SPOTLIGHT: THE WELLAND CONNECTION

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

It’s almost something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Then again, even Ripley’s might not believe this tale.

Two decades ago, Dan Girardi and Andre Deveaux lived five minutes apart in Welland, Ontario, Canada, and spent many a day shooting at targets in a net that Girardi’s father had set up at the end of the driveway.

“We played games for candy or chocolate bars,” a smiling Girardi said after the New York Rangers’ 3-0 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday night. “When my parents sold their house, the shed about 50 yards behind it was covered in holes, absolutely mangled, from us missing the net after keeping the fence open where we placed the net. They didn’t fix the shed, just sold it as is. There were a lot of good memories there for sure.”

When Deveaux didn’t have a ride to his youth hockey game because his parents had successful but quite time-consuming careers, he’d hitch one with the Girardis or the parents of Daniel Paille, who helped the Boston Bruins win their first Stanley Cup in 39 years this spring.

“I wouldn’t have been able to play organized hockey if it wasn’t for families like the Girardis and Pailles taking me,” said Deveaux, 27, who was born two months before Girardi. “If my dad couldn’t join me, I went with one of the two families. Dan’s parents, Carol and Marc, are like second parents to me. I grew up with Girardi’s wife, Pam. I have pictures of him at my 7-8 year-old birthday party. That’s how we grew up.”

Girardi has especially fond memories of the trips to and from the rink.

“It was great car rides getting on my parents’ nerves,” he said with another smile. “We always tried to push the buttons when we could.”

And try to earn a special reward.

“There was always a promise of McDonald’s if we had a good game,” Girardi said. “My dad was a McDonald’s guy himself, so it was always, ‘Have a good game and we’ll do McDonald’s.’ I was very picky. I only liked cheeseburgers with only cheese on them, and (Deveaux) was a Big Mac guy. He liked everything, so we were pretty different that way.”

But they often ended up in the same place, as Andre did sleepovers at Dan’s house because he had three brothers and one sister and there wasn’t much extra room at the Deveaux Inn.

“He had all the cool toys, so we’d all want to go to his house,” a beaming Deveaux said. “There was Super Nintendo, going bowling with his dad, shooting pucks in his driveway, that’s how we all grew up.”

And they usually shot with the same kind of stick. When Girardi, then a forward and big-time goal scorer with a big shot, bought new red Titan sticks, Deveaux would get his father to follow suit. If Girardi switched to blue Titan sticks, Deveaux altered his color, too.

“That’s just the way it was growing up,” Deveaux said. “Danny was my best friend. Paille, too.”

Starting at age 6, the three played together for more than a decade before heading their separate ways to the Ontario Hockey League and the minors. But it felt like old times again this summer when Paille brought the Stanley Cup to Welland and the trio ended up in hotel room late that night with the wives of Paille and Girardi sipping champagne from hockey’s most prized trophy.

“It was pretty cool because that’s the way we grew up,” Deveaux said. “I was so happy for Danny, but it didn’t hit me that he had won it until we were in the (hotel) room and just all hanging out like we did all through high school, drinking out of the Stanley Cup. I always say to my brothers and sisters that it gives me hope. It’s pretty good for a couple kids from Welland: Paille was the captain of the (Canadian) junior national team, was drafted in the first round by Buffalo (in 2002) and just won a Stanley Cup, and Girardi is now doing great as one of the top defensemen with the Rangers.”

After bouncing around the minors for most of his first seven pro seasons and playing 22 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Deveaux experienced one of the highlights of his hockey career a week ago. He signed a one-year, free-agent contract with the Rangers on Aug. 16, largely because of his longtime friendship with Girardi and having originally signed with Tampa Bay in the summer after current Rangers coach John Tortorella led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup, though he played his rookie pro season with the Springfield Falcons during the 2004-05 lockout year.

“My agent said the Rangers would give me a chance, and Girardi was there, too,” Deveaux said. “And I knew Torts and how his training camp was going to be tough. That was my wakeup call back then. I thought I was in shape, but I found out I wasn’t after going to his camp. It was good for me to find out what it really takes to be a professional hockey player. So that was enough for me to want to come to the Rangers to play.”

On Oct. 30, Deveaux got that chance when he was called up from the Connecticut Whale after getting four goals and two assists and handing out plenty of solid hits in seven games. Now, he sits four locker stalls from Girardi.

“It’s great to be on the same team with him,” Deveaux said. “He gives me a little advice here and there, but he kind of leaves me alone and I kind of leave him alone. We have our jobs to do, and we know what that is. But it’s nice that whenever it gets a little intimidating that I can look down the bench and see an old friend and know we’re in the trenches together.”

Now that they have a son, 17-month-old Landon, Girardi and his wife don’t see Deveaux as much as in their days in Welland. Deveaux now lives in Toronto and Girardi has a home an hour away in Niagara Falls, N.Y., though they occasionally see each other in the summer.

“Off the ice, I’ve got a family, and he’s just kind of getting a feel for enjoying his life,” Girardi said. “But we worked out and power-skated together until last year, and when it comes to at the rink, we’re helping each other here and there.”

Yes, Deveaux can peer down the bench and see the guy for whom he was co-best man with Paille when Girardi got married. And when Paille said his wedding vows, Deveaux and Girardi served as his best men.

“In 2050, they’ll probably be the best men in my wedding,” Deveaux said with another wide smile.

“We always give him grief that maybe one day he’ll be there,” a grinning Girardi offered.

But for now, Girardi said “it’s pretty surreal to be out there with him.”

“We started together in tykes, played 10 years together and now to be on the Madison Square Garden ice playing with him is a good story,” Girardi said. “I’m really happy that he’s here and hope he stays for a bit.”

That’s likely, with wings Wojtek Wolski (sports hernia) and Mike Rupp (knee) scheduled to be out four weeks after having surgery on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. The Rangers called up feisty wing Sean Avery last Tuesday as a fill-in for Rupp and considered recalling Mats Zuccarello but opted for Deveaux because Tortorella still didn’t think he could get enough ice time for “The Norwegian Hobbit” on one of the team’s top offensive lines.

Though Girardi and Deveaux are on the same team, there’s a major difference in their ice time. With his All-Star defensive partner Marc Staal on injured reserve and out indefinitely with post-concussion symptoms, Girardi has been asked to take on even more responsibility, is averaging an NHL-high 27:58 of ice time and already has played more than 30 minutes four times in the Rangers’ first 13 games. And he’s now paired with Ryan McDonagh, who started last season with the Hartford Wolf Pack before switching places with Michael Del Zotto on Jan. 3 and is becoming one of the league’s most reliable defensemen while expanding his offensive game.

Deveaux has averaged only 6:03 on the Rangers’ fourth line with Avery and Erik Christensen, who gets time on the power play. But Deveaux has earned plaudits for continuing the gritty, grinding style that got him to the NHL for the second time with his fifth organization since being the Montreal Canadiens’ sixth-round pick in 2002. Last season with the Chicago Wolves, he had a career-high 23 goals, 14 on the power play, and tied his career best of 46 points while racking up 194 penalty minutes.

Deveaux had four goals, two assists, 24 penalty minutes and plenty of hits in nine games with the Whale before being called up. In four games with the Rangers, he is plus-3 and has one fight and one assist, on Brad Richards’ winning goal in a 5-3 victory over the Canadiens on Saturday night after digging out the puck along the boards. It was Tortorella’s 100th win as Rangers coach.

“I’d been putting up more (offensive) numbers and fighting a little less the last few years,” said Deveaux, who has quickly become one of the more popular players on the Rangers. “I really worked on the offensive side of things and tried to become a more complete player. The year before, I led the (Toronto) Marlies in goals (16) and assists (25).

“I’m pretty simple with what I do and think I’m making a difference. Sure I’d like to play more, but right now I’m happy with the time they’re giving me and just trying to take it one shift at a time and do my best every shift. But that’s what I’m here for, to be reliable and do my job. If Torts gives me more ice time, I’ll look forward to it. If not, the team is winning, and I’m happy just being a part of things.”

Meanwhile, the Rangers are delighted Girardi has been able to handle even more responsibility. He has continued to be effective despite needing six stitches to close a cut on his forehead Saturday night and then twice leaving the ice Sunday after blocking shots, one of his fortes and something that injured a pinky finger but didn’t knock him from the game.

“That’s just part of our game,” said Girardi, one of the last players to leave the locker room Sunday night. “That’s pretty much any sport, you’ll see guys after a game icing this, icing that, everyone’s hurting after a game, that means you’re playing the game the right way, you’re getting your body on the line, hitting and blocking shots, and that’s just part of my game.”

With Staal out, Girardi is the player the Rangers can least afford to lose beside standout goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The man known as “Block Ness” must lead the league in ice bags, bruises and stitches.

“He has been great for us, a stud back there,” said Rangers right wing/captain Ryan Callahan, another close friend of Girardi who was in his wedding, after sharing an apartment with him in Manchester when they were Wolf Pack teammates. “We knew he could do it all along after playing a lot of minutes for us last season. He’s going to have to continue to do it for us to have success with Marc out, and he has risen to the challenge. That’s what we expect from a guy like that. He’s not too flashy, and I don’t think he gets the recognition he should or deserves for what he does back there.”

Or as McDonagh succinctly put it: “He’s incredible. He’s a machine. It gives you such a confidence boost because 99 percent of the time he’s going to make the right play and a strong play.”

Yes, Girardi, who steadily and efficiently worked his way from an undrafted free agent to Charlotte of the ECHL to Hartford of the AHL to the World’s Most Famous Arena to one of the NHL’s premier defensemen, is a major reason that the Rangers have overcome a sluggish start. Part of that can be attributed to having to travel 20,000 miles to Europe and Western Canada for their last four preseason games and first seven games regular-season games as Madison Square Garden underwent the start of a three-year, $850 million renovation. The grind-it-out victory over Winnipeg was the Rangers’ fourth in a row, gave them a five-game points streak and improved their record to 7-3-3, good for third place in the Atlantic Division with games in hand on Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

“We’ve had some good games when we got home,” Girardi said. “We lost the first two (to Toronto and to Ottawa in a shootout), but now we’ve won four in a row, and that’s how we have to play at home: Sound defensively and a simple game.”

Sure sounded a lot like those two longtime buddies from Welland who have somehow found their way to the same locker room on Broadway.

Yes, even Ripley might have a hard time believing that one.

MARATHON MAN

Hockey Hall of Famer and former Rangers captain Mark Messier received a rousing ovation from the fans Sunday night as a picture of him running in his first New York Marathon earlier in the day was flashed on the jumbo screen. A camera then showed him sitting in a MSG skybox a few hours after completing the 26.2-mile race in 4:14.27.

Like his 25 years in the World Hockey Association and NHL, Messier left it all on the course. As he finished, he was so exhausted and dizzy he was put in a wheelchair and taken to a medical tent. He leaned on a railing near the finish line and asked to sit down, said Mary Wittenberg, the CEO of the New York Road Runners, the marathon organizer. He was then escorted to a TV studio and rested for five minutes before going to a medical tent, where his vital signs were taken. He was kept briefly for observation before quickly recovering with the help of fluids.

Running through five boroughs of New York City for more than four hours was obviously tougher than 60 minutes of hockey, though less dangerous.

“He was so classic, so tough,” Wittenberg said. “I knew he’d cross that line with nothing left, and that’s how he crossed the line.”

In a statement released Sunday night, Messier said, “I just got filled with inspiration. I feel great now.”

Part of that likely had to do with the Rangers’ 3-0 victory, especially after achieving his race goal of finishing in under 4:30, validating the hundreds of miles he ran over seven months near his home in Greenwich and the Rangers’ training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y.

Messier, a six-time Stanley Cup champion, participated in the race to help raise money and awareness for his two charities, Tomorrows Children’s Fund and The New York Police & Fire Widows’ & Children’s Benefit Fund.

Other former Rangers greats to run the race have been goalie Mike Richter and left wing Adam Graves, who played with Messier on the 1993-94 team that ended a 54-year Stanley Cup drought on Broadway. Messier beat Graves’ time in 2006 by 13 minutes but fell short of besting Richter’s time of 3:54:34 in 2007.

Messier was among 15 celebrities from sports, film, music and food to participate in the event’s charity program. The goal is to raise more than $26.2 million for 200 charities from the record 47,107 runner who started the race.

They also included Olympic speed skater Apollo Anton Ohno, who was running in the race to raise money for the Special Olympics and finished in 3:25:14.

“This being my first marathon, I didn’t know what to expect,” Ohno told the New York Times. “My body is simply not designed to work like that. It’s so long. I probably hit the wall many times.” … Syracuse Crunch right wing Dan Sexton was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Year after getting two goals and seven assists to record points on nine of his team’s 10 goals in a home-and-home series with Rochester, a 5-2 win and 6-5 overtime loss. His five-point performance (one goal, four assists) on Saturday was a career best and tied a season high in the AHL this season. His nine points in 25 hours came after he had four points in his first nine games.

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