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Cormier working on putting past behind him

by John Manasso
DULUTH, Ga. -- The dissonance is striking between what one hears about Atlanta Thrashers prospect Patrice Cormier and what one sees.

For anyone who has watched the video of an elbow thrown by Cormier, then playing for Rouyn-Noranda, to the head of Quebec's Mikael Tam during a Jan. 17 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game, it's enough to make the stomach churn. Even though it occurred in a junior game, Cormier's hit fueled the larger debate about policing hits to the head in the NHL.

Cormier was suspended for the remainder of the QMJHL regular season and playoffs, a total of 31 games. He also faces a court date Monday after being charged with assault causing injury.

And yet here is what Thrashers General Manager Rick Dudley said about Cormier on Thursday while comparing him to former NHL player Kirk Muller: "He's a guy who does everything pretty well and he's got that sandpaper and that character that everybody looks for." Dudley added that acquiring Cormier was "the key" to Atlanta's trade of Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey in February, in which the Thrashers also received all-rookie winger Niclas Bergfors and steady defenseman Johnny Oduya.

And here's what Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr said of Cormier coming into his draft year in 2008: "Everyone could tell he was a high-character player, power-forward style."

Some -- notably columnist Ken Campbell of The Hockey News -- felt Cormier got off lightly for the hit. The best news out of the whole matter was that Tam made a relatively quick recovery after spending one night in the hospital.

When asked about the incident Thursday, the first day of Atlanta's prospect development camp, Cormier preferred not to delve too deeply into the matter, especially with the pending court hearing.

"I've talked about it a lot -- enough, I think," he said. "I don't really want to elaborate on that. Court is coming up on Monday. … It's in the past. The toughest part for me was not playing and not being able to help my teammates. First and foremost, I'm glad the guy is fine now and that's it."

He said he does not have to appear in person at Monday's hearing and would not do so. He said he will enter a plea but declined to say what the plea might be.

Now, his mindset is geared toward breaking into the NHL. As he does so, he will carry the added burden of attempting to change pre-conceived notions about the kind of player that he is.

"I don't forget it quick, but you have to," he said. "Life goes on and it's too short to dwell on the past, I think."

If Cormier wasvtrying to make his first NHL team in a Canadian market, where knowledge of his deed would be ever-present, his goal might be more complicated than it is in a non-traditional market like Atlanta.

"The fact is we're in Atlanta and it's a less of a commodity here, in terms of media, than it would be there," said Dudley, who added that he has not spoken to Cormier about the incident. "I hope he can put it behind quickly and get on with his life and hockey, which is going to be a long one."

Once Rouyn-Noranda's season was complete, Cormier's suspension expired. He played nine games in the American Hockey League playoffs with the Chicago Wolves, the Thrashers' top affiliate, failing to record a point but totaling eight penalty minutes. He said it was a relief to get back on the ice.

"That helped me a lot," Cormier said. "I was lucky to get the opportunity to play there and play some games and get back before the start of this season.

"It was just -- I can't really describe not playing for 31 games and then coming back. You know that you missed it and when you get back it was about time. I was really happy. Yes, it was my team (Rouyn-Noranda) and everything, but you don't feel a part of it when you're not playing. In Chicago, you feel a part of the team again and it was a great feeling."

Cormier isn't the first player to come to the NHL with a darkened reputation. Within the Southeast Division, Tampa Bay's Steve Downie is an example of a player who has rehabilitated his image after one ugly incident as a junior and another that earned him a 20-game NHL suspension in his rookie season. Downie played 79 games last season and had 22 goals and 46 points as a member of one of the League's top lines, playing with Lady Byng Trophy winner Martin St. Louis and 51-goal scorer Steven Stamkos.

Like Downie, Cormier is loaded with potential. Even though he is 20, Dudley said it's a matter of when, not if, he plays in the League. Atlanta thinks he has a good chance to make this year's team.

Dudley said Cormier brings "size, strength, hockey sense and nastiness -- that little bit of abrasiveness that you like."

"He's a big man (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) who can play all three forward positions. We liked him at center but he's that type of center that plays on winning organizations. He may play between a second- and a third-line but you like him wherever he is."

"He's got good hockey sense," Marr said. "He can play both sides of the puck. If he has a really good offensive year, then nobody should be surprised."
-- Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr

Marr said that heading into Cormier's draft year, the biggest question he faced was his skating -- one reason why he fell to the Devils in the second round (No. 54). Now, Marr said, Cormier does not have a weak spot in his game.

Eerily, in his 2008 draft profile on, Cormier said he patterned his game after Todd Bertuzzi, also known for an infamous hit. His last two seasons as a junior, Cormier averaged just under a point per game but never scored more than 23 goals.

"He's got good hockey sense," Marr said. "He can play both sides of the puck. If he has a really good offensive year, then nobody should be surprised. If he just contributes in a normal sense, then that's good. He could over-exceed those some years more than others.

"I don't think he's thought to be the scoring leader more years than others. He's the guy to complement a line and make a line click. If he's with a smart centerman and a skilled winger, he's just the one that makes that line complete."

Perhaps Cormier becomes an effective NHL player and steers clear of any discipline issues. Then his past might fade and become more of a footnote. The charisma that made him captain of Canada's 2010 World Junior Championship team is evident and he does not feel that his reputation carries a stain.

"No, not at all," he said. "Suspensions happen all the time and we saw it all year. Nobody wants to get hurt out there or hurt someone out there. His (Tam's) family moved on, the Quebec Remparts moved on and it's a thing of the past."
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