Off the Ice with Bryce Salvador

The New Jersey Devils have always been built around defense and goaltending, and after the departures of defensemen Scott Stevens (retirement), Ken Daneyko (retirement), Scott Niedermayer (free agency) and Brian Rafalski (free agency) many wondered how the team could lose so many linchpins and still stay competitive. GM Lou Lamoriello has tried to rebuild the defense and drafted a key piece in Adam Larsson at this past June’s NHL Entry Draft, but one player who could anchor the new-age Devils defense is Bryce Salvador who was acquired from St. Louis on February 26, 2008.

Salvador, a ten-year NHL veteran, missed all of last season with post-concussion syndrome but has returned in 2011-12 to solidify New Jersey’s defense corps (along with oft-injured Anton Volchenkov). The 35-year-old has played in 645 games over his career, compiling 97 points (23g-74a) and now in his fourth season with the Devils, he seems to have found a niche under new coach Pete DeBoer as he is routinely among the ice-time leaders for the team.

Recently I sat down with Salvador to talk about his career, his interests away from the game and some of his memories:

Dan Rice: I’m assuming that you have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season after what you went through last season?

Bryce Salvador: Definitely, it’s a great feeling to be back after missing the whole season, I feel fortunate to be back and playing in the NHL.

DR: Does a year off from hockey extend your playing career another year?

BS: Hopefully a few more years (smiles). My body is definitely rested after a whole year of no hockey games.

DR: What do you remember about your draft day?

BS: That I was the first guy not to be there (laughs)! It was pretty exciting just to be drafted, getting that call from Tampa Bay; it was a great feeling.

DR: What do you remember about your first goal?

BS: It was one of those plays where the puck came to me at the blueline, I believe it was against Chicago; Pierre Turgeon passed it back to me, I walked in and fired a shot that went in top shelf.

DR: Do you still have that puck?

BS: Yup. I have it at home, framed and everything.

DR: Who is your best friend in the NHL?

BS: There’s a lot of guys over the years that I’ve made pretty good acquaintances with, right now David Clarkson and I are pretty close, but I wouldn’t say one player more than another.

DR: Who is the funniest guy on the Devils?

BS: For the most part the guys are pretty quiet; (big smile) Dainius Zubrus is just funny…funny-looking maybe. He’s a pretty lively guy in our room.

DR: Is there any player in the league that you don’t look forward to playing against?

BS: Oh geez, the other teams all usually have two solid lines. But obviously guys like (Alex) Ovechkin, (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Martin) St. Louis, (Steven) Stamkos and (Rick) Nash — just to name a few. There are a lot of great players and each one poses a unique threat in their own way.

DR: What was it like playing in St. Louis?

BS: It was a great time; that organization took a chance on me, signing me as an unrestricted free agent out of juniors and gave me an opportunity. I was pretty fortunate to play the beginning of my career with Hall-of-Famer Al MacInnis for a couple of years; it was a pretty nice start to my career.

DR: Do you have a favorite TV show?

BS: Modern Family.

DR: Favorite movie?

BS: Memento.

DR: What’s on your iPod these days?

BS: Whatever my wife puts on it (laughs)!
Thanks for reading, if there is a player you would like read an interview with submit your suggestions and also questions:

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

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Parise Shines against Stars on Niedermayer Night

Devils 6           Dallas 3

Over the course of his career with the New Jersey Devils (1991-2004), Scott Niedermayer had many memorable moments — most notably his end-to-end rush and subsequent goal in Game 2 of the Finals against Detroit in 1995 and his goal in Game 6 of the 2000 Finals against Dallas — but Friday night at Prudential Center was filled with a collection of memories that Devils fans will never forget. His number 27 was immortalized as the team retired his number to the rafters alongside Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko, his speech was humble, low-key and classy (typical Niedermayer) and his former employers exploded for six goals in a 6-3 win over the Dallas Stars.

Zach Parise continued to show why he is the team captain, leading by example with hard-work and relentlessness that resulted in a four-point night (1g-3a); he was one of six different goal scorers on the night — a show of just how balanced the Devils’ attack can be when all cylinders are clicking. “When your captain is the hardest working guy out there, night in, night out, everybody has to follow,” said Johan Hedberg afterwards.

The game also marked the return of Travis Zajac to the lineup, after he missed the first 30 games recovering from achilles surgery over the summer. “Physically I felt great,” said a pleased Zajac in the locker room. “I was a little tentative in the first period and that’s just due to coming back from an injury. As the game went on I felt better, getting hit, knocked down and engaged in some battles I felt more and more confident. It’s nice to come back and get a win like this.”

Dallas scored first on Niedermayer night, silencing the sellout crowd briefly, but New Jersey had answers all night, responding with their own goal every time the Stars scored. David Clarkson, Adam Henrique, Petr Sykora, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias all potted goals for the Devils who won their third game in a row, and fifth in their last six games. Even enforcer Cam Janssen got on the score sheet with the primary assist on Sykora’s late second period, game-winning goal; it was Janssen’s first point of the season in 24 games played. “When you have a full house, you want to put on a good show,” said Parise. “Tonight I thought we did that. We had a little bit of a slow start, giving them the first goal, but overall we played pretty well.”

With Elias’ goal — the sixth of the night for New Jersey– he now has 346 career goals (all in 992 games as a Devil), one short of tying John MacLean’s franchise record. Rookie blueliner Adam Larsson (hopefully about to embark on a similar career to Niedermayer’s) had two assists in the romp and his fellow defenseman Bryce Salvador was a plus-4 on the night, while leading the team in ice-time with 26:20.

In goal it wasn’t Martin Brodeur (the next Devils number to be retired) for New Jersey, it was Hedberg and despite the unusually later start time for the game the Moose was still sharp with 33 saves in his team-leading tenth win of the season; Brodeur will start Saturday night against his hometown Canadiens. “We wanted to send the fans home with an even happier feeling than during the ceremonies,” said Hedberg, “and we did.”

Niedermayer wasn’t just a great hockey player, but he was also a great person and in sports that gets overlooked far too often. He made it a point to thank the people behind the scenes — trainers, equipment men, public relations staff and family — all who played a big part in allowing him to be as successful as he was. Despite the fact he left New Jersey for Anaheimin 2006 to play alongside his brother, and despite the fact that the Devils gave out the number 27 to other players (Mike Mottau? Really?) after he left, he will ALWAYS be # 27 to Devils fans and every fan who ever comes to a game at the Prudential Center will see that when they look up to the rafters and see his # 27 next to # 4 and # 3.

Game Notes: Zajac had 24 shifts in his first game of the season, logging 15:22 of ice-time, one hit, three shots on goal and he won eight of the 17 face-offs he took. Parise led all players with six shots on goal, while Brenden Morrow and Sheldon Souray led Dallas with five apiece; Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski led all skaters in ice-time with 26:45. Rookie goaltender Richard Bachman started forDallas and made 25 saves, losing for the first time in five appearances (3-1-0). The four-point effort by Parise was the seventh time he achieved that mark in his career and he now has a goal in each of the last three games. New Jersey (17-13-1) next plays at Montreal (13-11-7) on Saturday night and Dallas (18-12-1) is back on the ice on Monday when they return home to host Anaheim (9-16-5).

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Scott Niedermayer (NJ) —  4 Stanley Cups, 740 points (172 goals, 568 assists) 98 playoff points (25 goals, 73 assists), 2004 Norris Trophy, 2007 Conn Smythe Trophy

#2 – Zach Parise (NJ) – goal (11), 3 assists (16)

#3 – Petr Sykora (NJ) – gw goal (7), assist (9)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Rafalski and Weight Call it a Career

The NHL lost two veterans to retirement this week, Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski (11 seasons) and New York Islanders center Doug Weight (19 seasons). Both American players had stellar careers, highlighted by winning every hockey player’s dream — the Stanley Cup.

Rafalski joined the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000 as an undrafted free agent from the University of Wisconsin, whom the team’s scouts found playing over in Europe (for four years!). Perhaps his size (5’10”, 195 lbs.) was the reason he was overlooked by the other 29 NHL clubs, but he seamlessly fit in on the Devils’ blue line and partnered with legend Scott Stevens immediately and never looked back. As a 25-year-old rookie he helped guide New Jersey to a championship in 2000 and a return to the Finals in 2001. He was a major part of the Devils 2003 Cup win as well and also won silver medals with Team USA at the Olympics in 2002 and 2010. In 2007 he signed with the Red Wings as a free agent to be closer to his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan and the move paid off for both parties — Rafalski and Detroit hoisted the Cup in 2008 and made in back to the Finals in 2009. This past season he spent a lot of time playing hurt and missed a handful of games, which can be eye-opening for some athletes that the time has come to hang up the skates. “There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table,” he said at his retirement press conference, “That gets tiring.” He retired with one year ($6 million) left on his contract, citing that family is most important now, “What I’ll be doing first and foremost is serving my family; I’ll be definitely looking to help others. I don’t know what that’s going to entail yet, but that will be my focus.”

Rafalski’s career totals: (regular season) 79 goals, 438 assists, 515 points, plus-178, 833 games/(playoffs) 29 goals, 71 assists, 100 points, plus-42, 165 games/(olympics) 13 points in 17 games

Weight had a much different path to the NHL, he was drafted 34th overall by the New York Rangers in the 1990 NHL Draft out of Lake Superior State University and made his NHL debut in a 1990 playoff game with the Blueshirts. He played parts of two seasons with the Rangers before being traded to Edmonton in a deal that helped New York secure the 1994 Stanley Cup. A scoring dynamo with the Oilers, he was part of one of the most dynamic lines in hockey with Bill Guerin and Ryan Smyth; Weight never reached the Finals in Edmonton and was sent to St. Louis in another blockbuster deal prior to the 2001-02 season.  After two and a half seasons with the Blues he was traded to Carolina in 2006 and finally lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup after the Hurricanes’ amazing playoff run, topping the Edmonton Oilers in a thrilling seven-game series. The following summer he re-signed with the Blues and played another 111 games before being shipped to Anaheim at the trade deadline. Prior to the 2008-09 season he signed with the Islanders, a place he and his family now call home. He provided leadership and guidance for the young Isles and was almost like a father-figure for their players; he even had John Tavares live with his family during Tavares’ rookie season. A severe back injury limited his time to only 18 games this past season, but at the end of the season he resurfaced  behind the Isles’ bench as an assistant coach, a preview of things to come. In announcing his retirement on May 26, it was also announced that he is now an assistant coach and special assistant ‘to’ GM Garth Snow (sounds very much like Dwight Schrute’s job!).

Weight’s career totals: (regular season) 278 goals, 755 assists, 1,033  points, 80 power play goals, minus-58, 1,238 games/(playoffs) 23 goals, 49 assists, 72 points, minus-13, 97 games/(olympics) 8 points in 16 games

Are they both Hall-of-Famers? Is just one of them destined for the Hall or will neither make it? Hard to say, but I think Weight could make it. They both will surely make the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. I’d just like to add that I had the privilege of interviewing both players during their careers and they were both class acts who made my job fun and a lot easier.

Pat Burns 1952-2010

Today is a sad day in the hockey world because we lost a great coach and a great man when Pat Burns passed away at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer. He coached in 1,019 NHL games (505-353-151) over 14 seasons for Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey. He is the only coach in the history of the league to win the Jack Adams Trophy (coach of the year) with three different teams, and he won his only Stanley Cup Championship in 2003 with the Devils.

When I think of coach Burns, I think of the time when I was just starting my journalism career, attending games at the Meadowlands as an intern with Stan Fischler. The first training camp I went to was in September 2002 and what I saw shocked the crap out of me — during a drill that the coach was running on the ice,  if a player made a mistake, no matter who they were, they had to roll around on the ice like a log. So there I am, my first time watching training camp in person, and I’m watching two former Conn Smythe winners/two multiple Cup winners — Scott Stevens and Joe Nieuwendyk — rolling around on the ice in front of everyone. That showed me that he commanded respect, and had it, and that his players were willing to do anything for him to reach their ultimate goal — the Stanley Cup. He was tough, but fair and reminded me a lot of my father, who also was a cop…but not a hockey coach.

Burns, who was a police officer before becoming a full-time hockey coach, had gotten teams close to the championship in his previous stops, but during the spring of 2003 everything came together for his Devils and he guided them to their third Cup in eight years. It was a shame that he wasn’t voted into the Hall-of-Fame this past year, but I think one day soon he will receive that honor; if it never happens, it will be a shame, but in a lot of ways, he is there already. His records speak for them self, and his name is etched onto the Stanley Cup, which in my mind is kind of a cooler thing to have anyway, because you don’t have to be a great player to get your name on it — you just need to be part of a great team.

Coach Burns will be missed, but I will never forget my experiences being around him and I will always remember that spring when the team I cared about gave me something to take my mind off of the personal loss that I was going through.

My Top 10…

Everyone these days is doing some sort of top ten, and recently I read a blogger who listed their top ten favorite players and the idea intrigued me. If you have a top ten (or five) player list, let me know & here is my submission:

10: Zach Parise (New Jersey) — This kid has done nothing but score since making his debut after the lockout and he never seems to take a shift off. Other coaches visiting New Jersey have instructed their healthy scratches to watch Parise shift after shift and pattern their games after him. The best part is that Zach is only 25 and still has room to get even better (if that’s possible); oh and he is as nice a person as he is as good a hockey player — one of the few players that says thank you after being interviewed.

9: Patrik Elias (New Jersey) — My buddies & I nicknamed Elias ‘The Finisher’ back in the 2000 season because of the Czech star’s penchant for scoring big goals (See Philly, Game 7 2000 East Finals) as a member of the A-line (Jason Arnott, Petr Sykora). There have been times when I doubted that he would stay in New Jersey his whole career, but the franchise’s all-time leading point-getter has been a treat to watch and still has some gas left in his tank.

8. Saku Koivu (Montreal-Anaheim) — I instantly became a Saku fan when I first started participating in fantasy hockey and Montreal’s top line was the lethal trio of Koivu-Mark Recchi & Martin Rucinsky. After I read the detailed stories of his battle with stomach cancer, a battle he would survive, how could you not pull for the little guy? One of the most memorable games I ever attended was when he played his first game (after going through treatments for almost a year) at the end of the 2001-02 season in New Jersey. It’s sad that he couldn’t finish his career as a Hab, but I’ll always be a fan.

7. Kirk Muller (NJ) — Captain Kirk spent the first seven years of his career in New Jersey and was my first favorite player when I began watching/listening to games in 1988. I don’t remember many specifics from back then, as I was still learning the game, but I do remember that he seemed to get a point, or do something to help the team win every night. Meeting him a few years ago in New Jersey (he’s now an assistant coach with Montreal) is one of the highlights of my career so far.

6. Jeremy Roenick (Chicago-Phoenix-Philly-LA-San Jose) — I remember JR’s back-to-back 50-goal seasons and his three consecutive 100-point campaigns, but what everyone remembers most is his outspokenness and willingness to say what was on his mind. The Rooming with Roenick spots that ran on Center Ice were hilarious. He’s probably the one player that I ever liked that played for the Flyers (his OT goal in Game 7 against Toronto was a classic) and one of the few great players of my era that never won the Stanley Cup. He did some great TV work during these past Olympics — and hopefully we see more of him doing stuff like that in the future.

5. Sergei Fedorov (Detroit-Anaheim-Columbus-Washington) — He just about all you could do in an NHL career: won three Cups, league MVP, two Selke Trophys and now plays in the Russian league (KHL) after a great 19-years here in the US. Sadly, when I interviewed him I never got the chance to tell him about the ‘White Russian’ Nike poster I had hanging in my basement for 10 years; but he was one of the best players I’ve ever met and had the honor of interviewing. It also annoys to me no end when media outlets like MSG (gag!) spell his name wrong on their bottom line: IT’S FEDOROV NOT FEDEROV!!

4. Brett Hull (St. Louis-Dallas-Detroit) — Hull, like Roenick was never shy when it came to saying what was on his mind, but on the ice he was lethal. His 741 career goals are an amazing number and he’ll probably always be remembered for his Cup-clinching, foot in the crease goal for Dallas in Buffalo in the 1999 Finals, but I also remember the seasons when he tallied 72, 86 & 70 (in consecutive years) while skating in St. Louis. Hull clinched his spot on this list when he decided to suit up for the US team rather than Canada in the 1996 World Cup, prompting boos from the Montreal crowd every time his face was on the jumbotron during the Final series (I was at Game 2 of 3).

3. Scott Stevens (Washington-St. Louis-New Jersey) — When Stevens came to New Jersey, he immediately impacted the franchise and became one of the fiercest open-ice hitters the NHL has ever seen. There were so many memorable hits (See: Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, Slava Kozlov, Ron Francis) but one of the things I think of when I think about  Stevens is he was the guy who led New Jersey to three Stanley Cups — turning the Devils from a “Mickey Mouse organization” into a team that the NHL has twice adjusted it’s rules for. The only other franchise I can think of that has that distinction was Montreal.

2. Dominik Hasek (Chicago-Buffalo-Detroit-Ottawa) — Ten years ago, I would’ve never picked Hasek for my list, but times change. He was always Martin Brodeur’s biggest rival during his Buffalo days, and Hasek’s unorthodox, yet successful style led him to six Vezina Trophies and two league MVP’s. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when he and Brett Hull became teammates in Detroit, and I’m sure Hasek’s pain was eased a bit when the two Hall-of-Famers became champions together in Detroit. The Dominator had some strange moments throughout his career, and he suffered too many injuries to contend for some of the NHL’s goaltending records. Talking to him late in his career after a game in NJ, still feels very surreal, but he was willing to talk until all of my questions were answered, something I’ll never forget.

1. Martin Brodeur (New Jersey) — He’s been my absolute favorite player since 1994 and when he retires, I may actually shed a tear. Brodeur owns just about every major NHL goaltending record and still has some good years left so who knows what those numbers will be when he does hang up his skates. It’s still a little intimidating to interview my favorite player, but his easy-going personality makes my job a lot easier; and the fact that I can tell that he recognizes me (he should after five seasons!) is pretty neat. He became the ultimate comeback when being taunted by dopey, Rangers’ fans: ‘Devils suck! Yeah but we have Brodeur and you don’t! Whatever, you guys suck!’ I’ll never forget where I was when he scored a goal in the playoffs vs. Montreal or when he broke Patrick Roy’s wins record vs. Chicago, or when he was the backbone of three Stanley Cup championship teams, and one of these days, I will make sure to thank him for all of those memories…and hopefully a few more!