Consistency in the National Hockey League is often hard to find. Just ask Dale Purinton. After beginning his pro career with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League (AHL) five years ago, the rugged defensemen has worked extremely hard at his overall game as well as his off-ice conditioning to make the sometimes-difficult adjustment to the NHL. But as many players find out, hockey at the NHL level is a different game.
Purinton enjoyed a successful junior career in the Western Hockey League, which ended with a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup Finals berth in 1996-97 while serving as captain for the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the son of an ex-minor league enforcer, he followed in the footsteps of his father when it came to his style of play. Purinton welcomed the role of team protector and his yearly stat line in the media guide shows it. In 175 career WHL games, he amassed 54 points and 777 penalty minutes.
His toughness and solid team attitude caught the eye of the Rangers, who selected him in the fifth round, 117th overall, in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft.
Following his junior hockey days, Purinton made the jump to the pros, spending most of the 1997-98 season with the Charlotte Checkers of the East Coast Hockey League. He notched eight points and 186 penalty minutes in 34 games with Charlotte before being recalled by Hartford late in the season. For the next two seasons, Purinton provided the Wolf Pack with grit on the blueline. He led the team in penalty minutes in 1998-99 (306) and 1999-00 (415). But Purinton was contributing in other ways as well, recording three assists and 87 penalty minutes, while adding youthful energy and leadership in helping to guide Hartford to their first-ever Calder Cup championship in 2000.
Last season, Purinton learned the hard way that the line between playing a rugged style of game and playing undisciplined was a very thin one in the NHL. After leading the club with 180 penalty minutes in only 42 games in 2000-01, the defenseman was suspended by the NHL on two separate occasions missing a total of 10 games. In addition, he was also suspended for an altercation with Islanders netminder Garth Snow during the pre-season. While the players and coaches appreciated his ‘no fear’ attitude in standing up for his teammates and not backing down from a single challenge, he was often leaving his club shorthanded at many inopportune times.
“You can only do so much, have so many meetings or conversations where they (the coaches) are going to give you that room to learn. Then basically, that’s enough,” he said late last season when reflecting on his tendency to mischannel his aggressiveness on the ice. “They can only teach you so much before you’ve got to grow up and be a professional.”
With a new coaching staff brought in this summer, Purinton, 26, had this new mindset in place. He approached his off-season conditioning and preparation for the 2002-03 season as a chance for a fresh start, a chance to show head coach Bryan Trottier that he can play an effective, disciplined game while maintaining his level of composure and toughness on the ice. He didn’t waste his chance. Earning the confidence and praises of Trottier during Training Camp and the pre-season, Purinton was on his way to earning a regular spot in the Blueshirts’ defensive rotation.
“Dale has been a workhorse since the first day of training camp,” Trottier responded when asked to describe what Purinton brings to the team. “You talk about somebody who comes to work with his work boots on, and a real great focus. He’s got purpose to his game, and we like they way he wants to be part of this group.”
Purinton has had no problem being a part of this Rangers group. In 14 games so far this season, the 6-2, 229-pounder has already surpassed his previous career high for points, collecting one goal and four assists. The goal was certainly memorable and one that he had waited more than two seasons for. Who cares if he really never saw the puck fly past Nashville’s Tomas Vokoun, the result of a seemingly harmless wrister from the blueline. The goal was his first in the NHL.
“It only took three years but it’s a great feeling,” Purinton joked after the October 19 game at MSG. “I’ve scored 50 on Richter in practice but it’s nice to get one during the season. It always feels good to contribute when you’re a defensive defenseman.”
Purinton has certainly contributed on the ice this season with his consistently solid play. He has drawn praise not only from the coaching staff but also from the top defenseman in Rangers history.
“Every year, he’s taken positive steps,” noted Brian Leetch. “He’s worked on his game a lot. I’ve said this before, but I think Dale has come the furthest of any player I’ve ever seen. He’s been in the organization a long time and I’ve been able to watch him progress each year. It’s not an easy thing to do when you’re perceived as being one type of player, but he has managed to improve each and every year. To come this far and to be a contributor in all parts of the game, I think he’s just going to continue to get better. His confidence continues to go up and his work ethic has remained strong.”
Rangers Vice President of Player Personnel and Assistant General Manager Don Maloney has watched Purinton develop over the last few seasons and attributes his marked improvement to his dedication to the game.
“Dale is the prime example of how far hard work and dedication to the sport can take you,” said Maloney. “I think his improvement in the last two or three years has been remarkable and it’s solely from the extra time he has put in – before practice, after practice, in the off-season. Three years ago, he could hardly keep up in the AHL. His skating wasn’t very good and the only way he could make it was by fighting everybody. Once he got to the AHL, he established a reputation and was in the weight room before practice, on the bike after practice and going to the gym later in the day.”
“This past summer is another prime example of his commitment,” Maloney added. "He got caught on a lot of hooking and obstruction infractions over the last few seasons and he spent all summer long working on his foot speed and getting his feet moving quicker. You can see now that he’s quicker to the puck and has more time to make good outlet passes. He’s a great model for all of our younger players on how they have to approach the game and maximize their abilities.”
Purinton knows that it is nothing short of hard work that got him to this stage of his career and knows that the tenacity, determination and simplicity that he has displayed so far this season are what is going to keep him in the NHL for years to come.
“To come from your first two years being undisciplined and being the seventh or eighth defenseman, I think I’ve taken a step in the right direction this season,” Purinton added. “That’s what I’ve been saying since my suspension last year. It’s been a ladder to climb out of there. But finally you put it together.”