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The Ultimate Prize

by Kevin Wilson / Nashville Predators
When front-office staffs around the league go about examining and evaluating players they could potentially bring to the franchise, either through free agency or trade, far more goes into the decision than simply what he brings a team on the ice. Much of the process includes investigating the player’s character, leadership skills, and other intangibles. Among those, is experience – more importantly, Stanley Cup-winning experience.

de Vries and the Avalanche topped the New Jersey Devils in the 2001 Cup Finals.
It is a fraternity the entire hockey world wants to become a part of, and only those in it can describe the sacrifice and work ethic necessary to join the exclusive club. Therefore, Cup winners go about their business in a different way, the way that helped them reach the top. Because this doesn’t fade regardless of how old a player gets, these assets make them desirable for organizations from Vancouver to Carolina, especially if the squad is young.

In the summer of 2007, two of the four free agents Nashville Predators President/General Manager David Poile welcomed to the team had Cup rings – 18-year NHL veteran Martin Gelinas, and 11-year pro Greg de Vries. Gelinas won the prize in 1990 with Edmonton, at the ripe-old age of 19, while de Vries claimed a Cup title with Colorado in 2001. For a Preds team with 16 players still in their 20s, the veteran leadership was welcomed with open arms.

“I have gone through unrestricted free agency twice and winning was a big thing teams talked to me about,” de Vries said. “They wanted to make sure I was going to come in and share that with the younger guys. Especially here, I am the oldest defenseman by eight years. It is definitely an intangible I bring along, and I got to play with some great players in Colorado – Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Adam Foote – great players, but great defensemen, too. Hopefully I learned some stuff from them that I can bring here and use with these guys.”

de Vries preached winning as a season-by-season process, rather than a two-and-a-half month playoff run. Prior to the 16-win postseason the Avalanche had in 2001, the franchise fell just short of the finals twice, losing in the Western Conference Finals to Dallas in both 1999 and 2000. To make matters worse, the pair of eliminations came in heart-breaking, Game 7 fashion.

“You also learn a lot about losing once you’re that late in the stage,” he said. “It drives you the next year to be that much better.”

For Gelinas, the opposite occurred. Since celebrating league supremacy
Martin Gelinas went to the Cup Finals in 1994, 2002 and 2004, in addition to his Cup-winning season.
in his first full NHL season, the Shawinigan, Quebec native has seen his teams fall twice in the conference finals (with Edmonton in 1991 and 1992) and three more times in the Cup finals (with Vancouver in 1994, Carolina in 2002 and Calgary in 2004), with two of the occasions (’94 and ’02) coming in series-deciding game 7s.

“The first cup I definitely took for granted,” Gelinas said. “And when I was on the other side of it, it was hard. At the same time, you battle that hard for two months, you go the distance, and there has to be a winner and a loser. You are just the unfortunate one who didn’t get the bounces. There is a lesson to be learned, and something to be proud of, but yet nothing to show for it.”

Still, Gelinas, like his new teammate, preaches winning as a process that each team must adopt.

“Any team that has success makes sure they bring that process, like good habits on the ice in practice, some leadership and having chemistry within the team,” he said. “Those are very important, and to win you have to balance those out. When you put it all together it is pretty exciting to see the result.”

In both of the victorious situations, the new Predators had veteran leaders that had winning experience – the roles they are striving to play in Nashville.

In de Vries’ case, Colorado had captured the silver goblet just five years earlier in 1996, its first season after moving from Quebec City. Still around from that team were Adam Foote, Peter Forsberg, Jon Klemm, Patrick Roy, and one of the league’s ultimate leaders – Joe Sakic. For de Vries, it was captain Sakic that he learned the most from.

“I got to play with Joe for five years and he is just a consummate professional,” de Vries said. “He comes to the rink and practices every day, and does the same routine each day. He plays hard every night, but is a quiet, outspoken guy. At the same time he is a leader and a good teammate.”

As an Oiler during their dynasty days, Gelinas was able to learn from a host of legends. On the 1990 team, he was surrounded by the likes of Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, and as he said, “the list goes on and on.” Of all the great teachers he had, Gelinas said the common theme between them was the desire to be a part of something bigger.

“I learned the most from Craig MacTavish, who is now a great coach, because he was the same every day – he brought that work ethic, he was a smart player, and though he wasn’t the fastest or most skilled, he was someone you could count on every day, every game.”

What the pair learned from their mentors, they hope to bring to this season’s edition of the Preds. It typically doesn’t come out as a vocal presence in the locker room, but rather in subtle ways, like through daily habits, attention to detail, and how they handle themselves away from the rink.

“The biggest thing I notice with them is that they are just really good pros,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “They have been in winning experiences and have been around the league a long time, so there’s no panic at anytime.”
Gelinas in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.

Both go about their business in similar ways, giving maximum effort, showing up early and heading home late, but each bring their own flare as well. de Vries is somewhat like Sakic in his quiet, confidence. He brings a calming influence by “staying even keel” – being cognizant of the highs and lows that come with a seven-plus month season, and not getting too caught up in either.

Gelinas brings diligence and intensity, with the mindset that if he isn’t getting better, he is falling behind.

“You watch Martin Gelinas come in here in the morning, and he is the first guy here working out, pushing himself, and trying to get better,” Trotz said. “He does it religiously, that is why he has had longevity in this league and looks like he is cut out of stone. There is a reason – because he puts in the time with everything from diet and nutrition to rest and training.”

For 37-year-old vet, it is about all claiming the prize he took for granted in his youth. After coming so close three times since then, it is what continues to drive him to this day.

“You want to do whatever it takes to win because you realize chances like that don’t come around very often,” he said. “You appreciate it more and more, and I just hope I get another chance.”

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