FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

After two deflating seasons on Broadway fraught with boos and negative press, no one could have blamed Wade Redden for exiting the NHL stage left for more pleasant endeavors like the impending birth of his first child.

But chats with longtime friends/teammates such as Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and former Hartford Whalers defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn and Brad McCrimmon helped convince Redden that if he still had the will and opportunity to play that he shouldn’t hang up his skates and sticks just yet.

Then, of course, there was the matter of four years and $26 million left on a six-year, $39 million contract that Redden signed with the New York Rangers on July 1, 2008. But what started as what he thought was a positive move to a team he had followed for years turned into a nightmare.

With the Rangers’ move toward youth and his $6.5 million annual salary an albatross to the team’s salary cap, Redden realized continuing to play under the bright lights of The Big Apple was basically out of the question. And while five teams sought his services two years earlier, no one was about to take on such a salary cap hit.

So when Redden cleared waivers and was assigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack (now Connecticut Whale) on Sept. 27 to clear cap space and start his first minor-league stint in a distinguished 14-year career, he knew he’d be riding on buses rather that flying in planes for at least the next six months of his life. The Rangers weren’t about to recall him and risk having to pay half his salary while he was playing elsewhere if he was claimed on re-entry waivers.

Though not where he wants to be, Redden says quitting last summer would have been another bad move.

“Obviously it would have been a rash decision,” Redden said. “I think my time in New York and the way I felt I needed to get out of there. I wasn’t myself, and I still felt like I could play, and I’m having fun doing it here. That was always my goal because you want to feel like you can go out and play and let the game come to you. We’ll see where it takes me next season.”

While helping a defensive corps that started the season with five rookies, Redden has shown what being a consummate professional is all about while an alternate captain and endearing himself to his new teammates. He has helped tutor youngsters such as Ryan McDonagh, now with the Rangers, Tomas Kundratek, Pavel Valentenko and Jyri Niemi, who grew up in Finland following Redden’s exploits with the Senators, asked for the locker room stall to his left and began the season as his defensive partner.

“When I was growing up, he was always the guy who was putting up numbers for Ottawa almost every night,” Niemi said. “And you knew about him in the Finnish news, so I figured he had to be pretty good. When I saw the seating plan for the dressing room, I saw No. 6 and told the trainer (Damien Hess) to put my number right next to him. It was a no-brainer for me and pretty cool to get the spot. Being his partner was so exciting, and he made it so easy for me. He’s so calm with the puck. When you see him play, you can see where he wants to make a play and he hardly ever makes a mistake and if he does, he positions himself so well that it does matter if he makes a bad play because he’s right back as if nothing happened.

“And he’s been even better lately. As an older guy, he knows when it comes to playoff time you need to play at your best, so I think he’s doing that now. It’s amazing to watch the plays he makes. I’m speechless with some of the passes he makes, and I hope he gets back to the NHL because he deserves it. He has been great to me, has helped out all his teammates so much and leads by example. He doesn’t have to do that. It would be so easy for a guy like him to (blow) off practice early. Who’s going to say anything to him? No one. But the way he treats himself is just outstanding. I think he deserves to play in the NHL, for sure.”

It’s probably no coincidence that the stall to Redden’s right belongs to Michael Del Zotto, the Rangers’ No. 1 pick (20th overall) in 2008 who also is injured after his third assignment to the Whale in hopes of helping him rediscover the game that made him a member of the NHL All-Rookie Team last season. Del Zotto, who also is back skating on his own and hopes to return for the playoffs, took McDonagh’s locker room spot when the two changed places Jan. 3.

“He just keeps it simple, and obviously his experience can get you pretty spoiled when you’re right next to the guy,” said Jared Nightingale, another assistant captain and Redden’s defensive partner the past few months. “He’s more than willing to open up to any of the guys on the team, but his biggest asset is probably his humility. If you look at his resume, it’s pretty amazing the places that he has been, in (994) NHL games and World Championships and Stanley Cups.

“And he’s a simple guy from a blue-collar family, which is something you realize as soon as you meet him for five minutes. He’s down to earth and a really good person who’s making the most of his situation. We all know he deserves to be in the NHL. It’s kind of out of his hands, but he’s a good example for guys in the AHL. Wade Redden should be in the NHL, but it does no good sitting around wondering what if. He’s an optimistic guy and a true professional. Once you got through the first phase of getting to know him, he’s just another guy on the team, a good friend, who jokes around and laughs with anyone.”

While Redden has seemingly discovered a fountain of youth the past few weeks, he remains undecided on his future. He could remain with the organization and likely return to Hartford, take a buyout from the Rangers for the $16.5 million left on his contract after this season or forfeit the remainder of his deal and look for work elsewhere, perhaps in Europe. He’s back on the salary cap from July 1 until he’s waived again and the cap is recalculated at the start of the season. The Rangers are highly unlikely to buy him out on June 15 and take a $1,833,333 cap hit next season and in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and a $3,333,333 hit in 2012-13 and 2013-14. So if Redden wants to go elsewhere, he could not report to camp, then his contract would be void and he’d be a free agent.

“I’ve kind of put my options on hold until after the season, but money isn’t an issue,” said Redden, who has played for Canada internationally seven times, winning two gold medals in the World Cups and one in the World Cup of Hockey. “My focus now is to play well here because that’s the only thing under my control. I do feel more comfortable, and every shift this time of year is important. You have to play hard all the time, especially with our playoff lives on the line. You want to go out and play hard and play well.”

Redden said it was an adjustment playing in “the little more scrambly” AHL, a different style of play and feeling more comfortable with himself.

“I’ve been playing better than I probably have all year, and I think it’s because I’ve just gone out not thinking about anything, and it’s fun,” Redden said. “In New York, I just wasn’t myself, and a lot of things happened to me in my life. I just wasn’t focused 100 percent, and I’m not going to get into everything that was going because it’s performance that matters. Now I feel good on the ice and just playing, and that’s the feeling I always want to have when I get out there.”

That was hardly the case in two tumultuous seasons with the Rangers, whom he chose over the Dallas Stars, Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets when he became an unrestricted free agent in 2008. He was the New York Islanders’ first-round pick (second overall) in 1995 but never played on Long Island as he was traded to the Senators with Demian Rhodes for Don Beaupre, Martin Straka and Bryan Berard on Jan. 23, 1996. The trade had become necessary for Ottawa to move Berard, who refused to join the Senators, a team in turmoil at the time.

Before and after the trade, Redden completed his junior career with Brandon of the Western Hockey League and then joined the Senators for the 1996-97 season. He was instrumental in the Senators’ run to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, recording 10 points in 20 playoff games before losing to the Anaheim Ducks in five games. He also was big in the Ottawa community, sponsoring a suite at the Scotiabank Place named “Wade’s World” reserved for critically and terminally ill children that he paid for from 1997 until 2008. He also was involved with the charity “65 Roses Club” that raised money for cystic fibrosis research and appeared in “Road Hockey Rumble” in his hometown.

But after 11 seasons in Canada’s capital city, the Senators weren’t interested in retaining the services of Redden, who became an unrestricted free agent and signed the lucrative deal with the Rangers.

“I always had a feeling for the team and always enjoyed going (to Madison Square Garden) to play against them,” Redden said. “Looking back, obviously it wasn’t the best fit for me, but I had known guys who had been there before and spoken highly of it. But for whatever reason, it didn’t happen for me there. But all things happen for a reason. It’s not the end of the world that things didn’t work out there. Good things are still going to happen for me, so I came (to Hartford) to figure things out and now will take it from there.”

Redden said the toughest part of New York were the negative press and not being able to get over the boos that often cascaded down in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” The criticism in the media included one writer calling his contract “the worst in the history of the NHL, if not the history of hard-cap pro sports.”

“You become accustomed to (negative stories), and it doesn’t bother me as much as it did at the start,” said Redden, who has been completely cooperative and insightful with the media throughout his time in Hartford. “You’ve got to kind of expect it. Maybe I was a little naive going in there, but I went in with high expectations and good intentions and it didn’t work out.

“Boos are never any fun and something I wasn’t used to. Then I wasn’t playing as much as I usually played and not getting the same opportunities, so it’s hard to climb yourself out of it when you’re not playing like you used to and you have these expectations and not getting a chance.”

That certainly hasn’t been the case with the Wolf Pack/Whale, as Redden logs the most ice time while being used extensively at even strength, on the power play and killing penalties.

“It has been nice to play a lot and have fun,” Redden said. “Obviously the level is different from the NHL, but there’s still a lot of good players and a challenge to go out and play well, so you’ve got to be ready for it. I’ve just tried to play hard and be a good teammate, just as I always have.”

Coach Ken Gernander has had few complaints and utilized Redden more than ever as the Whale (37-26-2-6) has made a strong push to return to the playoffs after missing last season by three points for the first time in franchise history, winning four consecutive games and 10 of 12.

“It was probably a tough start for him emotionally because of the circumstances, and especially lately, he’s been our best defenseman and playing really well,” Gernander said. “He leads by example, has been a great professional and does all the little things. He has a certain skill that got him to make quite a name for himself at the NHL level. But that aside, he’s doing all the little things here where he’s not just resting on your laurels or relying on past experiences or talent. He’s fully committed to doing what it takes to be successful.”

Redden has taken a more offensive role lately and even helped draw up a faceoff play that led to John Mitchell’s goal off a glittering maneuver by All-Star Jeremy Williams with 8:43 left for a 3-2 victory over the Springfield Falcons on Wednesday night.

But Gernander said he has leaned on Redden only as much as allowing him to be a take-charge guy on his own.

“I do what I do in terms of coaching,” Gernander said, “and part of what he does encompasses setting a good example for others or being a good on-ice communicator and take-charge guy. But you leave that to the player to do those types of things.”

Assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who played 16 seasons in the NHL and handles the Whale defense and power play, said Redden “has been unbelievable, the consummate professional.”

“He has set a great example and really been competing the last two or three weeks like he hadn’t earlier in the season,” Daigneault said. “Before one game I showed some clips to the defensemen and then the whole team of him. If you don’t want to spend time in the defensive zone, you have to be first to loose pucks. Redden was three or four feet behind a checker racing for a loose puck, and then he caught up and was the first to the puck. At this time of year, we have to be first to those loose pucks. It was a good example for the young kids to see this guy try to outskate someone racing to a loose puck. That’s competing.”

Daigneault said he has one wish for the Whale’s senior leader.

“He has been very professional in a difficult situation with regards to his contract and situation with the Rangers,” Daigneault said. “But I just hope somebody sees the professionalism that he has shown and that he has the fire. If you don’t have the fire any more, it’s tough to play, regardless of what you’re making. But he has shown throughout the course of the season, especially in the last few weeks, that the fire is still burning. And he has stepped up at the most important time. And the last (eight) games are going to be even more important.”

The coaches and players aren’t the only people in the Whale family to see Redden’s desire to compete and get back to the NHL. Strength and conditioning coordinator Jeremy Goodman has watched Redden put as much time into conditioning and workouts as anyone on the team.

So how religiously has he done his high-intensity training?

“He’s outstanding,” Goodman said. “He sets the tone here because of his presence and his experience. He has played at an NHL caliber, and now the young guys can see that he does it all here.”

Redden said he has expanded his training routine the past two years under the tutelage of Andre Benoit, who lives in Calgary but works for a Rhode Island-based company and travels around teaching courses to other trainers.

“Stretching has always been important to me, and I’ve done it more as I’ve gotten older,” Redden said. “And this season I’ve really been focused on it. Having the weekend games and practices just to work on conditioning and stuff off the ice has helped me. Three games in three days doesn’t happen in the NHL, so I stretch more because it’s nice to have the body feel good and being in top shape.

“The last three or four years I haven’t been as mobile or flexible. I’ve been stiff and sore, so the last two summers I kind of turned the corner as far as training a little smarter. It’s a matter of feeling healthy and feeling strong, and I’m having fun playing and getting the opportunity.”

Besides his regained love and enjoyment for the game, including scoring the first shorthanded overtime winner of his career, Redden has enjoyed even more love at home since the arrival of daughter Leni on Sept. 22. Immediately after her birth, Redden commuted between Hartford and New York, but he and his wife, Danica, and their new child moved into a rented home in West Hartford in mid-October.

“It has been the best thing that ever happened to me,” Redden said of Leni’s birth. “People always say that, and I look forward to getting up in the morning with her, being with her and having those moments. It’s so much fun, and she’s growing so much and changing all the time that you try to soak it up as much as you can. She’s been a good sleeper and a real treat for us.”

Redden’s next “treat” would be helping the Whale hold on to their playoff position and win a Calder Cup. It could go a long way toward helping him regain a position in the most elite hockey league in the world.

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