Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Patric Hornqvist is a unique hockey talent for Pens

By Larry Wigge

His first goal came on a backhander in the goal crease ... his second goal was on a tip-in from the blue line ... and his third one came after gave a gentle push and converted on a brilliant pass by Evgeni Malkin.

Those are the kind of goals that Patric Hornqvist usally scores -- tip-ins, deflection off any part of his 5-11, 189-pound body.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was shaking his head and laughing under his breath.

"That's exactly what I wanted," he explained following Hornqvist first NHL hat trick, which led the Penguins to a 6-0 victory over Arizona.

No this is not a leap-year-joke.

Rutherford took over the GM's job in Pittsburgh on June 6, 2014, after nearly 20 years on the job as the head man of the Carolina Panthers -- including their Stanley Cup run 2008. It took him just 21 days to complete a trade with Nashville, acquiring Hornqvist. And he paid a hefty price -- sending James Neal, a 40-goal scorer, and Nick Spaling.

He knew what he wanted ... a certain kind of player. It's not a park-in-front-of-the-net and his job is done. Not by a long-shot.

"Goes to the net. Drives the other teams crazy. Drives the goalie crazy," Rutherford explained. "Those are hard players to find ... and he was the one."

Hornqvist, who recorded his first hat trick in 488 career games, to improve his season's statistics to 15 goals and 23 assists in 2015-16.

Hornqvst had a career-high in goals with 30 Nashville in 2009-10. Four other times in his career he has topped the 20 goal mark.

He dreamed of growing up and wanting to be just like Detroit's demolition man Tomas Holmstrom, a four-time Cup member of the Red Wings.

"I watched Tomas on television. He's my hero," explained Hornqvist. "I try to watch everything he does -- I watched him create havoc in front of opposing goalies ... cause all sorts of different problems for the opposing teams. He's real good at it."

Despite his relatively small stature of 6-foot tall and 188 pounds, the 29-year-old veteran from Sollentuna, Sweden, has proved true to form.

And, oh yes, did we mention that Hornqvist was the seventh-round pick, 230th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Dead last. He's hockey Mr. Irrelevant. He was the antithesis of Sidney Crosby, who went first in the draft that year. Since the NHL draft began in 1969, only nine of the 47 players selected last have played even one NHL game.

"One of those better to be lucky than good, last round picks," said Nashville GM David Poile. "Any time you get to the late rounds, you are asking your people, 'Do any of you see something in a player that no one else does?' It's whoever speaks up the loudest at the draft table. For anyone to say he'd have a season like this ... hey, we dream about stuff like this."

Hornqvist is a feisty player. His passion and love for the game is second to none. This kid wants to play every night. Some young players attempt to pattern their games after slick goal-scorers who make all the highlight shows. He's goes where the goals are scored -- in the paint.

“We were looking for a certain type of player, and he was the one.”

"Holmqvist just flat-out brings it every day, with or without the puck," said Toronto coach Mike Babcock, who had Holmstrom in Detroit. "He's a star in a workingman's body. But when you're mentally tough and you work harder than the other guy, they say you work hard. To me, that's being a star."

Now, Crosby and Chris Kunitz are his linemates. Hornqvist had 25 goals in his first year in Pittsburgh.

But ...

It's not a park-in-front-of-the-net and his job is done. Not by a long-shot. Hornqvist had to improve his skating at Milwaukee of the American Hockey League.

"Yeah, they told me I had to improve to make it to the NHL," Hornqvist recalled. "So, I worked with a Finish coach on my skating."

Patric knows there are many things to learn -- just getting picked the NHL draft doesn't qualify you to play.

"When you get drafted there is a small chance to make it to the NHL," Hornqvist smiled, as if the door was finally opened for him. "Look at (Detroit's) Johan Franzen, who wasn't picked until he was 25."

Franzen worked in the window factory. Hornqvist was prepared to work in his father's trucking company.

"I helped him load the trucks and I helped him to deliver all the packages," Hornqvist said. "If I was not a hockey player, I always wanted to work for his company."

We've heard about drafting Hornqvist from the Predators perspective, but his agent never gave his the option of joining the NHL for the 2005 draft.

"My agent told me I needed to develop more. He said I was probably going to have to wait for next year," Hornqvist recalled. "Round after round came and went. My name was never called so I went to sleep.

"Next morning, my dad walked into my bedroom and said, 'Guess what, you were drafted in the seventh round by the Predators.' "

Speaking of dads, Hornqvist's father is the reason he started playing hockey.

"I wanted to be like my dad. He was a goalie. Actually my first game, I was playing in net and it didn’t really work out that well. I think we lost like 11-0,” he laughed. "So I told him I don't want to play in net anymore. Since then I've been a forward. He brought me into the game and I love it."

Never one to be discouraged, Hornqvist worked at his trade.

"No, I wasn't discouraged at all, I just said to myself keep working at it," said Hornqvist.

"No, I wasn't discouraged at all, I just said to myself keep working at it and never lose your dream to play in the NHL."

Patric Hornqvist idolized countryman Peter Forsberg, but he knew he could never equal the talented center's skills.

Take the next best guy and try to pattern yourself like him -- Tomas Holmstrom.

"Not surprised," said veteran Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who worked out with Hornqvist in previous summers back in their native Sweden. "Everyone knows he's the type of guy who is capable of scoring 40 goals. He's such a determined guy, a hard worker who does everything full-out. He's a guy everyone wants on his team."

Hornqvist laments, "Sometimes, it feels so hard to find the loose pucks. Other nights, they just hit you. The more time you spend there, the more goals you're going to score."

It's been a turnaround season for every member of the Penguins. Mike Johston lost his job as coach to Steve Sullivan after a long slump.

Sullivan has welcomed Hornqvist.

"He's a hard guy not to love," Sullivan said. "He's a passionate guy. He wears his emotions right on his sleeve. He brings a ton of energy on the bench. I think it's infectious for our group.

"He loves hockey and he loves to win. He doesn't hide his enthusiasm when we have success ... that's for sure."

Sidney Crosby like having the enthusiastic Patric Hornqvist as a linemate.

"A couple of his goals are right outside the crease, as usual," Crosby said. "The tip ... No secret, that's where you need to go to score goals."

Park-in-front-of-the-net and Hornqvist is done. Not by a long-shot. It takes a unique talent.

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