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[Archive] 2014 interview with Matt Irwin

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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My interview with San Jose Sharks’ defenceman Matt Irwin posted on The Score’s Backhand Shelf blog on March 26, 2014. The NHL sophomore went on to play his first season entirely in the NHL, with no AHL appearances. He boosted his game appearances from 38 to 62, added 11 assists to his 2012-13 total for a career high 17, finished with a career high 19 points and +5 rating. He also made his first ever NHL Stanley Cup playoff appearance and scored his first ever NHL Stanley Cup playoff goal in the first round against the LA Kings. 

The audio of this interview can be heard on XP PSP: the eXPat Pro Sports Podcast, or on iTunes

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Interview: Getting to know San Jose Sharks’ defenseman Matt Irwin

Matt Irwin2

He may not be a household name just yet, but San Jose Sharks defenseman Matt Irwin may work his way into your mental NHL player directory yet. Now in his second NHL season, the 26 year old British Columbian is continuing a trend from his amateur career that has seen his point totals, ice-time, and contributions to his team’s success dynamically increase every year.

Irwin spoke with me at length about his long road to the NHL and what he’ll have to do to stay there, the tough decisions he was required to make and small window of opportunity he had to live out his dream, past teammates that helped get him where he is now, current ones that help make him better, what the San Jose Sharks will have to do to win their first Stanley Cup, what it takes to be consistently inserted into a lineup full of Olympians, All-Stars, and Stanley Cup champions, and more.

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Let’s start at the beginning. In 04-05, you got to play three games of Junior A hockey just up the road from your hometown of Brentwood Bay, BC, with the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL. You didn’t record any points, but did skate alongside future NHLer Jason Garisson. In 05-06, you played alongside future NHLer Colin Greening in Nanaimo for 56 games and had 9 points. In 06-07 you exploded for 49 points, was the team’s top scoring d-man, the Clippers won the BCHL, and you were named the BCHL’s best defenceman. 07-08 was more of the same, as you’re again the team’s top scoring d man, and win league’s best defenceman. So explain your rather dynamic development in junior hockey — what did you take away from the guys you played with that went on to play at higher levels of the game, and how did it help influence your junior career to produce what it did? 

Irwin: “Those three games were as an affiliate player. I played Junior B with Saanich in Victoria, and got an opportunity to play in three games [with Nanaimo] and see what it was all about. It was a big step for me. From there, I got the opportunity to sign and play [the following season] with them for the whole year where I got to play on a consistent basis. Not a lot of power play time, more five-on-five minutes. The following year when everything picked up, Bill [Bestwick] gave me a great opportunity to play on the power play. The first five games of that year I had five or six goals. It was all happening really fast, I wasn’t expecting it. I was working on my shot, Bill had me working on it all the time. That’s where the offensive side of it started to come together.”

After you completed your junior career, you moved on to play NCAA hockey with UMass Amherst from 2008 to 2010. Instead of playing four seasons you only played two, joining the AHL’s Worchester Sharks at the end of the 09-10 season, and did not return to the NCAA. Why did you choose not to stay for all four years after taking the BCHL scholarship route rather than major junior? Talk about making the choice to abandon a fully funded education.

irwin hit2Irwin: “It’s interesting how it worked out. When you mention the WHL, I never had any interest in it at all until my 19 year old year of junior. At that point, it made no sense to leave Junior A and forgo a scholarship that I was about to get at that time to play only another year and a half of hockey, when I could play five and a half more years with the four year scholarship instead.

“I had full intentions going in when I stepped on campus at UMass of playing my four years and getting an education. After my first year, San Jose and some other teams were interested in bringing me out to their development camps. I ended up going to San Jose’s, and they showed a lot of interest afterwards, regardless of whether or not I wanted to stay at school or leave then. I chose to go back for another year at UMass, and then after my second year, they offered a contract. It was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in terms of hockey. You’re leaving an education on the table that’s paid for, to pursue a dream that you’ve had since you were a kid with no guarantee that you’ll make it to the NHL, or even be able to stick in the AHL. It was a risk. I got a lot of support from my family. What they told me, and what made me make my mind up, was that school would always be there, but my window of opportunity to chase my dream to play in the NHL or play professional hockey at my age – I was 22 when I left school, so I was older — to establish myself at that level in the AHL and get a crack at the NHL wasn’t a large one. I figured that school would always be there. Jumping at the opportunity was something I had always wanted to do, and dreamt about as a kid. Afterwards, I could go back to school and go from there. I’ve been going back to school, and I’ll be getting a degree pretty soon, so everything’s falling into place.”

What are you going to graduate with? What’d you see yourself doing with that education if pro hockey hadn’t worked out? How are you taking classes while playing in the NHL?  

Irwin: “I hadn’t declared before, but it’ll be a Bachelor’s in Management Degree. I hadn’t looked too far into what I could do. It was more or less that I just wanted to get myself a degree. Something in the business world. I was deciding on what degree would interest me the most and which I’d be able to do the majority of online, so that’s where it went. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do if hockey doesn’t pan out. We’ll let those chips fall where they may and cross that bridge when we come to it.”

While with playing in the AHL with Worchester, you skated alongside Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels who were on their way up to the NHL, and Jonathan Cheechoo who was rounding out his North American playing career. Was it reminiscent of your experience in Nanaimo, playing with future NHL guys? What did you learn from them at that level, now only one step away from the top? 

Irwin: “It was huge going there. It was definitely an eye opener going to pro. It’s a totally different lifestyle. When you’re in school, you’re either in the books or involved in your social life and hockey, whereas when you move on to pro it’s pretty much hockey in the morning and then you’ve got the rest of the day to do what you want.

“You learn a lot from those guys that I’ve been around. Cheech was a great mentor for me to have my first year — a guy that had established himself as a goal scorer in the NHL, and won the Rocket Richard trophy for most goals in the league while he was in San Jose. Just to see how those guys prepare for practices and games, seeing them get called up, sent down, and how they react to being sent down. It doesn’t change their game. They get a little pace, they get hungry, and keep pushing forward because the ultimate goal is to stick in the NHL. You learn from different experiences, and I think that helped my game a lot.”

You played two more seasons with Worchester afterwards — At 25 years old, did you still think you had a good shot at the NHL, or were you starting to think about other options? Some guys at that age who are playing in the minors start thinking about other career paths, and ultimately some decide to move on, thinking their window is closed. 

Irwin: “Well I kept up the school thing, but I was still chasing that dream of playing in the NHL. Like I said, when I left school, my window of opportunity was very small because of my age, and it’s not too often you see guys that are 25 and older that are getting a fair crack in the NHL. There are a handful of guys, but your chances get smaller and smaller because there’s so much young talent coming up. I knew where I stood in the organization. They always believed in me, and told me that I was on the right track — right where they wanted me to be as far as development. I thank them and give them a lot of credit for staying with me, believing in me, and giving me that opportunity. The first year that I got called up I never played, my second year I got called up, didn’t play, but got to practice with the team for a week. That was a cool experience. Then when the lockout ended last year I got invited to training camp, and was able to play with the team for the majority of that season. I never gave up on the dream of playing in the NHL. When I was 25 it was only my third year of pro, so I knew if I kept going in the direction I was going, playing well and being dependable in Worchester, they were going to give me a chance up here in San Jose.”

Last season you got called up to San Jose for 38 games. Talk about getting to play your first NHL games after chasing your dream for so long, and what the season was like trying to prove you belonged up there. 

irwin hitIrwin: “It’s pretty cool once you step on the ice, you hear the anthem for your first NHL game, your family’s in the building… it was a cool experience, something I’ll never forget. But then you realize you want to stay there, and prove to yourself, the coaches, and your teammates that you do belong in this league. It’s very cliché to say, but you just come to the rink everyday, work hard, prepare like you’re playing the game, practice to get better, improve and challenge yourself, and translate that over to the game and play consistently. Do what makes you successful, don’t try to do too much. All those things were running through my head. I didn’t want to over think and do anything I wouldn’t normally do. I just wanted to stay consistent and do the things that had gotten me to where I was at that point. I knew what those things were, tried to stick with them, and help the team win.”

How noticeable was the jump in level of play? You took a very incremental route of levels to get to the NHL, and must have seen tangible spikes in talent and speed at every league you ascended to. Did it take some getting used to?  

Irwin: “I was comfortable. From the BCHL to college, it’s a different game. Every level you go up, it’s faster. You’re playing with better players. Every level above is going to be a little bit better, little faster, more structured. From the AHL to NHL, there are similarities. The North American style pro game is the same, but the skill level of players is a bit better. The AHL is a great league. It allows you to develop your skill set to translate it into the NHL. The league does such a great job of developing players, and teams do a great job of getting players and not bringing them up too soon, making sure that they’re ready. Once you’re in the NHL, it’s not so much about developing as it is about being able to step in the lineup, play, and contribute, while getting better at the same time. There’s not a lot of time to wait on development because they’ll just find someone else. It’s a business at the highest level. Once you’re there, you’ve got to do what makes you successful and keep getting better. As you go up, the leagues are obviously a little bit better than the one before, but those leagues before were very helpful and were great stepping stones to getting me where I am now.”

So far this season, you’ve played entirely with San Jose. You’ve appeared in ten more games than you played last year and have six more points, but have also missed 17 games as a healthy scratch.  Still, you’re playing between 15-22 minutes a night, and are getting up to 28 shifts a night. Do you get a sense that you’ve hollowed out some permanent real estate in the San Jose dressing room? What do you attribute your boost in production and ice-time to? 

Irwin: “Coming into this year, I wanted to establish myself as a legitimate top six defenseman in this league. This year there have been ups and downs. We’ve got a great group of d-men between the seven of us. Any of us could play on any given night. We’ve got some young d-men, and some veterans in Dan Boyle, Scott Hannan, and Brad Stuart. Obviously Marc-Edouard Vlasic too, who made the Olympic team and won a gold medal – he’s my age, but he’s played almost 600 games in the NHL. He’s another veteran presence for guys like myself, Justin Braun and Jason Demers, who are the younger guys that don’t have as many games of experience as they do. We have a really solid group of d-men that any one of which can play on any given night. When you do play, you want to take advantage of that opportunity, and help the team win. I’ve sat out my share of games this year, but it’s part of the learning process. You get to see the game from a different angle, and you realize that you actually have more time with the puck than you think you might. It’s good to step back from the game a little bit. Obviously you want to play, but when you do sit out for a couple of games, you’ve got to take it as a way to learn and improve yourself, instead of dwelling on the fact that you’re not playing and being a bad teammate. You’ve got to stay positive until you get that next opportunity to step back in and play.”

You’ve got a pretty elite group this year – 4 Olympians in total between gold medalists Patrick Marleau and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, bronze medalist Antti Niemi (also 2nd in NHL wins), and Joe Pavelski, in addition to some of the NHL’s elite in Joe Thornton (2nd in NHL assists), Logan Couture, Dan Boyle, and others. The team is currently 4th overall. Is this the roster of San Jose Sharks that finally get past the seemingly cursed third round? What will it take to do so? How is it playing with guys who have accumulated the accolades they have?  

Irwin: “Those are so pretty impressive names to have all in one locker room. When you first get to the team you get caught watching, seeing how they go about their business. It’s pretty impressive what they do, because they’ve been doing it consistently for so long. That’s one thing I’ve tried to learn from those guys — consistency. That’s one of the greatest attributes someone can have playing in the NHL — bring it every night, be consistent, and help your team win. We’ve got guys who have been around for a long time and have won Olympic medals, Stanley Cups, NHL awards, and have been NHL All-Stars. There’s a lot of that in the room, and they’re great for young guys like myself and the others to look up to, and learn from.

“As far as whether this is ‘the year’ for us to win it all, of course we think every year is the year for us, but the league is just so tight, and it’s tough. It’s not easy to win the Cup. If it was, we’d have a handful of them already. The guys in the locker room are determined, we have a great group of core veterans and young guys, and we feel strongly about this year. Our goal is to get home ice advantage throughout the playoffs in the Western Conference, and if we’re fortunate enough to make the Stanley Cup Final, get it there too. We’re chasing Anaheim for it right now. We’re comfortable at home. We play well there. You’d always prefer that seventh game to be on your home soil if it comes down to that. Last year we lost in game seven in LA. We felt like we played well enough to win, but we ran into a really good goalie. This year’s going to be a lot of the same. With the way the new playoff format is, we’re going to have to play out of our division first, so we’re looking at playing Anaheim, LA, or one of those teams in the first round. That’s a tough first round matchup, but you’ve got to get past those teams at some point to get where you want to go. I think our team is built to make a deep playoff run. We’re a big solid team that skates well and can score. I like our team, and time will tell when we get to the playoffs.”

How’s hockey in California these days? With Anaheim and LA now both having won Stanley Cups, and San Jose being in the hunt every year as well, there’s been a real evolution of interest in the game there, and competitiveness of the teams located in the state – especially when compared to how teams in that area traditionally fared in the 90’s and earlier.  

irwin body positionIrwin: “It’s great. Growing up as a kid, it wasn’t a hockey hotbed here. I didn’t know much about them. You watch the Mighty Ducks movies, and that’s pretty much all you know about hockey in California. But nowadays, it’s three teams at the top of the league almost every year. LA and Anaheim won Cups, and we’re looking for our first. It’s good for the state of California. More and more kids are getting involved in hockey. The youth programs around here are picking up steam. We’ve got a junior Sharks program that we just had our first graduate player of just suit up for us last year in Matt Tennyson. The grassroots of hockey in California are picking up, and the sport’s becoming more and more popular. I would like to think that’s in large part because of the success of the NHL teams in the area. Kids look up to us and they think hockey’s a pretty cool sport to get involved in. You see more and more players from California in the NCAA, major junior, and the pros. The number of guys from California that are making it to the NHL is going up. It’s good to see.”

Back to your Olympic teammates – did you notice any extra fatigue in them after the tournament, especially considering the travel? Did they come back totally gassed, or energized from the experience and ready to go? 

Irwin: “When those guys came back – we had Patty [Marleau], Eddie [Vlasic], Pavs [Pavelski] and Nemo [Niemi] who were all at the Olympics and all played deep in the tournament —   they were confident. They all had good tournaments. I think the hardest thing on them was the travel and the time change. Tthat’s probably where the fatigue came in, but you wouldn’t know it when we played the games. They stepped right back into the lineup, played their 20 minutes a night, and contributed to helping the team win. I think Pavs had a hat trick in his first game back. I don’t think fatigue was much of an issue. They got a lot of confidence from playing in the Olympics, and for us, that’s great. They represented their countries and our organization really well. We’re happy to have them back. They’re four of the best players on our team. They came back and didn’t miss a beat.”

Has there been any light back and forth between any of those guys regarding the different places the countries they represented finished at the Olympics? Is it a sensitive issue, or just water under the bridge?  

Irwin: “There hasn’t been too much chatter, really. There might be the odd poke here and there, but other than that, there’s not much that has been said. Coming back, the Olympics are behind them now, and the focus is on the stretch run for us. We’ve got 13 games left, and our goal is that home ice. I think they embraced the opportunity they were given at the Olympics, and here and there there might be a quick jab, but other than that, everyone’s focused on the Sharks and making a deep run.”

How did you spend the two weeks off you got during the Olympic break? It seemed like lots of guys did different things; some just trained harder, while others took time off to spend with their families and other things.

Irwin: “I went home to Victoria and spent time with friends and family. I helped out with my old Junior B team the Saanich Braves, and the hockey academy that runs out of my old high school. Other than that, I just relaxed, got engaged, and that was pretty much it.”

Regarding another current teammate of yours, what’s Raffi Torres like in the dressing room now that he’s returned, considering the drama he’s been through? Is it distracting at all to you or the other guys?

Irwin: “We’re all happy to have Raffi back. It’s been a long recovery for him. Any time you get a player back after they’ve worked so hard to get back into the lineup, the boys are excited. He’s a really good teammate. He was great while he was injured, which is tough because you might not feel part of the team when you’re out, especially for that long, and don’t travel or participate in practices. He was always around the room, chilling with the boys. When we got him back we were thrilled. He brings a presence to the lineup, adds depth and scoring, and he’s relentless on the fore check. He’s one of the better guys in the locker room. He’s funny. It was almost like he didn’t miss a beat – he had a couple of goals his first game, a couple more the next night, and he was playing physical, the way he has to to be successful. He helps our team out so much when he plays like that. It backs up our d-men, and backs other players off of them when they know Raffi’s on the ice. He’s the kind of player you need this time of year, and especially in the playoffs. We love having him in the lineup, and he adds a lot more depth to our group.”

In such a tight and dominant Western Conference, what’s it going to take to be the team that tops this year’s powerhouses like Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim? Who’s been the toughest for you guys to play this year, and who will it be toughest for you guys to beat in a deep playoff series? 

Irwin: “We always have tough games against LA. It won’t be a walk in the park for any team that makes the playoffs. There may be upsets based on your seeds and where you’re ranked going into them, but the parity in the league is so tight. There are teams on the wildcard bubble like Dallas who would be tough to play in the first round of the playoffs. Whoever you draw in the first round isn’t going to be easy, and as you go on it won’t get any easier. LA, Chicago, Anaheim all have great teams, big bodies, great players, depth throughout the lineup, rolling four lines – I think that’s what makes those teams so good, having four lines and six d-men that can play, and it’s not just a burden placed on two lines and four d-men to play heavy minutes. In a playoff series, that’ll take its toll eventually. To be able to spread the minutes out among the lineup is important. All those teams have that ability with the depth they have at all positions.”

As a defenseman, who’s one guy you don’t want to see bearing down on you on a 1-on-1 or an odd-man break? 

Irwin: “There are a lot of guys in this league that have the ability to make you look really funny if they get that chance. Datsyuk, Jagr – he’s just so good and so strong even at his age and with how long he’s been playing. He’s just a dominant force. He doesn’t look like he’s that fast, but he can move. His first couple of strides are so quick, and he’s a big body. He’s hard to get the puck from and he’s got great vision. Those types of players are the ones that on any given play can make you look silly.”

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[Archive] 2014 interview with Bernie Nicholls

August 21, 2014 Leave a comment

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This interview with NHL legend Bernie Nicholls posted on The Score’s Backhand Shelf blog on February 10th, 2014. The LA Kings were in search of their second Stanley Cup in three seasons, and though Nicholls had moved on from their coaching staff, the lessons he left them with clearly had taken root. LA captured that Cup, and the players that Nicholls mentioned working with specifically appeared even more dominant than they did in 2012. 

The audio of this interview can be heard on the XP PSP: the eXPat Pro Sports Podcast by clicking here, or by listening/downloading on iTunes.  

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An Interview with Los Angeles Kings’ great Bernie Nicholls

Bernie Nicholls

When you think about the LA Kings and what players have meant the most to the team since their inception in 1967, most long term fans would not omit Bernie Nicholls from their list of all-time greats. Though he spent time with six different NHL clubs over 19 seasons, the nine seasons Nicholls played with the LA Kings were most his impactful, and what he is best remembered for. His 150 point season in 1988-89, team records of most points in a game and most goals in a season, and fifth place position in all-time team points left an impression on the franchise and its supporters that holds up to this day.

Nicholls was also an instrumental part of the coaching regime that replaced Terry Murray in LA in 2011, and set the Kings on course to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

I caught up with Bernie via telephone just prior to the Superbowl to talk about all things Kings, coaching, his career, what’s wrong with the slumping LA team and how he’d fix them, where he keeps his Stanley Cup ring, and why he declines his New Jersey Devils’ alumni game invitation every year.

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First of all, how’d your Superbowl predictions turn out?

I got killed. I had Denver. Every one of my bets was with Denver. It was not a good day for me.

It’s tough to find a properly defined role to say what your job description with the LA Kings is right now. “Consultant” or “unofficial assistant coach” is what I’ve read in various reports. Whatever it is, it was enough to get you a day with the Stanley Cup when LA won two years ago. Can you clarify what you do with the team?

It was an assistant coaching job. They said I was a consultant to the coach, Darryl Sutter. But I did everything that the assistant coaches did, pretty much. I did more with the players than the coaches. I think I was a lot closer to the players. It was still like an assistant coaching role. I worked the power play, worked with the kids. When they were slumping or getting down, I think it’s always easier for players to talk to a former player than the head coach. I had a really good rapport with the players. It was along the lines of an assistant coaching role.

You’re talking about this stuff in past tense, are you not with the team anymore?

Yeah I’m not with them now, I didn’t go back this year.

How did the opportunity come up, initially? Word is you worked for free in the beginning because you wanted to work with the team so badly.

I was always asking to try and work with the Kings. They were the team I wanted to [work with] but it didn’t really work out. Then once Terry Murray got fired and they hired Darryl, I called Darryl right away and gave him the idea. Once he took over, I came down with him. It worked out great.

You scored 475 goals, and 1209 points in your career, including 88/89 when you scored a ridiculous 70 goals and 150 points. But that was a different era – people often criticize the goaltending of that time, and goaltending styles and equipment have evolved a lot since then. When you work with today’s players on scoring, do the same principles from when you scored 70 in a season apply, or did you have to take new approaches when helping in that department? How did your experience in your era overlap into players of today having success in this era?

Well I think scoring goals is scoring goals. In my opinion, obviously goalies are better now, and players are much bigger and stronger, but for the most part when you’re playing hockey you still have to score goals, and do the things to give yourself opportunities to score goals. That’s the sort of thing you can teach guys. To me, it’s just working hard. When things aren’t going well, you’ve got to work hard, work your way through it, be yourself in those hard places, and things will work out for you.

Obviously the Kings are having trouble in the goal scoring department these days. What is their problem in your opinion, and how do they fix it? Is it at the point where trading for new players is necessary, or is it just a matter of refining what they have? The team is by no means in short supply of goal scorers with the likes of Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar, but the Kings are second last in goals per game average with 2.25, only better than Buffalo’s 1.83 (top team is 3.42), and second last on the power play with only 13.9% (top team has 24.7%).

They do have some offensive talent, for sure. They play a great defensive system, but for some reason they find it very difficult to score, and I’m not really too sure why. They do have some very talented players. They could create more on the power play. They’re second last, that’s not good. That’d be a start – create, and give themselves more opportunities that way, and just try to find chemistry. I know when Darryl put Kopitar and Carter together they worked very well together, but I think they’ve just cooled off. But it’s tough to score in this league. That’s the biggest problem, and those guys are finding that out real bad right now.

Is that a product of coaching, or of other teams adjusting to their style of play?

The other teams, for sure. Darryl allows the guys to create opportunities. That’s one thing that he does do. He gives guys opportunities to be creative. But one thing about Darryl, if you’re not working hard and you’re not competing, you won’t have an opportunity to be on the power play or be in an offensive role. He demands that you work at it, but sometimes that just doesn’t work.

On the flip side of those negative stats, LA is league best in goals against average with 2.07, gives up the third fewest shots per game with 26.8, has the most wins when winning after two periods with 100%, and win the most face-offs in the league with 53.3%. How has the team been able to accomplish those positive instances alongside the slump? Is there more to it all than having an elite goaltender in Jonathan Quick and great backups in Scrivens and Jones to him, as well as guys like Carter, Kopitar, Stoll, and Richards being dynamite in the faceoff circle? Or is it simply Sutter’s coaching systems, perhaps?

In my opinion, they have the best goalie in probably the world in Quick. They play great defense. That’s Darryl there – he demands his systems are great, a good work ethic, whistle-to-whistle hard nose play, and the players do that, man per man. That may be why you don’t see as many goals from that team, because they do play such a defensive game. No one cheats. To create offense, they play their defensive role, and that gives them an opportunity, but maybe doesn’t give them quite the opportunity to score as many goals. They take care of one end, and that’s key for them. They play so well defensively. They’ve got a good defensive system and a great goalie. That’s why they’re in every game. If they could score goals, they would win every game.

You mentioned you worked with the “kids”. Who were those guys you worked with the closest, and what did you focus on with them?

One thing I preached more than anything — and we worked on it everyday — I’d take Drew Doughty or Voynov out and just work on their trade. You watch good athletes in general, they work hard, and they work hard on their trade. Whether it’s a football player throwing passes all day, or a hockey player shooting hundreds and hundreds of pucks every day. That was key. We would do that. You work with those guys, work on one-timers, quick release, shots from the slot, coming out of the corner…you just work on things to help you create goals. Guys working on their trade is one thing I tried to work on more than anything.

You played with six teams during your NHL career, including nine with the LA Kings. Is there any particular reason you decided to work with LA when your playing days were over, instead of one of your other five former teams? Do you feel you identify with LA the best of them all? Did you have opportunity to work with the Rangers, Oilers, Devils, Blackhawks or Sharks?

LA was the team I approached first. They were the team I wanted to coach. I knew most of the guys there, I spent more time in LA, they were the team I played with the most. I still say it was my team as far as the team I felt most comfortable with. I just liked the guys too. When Darryl went there I felt it was a great opportunity for me to go there. It was more or less because they were my first team, I played the longest there, and I’m there more than any place.

What was it that made you feel LA was your team more than any of those other five you played with?

I played in the organization for ten years, and the others were for two or less. It was the first team I played for, and for the longest, my kids are there… I feel more comfortable with the LA team than any other team I guess.

Do you do any sort of alumni stuff with those other teams, or are you primarily just an LA guy?

I still do some alumni stuff for Chicago a little bit, San Jose I have. I haven’t for the other ones, but I would. I’ve been asked every year to go to New Jersey, but it’s moose hunting season for me at that time and I can’t make it. But I’ve done charity games for the other teams as well, and I enjoy doing it, for sure.

When the Kings won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, did you feel any personal connection with the championship as a former Kings player, and further as a player who was so instrumental in the smaller successes the team had while you played? You’re fifth in all-time team points (758), and even have a couple of team records that Wayne Gretzky doesn’t have: most points in a game by a King (8), and most goals in a season (70) – those sort of things tend to stitch you to a team pretty tight, especially to fans in retrospect. Obviously you weren’t on the ice when they won, but did you feel like that was your Cup too?

Well, it’s not the same as playing, obviously, but it’s a close second. Being around the guys, you get the joy from watching them compete everyday. You know, as a former player, what they go through and what it takes to be successful. You’re out there helping them any way you can, and if you’ve added a little bit to their success, then great. You hope that you did, and looking at it like that, yeah you do feel like you’re part of it.

Did you get your name on the Cup, or a ring?

I got a ring, yeah. It’s on my dresser in my bedroom.

An interview with you I read said you had never touched the Stanley Cup, presumably before you got your hands all over it when the Kings won. How good did it feel to finally be able to break that vow?

It was really exciting. More so for the players than myself. It’s much different as a player than as a coach, assistant, or whatever it may be. But it was still really, really exciting to be there. My daughter was with me, and we spent a lot of time with it that night. It was really exciting, no question.

Was there any one player on that team that you felt you identified with most, had the best rapport with, and was particularly happy to watch win the Cup?

Other than one or two players, no one else had won the Cup, so they were all really, really excited. I played similar to a Mike Richards I guess, but I think I could identify with the skilled players – Kopitar, Doughty, Carter – that’s kind of the role I would have taken. Those guys played so well, and so well as a group. They were not going to be denied. They had as good of a run in the playoffs as probably any team has ever had. It was pretty cool.

Why in particular is that tradition of not touching the Cup unless you’ve won it so revered? Lots of people with or without hockey backgrounds seem to uphold that approach — even former players who will never win it.  

I think it’s just respect. As a hockey player, you realize how tremendously difficult it is to win, that it’s such an honor to win, and until you do win I just don’t feel, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people who don’t feel like you should be touching it as far as players and former players who’ve never won it. It may be a little weird, but it is what it is. I just think the players have so much respect for the Cup that if you don’t win it, you don’t deserve to touch it.

What are your thoughts on the NFL’s tradition of the winning team’s owner touching the trophy first, rather than how the captain gets first touch in hockey?

I have no problem with that. Everything’s different. Every league’s different. That’s great too. The owner is the one who pays all the players all the money, so he’s responsible for the team, and it’s his team, so I have no problem with him touching it first either. I’m not sure every player gets their trophy for a day like hockey does though, which is just amazing.

So if Dean Lombardi, or Kings owner Philip Anschutz had touched the Cup before Dustin Brown did, you’d be ok with that? Or is it just ok for the NFL because it’s a totally different sport with its own unique customs?

I love the way we do it. They way it’s presented on the ice, the way they do it I think is great. Football’s different. They have the big stage, the owner, GM, and coach are up there, and then they’ll call up one or a couple of the players to talk, but that’s fine too.

Another interview I read with you regarding the 2012 playoffs quoted you as saying,

“We had a big meeting the night before Game 1, and I went for a walk after, and it was like I went right back to (being) a player. I was really excited, I had the butterflies, I was just so amped up, I was so excited – that was the first time for me in 12 years. It was unbelievable. To have that feeling is great – athletes get it a lot before big games and I had it. I could have played that night, I could have played, I was ready to go!” 

How hard is it to be in a position like that and not be able to play? How often do you get to play these days? You seem like a player that genuinely loves to play the game.

Well I don’t think it’s like you want to jump on the ice and go, that kind of wears off after you’ve been out for a couple of years. But just that thought – I hadn’t been around the game in a long time, or in a competitive setting like I was there, back in the game again. As athletes, you’re kind of wired different than most. Regular season games are regular season games, but once you make the playoffs, your body and your mind knows it’s a different animal. You feel different the day of the game — your body does, your mind does. For me at that time, we had the meeting, and I just went for a walk, and I felt like I did in one of my playoff games when I played again. It’s a great feeling to have. It’s tough to explain unless you’ve been there. Most athletes who have been there understand. It was really a cool feeling to get that again – to get those butterflies, to get all excited about the game. It’s difficult when you can’t do anything though. If I’m working the power play and I’m watching them and they go 0 for 5 or something and you go, ‘wow, I maybe could have helped,’ not that I could, but your mind still thinks you can, and you’re body says, ‘noooo, you can’t.’

Did you get the chance to skate on the Dodger Stadium ice during the Stadium Series event?

I didn’t. They dropped the ball so bad. Out of all the outdoor games, the only one they did [alumni games at] was the Winter Classic. They had Toronto and Detroit and they had two games. That’s how many alumni they had. They had 40,000 people there for an alumni game. I can’t believe why at Yankee Stadium they wouldn’t let the Rangers and Devils play an alumni game, or at Dodger Stadium. I heard Luc [Robitalle] tried, but the league wouldn’t let them. I just can’t believe they wouldn’t let them do that. It would have been so cool.

I still do fantasy camps, though. I’m going to do Wayne Gretzky’s fantasy camp in Vegas in March, I’ll try to do the Kings, I think I’ll do the Sharks at the end of March. I still love to skate. Even to this day, I put my skates on, and I still feel like a kid when I go out on the ice. It’s something that will probably never leave me, and I hope it never does. It’s always fun to put those skates on.

Are you one of those players who is superstitious and still uses all his old gear, or have you upgraded your equipment over the years? 

My pants I had in Chicago in ’94, I don’t wear a helmet anymore but I still have my CCM helmet from LA, my skates I’ve had for a little while but new skates are always better than the old ones anyway. I’ve got my old gloves too. I still like the old setup.

So you didn’t get on the Dodger Stadium ice, but did you get down to the event? Did you get any beach volleyball in on the court in left field?

No, I was at home. I was back in Canada for it. I wasn’t out there. I would have liked to have went, but I was back in Canada, in the snow.

Well that was a poor decision.

It was a terrible one.

To your knowledge, is there any reason the Kings decided to go with gray jerseys for the game, rather than a throwback to the purple and gold version, like most teams tend to do for outdoor games?

I think they did the same as New York. They went white and black I think. I just think they did all that for advertising and for merchandise to sell. The uniforms looked beautiful. The Ducks’ were different, so were the Islanders’ and Rangers’. I just think it was a big money grab to sell merchandise. Just another jersey. The Kings always wear the old jersey on legends night. There are about three times a year that they’ll bring the old purple and gold out.

When you look back on your career as both a player and a coach, what’s that one moment that stands above the rest of them?

I think having an opportunity to play with Wayne Gretzky was great. Just playing in the NHL. I feel like I’m just a kid when I’m playing. To think you get to play a game every day in front of thousands of people, I can’t think of anything better to do. Just everything about it to me is amazing. Playing in the NHL for that long, playing with the great players that you play with, travelling around… it was a dream that most kids dream about and only a select few get an opportunity to do, and I was fortunate to be one of them.

 

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[Archive] 2014 interview with Troy Bodie

August 20, 2014 Leave a comment

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My interview with Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward Troy Bodie posted on The Score’s Backhand Shelf blog on January 15th, 2014. The Leafs were hoping to earn themselves a repeat playoff appearance, but ultimately their bid was not to be. Bodie appeared in 47 games with the Leafs that year — his second highest single season games played tally. 

Bodie signed a one year/$600,000 deal with the Leafs in the off-season, and will no doubt be playing next season to prove he belongs with the big club rather than their AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies — especially now that his father-in-law, MLSE president and CEO Tim Lieweke, will be moving on from the club. Bodie finished 2nd in Leafs’ +/- in 2013-14 with a +6 rating, his 10 points put him ahead of 16 of his teammates, and his 7 assists were his highest in an NHL season to date, so it no one should be surprised if Bodie becomes a more permanent fixture on Toronto’s bottom six forward lines in 2014-15. 

You can hear the audio of this interview here on  XP PSP: the eXPat Pro Sports Podcast or on iTunes

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Interview: Troy Bodie of the Toronto Maple Leafs on 24/7, life as a bubble guy & more

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Toronto Maple Leafs fans may not have seen a whole lot of Troy Bodie this season, but he’s no stranger to the NHL, and probably more familiar with Randy Carlyle as a coach than most of the Leafs’ current roster.

The 2003 Edmonton Oilers draft pick is a four year NHL veteran who has suited up for 121 games between the Anaheim Ducks (where he played 57 games in three seasons under Carlyle), Carolina Hurricanes, and now the Toronto Maple Leafs. Over those four seasons, he has amassed seven goals, seven assists, fourteen points, and 156 PIM. He’s been a pro for twice as long though, logging 368 games in the minors with eight different teams since 2006-07. He also played four seasons with my hometown Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, where he won the Memorial Cup with the team in 2004.

Though Leafs fans may remember him best from episodes two and three of the HBO 24/7 Red Wings/Maple Leafs: Road to the Winter Classic series (Bodie put up 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 fights and 15 PIM in that time), he’s now primarily playing with the Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies. So far, the 6’4” winger has appeared in 16 games, scored 4 goals, 4 assists, and registered 9 PIM. His reassignment to the AHL cost him an appearance in the 2014 NHL Winter Classic, but he still got to play in an outdoor game, as the Marlies bested the Grand Rapids Griffins 4-3 outside at Comerica Park on December 30, 2013.

I caught up with Bodie recently during a Marlies’ road swing to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where the team was marooned and at the mercy of the polar vortex that had delayed the team’s trip home to Toronto.

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Playing in 14 Leafs games this season also means that you’ve missed more than 30 of their games. What factors go into Randy Carlyle giving you the call and putting you in the Leafs lineup or not from night to night? 

Bodie: “I believe that one was strictly numbers. Colton Orr, who plays primarily the fourth line right wing, was down with an injury. That’s the kind of role I play. It was nice to get the call and get up there, but it was strictly just to fill a role. He got healthy, and then I went back down.”

Most opinions from players who have played or are playing for Randy seem to concur that he can be a tough coach. This is now the fourth season you’ve played under him, how is he to play for? 

Bodie: “Randy and I actually get along fine. He’s a tough coach. He expects a lot out of his players. At the same time, I think he’s fair. If you work hard for him and play the systems, he likes you. But if you go astray and do your own thing he can be pretty rough on you.”

During the 24/7 series, there was a scene at a Leafs practice where Randy pulls Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger aside and says, “…you’re not playing tonight, you’re not giving us what we need…if you’re going to play with our hockey club, your level of play has to go up.” Did you get a talk like that from Randy when you were reassigned, or how did your exit interview go?

Bodie: “Randy doesn’t do a whole lot of that on his own. He doesn’t talk to guys really, he kind of stays to his own. The one that actually told me was assistant GM Claude Loiselle. It’s usually just, ‘hey you know we liked your game… it’s a numbers game… go down to the minors and do your thing.’ That’s usually about it.”

How hard is it being a guy on the bubble? You’re good enough to play in the NHL, but have struggled to stay there. Obviously you’re a team guy, but to be the one who gets to play in a call-up scenario over others, it seems like you’d almost secretly have to root for guys to get hurt, or something. Can you describe what that situation is like? 

Bodie: “You definitely want to be there. I wouldn’t say you secretly hope for injuries or anything like that, that’s bad karma. But you definitely pay attention to that kind of thing. Playing in the minors and being a bubble guy, you want to get up there and you obviously think about it quite a bit, but it’s something where you just worry about your game, play hard, and let the chips fall where they may kind of thing.”

In your opinion, is there more value from an ice-time and development standpoint to be playing in the minors regularly where you’ve played 16 games this year – and there may not be considering you’ve played more than 300 AHL games already — or is there more value for you to be practicing with the big club regularly but only playing sporadically? 

Bodie: “I think there’s definitely value to both. Being up in the NHL with the big players, going through those practices, having the expert level coaching and being treated completely first class is very valuable. But if you’re not playing up there, it’s good for a guy like myself to continue playing by coming down to the minors and getting good minutes, getting the work in and being ready for when they do need you up.”

What are those little differences between the NHL and AHL that make them such different worlds? You mentioned the Leafs being first class, and I imagine the Marlies are top notch too.  

Bodie: “In most organizations, the AHL and NHL are very different. In Toronto, we get treated very well in the minor leagues, so it’s tough to complain about much at all. The subtle differences are definitely the travel – in the minor leagues, you travel a lot by bus. In the NHL you really get anything you need. There are meals at every point you would need a meal. There’s always someone available, even if you need a Band-Aid, or an ice bag, or something like that. In the minor leagues, it’s a little more limited. Those little differences are big when you need them.”

Is there a level of frustration that comes with repeatedly getting called up and sent down, as you have over the last five seasons, rather than sticking? 

Bodie: “Yeah, there’s definitely a level of frustration. You want to be a full-time player in the NHL. That’s your goal ever since you were a kid. So achieving your goal of getting to the NHL and then being sent down to the minors without any sort of timetable, then getting called up and everything’s good again, and then sent back down – it gets very frustrating, but it is what it is. It’s all part of being professional, I guess.”

How is it playing in the “centre of the hockey universe”, especially after playing in markets like Anaheim and Carolina? The scrutiny that comes with playing under that kind of microscope has proved to be too much for some players. How do you handle it, and how much pressure do you feel to be successful in Toronto and win the team’s first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years?  

Bodie: “Yeah, it is very different. In Carolina and Anaheim, you’re very under the radar. You’re not bothered at all if you go out somewhere or anything like that. People don’t give you the third degree about “…that turnover in the third period…” kind of thing. But in Toronto, that happens. It’s tough at times to get away from the game and just relax, but that’s more of something for the bigger time players like the Phaneufs and the Kessels of the world than the players like myself and the Marlies guys.”

So far this season, you appeared in 14 games with the Leafs, scored one goal and two assists, had three fights and 15 PIM. With the Marlies, you’ve played 16 games, have four goals and four assists, and nine PIM. You have 121 career NHL games played, seven goals, seven assists, 14 total points, and 156 PIM. With your penalty minutes outweighing your point totals as much as they do, is it fair to classify you as a fighter? 

Bodie: “I don’t think a lot of players anymore really classify themselves as fighters. That’s something that doesn’t happen as much anymore, because in this day and age in the game you have to be able to play in order to get out there. There aren’t many guys that cannot play the game. Fighting is something I definitely think is part of my game and will be for the rest of my career, but I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a fighter. I think if you do that, you limit yourself.”

What do you think of the scrutiny that has been placed on fighters and fighting in hockey recently with respect to their relationship to concussions?

Bodie: “It’s a tough topic for the average fan, or mom or dad to really comment on because they don’t play the game. Fighting is very much a part of the game. It’s a way for the players to police themselves. People say things like injuries result from fighting… well of course they do. But if there wasn’t fighting, we all believe there would be more injuries from players taking liberties, knowing that there wasn’t that level of policing going on.”

Is it fair to assume that, if fighting were removed, some players may never get their break in the NHL? That doesn’t necessarily just mean the fighters, it could be guys who will just fight when they need to, and do whatever it takes to get into the lineup from night to night. What kind of players would we see getting their break into the league instead of guys who fight if that part of the game were taken out?  

Bodie: “If that part of the game was taken out I think you’d find a more skilled fourth line. I think you’d see maybe more younger players getting their shot up there, in and out of the lineup. Maybe they’d call a young guy up for some experience in a spot that otherwise might have been held onto by a guy with more of a fighting role. I think the young guys might get a little more opportunity, but it’s tough to really say.”

What would happen to you and your game if fighting were to be removed from hockey? What elements of your game would you change to make sure you kept getting those call-ups? 

Bodie: “I don’t think there would be much that I would personally change. As a player, you always want to get better. I work on my game. Every day I’m on the ice. But I don’t think there’s anything I would change. I’d more or less just hope the rest of my game would be adequate.”

You got called up to play with the Leafs during an interesting time, with the HBO 24/7 series being filmed and all, and you coming into their lineup on Dec 14th. You debuted in episode two, with the narrator mentioning you were filling in for David Clarkson. You fought twice that night, and we saw you get four stitches and return to action. Episode three saw you score your first NHL goal of the season in a win over Phoenix to open the show. Talk about that experience – how was it having the camera crews behind the scenes with you? 

Bodie: “The HBO stuff was kind of cool. I thought maybe it’d be a bit of a nuisance with them around and being in your face and stuff. Like I said earlier, I think it was geared more towards the big time players — the Phaneufs, the Kessels, they got it the worst. But they were all good guys and they were respectful. It was a good experience having them around.”

With so many guys on the roster, they surely couldn’t feature everyone on camera, but you got significantly more screen time than a lot of your teammates. How did it play out that you got the TV time that you did? 

Bodie: “I don’t know, just dumb luck I guess. Obviously it’s a TV show, so they’re looking for some sort of excitement. In the second or third game I got in two scraps, and they got some good footage of me getting stitches. That was maybe something they were looking for. It wasn’t something I was prepared for, but it is what it is.”

When you play in the NHL you have cameras on you all the time anyway, but is there any additional pressure in having a show like that present as well? Did it change the dynamic in the dressing room, or anything else? 

Bodie: “There were times when you didn’t really notice them, I’d say. They kind of just sat in the middle of the room with the camera on. You saw them there obviously, and the camera moving, and the microphone around, but it wasn’t something that was overbearing or annoying. Like I said, I thought they were respectful in our space, so it was good.”

Did they have microphones on every guy all the time, or how did they pick up everything? Was it bothersome at all to skate with a microphone on? 

Bodie: “For games and practices they’d pick a few guys and put a microphone on them. I had it once, and I didn’t even notice it for the game I had it on. You don’t think twice about it. You maybe mind your p’s and q’s a little more, but you don’t really notice it.”

Did you watch the show? What did you think of it?

Bodie: “I saw a little bit of it, yeah. Not all of it. I saw the little parts that I was in, but I didn’t get a chance to watch the whole thing. The parts I did see, I thought they did a great job. We were represented well. I thought it was good.”

You didn’t get to play outdoors at the Big House in Ann Arbor at the Winter Classic as you were returned to the Marlies on Dec 23rd, but you did appear in the Marlies outdoor game against Grand Rapids at Comerica Park in Detroit instead. How was that experience? How different is the outdoor game compared to a regular indoor game? Did you take time to enjoy it, or did you and the team just focus on getting the win?

Bodie: “It was an outdoor game, so it was pretty cool. I’d never played in one of those. I thought it was really neat how they did it. You definitely are thinking about the conditions, the cold, and whatnot, but it wasn’t that cold. Once you got into the heat of the game after the first few shifts it was just like another game. To win that game was more special than anything, but it was a good experience all around.”

In your opinion, what will it take for you to get back on the Leafs roster this season and tally 50 or more NHL games again like you did in 2010-11? Have they given you any indication of what it will take for you to play more games with them this year?

Bodie: “No, they don’t really communicate like that. You’re more or less left on your own to play hard and do your thing. You’re expected to know what you have to do to get up. Other than that, they don’t say a whole lot.”

Have you had a chance to follow your WHL alma mater Kelowna Rockets this year? They’re ranked #1 in the CHL for the time being.

Bodie: “I haven’t kept the greatest tabs, but I knew they were doing well this year. I saw Bruce Hamilton earlier this year, in Toronto actually, and he spoke very highly of them – which was unusual because usually he just complains and complains. But he had good things to say about them, and I’m excited to see them go farther and hopefully bring home another championship.”

Just to have a little fun, how often does Dion Phaneuf wear bowties to games, and how many more games would you have to play to have enough clout in the room to change the post win song to something other than a Miley Cyrus song? 

Bodie: “To answer question number one, too often maybe. To answer the second one, I don’t worry about the music at all but that’s usually how it happens, you play some dumb win song and just go with it. It’s associated with good things, so you like it, right?”

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[Archive] 2013 interview with Jonathan Cheechoo

August 19, 2014 Leave a comment

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My interview with Jonathan Cheechoo posted on The Score’s Backhand Shelf blog on November 28, 2013. Cheechoo was right in the middle of his first season abroad, playing in Croatia for the KHL’s Medvescak Zagreb. Cheechoo was named an assistant captain of the first year team, made the all-star game, and finished 16th in league scoring. Despite a solid season, Zagreb was swept in the first round by Lev Praha.

Cheechoo has signed with the KHL’s Belarus based Dinamo Minsk HC for the 2014-15 season.

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Life after the Rocket Richard Trophy: An interview with Jonathan Cheechoo

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Jonathan Cheechoo hasn’t exactly been making headlines over the last few years, but that isn’t because he hasn’t been around. After his award winning 56 goal season in 2005-06 with the San Jose Sharks, Cheechoo’s point production steadily headed south, along with his health – to the point where he was bought out of his last NHL contract, and relegated to the minors. After spending the last four seasons with four different AHL clubs, Cheechoo has resurfaced with Medveščak Zagreb of Croatia in the KHL — the league that many consider to be the NHL’s top rival. At the moment, he looks like the Jonathan Cheechoo of old on the scoresheet — leading his team in points, and even wearing the captain’s “C” on his jersey.

Cheechoo graciously spoke with me recently about his KHL experience, the league’s reputation, his battle with injuries, playing with Joe Thornton, his thoughts on returning to the NHL, and a whole lot more.

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First off, Barry Brust was nice enough to put this interview together, how has Barry been as a goalie for you guys so far? He broke Johnny Bower’s 55 year old AHL shutout streak last season with the Abbotsford Heat, and has nine wins and three shutouts for you guys as of now this season.  

Cheechoo: “He’s been great. He’s stepped in and made some big saves, and kept us on our longest winning streak of the season. He’s definitely a bit of an unorthodox goalie as far as the way goalies go today, but he gets the job done. He’s pretty solid. He competes hard. That’s one thing you don’t see in some goalies – some goalies are technically sound but you don’t really see a compete level in them. They’ll say ‘I was in the right spot, and if you beat me, you beat me’, whereas he’s passionate about making saves. You don’t see that a lot.”

Why did you choose Medveščak Zagreb in Croatia over others, say HV71 in Sweden who you played for in 04-05 during the NHL lockout, or any of the other teams and countries you could have had your pick of with your background?

Cheechoo: “For me it was just opportunity. We’d been on holidays in Croatia about four or five years ago and really enjoyed it. For me, the last three years or so I was trying to get back into the NHL and in those spots I really didn’t have my family around all that much. So, for me it was important to pick a spot where I could have them with me, we could enjoy it together, and I was still able to play at a top level against top competition.”

How is the KHL? Obviously it’s a good place if people like Ilya Kovalchuk are willing to leave huge NHL contracts to play there, but there are also some stories of teams not paying players, and obviously the facilities and materials can at times be questionable looking at the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl airplane incident – how has your experience been with your team? What have you seen or heard as far as horror stories from other guys in the league? Is any of it true, or is it all just made up?

Cheechoo: “I think obviously some of the things in the stories must have happened in the past. But since I’ve been here, the word I’ve got is that the KHL hires an insurance firm so that if you’re not paid after a certain amount of time by your team, they pay the salary out of the KHL insurance that they have on the contracts. Nowadays I’m not sure how true not being paid is, but I can only speak for this team. I’ve only been on this team and guys I’ve talked to, for the most part, everyone’s been paid. I think there are a few stories like that though. For us here playing in Zagreb, we fly on Croatian Airlines, so we rent the actual planes that fly everyone around out of Croatia anyway, so that’s pretty much as safe as you’re going to get. Things maybe will happen that are out of your control. I can’t really speak for the Russian teams; some things may be different over their way. But I’ve heard of guys that have their own private jets and stuff like that to fly them around, so kind of on par with an NHL team in that regard.”

So when the opportunity arose for you to sign with Zagreb, were any of those stories in the back of your mind, or did you think that as a new team that was probably set up pretty well financially, it was a low-risk situation to join them? 

Cheechoo: “For me, I’d heard rumblings about the past, but I talked to a few guys. I talked to Aaron Fox, the GM here, and was pretty much assured that was all in the past. The KHL’s looking to make a good name for themselves here with the team as well, so to get players, you can’t fall behind in payments or anything like that and I think they knew that and that was a pretty big reassurance to hear that, coming from them. Anytime you go somewhere new it’s a leap of faith too. For us, we felt it was time to move on and try something new, and I still wanted to play at the highest level I could. For me, I saw the KHL as being where you’ve got a lot of guys that could be playing in the NHL playing in this league. I figured this was the next best league, outside of that.”

Is the KHL an even level to the NHL these days, or is it still a step back? Obviously there is a lot of talent there, but where do you see the league right now, comparatively? 

Cheechoo: “It’s a pretty solid, competitive league. Everyone has a chance to win every night. Over here, you see a lot of games where top teams are getting upset by the weaker teams. That’s the key to a good league, whereas some of the lesser leagues you know that there’s this team coming in that you can beat no problem. It’s almost like a point night. Even in the AHL you’ll be playing a young team and it’s pretty much like you should beat them. Whereas over here, there’s maybe one team every year that doesn’t do so well. But for the most part, every team’s in every game, they’re tight games, occasionally you’ll get the blowouts, but for the most part there’s two good teams playing each other.”

What about just life in Croatia and Russia, is it a challenge with culture shock or the language barrier for you and your family? Have you picked up the language?  

Cheechoo: “I picked up a bit of Croatian, not a lot. I’ve got the key words down, but other than that I think my son’s picking it up faster than I am. But it’s been great. I’ve enjoyed it. We’re pretty adventurous as a family, and this is a thing where we looked at it and said, ‘we can have fun over there, there’s a lot of stuff to see and do’. My wife’s taking advantage while we’re on road trips, going around travelling a little bit and we’ve travelled a little when we’ve had breaks. It’s not too far off. For me, the hardest part about moving here was probably learning to drive stick. I hadn’t done that in about ten years, so re-learning to drive stick was probably the hardest part. Pretty much everybody speaks English or can somehow communicate with you, through sign language and stuff, because they get enough tourists here I guess.”

Do a lot of people in that country know who you are from your NHL career and what you did there, or do you have some anonymity in that part of the world? 

Cheechoo: “A lot of people know who I am. I got a lot of press when I signed and before I came over here. They’re pretty knowledgeable fans too and they’re pretty hard supporters. Coming over here, the one thing they told me was to be prepared, everyone is going to know who you are and everything you do. It’s not that big of a deal, everyone’s pretty respectful, and they let you go about your business. You may get a few kids asking for autographs but that’s something you should enjoy.”

You’re currently first in team goals, third in team scoring, top 40 in league scoring…have you had to make any adjustments to your game to be successful over there? Do you feel pressure to put up big numbers as an import with an NHL and award winning background? 

Cheechoo: “I’ve felt great. I put in a good summer of work before I came over here, and then we had quite a long training camp to get ready, so coming into the season I felt strong, felt ready, and I was healthy, which has been half the battle for the last six or seven years of just trying to stay healthy. So far, so good. In terms of pressure, I probably put more pressure on myself to score – because I love to score – than anyone could possibly put on me. It’s one of those things that I take pride in, being able to score. Coming over here, the main adjustment was just the big ice, getting used to it, and its different angles. You go to take a shot from what would be the slot, and it’s a little farther out than what it would normally be. It’s just compiling those things, and getting used to them. I figure I have. I feel a lot better playing on the big ice now. At home, we have small ice anyway, so that’s the challenge – adjusting back and forth.

Speaking of scoring, and to turn back the clock a little, in 05-06 you won the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer with 56 goals, lead the NHL in game winning goals with 11, and set franchise records for the San Jose Sharks  –  most goals in a season (56), power play goals in a season (24), and hat tricks in a season (5). Most reports assume that you were simply the benefactor of Joe Thornton that year. Do you agree with that notion, or do you feel like that is a slight to you and what your talent allowed you to accomplish that year?  

Cheechoo: “It’s alright, I don’t mind. Joe is a talented player. He was great to play with. I think the thing that made us play so well together was that I love to score and shoot, and he’s a think first pass player. He always comes in and he’s thinking pass before he thinks shoot. Then if his passing options aren’t open, he’ll shoot and he’s still a threat, so it keeps the goalie honest. That helps open up a little more time and space, and the goalie has to respect him a little more. He got like 20 goals a year as well, he wasn’t just a passer. Playing with him was pretty amazing, but he’s played with a lot of great scorers. I think I got the most goals out of anyone that’s played with him, so I did do a little bit of the work myself.”

Have you found anyone since then that you’ve clicked with on the level that you did with Joe? Your numbers did start to decline after the 05-06 season; by 09-10, your production was cut to 14 points with Ottawa and you were bought out of your contract. In your opinion, how did that happen? Do you mostly attribute it to injuries? 

Cheechoo: “I think injuries played a big part in it. That was the only year I played in all the games. The injuries took their toll on me and my body. I hurt my knees – my MCL’s three times each – and after a while, it takes a toll on you. All the injuries add up and slow you down a little bit, but I felt I regrouped well in the minors and started to feel strong again. Down there, I don’t think I really played with anybody that had quite the passing ability of guys that I played with in the past. Playing a little bit with Patrick O’Sullivan, we clicked well together when we were in Peoria, but other than that I never really played with a pure passer since then. But now over here, it seems like I’m playing on a good line — me and Matt Murley have clicked quite a bit, and Billy Thomas. Those two guys are pretty good players that look to pass the puck, so it’s been fun being the shooter-type guy on the line again.”

When you were playing in the minors, did you think about making it back to the NHL someday? Do you aim for or envision an NHL return in the future, or are you content with where you are in the KHL? 

Cheechoo: “To get back to the NHL would be the ultimate thing. That’s the top league in the world. But for me, I work hard when I’m down. I love playing hockey. I’m not going to cheat the game. I always play hard, wherever I am. I play to win. If I can get another shot at it, then I can get another shot at it. If not, I’m going to work my hardest for whatever team I’m playing on, and try to win. I love winning, and it sucks to lose. Being able to be part of a team and playing is a big thing for me, but I want to be able to produce at the same time. I want to bring my best game out. I think the only way I can really help the team is if I’m out there giving my all.”

Do any of those old injuries affect you today, or are you totally healthy nowadays?

Cheechoo: “Everything’s good. I felt good when I went down to Oklahoma City last year. I hurt my back two years ago and I missed some games, but last year I sat out half the year and I think it helped heal pretty much everything. When I came back the second half of the season in Oklahoma City, I felt healthy and put up some good numbers. Over here I’ve been healthy and playing well. On a four game road trip I felt best on the fourth game, so I think I’m feeling healthy right now.”

What are the big differences in the culture and atmosphere of the KHL in the dressing room, arena, in the stands, amongst the team? What makes that experience special and so much different than North America?  

Cheechoo: “They have a real passion for the game, is one thing. You don’t get a lot of people that just happen upon the game. They’re real supporters of the team. There aren’t a lot of huge arenas, there are smaller arenas, and there are people that really come out to support the team that have done it for years. It’s pretty amazing. You’re a lot closer to the fan base. You walk in with them, you walk out with them, there’s less separation between the players and fans, so it’s kind of cool in that way. You’re playing for them, and they’re out there rooting for you, so it’s quite a thing to be a part of.”

What has been your favorite moment of the experience so far? You scored the first KHL goal in Zagreb history – does that or something else stand out as a big moment for you? 

Cheechoo: “I think we were viewed as pretty big underdogs coming in here, no one really thought we’d do anything, so to come out with a big statement win right away, and to get that first goal was pretty special, and something a lot of these fans will remember, and something that made them excited to be part of the KHL. Getting that first goal was probably the biggest moment so far.”

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[Archive] 2013 interview with Wade Redden

August 18, 2014 Leave a comment

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This interview with Wade Redden posted to The Score’s Backhand Shelf blog on January 23, 2013. Redden was just about to return to the NHL after being bought out by the New York Rangers and signed by the St. Louis Blues. The move essentially rescued him from AHL purgatory, where he seemed to have been banished to. Redden went on to play 23 games (including tallying his 1,000th NHL game)  for the Blues and recorded 5 points, before being dealt to the Boston Bruins the same season for a conditional 7th round draft pick in 2014. The Beantown stop reunited Redden with his old Ottawa (and some say best) defense partner, Zdeno Chara. It was almost a storybook ending for Redden, as the Bruins advanced to the Stanley Cup final, but were bested by the Chicago Blackhawks, who spoiled his chance to have his name engraved on hockey’s richest prize. 

Redden did not sign an NHL contract with any club the following season, and announced his retirement in January of 2014. 

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Interview: Wade Redden talks with Backhand Shelf about his return to the NHL

Many NHL pundits and fans assumed they had seen the last of Wade Redden in the NHL, after the New York Rangers swept his $6.5 million cap hit under the rug by reassigning him to their AHL affiliate Connecticut Whale from 2010 to 2012.

But those critics were proved wrong after the Rangers cashed in one of their freshly CBA-approved accelerated compliance buyouts earlier this month, and used it to sever ties with Redden and the remaining two seasons of his six year deal with them. It posted him as an available, unrestricted free agent – something that the St. Louis Blues were quick to capitalize on the day after Redden hit the market.

The 35 year old veteran of 13 NHL seasons signed a one year deal with the Blues on January 20th for $800,000 plus another $200K in performance bonuses. That’s $4 million less than what he would have made with New York this year; though he will still earn a pro-rated $3.341 million for 2012-13, and just a little less than that for 2013-14 from the Rangers.

Redden passed a physical, dealt with immigration, and suddenly found himself to be an NHL player once again faster than you can say John Tortorella.

Redden has been skating with St. Louis in the interim, and accompanied them on their recent road trip through Nashville and Chicago. He is slated to resume NHL blue line patrol as early as Thursday, when the Blues take on the Predators at home.

In the meantime, Redden took a few minutes out to chat with me. Here’s what he had to say on his new contract, his time with the Rangers, and everything in between. 

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So you’ve passed your physical and signed your contract, how does it feel to officially be a member of the St. Louis Blues?

Redden: “It’s great. It’s a very exciting time. Last week was a whirlwind. It all happened pretty quick. But I’ve been here for a few days now, and have got to be around everyone and get on the ice with the whole team. I haven’t been on the ice with a group like this for a while. It’s great. I felt good out there. I’ve was on with the [Kelowna] Rockets before, and obviously they’re a great team and all that, but it’s great to get on the ice with this group of guys. We’ve got a great team here with a lot of great young guys. I’m excited to get rolling, and about the chance I have here.”

You hadn’t been playing for anyone else this year until now, but as you mentioned, you were skating with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets just prior to coming to St. Louis; what else did you do to keep in shape during the lockout? Do you think what you did was enough to keep you playing at the NHL pace, especially since you’ve been removed from NHL action for two seasons?  

Redden: “Yeah, definitely it was. There was a group of NHL guys through the whole lockout inKelowna that I skated with. We pushed ourselves pretty good. We kept busy, kept on the ice, and kept training. Obviously it’s a bit of an adjustment anytime you are away for that long, but I’ll get worked back into it pretty quick here, and I should be good to go.”

You’ll be playing under Ken Hitchcock, a Jack Adams Trophy and Stanley Cup winning coach, on a team that many feel is poised to win their first ever Stanley Cup – what are your thoughts on being a part of such a strongly positioned team upon your NHL return?

Redden: “It’s very exciting. The organization here has built a great team. The young guys here have been around a while, and they’re just starting to come into their own and find out what kind of team they are – and they’re a good team. I’m going to try to mix in and add what I can bring, and help the team to do as good as it can.”

You’re one of the oldest guys on this roster – what kind of role do you feel you have as a veteran on this team?

Redden: “I’ve got experience, and I’ve played a lot of games, but I think they just want me to come and play the way I usually play – try to be steady and make good plays. We’ve got a lot of talent up front, and to just try to get the puck to them and let them create things like they can. Just try to be solid, play a good all-around game, and help the team win that way. That’s what they’re expecting from me.”

A lot of people may have thought or assumed that they wouldn’t see Wade Redden in the NHL again after you were reassigned to Connecticut from 2010-12; did you think you would get another chance in the NHL while you were down there?

Redden: “I always felt that I went down there with a purpose. I obviously wasn’t happy about the demotion or getting sent there. And I played in this league for a long time, so I knew I could play. Obviously there were different circumstances that affected my reason for being there. I went down there, worked hard, played hard, tried to be a good teammate, and did all the things I usually do. I always felt like if I did those things, it’d be my best chance to get back. I’m happy and fortunate to have found another chance.”

Did you ever consider retiring while you were playing in the AHL? You’ve played in 994 games in 13 NHL seasons, tallied 450 points thus far, played for Canada 7 times – a very respectable career, and very respectable statistics to leave on. If you didn’t, why did you decide to keep at it?

Redden: “Yeah, I’ve played in a lot of games, but I didn’t feel good about finishing that way, that’s for sure. My time inNew York wasn’t great. I knew I could do better, and I wanted to prove that, not only to myself, but to other people too. I don’t want to rest on what I’ve done thus far. I think there are still good things to happen. I want to keep having fun, keep playing, and you never know – a lot of good things are available if you keep going. You never know what’s going to happen.”

In your opinion, what went wrong in New York? You were so successful in your early years with Ottawa, but you just didn’t seem to gel with the Rangers.

Redden: “I went in there on a big contract. I think maybe making that money there and being the player I am… I felt like the first little while, things were going pretty good, and then they kind of fell off. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, and like I should have been doing more. Once I started feeling that way, I think I just got away from the things that made me successful. Things just kind of snowballed from there. It wasn’t a good fit from early on, and they made a decision to make changes. I lived with that. It wasn’t a good fit, things didn’t work out, and I’ve moved on. I’m done there now, and am happy to have moved on.”

Sean Avery was in a comparable situation playing in Connecticut after being sent down from the Rangers while you were there; did you ever have any discussions with him about the similar scenarios you found yourselves in?

Redden: “Not really, no. We were both there – kind of buried down there – but our situations were a little different. We never really got into it too much. We were both just trying to make the most of it.”

Do you feel like you have something to prove this year in the NHL? Perhaps to prove the New York Rangers wrong for what they did with you, or something else – or do you just look at this season like business as usual?

Redden: “Yeah, I’m excited. Life goes on. Everyone’s focused on what they’ve got to do. I’ve just got to do what I do best. Yeah, I’ve got pride and I want to do well. But at the same time I’ve got to stay within myself and play the way I can play, do what I can do, and everything will work out just fine.”

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[Archive] 2012 interview with Logan Couture

August 15, 2014 Leave a comment

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This interview with Logan Couture posted on The Score’s Backhand Shelf blog on December 19th, 2012, amidst the NHL’s most recent work stoppage. He was clearly ready to get back to work. 

Couture went on to lead the Sharks in goals (21), game winning goals (5), power play goals (7), and a couple other categories in 2012-13, as well as sign a 5 year/$30 million contract extension with the Sharks. 2013-14 was not as good to Couture though. He suffered a wrist injury that required surgery, and took him out of the Sharks’ lineup for 17 regular season games. The playoffs were not nice to San Jose either, as they lost in the first round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion LA Kings, despite holding a 3-0 series lead at one point.  

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Interview with Logan Couture: “They’re hard-line guys, they don’t give you the time of day, and they barely even look at you”

Logan Couture is ready to play NHL hockey again.

So ready in fact, that he left the European club he had been playing with early to return home to North American preparation and anticipation of once again donning a San Jose Sharks jersey and taking NHL ice.

The only problem is that the NHL still isn’t ready for him, nor anyone else.

In the meantime, Couture will settle for suiting up along side Steven Stamkos, PK Subban, Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, and 34 other locked out NHL players on December 19th at Maple Leaf Garde—err, the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens in Toronto, for the 2012 RBC Play Hockey Charity Challenge, in support of the NHLPA’s Goals and Dreams Fund.

I caught up with Logan via telephone for an interview just prior to the event, and he graciously chatted with me about everything from his experience in Europe, to his thoughts on the lockout, the owners, and where he’ll be skating until the NHL finally calls.

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You just returned home to Ontario after a three month stint with Genève-Servette in Switzerland’s National League A. How was your experience over there, and how does it feel to be home?

Couture: “It’s good to be back. I’d rather be playing in San Jose, but it does mean I get to spend some time with my family. This will be my first Christmas at home in four or five years since my junior days, so I’m looking forward to that. It was my first time in Europe, and the distance from my family and time change were both really tough.

Switzerland’s a beautiful country, so it was a good experience in that sense. The food was really good. Driving though the Alps on road trips was pretty cool. The hockey was pretty good and the organization was great. They treated me and my teammates very, very well. Being so far away was the toughest thing. I missed my family. Not being able to watch sporting events at regular times and stuff like that was hard too. I was watching football games at 1 am, and I missed the baseball playoffs. I’m a big fan, so that was tough for me. I tried to keep up with it as best as I could though.”

Why did you leave the team? Statistically you were doing great – your 23 points in 22 games still lead the team in points today, despite being in Canada. Did you part on good terms?

Couture: “Yeah I left on good terms. I just told them that I was thankful for the opportunity that they gave me, but that I wanted to come back home because I felt I was ready to play back over here. I had hoped the season would have started by now, but in the meantime I’m enjoying spending time with my family while I can. I went over there to get in shape and get ready for the NHL season. After the three months I was there, I felt like I was ready to come back and play over here, with the hope that the season was going to start. I’m sure a lot of the other guys who have also come back felt the same way. You get to a point where you feel good about your game, you feel like you’re ready to play, and where you don’t want to risk injury anymore. I figured it was time for me to come back home.”

You were one of 19 locked out NHL players competing in Switzerland. Why did you choose Switzerland out of all countries you could have chosen; and in particular, why Genève-Servette?

Couture: “I chose Switzerland because Joe [Thornton] told me about how good of an experience he had there during the last lockout. The general consensus from guys on our team was that they’d heard great things about Switzerland. I talked with my agent, and we worked out a deal with the team there. Genève-Servette gave me a chance and said I could come over and play for them as quickly as I wanted, so I agreed to come.”

How did you interact with Joe Thornton on the ice when your team played his team, Davos? As NHL teammates, do you guys go easy on each other in a league that doesn’t matter as much as the NHL, or if you had him lined up in the corner did you hit him like anyone else? What about the other NHLers in the league when you played against them?

Couture: “If it’s Joe, I’m not going to hit him over there, that’s for sure. He’s a teammate. Obviously I don’t want to get hurt either. I’m not the most physical player in the world, and over there I was even less of a physical player just because I didn’t want to take that chance of getting hurt. I try not to put myself in dangerous spots. You have to be careful though, hockey’s a dangerous sport.”

As you will be going into your fourth NHL season eventually, do you feel playing against a lower level of competition in Europe may have been a detriment to your development as an NHL player? For example, did the unfamiliar size of the ice, or the pace of that league and its players throw off your timing while playing with/against less skilled players than you’re used to? Or maybe you didn’t get passes when and where your used to, or the speed and physicality was harmfully different? Do you think the same is bad for other young NHLers that are now scattered around other European countries, the AHL, and other places to be playing down a level? Will any of this hurt you or them as players when you eventually come back to the NHL?

Couture: “I think it’s the best case scenario for the guys right now. You’d rather be playing than not playing. Even when you’re playing there, it takes some time to get your timing down and into a rhythm. Guys that haven’t played yet this year aren’t going to have that right now; they’re going to be behind in that aspect when it’s time to play again. You are playing with lesser skilled guys over there, but I still think that being on the ice every day in practice and games will make you a better player, no matter who you’re playing with, as long as you’re working on your game. I spent as much time as I could after practice working on puck skills and different things, trying to improve.”

What do you think about the notion of your arrival on that team meaning you squeezed someone else out of their lineup maybe a domestic player, or someone who won’t ever make it to the NHL while you were only a temporary member of that team? In your opinion, is it fair for locked out NHL players to come to Europe and take those jobs?

Couture: “It’s hockey. It’s a competitive sport. Would people be saying the same thing if an 18 year old came into an NHL camp and knocked a veteran out of his job? It’s the same thing – people play to take someone’s job. You go into a training camp to take someone’s job so that you can play. I don’t really understand why people say that. When I made San Jose, I ultimately put someone out of a job. That’s just the way hockey is, and all pro sports are.”

Is there any chance that your return home is a cryptic indication that a resolution to the lockout is on the horizon? What are your current thoughts on the lockout?

Couture: “I read a rumor on Twitter that said I was coming back because I knew a deal was coming, but no, there’s nothing like that happening. We’re at a stage now trying to figure out the best way to move forward with these negotiations. We’re hoping something can get done in the near future, but there’s nothing being said right now that’s going lead to a deal in the next couple of days or anything like that. It’s not true.”

Are you optimistic that a deal is indeed forthcoming, and there will still be an NHL season?

Couture: “Yeah, you have to think it’s going to get done. It would just hurt so badly to see a season wasted. It hurt the players last time – I wasn’t in the league yet then, I was just a hockey fan – and it hurt as a fan to watch a full season go by without any hockey. For it to happen two times in an eight year span – I mean it really plays with the fans. It’s tough for a sport to recover, especially in some of the markets down in the States. Even where I play in California, it’s going to be tough for teams to recoup their fan base. In these next couple of weeks, somehow we need to find some way to get a deal done. We’re at a stage right now where we’re trying to do whatever it takes to get the season started. We’re still willing to negotiate. We’re doing what we can to get it going.”

Do you think those California based teams will suffer in particular, despite LA and Anaheim each winning a Stanley Cup in the last five years, plus San Jose’s recent rise to prominence?

Couture: “I can speak for San Jose – in the last couple of years, and even when the team got Joe Thornton, hockey in the area really, really took off. There was an increase in kids starting to play at an earlier age, and stuff like that. I think it’s within reason to think that’s because the Sharks have been good the last six or seven years. They’re selling out every game and people are interested in hockey. You take another year away from those fans and some of the ones you just won over in the last few years are going to leave for something else. Look at Florida –  they made the playoffs last year, had a good run, probably won some new fans over –  now there’s no hockey, and those fans are fine with something else [note: there are seven other pro sports teams in that state]. It’s tough to watch.”

Has this lockout left you feeling any ill-will or animosity towards the owners, or San Jose’s owner in particular? Or do you look at this situation objectively as a business deal?

Couture: “I don’t know, it’s all up in the air. The owners aren’t allowed to speak publicly, nor to us. We have no idea what each owner is thinking. I’ve been in meetings before, but you’re in there with [Craig] Leopold, [Jay] Jacobs, [Murray] Edwards – they’re hard line guys, they don’t give you the time of day, and they barely even look at you. They’re there for one reason, and that’s to help their teams make money. I wish we could hear from all 30 teams’ owners, but obviously they’re not letting them speak out and have their opinions known. I’m sure if they were able to, there would be a bunch of them with different opinions right now. All the players are allowed to speak their minds. It’s tough. I don’t know where the San Jose owners stand on this. You hear things, but you never know until you hear it from them, so you can’t really hold judgment against them until you know the truth.”

As far as Players Association meetings and negotiations with the league, how did you stay in the loop while you were overseas, and even now while you’re in Ontario?

Couture: “It’s all through the phone in scheduled conference calls. There’s an app we check for updates. They supply us with numbers for the players who are in the meetings, and if you have a question you want a player to answer instead of Don, you can call the player and ask him, and he tells you word for word what he heard in the meeting. You get 10 to 20 different opinions, usually all saying the same thing. They’re in all those meetings, so we hear the truth from those guys.”

Any chance you would return to Europe over Christmas to compete in the Spengler Cup tournament for Canada? Where are you going to skate until the NHL resumes?

Couture: “No, not this year. I think I’m going to stay in North America for the rest of the season. I’m going to skate with the London Knights in the OHL when they start up again after Christmas break. I want to go down and skate with some of the guys in San Jose in a few weeks too, hopeful that the season will start. I don’t know exactly what the timeline is, but there isn’t much time left to get this deal done.”

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[Archive] 2012 interview with Mike Danton

August 14, 2014 Leave a comment

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This interview with Mike Danton posted on The Score’s Backhand Shelf blog on October 4th, 2012. Danton had just been denied a visa to enter the UK to play, but fortunately was able to catch on in Sweden a short time later, before moving on to Slovakia in the same season. While a return to North American pro hockey doesn’t seem likely, European leagues are glad to retain the former NHLer — Danton has also suited up for teams in Kazakhstan, Hungary, and Poland since this interview.  

The audio of this interview can be heard here:

Interview with Mike Danton: “Vick, Tyson, and Heatley all got breaks, where’s my break?”

 

(UPDATE: Mike Danton signed with Kramfors-Alliansen of the Swedish elite league earlier in the week. For more, here’s Danton’s personal website.)

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It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that no one in the game of hockey has a stigma around them the way that Mike Danton does. Now trying to resume his professional hockey career in Europe, the ex-NHLer and ex-con deals with all sorts of prejudice and ignorance directed towards him on a daily basis – not to mention all the life roadblocks that a convicted felon could expect on the outside, because of his nearly decade-old crime – despite serving his sentence.

In our interview, Mike talked very candidly and at length about everything from hockey, his time in jail, how he’s turned his life around for the better, his thoughts on other ex-con pro athletes, his feelings on being denied entry to the UK to play, his family, and what the future holds for him. Without a doubt, the responses that he gives will at least make you reconsider the opinion you’ve come to form about him. Enjoy.

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So you’ve now been denied a visa to play hockey in the UK twice, and consequently, you won’t be playing for the Coventry Blaze in the EIHL this year. What’s going through your mind right now?

“I was pretty bummed out about being turned down a second time. When they denied me the first time, the reason for they gave was that I wasn’t rehabilitated from my crime. They have an immigration law that states if you’ve done over twelve months in prison, you’re excluded from rehabilitation, and in order for you to enter their country, your sentence has to be spent or expired as an ex-convict. Because I spent longer than twelve months in jail, I’m excluded from rehabilitation, and because of that, my sentence can’t be spent or expired. So that’s why they denied me.

The second time we applied, I got fifteen reference letters from RCMP officers, local Halifax police officers, detectives, an assistant coach in the NHL, the president of the university I attended that coincidentally was born in London, England who has double-majors and doctorate degrees. My parole officer even wrote a reference letter on my behalf, and also submitted her criminal findings regarding my case – which said I was in the lowest percentile likely to re-offend, that I was in the lowest percentile to be a danger to society; spoke about my community involvement, and how greatly I’ve turned my life around.

Because they rejected me on the basis of believing I wasn’t rehabilitated, the second time around we attempted to illustrate to them that I am rehabilitated from my crimes, and that I wasn’t just coming over there to play hockey. There were a lot more plans than just hockey for me coming toCoventry.Coventry is renowned for their community based programs, and I was going to be a big part of that while there. I work closely with Joe Drexler of “Be The Game” and his “Ignite Change” program, and I was going to be an ambassador in theUK for that – that was a huge thing we had worked out.

For the second application, we brought all these reference letters, and the plans that were other than hockey – sure, I was going there to play hockey and make a living for my family – but I was also going to spread my knowledge, the words that I have to share about the mistakes I’ve made and what it takes to get past them and be productive in life, and about making the best of second chances. We put all that on paper, the lawyers and members from the team looked at the package, as well as people in Canada, and they all said it’d be a disgrace if I got denied again, because there was no way someone could look at that package and think I wasn’t rehabilitated. I put together a three-page letter myself, detailing my life, admitting to my crimes and accepting responsibility for them, but saying those things happened nine years ago, and I was 23 years old at the time. I’ve got a family of my own now, I’m an honor student, working towards a double major degree and at the top of the grade in all my classes, and I’ve changed my life around. I missed six years of hockey, but I still want to play professionally.

When I got my second denial, it was for the same reasons. They said they looked over all my information and reference letters, noted that I have a family of my own now, but however, I did spend more than twelve months in jail, and they don’t think I’m rehabilitated from my crime. To read something like that is not only heartbreaking and gut-wrenching, at the same time it says that not only am I excluded from rehabilitation, but that all these police officers, my parole officer, the National Parole Board of Canada, my school’s president, an assistant coach in the NHL, and everyone else that wrote reference letters have no idea what they’re talking about. They basically said that the Parole Board let you out, and agreed that you’re in the lowest percentile to reoffend or to be a menace to society, but they have no idea what they’re talking about, and we think we know better because we looked at your file. It’s really tough to swallow.

This is a team I’ve been talking about for the last four months, and I’ve been getting updates through the summer on signings, practices, team emails, and it’s been gut-wrenching. I’ve been talking to the guys on the team since the beginning of the season, and they’ve been texting me when they go out, and it gave me a really good feeling about how close knit that team is. It was hard to tell them I won’t be coming. They all ask what they can do to help. We’re trying to figure out if there’s anything we can do legally, or if we can appeal, but if not, I’ve got to figure out something else to do.”

You’ve already played abroad in Sweden and Austria without any of these immigration hassles – why not just go play in a country that doesn’t put up these roadblocks in front of you?

“I was in nine countries last year – Slovenia, Norway, Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Austria – the reason why I chose the UK, and Coventry in particular, was when our baby came into our lives, a lot of things changed. We really liked Sweden when we were over there last year and a lot of people speak English there – the Czech Republic was the complete opposite though. We’d go grocery shopping and it’d take two or three hours because we had to translate everything. It was really difficult to get a normal life going in that environment. The fans and the organization were great, but it was difficult for us to live there. Having a newborn and going to a country like that – if something were to happen to the baby and we had to go to the doctor, you have to hope they spoke English. We made a decision in the summer that wherever we end up going, we’d like it to be an English speaking country that has similar customs, culture, and food that we’re used to, just because it’s the first year that either of us have had a kid. We just wanted it to go as smoothly as possible. I chose Coventry because of the relationship and rapport I’d built with the members of the team. They sold me on what they wanted from their team. They play a hard-nosed style, don’t give up, work hard, and that description has me written all over it. They said I am the exact type of player they wanted on their team. I said ok. I gave up on a lot of other opportunities to make significantly more money than in the UK. The UK really isn’t known for paying outrageous salaries, but rather offering university packages and well as their familiar customs and culture. A lot of North American guys head over there because of the familiarity to their own food, customs and culture. The other factor involved was the community programs that I’d be able to be a part of, and to help out the youth, minor hockey, and that sort of stuff, like I did in Sweden. That’s always been a big part of my career after I came out of prison and wanted to play pro hockey again.”

So what’s the next step for you? Is there time to find a different European team to sign with? Can you play another year of University hockey?

“I’m not eligible for University hockey anymore. For every year of pro you play, you lose a year of eligibility, and you only get five total. By me playing pro last year, I lost my last year of eligibility. I could play senior hockey in Canada in either Newfoundland or Quebec. My agent and I have been contacted by some countries that are willing to bring me in to play though. I’ve been in talks with teams in three different countries.Coventry’s had to sign another guy to fill my spot since I got denied again. I’m going to be playing somewhere, it’s just a question of where. The countries I’m considering right now are Sweden,Germany, and Poland.”

Who’s your agent these days?

“Mike Bernier. He used to be part of “The Hockey Group”, and now he’s branched off on his own. He’s a hard worker. He’s never lied to me. He’s always been straight-up and honest. He told me last year that if I came with him, he’d find me a team, and he did. At that time, I hadn’t played pro in a while, so the things I was looking for were difficult to get. Statistically speaking, I played really well last year – it’s late in teams’ recruiting process now, but he’s still come up with a handful of teams that are looking for players like me.”

Coventry named you an assistant captain without you even being there. With your NHL background, OHL championship, CIS championship, and everything else to your name, you’ve built up a rather high billing for yourself. Is the pressure from teams and yourself to perform up to expectations difficult to live up to, or is it something that you thrive on?   

“I’ve been asked that question a lot. How I answer it is – and I’m going to try an answer as humbly as possible, I’m the furthest thing from being cocky; I could use a boost in confidence once in a while actually – I think players like me are extremely hard to come by. Obviously I’m not the most skilled player in the world. In my last year of junior hockey, I had over 80 points and more than 200 penalty minutes. I led the playoffs in scoring, and still had over 100 PIM’s. I’m a guy that brings everything to the table. I’m not a guy that’s going to come down on a 2 on 1, or 1 on 1 and toe-drag, flip it through someone’s stick and skates and then roof it top shelf, but I’m going to find a way to get around that guy and put the puck in the net. I may have to flick it up in the air and run the goalie through the net, but it’s going to count regardless. It’s happened before, where the puck’s gone in, the goalie got run, it counts, and I got a penalty. Coaches have always told to me to put the puck in my [expletive] teeth, run through the net; and i’ll find a way to score. That’s just the way I’ve always been.

I have an extremely large amount of heart and determination. I don’t agree with what Dany Heatley and Michael Vick did, but you have to look at what they did afterwards. The fact that those guys come back, and get back into professional sports again says something about their character. For me to miss six years of hockey and still manage to come back and win a national championship, and then return to professional hockey a year later – that’s something I’m proud of. With a lot of inexperienced, local guys as well as guys who have played pro hockey at some level but don’t have the NHL experience that I have, Coventry knew I that I was a guy that all the guys on their team were going to look up to. I’m not afraid to break sticks in the room, call guys out, tell them they’re [expletive] [expletive], and to get their head out of their [expletive]. You need guys like that on a team. Those are the types of guys that other players look up to and say, ‘hey, this guy can lead our team.’”

You got denied entry into the UK again seemingly based only on objective reasoning. You’re constantly dealing with people with prejudice against you – whether it be in legal situations, on Twitter, or elsewhere – yet, you’re extremely active in defending yourself on all those platforms against those who only see you as a criminal and don’t know anything else about you or about anything you’ve done since your release three years ago. It seems to be never-ending and it’s got to be exhausting – how do you handle it, and why do you bother?

“It’s humorous. It’s entertaining to me. Some people go to hockey games to be entertained; I go on Twitter and read the ignorant things people say. I sit there and I laugh. I’ll retweet things that are funny, but when they say things like, ‘He went to prison, bend over…’ and other stuff like that, I block those people. There’s a difference between humor and being disgusting. I don’t need my kid to be reading that in a few years. People like that are useless. They’re scum. A lot of the negative comments are from people in Cardiff, Coventry’s biggest rival. If I had signed with Cardiff, the majority of the chirping would probably come from people in Coventry. People are entitled to their opinion, but you hit the nail on the head, they don’t know the situation. It’s just like my first day at university; I had people triple-looking me – forget double-looking, triple-looking me – whispering, ‘that’s the guy that tried to kill somebody…’, and three weeks later, that same person would be sitting with me in the library sharing laughs, pulling pranks, and then saying, ‘Aw man, you’re great! I thought you were going to be this big mean monster guy…’ People have no idea what I’m like. They look at my mugshot that looks like I’ve got a big chew in the side of my mouth, and they see the word murderer, and they say ‘this guy can’t come in. He’s a criminal…’ and that’s their opinion and they’re free to voice it. I really don’t care. The difference in me now is that nine years ago, I would have had to listen to all these chirps and tweets, and I would have wanted to punch them all in the face, cause problems, and be completely irrational and immature about the situation. Now I laugh at it. Usually when someone says something, I’ll get in there and chirp them back about their grammar and say, ‘well if you’re going to say that, at least spell it properly’, or tell them to at least make it seem like their comment could be pronounced properly. All in all, it’s just fun. It’s entertaining to have a guys think that they get under my skin by chirping me about prison, even though I’ve heard that stuff for ten years now. There’s not one prison joke out there that I haven’t heard. The easiest way to shut them up is to talk about the NHL, and they can’t say anything. They’ve never done that, I have. One guy that chirps me is an EIHL player who has played five or six games and has the same amount of goals as me [that’s 0, Mike hasn’t played a game for Coventry]. I’m not going to waste my time with guys that I have absolutely no respect for, because of the way they conduct themselves on Twitter. You don’t go back and forth with fans and tell them they’re fat and ugly – those are the people that pay your salary. You have to have some respect for the game. When I went to jail, there was no Facebook or Twitter. When I got out of jail and was in university, it took me a few months before I got into social media. Now I find Twitter so entertaining. I love going on my page and watching everything people say to me. I don’t know what else to say about it, it’s just entertaining.”

What internet related amenities were available to you in prison? Can people tweet from prison?

No, there’s child molesters and sex criminals in there, and they don’t want them getting on the internet for obvious reasons. From what I understand, in theUSfederal system you can email people now, but that’s the only thing you can do, and the emails are monitored. They get an email account through the prison that costs them money to send emails. In the US system, I had access to cable TV and movies, but nothing that was R rated, contained nudity, or had anything in it that would get our, um, “adrenaline” up, I guess you could say. They try to maintain proper protocol for prison fights and things like that. InCanada, it was a little more lax – we could have video game systems in there, but without online access. The States’ system was a lot worse thanCanada’s.”

And you managed to study towards your university degree while you were in there too, right? And how close are you towards your degree now? What are you going to do when you finish it?  

Yeah, it was kind of difficult though – I only got through two courses. They moved me around quite often, and they really screw with your mail in jail, so it’s tough to get things sent to you. But I did manage to transfer those credits towards my degree. Last year I took a full course load online, and I’m doing the same this year. At the end of this year, I should only have four or five courses left. If I went really hard, I could get done by the end of the summer, but I’ll probably do it over a year. I’ll have a double major in psychology and criminology. I do really well in school. The only reason I added criminology in was that psychology was coming to me fairly easily and I wanted a challenge, so I added another major.

I don’t know what I’m going to be – I’d like to play hockey as long as I can, and I don’t want to call it quits yet, but I’ve been thinking about becoming a university professor. I like the social aspect and I like teaching people. Something like sports psychology, maybe. Coaching has crossed my mind. You see a lot of athletes go to university and they end up teaching English, or become PE teachers or something like that. A lot of athletes are very vocal and very social. They’re used to being in the spotlight, being around 20 or 30 guys every day that chirp each other and still get along, having a frat-like relationship with them. Whether you teach youngsters, teenagers, or university kids, there’s that element of social activity that can remain with you through all your years and levels of sports. I’m pretty sure I’m going to go down that road in the future.”

When you look at Mike Tyson – who went to jail before you did, and resumed his career after being released – and you think about your perception of him at that point in time not having gone to jail yet yourself; and then you look at Michael Vick – who went to jail and was released right around the same time you also did and were – what is your perception of those guys as they resumed their athletic careers, has it changed since going through the same experience they did yourself, and do you have a level of empathy for them?

“Gosh, you’re crossing up my morals and pulling my heartstrings here. Because of my personal experiences, and my personal life and childhood, I have a very big problem with people that commit sexual crimes against children and women. It’s really hard for me to look past those things and say they deserve a second chance. However, because of my situation, I have to say that I’m a believer in second chances. I think the way Tyson handled his situation illustrated that he wasn’t capable of being rehabilitated. I don’t know him personally, but the role he portrays and the way he handles himself is a characterization of a nut-job. He didn’t seem like he had a lot of remorse, even when he stated that he did. You could read the bull[expletive] all over his face.

In regards to Michael Vick, I don’t think anyone will ever know for sure what degree his involvement was in the dog fighting ring, but still, he was involved and he went to jail. Both crimes are different – I’m sure I’ll have PETA calling me after this – but at the same time, I’ve got nothing but respect for how Vick has handled himself. He’s come out and accepted responsibility, made donations and done charity work to try and right his wrongs. The way he’s conducted himself – I follow him on Twitter, and if you follow his tweets, well… he’s no Jose Canseco, let’s say. Everything’s about his religion, family, football, and he’s very respectful about it. I think that he’s somebody that made a wrong decision in his life, has turned around for the better, and is prospering. He’s playing the game that he loves, making a boatload of money, and I have no problems with that.

The problem that I have though, it that he’s been able to continue playing the game he loves at its highest level and I haven’t been. I can’t go to Asia, theUK, theUS… I couldn’t even go watch my favorite baseball team play in the World Series last year because I committed a crime nine years ago. If my son plays in a hockey tournament inDetroitsomeday, I can’t go there and watch him because I made a mistake, and at that time my crime will have been 14 or 15 years prior. Don’t get me wrong – I broke the law, and what I did was illegal; however, I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been punished. I’ve lost a lot of money. I’ve lost the opportunity to make a lot of money. I lost six years of my life, away from my family and friends, and a lot of things I enjoyed on a daily basis. Those are things I’m never going to be able to get back. I think my punishment is enough. I’m not going around to bars and getting in fights, or putting bounties on people’s heads, or getting drunk and raping girls, or selling and doing drugs. I have a family, I’ve gone to university, I’m working towards a double major degree and trying to play professional hockey.

What I say is, where’s my break? Vick, Tyson, and Heatley all got breaks, where’s my break? Is it that I’m still allowed to play hockey in Sweden’s third league or an elite league in Austria? It’s not in the AHL, or the NHL. I’m going to have to make a decision in a couple of years as to whether I want my son growing up in Europe following me around from country to country, and if I don’t want that, I’m going to have to quit hockey, and do something else. I don’t want to quit hockey. I’ve got lots of playing time left.

I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys that have made mistakes in their life and have come back to their sport, like Vick. I’m not so respectful of Tyson because of the way he handled himself. But if people can look past Mike Tyson and his issues, how can they not look past mine? Legitimately, I didn’t kill anybody. If that had been carried out, yes, I understand the ramifications; however, that’s a hypothetical situation. You can’t imprison or punish somebody for situations that didn’t happen. Vick did what he did, Tyson did what he did, Heatley did what he did, I did what I did. I didn’t kill anybody, and I didn’t rape anybody. I’m sure you can catch my point.”

You’ve mentioned your family a few times. It’s tough to find any information on them – tell me a little bit about them; how old is your son?

“He’s six weeks old. My family’s kept private for a reason. I’ve had some issues in my past with my own family, so I like to keep my personal life somewhat personal so certain information doesn’t get out.”

Details of your criminal situation have always been hazy. What is your current status as far as being an ex-convict? Are you still on parole, or are you totally free and clear now?

“I was arrested on April 16, 2004. I received my full parole from the National Parole Board of Canada on September 11, 2009. They took a couple weeks, and then I was released from prison inCanadaon September 28, 2009, after 65 months in prison. 22 of those months were in solitary confinement. After that, I was on parole until January 21, 2011. While on parole for a little more than a year, and had to abstain from alcohol and drugs, and do urine tests – I don’t do drugs anyway, but that was just a standard stipulation. When we won the CIS championship at St. Mary’s, all the boys were drinking champagne out of the Cup, and I had to drink a sparkling water. It was kind of a bummer. I wasn’t allowed to travel anywhere without a travel permit. If I wanted to go to my girlfriend’s cottage for the weekend, I’d have to have a representative from the Canadian Parole Board visit the cottage first, interview her parents, and then supervise me while there. January 21 came along, and I’ve been a free man ever since. I have nobody to report to, just like before I ever went to prison. I’m absolutely not on parole one bit.”

While you were on parole, you weren’t allowed any contact with your father or David Frost, two guys at the center of speculation within your crime – now that you’re not bound by parole terms, have you had any contact with them?

“Legally I can’t even talk about that because there are a few things that are still out there. But they will be addressed in the future, for sure.”

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