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Horcoff sticks with plan to improve offence

by Larry Wigge / Edmonton Oilers

Oilers' centre Shawn Horcoff is averaging a point per

game thus far in 34 games played this season.
We’ve all heard of golfers trying countless club models until they find the right one – the one with the right lie, the right loft, the right shaft, and most important, the right feel.

Edmonton Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff doesn’t admit to working on his golf game to that extent last summer, but he did go the extra mile with the hockey sticks he couldn’t seem to find comfort with.

"I must have tried 11 different kinds of sticks last season," Horcoff said after contributing a goal and assist in regulation time and the only goal in a shootout to give the Oilers a 5-4 victory in St. Louis Dec. 11. "One was too whippy. Another was too stiff. I had the wrong sticks all year. I wasn't happy with anything. Finally, the stick rep told me to go to the plant so I could work with the head guy right there. I thought, ‘Why not?’

"So I went to the Easton plant in Tijuana, Mexico. I didn’t know what I was in for. One day in a Third World nation. No air conditioning, bad water. Luckily, they had air conditioning at the plant."

No, this wasn’t a Planes, Trains and Automobiles comedy. Horcoff’s day without the comforts of home in Alberta produced a working mold that changed his game and helped rejuvenate his career.

His production against the Blues in early December gave Horcoff 15 goals in just 32 games, and a goal Saturday against Vancouver gave him 16, equaling his total from last season. He’s now six short of his career-high of 22 in 2005-06.

"To me, the trip was invaluable," Horcoff beamed. "That was a big step for me. Now I have a stick I'm really comfortable with in my hands. The puck just feels good. How do you put a price on that?"

Tiger Woods he isn’t, but this version of Shawn Horcoff is getting Oilers coach Craig MacTavish excited.

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"Hearing that story doesn’t surprise me a bit ... and it explains a lot about the difference we’re seeing with ‘Horc’ this season," said MacTavish. "I’ve always known that he’s one of those players that will take the extra step to make him better."

Earlier in the day, MacTavish was talking about Horcoff’s new-found confidence in shooting the puck, saying, "Before he was always a look-to-pass-first guy. Now he’s taking charge out there, whether that means setting a teammate up or taking the shot himself. He’s never been better."

Funny, but the 29-year-old centre from Trail, B.C., doesn’t have to listen to his father harp on how he should shoot more during their regular phone calls.

"Every since I turned pro, the old man’s been on me about shooting more," Horcoff laughed. That stands to reason since John Horcoff was an outstanding hockey player with the University of Alberta Golden Bear team that won the CIAU University Cup in 1975. His dad was Shawn’s coach and mentor growing up, and in those years the former Golden Bear always talked about not being selfish and working hard.

"Ever since I was a little kid, my dad always harped on me, 'I don't care if you go out there and score five goals, but you've just got to work hard every night because people notice hard work more than anything else,' " Shawn said.

Obviously, hard work runs in the family. John Horcoff and Bruna, Shawn’s mom, are school teachers in Castlegar, B.C. Shawn followed their lead about getting a good education. He went to Michigan State, where he put in three years in his pursuit of a degree in finance and math.

Now, he might need a calculator to keep up with the goals he scores.

"It’s funny. I’m shooting the puck a lot more. It’s like I’ve completely changed my mental approach, my mindset – and the way the puck comes off so hard, sort of jumps off these sticks, is the reason for it," Horcoff said. "Before I always had a pass-first mentality. I would pass up the opportunity to shoot in the five-star areas. Why not, when you’re playing on a line with a guy like ‘Hemmer’ (Ales Hemsky)?

"I don't measure how I play by the points. It's a matter of how much I'm creating." -- Shawn Horcoff

"It's eerie sometimes, for me, because of the way I’ve played for so long. That change in mental approach is something I’ve had to work on. Now I'm thinking shoot right away ... if the opportunity presents itself. And you know something? Scoring goals is fun, but, most important, it’s helping the team."

This is the second evolution in Horcoff’s career in Edmonton. The first came in 2004-05, the lockout season, when Shawn tried to rejuvenate the offense he showed at Michigan State but was unable to produce as a third- and fourth-line checking centre in the NHL.

"Shawn was a pretty darn creative offensive centerman at Michigan State," Oilers GM Kevin Lowe remembered. "During the lockout year he talked to us about wanting to regain his offensive skills ... and how he might do it. Together, we decided that there were several alternatives where he might be able to step up his game to the level he was seeking."

Like playing at Mora, a team in Sweden, where Horcoff scored 46 points in 50 games.

And that scenic tour of Sweden helped Horcoff improve from 40 points in 2003-04 to 73 points (on 22 goals and 51 assists) in 79 games in 2005-06, plus seven more goals and 12 assists in 24 playoff games.

Now, clearly, Horcoff has found the best of both worlds in Tijuana.

He still exhibits the grittiness he previously showed in blocking shots and doing all the little things that got him to the NHL. But now, after improving his creative playmaking side to help put the Oilers one win short of winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, he has added yet another dimension to his game. Making him even more difficult to defend.

"I don't measure how I play by the points," he said. "It's a matter of how much I'm creating. That's the epitome of being a pro. You want to be counted on and held accountable every night."

When talking about the NHL's top centers, Horcoff's name rarely came up in the past. But the 6-foot-1, 208-pounder will make more people take notice now that he’s creating offense by shooting and passing the puck.

Sidney Crosby. Vinny Lecavalier. Henrik Zetterberg and ...

Shawn Horcoff isn’t out of place. Not with all of the things he does so well for the Edmonton Oilers.

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