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Islanders passing traditions to 'Generation Next'

by Evan Grossman
Steve Webb is just one of many Islander alumni making an appearance at camp this pre-season.
MONCTON, New Brunswick –
There are Islander fan favorites like Steve Webb and Eric Cairns here in training camp with the team, but they aren’t here to give Ted Nolan’s team a shot of added toughness.

While they would be a welcome addition to any Islander team after the years they logged as hard-working heartbeat-type players for the organization in the prime of their respective careers, the alumni are not here to fight it out for a roster spot. They’re here as part of the team’s efforts to create a family atmosphere within the organization, to drop knowledge on some of the young kids trying to forge their own NHL paths, and the alumni are here because the slogan; “We’re All Islanders,” is more than just a marketing campaign for the team.

Turns out, including the alumni more in team functions was General Manager Garth Snow’s idea and owner Charles Wang was all for it. Webb has been working with the Isles’ development wing, which is headed by six-time Stanley Cup winner Bryan Trottier.

It hasn’t been uncommon this week to see Webb, who had to fight and claw his way to the NHL out of Peterborough what seems like a lifetime ago, to be sitting in the stands with a younger player, just chatting. He talks to the kids about anything from staying warm in the rink between practices, to paying attention to all the details, to taking care of their bodies away from the ice. Basically, Webb is a camp counselor who is more than willing to pass on everything he learned from his long journey to the NHL onto a new generation of players the franchise hopes will eventually make the club.

Draft picks have become a huge asset in the new NHL, and the Islanders are one of just a few teams that have alumni like Webb around to cultivate at a very young age. While many of the young draft picks might not make the varsity club for a few seasons, they aren’t overlooked during their developing years.

“No other team does this,” Webb says during a quiet moment in Moncton’s sprawling four-sheet ice complex where the Isles are training. “We want to help our players develop. And not just a few. We want all of our players to develop into NHL players.”

Webb’s job is to pass on a few pointers along the way to make that mission statement a reality.

“I remember the first camp I went to,” Webb said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

There is obviously a huge culture shock when a player comes to his first NHL camp right out of junior or college hockey, so Webb is around to make the transition a little less intimidating. The irony here is that Webb was a guy who made his NHL living on being an intimidating presence. Islander fans will forever remember him as being one of the hardest-working guys to ever wear the team’s colors, the blasting he issued Darcy Tucker in the 2002 playoffs still echoing through the Coliseum along with the chanting of his name.

Webb isn’t out on the ice anymore, but he’s still making an impact with the franchise.

“I talk to them about who their idols are,” he said, “who they look up to. And then when they go back to their junior or college teams, that’s when you work on the type of player you want to become.”

A cross between motivational speaker, big brother and a battle-hardened veteran with plenty of old stories to relay, Webb is so much more to the franchise than just an alum with a lot to say.

Eric Cairns is in camp to help former teammate and current Islanders' General Manager Garth Snow pass the torch onto the next generation of players.
He’s making his living after hockey doing development work with the Isles, a job he’s held for the last year and a half. He’s also in the process of starting his own business called the Y Athlete, which will incorporate a lot of the same ideas he’s passing along to the Isles prospects.

“I enjoy helping kids realize their dreams,” he said.

In making it to the NHL, Webb realized his own dreams. But he says he could never have accomplished such a lofty feat without surrounding himself with the right people during his developing years, guys like Mike Fisher, who just signed an extension with the Ottawa Senators and a fellow Peterborough product. Webb says one of the greatest tools for a young athlete is to surround himself with like-minded individuals, just like he had coming up.

Another big lesson Webb is trying to convey is the basic principle of what it takes to be a pro. He says he tells the kids to look at the details, to watch the little things like how guys chip the puck out of the zone, how veterans in front of you carry themselves away from the ice. And it’s not all limited to at the rink. Webb’s life lessons are designed to carry over to the classroom and into the community as well.

“There’s a purpose for everything that happens on the ice,” he says.

While keeping the alumni in the fold years after they’re done playing is a nice, feel-good type of story, the Islanders are doing it for more important reasons than, for example, giving a guy like Cairns an opportunity to stay involved in hockey after his retirement.

“I think it’s priceless to see one of our draft picks over there, talking to a Ken Morrow,” Snow says, motioning towards his director of pro scouting. “First and foremost, I’m an alumni myself. Nothing but positives can come out of Bryan Trottier or Eric Cairns sharing their different perspectives of the game.”

All of those guys played the game the way it’s meant to be played, and if the Islanders can pass on just a little of their experience and personality to a new generation of players, a return to the glory days might not be too far away.

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