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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] 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

jonathan cheechoo

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] 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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2nd Quadrennial Double Championship Challenge!

May 20, 2014 5 comments

cup goldWell it’s getting on in the 2014 NHL playoffs, and it’s about time to dust of the old Double Championship Challenge for it’s second quadrennial go-round. If this seems Greek to you, click here to catch up on what the 1st Quadrennial Double Championship Challenge was all about. You may recall Rich Abney walked away with a championship t-shirt and four years of bragging rights in 2010 after picking the Chicago Blackhawks’ Canadian Olympic team members to win gold and the Stanley Cup in the same season.

So let’s have at it — cast your votes on who will win this quadrennial’s crown as outright best in the world.

Here’s who’s left:

Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp — Chicago Blackhawks [note: Keith & Toews can repeat as back-to-back DCC champs]

Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter — Los Angeles Kings 

Martin St-Louis, Rick Nash — New York Rangers

 Carey Price, P.K. Subban — Montreal Canadiens

Here’s who’s eliminated:

Marc-Édouard Vlasic, Patrick Marleau — San Jose Sharks

Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz — Pittsburgh Penguins

Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo — St. Louis Blues

Ryan Getzlaf , Corey Perry — Anaheim Ducks

Matt Duchene — Colorado Avalanche

  Jamie Benn — Dallas Stars

Patrice Bergeron — Boston Bruins

Here’s who did not qualify: 

Roberto Luongo — Vancouver Canucks

Mike Smith — Phoenix Coyotes

Shea Weber — Nashville Predators

John Tavares — New York Islanders

And unlike 2010 when Corey Perry joined Canada’s World Championship roster after winning Olympic gold in Vancouver, there are no players or staff that are representing Canada twice in the same season this time around.

Who’s your pick? Leave a comment to let us know! Choose correctly and you’ll be eligible to win an exclusive prize from Serenity Now…The SDC Blogs.

Rules: To enter, leave a comment on this post with your name, your pick, and where you’re from. One vote only — no do-overs. Those who select correctly will be entered into a draw for the grand prize. Good luck!

 

XP PSP s01e14: San Jose Sharks’ Matt Irwin interview

March 29, 2014 Leave a comment

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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.

Click here to listen to the XP PSP audio podcast at Podbean

Download XP PSP on iTuneshttps://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/xppsp/id643817929

Click here to read the written version of this interview on The Score’s Backhand Shelf.

2012 NHL Playoffs Preview: Blues vs. Sharks

April 14, 2012 3 comments

Canvassing the Caucuses: An Election-Style NHL Playoff Preview during Election Season

PART 6

by Peter Nygaard (follow him on Twitter)

Western Primary

St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)

[also see: Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks,  & Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings]

  • The Issues:
  • Pro-Choice — Generally speaking, having a goalie controversy entering the playoffs can be an easy way for a team to punch a one-way ticket to the nearest golf course. But when you have the kind of problems the St. Louis Blues have in net… life is good. The Blues enter the postseason with a timeshare in the crease, split between the NHL’s goals-against average leader, Brian Elliott, and No. 4 in that same category, Jaroslav Halak. Halak, best known for his impressive playoff debut with the Canadiens in 2010, earned the majority of the starts, but Elliott finished the season on a stronger note, posting three straight shutouts to bring his season total to 9. Together, the two ran away with the William M. Jennings Trophy for lowest team GAA. But in the playoffs, presumably only one will get the chance to play. According to reports, Halak will start Game 1, but if he starts to struggle, coach Ken Hitchcock won’t hesitate to pull the plug. Elliott has not been to the playoffs since he also made his debut in 2010, getting shelled in three games against the Penguins before giving way to Pascal Leclaire.
  • Experience (Or lack thereof) — The biggest question St. Louis has faced all year is “Who exactly are these guys?” The Blues have positioned themselves just outside of the playoff bubble in recent years, but few anticipated how quickly they would rise to the Western Conference elite. Hitchcock has managed his share of high-profile campaigns, but he has not yet been able to re-capture the magic he had in Dallas. Perhaps last year’s loss to the Boston Bruins was a wakeup call to the Western Conference that the old guard is no longer going to get it done. The Blues may not have much experience outside of veteran Cup-winners Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, but they do have a lot of young talent and depth. Combine that with hope, and maybe… just maybe, change is on the horizon.
  • Political Dirt:
  • America is never going to elect the St. Louis Blues without seeing a few birth certificates first. This “T.J. Oshie” doesn’t sound like he was born in America… and how can we be sure that “Andy McDonald” even exists?
  • Campaign Promises:
  • If elected, the Blues promise to never miss the playoffs again. One thing that few remember was lost during the canceled season was St. Louis’ streak of 25 consecutive playoff appearances. When the NHL returned to action, the Blues missed the postseason for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in office. After only one appearance in the last six years, this season may mark the beginning of a new streak.

  • The Issues:
  • Flip-Flopping — The Sharks have been considered Cup contenders for the last four years but have heretofore disappointed. This year, they looked like they were going to finish on the outside looking in before making a late push for the playoffs. After years of serving as the disappointing juggernaut in the West, the Sharks are now trying to convince us that they’re plucky underdogs just because it’s a more advantageous position come election time.
  • Joe the Plumber — San Jose boasts a pair of not-so-average Joes in team captain Joe Thornton and rising star Joe Pavelski. Thornton quieted many of his critics in last year’s playoffs, tallying 17 points in 18 games and leading the Sharks to the Western Conference Finals. Conversely, Pavelski established a big game reputation in the 2010 playoffs but was nowhere to be found last year. If the two can put it together in the same year, the Sharks will be a dangerous squad.
  • Political Dirt:
  • The Sharks and Blues met four times during the regular season, and St. Louis won all of them. San Jose couldn’t beat the Blues even once in four tries. How are they going to take four out of seven
  • Campaign Promises:
  • If elected, the Sharks promise to deliver the unpredictability that makes playoff hockey so great. The Sharks have the talent and experience to go all the way. That hasn’t stopped them from tripping over their own skates in the past. This year presents an interesting conundrum. Will a stint as the underdog be what finally puts the scent of blood in the water, or are the Sharks simply slipping?

Vote For: San Jose Sharks in 6

HGFC 2011 Player Profile: Kelly Hrudey

July 28, 2011 Leave a comment

This edition’s Hockey Greats Fantasy Camp celebrity profile features Kelly Hrudey. These days, Hrudey is better known as a member of the CBC Hockey Night In Canada broadcast team, but seasoned fans may remember him as an NHL goaltender, and for sporting one of the ugliest goalie masks ever worn in hockey.

A second round pick by the New York Islanders in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft, Kelly Hrudey spent his 16 year NHL career backstopping 3 teams; beginning on Long Island, then moving on to Los Angeles, and concluded in San Jose in 1998. Hrudey nearly hoisted the Cup on two occasions: In his first season with the Islanders, New York was looking to add another championship to their 4 Cup dynasty; making it to the Stanley Cup finals. There they met Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, who were just beginning their own dynasty, and defeated New York. Though he didn’t see any ice during those playoffs, Hrudey would return to the Cup finals again in 1993 as a starter while a member of the Los Angeles Kings, and (perhaps ironically) a teammate of Wayne Gretzky. Though that season did not result in a championship, it remains the franchise’s most successful season in club history.

Hrudey was also included on Team Canada’s 1987 Canada Cup roster as a third goalie. He sits at 13th in all-time most saves with 18,140, 24th all-time in games played with 677, 28th all-time in minutes played with 38,080:55, and 35th in all-time wins with 271. While playing for the 1987 New York Islanders, he set a playoff record, stopping 73 shots in a single game versus the Washington Capitals. The match-up spanned across 4 overtime periods, until finally being concluded on a goal by Pat LaFontaine shortly before 2 am.

In the twilight of his playing career, Hrudey would join the Hockey Night In Canada broadcast team for guest playoff commentary if his current team did not qualify for the post-season. These appearances eventually transitioned into a full-time broadcasting career, and he now provides regular television and radio commentary segments for CBC.

2011 will be Hrudey’s first year attending the Hockey Greats Fantasy Camp. Though he won’t be strapping on the pads and suiting up, we are told that Kelly will be bringing a television camera crew with him to camp this summer; and the rumor mill has been running rampant with speculation as to what will be filmed. Don’t miss your chance to meet NHL legend Kelly Hrudey this August; you might even get your mug on TV!

www.hockeygreats.ca

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