Saturday, March 7, 2015

Sunday Long Read: Forgotten Vipers once rocked Detroit

The 1990s marked a time of seismic change in hockey: The Iron Curtain fell, providing a massive influx of talent from Eastern Europe, NHL franchises migrated from Canada and traditional markets in the Northeast and Midwestern United States to new ones and the League embarked on a rapid and ambitious expansion plan to the Sunbelt and beyond.

That atmosphere proved ripe for exploitation by the right kind of visionary minds. Enter Bill Davidson and Rick Dudley, the former, a glass manufacturing mogul who presided over a pro sports empire, and the latter, a respected talent evaluator with progressive ideas about how to run a pro hockey enterprise.

Together in 1994, they gave birth to the Detroit Vipers, an independent International Hockey League franchise that cut a rollicking, phoenix-like path through the decade. Playing out of the Palace at Auburn Hills, the home of the Davidson-owned Detroit Pistons of the NBA, the Vipers used the Pistons' charter plane for travel. While other minor-league franchises rode buses for hour upon hour, the Vipers whimsically flew to road games as close as Kalamazoo, 140 miles away -- or about a 15-minute flight.

Their top-notch facilities included a hot tub and a sauna. Former player Stan Drulia recalled a game in Cincinnati the night of one of the famous Evander Holyfied-Mike Tyson boxing fights. The players asked the pilot to wait long enough after the Vipers' game before returning to Detroit so that they could visit a local establishment and watch the fight first.

"Those are the privileges you appreciate and we were able to take advantage of," Drulia said.

Players like Miroslav Satan, Petr Sykora, Sergei Samsonov, Peter Bondra and even Gordie Howe, at age 70 on a bit of a gimmicky promotion, suited up for the Vipers, who in their brief seven seasons won a Turner Cup title in 1997 and lost in the finals of another in 1998.

Former NHL general manager Rick Dudley got his start with the Detroit Vipers and has said he had the best job outside of the NHL. (Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI)

Dudley said that for a while he had the best job outside of the NHL.

"It was the best minor-league situation I've ever seen and will ever see -- simply because Bill Davidson was just an incredible guy," said Dudley, now Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations with the Montreal Canadiens. "…There was never a time I didn't enjoy myself."

For Dudley, the job paved the way for him to become a general manager of the Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, where he was the architect of the 2004 Stanley Cup champions (though fired before that 2003-04 season), and the Atlanta Thrashers.

In a time before mid-career fourth-line players began leaving the NHL for higher-paying European leagues in the early 2000s, the IHL lured them with attractive salaries, in some cases as much as $250,000. The Vipers were right there paying some of the highest salaries in the league.

Dudley said he can't remember exactly what might he might have paid particular players but estimates that the Vipers ranked in the top 20 or 30 percent of IHL teams in terms of payroll.

"They ran it like an NHL franchise with Rick Dudley and Steve Ludzik," Drulia, a member of the '97 and '98 Turner Cup champion and finalists teams, said of Ludzik, who coached the Vipers for three seasons and Lightning for two. "…We got treated so very, very well."

The Vipers' inaugural season was marked by fortuitous timing. The NHL lockout of 1994-95 left a void at the pro level for hockey-mad Detroit and the Vipers eagerly stepped in. Their attendance averaged 14,263, according to (the website uses the official statistics published by the IHL as released by Howe Sportsdata, according to Ralph Slate, who created and runs the site). In that first season, Dudley held the dual positions of coach and general manager and defenseman Mark Hardy served as player/assistant coach. The Vipers went 48-27-0-6.

Hardy, now an assistant with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL after 11 years in the NHL as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, had played the last of his 915 NHL games with the Kings the previous season. He described his unusual role as "more as a liaison between players and the coaches so (the coaches) had a feel for the room."

"Even though I was playing I did do the penalty kill back then," he said. "It was like I'd have to catch my breath between periods and show them video. It was a little tough but we got by…. Back then, you're not telling just telling them what to do. You have to make sure you're doing it right on the ice, too."

The Vipers' star was a 25-year-old center out of Harvard named Peter Ciavaglia. Ciavaglia had spent two years in the Buffalo Sabres' system, playing five games over two seasons in the NHL while scoring 72 goals in two American Hockey League seasons. Dudley, who spent parts of three seasons from 1989 to 1991 as coach of the Sabres, made Ciavaglia the first player he signed.

Ciavaglia said part of the allure of signing with the Vipers was the idea that IHL owners wanted to make their league a sort of stalking horse for the NHL – not necessarily a competitor but an alternative in some large markets (Atlanta, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Detroit, Salt Lake, Orlando, Chicago, San Francisco) and to give them a leg up on the AHL in terms of competition. It was not necessarily a developmental league.

Bill Armstrong scored 34 goals in 54 GP for the Detroit Vipers during the 95-96 season

Courtesy: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ciavaglia had elected to spend 1993-94 in Europe to prepare for the 1994 Lillehammer Games (the last one before NHL players began competing) where he competed alongside current Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette and New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow. When he returned to North America, Ciavaglia elected to give the Vipers a try as he pursued his NHL dreams. He ended up a point-per-game player (357 in 355 games) with the Vipers over six of the franchise's seven seasons in existence before a chronic hip injury ended his career at age 30.

"It was quite different than making $25 or $30 (thousand) in the AHL with the cities and where the league was going," Ciavaglia said. "It attracted a lot of players either on the cusp of the NHL or who had spent time there and were winding down their career and wanted to play a few extra years at a high level. It found a niche."

One of the big box-office draws for the Vipers that first season was defenseman Jason Woolley, a former Michigan State and Canadian Olympic team standout. Woolley was a 25-year-old at the outset of his career when he played for the Vipers. He would go on to play 718 NHL games and was a member of Buffalo's 1999 Eastern Conference champion team.

Dozens of players suited up for the Vipers that season but two little-known Eastern Europeans would become NHL stars, Petr Sykora and Miroslav Satan. The 19-year-old Satan played eight games for Detroit while Sykora, who did not turn 18 until about a month into the season, played in 29 games, scoring 12 goals and adding 17 assists. A few years later, the Vipers would use the same tactic in an even more high-profile and successful way with another 17-year-old Eastern European. The gambit would help to pave the way to the Vipers' only championship.

The summer following the Vipers' first season, the New Jersey Devils drafted Sykora 18th overall. He won the Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2000. In all, Sykora had 323 goals and 398 assists in 1,017 games. Satan, who was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 1993, got his chance the following season and scored 18 goals in 62 games for Edmonton. Satan also went on to play more than 1,000 games in the NHL and posted similar totals to Sykora: 363 goals and 372 assists.

Dudley said there were a variety of reasons for signing numerous Eastern European players at a time when they represented something of an unknown quantity. Some players wanted to prove to skeptical scouts and general managers that their high-end skills would translate to the more physical NHL game. The Vipers had practical reasons, beyond hockey ones, for wanting to sign them.

"We did that for marketing," he said of Sykora and Satan. "It turned out that they also were pretty good players."

That they were. So were the rest of the Vipers. Wayne Gretzky had formed a team of all-stars during the '94-'95 lockout that went on a barnstorming tour. The Vipers beat them 4-3 before 16,239 at The Palace.

"I thought it was great," Mark Messier, a member of Gretzky's team told the New York Times after the game. "I was happy to see the Vipers come to play. Darn right I was insulted to lose. Better believe it. If not, you'd better stay home."

Even without the NHL lockout, the Vipers' success at the box office continued. They averaged 13,305 in their second season, then 12,506, 12,847 and 11,566. One of the most successful promotions the Vipers undertook was "Gordie Howe Night" on Oct. 3 1997.

The idea was that Howe would mark a sixth decade of playing pro hockey. According to media accounts of the game, The Palace was full to its capacity of 20,182 and Mr. Hockey received a standing ovation to start the game.

"That was beautiful," Howe was quoted as saying after the game. "You always want to be in touch with the fans. The greeting was terrific."

Howe played two shifts and was almost credited with a goal after a shot by Brad Shaw deflected off his shin and nearly went in the net.

"It was the loudest cheer I've ever heard," Dudley said. "The loudest I've ever heard a building… If that puck had gone in, they'd still be cheering. It was an amazing, an amazing night -- one of many we had there. I got to meet people like (the actors who played) Elly May Clampett and Batman. There were more promotions going on. It was just great."

Anyone who has encountered Dudley late in his career as a manager, scout or personnel director would be impressed by his tranquility, the almost professorial mien, with his glasses and goatee, and by how articulate he is. As a player, his competitive side was more pronounced. In the WHA, he had five consecutive seasons of more than 100 penalty minutes.

Behind the bench, that fire also came out.

"When you first come in, if you didn't know him, it took you a while to get used to him," said Jeff Daniels, who played for the Vipers in their first season and who now coaches the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. "He's very intense, a very emotional guy but an extremely hard-working guy. He knew the league, knew players. He had his finger on everything. I've got a lot of respect for him, his intensity and his knowledge and the way he worked. There were no short cuts."

Daniels described Dudley as highly emotional and vocal as a coach. He said a "switch turned" when Dudley was behind the bench.

"You walk in and on you're on your toes right away," Daniel said. "He was trying to get the most of out of all his players."

Hardy, who said he is close with Dudley, learned a lot from his former coach and manager.

"He was really, really intense," Hardy said. "He's really calmed down since then. I can remember if we didn't play the way we wanted, there was some destruction in the locker room afterwards. He kept everyone on a short bench….

"Now he seems to bring a calming effect to everything. He's very soft-spoken when you talk to him. He was probably going to have a heart attack if he didn't change."

Despite their regular season success in 1994-95, the Vipers lost in the first round of the playoffs. The next season, they reached the second round. In their third season, 1996-97, Dudley handed the reins over as coach to Ludzik. Dudley said working with Ludzik, one of his closest friends, was one of the greatest pleasures of his long career. Later, when he became the general manager of the Lightning, Dudley would hire Ludzik again as his coach.

During the summer of 1996, Dudley and a player agent, Jay Grossman, hatched a plan that would help to bring the Vipers to the pinnacle of success. While Sykora and Satan had short stints with the Vipers and played small roles, Dudley and Grossman came to an agreement to bring another young Eastern European to the Vipers – one who would play a major role both on the ice and in galvanizing the Vipers' chemistry that season.

Sergei Samsonov landed in North America with the Detroit Vipers in 1996-97 and finished with 29 goals and 35 assists in 73 games played. (Photo: Getty Images)

Left wing Sergei Samsonov was only 17 at the time and turmoil with his Russian club, CSKA Moscow, caused him to cast an eye towards North America. CSKA, also known as the "Red Army" team, was poised to split in two and Samsonov feared that he would be relegated to a lower division. The hardest part of finding a team with which to play in North America, Samsonov said, was finding one that was independent. Grossman and Dudley worked out a deal – Dudley thinks it was for between $150,000 and $200,000 -- so that Samsonov could play for the Vipers.

Samsonov and his father Viktor, both of whom spoke limited English, moved to the Detroit area. Samsonov's mother and younger brother visited occasionally. Now, it is fairly common for European players to spend a pre-draft year playing major junior or U.S. collegiate hockey. At the time, the Vipers were stepping into somewhat new territory.

"I'm pretty sure I was drafted by a junior team," said Samsonov, who still lives in the Detroit area. "So it happened that they released me that summer because they didn't think there was any possibility for me to come over. The Vipers kind of fit the bill. I was thrilled."

Samsonov, at 5-foot-8, was a dazzling skater and puck-handler. He scored 29 goals in 73 games that season, finishing second on the Vipers. Now a part-time scout for the Carolina Hurricanes, Samsonov realizes that his methods probably put a lot of gray hairs on Ludzik's head that season.

"I had to be a hard one to handle," he said. "Not only did I not speak a whole lot of English but any definition of playing a system wasn't there for me yet. He had to put up with me. Looking back, he managed as good as he could have done. He let me be who I was and go out and play and figure out some things later. There's a lot of thanks goes to him. He let me do things that 99 percent of the coaches wouldn't let."

Drulia, now an assistant coach with Milwaukee of the AHL, recalled Samsonov as "a real quality kid."

"Even though language was there, he tried to fit in with the group," Drulia said.

Samsonov said one of his great challenges was playing in a man's league – because the IHL wasn't primarily a developmental league, it tended have older, more physically mature players than the AHL. Samsonov said his teammates had his back both on and off the ice.

Dudley said he thinks the players bonded over the young one in their midst, that they took care of him and, because of that, the players bonded better.

"I'd say to this day (Ludzik) and I talked about it but we think that Sergei Samsnov won us a championship because he was simply such a good kid," Dudley said. "He was 17 years old and they wanted to take care of him and they brought him along. It was very, very important for those guys that he succeed and get drafted as high as possible. All these things played into as probably a unique way."

Ciavaglia remains close with Samsonov and is his financial advisor.


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"What I remember most is that the year we won the championship we had little to no egos on the team," Ciavaglia said. "It was a special group. We had young guys like him. We had guys who played in the NHL many years, guys on the cusp of going to the NHL. We kind of adopted Sergei. He was highly touted and going to go in the first round. We felt like big brothers. We wanted to see him succeed. There was a cultural gap, age gap. He was somewhat in isolation with his dad."

The Vipers went 57-17-0-8 during the regular season and stormed through the playoffs, losing only six games. They defeated the Long Beach Ice Dogs in six games in the finals to claim the Turner Cup.

Jeff Reese, the Philadelphia Flyers' goaltending coach, was the Vipers' goalie. At first, he struggled with being demoted to the minor leagues, a signal his 13-year NHL career was coming to a close. However, he made the best of it. Dudley and Ludzik later took him to the Lightning where he was an assistant on the Cup team.

"I was very, very upset when I got sent down because I saw the end coming," Reese said, "and then when you win a championship, it turned out to be very, very exciting, even though it was the IHL level."

Samsonov went on to get drafted eighth overall by the Boston Bruins that summer and won the Calder Trophy in 1998. In his first five seasons with the Bruins in the NHL, he averaged 25 goals. He played 888 games in the NHL and was a member of the Oilers when they lost in seven games to the Hurricanes in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

Despite a successful NHL career, Samsonov said that season with the Vipers ranks right up there.

"Personally, it ended up being one of the greatest years of my hockey career," he said. "Ending up winning the whole thing, it was a thrill. Being my first year, I kind of, sort of took it for granted. Looking back it was a great experience."

In 1997-98, the Vipers finished with 109 points (down from 122 the previous season). They advanced to Game 7 of the Turner Cup Finals but lost to the Chicago Wolves. Prior to Game 7, a brawl broke out on the ice among the players. Police had to get involved in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms to keep players separated.

The Wolves were very similar to the Vipers. They flew to almost all of their road games. They had a large arena, played in a big, large traditional hockey market and their owner also put significant resources to bear in terms of payroll and facilities.

Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was the Wolves' general manager back in 1998.

"It was a very competitive league," Cheveldayoff said. "You competed on the ice as well as off. You competed for the free agents. The nature of those markets at the time was you could change a roster quite a bit over a short time. There was always that challenge to stay cutting-edge and stay ahead and Detroit always found a way to be an upper-echelon team when it came to a lot of those things."

Shortly after that '98 series, Dudley left to become the Senators' general manager. The Vipers earned 111 points in the following regular season but were eliminated in the conference finals. That proved Ludzik's final season, as he became the coach of the Lightning – which Davidson had bought.

By 1999-2000, the Vipers had become the minor-league affiliate of the Lightning. Whereas the team had been filled for years with players whose names became familiar to fans, it soon became filled with unrecognizable prospects.

That hurt the Vipers both in the standings and at the box office. From 111 points, they fell to 52 in one season and attendance plummeted by almost 2000 per game to 9,838.

Ciavaglia's final season was the Vipers' penultimate one.

"Any one not on a longer-term contract was gone," he said. "In one year, we had three non-Tampa Bay players, myself and two others. We (previously) were fully independent and able to cherry-pick the best players not in the NHL and Dudley was extremely good at evaluating talent and assembling teams. We viewed it we were one of the best teams not in the NHL. That all changed…

"We were young with no-names and lost all the time. We went from drawing very good crowds to very sparse crowds."

In 2000-01, the Vipers earned the same measly points total but attendance was almost halved to 5,163, almost one-third of what it was in their inaugural season. Their coach was Shaw and it was his first head coaching opportunity.

"We didn't have a great team," said Predators Director of Player Development Scott Nichol, whose only season with the Vipers was their final one. "We gave (Shaw) a lot of gray hair."

On June 4, 2001, the Vipers met their end when the IHL, with too many franchises under the financial strains of high travel costs and competitive salaries, folded. Dudley said he thought the Vipers were attractive to Davidson as a second tenant at The Palace but were probably a money loser. Once Davidson had bought the Lightning, a minor-league franchise did not have the same value to him. Six IHL teams, including Chicago, joined the AHL. The Vipers did not.

"It was an amazing and almost magical time for a bunch of us," Dudley said. "It's something you rarely see -- an operation that does everything right."

Devils' first championship team reunites after 20 years

NEWARK, N.J. -- Martin Brodeur will eventually have his night at Prudential Center to speak to the fans, to thank everyone he wants and to watch his No. 30 go up to the rafters. The New Jersey Devils haven't announced plans to honor Brodeur and his 20 years of record-breaking, championship goaltending, but that's going to happen, perhaps as early as next season.

However, it was somewhat fitting that Brodeur's first trip back to the arena as a retired player was to celebrate a Stanley Cup championship team instead of his phenomenal career.

Through 28 years of leadership from general manager and president Lou Lamoriello, the Devils have been built on a team-first, star-less mentality even though two members of the 1995 championship team being honored this weekend, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Brodeur is expected to join them when he's eligible in 2018.

The '95 team was the first that not only epitomized Lamoriello's vision, but came through with a championship. They were back together Saturday to play an alumni game as part of a weekend to honor the 20th anniversary of their first of three Stanley Cup championships. It was like nothing had changed, except for some wrinkles, gray hairs and pot bellies.

"I don't think you know how you're going to feel or what it's about until you get in the room," said former defenseman Ken Daneyko. "[Friday] we ran into guys, guys we haven't seen in a while, there's handshakes and the how are yous, but then we got in the room, got the gear on, and everything comes right back. There's the camaraderie, the memories. I'm sitting here next to Scotty Niedermayer, one of the more laid back guys on our team at the time, and you could see he felt how special it was to get our gear on again, to go back out there. I don't think any of us expect that until we get out there."

Brodeur was the last line of a great defense and arguably the team's most important player with his 1.67 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in winning 16 of 20 playoff games, but he was far from the only reason the Devils won the Stanley Cup that season.

There were other stars such as Stevens, Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer. Stevens was the captain, inspirational leader, and impenetrable force on the blue line. Lemieux was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner with 13 goals and 16 points in 20 games. Richer led with 21 points.

"Everybody says it wasn't that talented of a team and how did they win, just with pure heart and guts," Daneyko said. "Yeah we had a lot of that, but we had stars."

There were veterans such as Daneyko, John MacLean and Bruce Driver who had been through the bad times with the Devils.

There were young standouts such as Niedermayer, Bill Guerin and Brian Rolston who were finding their way in the NHL.

There were veterans who came late via trades such as Neal Broten and Shawn Chambers.

There was an unselfish fourth line of Bobby Holik, Mike Peluso and Randy McKay that became known as "The Crash Line" for their ability to play physical with some offensive flair. They combined for 13 goals and 41 penalty minutes in the playoffs.

And, of course, there was coach Jacques Lemaire, who already had won the Stanley Cup 10 times, including eight as a player with the Montreal Canadiens.

"Just a great bunch of guys that were led by probably one of the greatest coaches," Brodeur said. "We listened, we put our heads down, and the result was a Stanley Cup."

All these years later they were back together, minus Richer, Broten and Kevin Dean (they couldn't make it to New Jersey this weekend because of prior commitments), and it was as though the 20 years apart was more like 20 days.

"I don't know how anybody else feels, but I feel when we get this group back together, which has been very few times since we won, we all just kind of fall back into our roles," said Guerin, who is now an assistant general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I feel like a young kid again. Guys in Pittsburgh laugh at that, but I do. I just hold these guys in the highest respect. Just everybody falls back in place. It's great to see everybody. Just great guys."

They put on a good show too.

Brodeur played center for two periods while wearing his goalie skates. He scored a goal on a redirection from the slot and setting up Daneyko for another one.

"He's got skills," Niedermayer said. "Maybe not speed, but he's got skills."

Brodeur played the third period in goal and allowed five goals on 21 shots. The defense dried up in front of him because of some tired old legs.

"The fans were great, as I expected," Brodeur said. "I think it's fun for the organization to celebrate our 20th anniversary of winning a Stanley Cup. It's a big weekend for the players all coming back together and talking about it. It's always fun to come back home."

With Brodeur playing forward, Driver was subjected to playing goal. Rolston scored a hat trick on him, partially because the typically stingy, defensive-minded Lemaire let a forward cherry pick at the red line. As if he would have ever allowed that in the days of the neutral-zone trap.

"Jacques has changed," Guerin said, laughing. "Jacques let me stay on the ice for defensive-zone faceoffs and he told us to hang a guy in the neutral zone. I said, 'I don't know this Jacques Lemaire.'"

Old defense partners Niedermayer and Stevens played together behind "The Crash Line," and rarely let the puck or anyone get behind them.

"It was nice to play alongside him," Niedermayer said. "I broke into this League doing that, a great place to start for a young D-man."

As was expected, Niedermayer, now 41, looked like he could still play in the NHL. Whereas the other skaters were breathing heavy as they tried to catch their breath, Niedermayer was gliding with ease, faster than everybody else.

"Honestly, he should get the Not Fair Award, because it's not fair the way he can skate," Guerin said. "I was chugging to get a scoring chance and he just glided back and lifted my stick. But you know what, that's what made him special."

Even some current Devils players took in the event. Patrik Elias watched from the stands with his family. Scott Gomez, who played with several of the alumni players on the Devils 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup championship teams, was in the dressing room with them.

"I was laughing before because [Gomez] comes in to see these guys, he sees Randy McKay, and I remember Randy played with him, and Randy is like, 'Hey, go get me a water,'" MacLean said. "[Gomez] is like the oldest guy on the Devils now and you're telling him to go a water. Once you get into the locker room it just goes right back to the pecking order, which is funny."

The pecking order on Saturday featured Brodeur as just another player on a championship team. Sure he was more than that and yes his night, the celebration of his career, will come soon. But this weekend is not about the goalie who is arguably the best to ever play the position.

This weekend is about the team, which in New Jersey is nothing new.

"This group set the foundation for this franchise," Daneyko said. "It was a character group on and off the ice. That's what made it special."


Brodeur fond of Devils, relishes new role with Blues

NEWARK, N.J. -- Martin Brodeur returned to Prudential Center on Saturday for his first event as an alumnus of the New Jersey Devils.

"It's always fun to come back home," Brodeur said after playing in an alumni game with his teammates from the 1994-95 season, the Devils' first of three Stanley Cup championship seasons.

There will be plenty more alumni events for Brodeur to attend, and perhaps soon he will be attending them as a Devils employee. But for the time being Brodeur is comfortable with his role in the St. Louis Blues front office, where he has been going through a crash course in how to become an executive in the NHL since announcing his retirement Jan. 29 and becoming an adviser to general manager Doug Armstrong.

"It's been a blast," said Brodeur, the NHL's all-time leader for goalies in wins (691) and shutouts (125). "Definitely my home is New Jersey and eventually, and hopefully, I'll be back here in somewhat of a role, but right now I'm in St. Louis and I'm enjoying myself a lot."

Brodeur was with Armstrong every step of the way, almost as his shadow, in the days and hours leading up to the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline on March 2. It was quite the learning experience; he watched Armstrong make three trades on deadline day.

The Blues acquired defenseman Zbynek Michalek from the Arizona Coyotes, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo from the Pittsburgh Penguins and center Olli Jokinen from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"Not that I had much input or decisions to make, I was just there listening and asking a lot of questions," Brodeur said. "They were probably happy that the deadline was over so I stopped asking questions. But I want to learn, and it's a great setting for me. It's a really good organization that is surrounded with people with a lot of experience. Every day I'm learning things. Ken Hitchcock is an interesting man, a great hockey coach. He has a great head for hockey and different perspective. It's kind of nice to be around them."

Brodeur's perspective on the business side of the game has changed dramatically since joining the Blues front office after appearing in seven games for St. Louis this season.

"There are things about roster size and sending guys down, the paper trail, coming back, how it's done and why it's done, the reasons," Brodeur said. "There are things I just didn't know. Before I was a player and I was just concentrating on stopping the puck, that's it. It's a different perspective and it's a lot of work. These general managers, you kind of have a different level of respect for them when you see what they have to go through every single day."

Brodeur is still trying to figure out if he wants to do that much work in his second career in hockey.

"For them, I'm sure they feel it's not a lot of work just because they know what they're doing, but for me looking at them and it's like, 'Whoa, OK,'" Brodeur said. "But you know [Armstrong] has got a lot of help. If you surround yourself with good people, I think that's the key to success in the new NHL."

Brodeur is now one of the successful people surrounding Armstrong. He attends every practice, morning skate and game, at home and on the road. Brodeur is also an interesting conduit for Armstrong and Hitchcock because he is still comfortable being in the dressing room with the players considering he's not that far removed from being one.

"I talk to everybody," Brodeur said. "For sure with the goalie coach I have a special relationship, and it's more in my side of expertise than a forward, but for me it's all about playing the game of hockey, the mental part. I'm fairly involved with the players still. Not as much as a player, but a lot more than the coaches, that's for sure."

With time that will change, but for now Brodeur is comfortable in retirement and eager to learn how a team operates from the other side.

"Oh yeah, I'm all good," He said. "I'm having a blast in what I do. There's a lot of things that I have that are really exciting right now. I'm OK with [being retired]. It's great. I should have done it earlier. My body feels a lot better, and I sleep better."


Kings' Robitaille honored to have statue unveiled

LOS ANGELES -- Luc Robitaille heard it through good authority that the 19-foot, 2,500-pound bronze statue of him was sculpted well. He knew because he had one condition when he was approached about it a while back.

"I said, 'I don’t want to see it,'" Robitaille said. "I don't want to know. You guys do it and I'll see when it comes out. Just do me one favor: Show it to my wife [Stacia]. If my wife agrees with it I know it's all good."

The verdict?

"They showed it to her a couple of times, and at one point she told me, 'Yeah, it's pretty cool,'" he said. "She's happy. I figured it's all good."

Robitaille is so humbled and grateful that he would have been glad no matter how it turned out. His journey has taken him from a kid with big dreams growing up in Montreal to the public face of the Los Angeles Kings, first as a player and currently as their president of business operations. That's why the Kings saw fit to unveil a statue of him outside Staples Center on Saturday before they played the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Robitaille is the second Kings player to have the honor, after former teammate Wayne Gretzky, whose statue is not far from where Robitaille's will stand. Dan Beckerman, Kings president and chief executive officer, approached Robitaille about the idea of a statue last year, but it didn't really hit Robitaille until people recently began asking him about it.

"It was truly one of the first times I really thought about it," he said. "I don't know. I think it's special. Someone asked me [Thursday]. I was 13 years old; I remember 1979 I had a picture of Wayne Gretzky in my room. Every time I could see him I had to watch Gretzky. Now there's a Gretzky statue and it's Gretzky and me. It's kind of weird. But it's certainly humbling and very special."

Robitaille's 668 goals and 1,394 points are the most among left wings in NHL history. The Kings retired his jersey in 2007, but the statue puts him alongside Gretzky, former Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West, former Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn and former boxer Oscar De La Hoya among those immortalized in the plaza outside Staples Center that faces Chick Hearn Court.

"They're worldwide-known athletes and they're very, very special people," Robitaille said. "What they meant to this city is truly incredible. To be there amongst that group, it's kind of hard to describe the feeling."

Gretzky, Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, West and De La Hoya either never competed at Staples Center or have little history there. But each is an important part of the city's sports history, and Robitaille deserves his place for helping grow hockey in Los Angeles.

Robitaille helped the Kings land the 2010 NHL Draft and the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game at Dodger Stadium, the first outdoor regular-season NHL game played in California. He is the Kings' ambassador for public events and is active in charity work.

"If you think of how far hockey in California has come for the last two decades, a lot has been built around Luc," Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake said.

Blake, a former teammate and long-time friend, said that Robitaille's transition off the ice seemed like a natural fit given his affability. Blake has witnessed it first-hand walking next to Robitaille in Montreal, where he's treated like a rock star, and has seen him interact with fans.

"If you walk around the concourse here in L.A. it's the same thing," Blake said. "He'll stop and talk to everyone.

"I always thought he was a good hockey mind, but I think his excitement toward hockey, if he stayed in the game, it would transpire that way. He's always been good with people."

Robitaille had to leave Los Angeles to win the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002. But he said his experiences as a player helped him learn how to build a winning organization. He's equally proud of having his name on the Cup twice as an executive.

He's reminded of it every time he greets fans, especially after the success of the past three seasons.

"I love the feeling that people, when they talk about the Kings, the passion [they have]," Robitaille said. "And now players want to play here … it's an amazing feeling right now, and it's something we're going to keep pushing for many more years."

Robitaille will have his family in attendance for the ceremony. Also expected to attend are Gretzky, Blake, West, and Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner and fellow Hockey Hall of Fame member Mario Lemieux.

The emotion that Robitaille will have when the statue is unveiled will be simple yet poignant.

"I'm just a kid playing a game," Robitaille said. "I loved it. I gave everything I had every day. Everything that's happened to me since, I just feel blessed."

Bruins' Bergeron taking leadership to new heights

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron has been front and center for some of the Bruins' most important moments the past several seasons.

He scored two goals against the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to help end a 39-year championship drought.

He scored the late game-tying goal and overtime winner in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to cap a remarkable comeback from three goals down against the Toronto Maple Leafs to salvage the Bruins' playoff run that ended with an Eastern Conference title.

Throughout his career, Bergeron has come through when the Bruins need him most. That hasn't changed during the 2014-15 season. The only difference has been they've needed him to pull them through for almost all of their 63 games, rather than come through in clutch moments.

The Bruins have endured a tumultuous season. They lost forwards Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton to free agency in the summer, and traded veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk days before the season started. Injuries cost several key Bruins, including defenseman and captain Zdeno Chara, a lot of games. Center David Krejci is in the midst of his second lengthy injury absence, and he's not expected to return until at least mid-April because of a tear in his knee.

But there's Bergeron, atop the Bruins' leaderboard with 18 goals and 45 points, one season after he shared the team lead with 30 goals. And there are the Bruins, among the teams in possession of a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a little more than a month to play.

Because of Krejci's injury, the Bruins have leaned on Bergeron now more than any other season, and he's responded. Observers might think they see Bergeron, a defense-first player with two Selke Trophies, taking his offensive game to a higher level without Krejci.

"I don't necessarily see it that way. I think I'm trying to do out there and definitely play my game and keep it at that," Bergeron said in advance of the Bruins playing the Philadelphia Flyers at TD Garden on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, TVA, SN1, CSN-PH, NESN). "But I feel like when I'm trying to do too much, it's just hurting my game and it's hurting the team. So it's about playing my game and definitely, as a line, we've talked about it that we have to definitely do the job on both sides. And offensively is definitely one of those things where you want to keep getting better and keep scoring some big goals."

One season removed from winning the Presidents' Trophy, the Bruins have had a hard time dealing with the upheaval caused by player defections and injuries. By Dec. 19 they were two games over .500 at 16-14-3. They endured a six-game losing streak (0-4-2) last month but have somehow managed to hang on to the second wild card in the Eastern Conference for some time.

Bergeron's role in the Bruins' perseverance has been about more than goals, assists, faceoffs wins and backchecking. Bergeron, who has been an alternate captain since Chara was named captain in 2006, has expanded his role as a leader by example to include -- those around the Bruins say -- being more vocal. Whether it's taking one of the numerous young players aside for a chat about the system or a slump, or trying to get the Bruins to jell as a team, Bergeron has become more of an off-ice force in addition to being an on-ice difference-maker.

"I think he has," coach Claude Julien said. "I think it's a fair assessment. But I think he's always done it without stepping on toes of his captain. If anything, he's really worked well with [Chara]. I've seen him many times chatting about different things. So it's probably undeniable that down the road, when [Chara] is done with his career that if [Bergeron] is here it'd be pretty hard to not make him the next captain. So I think he feels comfortable in dealing with issues that maybe he didn't two and three years ago. So that's just a player, I guess, being a more veteran player every year and knowing we've got some young players here that need some leadership. So he's kind of taken over a little bit."

Krejci is an alternate captain, so with him and Chara missing lengthy portions of this season, there was a gaping leadership hole where there had only been a small crack left by Iginla, Thornton and Boychuk. Bergeron said he thinks he was ready to take a more active role in the Bruins' activities regardless of who was going to be in or out of the lineup.

After all, he's a few months away from his 30th birthday, and in professional sports terms that's a sure sign he's an elder statesman.

"I think I'm getting older and I think I have the experience and I feel comfortable doing that now and taking more responsibility," Bergeron said. "I think it just came naturally. I don't think I tried to force it because [Chara] was out."

From the time Bergeron entered the NHL as a teenager in 2003-04 until now, he's seemingly achieved every goal he set for himself, whether it was improving his game or helping the Bruins win a championship. He scored his 200th NHL goal on Feb. 22 and moved into 12th place on the Bruins scoring list. He said he still feels young, thinks he has a lot of productive seasons ahead, and is driven by wanting to relive the joy of 2011.

He also said he receives motivation from longtime linemate Brad Marchand, who has kept pace with Bergeron in goals all season. Marchand knows a thing or two about hard work, having earned a promotion from the fourth line to Bergeron's line during the Stanley Cup championship season. Marchand one goal away from a fourth straight full NHL season with at least 20. He had 18 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Marchand and Bergeron seem to have the kind of telepathy that's normally reserved for twins like Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. Their chemistry is through the roof, and their stats lines benefit from the relationship. To stick together, though, they said they know they have to be able to match each other's level of play.

"Every year I come in, I go and train in the summer, I know [Bergeron's] going to come in in top shape and I've got to match that. And it's a tough thing to do," Marchand said. "All year long he expects to be the best and he pushes himself to be the best. And that pushes me to have to be better and continue to improve. It's tough. And I love that challenge, I love that opportunity to be by his side. I think we've done a decent job over the years and hopefully that can continue."

Bergeron said, "You know we talk over the summer. Especially last year, he was telling me his time on the shuttle run and what not. I was definitely trying to keep up with that. We'll try to do the same thing and push each other. I think it's an important thing to have and to do, and just to push yourself too to be better."

The Bruins have a long haul ahead of them to make the playoffs and maybe go deep into the postseason. If possible, they're going to ask even more of Bergeron. That could mean more scoring and defense. And it could mean more motivation from their future captain.

"I think it's about finding ways to get guys going and finding ways to make yourself accountable also as a player," Bergeron said. "We're all professionals and I think it's kind of the talk that's been going on is that we all need to step up and we all need to be leaders. And I think that's what I'm trying to get from everyone.

"And [Chara's] definitely doing a good job as well. Hopefully we can keep getting better."

Friday, March 6, 2015

Senators' Hammond stealing spotlight, victories

OTTAWA -- When Ottawa Senators goaltender Andrew Hammond was preparing for his first NHL start Feb. 18 against the Montreal Canadiens, a couple of reporters waited by his dressing-room stall after the morning skate.

"Do you talk on game days?" asked one.

"I guess so. I've never really had anybody want to talk me on a game day," said the 27-year-old undrafted free agent who was thrust into the starting job after injuries to top Senators goaltenders Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner.

Things were a little different Friday.

Hammond, who had 35 minutes of NHL experience prior to this season, is 6-0-1 with a 1.35 goals-against average and .957 save percentage in eight games this season. He is the biggest reason the Senators have been able to charge back into the Stanley Cup Playoff race in the Eastern Conference. They were 14 points out of the second wild-card spot Feb. 10; going into their game Friday against the Buffalo Sabres at Canadian Tire Centre, they are five points back.

The story has taken on added shine with his nickname, "The Hamburglar," given to him by a teammate at Bowling Green State University. It's a combination of his name, his ability to steal games and the character from the McDonald's restaurant commercials in the 1980s.

The Hamburglar's likeness appears on the right side of Hammond's mask (though Hammond's Hamburglar looks more like Alfred E. Neuman of "Mad" magazine fame).

When he came off the ice after the morning skate Friday, there were a half-dozen cameras and almost twice as many reporters at his stall.

Hammond is a hot topic here. TSN 1200, Ottawa's all-sports radio station, produced a Hammond/Hamburglar tribute song sung to the tune of Billy Idol's "White Wedding."

In keeping with "The Hamburglar" theme, the Senators announced Friday that fans attending the game against the Sabres will be able to redeem their tickets for a free McDonald's hamburger.

"I think it’s funny," said Hammond of people latching onto "The Hamburglar" hype. "It's all in good fun, but I think other people are starting to enjoy it more than me now. But it's pretty cool in all regards."

Hammond said he's aware of the sensation he has become but is trying to distance himself from the noise.

He spent Thursday catching up on sleep after the Senators' road trip to California, Minnesota and Winnipeg, during which Hammond went 4-0-1 and stopped 159 of 164 shots. He started the trip with back-to-back shutouts against the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings.

"I laid low for the most part," Hammond said. "I did some running around. I slept in a bit [Thursday]. I just tried catching up on sleep. Obviously it's a fun time. It's fun for the fans. It's fun for me. I'm having a little bit of fun. But at the same time you've got to make sure you're ready to do your job.

"… You know what? If it ended today and I looked back on it and I wasn't having fun, it wouldn't be worth it. It's something I've worked hard for and there's a fine line between having fun and doing your job still and I think I'm able to manage that right now. I'm really enjoying it though. It's a lot of fun. The city is kind of rallying around the team right now and it's been a blast."

Hammond knows what the narrative has been, that he is a Cinderella story who has come from nowhere.

He came from the struggling Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League where he was 7-13-2 with a 3.51 GAA and .898 save percentage.

He was pulled 36 seconds into a game against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Dec. 17 when he gave up three goals on three shots in 21 seconds.

There certainly wasn't much there to hint at what would happen after he was called up by the Senators on an emergency basis Jan. 29 when Anderson showed up after the All-Star break with a hand injury.

He was thrust into the starter's job when Lehner sustained a concussion Feb. 16 against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hammond said he gets the Cinderella theme, but doesn't totally agree with it.

"I understand why it's a big story," he said. "I understand that it can be perceived that I came out of nowhere and I get that. At the same time, I've worked really hard for it. I don't necessarily feel it's something I came to expect. But I feel I earned it.

"It's something I'm proud of. If anyone can take something from my story in their own lives, then that's great because there was a point in my life where I thought hockey was kind of over. When you work hard and recommit yourself to the game, you can see what happens. People in different walks of life can kind of take that into their own lives."

Hammond walked away from hockey a couple of times during his junior career growing up in British Columbia. The first time was for a couple of weeks after he was cut and he thought about it again when he was traded. But he was talked into sticking with it by a couple of coaches.

"For 2 1/2 weeks I thought I was done with it," Hammond said. "After 2 1/2 weeks I got the phone call from my coach and he got me back on the team and that kind of reignited the flame. To have the game taken away, even if it was for only a few weeks, it kind of makes this a little bit more special."

The Senators look like they have rallied around Hammond to make this run special.

Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki was a teammate of Hammond's in the AHL and they became friends.

"I don't think you're going to find a single guy in here who isn't rooting for him," Borowiecki said. "He's the most normal goalie I've ever met. He's just a nice guy. He's a great guy; he's just easy. Dave [Cameron, Senators coach] has said it numerous times: 'He's an easy guy to cheer for.'

"He's playing so well, it's just remarkable and everybody is having some fun with it."

Borowiecki said he's seen Hammond play this type of hockey before and the performances have been based on the kind of casual confidence Hammond has displayed.

"He's quietly very confident," Borowiecki said. "He's very calm. He's always been like that. He was like that in the American league too. I think that's the key up here. As a young guy myself going through that, if you get too up or too down, it really takes a toll on you mentally and emotionally. He's done a great job of staying even-keeled and I think it reflects in his play."

OK, but 6-0-1 in his first significant NHL action?

"Do you expect any goalie to come and go with that kind of record and stats? No," Borowiecki said. "People were giving him a hard time this year because of his stats in the American league. They are having a tough year down there as a team. I don't think it's a reflection on any one person. I had a chance to see him steal games for us all the time in the American league. We had a strong team last year when I was down there and he was a big part of it. It's not really that surprising for me to see him playing the way he is. But the record is going to surprise you a little bit."

The question now is how long Hammond can sustain his outstanding play.

Cameron was asked Friday if Hammond was the real deal or just a player on a hot streak.

"He's the real deal until the streak ends," he said. "That's not for me to say. He isn't beating bad teams … let's give him credit. Let's not call him a flash in the pan. He's the real deal to me. He's the real deal to our hockey club right now. We wouldn't be where we are, closing in on the gap, if it wasn't for him."

Sabres prospect McCabe blossoming in Rochester

When Chadd Cassidy first met Jake McCabe, the defenseman was 16 years old.

Holding down the blue line for the U.S. National Development Team, McCabe instantly stuck out as a physical player, ready and willing not only to defend the puck, but to go one step further and create offense for his fellow teammates.

As his coach that first season, Cassidy helped start molding the tools McCabe would eventually use to make his way to the highest level of hockey.

Now together again with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, McCabe's development continues to thrive under Cassidy's watch.

"He's a very mature kid," Cassidy said. "At this point, I think he's adjusted really well. You're defending against guys that are a lot bigger and a lot stronger than what you're used to, and so he's had to figure out different ways to defend and to create offense."

Jake McCabe had 10 points in 11 games in the month of February. (Photo: Micheline Veluvolu)

The 21-year-old was taken by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round (No. 44) of the 2012 NHL Draft, one of only two collegiate players selected in that round. The Sabres signed the Eau Claire, Wis., native last spring as he was coming off his best season yet at the University of Wisconsin, leading all Badger defensemen with 25 points in 36 games as a junior.

McCabe's two-way game proved effective even then, as he was second in both power-play and overall scoring among Big 10 conference defensemen during the 2013-14 season.

"What grew my game the most in college was working under [Mike] Eaves and Gary Shuchuk," McCabe said. "I can't speak enough about Coach Eaves and how he just prepares you to be a pro. The confidence they had in me really helped me grow as a player. It was a great three years there. It was tough to leave."

While McCabe made his professional debut with the Sabres at the tail end of last season, he has spent the bulk of this season playing in the AHL with the Americans, honing his game and making the adjustments needed to permanently stay in Buffalo. Still, that first NHL game never quite fades, and his reaction to sharing it with those who matter most gives McCabe another intangible that can't be taught.

"All my friends and family came for it in St. Louis, and I was beyond nervous," he said. "I remember I couldn't even feel my legs in warm-ups. It just kind of showed me that I can play at that level and can compete with the best of them. It was really exciting to have my friends and family there that have supported me my whole life. I wouldn't be where I am today without them."

Though currently sidelined with an injury sustained in Rochester's March 4 game against Utica, McCabe has pieced together an impressive first season. Second among Amerks defensemen in points (27) and placing in the top 20 in AHL rookie and defense scoring, McCabe had 10 points in 11 games in the month of February.

"At the start of the year, my game was inconsistent," McCabe said. "I couldn't string together consecutive games, but the coaching staff and my teammates helped me out a lot. This past month or two I really felt confident, and like I could play in all situations, and my coaching staff was giving me that confidence."

"There’s going to be a lot of nights in this league that are going to be very difficult, but I think Jake has handled it very well," Cassidy said. "He recently had that call-up where I thought he played really well up in Buffalo, and that's because he did such a good job of preparing himself down here."

For Cassidy, already knowing McCabe's skill set and what he could bring to the table, finding out where McCabe was heading on Draft Day was just as thrilling for him as it was for McCabe and his family.

"I was really excited," Cassidy said. "He was exactly what we needed, and what we will need going forward. He's very tough to play against, and he's got a lot of offensive ability. I reached out to him right away when he got drafted, and told him I was really excited to have him on board with the organization."

That familiarity has been a boost to McCabe, a stroke of good fortune on and off the ice.

"I'm a different player now than I was then, but I think at the same time, he knows me and he knows what I can bring to the table," McCabe said. "It's nice to have a coach that knows a little bit about you, and he's someone that I can talk to without it being too awkward having conversations about whatever it may be. That's definitely been a nice thing to help me settle in here."

The Sabres have been busy in the past few weeks retooling their roster and making big moves in order to bolster the future of the team. Many Amerks players have been up and down, making the hour drive between Blue Cross Arena and First Niagara Center. McCabe's two most recent games with Buffalo came last week, pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen as the Sabres took three of four points from the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets.

"He's got a great future in Buffalo. I think he's done a great job of doing everything he can at this level to make sure he's prepared for it," Cassidy said. "Depending on what happens the rest of year up in Buffalo, and getting into the summer and training camp next year, he's going to be ready to take a lead role on that team and he's going to have a really good NHL career."

For more news, scores, and stats from around the American Hockey League, follow @TheAHL on Twitter and visit

No Bull Moments: Sharks' Karlsson vs. Wings' Nyquist

Senators goalie Hammond making hometown proud

VANCOUVER -- Goaltender Andrew Hammond has fans cheering as he leads the Ottawa Senators into an unlikely Stanley Cup Playoff race, but back in his hometown that same 6-0-1 run to start his NHL career has been especially emotional for his old goalie coach.

"It's brought me to tears just because I know how close he was to quitting," said Sean Murray, who has worked with Hammond for 17 years as an owner and coach of Pro-Formance Goalie School and Development Center in Vancouver and its suburbs. "Now seeing him have this success and just knowing how good of a kid he is, it's gotten me twice."

Maybe that's because Hammond came close to quitting on two separate occasions.

The first came when he was cut from the Alberni Valley Bulldogs in the British Columbia Hockey League after one junior-A game in 2006-07. Hammond was ready to hang up his goalie gear, but after a call from his junior-B coach Aldo Bruno, decided to return to the Grandview Steelers.

"Aldo said, 'Forget all of that stuff, is it the game of hockey you are falling out of love with or is it a bad experience standing in your way?'" said Pasco Valana, the president and a coach at Elite Goalies Canada. "Aldo turned his mind around and gave him an opportunity to play and he played well."

Hammond earned another shot in the BCHL the following season with his hometown Surrey Eagles, but was traded midseason to the Vernon Vipers, a six-hour drive away. He was ready to quit again.

"He said, 'You know what, I'm just going to go to school. I don't really need this,'" Murray said. "I remember that conversation when he was going to quit, and Pasco and I both told him, 'Don't, you have time, just give it one more year.' Thankfully he did."

The next season was Hammond's last of junior eligibility and he went into it without any next-step options. But he led the Vipers to the RBC Cup, Canada's junior-A championship, with a .949 save percentage in the playoffs and a 2-0 shutout in the final game, after which Hammond's commitment to Bowling Green University became a full-ride scholarship. After completing four years of NCAA hockey, Hammond signed with the Senators as a free agent in 2013.

So what is allowing him to have such immediate success in the NHL now? How does a 27-year-old goaltender with a .905 save percentage over parts of two American Hockey League seasons, and 35 minutes of previous NHL relief experience last season, post a .957 save percentage in his first seven starts in the NHL this season?

There are several factors, but Murray and Valana, who each still work with Hammond in the summer and have been in touch with him during this remarkable run, believe mental strength plays a big role. Hammond has always thought and read the game well and wouldn't be the first goaltender to find the NHL easier in some ways because plays develop more predictably than the minor leagues.

"It's more structured; you can read the game," Murray said. "Yes, the shooters are better if they get a one-on-one shot, but the defensive structure is that much better. It is not as scrambled and you are not jumping around as much. If you have good crease management you are within inches of every save, and Andrew has that ability."

Of course, as Valana points out, NHL shooters are better at exploiting any mistake that leaves them an extra inch, but Hammond has long been a goalie that recognizes how to take away that space.

"His work ethic is incredible from the neck up," said Valana, who also worked with Hammond as a pre-teen and reconnected in the summer before that final fateful season of junior eligibility. "He understands the goalie sense part of it and he recognizes situations, not just where a threat is, but what hand that guy who might receive the pass shoots with. He really understands the most dangerous players and what options they have. That's where his strength really lies."

There are others as well. Hammond manages his crease well and economizes his movements, rarely getting caught so far out on one side of a play that he can't recover back to the other. He is not a big goalie at 6-foot-1, but understands vertical angles and the differences between what a shooter sees and how much space they really have, and when the time comes he isn't afraid to go outside the box.

"The way he reads and anticipates plays is phenomenal, but his battle after the save, he just doesn't give up on pucks," Murray said. "Even when there is no chance, he's not so over-structured that he won't just throw out something, even go old-school. He's got save selections that are unique, and when he needs to he'll throw athletic saves out that maybe aren't technically perfect, but they get the job done."

As Valana points out, Hammond will even use his glove to trap pads against his left pad, a save that very few goaltenders outside of Nashville Predators star Pekka Rinne make on purpose, but one that saves their teams from chasing extra rebounds off the pads.

"He's deceivingly quick too," Valana said, pointing to a relaxed upper body that doesn't get locked up tight in blocking mode.

Like Murray, Valana believes mental conditioning is a reason Hammond won't get too caught up in his early success. Like a golfer who refers to the next shot as his most important, Hammond is good at filtering out noise and focusing on his next shot.

"He was exposed to a mental training coach at Bowling Green who said something very powerful that stuck in his head, and it was just, 'NS, NS, NS: Next shot, next save, next stop,'" Valana said.

It's easy to say but harder to do, especially with the entire NHL focusing in on such a remarkable start to your career and a previously unthinkable playoff run suddenly possible. Neither Valana nor Murray think that will be a problem for Hammond, in part because he was once so close to none of this happening in the first place.

"Everything now is gravy; he was going to quit," Murray said. "This is all a bonus, so the extra pressure that some goalies feel because maybe they have a better pedigree is gone. He's already won."

Blackhawks' Timonen relishing last chance at Cup

CHICAGO -- If Kimmo Timonen's career had ended last summer because of blood clots discovered in his legs and lung, he would have accepted it.

The 39-year old Finnish defenseman could have found solace in his impressive career even without having his name etched on the Stanley Cup or owning an Olympic gold medal stashed in a safe somewhere. He wouldn't have had a choice.

Doctors in Finland, however, kept the door slightly ajar. That's all he needed.

"There was always a small chance," said Timonen, who was traded Feb. 27 by the Philadelphia Flyers to the Chicago Blackhawks to pursue a dream ending to his career. "[The doctors] said, 'Well, you have to eat this medicine for six months and then you have a small chance to get back on the ice.'"

He latched onto that small chance, because to him it meant a lot.

Timonen already had played 15 seasons in the NHL, split between the Flyers and Nashville Predators. All he wanted was one more chance to chase the Stanley Cup and then retire on his terms. Stuck in a hospital bed, fighting off a potentially fatal health condition, he added a new slogan.

"Retire with your skates on," Timonen said he told himself. "Not your shoes."

That was the beginning of a path that has led to Chicago. Timonen now plays for the Blackhawks, who broke his heart and beat his Flyers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. He was on the ice for the Flyers in overtime of Game 6 when Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane sent a low shot through goalie Michael Leighton's pads.

Timonen might never get to celebrate wildly, the way Kane and the Blackhawks did that night, but he's certainly going to try one last time. It's the ultimate, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," mission, and it started with just a glimmer of hope that he might play again.

"In that moment I decided that if the small chance happens, the only thing I'm missing from my hockey career is a Stanley Cup," said Timonen, who will turn 40 on March 18. "That was the only goal which I would return to hockey [for]. It wasn't money. It wasn't anything else that was missing."

So here he is in the Windy City.

This was supposed to happen in Philadelphia, of course. Timonen's original plan was to chase his dream with the Flyers and end his career with the team he'd spent the previous seven seasons with. The Flyers' fading Stanley Cup Playoff hopes changed that plan.

That's how Timonen wound up with the Blackhawks, who are third in the Central Division and hoping to catch the St. Louis Blues or Nashville Predators. Chicago has won the Stanley Cup twice in the past five seasons and hopes to make it three out of six in 2014-15.

It's easy to see the logic in Timonen's desire to play for the Blackhawks. It's not as easy to see him in a different uniform. It's OK if you think the Blackhawks jersey with "Timonen" on the back looks a little odd because he's still getting used it himself.

Timonen has played one game at United Center, where the first notes of the Blackhawks' goal song, "Chelsea Dagger," were a welcome sound. He's heard the anthem belted out once as a member of the home team and has a handful of practices with his new teammates.

It's all new, but things are going as planned.

Timonen, who has been paired with Brent Seabrook, is adapting to coach Joel Quenneville's system, and Timonen's puck-moving style should be a great fit once he's up to speed. His ability to quarterback the power play could prove essential in the stretch run and the playoffs.

Kimmo Timonen

Kimmo Timonen

Defense - CHI

GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0

SOG: 0 | +/-: -1

"He's very astute, be it positioning or anticipation," said Quenneville, who was impressed by what he saw from Timonen in his debut March 2. Timonen played 17:29 in his first game in nearly 11 months. "His first game, he hadn't played in a whole year, had no training camp. No games at all, no feel for it, and hadn't practiced a ton either. I thought it was a very good beginning for him and I expect him to just keep improving as he goes along here."

Markus Lehto, who is Timonen's Chicago-based agent, feels the same. A former Finnish defenseman himself, Lehto was surprised when Timonen started talking hockey strategy with him recently.

"With Kimmo Timonen it's been different," Lehto said. "He's been a complete player for years and years. But actually the other day we were discussing the details of how he was playing defense. I haven't done that for 15 years with Kimmo, so it was kind of funny."

Lehto, the president of Acme World Sports, has enjoyed the recent developments. Not only is Timonen in town, but another Finnish client, 20-year old rookie Teuvo Teravainen, also is on the Blackhawks.

Lehto said he sees similarities in them, even though they play different positions. Neither is gifted with size but both have high-end skill and the drive to succeed. Watching them play in the same game for the same team was special for Lehto, who has accompanied them at several dinners.

Timonen already has started mentoring Teravainen, who's returning the favor by chauffeuring Timonen around town.

"That is something [Blackhawks general manager] Stan Bowman and I discussed when the trade was completed," Lehto said. "He said, 'Hey, is Kimmo the kind of a guy that can even help Teuvo?' I said, 'You cannot find a better Finnish hockey player for a person who would be kind of a mentor and buddy to deal with Teravainen.' Teuvo can learn just being close to him. It's not about telling Teuvo, 'You have to do this and that.'"

Timonen, meanwhile, hasn't forgotten his mantra. He hasn't forgotten his "small chance" of returning or the salute of stick taps the Flyers gave him before his first practice in Philadelphia. It's been a long journey from that hospital bed in Finland; ahead is the opportunity he's dreamed about for seven months.

"Since I was in the hospital in Finland I wanted to retire with my skates on, not my shoes," Timonen said. "It would've been really easy [to retire] and I'm sure there's a lot of people saying, 'Is that guy crazy?' or, 'What is he doing?' But let's put it this way … if I'd won the Stanley Cup before I probably wouldn't be here. Then it would be easy to say, 'OK, I won it. I've done it.' But I haven't. So that is the driving factor here. That's why I'm here."

Super 16: Jagr continues to cement place in history

Jaromir Jagr is the third best forward in hockey history.

Repeat that statement in parts of Canada or Michigan or Connecticut (or Western Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., for that matter) and expect a pretty negative response. As Jagr, who was traded to the Florida Panthers before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, continues to amass goals and points and play at a high level despite being 43 years old, his place in hockey history is starting to come more into focus.

Jagr is by no means the third most iconic forward. He's certainly not the third most popular. Critics of the statement above will immediately turn to words like leadership and toughness to try and prove it wrong.

That's OK, but Jagr's ability to dominate during his prime, which happened to be one of the toughest eras in the history of the NHL to produce offense, along with his excellence well into his 40s is why he deserves to be considered the best forward not named Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

Jagr in his prime was an incredible medley of skill and power. He used his incredible core- and lower-body strength to protect the puck better than any forward in the history of the game, warding off defenders to make highlight-reel plays.

Even in 2015, when he's one of the oldest players to ever play in the NHL, few in the League can work with the puck along the wall or with a defender snugly marking them like Jagr. He's been an incredible puck possession player in the past few seasons, and if that data was available from earlier in his career, Jagr's brilliance would be even more revered.

He's on pace to miss five games or fewer for the 15th time in his 21 NHL seasons. Given how physical the game was during his prime, his durability should be feted as a sign of his toughness. The way his old mentor Lemieux was physically defended is always part of the Mario vs. Wayne debate, and it was the same for the best players of the late '90s and early '00s as well.

Watch highlights from the late 1990s. Trying to score goals then was a far more difficult task than it is now. Jagr was hooked and held and cross-checked (even in open play, let alone in the most contested areas of the ice) far more than players who played a generation before him or the ones who have reached the NHL since the rules changes at the start of the 2005-06 season.

The other players who would be in this discussion played all or the majority of their careers before goaltending took an exponential leap forward, before every team in the NHL deployed rigid defensive systems and used video, meticulous scouting and now analytical data to try and keep players like Jagr from producing goals.

That is part of why it is so hard to compare across different eras in hockey. Baseball has remained largely the same game since certain points in its history, but hockey has gone through drastic evolutions.

One rudimentary way is to try and normalize the League average for offense. During Jagr's 21 NHL seasons, each team has averaged 2.92 goals per game (that's the average of 21 seasons of averages). Teams scored at much higher rate early in Jagr's career, so if we took out his first two seasons before he became a dominant player, that number dips to 2.86.

PlayerNHL goals/gameNHL points/gameTOTAL GP*TOTAL goalsTOTAL points
Jaromir Jagr0.471.1718638672132
Gordie Howe0.451.0521869752358
Mark Messier0.401.0718086951898
Maurice Richard0.560.99978544965
Bobby Hull0.571.1014749131808
PlayerStanley CupHart TrophyRoss TrophyRichard Trophy**NHL All-Star Team***
Jaromir Jagr21507
Gordie Howe466512
Mark Messier62004
Maurice Richard81058
Bobby Hull123710
*Games played in the NHL, WHA or first division in a European country

**League leaders in goals (before the Richard Trophy as well)

*** NHL First Team All-Star

NHL teams scored 2.85 goals per game during Gordie Howe's 26 NHL seasons. He has 84 more goals and 64 more points than Jagr, but has also played 234 more games.

NHL teams scored 3.36 goals per game in Mark Messier's 24 NHL seasons. Teams scored 15.9 percent more goals in Messier's first 21 seasons (3.47 per) than in Jagr's 21. If Jagr collected points at the same rate, but played in the 21 seasons Messier did, he'd have 284 more points, far more than the 99 he needs to pass Messier for second all-time.

None of this includes the three seasons Jagr spent playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. Or the nearly two full seasons he missed because of lockouts. Or his international resume.

Players like Howe, Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau are icons of sport, not just hockey. Messier is considered one of greatest leaders in any sport. Others like Bobby Hull, Steve Yzerman, and multiple Russians who spent most or all of their careers away from the NHL also deserve to part of this debate.

Jagr is not universally beloved. He should be universally respected for being one of the greatest players of all time. Third best, among forwards, seems about right.

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Wednesday night.

1. Los Angeles Kings

Andrej Sekera does not have the traditional counting statistics of someone like Keith Yandle or James Wisniewski, but he was certainly one of the best defensemen moved before the deadline. His ability and low salary-cap figure made him worth a first-round pick and a pretty good prospect.

The Kings could have used another depth forward, but that player might still be Mike Richards, should he return from exile in the American Hockey League, or Nick Shore, if he can translate his skills at the NHL level a little better with more experience.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

Another defenseman who should provide more value than what the back of his hockey card might suggest, Braydon Coburn handled most of the tough situations for the Philadelphia Flyers this season and: a) did so without Kimmo Timonen's help, and b) held his own despite playing on a poor puck possession team.

Coburn and a healthy Matt Carle would give Tampa Bay possibly the best defense corps in the Eastern Conference. Either Coburn or Carle would become one of the best No. 5 defensemen in the League, and given the offensive firepower on this team, that should be a scary thought for the opposition.

3. Detroit Red Wings

Speaking of subjects that could be uncomfortable for opposing coaches, the New Jersey Devils have allowed fewer scoring chances per 60 minutes (as defined by with Marek Zidlicky on the ice than any other defenseman on the team this season. Sure, Zidlicky saw a lot of offensive zone starts and relatively lighter competition, but his reputation for being substandard on the defensive side of the play is misguided this season.

Now put Zidlicky, in likely a similarly sheltered role, on the best team in the NHL at preventing shot attempts. And add rejuvenated veteran forward Erik Cole to an already deep group of forwards. Currently on track to face each other in the Eastern Conference First Round, Tampa Bay-Detroit could be one of the best series of the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs and not unlike the Los Angeles Kings-San Jose Sharks showdown from a year ago when several pundits predicted the winner of that series could win the Stanley Cup (but also had no idea who would survive the series).

4. Chicago Blackhawks

If the Blackhawks can play long enough for Patrick Kane to get healthy, they'd instantly be the favorites to win the Cup (they still are, according to some oddsmakers). Was adding Timonen and forward Antoine Vermette enough to accomplish that?

If Timonen is close to his 2013-14 level, the answer might be yes. Adding him and a healthy Trevor van Riemsdyk would make the Blackhawks' defense corps incredibly talented and deep. Vermette had a strong start to his time with the Arizona Coyotes the last time he was traded near the deadline (2012), and there is still talent up front to score enough goals. Getting past two of those teams in the rugged Central Division will be no easy task though.

5. Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are the highest riser this week and for good reason. General manager Bob Murray hit a home run before the deadline passed that might have landed across the street where Mike Trout and Albert Pujols play. The Ducks were scuffling and had a glaring weakness on defense. Murray fixed it.

James Wisniewski and Simon Despres are strong skaters and skilled at moving the puck. Put them with Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, a healthy Sami Vatanen and Francois Beauchemin, and the Ducks might have the deepest defense corps in the League. Murray also deftly removed Eric Brewer from the equation (as the Toronto Maple Leafs continued to use their financial might to add draft picks and young assets), leaving one less aging, slow defenseman that could be available for selection on a given night.

In case it wasn't clear, there is a theme here. More and more teams are figuring out that loading up on defensemen who can make skilled plays with the puck is the answer, not ones that favor the simple play, which is code for giving the puck back to the other team.

6. Nashville Predators

GM David Poile went to the whip early, and said he planned to stop adding at the time. Defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli have made the Predators deeper. A third line of Santorelli, Calle Jarnkrok and Colin Wilson might be the best in the West.

That did prove to be his only move. Considering how high the prices were later in the process, it looks like savvy business at this point, but do they have enough at center? Unfortunately, people forget about the market value in a trade if the season ends earlier than expected.

7. St. Louis Blues

Another team that was already strong on the blue line and added to its strength. Zbynek Michalek has been underrated in both tours of duty with the Coyotes. He also didn't fit as well as hoped the first time he left (to play with the Pittsburgh Penguins).

His style of play and skill profile should work well in St. Louis. Robert Bortuzzo is big, but moving Ian Cole for him was a puzzling transaction. Olli Jokinen could be useful, but he might not crack a healthy lineup.

8. Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens are not the third-best team in the East according to several advanced metrics, but with their additions they could trend in that direction and Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty can make up the difference. Montreal was one of the most improved teams after the deadline last season.

This season they added defenseman Jeff Petry, who can help in an area of need. It will be interesting to see if conformation bias clouds the general perception of Petry in Montreal as it did for some in Edmonton. They also added some depth forwards, but slotting forwards into roles in the lineup has been a cause for consternation much of the season for analytically-inclined Canadiens fans.

The biggest key for Montreal could be finishing first in the Atlantic Division, which would almost certainly mean the Canadiens could only face Detroit or Tampa Bay, but not both, at some point in the postseason.

9. New York Rangers

The next four teams are all connected (how will become obvious shortly). There is very, very little separation between them. If Henrik Lundqvist is healthy and playing really well (not just well, like he was before the injury) then the Rangers are the best of these four teams. If he's not his typically elite self, they probably aren't.

Yandle could be a great addition, but he probably doesn't reduce the minutes being given to Dan Girardi. He might even take some away from Dan Boyle, who has been better than expected for the Rangers (not Anton Stralman great, but not as far off as many analytics-friendly writers predicted). James Sheppard might be better than Kevin Hayes as the third-line center (with Hayes shifting to the wing), but probably not by much. Moving Lee Stempniak means there is one less veteran in front of Tanner Glass on the depth chart, which could be a problem.

10. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Jim Rutherford era has been fascinating. It seems like every other move he makes earns praise from the analytics crowd. Signing Marcel Goc and adding Rob Klinkhammer were hailed as savvy depth moves. Trading Goc for Max Lapierre was about as anti-fancy stats as it gets. Maybe the Oilers really wanted Klinkhammer, but putting him in the package for David Perron (a great addition) left the Penguins searching for depth forwards again.

Daniel Winnik is a very nice addition. Removing Zach Sill was a wise and underrated component of that trade. Adding Cole for Bortuzzo was a deft move. Trading Despres for Ben Lovejoy when combined with the Cole addition might be a net positive, but on its own seems peculiar.

Put all of the moves together dating back to adding Perron and what do the Penguins have? Their two biggest question marks are the two players Rutherford has publicly supported the most, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brandon Sutter. Fleury is having a great season, but … yeah, everyone knows what comes after the but with him.

They're better, but so is everyone else that matters in the East. They're also short a lot of future assets, and lacking young talent at forward is why they continue to have try and patch a capable group together. Like the Rangers, they are "going for it," but neither team found any separation and each paid a pretty heavy cost.

11. New York Islanders

Adding Michal Neuvirth was a sneaky great play. Chad Johnson has struggled, so Neuvirth even in a backup role could be the difference between finishing first or third in the Atlantic Division. He's also a much better insurance policy should Jaroslav Halak, not historically the most durable of goaltenders, gets hurt.

And while Halak's addition was celebrated, he hasn't been that great since a hot start to the season. Neuvirth has been at times for the undermanned Buffalo Sabres. It's not that far-fetched that Neuvirth could outplay Halak in the final five weeks of the season.

Tyler Kennedy doesn't hurt, and could help if used properly. Given how so many of the teams ahead of the Islanders on this list loaded up on defense, it's hard not to see that as an opportunity missed. They could have used someone like Coburn or Wisniewski, not only to bolster a potential playoff run in 2015 but as insurance in case Johnny Boychuk does not return next season.

If either goaltender gets hot and Kyle Okposo is back at an optimum level, the Islanders can win the East. If whichever goalie that plays only stops 89 percent of the shots he faces and trying to re-calibrate the lines leaves something amiss, they could be out in the first round.

12. Washington Capitals

The Capitals are a good hockey team, and on many nights they are really good. They feel like an example of why the top half of the NHL is better this season than it's been in recent years. The teams who were ranked Nos. 11 and 12 in this space at the end of last season were the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning, and this Capitals team (and the next two teams on this list) are almost certainly better than those clubs were at that point.

Washington already had one of the best No. 5 (based on role, not on talent) defensemen in the NHL, so it decided to get Mike Green a more trustworthy partner. Tim Gleason might not be better at hockey than Nate Schmidt or Jack Hillen (or a healthy Dmitry Orlov, if he's ever going to be an option this season), but Green has played well in the past with more conservative partners. If having Gleason around gets Green more minutes, that might be a bigger positive than the negative impact of going from Schmidt to Gleason.

Curtis Glencross was effective and underrated for a long time, but he might not be at that level anymore. If Glencross arriving keeps Andre Burakovsky out of the lineup for an extended period, that trade might cost the Capitals more than just two pretty high draft picks for a complementary rental forward.

13. Minnesota Wild

Jordyn Leopold became the star of deadline day, but the other two acquisitions GM Chuck Fletcher made are likely to be more important than her father. Sean Bergenheim has been a fancy stats darling for a few years now. Given his travels, it is hard to tell if teams are undervaluing him, or if it's a good sign because he appears to be in demand when made available.

Bergenheim and Chris Stewart give the Wild more snarl up front. Stewart has played a lot better the past six weeks or so and is playing for a contract. Where they end up fitting in the lineup could be interesting, but the Wild needed reinforcements without Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke.

Oh, and if Devan Dubnyk counts, the Wild already won the deadline weeks ago.

14. Winnipeg Jets

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff liked making trades for NHL players so much, he just kept on hoarding. After the marquee move for defenseman Tyler Myers, forward Drew Stafford and two quality prospects from the Buffalo Sabres for injured Evander Kane, defenseman Zach Bogosian and a less quality prospect, Cheveldayoff also added forwards Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak.

That trio of forwards certainly makes Winnipeg deeper, and hopefully puts the Dustin Byfuglien position shuttle out of commission for good. The goaltending has gotten leaky again after such a strong start to the season, but the improvements up front make this club more dangerous. It would be wise for their first-round opponent to win those first two games at home, because Games 3 and 4 at MTS Centre are going to be crazy.

15. Florida Panthers

They traded for the third-best forward of all time. And he's already sparked the power play and bolstered the second line with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. They need Roberto Luongo healthy, but their competition for the final playoff spot in the East, the Boston Bruins, made one trade and that guy is already injured and likely to miss the rest of the regular season.

Florida could have used another defenseman, but the Panthers might sneak into the playoffs with a young team that should continue to get better next season.

16. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks added a player who has struggled to find a place in the lineup for a division rival and team competing with them for a playoff spot, and gave up a second-round pick to do so. They didn't do anything else, but the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks subtracted players and the Canucks received another dose of good fortune because of Mark Giordano's absence for the rest of the season.

Any of these three teams could have made an impactful move and cruised into a postseason spot. Maybe all three GMs surveyed the landscape in the West and saw how the market was favoring sellers and decided it wasn't worth it. If so, they were probably right.