On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest. Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!
"Players," he said, "are evaluated on their talent, performance, flexibility, communication and teammate behavior independent of their current or prior status."
Dodgers' Zach Lee, Chris Reed get second chances for first impressions
Zach Lee and Chris Reed sat down to stretch Saturday morning on the outfield grass of a practice field between the minor and major league clubhouses at the Dodgers spring training complex.
For the pitchers, both former first-round draft picks, that seemed appropriate since that's where both their careers appear to have stalled: between the minors and the majors.
Five years after spurning an offer to play quarterback at Louisiana State in favor of a $5.25-million bonus to sign with the Dodgers, Lee has a 32-35 record and 4.16 earned-run average at four minor league stops. Once rated as the Dodgers' top prospect by Baseball America, Lee no longer ranks among the top 10.
Four years after leaving Stanford and agreeing to a $1.6-million bonus, Reed has a minor league record of 9-31 with a 4.12 ERA. The Dodgers' No. 5 prospect three years ago, he started this year ranked ninth.
Yet for both this spring marks a new beginning. Gone is Logan White, the assistant general manager for scouting, and Dejon Watson, the player development chief, who drafted and helped develop them. In are an entirely new front office and a new player development director in former big league player Gabe Kapler.
"It's not necessarily a step back, not necessarily a step forward," said Lee, a 23-year-old right-hander who has pitched just twice this spring, giving up a hit in four innings. "Obviously coming from the old regime, where they knew exactly what I was capable of, this is kind of an opportunity for me to show some things that I can do."
Reed, a 24-year-old left-hander, is taking much the same approach. But he's also taking added comfort from the fact Kapler is promising to look beyond the stats to find out what those numbers really mean.
"They're not looking at just ERA. They're looking at things that you can actually control," said Reed, who has given up a run and two hits in three innings of relief this spring. "I like that a lot. A lot of times you get caught up in your numbers. You're like, 'Oh God, I just gave up all those runs.'
"But in reality it's a little blooper over the shortstop. You can't control that."
either pitcher control what the front office does, so they're trying not to read too much into the team's decision to sign three starting pitchers over the winter, giving them three more arms to climb over on their way to the majors.
But they can control what they take away from their struggles. Which is why Lee considers last season — statistically his worst as a pro, with a 7-13 record and 5.39 ERA at triple-A Albuquerque — a positive experience.
"Pitching in more of a hitter's ballpark, I really learned that I had to find ways to get balls on the ground," said Lee, who set career highs with 27 starts and 150 innings pitched. "I couldn't rely on just weak contact off bats for fly balls. I had to get the ball on the ground.
"In doing so, some of my pitches really improved."
And that, as it turns out, is exactly the kind of development Kapler is looking for.
"Players," he said, "are evaluated on their talent, performance, flexibility, communication and teammate behavior independent of their current or prior status."
Notice he said nothing about records.
Danny Santana: Getting into the proper position
- · Updated: March 15, 2015 -
FORT MYERS, FLA. – Scouts now regularly scour Latin America for the best young baseball talent but, somehow, most of them pretty much ignored Danny Santana in 2007 when it was his time to sign with a team and chase the dream.
“One of the first things they are going to do are the projectables,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ scouting director at the time who was about to be promoted to vice president in charge of player personnel. “What is the [prospect’s] body going to be like?”
So the players with size, or who are projected to add size, or throw hard or have a mean curveball are pursued — and paid the big bucks. Ask Santana why he wasn’t a big-time prospect at the time and he raises his eyebrows.
“I was skinny,” said Santana, who was born in Monte Plata, Dominican Republic.
“He might not have even been 130 pounds then,” Radcliff said.
It’s hard to believe that when Santana — now beefed up to 175 pounds — leaves a jet stream as he rounds the bases, throws a laser to first base or drives a pitch for an extra-base hit.
Santana batted .319 with 27 doubles, seven triples, seven home runs and 20 stolen bases after being called up on May 5 last season, helping revive the Twins lineup into a unit that had the third-most runs scored in the American League after the All-Star break. Santana is one of the reasons the Twins hope to show continued improvement this season.
And to think the Twins signed him in December of 2007 for a modest $37,000.
About seven months later, Oakland signed a towering 6-7 pitcher named Michael Ynoa to a then-record $4.25 million bonus. The righthander has not pitched above Class A ball. Scouting is an inexact science.
Santana was summoned to the Twins to play shortstop last summer, but ended up in center field most of the time because the Twins were in crisis mode to fill the position and he had played a few games there while coming through the system. That just revealed what kind of athlete he is.
“I don’t know why, but Robin Yount’s name keeps coming up,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor, Yount’s buddy with the Brewers. “MVP at center field and shortstop. It’s a rare gift set when a guy can excel at those two positions. For [Santana] to be able to step up last year and do what he did, there was a learning curve up there but obviously when you have a chance to settle in at a position defensively, it helps your overall game.
“It’s not a lot of athletes that you can expect to be able to fill those two holes.”
Skills stand out
Different things stand out to teammates about Santana.
Santana, 24, has fast hands that allow him to adjust to breaking balls at the last possible instant.
“He has some of the quickest hands I have ever seen,” Twins first baseman Joe Mauer said. “He’s able to wait on those pitches, then fire on them. He’s going to be a good hitter … he is a good hitter.”
Torii Hunter noticed Santana last season when he was with the Tigers and playing against his former team.
“His plate presence,” Hunter said. “He battled at the plate — reminded me of [former Twins shortstop] Cristian Guzman a little bit, maybe better. Whenever they needed a hit or baserunner, he was the one who would get on base. If you made a mistake, he would hit it hard.”
Brian Dozier was the first to draw an eye-opening comparison to Jose Reyes when he saw Santana play last spring.
“He impacts the game,” Dozier said. “He’s got a gift and can do a lot of things with the bat.”
Santana never really had a big offensive season in the minors, although team officials began to think Santana had a chance to be really good when he was in Class A.
“It was when he was at Fort Myers,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. “We put him on the [40-man] roster, and we had people questioning why we would do that. His skills stand out. He can really run, he can really throw. He’s got the strength. He’s a switch hitter. He can drive a baseball. So we put him on.”
Santana batted .286 at Class A Fort Myers in 2012, then .297 at Class AA New Britain in 2013. Santana also drove the Twins nuts with inconsistency — particularly in the field, when he would flub routine plays.
An obvious sign of encouragement is that when he reached the majors, there was no dropoff from his minor league numbers. He debuted May 5 against Cleveland as a pinch runner, but stayed in the game and singled off Cody Allen for his first major league hit. Santana said he was nervous for about two weeks, but soon believed he could play on an MLB level.
“My goals for this season is to be the same,” said Santana, whose English is improving. “Just a couple more walks, a couple more stolen bases. Those are the only goals I want for this season.”
Room to grow
Santana still has things to work on. He will have to prove he can be reliable in the field. He gets in trouble when he tries to do things in a hurry instead staying under control.
“He’s gifted,” said Dozier, who was signed for $30,000 in 2009, giving the Twins a $67,000 middle infield. “He’s got some of the quickest hands and footwork I’ve ever seen. You challenge him when we work together to be in sync. Practice on slowing everything down.”
And will the Twins remain committed to keeping Santana at shortstop? If Aaron Hicks doesn’t earn center field and Eduardo Escobar continues to hit, will they consider putting Escobar at short and return to Santana to center field? So far, all of Santana’s work in this camp has been at shortstop, a clear sign that’s where the Twins want him to settle in.
Offensively, he might have been living large last season. His .405 batting average on balls put into play would have led baseball if he qualified for the league leaders. Scouts will focus on him even more, looking for holes in his swing to exploit.
The Twins are convinced Santana will continue to improve, the way he has since the club took a $37,000 flyer on a skinny little infielder.
“I think we all think he’s going to continue to grow in terms of the dynamics of his offensive game,” Molitor said. “One thing a lot of players face, although his wasn’t a full season, when you’re up here the first time, you might have been projected and there’s some expectation there. But now that you’ve accomplished certain things, even for a short time, the bar has been raised. The old sophomore jinx for me is the guys that, all of a sudden now, they have to aspire to do what they did in the past. I have a lot of confidence in that kid. He’s a really good listener and applier.”
Russell reflects on trade to Cubs: 'I was a little shocked'
Former A's top prospect sees 'new opportunity' in Chicago
By Jane Lee / MLB.com
LAS VEGAS -- Addison Russell was just as surprised by his trade to the Cubs last July as the A's fans who were led to believe he would be Oakland's starting shortstop this year.
"I was a little shocked," said Russell, ahead of an exhibition start at shortstop against the A's in Las Vegas on Friday, "and more confused than anything.
"When I got to thinking about it and started talking to a few people, though, they were telling me it was a good thing. The Cubs wanted me, and they got me. I look at it as a new opportunity."
The A's 2012 first-round Draft pick (11th overall) blazed through their system, getting at-bats at the Triple-A level by the end of 2013. Russell missed most of the first half of the 2014 season with a hamstring injury, but it appeared he was taking off again upon his return.
The A's, meanwhile, were plotting for a trade for starters Jeff Samardzija andJason Hammel to bolster their rotation ahead of the Trade Deadline. By sacrificing not only their top prospect in Russell but another first-round Draft pick, outfielder Billy McKinney, and starter Dan Straily, the trigger was pulled.
"I think everyone was initially shocked, not only trading him [Russell] but Billy, too, for that matter," said Matt Olson, the A's second Draft selection in 2012. "Addison was the guy they were grooming to take over at shortstop, and obviously I know they had their big league club in their best interest. That was a move they had to make to make that playoff push, but there was definitely shock at first."
"I was kind of flying through the farm system and playing well at each level and looked forward to playing with the A's for several more years," Russell said. "The trade just really surprised me. I wasn't expecting it. It definitely would've been cool to play at the big league level with the team that drafted me."
Russell and Olson stay in touch, and they dined together just this week. Their third partner in crime, shortstop Daniel Robertson, is in big league camp with the Rays, after the A's dealt him, too, in the Ben Zobrist deal this winter. They also flipped Samardzija to the White Sox, landing four players in return -- including their new shortstop, Marcus Semien.
At the time of his trade, Russell seemingly had a clear path to the big leagues. With the Cubs, though, the 21-year-old is housed at a crowded position, behind everyday man Starlin Castro, so he's been taking reps at second and, on occasion, third, in hopes of hastening his journey to the big leagues.
There's never been concern about his bat, as he's shown so far in Spring Training.
"He's one of the best to watch," Olson said. "You'll see him hit balls so far, you're wondering, 'How did he do that?' It's something special, just because he makes it look so easy."
“The Commissioner’s office deals with minor league complaints, not an arbitrator as is the case in a grievance hearing.”
Astros draft aftermath: Brady Aiken’s elbow, Jacob Nix’s grievance settlement and union support
Posted on March 13, 2015 | By Evan Drellich
KISSIMMEE, Fla. – It’s been eight months since the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Tony Clark, sternly criticized the Astros for their handling of two players selected in last June’s draft.
Before the All-Star Game in Minneapolis, Clark said Astros draft picks Brady Aiken and Jacob Nix would “receive the support that they deserve as a result of the actions that we believe occurred from the Houston Astros” because of “the manipulation that we think happened” in negotiations with the team.
Nix was healthy, passed his physical and agreed to a $1.5 million deal. But the Astros had concern about the anatomy of the ulnar collateral ligament in Aiken’s throwing elbow, even though Aiken was asymptomatic on the mound. The Astros reduced their offer to Aiken from $6.5 million to $3.1 million, then increased it to $5 million at the last minute.
Nix’s deal effectively became contingent on Aiken’s, because the Astros were re-allocating some money earmarked for Aiken toward Nix. Had the Astros signed Nix without also signing Aiken, they would have exceeded their signing bonus allotment and lost two future first-round picks.
Neither pitcher signed as the deadline to get a deal done passed three days after the All-Star Game on July 18.
The players union subsequently filed a grievance on behalf of Nix. That grievance was settled in the offseason for a six-figure sum, below the $1.5 million he initially agreed to, a person familiar with the situation told the Chronicle. Settlement figures are to be kept confidential.
Aiken did not take any action in the end, neither through a grievance nor outside legal action, the person said.
With the book seemingly closed on the matter, what happened in the aftermath?
“We supported the players throughout,” Clark said during a visit to Astros camp on Thursday as part of the Players Association’s annual tour around spring training. “There were a number of concerns that were there, as I mentioned during that time. Where we are today, in a lot of different ways in finding some common ground to move the line forward, is a reflection of the concerns that we have. We’re simply hopeful that at this point in time that despite what may have happened here, and to the extent that it wasn’t beneficial to anybody that it did, that Brady and Jacob land on their feet with an opportunity to get drafted again this year.
“But that entire situation was unfortunate. For whatever reason that it did happen was unfortunate.”
Asked if he was fully convinced manipulation occurred, Clark carefully chose his words.
“We’re confident that our understanding of the events was not as conducive to a positive experience for Mr. Aiken and Mr. Nix,” Clark said.
Commissioner Rob Manfred recently declined comment on the matter. Astros general counsel Giles Kibbe said over the winter there would be no comment from the club on the settlement. Aiken and Nix are unavailable for comment, one of their agents said last week. They have both been represented by Excel Sports Management. Casey Close, a lead agent at Excel, publicly criticized the Astros in July as well.
Aiken and Nix are teammates now at IMG Academy in Florida, preparing for the 2015 draft.
As the Chronicle previously reported, the only plausible way the pitchers could have joined the Astros after the deadline passed would have been if a grievance was sent to an arbitrator and led to the enforcement of one or both contracts. MLB rules are firm that players may not sign after the deadline.
It will be very difficult for Aiken in this year’s draft to net the same signing-bonus money he passed on, $5 million, unless he goes very high in the first round again. The Astros hold two of the first five picks.
Nix seems to have a chance to be made whole. According to one talent evaluator who has seen him throw this spring, Nix should be able to get a bonus in the range of $1 million again.
Both players can prevent the Astros from being able to re-draft them, although it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the club would want to.
The settlement money paid to Nix does not count towards the Astros’ amateur draft signing bonus pool because the player was not signed.
Why settle the grievance?
All-around, there was good reason for the sides to settle Nix’s grievance instead of pushing forward to a hearing with an arbitrator.
Had the Astros been forced to sign Nix to the original $1.5 million deal without signing Aiken, the team would have lost two first-round draft picks.
But beyond the decision of whether Nix rightfully had a contract with the Astros — and in the big picture, a more important issue for the league and the union — was the parallel risk to both parties that a precedent could be set.
A player is not a part of the union until he is on a 40-man roster, and players who aren’t in the union aren’t covered by the collective bargaining agreement. A ruling one way or another could have led to a ripple effect for future situations where a player who is not on a 40-man roster sought relief.
The draft system is collectively bargained, giving the union ground to stand on, but a drafted player signs a minor league contract, creating a grey area.
Past grievances, such as the one former big league outfielder J.D. Drew filed in 1998, gave credence to the idea that drafted players could not receive relief. The Commissioner’s office deals with minor league complaints, not an arbitrator as is the case in a grievance hearing.
In the Drew case, MLB was ruled to have impermissibly changed the draft rules without consulting the union. But the player affected, Drew, was not awarded relief because he wasn’t a member of the union.
The Drew precedent, though, likely wouldn’t be strong these days. Since that time, the union negotiated a new draft system with the league, and the union would argue it has a right to enforce that system, creating a rather open question again as to whether Nix would have been entitled to relief.
The draft system, which the union and Major League Baseball both agreed to, can be blamed for some of what happened.
Aiken’s situation is more likely to repeat itself than Nix’s because players do not have to take pre-draft physicals. They do fill out medical forms, though.
The union wouldn’t want to make exams compulsory ahead of time because it would only serve to hurt some players’ draft status. Players who feel providing the results of an exam ahead of the draft would benefit them are already free to do so.
But the clubs, of course, want to know as much as they can ahead of time. As of now, the rules also vest a lot of power in determining the health of a drafted player in the team doctor. In this case, Aiken was seen by multiple outside and club doctors.
As for Nix, the situation should be avoidable.
The way draft signing bonuses are regulated now, with a slotting system and a budget for the first 10 rounds of picks, is new under the current collective bargaining agreement, which came into effect in 2012.
If a team is signing one player for above slot money (Nix in this case) it needs to make sure that it has the player who is signing for below slot money (Aiken) fully under contract before agreeing to a deal with the other player.
Teams don’t draft players without some idea of what it will take to sign them, but the Astros left themselves with no wiggle room.
Whether the draft system should be revised in light of what happened is expected to be a topic at the bargaining table in 2016.
“It has been a topic of discussion, in ’11 and even years prior: How talent enters the game, what are the guidelines under which the talent does,” Clark said. “I have a feeling it’ll be a topic of discussion when we sit down in ’16 as well. But everything that happens in between an agreement all tends to manifest itself in a conversation at the table the next time you sit down. So you make an adjustment, you see how it works, you see where the issues are, all in an effort to make sure that the industry moves forward on every level, on every level moves forward in a way that’s beneficial to both groups.”
Clark said no conversations with the league have occurred yet.
“The deal is up Dec. 1 of next year,” he said. “What has happened over the course of the last three or four agreements is that beginning in the year of, formal conversations will start. So at this point, no, nothing’s happened.”
“Get in the habit right now of not reading the paper, because one day they’re going to start writing things about you that you won’t want to read.”
MAR 13 2015
PHOTOGRAPHS BY GETTY IMAGES
Early in my career, I’d hear about guys with long scoreless droughts and just think, How’s that even possible? It made no sense to me.
But then there I was, sitting on the bench for the Montreal Canadiens, watching our home fans in the stands dancing around in sombreros and singing “Happy Birthday” in honor of my one-year goal drought.
By that point, I was fully aware of my poor play. My lack of scoring was the subject of TV reports, newspaper columns and, yes, its own website. But it was at that moment, serving as the butt of a bad joke for 20,000 fans at the Bell Centre, that it hit me hardest.
“Holy shit, I’m that guy now.”
Life and hockey kind of mirror each other in the sense that when you’re having good times, it’s difficult to imagine how things will ever go wrong. And when you’re having bad times, well, yeah.
One of the questions athletes often get asked is what profession they would go into if they weren’t playing their sport, and my honest answer is that I have no idea. I knew I wanted to play in the NHL when I was 5 years old, and from that time until now, it was hockey, hockey, hockey.
Life and hockey kind of mirror each other in the sense that when you’re having good times, it’s difficult to imagine how things will ever go wrong. And when you’re having bad times, well, yeah.
By the time I was eligible for the draft, I was considered one of the top prospects in the world. I ended up suffering an injury, which resulted in me falling in the draft. I was devastated at the time, but I realize now that it was one of the best things to ever happen to me because I ended up getting picked by the New Jersey Devils.
Talk about being spoiled. The Devils provided me with an Ivy League education in hockey. Larry Robinson, Slava Fetisov, Scott Stevens, Bobby Holik, Randy McKay, Jay Pandolfo, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko — not to mention the leadership that comes from Lou Lamoriello at the very top of the organization. I can’t think of a better group of guys to show someone the ropes in the NHL, and learning from them flat-out made me a better hockey player and person.
That’s not just lip service. I’ll give you an example.
Once when I was riding a hot streak, I remember being on the team plane reading about how great I was doing. Joe Nieuwendyk walked over, grabbed the paper from me and said, “Gomer, don’t read that shit.” And I was kind of confused and then he told me, “Get in the habit right now of not reading the paper, because one day they’re going to start writing things about you that you won’t want to read.” Joe was one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around in this sport. There’s a certain code amongst hockey players. When a guy like Joe Nieuwendyk tells you not to do something, you listen.
I had no idea at the time just how valuable his advice would turn out to be.
My greatest skill on the ice has always been passing the puck. The greatest joy I feel during a game is when I’m able to set up a goal for my teammate. When your best skill is passing and you play on a team with extremely talented players, you’re going to look pretty decent. There’s no greater satisfaction than knowing that you’re doing what you’re meant to do in the place you’re meant to do it. In those first seven seasons with the Devils, we won two Stanley Cups.
I remember when I was 23 or 24 watching a game in the training room, and during the broadcast they mentioned someone’s salary and I went, “Wow!” And the trainer looked at me and said, “You dumb ass, you’re going to be making that one day.”
Growing up in Alaska, my mom was a hairdresser and my dad was a construction worker. My parents came from a poor upbringing, but I didn’t grow up poor. They always provided me with everything I needed. I promised my Mom when I was 8 years old that I would buy her a house one day. That was certainly one of the motivating factors in wanting to make it to the NHL, but it wasn’t the only one. During my childhood, I wasn’t surrounded by money, so it was never really glamorized.
Regardless, when I was presented with the opportunity to sign my first big contract in 2007, I took it. Every player wants to stay in the league long enough to make it to free agency. You’re never going to make this kind of money again. Any vet will tell you that you should take advantage of the opportunity, and be smart with it. Four teams made offers, but the best one came from the New York Rangers, and I decided that I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to play in New York City at Madison Square Garden. To a hockey fan, signing a contract with the Rangers after spending several years with New Jersey probably sounds like treason. But the truth is that most of my teammates were happy for me. They understand as much as anybody that this is a business.
That’s not to say it was an easy decision. I played on the same team with some guys for seven years. We grew up together. We were like family. There’s no question that I felt a certain loyalty to them and the organization. But at the same time, we’ve all seen the other side of it. We’ve watched our friends get cut. We’ve seen guys buy a house and then get traded a couple of months later. When you see those things, you learn very quickly how important it is to take care of yourself when you can.
I didn’t really skip a beat when I moved to the Rangers. We had some success while I was there and I even made an all-star team. The Rangers were a great organization that played a style of hockey that I was comfortable with.
Alex Mogilny once told me, “You’re going to get traded at least once during your career, just hope it happens during the summer.” After a couple of years with the Rangers, my number was called and I was traded to Montreal. I was upset about leaving New York City but I was excited about the opportunity – who wouldn’t be?
The assumption might be that everything went to downhill as soon as I put on that Habs uniform, but that’s not really telling the whole story. My first season in Montreal, I led the team in assists and we made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. My stats might not have been as high as they were in previous years, but if your team is thriving, that’s what matters. You want to fill up a stat sheet? Go sit in the press box. If you want to win hockey games, focus your attention on the final score.
I began struggling with the Canadiens at the same time when the team as a whole was underperforming. When you’re playing in a city as hockey crazy as Montreal and have a large contract, your bad plays become amplified. As noted poet Biggie Smalls once said, “Mo money, mo problems.” But I know that’s what I signed up for. I’m a sports fan, so I’m familiar with the stigma – guy signs a big contract and then starts taking it easy.
Let’s address that for a moment: It’s bullshit. This is the National Hockey League and the game has only one speed. We all work hard. That’s just the way it is. Over my last decade and a half in the NHL, I only saw one or two guys who I think weren’t as committed to the sport as much as they should have been. If you don’t put everything you have into this game, you open yourself up for injury and, the worst possible punishment for a hockey player, losing the respect of your peers. But, that being said, I also get the fans’ perspective. If I was sitting in the stands, I might have started booing me too.
Being mocked I could deal with. But having my closest friends and family feel genuinely sorry for me really got to me. Up to that point I’d had a proud career, and when I began slumping the people around me began acting like I’d contracted a life-threatening disease. Getting made fun of is one thing, but being pitied? That’s a hockey player’s worst nightmare. Teammates wouldn’t let it on, but I could tell that they didn’t want to play on my line. And that really killed me because I’m a guy who passes the puck and tries to set up other players to succeed.
I really started to struggle when Montreal employed a dump-and-chase approach. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not that kind of player. If you give me minutes on a line with guys who move the puck, I can help a team win hockey games. But if I’m getting limited minutes on the fourth line in a system that requires me to grind against the boards, I simply won’t be my best. And that’s extremely frustrating. Anyone who has ever been in a work environment where they feel their talents aren’t being properly utilized can probably relate.
With all that being said, I still can’t bash Montreal. The truth is that I loved it there and met a lot of people that I still consider to be really close friends. I just wasn’t a good fit for the style of hockey they wanted to play. The hardest part about my experience with the Canadiens was knowing how good we could have been. We had the talent to be a great team, but we just couldn’t put it together. That’s my biggest regret.
I kept thinking about all those times throughout my career when I’d seen a guy get cut or bought out. You never imagine being that guy, but there I was.
When the team hired Michel Therrien as the new head coach in 2012, I was excited about the opportunity for a new start. I worked extra hard during that off-season so that I could bounce back strong with the team.
The first day of training camp, I was going to the rink with Tomas Kaberle and I got a call from Marc Bergevin, the GM of the Canadiens, asking me to come to his office. I remember getting off the phone and turning to Kabby and saying, “Yeah, that’s not good.”
When I made it to the building, I passed by Michel and he kind of shuffled away into his office, which pretty much sealed my fate.
Bergevin basically told me that I wasn’t part of the future plans for the team. The Canadiens wanted to sit me for the shortened 48-game season, and then buy me out the following summer. They didn’t want to risk me getting injured and complicating the buy-out process.
I didn’t say anything in that meeting, because there was nothing to say. It was business. But at that moment, I kept thinking about all those times throughout my career when I’d seen a guy get cut or bought out. You never imagine being that guy, but there I was.
My agent stepped in to speed up my buy-out process so I’d be eligible to sign with a new team right away. They ended up altering the rule because of my situation so that teams can no longer stop a guy from playing hockey.
After that whole experience, I just wanted to get away. I got an opportunity to play in San Jose and decided to jump at it.
Lou was the first person I called when I made the decision to go to the Sharks. He tried to talk me out of it. He wanted me back in New Jersey. He said he wasn’t going to let me fail. I should have listened to him, but at that point I was so set on trying something new that I didn’t hear him out. I thought getting a new start would build my confidence, but what I probably needed was some familiarity. At that point my mind was made up and I just wanted to get the hell out of the east coast.
Sure enough, I had the same troubles in San Jose that I did in Montreal. Fantastic team, great organization but I just didn’t fit well with the style of play. We ended up making it to the Western Conference Semifinals, but I wasn’t overly surprised when they told my agent after the season that I wasn’t in the Sharks’ future plans.
My next stop was with the Panthers, and that’s about when things really started to bottom out for me. I knew pretty early on in training camp that it wasn’t going to work out.
The drive from my home in Boca Raton to the practice rink was about 35 minutes, which gave me a little too much time to think about how far I’d fallen professionally every day. Part of me wondered if I didn’t show up one day if they’d even notice I was gone. I was like George Costanza in Seinfeld.
I needed inspiration and I found it, of all places, with Howard Stern. I’ve always been a huge fan of the show. I’d listen to him during my commute and when I was at one of my lowest moments, I remember him saying, “They wanted me to quit and get off the radio. Everyone thought I was done. I said ‘f— you, I’ll have the last laugh.’”
And honestly I thought, Wow, he’s right. It gave me a little push at a time when I really needed it.
My former Devils teammates Mike Mottau and Scott Clemmensen were also with the Panthers and I was thankful for the opportunity to reconnect with them. They kept me sane on and off of the ice.
Throughout the entire time I was struggling, my focus remained on being a professional and upholding the standard I’d learned in New Jersey. Just because I wasn’t playing didn’t excuse me from my responsibilities as a veteran in a young locker room. When I was at work, I didn’t sit alone and sulk. I did everything I could to contribute to make sure those young guys got the education I received coming into the league. Handling things any other way would have been a slap in the face to Scott Stevens, Jay Pandolfo, Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and the rest of the players who taught me the correct way to do things.
I really started to think Florida would be my last stop. There was no chance of getting traded – who would I get traded for? I wasn’t playing. And at that point, I started thinking about my legacy and what I left behind. I hated the idea of being the guy who slumped and then fizzled out. You get one shot at this, and I didn’t want this experience to be the final chapter of the most important thing I’ll ever be involved with.
My final six games with the Panthers, they had a few injuries and I got into the lineup. I figured this was my last hurrah in the NHL, so I went full-out balls to the wall. I decided I didn’t care about fitting in whatever scheme was in place; I just grabbed the damn puck and played my style of hockey. I figured in a few months, I’d probably be in a TV booth so I left everything out there. My ice time jumped from 6 minutes to 17 minutes and I played better than I had in years. At that point, the people closest to me got in contact and told me the same thing: You’re not done.
I got encouragement from guys I really respected, like Steve Valiquette. He knew I was sitting at 987 career games, and he was constantly in my ear about getting to 1,000. He was adamant about it. He said he wasn’t going to let one of his best friends miss their chance to get to that milestone. He knew I could still play in this league. That was something I really needed to hear, but beyond that, I believed it.
After that season I called Lou and said I wanted a shot. He offered me a try-out during training camp then told me to call Vladimir Bure, the same guy I trained with when I was fresh-faced 19-year-old who had no idea what it took to play in the league. I knew that if there was anyone that could bring me back to a high level, it was Vlade. Beyond being the father of two NHL stars, as well as an Olympic swimmer, Vlade was the longtime fitness coach of the Devils and he knew how to make you work. We’ve always had a close relationship, he’s kind of like a second father to me.
Vlade spent that summer building me back up, essentially brainwashing me into thinking I could not fail. I would not fail.
And so during the off-season, I was with him twice a day, six days a week doing intense, Soviet-style workouts. But it wasn’t just about the physical workouts, Vlade also spent that summer building me back up, essentially brainwashing me into thinking I could not fail. I would not fail. We knew that we were going to surprise everyone, it was like our secret.
I remember seeing old colleagues from the Devils around the facility and to them I probably looked like some sort of tragic figure. Aw, there’s old Gomer still trying to make it in the NHL. Used to be a great player, what a shame. But look at him trying, that’s pretty cute.
The tryout very well might have been a courtesy, but by the end of that summer with Vlade, I was back. I knew I could make the team. The greatest sports advice I’ve ever gotten was from my dad, who told me, “Make it to the point where they have to keep you.”
The roster was stacked at the forward position, but I told Lou that I was going to put him in a bad situation. I was going to force him to give me a roster spot. Call it arrogant, but after facing the reality of never playing in the NHL again, I needed to have that confidence.
Before camp, I remember having dinner with Scott Stevens, my captain. He told me that he thought I still had what it took to make the team. I knew he wasn’t the type of person that would say that if it wasn’t true. Hearing that from him really meant a lot.
During the pre-season, I felt like I was home. All the frustration I’d felt over the previous years and all the training I’d put in with Vlade combined to make me feel reborn on the ice. Hockey was fun again.
When I got the call from the Devils to join the team, I was ready. Once I got my chance, I made them keep me. A few months in, I’m a regular in the line-up. And even though I’m 35, I’m still learning new things about the game of hockey from my coaches Scott Stevens and Adam Oates. If you can show a professional player how to get better, they’ll do anything for you. There’s no question that both of them have made me a better hockey player.
I suppose the easy narrative is to chalk this up as a story of a guy getting lost before finding his way. That’s just not true, I never, ever lost my ability to play hockey. If anything, those experiences in Montreal, San Jose and Florida made me appreciate the game even more. If you never struggle, it’s difficult to appreciate success. I needed those experiences to make me a more well-rounded person. I knew I could play, I just needed a chance.
I can say that I’ve experienced just about every emotion hockey can give you. I’ve been to the peak of the mountain, and you can bet I’ve been at the bottom of the trash heap.
My story isn’t finished. I feel like I’m in control of my career and there’s still tread on these tires — after getting limited minutes the past few years, I feel fresh. I’m a smarter player too. I used to think I had to carry the puck end to end, but Adam Oates has taken that out of my game. He’s helped change my approach to hockey and that’s a big part of what has made this season so great.
Looking back on the entire experience, it’s difficult to pinpoint something I’d change. I’ve met the most incredible people in cities across the world because of this game. And I take a lot of pride in the fact that I can say that I’ve experienced just about every emotion hockey can give you. I’ve been to the peak of the mountain, and you can bet I’ve been at the bottom of the trash heap. Ultimately, I’m glad that I have these life lessons to share with young guys in the league trying to find their way.
I remember when I was with Canadiens and things weren’t going well, we had a game in Montreal against the Devils. We lost and I had a terrible game, but afterwards I asked a trainer if I could speak with Lou – we hadn’t talked since I left the Devils. In natural form, Lou had me meet him in some private room that he somehow knew about in the depths of the Bell Centre. When we were alone, I told him that I wasn’t sure what he might have heard about me or what had been said since I left, but that I wanted him to know that I still live by his standard every day I come to the rink.
I always will.