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|Despite being urged to play forward by his coaches, Mike Weaver opted to remain a defenseman and made it all the way to the NHL (Getty Images). |
In the midst of a late season push to the playoffs during the 2007-08 season, Mike Weaver scribbled a phrase onto a scrap sheet of paper that became the Vancouver Canucks’ motto down the stretch.
“It’s easy to want it. It’s tough to earn it.”
The Canucks missed the playoffs by three points that season, but the quote Weaver scribbled down still inspires him today.
“I live by it,” he said recently, almost two years later. Now a defenseman with the St. Louis Blues, Weaver finds himself in a familiar spot: hoping he can help his team make a late season push into the playoffs.
Fifteen years ago, the Bramalea, Ontario native never could have imagined playing in the NHL’s postseason, much less being on an NHL roster at all. Standing at 5-foot-9, 186-pounds, a guy his size rarely made it all the way to the National Hockey League. And they almost certainly didn’t make it as a defenseman.
“My coaches were asking to see if I wanted to play forward because of my size. I always said no,” Weaver said. “I wanted to play defense. Obviously it has paid off now, but it’s nice looking back and (realizing I) stepped beyond adversity.”
The Blues are glad he stuck to his guns.
Through 71 games this season, Weaver leads all Blues skaters with a plus-minus rating of +10. He’s become a regular among the team’s blueliners, playing more than 24 minutes in the Blues’ 4-1 win against Columbus on Jan. 12. He has nine points (one goal, eight assists), which ties his career high.
If his ice time or his +10 comes as a surprise, you wouldn't be the only one. Weaver has gone unnoticed and surprised people throughout his career. Even when he scores a big goal like the one at Madison Square Garden on Mar. 18, Paul Kariya scored his 400th career goal to steal the spotlight and overshadow Weaver's contribution.
“Like I've said a million times, I don’t mind being the guy that goes unnoticed,” he said candidly. “Just being appreciated by the guys on my team (is enough). They come back to the dressing room and tap me on the pad and say ‘hey, way to block that shot.’ They notice. That makes me want to play that much harder for these guys.
“Getting a third star, second star or first star (of the game), you get noticed that way. But it really matters here, inside the dressing room.”
If a tap on the pads and a "good job" from a teammate made you a hockey star, Weaver would be one of the most prominent players in the league.
"Mike is a guy that you don't appreciate until you play on the team with him. A lot of things he does go unnoticed, but they don't go unnoticed from the team, management or coaching staff," said defenseman Erik Johnson. "He's probably one of the top penalty killers in the league and he makes up for his size with his position, smarts and awareness. He's been steady for us all year and he's a guy you can definitely count on to make plays when the game is on the line."
"He doesn't fly under my radar. I know how valuable he is," added goaltender Chris Mason. "He's been unsung, been one of our most consistent players all year. He competes and comes to play. You know what you're going to get from him. He makes solid plays and good decisions and I love playing behind him."
The truth is, Weaver has had to prove himself to critics his entire life.
He was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League at the junior level, but instead accepted a full scholarship to play hockey at Michigan State. He reached a Frozen Four there and was named CCHA First-Team All-Star and NCAA Second-Team All-American twice. After graduation, he attended several NHL Drafts, only to walk away having not been picked. In 2000, the Atlanta Thrashers signed him to his first contract, only to immediately ship him to their minor league IHL affiliate at the time, the Orlando Solar Bears.
“(Orlando Assistant Coach) Jim Hughes told me after we won the Turner Cup that year, he said ‘I have to be honest with you: when we heard that you, a 5-foot-9 defensive defenseman was coming, we were going to send you down. What am I going to do with a defensive defenseman?’ The first nine games there I didn’t play, then I played one game and after that, I was in the lineup the rest of the time,” Weaver said.
He eventually got his big break, getting some ice time with the Thrashers, Kings and Canucks before signing a free-agent contract with the Blues.
“The other day, someone was saying I’ve played 330-something games or something like that. I never would have thought I’d play 100 games or even one game,” he said. “Every game that I play here, it’s great. I step on the ice and get the same thrills that I did in the beginning of my career. It’s nice to keep experiencing what a lot of people don’t get to experience.”
It’s easy to want a steady NHL career, but it’s even tougher to earn one.
Weaver has successfully done both.