uphill. Twice weekly, along with at least two other workout sessions and forms of weight training each day this past summer.

"We also felt we had tried to become North Americanized, dumping the puck in and chasing after it -- and that's not our game," Henrik added. "We decided we'd do more cycling and quick passing -- things that we were successful at in Sweden."

That kind of tough, imaginative workout shows you how much these red-headed Swedish forwards want clearly are determined to star at the NHL level.

Every year they come back wanting to do more. They're driven.

"Yeah," said Henrik. "We like a challenge."

And the challenge for the rest of the NHL is to stop the Sedins -- one or both.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Pavel Datsyk ... the magic man thrives

By Larry Wigge

Abracabra! Presto chango! Now you see him ... now you don't.

Even when Pavel Datsyuk is facing a one-on-two, he can be Houdini-like the way he is able to escape or elude trouble.

"The hands, the feet, the moves ... they're magical," raved Detroit Red Wings teammate Henrik Zetterberg.

Lost? Datsyuk may have once worried about feeling lost in a new country and new culture. But nothing is ever lost in the translation when describing the magical, mesmerizing skills he has.

"I think Pavel's the most exciting one-on-one player in the game," GM Ken Holland told me.

"Good hands and moves?" Datsyuk said, repeating the question. "I wasn't strong when I was young. The puck was maybe too heavy."

Not the same small, skinny-looking kid at 5-10, 160 pounds that was passed over twice in the NHL Entry Draft and was picked finally picked 171st in the 1998 draft by Detroit. The Sverdolvsk, Russia, native is now 5-11, 197. And his looks off the ice defy logic on the slippery slopes of the NHL.

"I don't know if there is a player stronger on his skates than Pavel," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "Opponents think they have him covered and I've seen him continue to stickhandle with one hand and use his lower body strength to fight through the check and continue to go to the net.

"Sometimes you can see early in a game, when Pavel's hanging onto the puck, when he's beating players and getting away from checks, he's on top of his game. On nights like this it's tough to get the puck away from him."

Stars such as Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby seemingly have the ability of a chess master, thinking two or three moves ahead of the play.

Datsyuk look at me like I was crazy. Then answered ...

"I see plays, yes," he said. "But not three plays ahead. ... Two, maybe."

But its the balance on his skates, the strength in his legs and the creativity in his mind that make him a triple threat on the ice.

With Pavel, you have to back off because you know he can make you look silly with some of the one-on-one moves he has. His ability to stickhandle is extraordinary. You have to respect the moves, the stickhandling ... and his shot.

"I was lucky," Datsyuk said. "I was scared when I first went to Detroit. New country. Couldn't speak English. Lots of stars around me. But Igor Larionov made me feel at home. He showed me super markets. Taught me how to save money. Taught me best English words."

"You could see that Pavel's eyes were opened by the NHL, he was scared," St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said.

So afraid ... that he opened the eyes of millions of Russian players who grew up watching him boggle the minds of most NHL stars.

"Boy is he shifty," St. Louis star Vladimir Tarasenkov volunteered -- naming Datsyuk as the player he followed most growing up. "He's got the best hands in the league and is definitely the quickest."

"What makes him so difficult to stop is his ability to shoot the puck on the move, a lot of times shooting off the wrong foot, when you expect him to pass the puck," said Hitchcock. "What makes him so dangerous is that he gets his shot off so quickly, even in traffic."

"Anytime you play with people that have great hockey sense like he does, it can make the game a little different," said newcomer Brad Richards. "When things are clicking, you can create a lot of ice by doing little things."

Pavel Datsyuk was passed over by every team in the NHL -- twice.

"Scouts said he was too small and maybe not fast enough to play in the NHL," said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, who was a longtime Red Wings chief scout. "He went through the draft twice without being picked. But Hakan Andersson, one of our scouts, saw him a couple of times each year and kept telling us this little guy was a really good player. He said Pavel reminded him of a young Igor Larionov with his playmaking ability.

"Finally, we decided to overlook the size questions. We decided that you couldn't take away what he could accomplish with the puck -- his ability to find a teammates in almost any situation, the moves that make him so dangerous in the NHL now."

"He's actually better here than he was in Europe," Montreal Canadiens Rick Dudley scout once said. "He was maybe 167 pounds then and I know I had a hard time thinking that, at that size, he could do the same things in the NHL against the size of players he would be facing here.

"The skills? You knew they were not normal -- and now they are up there in the stratosphere somewhere. Truly amazing. It's clear that he is a special, special player."

This season, Datsyuk started with Pavel on the sidelines, following offseason ankle surgery June 26. He made his debut November 13 and went scoreless in three straight games and registered two goals and one assist in his first 10 games.

But since then, Datsyuk has been on a point-a-game pace with four goals and 15 assists in 19 games. And he's doing it despite being the Red Wings' oldest player at age 37.

"He's feeling it," Zetterberg chimed in. "He's been probably our best player over the past two months.

"He's got a lot of strength ... and when skates that well he's dangerous."

"I thought Pavel was the best player on the ice," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "Any concern about where he is at, he certainly shut that in my mind. I thought he was the best player on the ice."

Datsyuk now has 304 goals and 587 assists for 891 points in 900-some games over his 14 seasons in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings and has been a member of two Stanley Cup championships, won the Selke Trophy three times and won the Lady Byng Trophy four straight years.

"It's funny," he once told me. "My first sport wasn't soccer or hockey. It was chess."

Valery, Pavel's dad, drove a van for a company near their home in Sverdlovsk. He's the one who introduced his son to chess. Pav's mom, Galina, worked as a cook for a military outlet. She's the one who would take him to the skating rink.

This scrawny kid built up his legs and lower body that makes him so difficult to be knocked off the puck by climbing the four floors of stairs to their apartment. No elevator for Pav.

"That's how I started to get stronger," he laughed. "Walking up and down those steps. Three four times a day sometimes."

Datsyuk's trademark big smile crossed him face when he remembered the old days.

He told me he wanted to quit hockey altogether, when his mother died of cancer at 46. But his father and friends talked him into sticking with the game.

"Friends tell me, 'Pav, hockey could be good life for you,' " Datsyuk said, adding that he thinks of his mom every time he plays. She's his inspiration. She brought color to his life.

It wasn't long after that is father died of a heart attack -- and Pavel through his everything into hockey.

Becoming North Americanized, Pavel would even go out on his own to the movies.

"Action movies," he said, smiling. "Car crashes. Explosions. Exciting."

On the ice, Pavel Datsyuk finally started going to the net.

"To me, the difference is that he used to want to beat the same guy three times on one play," Holland laughed. "Now he beats one guy and goes to the net. He is exceptional down low."

Not smoke and mirrors. Not abracadabra. Just a friendly wink and a nod. Sort of like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri and Datsyuk and Zetterberg.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Zdeno Chara ... big man with great skill

By Larry Wigge

Zdeno Chara has always played a numbers game.

From the time Chara got to North America from his native Trenchin, Slovakia, the 6-9, 255 pounds were always key. So, too, were third-round position, 56th overall, by the New York Islanders in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.

The numbers were still there when he was traded to the Ottawa Senators in June of 2001 for star center Alexei Yashin.

"I wasn't supposed to make it. I was too tall, too awkward, too everything," Chara said, shaking his head. "I couldn't make anyone in Slovakia believe I could play ... so I had to leave home."

He's no longer a big joke to some teammates, who watched him clumsily skate around the rink and laughed behind his back until he was about 22 and the rest of his body caught up with his height.

Chara made the first all-star team three times, won a Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman and led the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup in 2011 and was front and center when the B's lost to Chicago in the finals in 2013.

Now, the number being beat down is his age of 38. On January 13, Boston was beaten by Philadelphia, 3-2, as Chara was on the ice for all three scores.

Never mind that his plus-minus was six.

And don't forget that the Bruins won consecutive games following that Flyers effort against Buffalo, Toronto and Montreal.

"That was a big game for us," Chara reflected after the Buffalo game. "We started the road trip well, then we lost some games due to not playing 60-minute games, so we knew that tonight's game was going to be a big game for us."

"Zdeno's leadership qualities have been apparent from the time he joined our players after we signed him as a free agent in 2006," said former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. "He leads by example, both on and off of the ice, and he has earned the respect of everyone in our dressing room."

"I remember Wayne Gretky coming over to the Edmonton bench and saying, 'Having to play against defensemen like that, guys built like basketball players, is the reason I'm quitting,'" former Senator GM John Muckler said.

"With two or three strides, his reach pretty much covers the width of the rink," said former Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis. "It kind of feels like you are going a block outside your way to get where you are going when you see him trying to defend you."

But Chara is no freak of nature. Not even close. He's just a big man who plays a man's game with the size, strength and skill that no one else has.

"A player like Z gives you a presence that is irreplaceable," said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray, who wasn't in Ottawa when the Sens let Chara go to free agency and the Bruins in July 2006. "He has toughness, size and great mobility. He is a fitness fanatic. He can play 20 or 25 minutes a game. He's one of a kind. His leaving was pivotal."

Chara clearly was a late-bloomer. He didn't begin skating until he was 7.  But he had some up-close-and-personal help in turning such an imposing body into such an imposing defenseman. It started with Zdenek Chara, Zdeno's father, who competed in Greco-Roman wrestling for Czechoslovakia in the 1976 Olympics. He was the national champion, in fact, for 11 years running. Wrestling, cycling and training came from his father's genes.

The will and determination, however, were all Zdeno.

"When he arrived in Ottawa, it was work, work, work," former teammate Marian Hossa said. "No one worked harder than 'Z.' He would run up steps in buildings, lift weights, mountain bike -- all to build up strength. But his footwork got better and better with all of the lateral stops and starts, quick-twitch exercises he did.

"Now, he's a contender for the Norris Trophy each year."

All those quick-twitch exercises have now made Zdeno Chara one of the most feared defenseman in the NHL.

Big Z pronounced was almost prophetical saying how you'd better be lucky and good to win the Cup.

"You don't know how hard is ... you're always hearing and ready about how hard it is until you go through it and win," Chara revealed. "Then, you to a feeling ... this is what it really feels like. Not that you're not prepare for that, you are. You are preparing for it. It's something like when you are going to have you first child. It's something very unexpected. It's great. It's so rewarding. But you have to go through it you don't know."

Chicago captain Jonathan Toews singled out Chara as the Blackhawks goal in the finals of 2013.

Toews calculates Chara's "number one advantage" as his "size, reach and strength," but added: "There are certain ways you can expose him. ... We made sure we were outnumbering him everywhere we went.

"We just try not to be intimidated by his size. You have to get to the net, find a way inside, and not be intimidated by that. We can outwork him ... and we did that, and we want to continue that."

But ...

"He's so strong," San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, himself 6-4 and 235 pounds. "If we had a strength contest here, he could ..."

Following a pause, I suggested to Thornton that maybe Chara could bench press a house for the fans here.

"Yeah," nodded Thornton. "That's close. He can just neutralize you with that reach and strength of his."

Zdeno Chara started out as a waterboy for his father when Zdenek ran a sports academy in Slovakia and trained all sorts of athletes ... with cycling as a must for everyone.

"I like cycling because you are totally by yourself on the bike," Chara said. "There is no one to help you. You can train your mental strength -- how much pain you are willing to take -- on the bike."

The best advice he ever got?

"My father would say, 'If you do something, do it right. Don't do it halfway. Don't be average,'" Chara said. "No one gave me much of a chance because of my height, but my dad told me, 'If I could master the basics of gymnastics and acrobatics, I could master hockey as well, because it's all about being mobile, being able to make use of my explosive power in combination with my height.'"

Chara hates being asked how tall he is, or how tall is father is (he's 6-1) or his mom (she's 5-8) or his sister (who is 6-feet). Whether Big Z liked it or not, by 17, at 6-9, he became an oddity on the ice.

"I remember clutching my legs because of the growing pains," he said.

Zdeno Chara has a long way. He's just a big man who plays a man's game with the size, strength and skill that no one else has.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Blake Wheeler making a name for himself

By Larry Wigge

Blake Wheeler has been described as one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Maybe. But, easily, he is one of the most intense hockey players.

At 29, the 6-5, 225-pounder has become a voice inside the Winnipeg Jets locker room.

On January 13, Wheeler called out everybody to look into the mirror.

"I was honest," Wheeler repeated ... again with enthusiasm. "It wasn't premeditated to kick anyone in the rear. I think we needed to be honest with ourselves.

"There was some pushback there. That's exciting. More than anything we just had a great feeling in our room, great feeling on our bench and when it was 4-2, 4-3, 4-4 we still had a good feeling and that was a good sign for us."

Bryan Little sent the puck to Wheeler, who has just come off the bench. Blake worked his way to the right side off the ice and fired a 40-footer into the net to beat Pekka Rinne 51 seconds into overtime for an exciting 5-4 triumph.

"His intensity level, shift to shift, is as high as anybody I've ever coached," coach Paul Maurice said. "His attack, his power, his speed. There are very few men that size, that move that fast. His speed is intimidating. He'll finish checks, he plays hard on every puck. His consistency level combined with his intensity makes him a special player."

"He's a guy that backs up his words," Andrew Ladd said. "We've come to expect that from him day in and day out."

But he wasn't done, yet.

One night later, Wheeler finished a 2-on-1 break with Ladd of the first period by beating Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk with a wrist shot for a 1-0 victory.

Two game-winning goals in 24 hours by Wheeler and four for the season. The second goal at home in Minnesota may have been the topper.

Wheeler, a former first-round draft choice by Phoenix in 2004 NHL Entry Draft, is in his fifth season with the Jets -- and he has grown to become a leader.

"I'm five years older than when I came here," Wheeler commented about the Jets. "I think I know what we're all about as a group and I think I've figured out what works for me, both on the ice and off the ice.

"I've really found a balance of how to prepare myself and have that 60 minutes with a foot on the gas the entire time."

He has scored 28 and 26 goals the last two season -- and, with 13 this season, is right at the level for the season.

Wheeler has that power forward body -- crashing and smashing opponents like Cam Neely did for all of those years when he was with the Bruins.

But his days with Phoenix and Boston are behind him.

But that's what gets us back home in Minnesota -- Robbinsdale, to be precise.

Little said, "Once he uses his size and his speed, it's hard to stop him. He's a really fast guy and we saw his playmaking ability."

That big body with good puck skills has always attracted teams to Wheeler. It's what grabbed the Phoenix Coyotes to pick him with the 5th overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. It's what drew the Boston Bruins to sign him as a free agent, after three years at the University of Minnesota. And it's the then-Atlanta Thrashers to trade center Rich Peverley and defense prospect Boris Valabik from Boston just over a year ago near the NHL trading deadline.

"It's flown by, it really has," Wheeler explained. "It's crazy to think that a year ago at this time, the big move was made."

"My dad would attest to this and it drove him crazy because I was never the most physical football player or physical hockey player," Wheeler recalled of comments by his dad Jim. "I liked to score touchdowns and I liked to score goals and stuff like that. But he was more of a physical guy growing up, so he couldn't understand why his son wasn’t sticking his nose in there all the time.

"I started being more physical, finishing checks and doing some of the little things that I wasn't doing, because I was focused on scoring goals and whatever. That's an area that got considerably better. I think I doubled my hit total from the year before and I'd like to increase that more this year. I've realized that if I want my game to continue to rise, I need to keep doing stuff like that. It makes you more of a complete player."

Now you get the idea why high draft pick don't work out.

Jim, his dad, is from Michigan and works as a sales manager for On-Cor Foods. Pat, Blake's mom, is one of those strong stay-at-home moms who grew up knowing that hockey and Minnesota were synonymous.

There are some erroneous reports out that that dad got tired of watching his boy being dragged by mom to his sister's dance classes and recitals and suggested that hockey could help Blake grow. Couldn't be further from the truth.

"I always knew I was going to put Blake in a hockey program, but in Minnesota you can't enroll your son in a organized program until they are five," Blake's proud mom in a phone conversation. "I remember when I told my husband that Blake was going to play hockey, he said, "Are you sure you want to do this?' You see, he's from Michigan and didn't grow up playing hockey."

Pat's words became very loud and clear over the phone, "I remember telling him, 'This is Minnesota ... and we play hockey.' "

Now, you see where all of that competitive spirit Blake has comes from.

One scenario that never worked for Wheeler ... but still bugs him.

Being picked by an American team in Phoenix was like Wheeler's 15 minutes of fame. It was no less important that that that Coyotes team was run by Wayne Gretzky.

I'll never forget the shocked look and surreal thoughts Wheeler had on his face.

"A month ago I was standing in line in the cafeteria at Breck High School, trying to get some food -- and the other night I was having dinner with Mr. Gretzky," Wheeler said in his best gee-whiz tone of voice. "This week has been a series of those moments you want to freeze in your mind so you never forget any of it.

"I was completely caught offguard. I thought I'd be picked in the late first round, early second round. I was trying not to have too many expectations coming in because I didn't want to be too disappointed. Then, I hear Wayne Gretzky announce my name. That's like having Michael Jordan announce your name in basketball. All I know is I have a closet full of Wayne Gretzky cards -- and this, well, it's the highest high a kid could ever feel."

Thinking back on all of that is amazing. Something Blake Wheeler will spend long hours telling his children and grandchildren.

Today he is becoming one of the most underrated players and intense competitors in the NHL.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Corey Crawford ... the last line of defense for the Hawks

By Larry Wigge

Cory Crawford sometimes looks like a clone of Yadier Molina -- he is out trying to stave off an attack, making save after save with every part of his body.

Such was the case January 14, when he stopped his 39 saves led the Chicago Blackhawks to a 2-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.

"Corey was spectacular tonight," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.

The 6-2, 216-pounder returned to Montreal, where he is a native of
the suburb of Chateauguay, Quebec. To say he owns the Habs -- having gone 4-0-2 with a 1.32 goals-against-average, a .958 save percentage and one shutout in six games against the team he idolized growing up.

"It'll never get old," Crawford said about playing in front of some 20-25 family and friends. "It's always fun. I used to come here with my buddies to watch games. Now having family and friends come to watch me play here now is pretty special, and that'll never change."

He made four straight saves in a nine-second flurry of shots in the second period to protect the Blackhawks' second one-goal lead, including three in a row on Tomas Fleischmann at the top of his goal crease before making a glove save on Paul Byron at 8:30.

"He made a great save," Byron said. "He's a Cup-winning goalie. He does the job when the game's on the line and he steps up in big times ... and that was a big save for their team."

Crawford grew up idolizing Patrick Roy. Many of the flopping saves on this night were Roy-like.

"I used to come watch games here ... and it’s still kind of surreal to step on the ice and actually play a game out there," Crawford said. "I don’t think that'll change any time soon."

"The biggest difference we see in him and his growth as a player is not his high-end play, when he plays really well, it's just how often he does it," captain Jonathan Toews said. "He has found a way to be consistent and bring that high level of play as often as he has this year, pretty much every night."

And that has translated to two Stanley Cups for the Blackhawks in the last three years.

When he took over for Anti Niemi in 2011-12, things were a little different for Crawford.

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

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

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

"Yeah, it's competitive," said Crawford, before being the Boston Bruins for the second Cup. "You want to beat the other guy on the other side. My focus is more on their players, what they're doing ... but yeah, I definitely want to beat him."

Goalkeepers usually hide that last fact, saying they have no control over the other teams last line of defense. In truth, Crawford wants to be more competitive in goal than Rask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

For Kyle Palmieri there no place like home

By Larry Wigge

Kyle Palmieri had one of the coolest dads on the block.

Bruce Palmieri works in construction. When he noticed his oldest son developing into one of the more talented players in the state, he decided to apply his skills by building a backyard rink.

Bruce Palmieri still puts up the ankle-high boards and floods the backyard every winter. The roughly 80 x 40 field of dreams was built outside of Montvale, N.J. on DePiero's Farm, land owned by grandmother's family since 1924.

There Palmieri would work on his skating, shooting, passing and creativity.

"I started playing when I was 5 or 6," Kyle Palmieri said. "When I started to like it and commit to it and play it every day, he saw an opportunity to give himself another hobby during the winter. He takes real good care of it. He takes it seriously."

"We had the lights," Palmieri's eyes began to light up as he described the place where he spent all of his time. "My dad did a great job. It's a pretty cool place.

"I'd go out there before practice, after practice, before school. Any chance I got. I definitely was one of the only kids in New Jersey to have one."

Field of Dreams?

"All through the winter, as long as there was ice, he'd never miss a night out there," recalled Elaine DiPiero. "My bedroom was right next to the back boards, so I'd hear him shoot the puck.

"His mom told him he had to come in at 11, 11:30 so I could sleep."

"That makes for a nice story," says New Jersey Devils G.M. Ray Shero, "but unless you're a good player ..."

Kyle Palmieri worked his way up the ladder from DiPiero Farm to the U.S. Development Program and on to Notre Dame University the 5-11, 195-pound center was chosen by the Anaheim Ducks with a first-round pick, 26th overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

"I'd go out there before practice, after practice, before school," he said. "Any chance I got.

"I definitely was one of the only kids in New Jersey to have one. It was pretty cool. My dad's a builder, so he knew what he was doing. It was a pretty nice thing to have. ... We had the lights. He did a great job. It's still up there now. It's a pretty cool place."

He toiled for five years with the Ducks, scoring 43 goals and 46 assists in 198 games, before being traded to the New Jersey Devils for a second- and third-round draft choice last June.

Palmieri was home in New Jersey -- and he has made the most of the opportunity by scoring 17 goals in 37 games, ahead of his career-high in goals 14 the last two seasons at Anaheim. The 17 goals was the most goals by any traded player other than Buffalo's Ryan O'Reilly.

"I think the outside rink definitely gave me an advantage," Palmieri said. "While other kids had to wait for practice to take shots on real ice, I could just go out in my backyard to take a few. Every time I'm out there I get a little better."

Palmieri remembers nights when his mother, Tammy, would be calling his name to come inside for dinner, for homework, for bed.

"Pretty much every time I go out there she winds up calling me in," Palmieri said of the ice located 100 yards from the house he lives in on the farm. "Depending on what I've got the next day, I could stay out there for three or four hours. Sometimes I go in because it's right behind my grandparents' house -- and they have to go to sleep."

"My strongest assets are my ability to create offense, my strength with or without the puck, my work ethic and my hockey sense," Palmieri said. "I'm not one of the bigger players on the ice, but I'm never intimated by anyone and I'm willing to go into the corners to get the puck. I know I can't control how tall I am, but the one thing I can control is my work ethic."

"Kyle is a dynamic player who plays with a lot of jam," says Notre Dame Coach Jeff Jackson. "He's offensively skilled with excellent hockey instincts and is a fierce competitor. Kyle is one of those players that makes things happen on the ice. He has a great shot and has shown the propensity for scoring big goals at timely points of the game."

He's got good speed and he takes it to the areas he needs to score goals. He's tenacious.

As a youngster, Palmieri tried to pattern his game like James van Riemsdyk, who plays with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"He's a really solid two-way player, really strong out there on the puck and can handle himself physically," van Riemsdyk says. "He definitely made an impression on me."

His biggest claim to fame until this season was one of the outdoors games -- a 3-2 victory for the Ducks against the Devils Christmas Eve in 2013 in which he scored a wraparound goal in goal in addition to having an assist.

"It was a pretty memorable night for me, my family, my friends," Palmieri said. "It was definitely a pretty cool experience for everybody. It didn't have to be storybook in my eyes, but we were lucky enough to get a win."

Playing at home can sometimes be "a little overwhelming."

Two squirt teams from the Ramapo Saints hockey program he grew up playing with were in Canada's capital for a holiday week tournament and attended the Devils' game at Canadian Tire Centre.

"So, there were 35 kids in the postgame passes area to sign autographs for," Palmieri said.

Bruce Palmieri, his father and one of his youth coaches, said he was surprised more teams did not try local players.

"Every game he came back here to play with Anaheim, he did well," Bruce said. "He scored the winning goal against the Rangers, the Devils, the Islanders and the Flyers."

Kyle Palmieri may have started his NHL career with the Ducks ... but he's at home with Devils.

"When you look back on it, having a nice rink in your backyard in New Jersey is something not too many guys get to experience growing up," Palmieri said. "It was just so convenient for me to spend a couple hours at the rink.

"Anything to get me out of doing my homework was an advantage for me."

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Milan Lucic ... he's a King and enjoying every minute of it

By Larry Wigge

He's notoriously a live wire.

Milan Lucic has had 26 goals in 96 playoff games while playing for the Boston Bruins over his eight seasons in the NHL. He's won a Stanley Cup and a Memorial Cup while playing for the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League.

"We were East-enders, the East Side of Vancouver," Lucic said with the smile. "We’re the rough, tough type. It’s a place where you battle to keep your lunch at school.

"The Serbians have a pack mentality. We watch each other's back. When you talk about family with us, you might be talking about 100 people."

You watch the 6-3, 228-pound giant very closely. He's scored 30 goals once and more than 20 another two times. Lucic was selected 50th overall in the 2006 Entry Draft by Boston because ...

"I'm a Gemini, so I got that split personality where you got that short fuse," Lucic laughed. "I think the intimidating factor is still a big part of the game. I'm just going to continue doing what I do. I play with that mean streak. I'm not coming here to change the character of the team. I'm just coming here to add to it."

He was traded by Boston to the Los Angeles Kings for goaltending prospect Martin Jones, Colin Miller and a second-round draft choice in June -- the Bruins tying to free some salary-cap space the $6 million to Lucic.

Threading a pass from the left wing boards, Lucic fed Anze Kopitar with the brilliant pass at 9:54 of 2nd period of a that Kopitar turned into a backhanded score against St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott in a 2-1 shootout loss against the Blues January 9.

Milan had 11 goals and 13 assists in the first 41 games, including four game-winning goals.

"He's an intimidating guy," said Marian Gaborik, another linemate of Lucic. "Every defenseman in the league knows that when he's coming down the ice, 100 miles an hour, he's going to do something with the puck. That's going to add a different dynamic to our team and to our line."

But with Milan Lucic ... well, anything's possible.

On swing through Western Canada, there were more and more Los Angeles No. 17 jerseys in the crowd at Edmonton, Vancouver and then Calgary. And there was an occasional LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCIC raining down from the crowds -- still ... nine years into his NHL career.

"I was a little nervous in each city. My legs felt like they were in quicksand at home in Vancouver," he still says. "But when I'd look up in the stands and see the odd No. 17 and hear some of the fans cheer for me.

Lucic's smile widened after each game as he paused to gather his emotions, saying "Well, it caught me by surpise. But it also made me feel at home."

Lucic isn't the most fluid skater. Neither is he the most naturally talented athlete on the ice. But ...

It's the personality and workmanlike attitude that endears Lucic to everyone he meets. Milan's dad, Dobro, is a longshoreman in Vancouver who immigrated to North America from his native Serbia when he was 27. His mom, Snezana, came to Vancouver when her parents moved from Serbia when she was just two.

"My dad was a soccer guy (who did recently), but he saw that hockey was a big sport in Canada so he said it was OK for me to play. Besides ... "

Lucic chuckled to himself before completing his thought, "My uncle played in the NHL. So, if it was good for Dan, it was good for my dad."

The Dan in question is former journeyman defenseman Dan Kesa, who played a total of 139 games with Vancouver, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

In one brief question and answer session, Lucic answered my break-the-ice questions. Hockey genes, workmanlike parents to drive a prospective young hockey player. But he didn't answer the one about the obstacle he had to overcome to make it to the NHL.

"I've never been what you'd call a natural," Lucic laughed. "I'll never forget being passed over in the bantam draft. And then, I was cut by the Coquitlam Jr. B team five years ago."

When the Vancouver Giants saw him playing pickup hockey in a Vancouver rink, they put him on their protected list and sent him back to Coquitlam, where he worked on his skating and shooting and, well, everything.

"Is that it?" I wondered, hoping for something more.

He said, "Have you seen me skate? Well, I don't exactly have the best form. That ..."

Here's where the rise from a real obstacle comes in. "When I was 15, my mom noticed I couldn't straighten up. My back, it was crooked. Doctors did some tests and told me I had something called Scheuermann's disease. They tell me it's a condition that, while painless, causes the upper back to curve."

Milan's bubbly personality is what this story is all about. He's a natural, even if he doesn't think so. A natural in the way he treats people.

Lucic also became an accomplished saxophonist whose school band traveled to China.

But, back to hockey ...

"It did take a little time to remind myself, "Hey, you're not a Boston Bruin anymore,' " he said, "Not an Original Six franchise and bring it back where greats like Bobby Orr played.

"Everything that happened is in the past and you have to move on. I was in one place for eight years, but Claude Julien was my for eight years, too. The system and everything is tattooed in your brain. So that has been a bit of an adjustment, but I have been getting better day by day."

Lucic know the dates where Boston is the opposition. They're imprinted of his mind.

"February," he said. "We don’t play (the Bruins) till February. We're in Boston February 9, and then Boston is here March 19."

Milan Lucic is one of those guys who you root for.

"It's not like I'm coming here trying to change the culture of the team," Lucic said. "That's what makes it perfect in some people's eyes.

"I'm not a cheap (salary) cap hit. That's why I didn’t expect it. But whether I'm here one year or 10 years, I'm buying in emotionally. I can't play without emotion anyway."