Saturday, May 21, 2016

Ryan Callahahan ... a true leader for the Lightning

By Larry Wigge

It was in his eyes. It was all over his face.

Ryan Callahan set the tempo after the Tampa Bay Lightning had lost their heart, they had lost their grit and tenacity in the last two games of the playoffs.

The former Captain of the New York Rangers sparked them.

"We had played too nice in the last two games," Callahan explained before the game. "We needed some spark. We need to play with a gritty attitude, to show them a fearlessness, to shake things up."

And then he went out there for the opening faceoff, chasing the puck behind the net. He checked hard and often. He saw the puck go back to defenseman Victor Hedman and fought a defenseman to get in front, where Callahan got his stick on puck that dropped and eluded goaltender Matt Murray for a goal just 27 seconds into the contest.

He was a monster out there ... as the Lightning built up a 4-0 lead and his never-say-quit attitude carried throughout for a crucial 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins to even Eastern Conference final series at two games apiece.

Callahan was at agitating best along the boards and in front of the nets. He led all players with five shots on goal in the first period. He blocked three shots on the night, tied for the game lead.

His presence was so overwhelming that you swore that half the Lightning team was wearing No. 24.

"That's the start we needed," head coach Jon Cooper said after the game. "You want your team to make a push. You want them to say, 'OK, we're making a stand. We got embarrassed at home in Game 3, let's make a stand.' And you can't ask for anything more than Callahan scores on the first shift at 27 seconds in.

"I don't think anybody'd sat down yet and they didn't need to. The energy in the building after we scored, it just pushed and we carried that through. You can't say enough about Ryan Callahan and his positive effect on our team."

"To start out with a goal on the first shift," winger Jonathan Drouin said. "He plays the same way every night. He's an honest player. He's ticking off a lot of guys. It's definitely something you want. He's definitely someone you want on your team."

"He's a huge part of our team." defenseman Matt Carle said. "Even on the nights that he's not on the score sheet, he's still making a difference. I don't know how many times I played against him when he was in New York. You always knew when he was on the ice and generating a forecheck, getting in on the forecheck. He's a hard guy to play against and certainly a guy you like having on your team."

The energy in the building was raucas and loud.

"I don't necessarily go out there and say I'm going to try to get under the other guy's skin," Callahan said. "I go out there and play my game and try to finish my checks, go to those dirty areas. Playing against guys like that sometimes that can frustrate, knowing that the player's always coming at you.

"I thought it was our energy, our compete, the way we executed was a lot better than it was in the previous game."

He'll put the Lightning sweater on his back and block shots and do anything within reason to win. He became known for his willingness to throw his body at opponents with reckless abandon. If there was a shot that needed blocking, Callahan was happy to throw whatever body part was available in front of it.

For years, the Callahans played the Giontas for the Stanley Cup finals on the cul-da-sac in Grapeview Circle outside of Mike and Donna Callahan's house in North Greece, N.Y.

"Now we're on the big stage," said Callahan of his friendships with Brian and Stephen Gionta, also in the NHL. "It's exciting. You get a chance to play on this stage, against one of your best friends growing up ... I'm happy. It's pretty special."

Said Stephen Gionta, "Something we've dreamed of is actually coming true."

"They’ve beaten the heck out of each other many, many times," said Sam Gionta, Stephen's father, "besides wrecking Mike's garage and house."

Callahan's garage and house aside it was a good place the play for the twosome.

It was five miles, door to door, from the Callahan house.

"We grew up together and we spent so much time together," Callahan said. "We were going out on the lake at his house or we were swimming in our pool."

When they weren't playing ball hockey or knee hockey or real hockey, that is. They were teammates for several years in Rochester Youth Hockey, but they could never get too much of the game.

The pick-up games in the driveway or on the street were highlights of many summer and winter days 15 and 20 years ago. The Callahan garage was the loser.

Oh, but the fun they had trying to one-up the other with the puck.

"Of course I outscored him," Callahan joked.

Those ball-hockey games were intense, too. You'd have thought they really were playing for the Stanley Cup.

In his first season as captain of the Rangers, Callahan has been outstanding -- posting 29 goals and 25 assists during the regular season and another five goals and four assists in 19 playoff games.

"I think I had a pretty tough road to get here," Callahan explained. "Size-wise, everybody thought I was too small for the style of game I play. In my first NHL camp, I didn't play in the Blue-White Game at the end of that camp. I was one of five kids who got sent right down to Hartford and didn't play in that game."

He's too small now at 5-10, 185 pounds for the style of game he plays. He'll throw his body in front of a shot. He's fiery. He's competitive. He loves to hit.

"I feel like I'm a guy who crashes and bangs and hits a lot," Callahan continues. "I love contact.

"Sceptics? I just used it as motivation more than anything. I don't think I do anymore. I hope I've shut up all my critics."

He grew up a Buffalo Sabres fan. Pat LaFontaine was his favorite player. He was until ...

"I'd say my biggest hockey inspiration would probably be Brian Gionta," he said. "Our families are pretty close. Just looking up to him and seeing everything he's done really inspires me."

Most Painful Moment: "When I was younger, actually got cut from travel team, that was pretty painful when I was 14."

That was Callahan's reputation in the NHL -- a player who was hard-working, a leader, someone who would do whatever it took to win. He deserves all the credit for being a self-made star. Most of his points came from his drive and determination in going to prime scoring areas in the offensive zone. He will not be intimidated when confronted in a tough, physical game.

A lot of kids in hockey turn out to prove people wrong, but few have come as far as Ryan.

He didn't go through the draft unpicked like Stephen Gionta. The Rangers drafted Callahan in the fourth round that year, with the 127th overall pick, in the 2004 Entry Draft as he continued to be undervalued.

"I was with another team at the time," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' player personnel director, who was with the Islanders. "Me and the scouts around the league, we'd watch Callahan's play skyrocket and take comfort in knowing that we all blew it."

"We've all had our hits and misses," Clark continued. "I'm telling you, I didn't draft Ryan Callahan, but his is the name that always comes up. Everyone marvels at what he's accomplished. He's listed at 5-foot-11, but he plays like he's 6-3."

So, you don't have to do to much to rev Ryan Callahan up to lead his team in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Joe Thornton: The best passer in the game

By Larry Wigge

Joe Thornton is always thinking pass.

To set the scene a little bit. The San Jose Sharks are ahead 2-0. To everyone except Thornton there is no pass to make.

But ...

He sends a bullet-like pass to linemate Tomas Hertl's stick behind the net. Hertl corrales the puck and walks in front to score.

"He is such an amazing passer,” marveled Hertl. “I'm just waiting. I saw him looking at me. I was waiting for the pass ..."

"Just one of those instances where I just saw the blade," said Thornton. "You try to aim for it. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesnt'.

"It's my job to get these guys the puck."

Hertl's goal gave the Sharks a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues for a 2-1 advantage in San Jose's lead in the Western Conference final.

Two assists on goals by Hertl in the game gave Thornton 10 assists to go along with three goals in the 15 playoff games played.

That Thornton, at age 36, is still playing at an elite level does not surprise him in the slightest.

"I love to play," he said. "I feel good playing with who I'm playing with, our team.

"I feel good -- yeah, really good about my game. I feel good about my linemates' game, our whole team game. I'm just really, really comfortable with it."

Joe Pavelski, Hertl and Thornton formed one of the hottest line in the NHL at this point.

Thornton just had his best regular season in years, amassing 82 points in 82 games while going plus-25 and driving puck possession.

"This guy plays as honest a game as anyone I've coached," San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said. "In general, Joe as a player is probably underappreciated just because he spent his entire career, most of his career, on the West Coast.

"If this guy's playing in Toronto or Montreal or New York or one of those markets, he's a living legend. He's that good and he's that impressive a guy."

Did DeBoer, who spent all of his NHL coaching career in the Eastern Conference until he replaced long-time Sharks' coach Todd McLellan before this season, already know this about Thornton?

"I had an idea, but I didn't have an appreciation for how honest a player he is and how hard this guy works away from the puck and how badly he wants to win," DeBoer said.

And since Thornton has 1,442 points in the NHL, including 111 in 145 playoff games, that is saying something.

St. Louis boss Ken Hitchcock, who was on the coaching staff when Team Canada won an Olympic gold medal with Thornton in 2010, said the forward from St. Thomas, Ontario, is more dangerous after switching to wing from centre this season.

"Because they read off each other so well, he's able to leave the defensive zone early," Hitchcock said of Thornton's tricks. "He’s able to have the freedom to move into the neutral zone, where he's so dangerous.

"I think as an older player, when you're allowed to have this type of freedom, now your hockey sense and smarts take over. He's always been one of the guys with the highest IQ in the league ... and now he has that freedom. To me, he's a more dangerous player now than he's ever been in his career."

With an Olympic gold medal, he is a sure-thing future Hall of Famer. But after 18 seasons, Thornton has still never laced up his skates in the Cup final.

Thornton has been through this drill multiple times since being traded to the Sharks in 2005. But he says he doesn't remember.

"I've got a bad memory," Thornton said.

No, he doesn't.

"Uh, I know we beat Calgary and I think we beat Detroit," Thornton said. "And then we lost two to L.A."


"I know it's great when you win them and brutal when you lose them," Thornton said.

Also correct.

"So hopefully, we're on the good end tomorrow," Thornton said.

That would be an enjoyable story to write.

Thornton is not the longest active NHL player without a Stanley Cup ring. He's fourth on that list, behind Jarome Iginla of Colorado, Shane Doan of Arizona and the Sharks' own Patrick Marleau, who should also have been in a final by this point. Iginla, at least, has been to the Cup finals once. The other three haven't, including Thornton.

There something about Thornton and Marleau and their leadership.

"When you break in with the Sharks," Logan Couture says. "You meet Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and they shake your hand like your their long lost relative ..."

Not like your just meeting them for the first time ... "It's like your their friend forever. The two of them are such treasures."

And their not bad hockey players.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Carl Hagelin from Sodertalje to North America with love

By Larry Wigge

Phil Kessel used his speed to get a break down right wing. He's got a step on the defender, while Carl Hagelin is headed down middle with 15 seconds remaining in the second period.

The scene was set, with the clock is running down ... 14 ... 13 ... 12 ...

Kessel peaks back and sees Hagelin ... and the clock.

He shoots and Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevsky makes the save ... but the rebound ... comes out to Hagelin for a goal with 10 seconds left in the second period to break up a scoreless tie.

"He's fast. He's smart ... He creates space and makes plays," said Kessel of his linemate Hagelin.

The Penguins made it 2-0 when Kessel slammed in a pass by Nick Bonino past Vasilevsky with the earlier assist from Hagelin five minutes into the third period. The little known third line for Pittsburgh had made a difference in what proved to be a 4-2 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan acknowledged that skating is the foundation of Hagelin's game is ...

"His speed jumps out at you and that's what everybody talks about," he said. "His speed is his competitive advantage."

But it doesn't end there, said Sullivan.

"He has the ability to play with top players because his hockey sense is pretty good," Sullivan continued. "He sees the ice pretty well. He has the ability to make plays and distribute the puck.

"He helps his linemates get the puck back and keep the puck through his quickness and his speed."

Hagelin didn't start the season with the Penguins. He was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks for David Perron and Adam Clendening on January 16.

Small trade ... with big results. The Penguins went 27-10 to finish the season.

In those 37 games, Hagelin 10 goals and seven assists to finish the season with 14 goals and 25 assists. In the playoffs, he has added five goals and six assists in 14 games.

"We really push the pace and we don't like to sit back," said Hagelin. "We try to play north-south with a lot of speed, and try to be aggressive on the forecheck. That's where we've scored a lot of goals as of late."

Sullivan based his opinions on Hagelin when he was an assistant coach for the New York Rangers -- where Hagelin has broken in with.

"I felt strongly based on my experience with Haggy that he would be a good fit here," Sullivan explained. "When you look at the core players, their competitive advantage is their speed: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, those guys, they all want to play a fast game. I thought Carl, his foot speed, would complement that group."

Patric Hornqvist said, "Hagelin's wheels help the entire squad. Oh man, with him in the lineup, it's like he sets a pace, it's like we all play a whole lot faster."

By the time he enrolled at the University of Michigan, the word was out about Hagelin. The Rangers drafted the Swede in the sixth round, 168th pick, of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, getting what they believed was a late-round steal because he was only 5-11, 186 pounds.

From his first day at Michigan, Hagelin emerged as something of a legend for his performance in Coach Red Berenson's infamously grueling conditioning drills. As part of their offseason workouts, Berenson's players run 15 races each day up and down the bleachers at Michigan Stadium, the university's gigantic football venue. In one race, the players might have to climb the stands two steps at a time; in another, they might have to hop on two legs from one step to the next. "We'd have kids puking and passing out," Berenson said. "Carl never lost a race in four years."

The first Swede for the Wolverines, Hagelin led the school all the way to the NCAA Frozen Four title game, where Michigan fell to Minnesota-Duluth in a 3-2 overtime, heart-breaker on April 9, 2011.

Growing up in Sodertalje, Hagelin was surrounded by athletics. His father, Boris, had been a member of Sweden's national golf team. His sister played Division-III golf and basketball and was on Sweden's junior national hoops team and his older brother Bobbie, now 27, starred for Sodertalje's Under-20 team before reaching the Elitserien for a brief pro hockey career that began in 2003-04.

The Swedish team featuring a young Peter Forsberg won the Olympic gold medal in 1994 when Hagelin was five years old, and as Forsberg developed into an NHL star, Hagelin followed his career in earnest.

"I didn't like the Red Wings back then, even though they had a lot of Swedes and my dad loved the Wings," Hagelin recalled. "I loved Colorado because Peter Forsberg played there."

Last fall, Hagelin was playing for the Rangers, who reportedly couldn't afford to pay him -- trading him to Anaheim in a draft day trade for Emerson Etem.

According to Hagelin, his older brother, Bobbie (now a scout for the Calgary Flames) had become the lynchpin to his career when he was 16.

Bobbie encouraged Carl to join in an offseason workout that year.

"He pushed me," Hagelin remembered. "That summer I grew. It was a combination of growing and having a great role model in my brother."

That's how Hagelin earned a spot on Sodertalje SK's under-18 and junior teams and attracted the attention of Rangers scouts Jan Gajdosik and Chris Rockstrom. The Rangers picked in the sixth round, largely based on the speed he had developed at the rinks and gym with Bobbie in what became a grueling annual summer training program.

"His conditioning is just unbelievable," director of player personnel Gordie Clark said. "Most guys do a 50-, 60-second shift (and then go off). He can go a minute and a half and still have gas in his tank."

At the draft, Clark said he also had been confident that Hagelin's conditioning only would improve by playing for the University of Michigan.

From there, it was up to Carl Hagelin to star in Red Berenson's grueling conditioning drills.

Ironically, it took a 4,135-mile return trip to his hometown of Sodertalje.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Brent Burns shouts out his own number ...

By Larry Wigge

Brent Burns is a rare bird.

He shouts out his own number ... often.

"I always call for the puck ... even when I'm not open," the Sharks' defenseman laughed after leading the San Jose Sharks to a 4-0 victory over the St. Louis Tuesday night with two power-play goals.

When he was asked by reporters afterwards what does his shout sound like?

Burns quipped back, "I'm sure you can hear it up there."

The Sharks took a 2-0 lead at 7:04 of the second period when Joe Pavelski fed Burns from the slot to the left circle for a one-timer. His second power-play goal came on a slap shot from the left circle high glove side at 11:58 of the third gave the Sharks a 3-0 lead.

Burns became the 11th defenseman in NHL history with two multigoal games in one postseason, the first since Rob Blake (2002, Colorado Avalanche). Denis Potvin is the only defenseman with three multigoal games in a playoff year; he did it in 1981 with the New York Islanders.

"Best I've ever seen," said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer when asked to describe it. "I think just how he can get it off from every angle, how he can get it to the net off balance, in bad spots . . . He finds a way to get it there. If it's in the right spot, it's going in."

In fact ...

DeBoer put Burns in elite company, arguing that his ability to play forward with the same degree of proficiency puts him among the game's singular talents and in the same stratosphere as Bo Jackson, the two-sport star who played professional football and baseball.

"The only reason there ever has been a question is because he's one of those rare guys that could be an All-Star as a winger," DeBoer said of Burns. "You can count the number of guys probably in history that could do that on one hand. Otherwise this wouldn't even be a question, is he a defenseman or a forward?

"He's just that exceptional an athlete that he happens to fall into that category. Bo Jackson, is he a football player or baseball player? Burns is that exceptional a guy."

This past season Burns put up his best numbers -- 27 goals and 48 assists (it was the second time in his 12-year NHL career he had topped the 20-goal mark). The two goals against the Blues give Burns six goals and 12 assists in 14 playoff games.

The defenseman from Ajax, Ontario, had previously also passed the combined regular season and playoff total set by former Ranger star Brian Leetch, who had the previous record of 92 points in 1995-96. Ray Bourque (1995-96), Leetch (1996-97) and Paul Coffey (1995-96) were some of the other on that list.

The 30-year-old now leads NHL defensemen who looks like a cross between Grizzly Adams and Sasquatch, it's hard for the heavily bearded, tatted-up Brent Burns to go anywhere without being recognized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly, variety is the spice of life.

There's more.

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

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

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

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

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

"I had a terrible shot," Burns said as a kid.

So, growing up in Barrie, Ontario, about an hour outside of Toronto, he spent every second he could on the ice.

Dave McCullough, a part-owner of the National Training Rinks in Barrie, recalled that the teenager would sometimes Rollerblade five miles across town just for a chance to fire away.

"Any time there was an opportunity to shoot on the goalies, Burnsie would stand up and do it," McCullough said.

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

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

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

Ask Burns for something new?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well ... no.

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Valtteri Filppula ... the forgotten man for Tampa Bay

By Larry Wigge

It became Panic Time.

How else could you describe the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost All-Star goalie Ben Bishop and No. 1 center Tyler Johnson in the first period.

Opponents game plan, looking for the slightest bit of trouble.

But ... the Lightning ... had a 1-0 lead.

"We're hoping for the best," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Ondrej Palat extended the lead to 2-0 with a power-play goal 2:33 into the second period and Jonathan Drouin made it 3-0 for Tampa Bay when Palat set him up on a 3-on-1 against Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin with 1:11 left in the period.

By that time, Johnson had returned to the lineup.

Two assists by Valterri Filppula was enough to help Tampa Bay to a 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh in the first game of the Eastern Conference final series.

Looking for players, who had played in the big game, at the biggest moments, was key to Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman. He played on the Detroit Red Wings one of the most consistent teams in the NHL.  A center by trade, Yzerman was looking for good player, consistently good. And acted fast in signing free-agent Filppula, a guy who had been to the finals three times, who had played in 135 games of playoff experience -- including 2008 when he helped Detroit win a Stanley Cup.

"I talked to him right away a few times," Filppula said of Yzerman. "It seemed like he wanted me to be a part of this team."

Cooper has learned to lean on the Vantaa, Finland. For ... everything.

"You look at the minutes and the situations he plays for us," Cooper explained. 'He kills penalties, he takes the big draws, he plays in the power play, he plays in our top six. That goes down as one of those sneaky signings that people have already probably forgotten about.

"He is the guy that has won a Cup. He's often spoken to our team about the preparation and things that go into it. I don't know where we'd be without him."

He had only eight goals and 23 assists during the regular season, but now Filppula has one goals the five assists in 11 postseason games with Tampa Bay.

He scored 23 goals one year when he was playing for the Red Wings and had 25 in Filippula first season in Tampa Bay.

Valtteri Filppula ... the forgotten man. Seriously.

At a press conference, Cooper was being asked whether Filppula had become the forgotten forward on a team with so many star players. A staff member interrupted to announce that Steven Stamkos was available outside the team’s dressing room.

The room emptied. Fast.

"How apropos," Cooper said, laughing. "The time you ask a question about Val and how important he's been on this team, three-quarters of this room walked out of here. That's how it goes with Val."

Said Stamkos: "He leads by the way he plays. Any time you can add a guy who has gone far in the playoffs, has won a championship ... you can't have enough of that. He was probably under the radar in Detroit, but here, he is a big piece of our puzzle."

Filppula was 24 years old and in his second full season when the Red Wings won it all seven seasons ago.

"I remember his first training camp with us two years ago. It's pretty magical what he can do with the puck," Tyler Johnson said. "You can tell he's been working with Pavel Datsyuk pretty much all his entire career. For him to come over here and kind of teach us the little things about puck control, how you can slow down the tempo of the game a bit and play his style, I think a lot of guys learned from that."

A 32-year-old Finn who was drafted in the third round, 95th overall, by the Wings in 2002.

He's no Pavel Datsyuk. He fails in comparison to Henrik Zetterberg. But put a player in a position to score for Valtteri Filppula and watch what happens.

"Different name, but really, really good," Zetterberg explained just before he went behind a curtain, "and getting more confident in his ability all the time."

I can remember former captain a future Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom once talking about Filppula. He asked was that, "Was that 51 or 40?" Lidstrom knew that Zetterberg was No. 40 and 51 was Filppula.

"The kid has size, speed ... and great skill," continued Lidstrom.

"Fil's one of those guys that would be probably on a top line on any other team," said Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "He's a very smart player, both directions, great defensively, great offensively. He doesn't always get the attention because of the players we have, but he's always a key for us. The way he works out there shows everyone he's a leader."

The story on this forward is typical. Filppula followed his older brother Lars, who currently plays in the Finnish Elite League, to the rink. He lived to play hockey. He had posters of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu in his room back home.

"My parents were the driving force," Valtteri said. "My brother and I got our athletic ability from my dad, who played Finnish baseball. And my mom ... she's a teacher ... and she made sure both of us learned more than just one language, so we could succeed in the world. That has become very, very important to me."

Raimeri Filppula, Val's father, currently works as an electrical engineer. His mom, Liisa, still is a kindergarten teacher.

Filppula wasn’t one of those too-small prospects the Red Wings dug up late in the 1998 and 1999 drafts, when they selected Datsyuk 171st in 1998 and Zetterberg 210th the following year. He's 6-0, 193 pounds. But there still were some anxious moments for him.

"I had a pretty good year scoring in my final year in the Finnish Elite League (10 goals and 30 points, plus another 11 points in 12 playoff games for Jokerit Helsinki in 2004-05), but when I got to North America ... it was like the walls were closing in on me ... no room to move on the smaller ice surface over here," Filppula added. "I didn't know if I'd make it here."

And when Mike Babcock tapped Filppula on the shoulder to move from his normal line with Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson to play with Marian Hossa and Tomas Holmstrom, he cited Valtteri's speed and playmaking ability as what he wanted from him in this situation.

"The Red Wings don't put you on any situation that might put you in over your head, in answer to your question about playing on the No. 1 line now," Filppula said. "And they make sure you have another player who acts as a sounding-board for you."


"Exactly," he smiled.

And who's your mentor?

"Pav," he said, smiling again.

And how does Datsyuk help you out?

"He tells me to be comfortable and confident. Enjoy myself," Filppula said of his time on the ice and off the ice watching movies like The Usual Suspects, the Die Hard series and James Bond action flicks, plus listening to his favorite Metallica songs, playing tennis or working on his golf game.

But there's no time for leisure activities now.

"Oh yeah, I forgot," Filppula said with his biggest smile of the day. "Pav always tells me to shoot more."

John Cooper is always telling Valtteri Filppula to shoot more, too.

But he'll taken the veteran forward ... just like he is now.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Just like his father ... Paul Stastny has the gift for passing the puck

By Larry Wigge

There's a big gap-toothed smile on Paul Stastny's face.

That is the reason why the St. Louis Blues signed Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract free-agent contract in July of 2114. Heck ... that is the reason he was born to play in the NHL.

When the Blues clinched Game 7, 6-1, against Dallas May 11, Stastny forced a pass through two Stars defenders to Troy Brouwer in the slot. The rebound came out to Robby Fabbri, who took a backhanded whack at the puck in the goal crease before backhanding it into the net. Later in the first period, it was Brouwer feeding Stastny and short pass, which his lifted into the net. In the second period, Brouwer completed the hat trick as he took passed by Stastny and Fabbri while on the rush. When the Blues clinched Game 7 of the Chicago playoff series, it was Stastny's pass that started the winning goal scored by Troy Brouwer 8:31 of the third period of a 3-2 victory.

"There's feelings when you go into Game 7, where you're facing an elimination game and sometimes you just don't feel like you're going to move on," explained Stastny. "The way that we feel here, we know we've got a good team and we know every time a challenge has come our way, we've kind of risen up to it. Good team effort, everyone bounced back from last game."

Born to play in the NHL? Peter Stastny started it with his brother Anton and Marian came over from Slovakia to play for the Quebec Nordiques in the 1980s. They were dominant with their cross-crossing-throw-the-puck-around-the-offensive-zone magic.

That's where the genes ... or the DNA work for Paul Stastny.

"I can't explain it," Paul said. "When I'm on the ice, I can see two or three options where other players might only see one. I know I've got some genes for things that can't be taught. I get that from my dad and my uncles, the vision for things you see in your head.

"But I've always loved the game growing up, I've always been a student of it, learning that way, or watching the guys I've played with."

Paul Stastny was born in Quebec City.

"My first memory of hockey and Quebec City was when I was about five and I was playing a lot on this pond near our house," Paul recalls. "My brother (Yan), my dad and my uncles. They were so good. Great skaters. They made the puck dance like it was on a string the way they passed it around."

The string-like passing skill now belongs to Paul.

"His dad scored a lot of goals on me," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "Paul has that same drive and creative mind like Peter had. He is terrific with the puck ... it seems to follow him around. Down low, he's got great vision and an innate ability to find a teammate for a great scoring chance."

In his second season with the Blues, the 6-0, 205-pound scored 10 goals and 39 assists in 64 games. He has three goals and six assists in 14 playoff games.

With that vision and those hands. Those marvelous skills are a unique throwback to the days when the name Stastny was on the lips of every coach, player of the NHL. And now those same talents are back ... and they are just as welcome in this new era.

Paul Stastny was a second round, 44th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He was at the University of Denver after two years of playing for the River City Lancers of the United States Hockey League.

"Those pretty little short passes of Paul's," said Brouwer, who has combined with Stastny and Fabbri for most of the second half of this season. "The three of us got together before (Game 7) and said, "We're going to make a difference tonight.' "

Stastny, Brouwer and Fabbri are the first players in Blues history to record three points in a Game 7.

Peter and Darina Stastny are based in Bratislava, the Stastny's hometown and the capital of the reborn Slovakia. Peter also represents Slovakia in the European Parliament and has overseen the Slovakian national teams at the World Cup and Olympics.

Early in his coaching tenure in St. Louis, Joel Quenneville was skating in an informal session with the Blues alumni, who sometimes brought their sons along with them. Much to Quenneville's consternation, there was this pesky pain-in-the-posterior kid on the ice who refused to respect his elders.

"I wondered, 'Who is the little guy who keeps taking the puck away from me?'" Quenneville recalls. "I couldn't get it back."

He was told it was Paul Stastny.

"He comes from a system where creativity and making plays is kind of their No. 1 goal and here the No. 1 goal is structure and defense,” Washington right winger T.J. Oshie said. "We don’t have a lot of leeway, except for one or two guys, to use our creativity. He’s a creative player. That's why it's so fun to play with him. That's not something we get a lot of room to do."

Paul Stastny's phone rings most every non-gameday afternoon, his father calling to converse about family, European politics and mostly about hockey, all in Slovak. Well ... it, after 10 years in the NHL, three or four times a week.

"He's built like his dad, he's got the same strong hands and ability to find a player with a pass through the tiniest opening," Colorado GM Joe Sakic told me a few years back -- exhibiting minor flashback symptoms from his days breaking into the NHL in Quebec with the Nordiques. "Paul is such a smart player, he's always in the right place. The sky's the limit for him.

"And the resemblance in style of play to Peter is eery."

Peter never forced his boys into the game.

"When they told me they wanted to play I helped teach them as much as I could about the game," Peter told me. "I taught them to respect the game first and then to work as hard as they could to succeed."

"I really look up to my Dad," Paul said. "I listen when he critiques me. I'm fortunate that my dad was a Hall of Famer. One might think there could be pressure at times, but there's not."

Paul said that's no coincidence. He watched his dad coaching him and his brother. He always tried to copy all the same moves, the same style.

"It’s really something when I watch Paul," Peter said recently, when he was in St. Louis watching Paul play. "It's like a flashback. I watch him ... and I see myself."

Paul Stastny was a 9-year-old boy watching on television in his West Orange (when he was with New Jersey) home, too young to understand the significance of what his father was doing thousands of miles away at the Olympics.

But he and his older brother, Yan, could see his father on the screen, marching into the stadium with a white, blue and red flag. And they could see the tears on his cheeks, too, so they knew this was important.

Peter Stastny was carrying the flag for Slovakia, a nation that had gained its independence less than two years earlier. This was in Lillehammer in 1994, and the former Devils center was an easy choice to represent his country in its biggest moment.

"I know how special that was for him," Paul said. "That's one of his greatest achievements and one of the most humbling things he's ever done. He’s always proud of his history."

In 2009, Paul was game in Sochi had an added significance for Paul Stastny. He scored twice for his country's team -- Team USA -- as the Americans took an easy 7-1 victory over Slovakia in its first Olympic game.

His father was watching from the crowd at Shayba Arena, too, and his son wondered where his rooting interests might lie. "Were playing Slovakia, so USA all the way," the Hall of Famer had said.

Paul knew his father was proud of him. Just like he is today.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ben Bishop ... the puckstopper like no one else

Larry Wigge

Just call him hockey's version of the Human Eraser.

You get it. He zeroes the opposition in closing them out in the playoffs like Marty Brodeur and Patrick Roy.

Ben Bishop made 28 saves to produce a 4-0 victory over the New York Islanders Sunday after flawlessly turning back 34 shot in a 1-0 triumph over the Detroit Red Wings last month.

That's four times he has done that in five such wins during the past two playoffs. Bishop's the first goaltender in NHL history to produce multiple series-clinching shutout wins in each of two different playoff years. No other active NHL goaltender has had two such shutouts in one year.

"Bish put up some pretty remarkable numbers for us," center Brian Boyle said. "Our goaltending has held us in there until we get our legs ... especially in Game 3 and 4 against the Islanders."

"He's bailed us out so many times," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said.

Said Ryan Callahan, "It seems like he plays his best when big games are on the line."

That's what all the great goaltenders do.

"You don't ever want to be content," Bishop explained. "You see guys that are consistent."

He mentioned Hendrik Lundqvist of the Rangers as being a goalie who's worked at his trade and it's taken him to the Stanley Cup finals.

"He's so big, but he's quick," said New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider of Bishop. "He doesn't get caught out of the net too often. He uses his size, he stays in his crease and dares you to beat him."

"I think it's an advantage to be this big," the 6-7, 214 pounder. "I don't think there's anything that a smaller guy can do that I can't. And there's many things I can do that he can't. I mean, I like to think I'm just as athletic as those small guys, if not more athletic, so I don't think it's a disadvantage."

The two shutouts this year give him 21 in his career -- tying Nikolai Khabibulin for the Lightning record in playoff shutouts.

It was quite a contrast for coach John Cooper to see Bishop in his debut for Tampa Bay compared to when Cooper first saw the up-and-coming goaltender in the North American Hockey League. Back then, Bishop's Texas Tornado team was knocking out Cooper's Texarkana Bandits in the 2004-05 playoffs.

"I'll tell you, for somebody that size and you have to get up and down, up and down at 18 years old and your leg muscles are not developed yet, it's hard on you," Cooper said. "He was kind of a gangly kid back then, but he has really developed into his body, he's strong, his legs are strong, so now he's strong in all those areas and now he doesn't break down like he did when he was younger.

"So if tonight game is any indication of what he is going to be, it's going to bode well for us."

Big is better? No one better than Brodeur spoke out about how good Bishop was in his first kick of the playoff can.

"It's imperative to be good in the playoffs," Brodeur explained. "It's not easy to be good during the regular season, but you get recognized for what you do in the playoffs. That's just the mind-set people have. There are things you do, shutouts that you accomplish in certain games, in Game 7s, or you get the experience.

"Goalies have a lot to do about the team, because if the team is not good, you can be really good but never get that recognition. But it's important that playoff hockey is part of your resume if you want to be one of the elite goalies."

Were you ever worried you son was going to grow too tall to play hockey?

"Absolutley," said Ben Bishop II. "I think when he was in grade school in maybe seventh or eighth grade he was already 6-2 when the other kids were much smaller.

"But today a lot of the players are getting taller. I let him do his own thing and everybody that sees him now wants to know what basketball team he plays on, not what hockey team he plays on."

Bishop, born in Denver, Colorado, but raised in St. Louis and became the Blues third-round pick, 85th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

He is the son of Ben Bishop II, who runs Western Waterproofing, a construction company in St. Louis West County. Cindy, his mom, is a nurse. Bishop's grandfather was a tennis professional, who played in the US Open. Neither of Bishop's parents are nearly as tall as he is; his father is 6-1 and his mother is 5-3 tall.

He was a forward until age 8. Then, he switched to goaltender.

How often do you get asked how tall you are?

"A lot," he says, shaking his head. "It probably averages out to once a day."

Goalie Curtis Joseph was his favorite, growing up in St. Louis in the 1990's. Joseph's competitive attitude in goal was one of the things that Bishop remembers most.

"As a kid, I would put a tape into a VCR and watch hockey games," said Bishop.

He would study goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Olie Kolzig.

"Ever since I was in junior, I was a big video guy," Bishop said. "I would watch a lot of tape by myself, not with a coach or anything, when it was available. To this day, I still like to watch a lot of video. I was sort of self-taught, as I was able to watch those videos and kind of go back and nitpick myself."

Fast forward 12 years and Bishop still watches plenty of video of himself playing goal. But he has worked his way from those formative teenage years to become one of the National Hockey League's top goalies.

Ben Bishop speaks, you better listen.

"When something has to be said, Ben will say what he has to say," Cooper said. "When a game is in the balance, he'll be the first guy to come to the bench and say, 'Boys, I've got this, you just look after your side and I'll look after the other.' And he really is exuding lots of confidence now."

Confidence. The Lightning are just eight victories short of drinking from the Stanley Cup.

He remembers last June. Bishop remembers it all to well.

He was sitting in his locker stall June 15 at the United Center, listening to the Blackhawks celebrate their Stanley Cup victory over the Lightning.

The Stanley Cup, Bishop remembers, had to be wheeled by the Lightning dressing room on its way to the party. It made Bishop sick.

"You remember all of it," Bishop said. "You try not to."

Some memories never leave you.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Kari Lehtonen ... he's a goalie ... a good goaltender

By Larry Wigge

It wasn't always a goaltending controversy in Dallas.

Kari Lehtonen or Anti Niemi. Or Niemi and Lehtonen.

After he beat the St. Louis Blues, stopping 35 of 37 shots, to give Stars a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues -- sending the Western Conference series to a Game 7.

"The Blues had us on our heels for 50 minutes of the game pretty much," said Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski. "Kari was awesome."

"Kari was our MVP tonight," said center Jason Spezza, who had the game-winning goal. "That's what you need when you get up like that."

In reality, the goaltending controversy was fueled because at this time of the year netminders are the backstoppers -- they turned games around.

So, you can forget about ... his earlier transgressions.

"You can just flip the script," said Dallas coach Lindy Ruff. "Last game Brian Elliott made six or seven great saves for them. Just flip the name to Lehtonen tonight.

"Lehtonen gave us a heck of a game. Tonight he stood tall for us, and that happens in the playoffs. Goalies have to win you games sometimes."

Truth be known, a look at the numbers and Lehtonen isn't so bad in these playoffs --  6-2 with save percentage of .908 and a goals-against average of 2.58.

Mattias Janmark and Vernon Fiddler scored 20 seconds apart and Jason Spezza had a power-play goal at 16:49, which ended up being the game-winner.

"When you score goals early, it changes the game a lot," Lehtonen said. "Certainly I knew they were going to come after us. It wasn't always pretty at our end, but it was enough."

Lehtonen thought about his answer for a minute, then he added, "It was exciting. I just try to stay relaxed as I can and just follow the puck and not try to play it any other way than I’ve done the last 59 and a half minutes. It’s easy to say but today it worked."

Hmmmm!!! Let me take you back ... way back to the time after then-GM Joe Nieuwendyk obtained Lehtonen from the Atlanta Thrashers for Ivan Vishnevski and a fourth-round draft choice on February 9, 2010.

You can look at this now and say STEAL. And that never would have touched on the fact that Lehtonen, who was the second pick overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, that Kari in his early years in the NHL was dealing with back problems.

GM Joe Nieuwendyk looked at other goalies, but never saw Lehtonen as a gamble.

"It's no secret we were looking at other goaltenders," Nieuwendyk explained "Only Kari fit the bill for what we were looking for. A big goaltender with impressive quickness, a mind for the game -- so many talents.

"When I played against him ... he was an intimidating force in the net. There were nights when we went into Atlanta where you felt like you had to be pretty precise in order to beat the guy."

Nieuwendyk went on, "He was drafted second overall for a reason -- he's an elite goaltender when healthy. Now that he's on the right path, we're going to get a guy that's entering the prime of his career as far as goaltenders. I think it's a good risk for us."

"You look at Atlanta, they needed Kari or somebody else to be that stopper in goal," said former NHLer Keith Tkachuk, who spent part of the 2006-07 season with Lehtonen in Atlanta. "It happened that Lehtonen was the guy. The guy they drafted. The guy they counted on.

"He was a veteran, the Dominik Hasek or Ed Belfour. They didn't make it until they were 26, 27 and 28."

"I have a lot to prove for myself. I have a clean sheet, a chance to get back to be a great goalie in NHL," Lehtonen said.

There's an ease in the way Lehtonen plays. There is no hiding his size -- 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. He can be aggressive and challenge shooters at times, but he also does a good job of simply sliding back and forth in the crease and letting the puck hit him.

Lehtonen remembered the season-ending meeting with the Stars and recalls asking this question.

"I asked the training staff if they could find me a trainer in Atlanta," he said. "I've had far too many injuries."

That did it for Lehtonen.

"One of the things I love about Kari is he is a real battler," Stars general manager Jim Nill said. "People tell him he's injury-prone or out of shape, and he proves them wrong. People say he can't get us to the playoffs and he proves them wrong. He lets his actions speak for him."

Lehtonen is a quiet guy, and that might have something to do with his Finnish upbringing. It might also have to do with the fact he came to North America when he was 18, barely spoke English, and had to deal with the pressure and the transition.

"It's a different world over there and he had to make a lot of adjustments," said Stars goalie coach Mike Valley, who played in Europe during his career. "Now, you look at it and he's Americanized, he's comfortable in his setting and his role. I think he's a more humble person than he was. He's matured into not only a seasoned goaltender, but a seasoned person."

Lehtonen agrees. His marriage in 2011 to Abbe and the birth of his son Mikko in 2012 have helped ground him. So did a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension that makes him the highest-paid player on the team at $5.9 million per season. He has a pretty good gig, and he knows that. He also knows that he’s earned it, and that’s a comfort that comes with time, as well.

"When you get older and you get a wife and kid, you feel more responsible. It's just part of growing up," he said. "I think I work harder now and I also think I enjoy playing more. I realize that I'm a good goalie now. I think that was a big key, to not doubt yourself, to not worry so much."

Doubts? There are people ...

"You talk to people that are smarter than you, that help you out. Some professionals that really understand the brain," Lehtonen said. "That's been the biggest help for me."

A sports psychologist?

"Yeah. I've had some help in the past, too, but I got something new," he said. "I feel like that's been a great help for me."

What has been the focus?

"No comment," he said, and then laughs. "I gave you too much. I need something for my book."

The result is that he's now better able to focus on the big picture and not get caught up in what happened the shift before. A soft goal that might have sunk him for the rest of the game doesn't have the same impact it did earlier in his career. He's getting better at focusing on what's happening in the moment, not what's coming or what has already transpired.

"Of course, things go up and down," Lehtonen said. "When they're down, they will go up at some point."

It takes a while to figure that out, it's suggested to Lehtonen.

"It's still a work in progress," he replied.

And, there are still moments, those are the kind of moments Kari Lehtonen is learning to manage.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Leave it to Patrick Marleau to come up big in the playoffs

By Larry Wigge

The San Jose Sharks needed Patrick Marleau. They needed him to step up and give the team some life in the series against the Nashville Predators.

San Jose coach Peter DeBoer asked Marleau to move up to the second line with Logan Couture and Joonas Doskoi be picked them up.

Marleau started the scoring with a terrific short side drive and at the end of the second period put an exclamation point with a pass to Joe Pavelski for his second goal, ending a 5-1 Sharks victory and a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference quarterfinal series.

"I thought it was Patty's best game of the series, and that line was excellent all night," DeBoer said. "Some changes work ... and tonight that change worked."

The goal by Marleau was his third of the playoffs, giving him 62 -- it is second only to Jaromir Jagr's 65 among active players. But the pass he made to Pavelski from behind the net was simply too good.

"He spotted me and gave it to me at just the right time," said Pavelski. "It was off his stick and on mine."

Marleau still love playoff hockey.

"I love playoff hockey, when it's all geared toward your team winning," he told me. "I'd like to think that's when I'm at my best."

Marleau is 36, but could probably play, if he wants to, until 40 or in his 40s, he still got the great speed.

"I wish I could skate like him," said Couture. "He's just so explosive. He'll outskate a lot of defensemen, outside speed. Wins a lot of puck races."

So often, it's been Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau over the years. Thornton, who was the first player picked in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, by Boston, while Marleau was No. 2. It stayed that way until November 30, 2003, when Thornton was traded to San Jose and Marleau was there at the airport to great Joe.

Marleau, you see, is the quiet star, not like so many of the others over the years.

"You can look for someone who has a loud voice and big persona. But players look for someone who is a quiet leader, someone who knows the right thing to say ... and when to say it," explained Thornton. "Patty plays hard EVERY DAY -- at practice and in the games.

"He's an example for all of us to follow. You want someone who symbolizes that work ethic."

Marleau was in the moment in Patrick Marleau has really grown up since he left Aneroid, Saskatchewan (population 56), that tiny farming community in Western Canada as a 17-year-old to pursue a professional hockey career in 1997.

He's accumulated more that 1,000 points and much, much more over the years.

"It's funny, but I remember watching this kid with so much potential, so many skills, as a junior player," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said, breaking out in a wide smile. "We were sold on his character and the type of person he was, but the total package is what we drafted."

There may not be any more 30-plus goal seasons like the seven the 6-2, 220-pound forward produced in his first 18 seasons. This season, the 6-2, 220-pound forward had 25 goals. But ...

"This guy is one of the best players in the last 10 or 15 years," said DeBoer. "He's in great shape. I think last year was a bit of an aberration. He's come out with a lot of other guys to prove that."

"Marleau is big, strong and fast. Give him a step and he's gone," Predators defenseman Shea Weber told me.

In the moment ...

You can predict certain things from watching a 17-year-old player. But the intangibles that translate into a leader normally can be traced back to a player's upbringing. For Patrick Marleau, that's being brought up by Denis and Jeanette, his parents, whose farm in tiny Aneroid concentrates on cattle, grain and wheat.

"I'll never forget those days when we would come home from school, get our chores done and then go out to the dugout, shovel off the snow and play hockey until it got dark," Marleau said. "School, chores and then hockey. That's what my dad always reminded my brother, Richard, and me."

It was a culture that breeds hard work and solid citizens.

There’s a post office, a general store that serves gas, a grain elevator and Shaw's hotel, which has seven guest rooms in Aneroid. But there's no stop light and the nearest high school was more than an hour away in Swift Current.

"I'll never forget where I came from. Never," Marleau said recently. "I remember when I left for San Jose hearing my dad say, 'Son, never forget your roots.' "

Marleau paused and kind of hinted that Aneroid will always be a part of him. Like learning to skate in the dugout -- where the cattle would go for water. When the water would freeze over, Patrick and Richard Marleau had some really competitive games of one-on-on. They also became good friends with the caretaker of the local skating rink.

"We called him Tony Zamboni," Marleau recalled. "We were always knocking at his door. I think he would wait for us sometimes, then would let us in."

Sort of like Patrick Marleau's own little Field of Dreams story -- at the dugout and the their own little skating rink in town.

"I was small until I was 15-16, something like 5-9, 5-10," Marleau recalled. "Then I had a spurt, when I was 16 and grew to 6-0, 6-1. I felt bigger and stronger and more confident."

Now, Patrick is one of the most difficult players in the NHL to game plan because of his size and speed.

Never once has Patrick Marleau lost that little boy’s desire. He'll never forget that shoveling the snow off the dugout so he and his brother could skate after school. He'll never forget getting personal access to the town rink thanks to Tony Zamboni.

Marleau may still have little boys’ dreams of scoring the winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, but he's all grown up now.

Hard work is something Patrick Marleau is not allergic to. And that drive and competitiveness all started back on that 1,600 acre farm in Aneroid, Saskatchewan.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Mike Fisher just the center to boost the Predators

By Larry Wigge

Suddenly ... a difference maker.

How can Mike Fisher, a career third line checker, be placed on a line with power forwards James Neal and Colin Wilson get such a promotion and the move works in the playoffs?

Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette replaced center Mike Ribeiro with Fisher prior to Game 3 of the Western Conference playoff series with the San Jose Sharks leading two games to nothing.

It worked.

Fisher scored two goals, including a rebound goal 111:12 into a third overtime period to give the Predators a 4-3 victory to tie the series at two games apiece.

When asked to replay the winning goal Fisher paused.

"I'm so tired, I almost forgot," explained Fisher, who was reminded he took one step right and beat Martin Jones on the rebound.

After pausing to regroup his thoughts, Fisher continued, "That was a good play to get Mattias Ekholm free in the middle there. He got a shot through ... and I just kind of go in there and got the rebound and got it home."

The new line created more than the winning goal. Fisher, Neal and Wilson combined for all four goals in the victory -- Wilson beat San Jose goaltender Martin to the puck for a goal 41 seconds into the contest, Fisher made it 2-1 midway through the second period and Neal tied up the contest, 3-3, with 4:21 left in regulation time.

"They invested a lot. There’s a lot of character in our room," said Laviolette. "To win a game like that is big if you think about the other scenario. You're 3-1 the other way; one win, three losses. This ties it up 2-2; it shortens the series. Our guys played like champs tonight."

At 111:12, it is the longest game in Predators history. It is also the longest of the 2016 postseason, passing the 96:00 the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers played in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference First Round series.

"Just trying to find energy and just play together," Fisher said. "Play simple, try and help each other out. They're doing kind of the same, and obviously play slowed down. You knew it was going to be one of those plays where you just get pucks to the net, rebounds, whatever."

"He's a class act," Laviolette said of Fisher. "His leadership and just how he carries himself, you respect the way he plays on the ice and the leader he is in the locker room. He's an important piece for our team."

A difference maker. The lead singer.

Sounds like a Hollywood script ... or something from a country song in Music City.

For Fisher, the latter may be true, since he is married to country music star Carrie Underwood. After a 13-goal, 10-assist season, the Peterborough, Ontario, native, now has four goals and two assists in 11 playoff games. He has two goals and one assist since the promotion.

He's 35 now and has one year left on his contract with the Predators. But this checking-to-scoring-line has something to it.

Fisher played in the Stanley Cup finals for Ottawa back in 2007, when the Senators were defeated the Anaheim Ducks.

"Yeah, I think everyone -- when you get up into your mid-30s -- you never know when you're going to get a chance again to compete for the Cup," said Fisher. "That's why you obviously want to get into the playoffs because anything can happen. I feel like we've got a great chance, as good a chance as anyone to compete. There are no easy matchups, but we feel really good about our team and our chances."

Fisher has been a playoff regular, helping his teams teams reach the postseason in 11 of his 16 NL seasons. He has 100 playoff games to his credit, almost twice as many as Mike Ribeiro (55), the Predators player with the second-most playoff games.

When you make a trade for a player line February, there can be only one thought in mind.

How will he help us for the playoff push?

On February 10, 2011, the Nashville Predators gave up a first-round pick that year, plus a third-rounder in 2012 for longtime center Mike Fisher. Originally a second-round pick, 44th overall, by the Senators in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.

The Peterborough, Ontario, native, wouldn't be considered a goal-scorer by trade ... but he would be considered a top six player. Five times, Fisher topped the 20-goal mark in his 16 seasons in the NHL.

But it's the other things you get from the 6-1, 209-pound center.

"I know my job and what I have to do, and I have to focus on that," Fisher said proudly. "If your mind is focused on zero points ... it's like golf, when you think about not hitting the ball in the water, you hit it in the water. I'm thinking about what I have to do. Points aren't all there is to my game. It's about contributing in all parts.

"I'm no different player than I ever was. I'm going to be better. It might take a bit of time, but I don't feel my game is that much different than it was."

Regardless of the numbers, Fisher flies into corners with an almost reckless abandon. If he were a baseball player, he'd be a wall-crasher or a base-stealer with a dirty uniform.

Former-coach Barry Trotz has learned in just over 100 games with Fisher in the lineup that he'll give every bit of energy.

"His character on and off the ice," said Trotz. "He's hard-nosed. He's sort of like David Backes.

"He can give you some offense. He doesn't cheat. He plays hard. Every night he empties his tank."

"We were seeking a top-six forward and Mike Fisher was the player we set our sights on," Predators GM David Poile said in a statement. "He plays playoff-style hockey all season long. He plays on the power play, kills penalties, is strong on draws and can match up against any opposing line."

Most general managers just most players by using the eye test. Poile and Trotz both agreed that Fisher was a perfect fit.

"Our players knew him," said Trotz. "He skated in the summer. He's married to Cary Underwood."

Married to the Grammy-award winning singer, it was either Nashville or Los Angeles, two places Underwood calls home.

Said Trotz, "He's fit in great. It was really a classy move by Ottawa to allow him to come to Nashville. They knew he was a pretty vital part of the Sens."

Mike Fisher had met Cary Underwood at one of her concerts in 2008. After a year of dating, Fisher, popped the question last December 20, 2009, with a 12-carat ring worth about $800,000.

"We're both obviously excited and very happy," Fisher said.

On July 10, 2010, Fisher married Underwood at The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Georgia, with more than 250 people in attendance. Underwood surprised Fisher by having one of their favorite artists, Brandon Heath, sing his song "Love Never Fails" for their first dance.

Who was the biggest influence in Fisher's life? He'll tell you ...

His parents, Karen and Jim. They led by example.

"They never pushed hockey on me," Mike said. "They let me make my own decisions. They've always been very supportive."

What's was your most extravagant toy?

"I'd say my Four-wheeler or snowmobile," he said. "They're my kind of toys. Especially the Four-wheeler. I like to drive it around the property, plow the driveway, stuff like that."

Which player do you most like to be compared to?  

"I like the way Mike Peca plays. Same with Joe Thornton," he said. "But I'm obviously never going to be Thornton."

What was your favorite team growing up?

"The Leafs," Mike said. "That was back when they had Doug Gilmour."

There's a little bit of Doug Gilmour in Fisher, though he mightn't be a small as Gilmour.

Yes, indeed. It was putting the ultimate competitor in the lineup filled with Junkyard Dogs, according the Poile.

"The coach can play him in all the situations," he said. "He plays the most important minutes against the opponents best players. He kills penalties plays the power play."

But most of all ...

"To us, he was a Predators type of player," continued Poile. "He was not a star -- a player who was going to score 50 goals. He's competitive every night. He's hard to play against.

"He's one of those type of guys who you would say is a team player. It's always been his MO whererever he's played. If you've got to go to war, he would certainly be on my team.

"We wanted to make this deal. It made sense. It's his hard work. His compete level was off the charts. You can win with Mike Fisher."

Said Mike Fisher, "Nashville plays a system that is perfect for my game. It's intensity, hard work, good solid team game. ... It's all about the team and I think I'm going to fit that mold very well. It's a more aggressive style than we played in Ottawa."

A perfect fit.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Brian Boyle ... for him it's playoffs or bust

By Larry Wigge

For an instant, Brian Boyle looked like he was surprised to find the puck on his stick at the side of the net. After he settled puck down, he routinely buried it.

Boyle scored just 2:48 into overtime to give the Tampa Bay Lightning a 5-4 victory over the New York Islanders for a 2-1 lead in their second round series.

"It was a fortunate bounce," Boyle explained.

Actually, the Lightning got the puck and were on an odd-man rush as Victor Hedman fired a shot from the left side that was wide. The rebound came off the back boards to a waiting Boyle.

Maybe you could sense some over-thinking from the veteran Boyle.

"I just tried to stop ... looking for a rebound," Boyle said, his mind working a mile-a-minute. He said he was thinking about where Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss was, not to mention Ryan Callahan, stationed on the other side of the net.

"The puck squirted out," he continued. "It just kind of hit me in foot ... then I put it in."

It was his second goal in eight playoff games, after scoring just 13 goals and seven assists during the regular season.

"It was awesome to see him get one," Callahan said, who was also with the Rangers with Boyle. "It's hard to find another guy who deserves it more the way he's been playing of late."

During this time of the playoff, Brian Boyle brought HIS game to Tampa.

"I'm just trying to do the things I'm supposed to, play hard, be physical, be defensively responsible," he explained. "That's where I've carved out a niche. Those are the things that will keep me in this league.

"The goals, sometimes you get the bounces, sometimes you don't. But the way you got to play is that hard style, be difficult to play against, every single night."

It seems like old times for the 6-7, 244-pounder, who has already been a good playoff playoff player for the New York Rangers before he was signed as a free agent on July 1, 2014.

The big center had just led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup finals before losing out to the Los Angeles Kings.

Boyle said his career habit of reaching another gear in the playoffs, "You'd like to bottle it up for 82 games in the regular season, too. There's just so much at stake. It's what you play for. You want to do your part, whatever your role is. It's just so much fun. You're having a blast and you're not thinking. You just do better."

Being part of a family in Tampa, New York or Los Angeles has never been a problem for Boyle, because Artie and Judy Boyle of Hingham, Mass., had their own little team ... 13 children -- Brian was born right smack dab in the middle.

From that perspective, Brian was able to observe and learn from the experience of his older siblings and act as a mentor/role model for his younger ones.

"I think it was a great spot for me, it was a blessing to be where I was," he said. "You learn a lot about respect and how to make it a team, so to speak, to function by buying into the whole scheme."

Brian isn't the only athlete among his siblings, six surviving boys (one died at 2 months old) and five girls, ranging in age from 17 to 40. Artie said Michelle, 37, was a track captain at Amherst College; Brendan, 33, a four-time All-American diver; and Christopher, 36, played several sports before joining a seminary.

The family moved a lot, with Judy, who was savvy at real estate, finding the right fits for their budget and expanding family. Their houses were never bigger than six bedrooms, so, Brian said, it was normal to share one with three or four brothers.

Artie and Judy, married 40 years, always have been the rocks.

"It's more than a job," Brian said. "You're a piggy bank, you're moral support, a psychiatrist, a disciplinarian. As I get older, it's even more impressive what they did."

But in 1999, Artie was diagnosed with a metastatic renal cell carcinoma. Artie, a longtime salesman and former truck company owner, was told he had a 5 percent chance to live. His kidney was removed, but the cancer spread to his lungs. Doctors gave up hope.

"I was a goner," Artie says.

"It looked like he was dying before our eyes," Brian recalled. "Then he went to Medjugorje, Bosnia (a popular site of religious pilgrimage because of alleged Marian apparitions.) He came back and the cancer was completely gone, a clean bill of health.

"It was enough to change my life in terms of my faith."

Artie plays hockey, golfs twice a week and works for the Archdiocese of Boston, giving back to the Lord. He wrote a book, Six Months to Live, and speaks to groups around the world.

"It's a wild story," Brian said. "He's been an inspiration. It has changed my life."

But, if Brian had grown up in Indiana, he might have played basketball.

"He could have played any sport and excelled at it," Artie said. "He probably could have been a professional baseball player. He hits the golf ball 400 yards. He was a running back in football. Just that unusual size that sets him apart."

But since Brian first put on skates at age 3, hockey has been his love, like it was for his father, who played goalie in high school and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Brian starred at Boston College, making three Frozen Four appearances in four seasons. He was then selected by the Kings in the first round, 26th pick overall, of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

Brian said the Kings tried to make him a defenseman due to his size, an experiment that ultimately helped him become more responsible in his end as a bottom-six forward.

But he spent most of two seasons toiling in the American Hockey League. That GM Dean Lombardi at the Logan Airport Hilton in Boston in spring 2009. Artie told Lombardi if the Kings weren't going to use Brian, then trade him east. Weeks later, Brian was shipped to the Rangers for a third-round pick.

"I don't how much weight my father had," Brian quipped. "But Dean helped me out."

In New York, Brian settled comfortably back into his natural center position. Though he scored a career-high 21 goals in 2010-11, Brian's expertise came while he was killing penalties, being a strong net presence and winning faceoffs. He thrived during the Rangers' run to the Stanley Cup final last season, earning a three-year, $6 million deal from the Lightning.

Oh. There was one more near-death experience. It happened when Brian was 4 or 5. Or so the story goes ...

"I remember seeing my dad fall into the pond," Boyle recalled. "He was going to get a puck out by some brush and some trees and stuff. The ice was kind of thin ... and he fell in. I was so scared. I remember it now -- I can picture it.

"He just went into the house ... he changed all his gear, threw his goalie skates on and came back out and played. My mother was horrified."

Perhaps like father, like son. Brian Boyle said he was playing on another rink with buddies growing up and fell in halfway to his waist.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Colin Wildon: Never count out those famous bloodlines

By Larry Wigge

From near the blue line, a Nashville defenseman flipped the puck high into the air. It came down amidst a four-player crowd.

Colin Wilson corralled a bouncing puck in the Anaheim zone and stickhandled near the goal crease before backhanding the puck high past the glovehand of Frederik Andersen and it the net 6:19 of the first period.

It was first goal in a Game 7 winner-take-all situation against Anaheim, which the Predators won 2-1.

"Those flipped-up pucks are hard to control for the defensemen," Wilson said. Mike Fisher was going and pushing them back. I was fortunate for it to come up on my stick."

The Greenwich, Ct., native, has made a living of late in the playoffs, netting two goals and five assists in seven games against the Ducks. Last year, he had five goals in six games after putting in a career-high 20 goals 22 assists in the regular season.

Wilson, who had only six goals and 18 assists this season and the former first-round pick, seventh overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, was a major topic of conversation.

Could he recapture his playoff form again? Or would he bide his time on the fourth line and suffered the indignity of a healthy scratch on March 31.

He scored a goal in Nashville's Game 1 against Anaheim and added a critical assist in the Game 2 win, marking the first time since February 27 and March 1 that he’d posted points in back-to-back games.

"The first two games, he’s been unbelievable," defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "The first goal he scored was a huge momentum swing for us and then the next game was a great assist ... making that play to Mattias Ekholm on his backhand. It’s really good to see him playing well for us because we’re going to need everyone at their best to be successful."

"I think I know that I can step my game up a little," Wilson explained, "so I’m just trying to do the same thing this year."

Said teammate Filip Forsberg: "He was probably our best player in the playoffs last year and he's started off basically where he left off last year. He's going to be really interesting to follow during these playoffs."

"It's just an exciting time to play," Wilson said. "It's hard not to get up for it. You're trying to do anything to win a Cup."

Said coach Peter Laviolette, "The playoffs is a different animal. It's a whole new season. The regular season doesn't matter anymore. It only matters what we do in the playoffs, so it's a good opportunity for him."

When you're a center, there's more to the game than just skating and passing. The good ones can look at the ice and see a chessboard in front of them, moving pieces ... always getting closer and closer to the final goal.

On the ice, Colin Wilson shows a unique intensity and competitive nature far beyond his age as a freshman at Boston University. What you find in addition to that creative mind are the soft and quick hands and a strength on his skates, plus a little good-natured sense of humor when we ask how much of that he inherited from his father, Carey Wilson, a center for ten seasons in the NHL with the Calgary Flames, Hartford Whalers and New York Rangers.

Colin, who was born in Greenwich, Ct., when Carey was playing for the Rangers, gives us this big smile and then quips, "It will be fun to tease my dad and say to him, 'You went 67th and I went earlier than that.' "

No plumbers in this bloodline. Following his dad and his grandfather, Gerry Wilson, who played for three games with the Montreal Canadiens in 1956-57 on a team that included Jean Believau, Maurice and Henri Richard, Doug Harvey and among others. Gerry went on to become the team doctor for the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association as well as the European recruiter responsible for the signings of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson.

"I've got a lot to be thankful for," Colin explained. "My dad has been just a great influence on my career. He was teaching me about a lot of things maybe other kids' parents weren't too knowledgeable about. He really helped me develop my game at a young age, to get me thinking about things other players probably weren't thinking about.

"I remember one night when I was maybe 12 and we got home and my dad said, 'You didn't do so well on faceoffs.' He'd go out to the garage with me and drop pucks. Or we'd be in the backyard and he show me another part of my game that I needed to improve on. I realize now how far ahead of the game I was because of him, when I see coaches at this level (NCAA) working on the same things we did many years ago."

United States? Yes, even though Colin spent his formitive years in Winnipeg from 5-through-15, Wilson had an affinity for being born in the U.S.

"It's a funny thing," his dad said. "When he was old enough to recognize that he was born in New York and that he was an American by birthright, he somehow became a loyal, diehard American patriot. Then again, maybe it came from me giving him a hard time. You know, when I would tell him, 'Colin, you've gotta cheer for the American team -- you're American.' He really took a hold of that."

His coach, Boston University's Jack Parker has told reporters repeatedly this season that Colin has "Larry Bird court sense. Great vision and Ron Francis-like ability to physically push the offense."

Wilson says his biggest strength is that he's strong -- strong on the puck, rarely getting knocked off the puck and especially tough down low and along the boards.

"That's all my dad's doing," Colin added with a smile. "Growing up, he always got ripped on by his dad because he never went into the corners and never checked. So when I grew up, he made sure I went in there and hit and did things that he didn't do."

As you might expect, Colin Wilson comes back to his dad for the best advice he's ever gotten.

"He always said 'It's all about winning the little battles,' "

That chessboard that the good centers see in front of them? Whether it's taking a few extra faceoffs in the garage after a game or running over an opponent to get the puck free. For Colin Wilson, one battle leads to the next for this ultra-competitive center.

David Backes of the Blues. Pride. Passion. Winnner.

By Larry Wigge

In front of the net, where the big boys earn their living. It's a spot where David Backes makes his living.

The St. Louis Blues captain said he could sort of read the play as it was happening -- in the heat of the moment -- when urgency was at its highest as the Blues went on a power play midway through the overtime period against the Dallas Stars.

"I could see the one-timer coming over, so I figured if I could get in Niemi's eyes," Backes explained, knowing that Alexander Steen loves to fire it from the point and goaltender Anti Niemi might be screened or distracted.

"I figured I could turn around and find the rebound with one of those fortuitous bounces right on my tape and slam it home," continued Backes. "I think Jaromir Jagr in all his wisdom at 44 said, 'Who cares who scored?' And that’s the way we feel in this room. Who cares who scored? We got this series tied back up."

St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock gushed over the leader and fortitude of Backes, who gave the Blues a 4-3 victory over the Dallas Stars and 1-1 tie in the series with his goal at 10:58 of overtime.

"I've been in the league since '95," Hitchcock said, kind of looking the some help for the year. "I've only coached two players who are willing to absorb the shot. Lots of guys go into traffic, but as the puck's coming, they'll jump out of the way or try to tip it.

"Not David Backes. He's one of two players that I've had that's been able to hang in there with the shot, so he's willing to absorb the puck and then make a play after that. That is very unique because there's not many players that will do that. David even practices it on a daily basis. I find it amazing that you get an athlete, especially in this day and age that's still willing to absorb all those pucks."

Hitchcock was asked who the other warrior was?

"He got hurt doing it. Raffi Torres .... was the other guy," Hitchcock said, remembering his days with Columbus. "Only guys for me that I've ever coached that are willing to absorb the shot."

The win for the Blues was their first victory in a second-round playoff game since May 7, 2002 against the Detroit Red Wings. St. Louis had gone 0-7 since.

And Backes' OT winner, who has a persona of a hard-nosed hockey player who delivers bone-crunching checks and heavy shots in his role as the captain of the St. Louis Blues, makes him the second player in franchise history to score multiple overtime goals in one playoff season. Pierre Turgeon did it in 1999.

The Blaine, Minnesota, native, was coming off a 21 goals and 24 assist season. But he has had three goals and three assists in nine playoff games and is opening some eyes in the Blues front office during coming up on his contract year.

In fact, Backes has now scored eight playoffs goals along with 11 assists in 38 games.

Celebrating his 32-year-old birthday, Backes scored 9:04 into overtime to give the Blues a 1-0 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round.

The 10-year veteran has made it his business to be opportunistic in these playoffs.

Backes' centering feed from the lower left circle, intended for Steen on the other side of the net, caromed off the skate of Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and went through the legs of goalie Corey Crawford and it was Backes, parked just behind the net, set up Jaden Schwartz in front for a 3-2 victory in Game 3 against Chicago.

"When I look at David Backes I see kind of a mirror of my career," Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown, winner of two Stanley Cups, said. "You try to make an impact any way you can. We both started out by trying to impact a game with our size and our hits. In the process, you open up ice for yourself and your teammates.

"Like with me, you soon gain the confidence to do more things with your skills -- and David has obviously begun using his instincts at center to make plays and score more goals. You can see he's worked really hard to improve himself."

Power. Passion. Production. Priceless.

Actually, David Backes looks like hell. His eyes are red-rimmed, with dark circles under them. The many places where his face has been stitched over the years stand out pink against the ghostly playoff pallor all hockey players eventually acquire from too many hours in cold rinks and on buses and in hotel meeting rooms.

And his head shaved.

"Yeah, it may be a little POW at the moment," Backes says, grinning.

The look is partly self-inflicted. He and his wife sponsored a charity challenge fund-raiser through their Athletes For Animals initiative, and part of Backes' pledge was that if his team won, he would shave his head.

Backes came to the Blues after his junior season at Minnesota State. He was drafted in the second round, 62nd overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. He is a power forward, whose career high is 31 goals in 2009-10.

Steve and David's mother Karen were faced with the life-changing decision. Steve Backes was working for a railroad company, had tremendous longevity there -- 25-plus years -- and was faced with the decision of uprooting his family and transferring to Dallas.

But instead, Steve Backes chose not to uproot, kept his family in Minnesota for the sake of his kids (along with David's sister Melanie) and live in a comfortable and familiar environment.

"The sacrifices my parents made for me are ones you never forget," said David Backes, who will fulfill a lifelong dream of representing the USA today when ice hockey competition begins in the XXI Winter Olympic Games. "My folks made the ultimate sacrifice."

Growing up in Spring Lake Park, David was a multi-sport athlete as he played soccer, baseball, tennis and, of course, hockey.

"We didn't want him to eat, drink, sleep and do everything hockey as a kid," said Karen, who added that by playing other sports, David wouldn't get burnt out by just focusing on one sport. It also helped that David enjoyed other sports, and they likely helped him become a better athlete.

It worked for David.

"Once I could finally skate, my buddies and I would bring our skates and sticks to school and go right to the outdoor rink after," Backes said. "We'd play every single day 'til our parents came and got us. That's what we did to bond, and that’s really where you fall in love with the game -- when you're out there with your toes frozen, your hands frozen, but you don't care and don't want to go inside.

"All the way through middle school, I'd go to the rink, my parents would come and get me for dinner, I'd do homework, go to bed and repeat it the next day."

One thing we knew about Backes before he arrived in St. Louis for the 2006-07 season is that he is a quick learner and really, really smart. He had straight A’s from 9th grade through his junior year at Minnesota State at Mankato while working toward a degree in electrical engineering. Not too shabby, eh?

The only drawback, Backes says, is he wanted to play for the University of Minnesota. But ...

"As much as it's painful to admit, I was kind of a Gopher fan," he remembered. "When I went to the Gophers, just asking them to extend any offer, whatever it may be to show that they were interested, they declined."

Then-General Manager Larry Pleau remembered how he and Blues Assistant GM and chief scout Jarmo Kekalainen sat down with Backes and told him he needed to fill out physically and add another half step in his skating. The following summer, David borrowed the money from his parents to go over to Finland to attend a skating school that Kekalainen recommended. That's the kind of commitment is what the Blues expect from this youngster.

Backes’ skating has improved every year since.

"No hockey in my background at all. My dad played junior college baseball. I might have been headed there as well, until my friends finished the baseball season one year and went right into hockey ... and I kind of tagged along with them."

Having seen Backes’ love to mix it up in the traffic areas in the corners and in front of the net, I suggested there wasn’t much physical contact in baseball. To which he said; "But I kind of miss the sunflower seeds in baseball."

On draft day in 2002, Kekalainen gushed about Backes, saying, "To me, he's a great competitor. Loves to look into the face of an opponent and then beat him. He was clearly one of the major factors with his leadership in Lansing's championship team in the USHL."

That's what made Backes as competitive as possible for all these years with the Blues.

David Backes remembers going to a lot of Minnesota Wild games with a buddy whose parents had season tickets. Sure, he watched with wonder the moves by Marian Gaborik, but his eyes would more often wander in another direction.
"I still have that Minnesota Wild sweater in my closet at home, but ..."

Backes wasn't afraid to name the names that caught his attention.

"I really liked to watch the power forwards ... the guys who did the heavy work around the net and in the corners like Brendan Shanahan or Keith Tkachuk, Jarome Iginla or Mark Messier, Peter Forsberg or Joe Thornton, Bill Guerin or Owen Nolan."

You can proudly mention David Backes into that mix of all-star power forwards.