David Hale began training camp in the middle of a crowded depth chart on defense for the Lightning. Being more of a defensive defenseman, he didn’t have the flash of some others, or the above-average size.
It was definitely a fresh start for me, so I took it as a good opportunity. You come in, work hard, put out your best effort and the rest takes care of itself." - David Hale
Hale, starting with his fourth NHL team in six seasons, didn’t try to do too much. He simply went to work.
Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said it didn’t take long, maybe three practices, to realize Hale had a chance to make an impact. He was grasping the system quickly, winning battles, earning playing time.
“He’s done a nice job,” Tocchet said. “Right from the start of training camp, he’s been a real pro. He’s been one of our steadiest defensemen.”
Hale, 28, was acquired from Phoenix along with Todd Fedoruk for Radim Vrbata. In the second of a two-year contract, Hale added depth and experience to a rebuilt defense.
But where did Hale fit, with second-overall pick Victor Hedman and eight other defensemen in camp with 57 or more games of NHL experience? Many thought he might be on the outside looking in.
“It was definitely a fresh start for me, so I took it as a good opportunity,” said Hale, who has played 273 career NHL games. “You come in, work hard, put out your best effort and the rest takes care of itself. They had a lot of defensemen in camp that could play. There was competition to earn a spot. That’s the environment they wanted to create. I think [the system] plays into the style that I play. That was a plus.”
Tocchet said Hale is the ultimate depth guy, and has the grit and hockey IQ the organization likes. When adjustments need to be made, Tocchet says he sees it from Hale on the ice immediately.
“He’s not his own self programmer,” Tocchet said.
Hale has entrenched himself in the lineup the last nine games, playing in 11 of the first 15, and has chipped in with three assists, 15 hits and nine blocked shots (two in the 3-1 victory at Montreal Saturday). He had two assists and was named the third star in the 5-2 victory over Ottawa, Oct. 29. Hale has a plus/minus rating of plus-3, making him plus-9 for his career.
Maybe it is a surprise that the humble, affable Hale has ascended to the top six. Maybe it is not. The 6 foot 1, 218-pound left shot has given plenty and taken something away from every stop along the way.
Hale, born in Colorado Springs, Colo., was drafted in the first round (22nd overall) by the New Jersey Devils in 2000. He then spent three seasons with NCAA powerhouse North Dakota, where he played two seasons with his brother Ryan, before signing with the Devils. Hale loved the blue-collar town of Grand Forks, N.D., where he met his wife, and he still calls it home.
It was time for professional hockey after his junior season and he put up solid numbers as a rookie in swamps of New Jersey. He played in 65 games, producing four assists and earning a plus-12.
“I think the big reason I was plus-12 is there were two Hall of Famers on defense (Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer) with me, our system and another Hall of Famer behind me (Marty Brodeur),” Hale said, smiling. “It was a great experience. I think there were a lot of ups and downs that year, but I learned a ton about the game.”
Hale spent the next season with Albany of the American Hockey League, during the NHL lockout. It did not slow his momentum.
“I’m actually glad I played a season in the minors,” Hale said. “I think a lot of players need to experience that in order to become more consistent at the NHL level.”
The Devils, with plenty of depth on defense, traded Hale to Calgary where he played 69 games in parts of two seasons. Although he enjoyed his time with the Flames, Hale signed a two-year free agent deal with Phoenix in the summer of 2008.
It was there that Hale scored his first goal in his 231st game, ending his NHL-record goal-less streak to start a career. Hale went on to score three and put up a career-high nine points. His game will not change though.
“Once I start worrying about offensive production,” Hale said, “that takes away from what I really need to focus on.”
Hale wondered where he would play his next game after last season – with the Coyotes. There was the threat of ownership change, a move, perhaps to Hamilton, Ont. or somewhere else.
“I think the organization did a pretty good job of separating the financial business from the on-ice business,” Hale said. “You just had to block it out and just worry about the little things like doing your job and performing well.”
Soon, Hale was headed to Tampa.
“It was a surprise,” Hale said. “It was my second trade, so I just took it in stride. It’s never easy, but the second time around is a little easier than the first.”
Fedoruk, with two goals and an assist in 13 games, and Hale have made it a profitable trade for the Lightning.
Hale plans on just keeping things simple.
“I just try to do the bare bones, basic stuff well,” Hale said. “If I do that, everything else will fall into place.”