“Professional in all aspects”: Mark Hartigan, former Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Atlanta Thrashers, Detroit Red Wings forward

If you look at Mark Hartigan’s accomplishments as a hockey player at St. Cloud State University, you will find that in nearly every instance they are second to none. Hartigan holds the Huskies’ school records for career goals, goals scored in a period, goals scored in a single season, assists in a single season, shorthanded tallies in a season, and most total points in a season. Hartigan holds the distinctions of being a 2000-01 Third Team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association selection, and bettered that with a First Team All-WCHA selection the following season. Perhaps most noteworthy, Mark Hartigan was a Hobey Baker Award Finalist during the 2001-02 season; the trophy awarded to the top NCAA player in men’s ice hockey.

Taking all of that into account and recognizing the preponderance of those accolades, it would seem that there would be many on-ice moments that would stand out for Hartigan in his mind’s eye. But trophies, goals and selections are not what Hartigan deems as most meaningful from his time playing at St. Cloud State. “Honestly, all the friendships that I created are what stand out the most”, he says. “Lifelong friendships. I believe university is a part of many young people’s lives, and it ends up being a memory that you consistently look back on more than any other life moments with great passion and joy. Certainly an era that I still look back on and talk about”. To have Hartigan sum it up concisely: “Definitely the best time of my schooling and/or my hockey life”.

Hartigan’s “hockey life” has taken him all over the globe. He’s played in the NHL and KHL, and maintained himself as an elite scorer for many years in the American Hockey League. Hartigan even has two Stanley Cup rings that he earned during his time in the NHL. And yet despite a very impressive hockey résumé, Mark Hartigan still seems a bit surprised that I had wished to interview him. “I guess I should ask, how did you hear about me?”. I tell him simply that I remember him quite vividly during his time in the NHL, especially his years with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization. Being that Coumbus’ minor league affiliate for many year’s was the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, and that I am born and raised in Buffalo, the close proximity gave me the opportunity to become acquainted with Mark as a hockey player. To sum it up concisely for Mark, I said: “Basically, if I ran a hockey club, you would be a player I would want on my team”. Fair enough.

Starting to play organized hockey when he was about five years old, Hartigan was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, but calls Fort St. John, British Columbia his hometown. “We moved away from Lethbridge when I was about 7-months old. We lived in approximately 12 different places before I was in grade-3. But I consider Fort St. John my hometown, and where I played all of my minor hockey”. Fort St. John is the oldest European-established settlement in present-day British Columbia, and provided much opportunity for Hartgian to learn his craft outside. “I learned a lot of my skills from the outdoor rinks growing up. I loved being on the outdoor ice. Many hours in the cold”. Likely many youthful hours spent emulating his hockey heroes; the Edmonton Oilers’ version of “Rogers and Hammerstein” – Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, who were his two favorites.

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Mark Hartigan would be part of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization for 4-seasons (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

As Hartigan’s skills developed he ended up playing Junior-A hockey with the Weyburn Red Wings, earning arguably his first noteworthy accolades by being both the top scorer and named as the MVP of the 1997 Royal Bank Cup; the national championship for Canadian Junior-A Hockey. For whatever reason though Hartigan was not sought after by a major junior team.Instead, opportunity would present itself to play hockey collegiately. Hartigan tells me, “I was never recruited to play major junior. Growing up in Fort St. John, it was a small town and I never even knew of the opportunity of being able to play NCAA. Luckily though my hockey abilities improved every year, and the NCAA found me. I had multiple schools recruiting me, but I had an extreme comfort level with SCSU and felt that it was a great fit for me”.

St. Cloud State University saw Mark Hartigan attain all of the aforementioned honors, and he proved that he definitely had the merit and the hockey sense to move onto the professional level. “Luckily I had the option of being able to choose to sign an NHL contract with multiple teams. I again went with my gut-feeling and comfort level when choosing the best possible team for me”. Hartigan opted to sign with the fledgling Atlanta Thrashers franchise, who were in their third year of existence when Mark joined their team for the 2001-02 NHL season. The Thrashers featured a pair of superstar rookies that same year, in Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley; both would be strong incentives for any player to enlist with this particular franchise. “I felt Atlanta had a bunch of good, young forwards that I would be able to fit in well with”, Hartigan remembers.

Hartigan would sign his first NHL contract on March 27th, 2002; shortly after completing school and late in the NHL season. He would quickly be inserted into the Atlanta lineup only 6-days later, and would have the opportunity to show what he was capable of when the Thrashers squared off against the Calgary Flames on April 2nd. The game itself would be incredibly exciting, but would also have a moment that Hartigan laughingly would like to forget. “My first NHL game was very exciting, like I assume it is for all hockey players. Not only was it my first NHL game, but it was being played in one of the closest cities to my hometown, where all of my family could make it to the game. The whole day was a blur and it went by extremely fast. But the game itself went fairly well. A little fun fact though; for my very first penalty in the NHL, I gave a guy a penalty shot. The penalty shot was awarded to Scott Nichol of the Flames, and of course he ends up scoring”, Hartigan chuckles. But how exciting to play his first NHL game and to have his entire family be able to attend!

On a more serious note though, Hartigan would suffer a severe injury in his second NHL game, April 3rd against the Colorado Avalanche, that would end his season with the Thrashers, and pose difficulty heading into his second year and first full professional season. “In my second game I tore two tendons in my hamstring, and they had to be surgically repaired. This injury really did make it difficult to start my professional hockey career. I couldn’t train properly as I had to rehab throughout the summer. So I went into training camp (for the 2002-03 season) already a few steps behind everyone else to start my first full NHL season”.

The injury challenges that hindered his training camp with the Thrashers led to Hartigan initially being assigned to Atlanta’s AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves; a veteran laden team with numerous players Mark’s senior, including longtime NHLers Rob Brown, Steve Maltais, and Dallas Eakins. “When I came into the league I wasn’t your prototypical rookie, as I was a little bit older. And to be honest, the only one I knew out of those older players was Rob Brown. When coming into an older team like that, it’s always a bit more difficult to find your spot and role on a team but after a couple of months I fell in nicely into a top-six forward role on the team, which made for a successful season”. Hartigan would finish fifth overall for Wolves’ team scoring with 15-goals and 31-assists in 55-games, plus a goal and a pair of helpers in 9-playoff games.

That same 2002-03 season, Hartigan would get into the lineup for 23-games with the parent club Thrashers which further proved that he was an NHL caliber player. However, a tumultuous relationship with a newly hired Atlanta coach posed difficulties for Mark to earn a permanent NHL roster spot. Original Thrashers head coach Curt Fraser was fired by Atlanta during the early portion of the season, and after a brief time of Don Waddell serving as the team’s interim, the Thrashers named Bob Hartley, a former Stanley Cup winning coach with the Avalanche, as their new man at the helm. “Unfortunately for me Atlanta hired Hartley. He made it abundantly clear he did not want me on his team because I had played college hockey instead of major junior, and he was looking to make an example out of me any time that the opportunity presented itself”.

And while the hiring of Hartley would signify the beginning of the end for Hartigan’s time in Atlanta, he would still have a shining moment to call his own that same year when he would score his first NHL goal during a December 1st showdown with the Washington Capitals; a 5-4 Thrashers win and the goal coming against Capitals’ goaltending great, Olaf Kolzig. Hartigan recalls, “It was a long and trying road getting up to the game when I scored my first goal. I had been snakebitten coming into the season with the ability to not score any goals up to that point, even in the AHL. If you watch the video of my first goal, you will see my extreme excitement of not only scoring my first NHL goal but of also getting that monkey off of my back. It was a tremendous feeling”. I am fortunate enough to have seen the video of Mark Hartigan’s first NHL goal and he is exactly right; he is grinning from ear to ear and you can see a look of sheer levity and joy.

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Mark Hartigan would have two solid seasons with Dynamo Riga in the KHL; a unique opportunity to play and live in Latvia (Photo credit: Agris Krusts).

Recognizing that the relationship with Hartley would not be improving and that he would be Atlanta’s coach for the long haul, Mark Hartigan looked elsewhere to continue his NHL career. He would find a place for himself with another relatively new NHL franchise, the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was with Columbus that I would first become familiarized with Hartigan’s play. Signing with the Blue Jackets in July of 2003 Hartigan recalls about the decision, “it was a good opportunity for me and it gave me a chance to prove myself with the organization like many players. After leaving Atlanta I felt that I was on a downhill slide out of the NHL, especially after my run-ins with Bob Hartley and how I was his example boy. I was unsure of how the league looked at me and my skills”.

Hartigan would spend four years with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization splitting time between the team and becoming one of the top players in the history of their AHL affiliate at the time, the Syracuse Crunch. He would lead the Crunch in goals for the 2004-05 season, and then would lead them in goals and points the following year. In fact, the 2005-06 season with the Crunch would be particularly noteworthy because not only did Hartigan score 34-goals and 75-points, but he did so in a mere 49-games. Such a solid performance that year was enough to vault him into 33-games with the Blue Jackets that same season.

Putting into perspective his time with Columbus and Syracuse, Hartigan tells me, “I had a great career in Syracuse. I believe that I still hold their team record for most career goals as a Crunch player. It would have been nice to have been a mainstay in Columbus but they had a lot of pressure to win, so young depth players such as myself were not high on their priority list. They believed that they needed young drafted superstars and highly touted free agents to get them into the playoffs, which does make sense but unfortunately it didn’t work. They got stuck with a few big contracts of players who were underperforming, which made it fairly frustrating for a bunch of us in the minors watching what was happening”.

Piggybacking off of what Hartigan says, the Blue Jackets did bolster their lineup those years by having the likes of a young pure goal scorer in Rick Nash, a shifty, though oftentimes criticized, Nikolai Zherdev, and perhaps an underrated netminder in Marc Denis. However, they hindered themselves by signing or trading for beleaguered veterans like Sergei Fedorov (as great a player as he truly was), Andrew Cassels, Jan Hrdina and Adam Foote, who were all once highly coveted players but by the time they were brought to Columbus were well past their prime. “This is fairly common with many organizations”, he says. “Unfortunately in the world of business, players’ contracts dictate whether you are on the big team or the affiliate team, rather than the decision being made by how the player is playing”.

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It would be with the Columbus Blue Jackets that Mark Hartigan would spend the majority of his NHL career (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

In January 2007, Hartigan and teammate Joe Motzko (along with a fourth round draft selection) would be shipped from Columbus to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Zenon Konopka, Curtis Glencross and a seventh round pick. Finishing his time with the Blue Jackets, Hartigan had appeared in 48-games with the team and registered 11-goals and 8-assists for 19-points. Thinking back on his time, he says “My best memory of playing with the Columbus Blue Jackets was when I got called up for the last 15 or so games of the year (2005-06) and I ended up scoring 9-goals in 10-games along with a few assists to end the season. But especially in Syracuse, I truly enjoyed the fans and my relationship with the Syracuse community”.

The Anaheim Ducks of ’06-’07 would become Stanley Cup champions for the first time in the franchise’s history. Having been traded to the team that year, Mark Hartigan got to be part of that experience even though his time with the Ducks was relatively brief. And while it is in his nature to have wanted to have been a larger cog in the team becoming  champions, winning the Cup would be extremely special to Mark on a very personal level. Spending most of his time with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate Portland Pirates, in which he would average a point per game (25-points in 25-games), Hartigan would appear in 6-regular season games for the Ducks plus one more during their fateful playoff run to the Cup.

“Getting traded to Anaheim was great as it was a fresh start for myself. I did request a trade with Columbus approximately a month and a half before I got traded. My reasoning was that I felt that there was nothing else I had left to prove with their organization if they were not going to have me with the Blue Jackets. I believed that I had proved myself over and over again in Syracuse. From the time that I arrived in the Anaheim organization up to my day with the Stanley Cup in August, I had many life-changing events occur. First off, during the second round of the playoffs (late-April/early-May) against the Vancouver Canucks my mom passed away from brain cancer, then in June we won the Stanley Cup, and in July I had my first child. The ring and the experience was great but of course it is a little bittersweet. Like all hockey players that are competitive, I would have liked to have had a bigger role in winning the Cup. It was definitely a rollercoaster ride to say the least”. I cannot even imagine the series of emotions that Hartigan experienced in such a short period of time. Highs and lows, and then highs again. It is perhaps too much to ask from one person in a small span like that, but Hartigan was able to come out on top.

That same summer, as if the aforementioned items were not enough, Hartigan signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings in July. Rattle off some of the names from that Red Wings roster. Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg. Kris Draper. Dominik Hasek. Nicklas Lidstrom. Tomas Holmstrom. Kirk Maltby. Chris Chelios. Darren McCarty. Many of them Hall of Famers. And except for Zetterberg, all of them perennial Stanley Cup champions. An opportunity of a lifetime to join a team that encapsulated so much talent and history. Hartigan explains the experience, “I was very excited going into that year with the Red Wings. They were an ‘Original Six’ team, which is very cool. I was going to a team with lots of veterans and veteran experience, so it was very easy for me to fit in both in the American League and the NHL”.

Scoring 3-goals and an assist in 23-games with the Red Wings that year, Hartigan would have another incredibly strong season in the AHL and their minor league affiliate the Grand Rapids Griffins. Even though he played in only 48-games for the Griffins, he still finished fourth overall in team scoring with 42-points (23-goals, 19-assists). “I never questioned my ability at that point in my career. I knew that I was a good player, but I also knew there were things that I needed to work on. You can always improve. I really liked the Detroit organization as they made it clear what everybody’s role was and what was expected of everyone. They gave you the truth, and if it did not work for that player then you were not a good fit for the team. It was always about the team. I learned a lot that year, especially how to be a true professional in all aspects of life”.

The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were the top team in the NHL that season and finished the year with 115-points. And garnered with the plethora of players who were previously mentioned, the Red Wings were well on their way to earning another Stanley Cup title. And for Mark Hartigan, who would play in 4-playoff games with the team and record an assist, it would be a second Cup ring in back-to-back years. And while I know that he still would have liked a larger role in this second run too, both rings are forever his and are something to be admired and cherished.

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Raising the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings; his second Cup championship (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

The championship season with Detroit would be Hartigan’s final year in the NHL. He would opt to play in a far different atmosphere after that, albeit with still an elite brand of hockey. July would continue to be a month of change for Mark, as he signed with Riga Dynamo of the KHL; a team housed in the capital city of Latvia. Former Columbus and Syracuse teammates Duvie Westcott and Martin Prusek also played for Riga. An exciting opportunity in a new and beautiful country! Hartigan explains how the decision to jump to the KHL came about: “After my year in Detroit, I knew that if I was not a full-time NHL player by that point, there was no sense sticking around any longer. I would be lying if I said it was not for the opportunity to be able to make more money playing hockey. You get to a certain point in your hockey career knowing you may only have a few years left, and then the reality of having to get a real job or start a new career is quite frightening. So having the option to make more money, to try and set the family up as best as I could financially, and still play really good hockey – it was a no-brainer; my family and I decided to sign in the KHL. It was also very exciting thinking of being able to play in a different country that I had never been to before”.

Even more so, after testing his skill in the NCAA, AHL and NHL, it was an opportunity to try out his talents in another elite league; one he knew about, but had not previously had the opportunity to experience. “I had always heard about the Russian Super League and how skilled it was, so it was intriguing and exciting to think of the possibilities of playing in that league, which of course is now the KHL. I believe that the biggest difference between the KHL game and the North American game is the coaching styles and their expectations of each individual player. Of course, the ice size is a lot bigger in the KHL too, and that makes it quite a bit different. I am not saying that it is not a job over here in North America, but over there they make sure you feel like it is a job all year long”.

Two separate seasons in Riga saw Hartigan score 36-goals, 25-assists, and 61-points in 100-games, while a season between the two was spent with CSKA Moscow in which he tallied 8-goals and 14-assists for 22-points in 48-games. “I have to say that my time in Riga, Latvia was really great. It’s a beautiful city and country. Truly passionate fans too”. I am particularly impressed with Hartigan’s first season with Riga. He finished third overall in team scoring with 37-points in 55-games, and was second overall in goals for Riga with 22. But on top of that, Hartigan put up a whopping 115-penalty minutes; the highest season-long penalty minute total of his career in a relatively small amount of games, and for a player who was always very productive offensively. Thinking of all of his totals that season, Hartigan certainly made his mark in the KHL too.

There would be one more season of professional hockey for Mark Hartigan’s career. The 2011-12 season he would split between playing in Switzerland with the top Swiss-A league and in Sweden with the Swedish Elite League; again, both highly respected and challenging leagues. Even though Mark was able to produce in both leagues, he already knew that it would be his final year of pro hockey.

“My last year I signed in Rapperswil, Switzerland initially. The story behind it is fairly simple. About the third or fourth game into the season I had hurt my knee which put me out 4-5 weeks. The team was able to bring in another foreign player to take my spot while I was out”, Hartigan says. Most European leagues have stipulations as to how many foreign players are allowed on their roster, while most of the team is comprised of players native to that particular country. “When I came back from injury I played approximately 10-games but could never really find my game, which was really frustrating”.

Hartigan then went and played with Linköping in Sweden. “The opportunity presented itself to be able to sign a new contract with Linköping in the Swedish Elite League, so I took the opportunity of a fresh start. Transferring to Sweden seemed best for myself and for the Swiss team at that point too. It was a good mutual agreement. I pretty much knew that was going to by my last year halfway through that season, as hockey as that point was not fun for me”.

Those moments in life where something that should be enjoyable but for some reason ceases to be, at least in the way that it once was before. Like Hartigan, people come to the realization that perhaps it is time to move onto the next chapter in their lives when it is hard to get up for something that had been a pleasure previously. “I was always a guy that loved being on the ice; first one to the rink and the last one to leave. That year I found myself being the last one to the rink in the morning, and then the first one to leave. I was mentally and physically worn out. It actually wasn’t until last winter (2015-16) that I started watching and enjoying hockey again. I wanted nothing to do with it for a few years”. In the split season, Hartigan played 15-games with Rapperswil and 23-games with Linköping tallying 13-points between the two leagues.

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Mark Hartigan’s two Stanley Cup rings; 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks and 2008 with the Detroit Red Wings (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

Calling it a career on hockey, Hartigan has since moved onto a new career in real estate and has found some great success in that too. Mark also still stays involved with hockey for younger ones as well. “I now live in Fort McMurray, Alberta where my older brother and sister live, and where I grew up part-time as my dad lived there while my mom lived in Fort St. John. My brother is the broker/owner for Coldwell Banker Fort McMurray. I got my real estate license and joined his office. It was a good fit for me and my family. My first year in real estate I was named Coldwell Banker “Rookie of the Year” for all of Canada. I occasionally go out and run practices for the Fort McMurray Junior-A Oil Barons, and I also coach my daughter’s novice hockey team (7-8 year olds).

I like to see how Mark has maintained his hockey roots still, and at the same time he has entered into a new venture where, like his hockey career, he has continued to perform at a high level and be recognized for his talents. Learning this about him makes me feel good to see his successes. “Friendships, professionalism, experience, World Travel, and opportunities” – that is what he tells me hockey has given him. It is nice to see how has capitalized upon all of these personal gains in his life. It is certainly something to be proud of.

When I recall Mark Hartigan’s time with the Syracuse Crunch, I specifically recall his net presence. I felt he was always very solid around the opposing team’s net, and was able to get a quick shot away or be in the perfect position for a scoring chance recognizing how a play was about to develop. After all, he put the puck into the back of the net 224-times during his professional career. A player also does not earn back-to-back Stanley Cup rings by happenstance. There was a reason that Anaheim and Detroit sought Mark’s services for their respective Cup runs. An intangible or two that perhaps coaches in Atlanta just could not see. Regardless, they wanted him on their team. And as I said in the beginning, if I ran a hockey club, I would want Mark Hartigan on my team as well. He would bring professionalism and experience that are uniquely his own.

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The Hartigan family (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).
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“Dream Big” – A Conversation with Freddy Meyer, former NHL defenseman

What always stands out in my mind about Freddy Meyer was the size that he played the game despite being diminutive physically; he never backed down from anyone. At 5-feet, 9-inches and roughly 190lbs., Meyer’s stature is significantly less than that of most NHL defensemen throughout the 2000s when he played. But to illustrate my point of playing much larger, during a December 23rd, 2010 game in Boston against the Bruins, in what would be his last NHL season, Meyer absolutely dropped one of the most intimidating players in the game, former Bruin Milan Lucic, with a big hit; stood him right up and belted him to his backside. Meyer did this despite a rash of his own injuries that season which limited him to only 15-games. He did it despite the fact that there were less than five minutes left in the game; he could have eased up or chose the easy away around the boulder to thus avoid any conflict – but that just isn’t in Meyer’s character. And he did it despite Lucic being five inches taller than him and outweighing Freddy by forty pounds – as if to invoke a David versus Goliath tale of his own. For Freddy Meyer, any so-called lack of size never held him back in the least.

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Freddy Meyer, here with the Atlanta Thrashers, begins to move the puck out of his own zone during his final NHL season (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images).

Born January 4th, 1981 in Sanbornville, New Hampshire, Freddy did not take an immediate interest in hockey when he was a kid. “I started at age 6”, he says. “My brother started playing the year before me, but I didn’t want to play. But after spending the first year watching him I decided that I wanted to give it a try”. Little would Meyer realize at the time that the initially reluctant decision to play hockey would eventually lead him to playing four years collegiately, nine more years professionally, and for the United States at multiple international competitions. “I lived in a small town in New Hampshire, and there were limited opportunities to play besides the local youth program. I played there for two years, and then moved onto a local select hockey team that would compete in Massachusetts.

Being from the New England area Meyer naturally became a Boston Bruins fan, as well as finding a hero in a Boston and true hockey legend. “My dad shared season tickets to the Bruins with a few friends, so we went to several games a year growing up. Being a defenseman, I always enjoyed watching and admiring Ray Bourque”. There are at least some comparisons that can be made between the Hall of Famer Bourque, and the way that Meyer may have mirrored his game similarly. Throughout his own career Meyer moved the puck very well,  particularly out of his own end. He also excelled on specialty teams, and was a regular along the blueline on powerplays.

While in high school, Freddy Meyer became enrolled in the United States National Team Development Program. Initially becoming involved with the program for the 1997-98 campaign, Meyer showcased his skills alongside fellow countrymen that also would make it to the NHL, including Andy Hilbert, Rick DiPietro, John-Michael Liles, Jordan Leopold, David Tanabe, and more. In 37-games with USNTDP team that first year, Meyer put up 11-goals and 10-assists. And once again to prove that a lack of size never kept him from robust play, Meyer led the team in penalty-minutes that year with 113-PIMs.

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Never one to shy away from physical play, Freddy Meyer skates past Boston’s Tom Fitzgerald who has been upended (Photo credit: Hunter Martin, NHL Images/Getty).

Electing to continue his hockey career collegiately, Freddy would enroll at Boston University where he would continue to develop his game and would begin attaining multiple accolades. “My decision came down to the University of New Hampshire, BU, and the University of Maine. It was obviously a tough decision, but having the opportunity to play in Boston under head coach Jack Parker was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up”. Having retired as head coach of the Terriers after the 2012-13 season, his 40th, Jack Parker finished his coaching career as one of the most decorated college hockey coaches of all time. A three-time NCAA Tournament champion, a record 24 NCAA Tournament appearances, the records for Most Wins with One School, Most Frozen Four Appearances, Most Beanpot Victories, as well as seemingly countless other honors, it was not too difficult to see why Meyer would elect to go to BU and play under Parker’s leadership.

Meyer and his Terrier teammates would find themselves obtaining both adversity and success. He tells me that, “three out of my four years we lost the game that would have put us in the Frozen Four – those stick out as missed opportunities. But obviously winning three out of four Beanpots was pretty special”. The Beanpot is an ice hockey tournament that has been in place since the 1952-53 season, and sets the stage annually for bragging rights amongst the four major college hockey schools in the Boston area; Meyer’s BU, the Boston College Eagles, the Harvard University Crimson, and the Northeastern University Huskies. Winning those three Beanpots is definitely an exceptional feat for Meyer and his teammates. In addition to those successes, Freddy Meyer was also heralded as a member of the 1999-00 All-Hockey East Rookie Team, alongside future NHLers Rick DiPietro, Ron Hainsey, and Krys Kolanos. Other collegiate honors include being named to the 2002-03 All-Hockey East First Team and the ACHA East First-Team All-American.

Freddy Meyer was never drafted by an NHL team. In fact, the thought of playing in the top professional league did not seem something attainable to him until his first season of pro hockey. “I wasn’t drafted and had to battle for every chance that I had. I didn’t realize the NHL was close until my first year pro”. The Philadelphia Flyers took note of Freddy’s hard work and determination, and ended up signing him as a free agent in May 2003. “They (the Flyers) were the most interested and it appeared as the best opportunity. Being a 5-foot-9 defenseman in 2003 before the lockout and the rule changes, there weren’t a lot of teams interested. It just inspired me to train harder and keep battling”.

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Throughout his entire career, Freddy Meyer was a puck-moving defenseman who played the game much large than his 5’9″ frame (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer; Photo credit: Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images).

The 2003-04 hockey season, Meyer’s first professionally, would see him spend almost the entire season with the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms. With head coach John Stevens and assistant coach Kjell Samuelsson at the helm, Meyer put together a very promising first season, tallying 14-goals and 14-assists for 28-points in 59-games. Freddy’s 14-goals were second only to John Slaney for goals scored by a defenseman on the hockey club. With 46-wins, 25-losses and 7-ties to go with 2-overtime losses, the Phantoms would capture the AHL’s East Division, only to lose to their division and cross-state rival the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. Regardless, for a player never drafted to play professionally, that first season demonstrated that Freddy could indeed play at an elite level. And he would even have one late season opportunity to do so in “The Show”.

“I remember my first NHL game. It was a surreal feeling. The whole experience went by so fast”. Freddy Meyer would make his NHL debut, a single game appearance with the parent club Flyers, in early March 2004. A 23-year old rookie, Meyer would take twenty shifts on the ice that game, logging over 15-minutes of ice time and getting a shot on goal. Though brief, Freddy Meyer had made it into an NHL hockey game; the first of what would be many more to come. “It was great to get a taste of the experience”, he says, “and realize that the ultimate goal wasn’t far away”.

The National Hockey League would go into a lockout for the 2004-05 season. Though this would only stand as a temporary setback in Freddy’s continuing the start of his NHL career, the lockout provided him another full season of AHL hockey with the Phantoms, and it would be a most memorable one. Accompanied by future NHL stars R.J. Umberger, Joni Pitkanen, Patrick Sharp and Dennis Seidenberg, Meyer and the Phantoms would reel off another superb season in which they amassed a record of 48-25-3-4, and would finish second in the East Division. More importantly however, the Phantoms went on a tear through the AHL playoffs, this time defeating rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the second round of the playoffs, finishing them off in five games, and then making it all the way to the Calder Cup Finals championship against the Chicago Wolves. The Phantoms would make short-work of the Wolves in the Finals by sweeping them in four games straight, and outscoring them 10-goals to 4. Meyer was widely recognized for his role in capturing the Calder Cup, as he appeared in all 21-Phantoms’ playoff games, putting up 3-goals and 9-assists along the way. The proof was there for the Flyers hierarchy, and the following season would see Freddy join them for what would be the second fullest season of his career.

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Freddy Meyer would spend parts of four seasons with the New York Islanders, combining two separate stints with the team (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer; Photo credit: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

In all, Freddy Meyer would play in the Flyers’ organization for three and a half seasons, between the Flyers and the Phantoms, before a December 16th, 2006 trade with the New York Islanders would see him shipped to Long Island with a 2007 3rd-round draft pick in exchange for veteran defenseman Alexei Zhitnik. Freddy’s time with the Flyers contains some of his best hockey memories from his career. He recalls, “playing on the powerplay in PA with Peter Forsberg, and thinking to myself ‘what am I doing here?'”. When I ask him if any veterans took him under their wing during his time with the Flyers, he says, “I played with a lot of great players. Eric Desjardins jumps out in my mind. It wasn’t his spoken words, but his work ethic and commitment level. We trained together for a couple summers in Philly, and he was amazing at his age”.

Upon being traded to the Islanders in 2006, Freddy Meyer would go onto play four more seasons in the National Hockey League, including a second stint with New York after a brief stop in Phoenix with the Coyotes. After his final NHL season in 2010-11 with the Thrashers, Meyer opted for a year in Sweden with MODO Hockey of the Swedish Elite League; his final year of the professional game. Freddy tells me, “I loved my experience of playing in the Swedish Elite League. We were in Sweden as a family, and have a lot of great memories from the six months we spent there. It’s great hockey, and an unbelievable quality of life”. Former NHL teammates Rob Schremp (New York Islanders) and Mikael Tellqvist (Phoenix Coyotes) also played with MODO that season too.

Unfortunately though, Freddy would call it a career shortly after his lone season with MODO. “I had had a season ending concussion in Atlanta, and then the following season in Sweden I received another concussion. At that point, we made a decision as a family that it was time to step away from the rink”. In 281-regular season games in the NHL, Freddy Meyer amassed 20-goals and 53-assists for 73-points; solid offensive career numbers for any defenseman to have played a similar amount of games. But the career statistic that comes most to mind (at least for me) about Freddy is that in those 281-games, he also compiled 155-penalty minutes. That number speaks to a fearless style of play that he embodied, and is at least a statistical insight into Meyer’s play as a constant battler on the ice and in his own end. Besides the Lucic play while he was with the Thrashers, if you ever had the pleasure of watching Freddy on the ice, you would have seen multiple instances of him utilizing his 5-foot, 9-inch frame to place a hit on an opposing player, thus neutralizing a scoring rush by the opponent; it was always a pleasure to watch him play.

Team USA called upon Freddy too in three separate international tournaments; the 1999 World U18 Championships in Germany, the 2001 World Junior Championships in Moscow, Russia, and then the 2006 World Hockey Championships in Riga, Latvia. “It’s an incredible feeling to wear the Red, White and Blue”, Freddy says and, “nothing compares to the experience of competing with your fellow countrymen”.

After retiring as a player, Freddy became thoroughly involved in coaching the game instead. “We returned to the USA, and I started looking for job opportunities. I was hired by the Los Angeles Kings, and worked two seasons for their minor league affiliate the Manchester Monarchs as an assistant coach. I am currently going into my third year being the head coach of a Tier-3 junior team in the Greater Boston area, the East Coast Wizards. Additionally, I started Dream Big HockeyStars, where we run camps, clinics and private lessons for aspiring players”.

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Freddy helping to coach youngsters in his “Dream Big HockeyStars” program. (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer)

As a player, Freddy Meyer exemplified a quality that is dear to me personally, and that made a him a very successful hockey player – the concept of outworking his opposition. I ask Freddy what the most important thing is that he has learned throughout his hockey career. “Set your sights high and Dream Big. I was an undersized defenseman that wasn’t drafted. I needed to outwork my competition in order to have success. Never give up, and continue to push yourself outside of your comfort levels”. It is obvious to me that Freddy Meyer indeed set his own sights high and dreamed big – he played nearly 300 games in the National Hockey League with strong success, despite anything that would have inclined himself or naysayers to think otherwise. He outworked the opposition, whether it was physically out on the ice, or whether it was any doubt that may have crept in – Freddy kept it all at bay. Freddy Meyer’s career is an inspirational one consisting of big dreams that came true.

If you would like to learn more about Freddy Meyer’s hockey program, please visit his website at http://www.dreambighockeystars.com

 

 

A few words with: Kirill Safronov

Kirill Safronov
Kirill Safronov, an aspiring young defenseman during the early years of the Atlanta Thrashers.

About five years ago I got in touch with former NHL defenseman Kirill Safronov. At the time, Safronov was in the first of parts of three seasons with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Since that time Kirill and I have remained in contact. Having retired from professional hockey after the 2014-15 KHL season, Kirill is still quite busy and very actively involved in hockey. I thought it would be nice to reach out to my old friend again, and share a bit of his story from the time that he had spent in the NHL, and what led him to the rinks of the North America.

Safronov was born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia; one of the most beautiful cities in the world (I spent two weeks there in the mid-2000s, and the beauty and culture that are found there are like no other). At the age of five, Kirill began playing hockey. Living in a 2-bedroom apartment with his parents, grandparents, and a dog, there were outdoor hockey rinks to be found in nearly every park of the neighborhood where Kirill grew up. Parents used to do all of the ice work for their children, cleaning the surfaces and freshening it with water. The first team that Kirill played on was called “Titan”, and it was where he took his first steps on the ice; the Soviet Union in 1986.

Fast forward ahead about 10-years or so, and Safronov is playing for the Russian National U-16 team; this was when Kirill first found aspirations of playing in the NHL. Playing for the Russian national team, Kirill traveled a lot and was able to speak with multiple NHL scouts. Safronov had a leg up on many of his peers, as he was readily able to converse with scouts; Kirill’s English was always very good, as his grandmother, an English teacher herself, taught him to the point where he became very proficient in the language. Something that certainly helps when conversing with NHL scouts.

Safronov would find great success while playing for the Russian national team, most notably at the 1999 World Junior Championships held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Team Russia would win the Gold Medal in a 3-2 overtime victory against host nation Canada. Safronov was one of numerous players on the Russian team who would eventually play in the NHL, including Roman Lyashenko, Vitali Vishnevski, Denis Shvidki, Denis Arkhipov, Maxim Afinogenov, Petr Schastlivy, and the game winning goal scorer, Artem Chubarov. In seven tournament games, Kirill recorded 2-assists and was a plus-5.

The gold medal in January 1999 was just the beginning of a great year for Safronov. That June, Kirill would be a first-round draft choice of the Phoenix Coyotes; nineteenth overall, and the Coyotes second pick of that draft. The 1999 draft was a considerably deep draft, as it was also the same draft which saw the Sedin twins be chosen by Vancouver, as well as longtime NHL mainstays like Nick Boynton, Ryan Miller, Henrik Zetterberg, Radim Vrbata, Martin Havlat, Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold, Mike Comrie, Craig Anderson, and numerous other players get drafted by NHL teams; many of whom are still playing in the NHL today. Safronov, being taken as early as he was in the opening round, would be drafted ahead of many of these players. Kirill shared with me that “it was great to be drafted, especially in the 1st-round. I felt, and was told by the management that I would play in the NHL for many years. It was amazing for a young man from Russia to come to the USA in the early-2000s and see a different life”.

After he was drafted by Phoenix, Kirill went to his first NHL camp at 18-years of age. In order to adjust both to life and to hockey in North America, Coyotes management felt it would be best that at the completion of training camp that Safronov be sent to a junior team. Safronov’s first season in North America would be with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the 1999-00 season. Safronov would have a great first year, leading the Remparts in scoring amongst defensemen with 11-goals and 32-assists for 43-points in 55-games. The Remparts would make it to the second round of the playoffs, where they would lose a hard fought, 7-game series to the Moncton Wildcats. Safronov would finish the Remparts 11-game playoff run with a pair of goals and 4-assists.

After one year in junior, Kirill Safronov began his professional hockey debut in the American Hockey League with the Coyotes’ affiliate at the time, the Springfield Falcons. With the Falcons, Kirill would play his first two full seasons in North America. Both seasons in Springfield, Safronov and the Falcons would miss the playoffs but Kirill would garner valuable playing experience under coaches Marc Potvin, Norm Maciver and Brad Shaw; the latter two having been highly accomplished NHL defensemen themselves prior to beginning their coaching careers.

It was during his second season of professional hockey that Safronov would receive his first taste of the NHL during a December 23rd, 2001 call up by the Coyotes. Kirill recalls, “My first NHL game was a nightmare. I was very nervous…”. The game would be a 4-0 loss against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in Phoenix. Kirill would play just over a mere 6-minutes in the game, and ended up as a minus-2. Definitely a tough first start in the league. This would end up being the one and only game that Safronov ever played for the Coyotes, the team that had initially drafted him. A few months later, at the March 19th, 2002 NHL trade deadline for that season, Safronov was shipped to the Atlanta Thrashers along with Ruslan Zaynullin and a 4th-round pick in the 2002 draft in exchange for Darcy Hordichuk and 4th and 5th-round draft picks. It would be in Atlanta that Safronov found his groove and have his longest stay in the NHL.

During the 2001-02 season, Kirill Safronov ended up playing professional hockey in four different cities; Springfield, Phoenix, and after a trade, two games in Atlanta with the NHL’s Thrashers and their AHL minor league affiliate Chicago-based team, the Wolves. While Safronov would only play two more NHL games that season, both of which were losses for the Thrashers that came at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils, his ice-time improved to over the 20-minute mark. But perhaps more importantly for his experience level in North American professional hockey, Safronov was able to be part of a Calder Cup championship run with the Wolves, appearing in all 25-playoff games as the Thrashers affiliate would capture the second oldest trophy in professional hockey, after the Stanley Cup.

The Wolves were a collection of some of professional hockey’s golden oldies; former NHL sniper Rob Brown leading the way, along with other over-30 players like Steve Maltais, Dallas Eakins, Guy Larose and longtime minor leaguer Bob Nardella. You probably could not assemble a better grouping of veteran players for Kirill’s tutelage.

Coming off of that Calder Cup championship, the 2002-03 season would see Kirill Safronov make his big break in the NHL. Though they suffered a number of losses along the way, the ’02-’03 Thrashers were a helluva fun team to watch, as they possessed two of the best young snipers in the game; Dany Heatley, who would rattle off 41-goals that season, and Safronov’s fellow countryman, Ilya Kovalchuk, who would net 38 himself that season. The Thrashers were very young and very Russian. With Kovalchuk leading the way on offense, veteran presence came from 30-year old, two-time Stanley Cup champion Slava Kozlov, as well as forward Yuri Butsayev, and Kirill himself. The three other Russians were Safronov’s closest friends on the team, and Kirill would end up suiting up for 32-games that season for Atlanta.

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During Atlanta’s 2002-03, Safronov was one of four Russian-born players who helped bring excitement to the NHL’ newly founded Thrashers franchise.

Kirill’s first NHL goal would be scored October 19th, 2002 in a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders in Atlanta. He would add a second goal in March coming in a victory against the Predators in Nashville. On the whole, Safronov would finish the 2002-03 season with 2-goals and 2-assists, and would average over 15-minutes of ice time per game.

Despite this fair amount of success with the Thrashers, Kirill Safronov would play just one more season of professional hockey in North America – but this final season would definitely be another successful one and an exciting one. Though he would begin 2003-04 with the Thrashers’ affiliate the Wolves, a December 2nd 2003 trade would see Kirill become property of the Nashville Predators along with Simon Gamache in exchange for Ben Simon and Tomas Kloucek; the irony being that Safronov’s last NHL goal had come against the Predators. Safronov would never actually suit up for the Predators, as he was assigned to their AHL affiliate team, the Milwaukee Admirals.

Though not in the NHL, Kirill and his new teammates would enjoy a most prosperous season in which the Admirals would make a run for the Calder Cup, and Safronov would thus win his second American Hockey League championship. Despite coming over late in the season, Safronov would still finish third amongst defensemen in scoring for the Admirals, and he would play in all but one playoff game during their championship run. The champion Admirals were a very diverse group of players, comprised with the likes of 37-year old Stanley Cup champion Tony Hrkac, 6’4″ and 240lbs. Latvian monster Raitis Ivanans, 35-year old journeyman netminder Wade Flaherty, and up-and-coming youngsters like Scottie Upshall, Vernon Fiddler, and fellow Russian Timofei Shishkanov; Shishkanov being one of the few players from his North American days that Safronov still remains in touch with. The Admirals were a fun, unique team that won the championship despite any variance in the players’ backgrounds.

The NHL lockout would come for the 2004-05 season, and Kirill Safronov would find himself back in Russia playing for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Voskresensk Khimik during the stoppage in NHL play. Unfortunately, it was also during this time that Kirill’s father would become ill with cancer. With no offers to return to the NHL, and the more important need of taking care of his family, Kirill would accept a 3-year offer to play for his hometown Saint Petersburg SKA so that he could continue his professional career and be close with his family. Quite sadly, Kirill’s father would pass away from his illness a year after he started playing hockey with SKA.

Starting with the 2005-06 season, Kirill would play a total of 10 seasons in his native Russia, 5 seasons of which were with St. Petersburg SKA. Upon completion of the 2014-15 KHL season, Safronov would hang up his skates for good, at least as a professional hockey player. Injuries and age had hampered his knee, despite training very hard from month to month to keep in game shape. Though there were offers from various European leagues, Safronov decided to let go of playing professional hockey. Kirill is still very much involved in hockey these days, and keeps himself plenty busy. Safronov finished his degree in sports management at Lesgaft University in Saint Petersburg, and also received his agent’s license. Kirill also does some television work as a hockey analyst and expert, and serves as Vice-President for a kids hockey team called “Red Star” in Saint Petersburg as well. He will skate three nights a week in a recreational league, and finds that nowadays he often works from 7:30AM until late in the evening. Kirill told me that “thanks to hockey in my life to give me a strong character and a will to win”.

KHL Season 2009/10
Safronov skating with Saint Petersburg SKA.

Though Kirill Safronov’s NHL career may have been brief, he still had remarkable success in North America by winning two Calder Cup championships. Not to mention the fact that Safronov found international success by winning a gold medal in the World Junior championships. In addition to being an accomplished hockey player, Kirill is one of the nicest guys I know, and I thank him greatly for sharing his story with me. All the best to you, Kirill!