Monday, February 29, 2016

For Peter sake ... here's Filip Forsberg


By Larry Wigge

I wonder what everyone in the NHL was thinking when they allowed a talent such as Filip Forsberg slip to the eleventh pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft?

No offense, but no one had the skill-set that Forsberg had after he captained the Sweden's entry to the gold medal in the 2013 World Junior Championship -- not even Neil Yakupov or Ryan Murray, the No. 1 and No. 2 pick overall of the 2012 draft.

Listen to this:

"At the table the scouts were unanimous: 'We have to take this guy, he's a fantastic player,' " explained Washington Capitals GM George McPhee. "I tried to give them other options to play devil's advocate with it but it was an easy one."

It got so ticklish that Commissioner Gary Bettman chimed in: "Washington, you're on the clock. Let's go."

Tick. Tock.

"We didn't expect Forsberg to be there at all," said McPhee, who added he received calls about trading the pick. In most mock drafts that we had done and where our scouts had him was way up high. Sometimes that happens, a good player falls because everybody's sort of zoned in on a certain guy and people were going after defensemen and we thought, 'Geez, we've got to switch gears here a little bit ... this guy's a really good player, let's take him.' "

So then why pray tell would the Caps give up on such a high prospect after just one year, moving him at the NHL trading deadline for veteran winger Martin Erat and Michael Latta, both journeymen?

Fans love trades, but no one wants to be on the losing side -- even if the deal is just for a prospect. Trades that backfire, flop, bomb out and can be disastrous.

"If you get traded, there's two ways you can look at it," Forsberg said. "Either that one team doesn't want you or the other team really wants you. I just decided to look at Nashville really wanted me, tried to be as good as I can for Nashville."

Let's draw the comparisons ...

Erat has scored 163 goals in 11-plus seasons in Nashville, but in two seasons after his trade his combined for two goals with the Capitals in 62 games.

Heck ... Forsberg has two hat tricks in his last three games, giving him 26 goals and 20 assists in 63 games this season -- matching 26 goals and 37 assists as a rookie in 2014-15.

Furthermore, Forsberg is the first NHL player to record two natural hat tricks within a three-game span -- against Toronto and St. Louis -- in one season since November 18-21, 1986, when Vancouver's Petri Skriko did so in two games. He is the first NHL player with multiple natural hat tricks in one season since Thomas Vanek had three for Buffalo in 2007-08.

The 6-1, 186-pounder finished the month of February with a total of 12 goals in 13 games for the Predators. With the first four-point game of his career, Forsberg has 16 points in 13 games in February.

Now, he must look like the No. 1 overall pick from 2012.

"When he plays with a pace and he does things fast with the puck, he becomes really difficult to defend," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's got a lot of confidence. He's in a stretch right now where he's playing really good hockey."

Ironically, Barry Trotz, formerly the Preds coach, now is in Washington.

"His skills are off the charts in terms of scoring," Trotz said. "He's got that knack. I'm really happy for him. He looks more mature. That one extra year for players, that rookie year and that extra year, is so important for the growth of a young player."

Some of the most famous trades in sports involve:

-- Boston traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.

-- The Broncos traded the right of John Elway to the Colts for  offensive tackle Chris Hinton and a first-round pick in the 1984 draft, which ended up being guard Ron Solt.

-- On December 10, 1971, the Mets traded Nolan Ryan with pitcher Don Rose, outfielder Leroy Stanton and catcher Francisco Estrada to California in exchange for shortstop Jim Fregosi.

-- The Colts trade Marshall Faulk to Rams for second- and fifth-round picks in 1999 draft.

-- The Canucks trade Cam Neely to Bruins with a No. 1 pick (Glen Wesley) for center Barry Pederson in 1986.

-- Cubs trade a promising Lou Brock, Jack Spring and Paul Toth to Cardinals for Ernie Broglio, Bobby Shantz and Doug Clemens in 1964.

-- The St. Louis Hawks trading prospect Bill Russell to Boston for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan in 1956.

Somewhere down the road we might have to add Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat and Michael Latta high on that list.

"Filip is a blend of high end skill and indomitable will. Skill that allows him to produce offensively and a will that makes it very challenging for opponents to stop him," said TSN scout Craig Button. "His shot is hard and accurate and he can score from 35-40 feet. His release is outstanding which doesn't allow goalies to get an accurate read on it. He can shoot off the pass as well as being able to shoot in stride. He recognizes opportunities and he has a hunger to score. With a playmaking center, he could be a prolific scorer in the NHL."

Enter Mike Ribeiro and James Neal as linemates in Nashville.

"I think deceiving shot," Ribeiro said. "He shoots in stride too. Good whip of the wrist. You don't really know where he's going with it. It's pretty hard to defend."

Forsberg spent the past two summers home in Sweden working out.

"You could see that he has something to prove," said Preds captain Shea Weber.

At the time of the trade, Preds GM David Poile said, "It was imperative that we add a potentially dynamic offensive forward such as Forsberg ..."

Poile looks at Forsberg and sees stardom.

"He seems to be very grounded," Poile said. "He seems to be very focused. I think that shows in his play. We're always looking for that consistency, whether you're a young player or an old player. It's usually harder to get in younger players. Filip has been pretty consistent in his first two years with us."

He was so grounded on draft day in 2012. The wait was a getting a little bit tedious for Forsberg. He was told he could go anywhere from second to five in most mock drafts.

"I would lie if I said I wasn't nervous. Yeah, I was pretty nervous. All of my family was there," said Forsberg. "I don't look at it as a disappointment at all because it's like a dream coming true being drafted. But ..."

His father, Patrik, a former player, has been the biggest influence on his career.

"He has taught me a lot as a father and as a coach," said Filip.

While growing up in Ostervala, Sweden, he had plenty of favorites he could watch -- the Sedins or Mats Sundin or Markus Naslund or Henrik Zetterberg.

He chose ...

"Peter Forsberg," he said, excitedly -- referring to the longtime center who won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalache.

And no, the kid is no kin. Not a son. Not a nephew. Not even a distant second cousin removed, remotely linked by some relative’s wife's third marriage on the outskirts of Ostervala.

"Sorry," he confessed wearily. "Not at all."

Thanks for asking.

"Since I've come to the NHL," he sighed, "I've answered that question like, 10 times before.

"It’s an honour to be compared to him."

If only by name?

"In some small way."

Someone who had plenty of battle with Peter Forsberg and Filip Forsberg, defenseman Barret Jackman likes to pump up the youngster.

During his years playing for the St. Louis Blues, Jackman says, "It doesn't seem like he gets rattled at anything. I think when Weber got hurt in the playoffs, he really stepped up and showed a lot of the potential that everybody saw in him. You look for him to only grow as a player ... and eventually he'll be one of the top forwards in the league."

Now, that you've been introduced to Filip Forsberg maybe you'll agree that he should have been the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Joe Thornton ... another grey beard making headlines


By Larry Wigge

There's a little bit of a billiards shark inside of Joe Thornton.

What?

With 1:25 left in a February 23 game at St. Louis, the 36-year-old veteran picked a spot on the sideboards 180-feet away from an empty net and hit it for a 6-3 victory for the San Jose Sharks.

"I looked for a spot and banked it down the ice," explained Thornton, laughing at the no-look shot. "Pretty good pool shot, eh?"

The score gave the 6-4, 220-pound center two goals and two assists for the night -- good for Joe's first four-point game of the season. The streak gave Thornton a point in 26 of the last 29 game and 39 points in 23 games since since December 15 -- the most by any player in the NHL over that stretch.

Over the course of this break-out season, Thornton has 14 goals and 41 assists for a career total 372 goals and 942 assists for 1,314 points over 18 seasons.

"It should," Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said when asked if Thornton's play has inspired his teammates. "I mean my God, when this guy shows up to the rink and he's the most energetic guy in the room and he's played for 20 years almost, it should inspire you."

Thornton's last three seasons have been down point-wise for him. But his love for the game and his arduous preparation, both in the summer and between games, never went away. Neither did his skating nor his ability to control and protect the puck.

Smart. Strong. Deceptive with the puck. Jumbo Joe is a great passer and a force every time he's on the ice.

The first player taken in 1997 NHL Entry Draft by Boston has lead the league in scoring and was the league's Most Valuable Player in 2006 -- the first season he shared with the Bruins and Sharks.

"The Hart Trophy (NHL MVP for '05-06) is on the mantle in my dad's house in St. Thomas, Ontario," Thornton said. "I'm more interested in the big trophy. The Stanley Cup is all about sacrifices to be a winning team. That's my goal."

Fans of his three 100-point seasons and his critics for all the awards with no Cup, who have judged him as lazy, not one of those players who will do anything to win.

"All I know is the only time you know he's not going to hurt you is when you see him physically sitting on the bench," St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's just so big and skilled with the puck. He's got so much stamina that he can beat you in the first 10 seconds of a shift or the last 15 seconds. That's how much of a threat he is out there."

Said defenseman Brent Burns, "He's our leader for a reason. He doesn't have the 'C" anymore, but he's still a leader. It's awesome to play with him when he's playing like that. It's a lot of fun."

Thornton started the game with two assists and kept the pace through most of the game with two goals in the third period.

"Joe was dominant tonight," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "That was vintage Joe Thornton. Unbelievable -- creating turnovers, making passes, skating. Skating like a young guy. He was flying. Me personally, got me going.

"We need Joe to play like that for the rest of the playoffs."

That the difference. The playoffs are appproaching.

"In the past, we've had good teams here ... but we were always looking too far ahead," Thornton explained. "Successful teams work their tails off in the regular season to be ready for what's coming. That's been our mindset here. Each day we go over how we can be ready. How we can be better?"

Call it one small step for San Jose and one giant leap for the Stanley Cup theory, OK?

"As far as leadership goes, the older you get the more comfortable you feel in your skin," said Thornton. "Leadership comes a little bit easier with age."

Thornton proved a good fit with the Sharks from the beginning. It's no coincidence that San Jose has posted an incomparable mark since acquiring Thornton from Boston in a November 30, 2005 trade.

"I felt it was important to build a team around him," GM Doug Wilson explained. "Steve Yzerman didn’t win until his 12th year. It's a team game built around your difference makers."

Former teammate Dan Boyle says, "He's the best passer in the league."

"He's a big dude," said Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf. "When he controls the puck down low it's tough to take it from him. That's about the biggest challenge. He has the ability to draw guys around and then make great passes."

Says former teammate Jeremy Roenick, "Best playmaker in the game, bar none, and has been for many years. When you look at the best -- Wayne Gretzky and Adam Oates -- Jumbo is going to go down as one of the best 2-3 playmakers in the game."

"I just think he's playing at as high a level as I've ever seen him," DeBoer said. "His work ethic away from the puck, how honest he plays the game, how committed he is, how prepared he is, I can't imagine many guys out there that are doing that at his age."

Says former teammate Jeremy Roenick, "Best playmaker in the game, bar none, and has been for many years. When you look at the best -- Wayne Gretzky and Adam Oates -- Jumbo is going to go down as one of the best 2-3 playmakers in the game."

The only thing that's noticeably different now is Joe Thornton's the beard and the gray is taking over.

Don't tell any of Thornton's teammates or his coach.

"I just think he's playing at as high a level as I've ever seen him," DeBoer said.

To some around the NHL, this may be the Grumpy Ol' Men.

You'v got Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton -- making headlines every day.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Craig Anderson continues to stop pucks


By Larry Wigge

Big save. Incredible stop. Ten bell save. Kick save and a beauty.

Craig Anderson just keeps the Ottawa Senators in contention. He's going to give them a chance, following victories over Edmonton, Buffalo, Carolina and Detroit.

"Pressure for me is to go out there and just play a kid's game ... It's not life or death," explained Anderson, who has always had to prove to someone else just how good his is.

Like last year. Andrew Hammond, of Hamburgler fan, bottomed out.

Old reliable Craig Anderson is the answer to Ottawa's hopes. Brian Elliot, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner have been dealt elsehwere.

"We feel he's brought stability. The position is one that we need if you're going to retool, rebuild and improve this hockey club going forward," said GM Bryan Murray. "Craig has stepped in on our team to play the way we think we have to play. With that secure building block, now we can address some other issues.

"He was a guy that we felt we had a chance to sign. If ..."

Anderson has posted a 26-19-4 and 2.72 goals-against average with three shuouts.

He could have a chip on his shoulder over never really being given an opportunity to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL until now. Instead, he whimsically talks about the twists and turns in his life.

"If I wasn't a goalie, I'd probably be a race car driver. They only have to make left turns," Anderson laughed.

The 35-year-old netminder from Park Ridge, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, had some pretty good seasons in junior hockey at Guelph before the Blackhawks made him their third-round pick, 73rd overall, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.

But as all goaltenders find out quickly, stopping pucks coming at them at 90-100 mph is more than just being the target in a shooting gallery.

"People talk about obstacles you have to overcome in your life to get to the NHL," Anderson explained. "Mine was like playing tic-tac-toe with a travel agent for 16 days in January and early February of 2006, when I went from Chicago to Boston to St. Louis and then back to Chicago."

Confused ....

"It started when the Hawks put me on waivers to send me to Norfolk and I got a call at the airport telling me I should instead get on a plane to Boston," he recalled. "Twelve days later I was with St. Louis for one day ... and then back to Chicago. It was easily the craziest few days of my career."

In June of that year, more twists and turns as the Blackhawks traded Craig to Florida for a sixth-round draft choice.

Anderson admitted that some folks might feel like picking up a newspaper and answer a want ad, but it doesn't work that way in sports.

"I admit there were a lot of times when I was playing behind Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago and Tomas Vokoun in Florida where my career seemed like it was on hold, but I never lost confidence that I could play at the NHL level," Anderson observed.

Want ads, really.

"The best advice I ever got was from my dad," Anderson recalled. "He always told me, 'Never say never.' And he lived that his life to those words. He was the CFO of a company that was in the business of wire and he was still racing cars in his late 30s."

Like most hockey players, the hard-working values of Richard and Holly Anderson (she was in real estate sales) and the encouragement to follow their dreams led to sports for their sons, John and Craig.

"I was your typical kid brother tagging along with my brother, who was five years older than me," Anderson said, before breaking into a wide smile. "My brother was five years older than me and I would do anything to be involved with him and his friends ... even if it meant standing in front of our garage being the goalie and taking shots off my head."

And this wasn't just some pickup by average athletes. John Anderson was drafted as a middle infielder by the Boston Red Sox and played a number of years in Class A ball.

While looks may be deceiving sometimes, goaltenders are a strange breed. And off the ice, Anderson hardly looks like Ottawa's latest best chance to find a solid puckstopper. He's 30, he's follically-impaired and he looks like a tall (at 6-2) and skinny man incapable of replacing a Patrick Roy.

"I learned a long time ago that you can't try to be someone else or replace a legend like Patrick," Anderson said. "You have to prove yourself everyday at this level. There are no free passes."

Anderson would never presume to put himself in the same light as Patrick Roy, when, in fact, he grew up watching and idolizing the kick saves of Grant Fuhr and Roy.

"Watching those two great goaltenders gave me the itch to be a goaltender," Anderson continued. "And fighting to keep my dream of getting a chance to show I could be an NHL goalie made me stronger mentally."

And auto racing? You remember the left turns he's taken in his career.

"I've still got the itch for that, too," he said. "But it's not as strong as proving to everyone that I can be consistent as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL and keep the Avs in every game this season."

Craig Anderson is full of praise for Dominik Hasek as well. He remembers The Dominator from Chicago, too.

"He was phenomenal," said Anderson. "He's one of those guys that you just didn't know what he was going to do and that's why he was so special. That was one of the reasons guys didn't have a read on him. You just didn't know what he was going to do."

While The Dominator ruled the NHL crease in the late 1990's, he was also part one of the worst trades in NHL history. In 1992, Chicago GM Mike Keenan traded him to the Buffalo Sabres for Stephane Beauregard and a fourth round draft choice. Keenan then sent Beauregard to the Winnipeg Jets for Christian Ruutu.

The thinking was Ed Belfour was better than Hasek, despite Hasek's success in the Czech Republic before arriving in the NHL.

"I had a few guys that I played with growing up and one of the Dads, who, I believe, (had a European heritage), told me, "Watch this guy, he's better than Belfour.' No one really took him seriously until about 1999 or so."

Anderson says Hasek is among the very best -- and he was just a backup to Ed Belfour at one time.

"He would go right up there with my childhood heroes, Grant Fuhr and Patrick Roy. I know he doesn't have the regular season win record like Marty Brodeur or the playoff wins record like Roy, but his Vezinas speak for themselves."

Take it from Craig Anderson, the once aspiring race car driver, as he makes a glove save and covers up on the rebound.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jaromir Jagr was a star then ... and he is again


By Larry Wigge

When Mario Lemieux talks, people listen.

To steal a line from the 1970s and '80s TV commercial for investors E.F. Hutton, no one, and I mean no one know more about hockey than Lemieux through the years.

"Probably the greatest goal I've ever seen," Lemieux explained, following the Game 1 Stanley Cup final between Pittsburgh and Chicago that the Penguins won 5-4 in overtime July 1, 1992.

But he wasn't talking about his overtime tally -- rather he wanted to talk about Jaromir Jagr's goal that sent the contest into overtime.

"He beat 3 or 4 guys with his balance, fakes and dekes ... and his one-on-one skills were off the charts."

The second-year pro from Kladno, Czechoslovakia, did indeed score singlehandedly, playing keep away from the Blackhawks in a thrilling Cup final. It seems like he had the puck for nearly two minutes wheeling around and through Chcoago players. First, Brent Sutter along the left wing boards. Then, faking Eric Weinrich down to the ice with another move and then he took on Igor Kravchuk, before backhanding a short past a diving Sutter and Ed Belfour.

"I remember that one," said Jagr. "I was lucky. Everybody ... missed me."

In the week that he turned 44-years-old, Jagr also scored goals No. 741 and 742 to pass Brett Hull for most -- behind Wayne Gretzky with 844 and Gordie Howe at 801.

The record-tying goal came in typical Jagr fashion -- he tapped his stick on the ice twice, then Dimitry Kulikov sent him a pass in the slot where he lofted it high over the Winnipeg goalie and into the net.

A timeless moment that is certain to stand up to the single-most breakthrough memory in all of playoff history.

At age 44 years and five days he's the oldest player in NHL history at the time he scored his 20th goal of a season, breaking a mark that had been held by Gordie Howe since 1970-71 when he scored his 20th goal at age 42 years, 324 days.

"There's no reason to quit. I love the game," said Jagr. "I'll tell you one thing, as long as I don't die, it's not my last year of playing hockey.

"I'll play until I cannot walk. I love the game too much to leave it."

Said teammate Roberto Luongo, "It feels like I'm still wearing diapers when I'm next to him."

Luongo is a spry 37. He went on to say,  "The way he prepares every day, the work he puts in off the ice ... it's amazing. Who knows how long he could still play? I think he can go for a while still."

Jagr wants to play at 50. Chris Chelios recently played until he was 48, and Howe played his last game at 52.

He's like a fullback shedding tacklers as he comes to the net. He's so big and strong ... and yet he's a master of deception. If you try to anticipate with him, you'll often guess wrong. And if you just try to react, he's too fast and you get beat.

“When he gets the puck, he has the reach,” New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider said. "He just sticks his butt out and there is nothing you can do. It’s almost like a guy backing down in basketball. You can’t really defend that. You just hope that he turns it over or loses the puck."

Even players can't believe Jags is playing at the level he is. He's legendary. You hear stories about how if he is not liking his game he's there three hours afterward.

Honest to God. He packs three bags for each game -- weights and paraphernalia for working out.

"It's about the whole year spending with the guys," Jagr said. "It's about the game, you have to suffer everything to win it. It's not about the Cup. So if somebody comes to me right now and brings me the Cup. I'm not going to take it. You have to earn it."

Then he joked about and thought about the Cup, "It's big and heavy."

Jaromir Jagr won two Cups with Pittsburgh in his first two years 1991 and '92, he won five scoring titles and won the league MVP in 1999.

And he left the NHL for three seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League for Omsk. That was the old Jagr -- young and conflicted. He's come back and even is more hungry for the game.

Jaromir was the fifth overall pick in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft.

Still, he cherishes the 11 years with Pittsburgh, two plus season with Washington and three plus season with the New York Rangers.

Like the time when ... neighborhood kids would come to knock in Washington.

"They'd come up to the front door, ring the bell and ask my mother, 'Can Jaromir come out and play?'" Jagr recalled, laughing. "To me, life is a game. When I was a little kid, I always dreamed of being the best player at every game I played. I'm still working at it."

Jaromir and Anna, his mother, raised quite a child.

Stories about his earlier years -- the passion for fast cars were widespread. Teammates said Jagr knew every cop in town, that he easily had earned 180 or more tickets. He didn't know the language that well, so he would play scrabble to learn.

Jagr isn't just surviving ... he's thriving in today's NHL.

"I don't think it's any secret," Peter DeBoer, coach of the Devils in 2013-14, said. "What is he? Six four, 240 pounds? And skilled. And he sees the ice. He's got an elite hockey IQ on top of that. And he's a competitive guy. The puck's laying there, he's not looking to avoid a battle. He's willing to get in there and fight for position, fight for pucks. It's a nice package."

Said Boston's David Krejci, who played with Jagr in the 2010 Olmpics, "He was the best for a long time and he's still one of the best right now. It's good to see him still do well at his age. ... Yeah, I had posters of him when I was a kid. He was my hockey idol."

Jagr has signed one-year contracts for each of the past five seasons, including with the Panthers for the last two campaigns. He'll become an unrestricted free agent once again this summer.

Florida GM Dale Tallon describes the future Hall of Famer as a model for his young players and he definitely wants Jaromir back.

"Jaromir will let me know," said Tallon. "He's a proud guy and he knows what he wants. We don't have to worry about that ... yet. He'll come to me and say 'I want to stay here' or 'I want to talk about a new deal.' He'll let us know."

Laugh Jagr, "My plan is I have no plan. I believe if you really wanted to you could play until 60. It's up to you. If you feel old at 43 it's your problem, not mine."

It's all part of the mystique and beauty of Jagr.

I can remember talking with Sean Burke, Arizona's goaltending coach, about Jagr.

"I'll go to a basketball game and fix my attention on one player and just watch him move, with and without the ball," Burke told me. "It's similar in hockey -- when I'm in goal, I try to know where all the stars are so that I'm ready for them. Jagr is a guy who can be stopped for 58 minutes, but then turn a game around with one move, one shot, when his team needs it the most.

"But this isn't tennis or golf. This isn't Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods. Whether it's Jaromir Jagr or Brett Hull, they all have great individual skills that wouldn't mean diddly if they don't share, don't learn to mix those skills in with others in this sport."

Derek Settle, longtime Flyers strength and conditioning coach, remembers Jagr asking him for a key to Philadelphia practice facility. Same thing happened in Dallas and Florida.

"It's a big challenge to compete with the young guys," Jagr said. "It's not only physically.

"You have to be one step ahead of everybody. They're going to be quicker, they're going to be stronger. But I always have to look for the edge. I always have to think a lot more. Anything I practise, everything I do, I have to think before how to do it. It's a big challenge. That's what I like about it — just outsmart somebody."

Said teammate Willie Mitchell, "I think there's a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken there — it's like the movie Major League. He's got his quirks, ankle weights, weight vest, I don't know what else but he's been terrific for us. His love for the game rubs off on guys. What I didn't know prior to him coming here, he's a fun guy. He likes to have fun and likes to make jokes. He jokes around with guys and laughs, enjoys being around the rink."

"He's a physical beast, but that's not just good genes," acknowledged Tallon. "He'll call up our strength coach out of the blue at night on an off day -- after a morning practice, after dinner -- and Jaromir will tell him, 'Let’s go to the gym.'"

Jagr's dad had a farm, which was more than five miles from his home. So his dad took a bike, Jaromir ran, then they did work on the farm, then they’d go back. His weight room was in nature.

"When I was seven years old, I started doing squats," said Jagr. "I did 1,000 a day, every day. It just skyrocketed. For three to four years, I played with my age group and two years later I was playing with guys four years older than me and I was still better than them."

After practice he'll skate anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour with the weight vest. Sometimes, there were additional weights on his skates. Once in awhile, he'd run, but it was mostly on-ice stickhandling and shooting.

Jaromir Jagr playing when he's 50 ...

"He's a freak of nature," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "If he hadn't missed those three years or whatever it was, he'd be right up there behind Messier and Gretzky."

There’s no secret.

"Everybody knows the most powerful energy is love. And if you love something that makes it easy to do it," Jagr said. "Love for the game. Love for the work. Love for anything."

Friday, February 19, 2016

Growing up with Jamie Benn and the Stars


By Larry Wigge

Simple, but true. There are no shortcuts to success in hockey.

With two minutes left in a 4-1 win over Nashville in the last game last season, Jamie Benn scored an empty-net goal for the hat trick. Then, with his teammates pushing furiously, Benn picked up an assist on a goal with nine seconds remaining.

Benn edged John Tavares, 87-86, for the NHL scoring title.

Bittersweet success? You bet ...

"The goal is to make the playoffs," Benn exlained, "not win the scoring title."

Benn has only played in three playoff games in six years with Dallas.

The 6-2, 210-pound power forward and captain of the Dallas Stars understands the price you have to pay to gain success. Benn is a two-time gold medal winner in the World Junior in 2009 and the Olympics in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

He has skill and tremendous hands -- he won the shooting accuracy at the All-Star game in 2012 at Ottawa. He is passionate. Full of character. His D&A is off the charts.

The best piece of advice that has stuck with him throughout the years.

"My dad said, "Go out there and have fun. Enjoy it. If you're not enjoying it, it's not worth playing," said Benn. "We defintely had fun every time I got to play hockey growing up."

Do you really think a 5-foot-3 Jamie Benn had fun in Grade 10?

"I didn't grow until I was about 15 years old," laughed Benn. "I was just a little guy 5-4. One summer I sprouted up ..."

He paused to think what scouts would say about him ... "Then, they said ... I couldn't skate."

Benn had this awkward looking skating stride. That, in part, is why he had to wait and wonder on draft day, when the Stars selected him in the fifth round, 129th overall, in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

Benn has turned out better than expected.

"He's a fierce competitor, he leads by example and he wants to win," explains GM Jim Nill. "The bigger the game, the bigger he plays.

"He wants to be a difference maker."

Jamie Benn has Dallas in contention for the Central Division title. On Febuary 18, he topped the 30-goal mark for third consecutive year. He added 36 assists and is second in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane with 13 power-play goals.

Steve Ott started with Dallas and now is toiling in St. Louis. He pointed out how a young Benn is developing.

"He's starting to figure out how good he's going to be, but he's still on the cautious side of it," Ott said back in 2011. "He's going to be a phenomenal, all-star player for his entire career. What he's doing now, leading a team, putting them on his back on a nightly basis.

"You can say we've only seen the tip of the iceberg. There is so much buried beneath the waters that you're going to see with Jamie Benn."

Echo newcomer Patrick Sharp.

"For Patrick Kane, he's a guy who wants the puck on his stick in all situations. There's a reason why he's scored a ton of big goals for the Blackhawks over the years. There's a reason why he’s scored the OT winner to win the Stanley Cup. He's that guy who wants to be on the ice. He wants the puck in big moments and there’s no stage too big for him," Sharp said. "If I had to compare him to Jamie, I could say the same thing. He wants to be on the ice."

Nill has been in this business long enough to know that no scouting trip is too far to find a game changing player.

You just don't hop in your car and drive to Victoria, which is on Vancouver Island, according to Stars scout Dennis Holland.

"You have to take a ferry or an airplane to get to where he played in junior," Holland said. "The Victoria Royals weren't in the Western Hockey League at the time and it was a process to get over there. You lost a day-and-a-half of travel because of the ferry. Lots of scouts decided to go see the (WHL's) Vancouver Giants or the Seattle Thunderbirds."

Said Stars assistant GM Les Jackson, “He was just scratching the surface of where he was going to go. Once he got into the Western League and eventually into the World Juniors, he was measuring himself against the best players in his age group and he was doing pretty well ... I think he saw that he could take his game to a higher level, and he has. Even at the NHL now, he's still a young guy. He's only scratching the surface of where he can go."

Then, Jackson paused, "We were lucky. If we were so smart, we would have had him earlier. If we knew he was going to be this good, he would have been a first-round pick."

Benn also was an extremely good baseball player. As a first baseman, outfielder and sometimes pitcher for the Victoria Capitals, he was the MVP of the 2006 provincial AAA champion midget team.

It was the next season that Benn stopped playing baseball.

"It was tough," Benn said of giving up baseball. "I always loved playing, and once hockey was over it was straight to baseball. But I think I always knew in the back of my head I was going to be a hockey player."

Being a Vancouver guy, he was a Joe Sakic fan.

"His shot was the thing that caught me eye," Benn insisted. "I had his poster and picture on the walls off my room."

Jamie Benn was not the only hockey player in the family -- older brother Jordie, who also plays with Dallas. There two years difference in the brothers.

"Tagged along with my brother," Jamie said. "Kind of just got thrown out there at age 3."

Kid brothers ...

Randy and Heather Benn were the proud parents. Dad ran a municipality, while mom ran a day care. Heather was a softball player, while Randy played won two gold medals at the 1976 world softball championships in New Zealand and 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico.

So there's some kind of competition within the ranks at the Benn household.

I remember asking Jamie Benn to think back when he was 5-foot-3 whether he had been bullied.

"No," he responded confidently.

OK. Did you ever bully anybody?

"Yeah," he said. "I beat him up. I was 13 maybe."

A pause in the interview. Did you feel sorry? "No. It was my brother (teammate Jordan Benn). We had some good battles growing up."

Dads day with the team has always been fun for Randy, Jamie and Jordie.

"I used to bring a toaster on hockey road trips and fix up some peanut butter toast in the hotel room for breakfast or a late-night snack," said Randy.

"It was great, just like old times," said Jordie Benn of the fact his dad brought the toaster and served peanut butter toast at the swanky resort where the Stars are staying. "It really was a neat feeling, it took you right back to when we were kids and we did this on every single road trip."

Randy Benn said one of his proudest parenting moments was when he was getting on an elevator with toaster in hand during one of his hockey road trips and was stopped by Walter Gretzky.

For Jamie Benn there truly are shortcuts to success in hockey.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Shayne Gostisbehere ... Just call him Ghost


By Larry Wigge

Ghost.

Some seem to think Shayne Gostisbehere's nickname came from his style of play: You know -- now you see him, now you don't.

I've got to admit he's that quick. But ... the story is that his name is hard to pronounce.

"My long last name that no one can pronounce too well, I get nicknames like 'Ghostbuster,' " he said, rolling his eyes. "Coach Rick Bennett just started calling me 'Ghost.' "

Bennett had Gostisbehere at Union College is Schenectady, N.Y., where Shayne led the Dutchmen to the 2014 NCAA championship 7-4 over the University of Minnesota. Gostisbehere had one goal, two assists, five shots on goals and was near-impossible plus-7 in the game to earn tournament MVP honors to go along with his All-America selection and ECAC Player of the Year award ... as a Freshman.

Nuff said.

Almost ...

From a Philadelphia Flyers standpoint, Gostisbehere from Pembroke Pines, Florida, were there weren't lot of ice rinks. He was clearly a pioneer -- the first Florida-born and raised.

"I wouldn't say I am a pioneer. I'm just a kid that loves hockey," explained Gostisbehere. "Growing up when I was little I wanted to play in the NHL, my mom and dad told me there's no dream too big so again to make it here and be the first Florida-born and raised it is a great honor and I'll take the pioneer label if I have to for little kids, because hockey's a great game and I want to see kids playing it more down here."

Small, but fierce. Shayne is an effortless skater who reads the game well and puts himself and his teammates in positions to make plays, who happens to have just completed a 13-game point streak -- most by a rookie defenseman (He broke a mark held by Barry Beck, who had two 10-game point streaks as a rookie with the Colorado Rockies in 1977-78).

In 38 game this season after being recalled by the Flyers, he 11 goals and 21 assists. Included were six power-play goals and 12 power-play assists and three game-wining goals. During the record 13-game streak, Gostisbehere has four goals and 12 assists. It's the longest single-season point streak by an NHL defenseman since 1996-97, when the Rangers' Brian Leetch tallied points in 14 consecutive games.

Gostisbehere is only the third rookie since 1993-94 with a point streak of at least 13 games in one season. The others were both Colorado Avalanche rookies: Paul Stastny (with an NHL rookie record 20-game streak in 2006-07) and Nathan MacKinnon (13 games in 2013-14).

Putting him in a position that others around the NHL were considering him a Rookie of the Year candidate atop with Chicago's Artemi Panarin and Detroit's Dylan Larkin, Edmonton's Connor McDavid and Buffalo's Jack Eichel and Arizona's Max Domi and Anaheim's John Gibson.

"I am a defenseman, but I definitely like to jump up in the play," said Gostisbehere. "I love playing offense. I've been known more for my offense my whole life than my defense.

"Hockey is a game of mistakes, I'm going to make mistakes, everybody is going to make mistakes. It's how you come back from those mistakes, how you react. Some say I'm a high-risk, high-reward guy. I'm just trying to play two-way hockey, be a sound player and not make too many mistakes.

"I'm just trying not to do too much."

High-risk, high-reward guy.

"He brings a whole other dynamic that we don't have on our team on our back end," defenseman Michael Del Zotto said. "You see the plays he makes, he makes guys miss 1-on-1.

"The plays he makes with the puck, that allows more open ice for other guys, a lot more open ice for him. That essentially leads to scoring chances, which eventually leads to goals. That's something that hasn't come easy all year. He's really helped us in that department and helping us win games."

Said captain Claude Giroux, "He's not an overly physical player, but his stick is always in the passing lane and he's always creating turnovers and his hockey sense is pretty good. He was thrown into the power play right away and he looked really confident and helped us right away. He's so creative with the puck."

"His skills with the puck are second to none," said right wing Wayne Simmonds. "The way he sees the ice, the way he shoots the puck, so it's his first year as a pro and it takes a little bit of time, but you can tell he's got it."

Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux tell Gostisbehere to shoot whenever he gets the opportunity.

"He's not the biggest, most physical player, nor will he be, so he uses the strength of his skating and quick feet to defend," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "He's a smart player moving the puck out of the zone and that's at a real premium at this level. He has a certain skill set that is valuable at this level and to our group. He's been a nice fit into our puzzle."

Despite his small stature, the Flyers stepped up and took him in the third round, 78th overall, in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

The 22-year-old kid is a true blue American -- he played for Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championship and won gold there.

Gostisbehere's father, Regis, was born and raised in southwest France. He came to Florida specifically to be a professional jai alai player. He met and married Shayne's mother Christine, who worked at the jai alai venue in south Florida.

Shayne can thank his father for dual American-French citizenship and the exotic-sounding surname. Brodeur, a Montreal native and Canadiens fan who moved to South Florida, put Shayne on skates when he was 3 years old and later coached him in a youth league. When the Florida Panthers were unveiled in 1993 -- the year Shayne was born -- Brodeur became a season-ticket holder. As soon as Shayne was old enough, he accompanied his grandfather to the games. The sport mesmerized him. He even got caught up in the team's tradition of throwing plastic rats on the ice to celebrate Panthers wins.

"I looked at my grandpa's season tickets in Section 101," Gostisbehere said.

He was fascinated with the flashy play of winger Pavel Bure so he initially played forward. But was encouraged by his skating coaches to switch to defense and "keep playing offensively."

Gostisbehere also give his older sister, Felicia, credit fot his success. She was pursuing her dream to become an Olympic figure skater. Little brother tagged along -- and at 4:30 a.m., he'd roll himself up into a sleeping bag and sleep while his sister skated.

Shayne, too, took advantage of his sister's skating instructions -- improving his skating at a young age.

He started playing for the Florida Junior Panthers. At age 16, he left home to play prep school hockey at South Kent in Connecticut, where he earned notice from college recruiters -- he accepted an offer to go to Union College.

One of the biggest knocks on Gostisbehere as a prospect is his size. Coming in at 5-11, 160 pounds, it is easy to dismiss him as too small to become a good NHL player. He built himself up to the point where he is now 170 pounds.

But the Flyers have current proof that smaller defenseman can still be effective --Kimmo Timonen, Mark Streit and Erik Gustafsson are all under 6-feet and weigh less than 195 lbs, but they still contribute in big ways.

But every team hits the jackpot every so often in the draft and Gostisbehere's story isn't so different. It just so happens that John Riley found him first and he just happened to be a Flyers scout at the time. Shayne wasn't drafted out of prep school when he was 18 years old, but a year later after his terrific Freshman season at Union.

"A lot of our staff saw him quite a bit that year because his team had a lot of free agents we wanted to take a look at, and it was hard not to notice what Shayne could do as well," said Chris Pryor, director of scouting for the Flyers. "We had been tracking him in prep school, but it wasn't until we saw him that year in college that we really recognized his potential at this level.

"I remember the first time I saw him and he was a dynamic offensive player that really separated himself from the others. He's got an element of offensive flair that's pretty unique in today's game and that, along with his defensive skills, was intriguing for us."

Flyers GM Ron Hextall said, "He’s a little bit older and you can see the maturity in his game, even from last year to this year? It's like night and day with his ability."

Small at 160 pounds, Shayne Gostisbehere brings with him dynamic skills that are truly unique ... A storybook finish -- from Pemboke Pines, Florida to the NHL.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Adam Henrique: "Why can't I be the hero"


By Larry Wigge

Some players are just made for the NHL. They just have IT. The confidence of being the guy when the moment arrives.

In a February 13 game, Adam Henrique in the right wing circle. Then, he sent it back to John Moore ... and back to Henrique for a one-timer and a goal 2:58 into overtime for a  New Jersey Devils victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Henrique celebrated ... with a quick fist-pump into the air.

Adam went down to one knee and lifting the puck over Michal Neuvirth's outstretched glove for his third goal in New Jersey's last four games and 19th of the season.

The Brantford, Ontario, native, has reached 20 goals once in his first four seasons -- scoring a career-high 25 goals in 2013-14. With twenty-some-odd-games left he had a chance to surpass his career-high.

"He's cool with the pressure," explained center Travis Zajac. "I think he thrives in these big game, these big moments. He's a sneaky player, he's shifty. He finds the players, the holes. He just has a knack for creating plays.

"He's been a key player all year. All he's done in the playoffs is elevated his game."

A good skater and really smart player. He's very intelligent. He’s defensive, he’s offensive. Can play on any line.

All of this leads us to why ... and how Henrique was discovered.

Marcel Pronovost, one of the Devils top scouts, was one of the loudest voices telling Devils's draft guru David Conte to take Henrique in the 2008 NHL draft, he did so based on what he knew not projections.

Henrique was always a solid offensive contributor -- a 30-goal scorer. Pronovost said Henrique's unselfish nature and his willingness to play a surprisingly physical game for a player of such skill makes him the perfect foil for Taylor Hall, Adam's linemate, and the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 2010 Entry Draft.

"One is a flash of blades and the other Henrique has a helluva shot," Pronovost said of the Devils delight that Henrique was still there in the third round and the 82nd pick overall. "He's so quick shooting the puck. It's on the blade and bang it's in the net."

A steal?

But he was a rookie during that Devils playoff run, which came up short against the Los Angeles Kings in six games of the Stanley Cup finals.

We remember that 6-foot, 195-pound rookie forward, the guy who told us, "Somebody has to be the hero, right? Why not me?"

You've got to like the confidence. No fear. No second guessing. Only poise and patience.

Former New Jersey star winger Ilya Kovalchuk, a former winger of Henrique, was asked if he's ever seen Adam nervous.

"Nervous? Not really," Kovalchuk said.

"I don't think I've ever seen him rattled by anything," said David Clarkson, a former teammate who now plays with Columbus. "He's a fast skater. He works hard. He sees the ice really well."

Those are just the kind of qualities that Pronovost saw in Henrique prior to the draft.

He became the second player in NHL history to score two series-clinching overtime goals in one playoff year. The first was Calgary's Martin Gelinas in 2004. Furthermore, Henrique's two OT goals tie the rookie record for one playoff year (series deciders or not) set by Montreal's Jacques Lemaire in 1968 and equaled by Claude Lemieux in 1986 and Colorado's Milan Hejduk in 1999.

"Power play, offensively, penalty kill, defensively, faceoffs. He's that kind of player for us right now," said goaltender Corey Schneider of the injury that sidelined Henrique. "We went to war with --- the group we had, but it was nice to have him back."

Some players just have it ... the confidence of being the guy when The Moment arrives.

Adam Henrique showed us in the playoff run of 2012 that he had the aptitude and capability of being that guy.

Joe and Theresa Henrique knew all about Adam long before. They were Henrique's parents. Joe farms 50 acres of tobacco and ginseng in Burford, Ontario, about 90 minutes southwest of Toronto.

Harvesting tobacco was difficult, messy work.

"You sit on a machine, and you're kind of bent over and picking by hand," Teresa said. "The leaves are smacking you in the face and getting black tar on everything, all over you."

"He was never really an early-morning person," Joe said. "He preferred to play hockey."

Henrique's father also made sure to tell his four sons they could prime tobacco for a living or find something more enjoyable, lucrative and comfortable. Adam admired his father for his work ethic, but priming tobacco made Adam chase a career in hockey a little harder.

In fact, Henrique remembers the year Rob Blake won the Stanley Cup with Colorado.

"I always remember that Stanley Cup party when I was little," Adam recalled. "That was a pretty neat memory. Neighboring towns. My dad buys forklifts from one of his relatives. So that was pretty neat. But my dad wouldn't let me touch the Cup. He knew there is some unwritten rule that you can't touch the Cup ... unless you've earned it."

And now, Adam is having the most fun of his life.

"Growing up, everyone around here is a Leafs fan, but I was a Wings fan and my favorite player growing up was Steve Yzerman," remarked Henrique, who had a poster of Yzerman on his wall at home. "The first time I really got into watching hockey was when Detroit won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and '98 and he was just the guy that stood out.

"When I was young, if I could have been anyone, it would have been him for sure. I was lucky enough to be able to meet him a handful of times now and it's been pretty cool every time. He was a leader on the team, always out there in the key moments of a game."

San Jose's Peter DeBoer said of coaching Henrique for four seasons, "What makes Adam special? He's unflappable. I didn't think about his age. We were way beyond that."

Had he finally made it at the start of the 2011-12 season? And, more important, was he ready for a long playoff run.

"This is the big stage. The NHL playoffs playing for the Stanley Cup is what everybody dreams about," Henrique said. "You dream about having this opportunity. Luckily for me as a young guy getting this experience early in my career you can't replace that.

"There are guys here that have been in the league and haven't gone this deep. I just try to take it all in and learn as much as I can as a young guy."

He doesn't feel pressure.

"No. I don't feel any pressure more than at any other point. I'm just playing every day," he said. "I focus on myself and my game and what I need to do in order to be successful and help the team win. Score a goal, win a faceoff, kill a penalty. Whatever it is."

Remember that larger than life Adam Henrique bobblehead doll? The Devils planned to give one away to a lucky fan. There is a second one that Henrique intends to ship to his parents' house in Burford, Ontario.

How to get the bobblehead there?

"I want to come pick it up, put it in the back of the truck and see what happens when we're trying to cross the Canadian border," said Joe Henrique. "How do you declare this one? That's just a giant bobblehead."

Curious.

"Hopefully, they don't cut it open," Adam Henrique said.

"We'll lay it down in the box and then when we get close to the Canadian border in Fort Erie, we'll stand it up, strap it down and then see what customs has got to say," Joe Henrique said. "That would be something to see that."

Like father like son. The Henriques are always looking into what's right.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Max Pacioretty became better because of adversity


By Larry Wigge

Actually, a career-threatening injury taught Montreal's Max Pacioretty to live each day like it was his last.

A collision with 6-9 Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and a Bell Centre stanchion on March 8, 2011 may have made him a better player.

Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra in his neck. But, he feels that is has evolved into a first-rate goal scorer.

"Looking at life and hockey, an experience like that makes me a better person and a better player because I had to overcome all that adversity," Pacioretty revealed.

In the resulting few months, Pacioretty was angry ... mad at Chara foremost ... and the world.

Months after the hit, Chara and Pacioretty talked on the phone and made peace.

They spoke for about 10 minutes.

"He said, 'It might be hard to believe, but I actually didn't mean for that to be the outcome and I'm sorry for what happened,' " Pacioretty said.

That apology by Chara helped.

"I definitely take a lot of positives out of my situation and my injury," he said. "I used it to grow up a lot and I matured a lot. I kind of use it as motivation not to prove the people that doubted me wrong, but prove that you can overcome an injury like that and become a better player. I think I did that, but I know I have a lot of work to do down the road."

After resuming training in the summer of 2012, Pacioretty said he did some growing up while interacting with other patients at the hospital, including a boy who had been in a coma. He realized others were far worse off than himself.

He launched a campaign this season to raise funds for equipment to help diagnose serious spinal injuries and purchase a diagnostic/treatment machine for the Montreal General Hospital's Traumatic Brain Injury Centre.

At the start of the 2013-14 season Max said he felt refreshed. The new-look Pacioretty responded with a career-high 39 goals. He had 33 goals in 2011-12 and had 37 goals last season.

To this point in this season, 6-2, 214-pound left winger has tallied 20 goals with 30 remaining. Before the Chara incident he had never scored more than 20 goals, even though he scored 15 goals and 24 assists in his only year at the University of Michigan.

Pacioretty waxed poetically ...

"Dream big but don't worry about the results, just focus on the process. I never really got too far ahead of myself, I just worried about each day at a time, trying to improve as a player, whether my task was to practice hard one day or we had a game one day. Don't worry about what's coming the next week, the next month, the next year. Just stay in the moment and worry about the process."

He thought back on that quote and remembered ... with a big smile.

"I'm a psychopath. My wife thinks I'm absolutely nuts. I'm never satisfied with anything. I mean in terms of hockey ... obviously I'm satisfied with my wife and family. But as far as hockey I'm never satisfied with anything.

"It's a bit of a problem, but I think it's also what's gotten me this far."

Growing up in New Canaan, Conneticut, about a 45-minute drive north of New York City, Pacioretty had been forever a fan of the New York Yankees and the Rangers.

Derek Jeter was everything there was in baseball and the 1994 Stanley Cup champion Rangers was it in hockey. Pacioretty was only six when his dad explained to him exactly what Mark Messier had promised ... and he delivered it.

"I remember watching the '94 Stanley Cup from my home and that's when it took off that I wanted to be a hockey player," he said. "Right around the age when I started, that's my biggest memory growing up."

Pacioretty said of Messier’s guarantee before Game 6 of the ’94 Eastern Conference finals.

"I was nervous for him when it was said," Max repeated. "A guy like him, they bring him in to win a Cup and that's exactly what he did. How could you not appreciate and like that."

Pacioretty said his parents, Ray and Anette, never forced him to play hockey.

Even if he had to get up at 5 a.m., he did.

"I was always the smallest on my teams," he added. "It made me angry, but my dad told me I was a late bloomer. Finally, when I was 16, I started to grow and caught up to my teammates.

"I think of all the sacrifices they made for me and how many hours my dad took off work to take me to hockey, no matter what time it was or how far it was."

Now, Pacioretty is the captain of the Canadiens and his life off the ice has changed. He married tennis player Katia Afinogenova, the sister of former NHL forward Maxim Afinogenov. They have a young son, Lorenzo.

Messier is still a great legend to Pacioretty, but no disrespect to any of the legends on the walls, but I'm always drawn to Jean BĂ©liveau. We have pictures throughout the practice rink and game rink, and when everything was going on after his passing, everyone talked about him in a certain way. People in the city have respect for him, but this was a whole other level. He’s the model captain for anyone who’d want to be a captain in this league, especially for the Canadiens.

"I really became aware of his greatness as a man and as a captain when he died," said Pacioretty. "When you heard all these legends talk about 'our captain,' like Guy Lapointe, I became more aware of what it is to be captain of the Montreal Canadiens."

Now all he has to remember is to keep shooting like he did at the New Canaan Winter Club of Connecticut.

"I shot pucks my whole life growing up," Pacioretty said. "There was an outdoor rink we always went to and I bugged my buddies to feed me one-timers."

And then Pacioretty laughed.

"Finally, in my seventh year in the NHL, it's paying off."

He went on to describe ...

"The science is let the stick do the work," Pacioretty said of the one-timer, crediting Michael Cammalleri for important instruction. "Brett Hull was the best ever at it. Put your bottom hand in position where you’re able to just get it on net. Don't try to pick any corners.

"There are four quadrants on a net and if you're getting a pass across the crease, all you have to do is put it short side and try to get it up a little bit instead of trying to put it bar down. That's what's going through my mind. Let the stick do the work. It sounds simple but it's true."

And as Max Pacioretty said ... it only took seven years in the NHL for it to work.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Low key Matt Niskanen scores a memorable goal


By Larry Wigge

We were reminded of Bobby Orr working his way up the ice so gloriously when we watched Matt Niskanen glide to a goal.

But ... somehow that rink-length rush that gave the Washington Capitals a 3-2 victory over Philadelphia on February 7 ... was more than a retrospective of a goal more than 30 years ago.

The goal, which snapped a 2-2 tie, was more than just a magical mystery tour with just over five minutes into the third period. It was a tribute to an otherise unsung hero.

Niskanen wound up like usual ...

He skated his way out of the Caps zone, through center ice -- looking for passing options. Like a quarterback unable to find a receivers, he looked up at the blue line for an opening and saw that Flyers defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Michael Del Zotto were out of position, lunging with their sticks as Niskanen dangled the puck through them. What he saw was a clear break in on goaltender Steve Mason, flipping the puck under the goalie's armpit.

"I think all building was surprised," said Alex Ovechin with glee. "It was like back to the 70s with Bobby Orr."

The not-so-flashy Niskanen took it all in.

"It was an accident ... I don't have many moves," Niskanen insisted as he scored his third goal of the season and first since November.

"He had a lane to go right through," said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. "I think he looked even surprised when the lane he saw opened like like seas and then he kept going. He put a good finish on it. That's a huge goal from a guy that's known for his defense."

Niskanen, whose best single season was 10 goals with Pittsburgh in 2013-14, has scored a total of 42 goals in 600 NHL games.

One year after finshing his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the 6 foot, 209 pounder from Virginia, Minnesota is fulfilling his boyhood dreams.

He was playing a regular shift on defense with the Dallas Stars and he's at the All-Star Game in Atlanta rubbing elbows with the game's greats, preparing for the YoungStars skills competition in 2008.

"It's been an unbelievable ride," Niskanen told me. "I'm having a blast. Enjoying every day.

"It was my dream to play in the NHL since I was 5 or 6 and my parents couldn't get me off the rink. But going into training camp I figured I'd be headed for Iowa."

Except for a couple of injuries at the start of the season, this story might have been different. But Niskanen, the Stars first pick, 28th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft never lacked for skill and confidence.

His plus-12 plus-minus number was eye-popping for rookie or veteran alike. In his three-plus years with the Stars and his three-plus seasons with Pittsburgh and in his second season with Washington his plus-minus totals have been astonishing. In 52 games this season, he is plus-18. His tops came in 2013-14 with plus-33.

During that All-Star Game at Atlanta, former San Jose coach Ron Wilson said of Niskanen.

"We’ve played the Stars six times and while I maybe didn't notice him individually that much the first couple of times I saw him because of the guy he plays alongside most of the time, Sergei Zubov," said Wilson. "But the last few times we've played them you can see him coming and coming with his skating skills jumping into the play and puck skills working the transition game.

"I've always felt that Sergei Zubov is the most underrated skilled defenseman in the game and you can sure tell that he's mentoring Matt the way he's developing."

"Sergei makes it work," Niskanen said emphatically. "He's so good at reading so many things that are happening at fast pace on the ice -- and I'm lucky enough that he's shared some of those little details on what to look for and when to go with the puck that he's simply the master of doing."

Growing up in the Iron Range in Minnesota, Matt was a North Stars fan first and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan second. His favorite players? Mike Modano and Mario Lemieux. I also liked Nicklas Lidstrom. He is the best all-around defenseman of my lifetime. Although I will never reach his level, I still strive to have his attributes (skating, skill, and awareness).

"Yeah, it's funny," Niskanen said, when asked about a defenseman idolizing two star forwards. "I always played defense, but I guess I've always wanted to be a forward."

The decision to leave school and take a chance in professional hockey was very tedious. He and his parents, Chuck and Linda, spent countless hours. But hockey won out over his double major in school of health and physical education.

Now he’s majoring in looking mature beyond his years on the Washington defense -- with the obvious smarts to listen to a pretty good defensive partner.

Niskanen laughs when he talks about growing up, partly because his Stars teammates, particularly goaltender Marty Turco have given him lots of grief over the 2001 Pontiac Sunfire with more than 92,000 miles that he had shipped with him from college.

"We came back from a trip a while back and I got to the parking lot and my car was gone," Niskanen said, sounding a bit perturbed to be the part of one of Turco’s practical jokes. "Marty had the car towed away ... and he had it PIMPED up, detailed with outlandish hub caps and everything."

The forward-thinking youngster learned his lesson. Now he drives a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado. The truck of choice back on the Iron Range in Minnesota.

Why hockey?

"I got into hockey because all the neighbor kids played," Niskanen recalled. "Every kid gives the sport a try and up until you're about a Peewee, you play mostly outdoors which is where I got my start. My dad had a key to the outdoor rink and drove the Zamboni ... so we were lucky to have good outdoor ice almost every time."

Your father drove the Zamboni, eh?

Your high school team went to the finals.

"We had cheered for teams ahead of us to make it when we were younger, but when we were seniors we finally put it together," he remembered. "We had a good playoff run and reached our goal. That was a big deal for our town and our school and to do it with a lot of my friends was pretty cool."

Alex Goligoski and Matt Niskanen grew up about 40 miles apart in northern Minnesota, so there's a little bit of irony in the fact the two defensemen were traded for each other.

"I probably played against him since I was 12 or 13," Niskanen said. "Bantams, high school, college. We saw a lot of each other."

Matt Niskanen signed as a free agent with Washington. He inked a seven-year deal worth $40.25 million at an annual cap hit of $5.75 million.

Todd Reirden was the defensive coach at Pittsburgh, so he knew Niskanen very well.

"The relationship I have with him has really grown over the last four years," Reirden said. "We came up with a plan when he first walked into my office about how to rebuild his game and get it back to where it was.

"Certainly Matt really stepped up, showing a lot about his leadership and his ability to help young players. He's a righthand shot who can play on your first power play. He was able to increase his level of quality of competition, which again was one of our goals."

No one could have ever come up with a Matt Niskanen-Bobby Orr comarison for a key goal.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Brad Marchand ... He hustles, he scores and he's good


By Larry Wigge

Brad Marchand took a deep breath before consideration the situation he had been put in. He was thinking of a fast move also a slow one.

A man of contradiction.

The 5-9, 183 pound forward was all alone at center ice. Alone. No Boston Bruin had ever scored on a penalty shot in overtime.

The Halifax, Nova Scotia was given the free shot after being grabbed by Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen while skating in alone 2:32 into overtime February 6. The referee whistled. Down the ice, the tiny Marchand cleanly beat goaltender Robin Lehner with a roofed backhander that finished off a 2-1 victory.

Marchand is fearless and confident as he scored his ninth goal in 10 games.

"It's kind of a mental state," Marchand explaine, still shaking his head. "When things are going well and the bounces are going your way, you feel like you can try those things.

"When they're not, then you don't feel the same comfort level to do it."

Said Bruins coach Claude Julien, "He's been a great player for us, coming up big in those situations.

"He’s, in my mind, one of the best players, if not the best, at being on those pucks in the offensive zone and battling hard to take the puck away from. He's slippery, he's shifty."

Marchand, who has never scored more than 28 goals in a season in his six NHL seasons, is now on pace to flirt with 40.

His shot, his speed and his nose for the net would be going to waste if he didn’t have the confidence. Whether he's crashing the crease or blowing past four or five defenders, Marchand is being fueled by self-belief.

Some of that confidence could be traced back to this summer, when he met this former UFC fighter during workouts at his gym.

"He said something that stuck with me -- that the ceiling is what you make it. If you believe that you can hit a certain point then that's what you're going to hit," said Marchand. "If you believe there's no ceiling then you can only improve. So that's what I've been trying to do. Hopefully it will continue."

That Little Ball of Hate is one of just 11 players in NHL history to have scored 2-or-more goals in a Stanley Cup Final game 7. That came in the Bruins Stanley Cup clinching victory over Vancouver in 2011.

Marchand set a record for playoff goals by a Boston rookie and tied Jeremy Roenick for the second-most in NHL history, 11, during the Cup run.

Skating, shooting, stickhandling, checking, signing ... even at 11 he wanted to be the whole package. But ... try as he might ... he had to first harness his temper.

A funny thing happened as the Bruins were visiting the White House after they won the Cup.

Barack Obama asked Marchand, "What's up with that nickname, man?"

"The play doesn't end with the whistle," Marchand replied, with a toothy smile.

Jeff Marchand, Brad's father, had been a bigger ball of hate during his playing career at Halifax or for the Bridgewater Lumberjacks. He was a regular in the principal's office in middle school in suburban Halifax, visits made more awkward because his mother, Lynn, taught there.

"My mom would hear my name on the P.A., 'Brad Marchand, report to the principal's office,' and you could hear the clatter of her high heels coming down the hallway a mile away," he recalls.

"He's a good brat when he stays within the rules and disrupts the other team," said Julien. "He's a bad brat when he takes bad penalties and hurts our team."

Marchand takes pride in irritating the other side.

"Being an agitator just comes out of me at times," Marchand replied. "I don't even mean to do it. It's just how I am. It's reactionary. It's tough to get away from it at times. Because the refs are on me and watching me, I can't really do anything even if there have been times when guys come at me.

"The kind of player I want to be is strong defensively and be accountable. I want the coach to know he can count on me to be put into the game at any time. I want to be physical. Basically, I want the ability to play on any line up and down the lineup. I want to be counted on for energy, to be physical and to score goals is the role I want to play. I just want to be able to do all that."

When you're a little guy and you're battling guys in front who are 6-foot-3. It's tough.

If you want to know where Brad Marchand gets his competitive attitude, you only have to go to the family tree.

Raymond Marchand, Brad's grandfather, was a couple of inches smaller than the Bruins forward, but that never kept him from making his presence felt, either on the hockey rink or in the boxing ring.

"He was only 5-7, but he was tough as nails. It didn't matter how big a person was, if you challenged him, you were going down."

The Bruins found Marchand, thanks to Don Matheson, who died in December 2008, was Boston's Canadian Maritimes amateur scout. He was also Moncton's director of recruiting, where Brad was playing at the time. During weekly conference calls, Matheson reminded Scott Bradley, then the Bruins director of amateur scouting, that Marchand was a can't-miss player.

Early in 2006, Bradley traveled to Halifax to interview Marchand.

"When Donnie and I met him, I could see he had something," said Bradley. "It was in the way he conducted himself in the interview. His on-ice play. All that stuff.

"He never quit. I'd watch him in the playoffs. He never quit. He'd go down swinging. That's a quality you can't teach."

At the draft, under the watch of Bradley and interim general manager Jeff Gorton, the Bruins executed a home run trade. On June 24, 2006, they swapped their fourth- and fifth-round picks to the New York Islanders for the 71st overall selection, which they used to nab Marchand.

It was almost a robbery that the Bruins were able to get Marchand with the 71st pick in 2006.

Patrice Bergeron is a Brad Marchand fan.

"He seems to have a knack to come up with some timely goals or hits or he just generates energy and chances with his skating," Bergeron said. "He hustles and gives his all on every shift."

Thinking back to his mom's being called to the principal's office. Marchand had a tattoo on the right side of his torso after the Bruins won the Cup.

"Mine originally was misspelled," he said. "Instead of saying Stanley Cup Champions, it said Stanley Cup Champians. I don't even know how that happened..."

The boys were having a little fun, drinking and ...

"After I got it, I came in the room and someone was like it says champians ... with an a. So I went back and the tattoo guy fixed it after that. It's fixed now. It's Stanley. They obviously knew how to spell Stanley Cup. The only thing that was wrong with it was an a and he turned it into an o for champions."

Brad Marchand ... one in a million ... someone you will never forget.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dion Phaneuf: Always fiery leader for the Maple Leafs


By Larry Wigge

In the big games against the best players, he takes no prisoners. His mindset is fierce.

We've seen the focus of Dion Phaneuf it's all impact, the leadership and the confidence.

On February 4, the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman set up the game-tying goal with less than three minutes to play against New Jersey -- leading up to a 3-2 victory.

"I think he's playing great," coach Mike Babcock said. "He's been great all year long. As a leader. As a person. The way he helps our young guys. The way he pushes people. He's been great."

Babcock is a button pusher. He's a coach who gets players to do things his way ... or else.

This particular game represented the 1,000 game in the NHL as a coach for Babcock. It also was the 800th game in the NHL for Phaneuf.

"It does go fast, you've got to enjoy it," explained Phaneuf, now 30.

It's been six full seasons since he has been with the Maple Leafs. He was traded by Calgary with forward Fredrick Sjostrom and defenseman Keith Aulie January 31, 2010 for forwards Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers and defenseman Ian White.

He was drafted by the Flames, ninth overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

Phaneuf has always been an active player from defense. After 50 games, he has three goals and 20 assists.

Team President and alternate governer Brendan Shanahan said, "I would like to challenge Dion to continue to evolve."

"I have to be better ... and I will be," says Phaneuf.

Dion Phaneuf's vocal, but not boisterous. He's a rah-rah guy who wants to win.

And there is a clear sense that the 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman has been climbing the walls trying to live up to the expectations.

"He's always got energy and it's infectious for us," explained Iginla. "He's trying to run over everyone he can and he's in everyone's face. He doesn't back down."

Making an impact. Proving he can lead. Showing he's a winner. Those items are all on Dion's agenda.

Phoenix captain Shane Doan was on that Team Canada squad that won the gold medal in the summer of 2008.

"It's the important times when you see the great players show they are winners," Doan said. "Dion was a tower of strength for us in that tournament last May.

I'll never forget a warm day in late June 2003 arriving at the airport, expecting to make the short flight from St. Louis to Nashville for the draft alone ... until I saw a friendly face ... then-Flames GM/coach Darryl Sutter, on a layover from San Jose, where his daughter, Jessie, had just graduated from high school. He was beaming like a true proud father when I asked about his daughter and the ceremony.

During the course of our 45-minute wait and the next couple of hours before we walked into the same hotel in Nashville, Darryl Sutter touched on all sorts of subjects concerning the Flames. One, of course, was what his team wanted to do in the draft.

He spoke of the three defensemen at the top of everyone's draft list: Ryan Suter, Braydon Coburn and Phaneuf. He told me what he liked about each of these youngsters. But when he began to analyze Phaneuf, I swear I saw the same proud look on his face as I did when he was talking about his daughter's graduation.

I asked about the inside track he had into the tangible and intangibles he had on Phaneuf because Darryl Sutter's brother, Brent, was Phaneuf's junior coach with Red Deer in the Western Hockey league.

"Obviously, Brent's my brother," Darryl said, looking me squarely in the eyes. "But you can tell when he puts Dion on the ice, it's against the other team's best player. To me, that's more important than asking Brent what he thinks of him."

Then ... he said.

"Dion's got an edge to his game," Sutter said. "People aren't sure about him. I think that's why some people have compared him to such a scary defender as Scott Stevens.

"But he's more than that. He's a heart-and-soul player. He's smart, knowing when to take a chance on offense and when he can make a big hit and not hurt the team on defense."

Phaneuf had some good models to follow when he was growing up in Edmonton and going to games with his dad, Paul, and rooting for the, uh, Oilers, Calgary's hated rival in The Battle of Alberta.

"All of that stopped a few years ago," Phaneuf said of his Oilers rooting interests. "First I went south from Edmonton to Red Deer and then even further south to Calgary."

Then he lets the real side ...

It was at Red Deer that Phaneuf found a way to manage his time and tension off the ice when he met Dan Johnson, a woodworking expert and hockey fan.

Phaneuf may tear into opposing players with his open-ice hits, but give him a carpenter's tool, and it's a different story. His hands are skilled.

"I learned I could get away from the game while working with wood," Phaneuf told me, sounding surprised to hear that anyone knew that he could do more than shoot and pass and fight with his hands. "I made some chairs and then I got ambitious and finished an entertainment center for the mom and dad's big-screen TV."

On-ice creativity for Phaneuf comes from the fire in his eyes. It manifests itself with his aggressive posture when defending and, when on offense, in his howitzer of a shot from the point.

"I can't be a guy who's a fancy player," Phaneuf said. "I have to be a guy that plays the body. Whether they give you a shot here or there ... I play my game. I take pride in other teams hating to play against me."

Clearly, the only real dark side to Phaneuf is the dark mahogany wood he likes to work with in pursuing his hobby.

Dion Phaneuf is already an in-your-face, intimidating factor, using his size, muscle and skills to make a difference.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Joe Pavelski ... that never give up feeling


By Larry Wigge

He was always told he wasn't fast enough. He wasn't skilled enough. Or he wasn't big enough.

Still, Joe Pavelski won a junior Championship at Waterloo and he won at the University of Wisconsin. The 5-11, 190 pound center from Plover, Wisconsin, was always getting overlooked.

He has always been a winner and is carving a remarkable career with the San Jose Sharks.

"For a guy that isn't an overly large  man, he's got a lot of courage to go to the right spots," former San Jose coach Todd McLellan now Edmonton coach said. "I think his sense of timing and his hand-eye-foot coordination are exceptional."

He did it again February 4 in a 3-1 victory over St. Louis, when Pavelski flipped a backhand pass into the offensive zone to Joonas Donskoi and later spotted Joe Thornton with a cross-ice pass in the second period less than four minutes apart in the second period.

"He's a finisher," Thornton explained. "Probably within that 10 to 15 foot range, he just knows what to do with the puck."

The assists put Pavelski's production this season to 25 goals and 26 assists in 50 games. He finished last season with 41 goals, 10 more than his previous best.

"There's certainly no one in the league better at scoring timely goals, finding quiet ice, playing under the radar," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Said Nashville GM David Poile, "It's his persistence ... and he's getting better all the time. He was a little bit of an underdog. Not a high draft pick, not the biggest guy. You can pick apart and have things to say why he wasn't going to make it. But a lot of us would like a do-over again with that draft."

Pavelski was just barely on the Sharks' radar when they made him a seventh round draft choice, the 205th, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, arguably the biggest draft-day steal in the 25-year history of the Sharks organization. Today he is part of an offensive nucleus that includes Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, all top-10 picks.

In that 2003 draft at Nashville, Pavelski was selected in featured several key NHL players chosen within the first two rounds that still play huge roles in the NHL to this day. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were selected by the Anaheim Ducks. Eric Staal went to the Carolina Hurricanes. Zach Parise to the New Jersey Devils. Players like Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber fell to the second round.

But no one, except for the Sharks, had Pavelski on their radar. But despite several notable players selected well before him, Pavelski still finds himself well ahead of several players in production. Pavelski has the sixth-most goals at 252 in that draft class and he has the eight-most points with 273.

Pavelski is the very definition of an underdog hitting it big.

But his competitive zeal, which includes golf, baseball and hunting and fishing, has led to a standout NHL career that's lasted nine-plus seasons.

"I started watching the draft that year," Pavelski recalled. "But some friends came by my house ... and we played some baseball.

"It wasn't until I got home that I found out I was drafted by the Sharks."

His first feelings about being drafted were: "I was excited. Seventh round, I knew it was going to be a long road. I wasn't worried about that ..."

Like growing up.

When you talk about the size of the fight in the dog, Little Joe has a heart the size of the Pacific Ocean -- and that makes him man in motion and a man of action every year when the playoff season comes around.

Pavelski, you see, has the knack of winning over everyone eventually.

Big game, big player?

"He's just a hockey rat," Sharks GM Doug Wilson observed. "He's highly competitive, passionate and plays to win. He's in on every play at both ends of the rink, which is exactly what we look for -- players who can be used in all situations.

"It doesn't take long for you to see that he's a leader, a competitor. I remember going to see him at Madison (U. of Wisconsin) for the first time and it was clear to me that he was the heartbeat of that team."

Joe Pavelski learned about hockey by watching his dad, Mike, a wall paperer and painter in Plover play, as well as his older brother, Jerry, who is into home improvement. Mom, Sandy, works the books and runs the office for the company that the Pavelski's all work for.

"I don't know what it is about this game, but I've always loved to practice, loved to shoot pucks and loved to play in our driveway," he said, laughing at the fact that there was this Sharks mini-stick at the house. He didn't know who it belonged to. It was just there.

On his driveway, Joe tried moves like his favorites -- Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman. He played for the Flames when he was really young. Later, it was the Blues, because he was enamored with Brett Hull's one-timer.

"I loved winners," Pavelski laughed. "I liked Detroit, Colorado -- they were always battling, always fun to watch. They would bring it every night, could connect the dots, pass, snap the puck around, score goals and win a championship. That's kind of fun. I grew up liking the Dallas Cowboys. I would jump on the bandwagon, I guess you could say. But there's something about winning that draws me to it."

Still, Pavelski knew that his dream of playing in the NHL was a long, long way off.

"It was always my size and strength," he said of the obstacles he had to overcome to get to this level. "When I got to the USHL, my goal was to get to college and get my education. But I also began to see players I was playing against making their way to the NHL. Same thing at the University of Wisconsin. That's when I began to say to myself, 'He's there. Can I do this?' "

And we all know that this go-forward-and-take-no-prisoners approach that got him to the NHL won't stop because of the pedigree he's established in big games leading up to this year's playoffs.

"I always looked at those game, those tournaments as my Stanley Cup," he said, looking me straight in the eyes.

Serious. Confident without being cocky.

"Before I got here, I had been the go-to guy the last few years," he said. "It's funny but I think the more you play in big games the better you are going to get. Playing in those big-time moments, you take so much away and put it in your back pocket. Being on a winning team, knowing what it takes to win, knowing that nothing comes easy."

Said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, "He may be one of the best pros I've ever seen because he plays to his strengths, works on his areas of improvement, and he's gotten better each and every year. Those six inches between his ears make up for any deficiency that he may have physically, and even then, he's working on those."

Pavelski added, "When you have to fight the obstacles and perceptions I have over the years, you learn to never give up."

Todd McLellan takes it one step further. "If I was part of some of those playoff office pools and drafts, he would be one of my picks."

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Leadership and inspiration are key to Sean Monahan


By Larry Wigge

The traits you want most when you are looking for in a hockey player is leadership, experience and inspiration.

Funny thing about Sean Monahan is that he has all three.

Monahan is kind of a prototype. NHL scouts usually want all the things that Monahan brings -- good size (6-2, 198 pounds), good hands and good instincts. The problem with prototypes is often, the physical attributes don't necessarily translate into a complete on-ice package. With Monahan, they do.

"It always makes me laugh -- a young coach cannot coach in the NHL because he has no experience. A young player cannot play in the NHL because he has no experience," explained Calgary coach Bob Hartley. "If you don't play him, you can't go to Walgreens and buy experience off the shelf or call your doctor for a prescription ... experience is a combination of success and failures."

Still, Monahan didn't bowl every scout over. He wasn't picke until sixth overall in the first round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

But he stepped right into the NHL with the Flames and excelled. He scored 22 goals as a rookie and then followed that up with 31 goals and 31 assists in 2014-15.

It wasn't until this year's All-Star break that he felt failure in his game. A slump. He had two goals and two assists in the last 16 games since December 16.

Until ...

The third-year center had a goal and three assists for his first career four-point game to lead the Flames to a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes February 3.

"It can get frustrating when you're getting chances and they're not going in," said Monahan. "But I try to focus on the little things and when I'm playing my best, I'm winning faceoffs, playing well in my own zone and that's when you generate the most offense."

The output gave him 15 goals and 18 assists for 49 points.

"You can always trust him," Hartley said. "He's always going to be on time, always ready, he wants to be in critical situations on the ice. Despite his young age, he's a great young role model for young kids."

Monahan pointed to one man as his inspiration.

"When it comes down to it, the guy who made me who I am today is my dad," he said. "I want to follow in his footsteps. It kind of helped me get where I am today."

John Monahan is a retired sheet metal work in construction. His mom's name is Cathy.

Mom's advice? Soak it in.

"I said, 'This doesn't happen to many people so enjoy every moment you're there, every minute you're on the ice,' " Cathy said. "Every little boy dreams to be in the NHL. Anything to do with hockey we watch it and, to actually be sitting here watching my son with a Calgary jersey on ... I had tears in my eyes. It's a crazy feeling."

Brian Burke didn't have tears rolling down his face ...

"Not flashy, just good at everything, a true 200-foot player. He's a really reliable player in his own end and he scores -- but he’s not flashy," Flames President said in talking about Monahan in hyperbole. "He's way more mature than a kid that's 20 years old. He acts like’s he's 25. And his teammates love him because he keeps his mouth shut and works."

Back in the fall of 2013, Monahan was one of the catalysts of the Flames’ rebuild. Sean is the first big center that the Flames have developed internally since the Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk. As did Nieuwendyk, Monahan played a lot of lacrosse growing up, a skill set he believes translates well into hockey.

"Rolling off checks in lacrosse and hand-to-eye coordination and stuff like that, it all relates," Monahan said.

His favorite player growing up was either Joe Sakic or Steve Yzerman. He like comparing himself to Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews. They are could be playing that strong two-way game or winning face-offs or just making sure the whole team is ready to go.

At age three, the boy wanted to play. Hockey and lacrosse sticks were always in his hand. Good luck trying to get him to use a train set or building blocks. Birthday parties were always hockey- or sports-themed; the Monahans either rented ice surfaces or organized a road hockey game with the entire team.

Summers were spent at the family cottage at Sauble Beach, two and a half hours north of their home. The last three winters have been spent travelling between Brampton and the nation's capital.

Sean Monahan had a hockey stick in his hand at an early age -- age two, to be exact. At age 10 shooting pucks on the family driveway, spending hours out there shooting buckets of pucks.

As for Monahan, the 18-year-old, he likes country music (interesting, so does everyone in Calgary for 10 days every Stampede week), and is incredibly close with his family. A razor-sharp wit, a wickedly sarcastic sense of humour, and a joker with his friends, Monahan also has a quiet side.

"If he turned left, we would say, 'Hey, he's gonna learn' and 'It's a great learning experience for him,' " Hartley agreed. "But with Mony, it seems that he's always one page ahead in the book. If he makes a mistake, you teach him -- you show him once and, gosh, it's sculpted in stone. This guy has hockey IQ to a level that I've rarely seen or I've probably never seen."

Listen to Monahan.

"Everything ramps up, obviously. The games are faster and everyone is bearing down that much more," he said. "So this opportunity right now, at my age, I think it's huge for me.

"Obviously, you dream of playing in the NHL and, as a kid, you dream of lifting the Stanley Cup. I guess it's a little bit of a reality check coming out on the ice for these types of games ... but the dream is to win the Stanley Cup."

The good part of Sean Monahan is even if he doesn't score, even if he doesn’t get his name on the scoresheet, he still gives you a chance to win games.

Said Hartley, "It's all about team. He's a special kid."

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Brandon Saad: The man-child starts again with Columbus


By Larry Wigge

In the evolution of sports, there are trends and upswings. This was supposed to be a breakout season for Brandon Saad.

After helping the Chicago Blackhawks to two Stanley Cups in his first three full seasons in the NHL, the Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, native, looked to yet another run.

But ...

Saad watched as his contract ran out and with Chicago battling the salary cap, he became yet another victim. He was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets with prospects Michael Palotta and Alex Broadhurst for Artem Anisimov, Jeremy Morin, Corey Tropp and Marko Dano on June 30.

The 6-1, 202 pounder never saw that coming.

On a team that boasts superstars up and down the lineup -- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, Saad was starting all over in Columbus.

With the Blue Jackets, Saad has put together 19 goals and 16 assists  at the All-Star break, which would surpass his previous career high of 52 points set last season.

"With all those guys in Chicago, I wasn't likely to get picked," Saad said rather reluctantly. "You always think that one day you'll get to go and experience it for yourself. I’m fortunate it came this quick."

There have been years of promise growing up in Pittsburgh ... and playing in Chicago.

"The year I was born, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup," Saad said of Pittsburgh victory over four-game sweep of the Blackhawks in 1992. "I watched a lot of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. They were fun to watch."

Brandon Saad didn't have his room growing up pasted with Lemieux posters.

"Not my whole room, but I was definitely a fan," he recalled.

Now this is where the real evolution began.

George Saad, Brandon's dad, was an industrial engineer and former soccer player in Syria. He earned a degree at Columbia University, then furthered his education at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Dad is my idol," says Saad. "He came to the United States with no money, alone, didn't speak English. He worked hard to build a career and is very good at his profession: industrial engineering, buying and selling commercial real estate. He pursued his dream—to come to America and start a new life. My thought was that if the hockey thing doesn't work out, I can always get an education. He was behind me all the way ... and still is."

Sandra, his mom, is a typical stay-at-home mother, who used to drive Brandon and his older brother George to hockey practice.

There's more. At an early age, Brandon wanted to become a goaltender. Not so fast.

Said Sandra, "We said Brandon, 'You can't be a goalie, you have too much speed, nobody can catch you.' "

His mom grew up with football. Gil Mace, Sandra father, was an NFL official, who worked Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 as a back judge and Super Bowl XXI in 1987 as a side judge.

Brandon and football?

"Growing up, especially being in Pittsburgh with how well the Steelers did in the past, I was always a fan of the game," he said. "I played a lot of sports growing up and football was fun for me, too, but I always had the most fun with hockey. So by the time I hit high school, that's the career I chose. I had a lot of success at it as a kid ... and so that's part of why I picked it."

That leaves the one question: Why wasn't Saad a first-round pick? He was chosen the second-round, 43rd overall, in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

He had a groin injury stall his production. But ...

"His talent is there and we're the beneficiaries of it," Chicago GM Stan Bowman once said. "He's 18 years old and he plays a pro game already. We're just fortunate to be able to add him when we did."

Saad became the first NHL player since Colorado center Ryan O'Reilly in 2009 to be selected outside the first round and make an NHL opening-night roster in his draft year. The only other one was Patrice Bergeron to make such an imprint on the NHL roster hadn't been done since 2003-04.

When last we visited Brandon Saad, it was after Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning and it was as if he was waiting to show Chicago and the rest of the hockey world his best yet.

"I loved his game tonight," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Great power move to the net. Gives us speed. Use him in all situations. He's fast, he's big, he's strong, he's dangerous. Very good performance."

Saad walked out of the corner and bullied his way to the front of the net where his backhand beat rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy five-hole along the ice 6 minutes, 22 seconds into the third period.

It was Saad's fourth goal in his past six games and fifth in his past eight games.

Another former Blackhawk Patrick Sharp, now with Dallas, raves about Saad.

"He's one of those players that he doesn't really need to show up on the scoresheet to be effective," Sharp said. "He's such a powerful skater, plays well defensively, creates loose pucks."

Saad can't explain where that hockey sense came from, but he's thrilled to have it in his arsenal.

"I'm not sure how it developed," Saad said. "You can't exactly work on that, so being born with that quality has been a big help for me."

There are certain talents and skills that Brandon Saad has.

"He's physically fearless," Toews said. "He can go in and get the puck and come out when he has two guys draped on him. It looks like he's going to fall over, but he doesn't give up and he stays on his feet to battle his way out. His confidence has been rising and the skill set he already has is pretty amazing."

Toews looks at Saad and marvels.

"He looks like he's 35 years old ... but he's 20," Toews answers, smiling. "He plays like he's a lot older than he is, too."

Clearly, Brandon Saad, this man-child, just has to start his career all over with the Blue Jackets.

"It's a little motivation, but I try not to worry about the past too much," Saad said. "It's a fresh start here and it's only the beginning."

Clearly the big stage doesn't challenge Saad. Game after game, he is still a dominant, consistent force.