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From role player to impact player

by Karl Samuelson /

Chris Neil (L) of the Ottawa Senators is part of a special hockey fraternity which consists of players who poses both toughness and skill.
John Ferguson. Paul Holmgren. Al Secord. Marty McSorley. Chris Neil. Ryane Clowe. What does this disparate group have in common?

More than you might think.

They’re a unique breed of athletes who belong to a special hockey fraternity. The fraternity doesn’t have a name. It’s not even a recognized club. But it could well be, based on their unique development as NHL players who were first introduced to their teams as protectors and went on to become team leaders.

Each player first gained notoriety by virtue of their aggressive play on the ice. If an opponent wanted to mix it up, these guys answered the bell. Take a cheap shot at one of their star teammates and these guys would be all over you like a bad rash. But these tough guys had a long-term plan -- to stay in the NHL.

John Ferguson set the standard for all other tough guys to follow by contributing on a regular shift while keeping opponents honest. “Fergie” was one of the Montreal Canadiens’ biggest assets in the 1960s. Yet, he was an average skater with modest hockey talent. He made up for limitations in the finer points of the game with his unrelenting hustle and readiness to tangle with any opponent. He played a slam-bang game, but he didn’t do it foolishly. There was a strategy behind every Ferguson scuffle.

In 1969, it was Fergie’s triumph against tough Ted Green in the opening game of the playoffs that demoralized the Boston Bruins and paved the way for another Montreal Stanley Cup.

“Fergie used to intimidate the whole league,” said Hall of Fame defenseman Allan Stanley. “He kicked the can of a lot of players and used to play a rugged, mean game every single night.”

Ferguson had a deft scoring touch in close and was once named by former New York Rangers goalie Eddie Giacomin as one of the most dangerous players around the net. It was Ferguson’s unique brand of toughness that allowed the “Flying Frenchmen” to fly without fear.

The Philadelphia Flyers feared no opponents in the 1970s with Dave Schultz in the lineup. But the club traded “The Hammer” in 1976, a year after they drafted a player out of the University of Minnesota who was bigger, tougher, meaner, and had more upside. Paul Holmgren quickly made the transition from college hockey to the NHL and dedicated himself to becoming a solid right winger for 10 seasons (1975-1985).

Holmgren’s combination of talent and toughness is reflected in the fact that the two-time All-Star scored 144 goals and 323 points while adding 1,684 penalty minutes in 527 career regular-season games.

Paul Holmgren was a pure team guy,” says Ottawa Senators coach John Paddock, who played with Holmgren in Philadelphia from 1976 to 1983. “He was a real warrior who would do anything to help the team win and anything to help an individual on the ice. Paul developed himself into a real good regular NHL player.”

Al Secord played for the Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Flyers during his 13-year career; but it was with the Chicago Blackhawks in the early 1980s that the burly forward emerged as one of the most dominant power forwards in recent history.

“Secord was similar to Holmgren,” says Paddock. “He was so tough and was able to use that toughness around the net with his good hands. Secord was a valuable player, not just based on his effectiveness as a role player, but by the amount of goals he scored for a few seasons.”

Secord cracked the 40-goal barrier three times and joined teammates Denis Savard and Steve Larmer to give Chicago one of the best lines of the decade.

“Secord was the kind of player that gave Savard and Larmer the room to maneuver and manipulate the puck on the ice,” Paddock said. “But Secord’s hands and his ability to finish the play within 10 feet of the net made him a player that Savard could make passes to, so he served a dual purpose with his toughness and his skill.”

Marty McSorley is a classic example of a self-made man. He worked diligently throughout his career to become a complete hockey player while never wavering from his raison d’etre -- to protect his talented teammates. An enforcer during the early days of his 17-year career, McSorley quickly realized that being a willing combatant might get you to the show, but it won’t keep you there.

By the end of his career, McSorley could play forward or defense and in 1990-91 led the NHL with a plus-48.

“Everybody knew when he was on the ice,” said Bruce MacGregor, a former Oilers executive and veteran of 14 NHL seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers. “Marty gave us toughness and was a great team player who would stick up for his teammates at the drop of a hat. Marty is a great case of a guy who came up as a tough kid whose skill level was down, but ... he worked so hard to get his skill level up that he became a darn good hockey player for many years.”

Skill and toughness continue to be the necessary qualities for achievement in today’s game. Without surrendering any of the grit that helped them reach the NHL, this special breed of hockey player each subscribes to the theory of old-fashioned self-improvement mixed with humility to make the transition from role player to impact player.

“You’ve got to be able to play,” said Neil, an Ottawa forward that has progressed from fourth-line duty to scorer. “You don’t want to be a liability out there defensively. You try to generate some offense and by popping a goal in here and there it really helps your team. I think the ability to play in different situations is the fine line between tough guys in the minors and guys that have made it in the NHL. The guys that have made it and stuck with it can play the game. Once you’re up here, you get to play with better players and work on your skills. That helps you to become a better player.”

After a tremendous rookie season last year, San Jose winger Ryane Clowe will be on every opposing team's radar screen when they face the Sharks in 2007-08.
Just as Ferguson learned from Jean Beliveau, Holmgren watched Bobby Clarke and McSorley gained inspiration from Wayne Gretzky. Neil continues to hone his skills by observing the work ethic of talented teammates.

“Just take our captain as an example,” said Neil, who scored three game-winning goals last season. “Daniel Alfredsson is the leader in this dressing room. His work ethic is astounding and his bottom line is when he straps the skates on he wants to win. That work ethic makes him a better player and it makes people around him better players. I watch him in practice every day and the pointers that he gives me help make me a better player.”

Neil’s clutch scoring, physical play and forechecking skill speak volumes about his own development. It also serves as an inspiration to Ottawa tough guy Brian McGrattan, who has it in his heart and mind to step up and be a regular contributor to the Senators every night.

“Wanting to step up is one thing and doing it and executing is another,” Paddock said. “Brian probably has the ability to step up and play a different role, but it is up to him to improve the skills and keep working with the (coaching) staff and other players to do that.”

McGrattan uses Neil’s example as inspiration for his own development.

“I really think that I can be a regular player down the road,” McGrattan said. “I’ve always wanted to play the game. To be a part of the team on a regular basis is a goal of mine. I didn’t play much down the stretch and in the playoffs last season, so I took that into my summer training, stayed in Ottawa and worked hard. The important games are the ones I want to play in and I think I can play in them with the proper work ethic and right attitude. Chris Neil is a guy that used to play four or five minutes per game and is now up to 15. He has a good work ethic in practice and really pays attention to the game and what the coaches are saying. I feed off him and learn from him and one day I hope to be one of those players.”

The sudden impact of San Jose Sharks sophomore Ryane Clowe also has made a big impression on the Senators’ winger.

Few hockey observers outside the Sharks organization expected the throwback winger to even crack the talented San Jose lineup last season. But the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for January 2007 is showing everybody that besides his pugilistic abilities, Clowe has great hockey sense and tremendous poise in the slot. Clowe finished his freshman year third in shooting percentage among all NHL rookies (17.2), seventh in game-winning goals (three) and 10th overall with 34 points in 58 games. The 25-year-old winger is now on every team’s radar screen when they go up against a loaded San Jose squad.

“San Jose has a very big hockey club,” Paddock said. “Clowe is one of those big, rough, rugged wingers that every team would like to have on their side.”

Clowe seems destined to duplicate the feats of Secord by emerging as an opportunistic goal scorer who combines skill with authority on the ice. His example serves as encouragement for others who are prepared to invest the sweat-equity required to progress in the NHL.

”Clowe is an excellent example of the importance of going out there to focus on the game and earn the coaches’ respect,” McGrattan said. “I also want to prove that my coaches can trust me on the ice in different situations. Clowe has obviously worked hard and is putting up good numbers. It has always been in me to work hard and improve. My determination is one of the things that got me here because I’ve never been one to give up.

”I had a tough time in junior the last couple of years. I got traded a bunch of times and blew my knee out, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to get here. I stuck with it, kept wanting to get better and now it’s time to take the next step.”

McGrattan has a select group of role models to follow as he embarks upon that all-important next step.

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