“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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About Time: a Stanley Cup for Dainius Zubrus

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After 19-seasons in the NHL, San Jose’s Dainius Zubrus truly deserves to have his name on the Stanley Cup (Photo Credit: AP Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez).

With the Los Angeles King now safely eliminated by the hands of the San Jose Sharks, and with no obviously imminent playoff disaster in sight, I feel that I can safely say who I am personally rooting for in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs – veteran Dainius Zubrus of the Sharks. I am a hockey traditionalist, and with less and less ties to the NHL’s game of the 1990s and prior, I always get a pang in my heart for seeing long time veterans getting their name on the Stanley Cup for the first time. Last year for me it was Chicago’s Kimmo Timonen. This year, it has got to be Zubrus.

It is almost difficult to fathom that the 37-year old Lithuanian has been a regular in the NHL since the 1996-97 season. How time does fly. Zubrus actually was a part of a run to the Stanley Cup Finals as an NHL rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers, who would fall in four games straight to the Detroit Red Wings. In the 1997 Finals, the 18-year old Zubrus would go pointless in the series, and would finish a minus-4.

I first became enamored with Dainius Zubrus when he briefly joined my hometown Buffalo Sabres, coming at the trade deadline during the 2006-07 season in exchange for seldom used Jiri Novotny and a 1st-round draft choice. Though I had seen Zubrus play many times prior, even in person from time to time, I had never paid him much mind until he wore Buffalo’s blue and gold. I could then see firsthand what he brought to his hockey club from night to night. Zubrus is a very large man, standing at 6-feet 5-inches and weighing 225-pounds. He is incredibly strong along the boards and in the corners. Zubrus ended up playing 19-regular season games with Buffalo that year, recording 4-goals and 4-assists to add to his point totals from earlier in the season with the Washington Capitals who had traded him to the Sabres; he finished the year with a very solid 24-goals and 36-assists for 60-points across 79-total games between Washington and Buffalo.

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Dainius Zubrus swatting for a loose puck against Vancouver. (Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/GettyImages).

But where I was most amazed with Zubrus that season was how fierce he played during the Sabres’ playoff run that saw them make it all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals for the second year in a row. In 15-playoff games that season, Zubrus seemed to hit everything that moved, constantly throwing his imposing frame at the opposition, especially when fighting for the puck around the net. Despite knowing that Zubrus had immense size, I never had realized previously that he was the furthest thing from being a soft player. By no means did he fit the European stereotype that I immensely hate and am often infuriated by its implications. Zubrus is a prime example of how false that stereotype is. While he did not score a goal during Buffalo’s playoff run, he did put up 8-helpers for his team that postseason; third most on the Sabres behind Danny Briere and Tim Connolly. But he also played inspired, devil-may-care hockey, and that seemed to make an enormous difference for Buffalo’s push throughout the playoffs. I had greatly hoped that Buffalo would recognize how much of a positive difference having Zubrus on their roster would be and that they would decide to keep him in the offseason, but it was not to be. Dainius would end up signing with the New Jersey Devils that July, and would remain with them for 8-years.

Fifteen years after his rookie run, Zubrus would have a second shot at winning Lord Stanley’s Cup, this time with New Jersey. The 2011-12 Devils were led by the explosive firepower of sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as veterans Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, David Clarkson, Petr Sykora and Zubrus, all of whom hit double-digits in goals. 33-years old at the time, Dainius Zubrus appeared in all 82-regular season games that season for the Devils (17-goals, 27-assists, 44-points) and all 24-playoff games as well (3-goals, 7-assists, 10-points). Despite the strong push from New Jersey’s offense and their ageless goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, the Devils would lose in the Cup Finals to the Los Angeles Kings, falling 4-games to 2. In the 6-game Finals series, Zubrus would finish with 1-assist and as a minus-1. In 15-years, he would fall significantly short in both Stanley Cup Finals appearances.

After the 2014-15 season, his last in New Jersey, I had feared that Dainius Zubrus’ career was over. In July 2015, the Devils placed Zubrus on waivers, with the intent of terminating his contract. Then, after being invited to a late-October tryout with the St. Louis Blues, he would fail to earn himself a contract after the Blues decided to sign another veteran instead, Martin Havlat. Fortunately though, San Jose Sharks’ General Manager Doug Wilson, who is well-known to be a willing participant in giving veteran players the opportunity to extend their careers (i.e. Sandis Ozolinsh, Claude Lemieux), decided to offer Zubrus a tryout of his own on November 16th, 2015,and then signing him to contract a mere 8-days later.

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After being released of opportunities to play with New Jersey and St. Louis since this past summer, an opportunity to win the Cup with San Jose is maybe Zubrus’ final chance to do so (Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports).

In 50-games this current 2015-16 season with the Sharks, Zubrus has recorded 3-goals and 4-assists; the lowest point total of his 19 NHL seasons, although he would finish the season as a plus-4. And while he was also a healthy scratch for the five games of the Sharks’ opening round defeat over the Kings, I feel content in knowing that Zubrus played enough games during the regular season to qualify for having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup should the San Jose Sharks finally get the monkey off their back and win it all for the very first time.

And that’s what I want. For I believe that if a player like Dainius Zubrus devotes 19-years to playing in the greatest hockey league in the world (it would have been 20-years if it were not for the lockout), then he deserves to finally have him name placed on the Stanley Cup. It would be a storybook ending, both for Zubrus and for the Sharks. San Jose has three players – Zubrus, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau – who having been playing in the NHL since the 1990s. I suppose that I could have even highlighted Marleau or Thornton instead of Zubrus, but Marleau and Thornton have also won Olympic gold medals and neither really had to worry about not being on an NHL roster this season. Zubrus on the other hand was close to going three strikes and out since the summer after failing to gain a spot with either New Jersey or St. Louis previously. He instead had demonstrate his workhorse capabilities once more, despite having 37-year old legs, in order to garner a spot on the Sharks roster. And now, he has earned himself one more, possibly final, opportunity to win the Cup. So as these 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs continue, and with the first round underneath their belts, I finally feel comfortable announcing that I want the Sharks to win it all. For San Jose. For Marleau and Thornton. And for Dainius Zubrus.

The Consistent One, Steve Brulé

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Steve Brule as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. Here he would play with his boyhood idol, Joe Sakic.

Consistency. If there is one attribute that can be applied to the play and the career of Steve Brule, it would be consistency. Seven times within his 17-year professional hockey career, Brule led his teams in scoring. Twelve times he finished top two on his respective teams. And he did so across the globe; the American Hockey League, the International Hockey League, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Brule has won a Stanley Cup, and he has won a Calder Cup. He consistently played with top-end talent, and played on forward lines alongside the likes of Patrik Elias, Claude Lemieux, Milan Hejduk, Peter Zezel, and Joe Sakic. It was Steve Brule’s consistency that led him to having a remarkable career in professional hockey, and what makes him a remarkable person and coach to young athletes these days.

While being born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the natural assumption would be that a young Brule would have been a Canadiens fan. “I was born in Montreal, but most of my family lived in Quebec City. At the time that I was a kid, there has a big rivalry between the Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques. I was a huge Nordiques fan, and my idol was Joe Sakic. My dad idolized him too”. Steve and I both give out some fond laughter, recalling those incredible Nordiques teams of the 1980s. Sakic, Michel Goulet, the Stastny brothers, Dale Hunter. It is easy to see why Steve would have loved the Nordiques. If I lived in the province of Quebec, they would have been my favorite of the two as well. “I have loved hockey since I was 5-years old”, Steve tells me. “I started skating when I was 5, and began playing organized hockey at 6-years”. Little would Brule realize that over a decade later he would be skating on the same forward line as “Burnaby Joe” (Sakic), his boyhood idol.

Brule would play his major junior hockey with the St. Jean Lynx of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey league. The season after he ended his major junior career, the Lynx would actually be moved to Rimouski and become the Oceanic; the major junior team of today’s NHL superstar and the face of Canada, Sidney Crosby. But while Brule played in St. Jean, his strong play and productivity demonstrated that he would be a highly touted prospect for the professional level. And with teammates including future NHLers Patrick Traverse, Jose Theodore, Georges Laraque, Eric Houde, and Jason Doig, Steve would not be the only one. “We had really good teams in St. Jean, but we never managed to do well in the playoffs. We would have pretty good regular seasons, but we always lost in the first round”. Throughout the course of our conversation, we touched upon a common plotline in Brule’s career; I mentioned it earlier when speaking of his idol Joe Sakic – there were key moments in Steve’s career that he could not have predicted when he was younger, but that would make sense, almost epiphanies of sorts, as they came to fruition in the years ahead. Thinking about those St. Jean teams and how he and some of his teammates would go onto NHL careers, Steve says, “When you are in the present, you don’t realize what you are a part of. Those 4 or 5 players going onto the NHL. When you think back on it, you see that we really did have some good teams, and you feel fortunate to have played with such talented players”.

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Steve Brule would play major junior hockey with the St. Lean Lynx of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before the team would relocate to Rimouski and become the Oceanic.

In 136-games in his major junior career, Steve would finish with 74-goals and 111-assists for 185-points. Numbers that would normally be good enough for a player of that caliber to be selected in the earlier rounds of the NHL draft. “All the European players were being drafted into the league at that time. Scouting reports all showed that I was expected to go in the second or third round. As those rounds passed, I was kind of worried and a little disappointed. But as soon as you hear your name being called, you forget all of that. It is just an amazing moment!”. Brule would be selected in the sixth round of the 1993 entry draft by the New Jersey Devils, a team that was about to enter into a decade’s worth dominance and championship runs in the NHL.

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Steve Brule would play over 5-years with the AHL’s Albany River Rats, the affiliate of the New Jersey Devils.

The New Jersey Devils would win their first of so far three Stanley Cups during the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. This would also be Steve Brule’s first season of professional hockey, and he would begin his career with immediate success. Steve would be assigned to the Devils’ AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats, and after only being there for a brief while, helped lead them to a Calder Cup championship. When asked about that championship team, Steve recalls “it was amazing! It was right after junior, and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know much about the organization at that point. They needed a third-line centerman for the playoffs, and I got the call”. Steve would center a line with two of the most robust linemates a player could have hoped for; 6’1″, 210-pound, Reid Simpson and and 6’1″, 225-pound Matt Ruchty. Simpson and Ruchty were two tough hombres, as both wingers led the River Rats in penalty-minutes for that season; Ruchty with an astonishing 348 PIMs and Simpson with 268 of his own. Both men would create a lot of space for Brule on the ice. “After 2-weeks, I really felt a part of the team. Playing with two guys like that makes you feel really comfortable. They would go into the corners, go for the puck and feed you the pass”. As the River Rats would go on to win the Calder Cup championship, dispelling the Adirondack Red Wings (4-0) and the Providence Bruins (4-2) in the opening rounds, and then sweeping the Fredericton Canadiens (4-0) in the Calder Cup Finals, the line of Brule-Simpson-Ruchty was the most productive for Albany. Matt Ruchty would lead the River Rats in playoff scoring with 5-goals and 10-assists in 12-games, with Steve finishing just behind with 9-goals and 5-assists in 14-games, and Reid Simpson chipping in 1-goal and 8-assists in 14-games as well.

Winning the championship in 1995 would be the start of five more wonderful years in Albany for Steve Brule. “It was really the place that I enjoyed the most during my career. The best memories. New Jersey had a really tough lineup to crack, but we had some really good players in Albany together, with players like Patrik Elias, Sheldon Souray, and Peter Zezel who passed away a few years ago, just so many great players”. Once again, not knowing what the future would have in store for the players he mentions, Steve and I discuss the greatness of both Elias and Zezel. Though well passed his prime and having missed the most of this current 2015-16 NHL season due to injury, Patrik Elias will likely be in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday after winning two Stanley Cups and scoring over 400-goals and 1,000-points. Brule remembers the late Peter Zezel, a player who already had over 800-games of NHL experience by the time he came to Albany, with a sincere fondness. “He was a great mentor for all of the young kids. (The 1997-98 season) I played rightwing on a line with him, and he had 37-assists and I think 32 of them were off of passes that he fed to me. Just a great player, and an even better person”.

After a bit more than 5-years in Albany, Steve Brule would play his first NHL game and it would be played in the most dramatic of fashions. For it is certainly a rarity that a hockey player makes his NHL debut in the middle of the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals. On May 18th, 2000, with the Devils’ premier penalty-killer, John Madden, out of the lineup for Game-Three against the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello called upon Brule for this pivotal game. “I remember the game very well. Everybody waits their whole life to play their first game in the NHL. I played on a line with Claude Lemieux and Jay Pandolfo that game. I remember Lou Lamoriello coming to me before the game and saying to me, ‘You deserve to be here. You deserve to be a part of this for being so patient over 5-years’. The fact that a great hockey mind like Lou would take the time to come say that to me before the game spoke volumes of who he is as a person. He’s been so successful in hockey and so successful as a person”.

After eliminating the Flyers in the semi-finals, the Devils would move onto a hard-fought Stanley Cup Finals series against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Dallas Stars. With “The A-Line” of Elias, Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora playing at their very best, and the likes of NHL greats such as Lemieux, captain Scott Stevens, Alexander Mogilny, and Martin Brodeur, the Devils would defeat the Stars in six games and New Jersey would win their second Stanley Cup Championship in 5-years. As the Devils’ players paraded the Cup around Dallas ice, it was once more the quintessential Lamoriello who came and spoke to Steve as he celebrated with his teammates. “Lou came to me and said, ‘I really hope that you feel like you’re a part of this because you deserve it. And I am going to see that your name gets on the Stanley Cup’. Something like that is why Lou Lamoriello is so loved and respected by players. It is a huge reason why he is still so successful in the game today because he cares about his players”. I tell Steve that I agree with Mr. Lamoriello’s assessment; that Steve does deserve to relish in and be proud of the fact that he is a Stanley Cup champion, and that his named is forever engraved on hockey’s chalice.

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Steve Brule’s name forever enshrined on Lord Stanley’s Cup.

“Timing is everything”, Brule says. “I have seen players that I was just as good as, but they had better timing and had more opportunity to play in the NHL than what I did. But I was in the right place at the right time in this instance, and my name is now on the Stanley Cup”. Time is also an interesting concept to contemplate, for while he spent more than five years playing for the Devils organization, winning championships for the club at both the NHL and AHL levels, the 2000-01 season would see  Steve move on to another elite organization, the Detroit Red Wings. Brule would sign with the Red Wings during the summer of 2000 as a free agent. But once again timing would be everything, as the Red Wings were also heavily laden with greatness in their lineup and had completed two recent Stanley Cup championships of their own. Brule would find himself assigned to Detroit’s IHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. “It was a big transition for me after being with one team for over 5-years. Detroit had a lot of depth, and there was not much opportunity. It was a little bit rough in the beginning. I had never played in the IHL before, and it was a different style of hockey that took some getting used to. We ended up having a great season though. We had great coaching in Randy Carlyle and Scott Arniel, and there were a lot of veteran players on that team, like Ken Wregget and Philippe Boucher. It was also a great hockey community too to play in”. Brule would lead the Moose in scoring that season with 21-goals and 48-assists for 69-points, along with 3-goals and 10-assists in 13-playoff games.

Remaining with the Red Wings’ organization for a second season, 2001-02 would see Steve make a return to the AHL with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, an AHL affiliate shared jointly between the Red Wings and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. While in Cincinnati, Brule would have the opportunity to play for one of the best coaches in the game today, Mike Babcock. Under Babcock’s direction, Brule would play what he feels was one of his best all-around professional seasons. “It was maybe not my best season statistically, but I felt it was some of the best hockey that I ever played”. Brule would once again lead his team in scoring, registering 21-goals and 42-assists for 63-points in 77-games. In recalling his time playing for Babcock, Steve tells me, “Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches ever. You could tell even back then that he was something special. Just such a hard-working coach. He could give you a kick in the ass a bit too. During that season in Cincinnati, it was the first time in my career that I was ever a healthy scratch. But it worked, and I learned from it and got me to work harder. I ended up playing some of my best hockey”.

After his season in Cincinnati, Brule would leave the Red Wings’ organization and sign as a free agent in July 2002 with the Colorado Avalanche. It would be an opportunity like no other for Steve. For while it would enable him to make a return to NHL play, it was arguably more meaningful that it gave him the opportunity to achieve a boyhood dream by playing alongside his hockey hero, Joe Sakic. “Joe Sakic was my idol growing up. I had a great training camp, and a great preseason. I got to play on the top line with Sakic and Milan Hejduk”. The magnitude of this line combination floors me when Steve tells me this. “Not many players can say that they got to play with their idol. I remember in the preseason we combined on a tic-tac-toe play, with Sakic scoring from Hejduk and myself. I remember my dad calling me, and seeing in the newspaper it written out – a goal by Sakic from Hejduk and Brule, and just thinking how unbelievable that was. It was a dream come true for him too”.

Remaining with the Avalanche for the start of the regular season, Brule got to play in Colorado’s first two games of the season, a 1-1 tie versus the Dallas Stars and a 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. And while those would be the last two games of Steve Brule’s NHL career, the opportunity to play on a line with his hockey idol would be close to as a meaningful an occasion as winning the Stanley Cup. The Avalanche would send Steve down to their AHL affiliate the Hershey Bears for a conditioning assignment, and unfortunately it would bring about what he would view as the end of his chances to play in the NHL. “I blew out my wrist in my second game in Hershey, and I kind of knew at that point that the opportunity at an NHL career was over”.

Despite playing one more season, 2003-04 with Colorado’s Hershey Bears, even finishing second on the team in scoring with 58-points and first on the team in goals with 29, Steve Brule would embark on a hockey journey that would see him leave North America and play overseas for 7-years in three different countries. “It was a good decision for me in many ways. I played in Germany and Austria, but really found my place in Switzerland. I played there for 3 or 4 years, and we even won a championship in my last season. Going overseas was a good experience for me as a player, but was even better for me as a person. I got to learn different cultures and see how other people live”.

Steve would return to North America in 2011, and play a couple more years of semi-pro hockey in the Ligue Nord-Americaine de Hockey. “It was a nice transition for me towards retirement, instead of leaving the game all at once. There was a lot less pressure. Most of the guys who play in that league work regular jobs during the week, and then play games on weekends. I got to be more with my family”. Other former NHLers who played alongside Brule on his two LNAH teams include Sean McMorrow, Sebastien Charpentier, Martin Grenier, Denis Hamel, Bruno St. Jacques, Louis Robitaille, and Yannick Tremblay.

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In the later stages of his career to ease the transition into retirement, Steve Brule played semi-pro hockey with the Marquis of the the Ligue Nord-Americaine de Hockey.

Following retirement, Steve took a few years to decide what he wanted to do for a career after professional hockey. I am glad to say that Steve is still very much involved in the game today, and is imparting his knowledge of the game and his unique experiences to a younger generation. “I work with another former NHL player, Joel Bouchard, at his hockey school, Academie de Hockey Joel Bouchard. We teach a lot of hockey during the school year, and then we have summer camps. I love working with the kids and teaching what I know. The kids really look up to you too”.

Considering that Steve Brule was such a continuously productive hockey player in nearly every professional league in North America and overseas, I have difficulty in reconciling that he never earned a full time position on an NHL roster. I ask him about this, and while he recognizes his ability to produce on an ongoing basis throughout his career, he is not dismayed like I am that he did not receive more of an opportunity in the NHL. “I was a really consistent player. I think that the toughest thing to do is be a consistent hockey player. I even tell the kids this. I wish that I could have played 20-25 games at least in the NHL on a regular basis, but I have no regrets. I feel grateful for everything that hockey has given to me. It is even more meaningful to me that I had the chance to retire from the game because I wanted to retire; not because I didn’t have a contract or opportunities to play. I retired when I was ready”.

Hockey has brought so much into Steve Brule’s life. Not just in terms of statistics, championships and other accolades as a player, but perhaps more importantly what the game has done for him as a person. “The thing I hold the most dearly is everything that hockey gave me as a person. My work ethic, how I treat and interact with other people. The discipline that you have to have as a professional athlete. Those are things that you carry with you for your entire life”.

We talked about consistency and we talked about timing. The timing that Steve Brule found himself within did not offer him much of an opportunity to play in the NHL on a consistent basis. But that is just one, more narrow-minded way of looking at things. What should be noticed instead is that Steve’s consistency as a hard-working, productive player brought about the timing in his life and his career that he deserved. The timing that was meant to be. The timing to win a Stanley Cup. The timing to win a Calder Cup. The timing to play alongside Joe Sakic, and to play 5-years in one city with great teammates, as well as the timing to have played in five different beautiful countries; Canada, USA, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The timing that enables him to work with children everyday.

For I think that Steve Brule’s career is proof that hard work pays off and creates opportunity. Not in the way that we often imagine it will. In fact, life seemingly never works out the way we envision it will while we are in the present. But when we look back on the timing of moments in our lives, we see that everything works out the in the way that it was meant to. Steve Brule is a prime example of that. A consistently consistent player whose name is forever enshrined on Lord Stanley’s Cup, and who played alongside his childhood hero.