When you begin a conversation with Brian Rolston
, the next 10 or 15 minutes could take you anywhere. But that’s OK, because the Minnesota Wild
forward is one of those players who takes you inside the heart, soul and mind of a player who makes things happen on the ice.
And that’s a good thing -- a real good thing.
I get teased for writing a lot about where players are from, what makes them tick, and describing them in terms of passion, grit and all of those intangibles that help make this sport of grace, speed and split-second action so good. This definitely is not a pat-a-player-on-the-shoulder sort of game.
Rolston has seen a lot in his hockey career, including an NCAA championship with Lake Superior State in 1992, where he scored the winning goal against Wisconsin. He nearly helped Lake State to another title one year later, only to lose to Maine in the final. In the first of his nearly 12 NHL seasons, Rolston showed he is a winner again when the New Jersey Devils beat Detroit for the Stanley Cup in 1995. He was a first-round pick by New Jersey in the 1991 Entry Draft and has displayed the five tools all hockey players seek -- speed, strength, intelligence, lots of skills and a presence on the ice.
Inside the intelligence category comes all of the intangibles hockey scouts most want in a player -- character, hockey sense, common sense and an ability to explain a player’s feelings when they are at the top of their game.
Rolston is in the final year of his contract with the Wild, so the natural assumption would be that he’s all caught up in what he has to do to get a new contract in Minnesota or somewhere else. Wrong.
"You don’t get this far without thinking about team," he said, talking about working hand-in-hand with the guys next to you to win. "This isn’t tennis or golf, where you’re in the spotlight on your own. It’s a team game and thinking about anything else is selfish."
When Rolston turned 35 on Feb. 21, he could have been caught thinking about the past, present and future, but right now all he cares about is the feeling he had winning a Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Devils 13 years ago this June.
"There was never a better moment in my career," he said, obviously hoping he can put the Wild in that same situation in the Cup final this season.
St. Louis Blues President John Davidson looks at Rolston on the ice and just smiles. Davidson was working as a color analyst for the New York Rangers and most of the top national TV broadcasts in the United States and Canada back in those days. He remembers marveling at the skills and many thought-provoking conversations with Rolston through the years.
"You see a player and person grow, which I think is what is so great about our sport. Everything is out there in the open, if you care to check it out," Davidson said. "I remember thinking about all of Brian’s skills and how he could be oh-so-much-better.
"And then, after he got traded from Colorado to Boston I saw it. Not right away. But the next season. I saw a commitment to the game that made me smile."
Most players who achieve in this game have to overcome some sort of obstacle at some point in their life to become hungrier that helps them take off. Being traded by New Jersey to Colorado in November 1999 and then dealt again from Colorado to Boston in March 2000 was that obstacle for Brian.
That spring Rolston thought about how he was 27 and he had just played for three different teams in five months and ...
"I struggled with a lot," he recalled. "Life. Hockey. Where I was headed."
"That summer Brian made a commitment to quitting junk food, eating right, getting his body and mind right -- and it showed on the ice," Davidson said. "There’s such a fine line in making such a commitment and just playing the game and playing at an elite level. And that’s where that commitment took Brian."
Rolston had a then-career-high of 31 goals and 62 points in his second full season with the Bruins in 2001-02 and helped the United States to a silver medal at the Olympics in Salt Lake City, the second of three trips to the Olympics for Ron and Joyce’s boy.
But decisions are not always in the hands of the athlete. After he had 19 goals and 29 assists for the Bruins in 2003-04, Boston management decided that it was going to cost them more than they wanted to spend to keep Rolston. So, he signed with the Wild as a free agent in July 2004 and moved his young family to Minnesota.
"The lockout gave me a chance to spend some extra quality time with my family," Rolston said.
You know how we’ve talked about his magical hands and skills on the ice? Well, that year, Brian used those hands a little differently.
"I built a 20-by-40 foot rink in the backyard," he said. "I remember I was feeling pretty good about myself when I was putting up the boards and painting the ice.
"Then, I'm out there one night, it's freezing cold, and I'm painting the red line. It was about then that Ryder, who was 3 at the time, said; 'But dad, where's the dots. The faceoff dots.' I'm caught off-guard. I felt like saying; 'Hey, I gave you a red line. What more do you want?' "
Red line or not, Rolston connects the dots for the Wild.
"You don’t get this far without thinking about team. This isn’t tennis or golf, where you’re in the spotlight on your own. It’s a team game and thinking about anything else is selfish." - Brian Rolston
He had 34 goals and 79 points in his first season with Minnesota and came back with 31 goals and 64 points last season. This season, he’s scored 23 goals and 20 assists in 61 games.
Six of Rolston’s goals this season are game-winners.
"From the first time I saw him in New Jersey, I've always believed that Brian is my kind of player," said Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, who also was behind the bench with the Devils when Rolston broke into the NHL. "He's involved, every game. Having a player with skills like that who is also accountable on defense, that's the kind of leader every coach is looking for."
"I'd like to think that I have become a better player," Rolston acknowledged. "To me, as you get older, you get wiser -- and find yourself moving into the holes, the openings, you should be in by instinct."
Older. Wiser. One thing we know for certain: Brian Rolston loves to listen, learn and talk about the game.