BY: Bruce Berlet (Special to Howlings)
Jeff Beukeboom won three Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, but he always had a special place in his heart for the New York Rangers after helping them capture their first championship in 54 years in his third season on Broadway.
Those special thoughts were accentuated when Glen Sather, who made Beukeboom the Oilers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 1983, became president and general manager of the Blueshirts. So after the rugged defenseman was forced to retire in 1999 because of recurring concussions and began coaching four years later, he hoped to return to the Rangers after keeping in touch with several Blueshirts officials, including Sather and director of player personnel Gordie Clark and former players such as Adam Graves, and doing a lot of alumni activities like working with some of the team’s top prospects during a camp after the NHL draft in June.
Beukeboom got that opportunity on July 6 when he was named an assistant coach of the Connecticut Whale, the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate, after J.J. Daigneault left Hartford on June 29 to become an assistant with his hometown Montreal Canadiens.
“I always wanted to move forward from juniors, and Edmonton and the Rangers were the teams I kept in touch with, so they were the ones that you preferred,” Beukeboom said.
The 47-year-old Beukeboom was an assistant with the AHL’s Toronto Roadrunners in 2003-04 and became president and part-owner of the Lindsay Muskies of the Ontario Provincial Junior “A” Hockey League in 2005. He then was an assistant coach with the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts and Sudbury Wolves in 2008-12, and his “students” included NHL All-Star defenseman Marc Staal, the Rangers’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 2005.
Beukeboom, who moved to West Hartford from Uxbridge, Ontario, last week, said it’s going to be a lot different teaching young pros than it was instructing teenagers hoping to get drafted and reach the highest levels of the sport.
“In juniors, the hardest thing sometimes is trying to figure out what your role is supposed to be,” said Beukeboom, who played for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 1982-85 before being drafted by the Oilers. “So you’re not just coaching, you’re trying to be kind of a mentor to the kids. There will be some of that at the pro ranks, but it’ll be more on-ice stuff, while in juniors, there’s so many more little things like schooling that you have to be more aware of.
“Generally, that’s what it’s all about, and as they get older, you manage them a little differently, but at the same time, you never know.”
Beukeboom said the keys to coaching at the AHL level will be to gain the trust of the players through communications and displaying a strong work ethic.
“The kids aren’t dumb,” Beukeboom said. “They’re aware if you’re not doing your work or you’re not prepared, you’re not doing what’s in the best interest of the team and themselves. If you’re willing to do all these things and can look the kid in the eye and say, ‘This is what you need to do,’then he can trust you and knows the coach is doing his homework and doing what he needs to do to be successful.”
Beukeboom said his experience will be a major asset in helping develop the franchise’s young defensive prospects, especially after a majority of the Rangers who won the Eastern Conference regular season title and reached the conference playoff finals had graduated from Hartford thanks in large part to Daigneault and head coach Ken Gernander.
“The Rangers have obviously changed their focus and mindset, so it’s very important that I do my job so that when they get to New York they’re ready,” Beukeboom said. “Our league is a development league, but that league (NHL) is about wins and losses. You hope the kids come in with a pretty good understanding of the game and have come from some decent programs so you don’t have to start from Square One, that they have some of the really important stuff under their belt so when they get to this level they can start progressing a little bit quicker. It’s a little more refined game at every level as you go up, and the AHL will be for a junior or college kid.”
Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10thoverall) in 2010, will be the No. 1 project for Beukeboom, who knows all about developing rugged players after he had 30 goals, 129 assists and 1,890 penalty minutes in 804 NHL regular-season games with the Oilers and the Rangers. He also had three goals, 16 assists and 197 PIM in 99 playoff games while helping Edmonton win the Stanley Cup in 1987, 1988 and 1990 and the Rangers end their drought in 1994.
“Obviously it’s important to develop all the kids, but (McIlrath) is obviously is a guy the Rangers are going to be focusing on a little but more than others, which is fair,” Beukeboom said. “But if I just so happen to work with the forwards after practice, my job is improving them that day, and the same thing for the defensemen or anyone. I’m out there to lend a hand and pass on my experiences, whether they’re hockey or life experiences, and make sure they get ahead.”
If the NHL and NHL Players’ Association reach a new collective bargaining agreement before the current accord expires Sept. 15, McIlrath isn’t expected to be ready for the start of training camp Sept. 21 after having surgery on July 6 on a dislocated left kneecap sustained in a collision with forward Kyle Jean during the prospects camp in June. McIlrath had hoped to compete for a spot on the Rangers blueline in his first pro season after finishing his junior career with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League and playing five playoff games with the Whale. But during the prospect camp, he collided with Jean on an open-ice hit and fell to the ice in pain. McIlrath saw team doctors and opted for surgery, performed by Dr. Andrew Feldman and Dr. Anthony Maddalo at the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Jean was signed to a free-agent contract after getting four goals in four games.
Beukeboom will eventually work with McIlrath, along with captain Wade Redden, Mike Vernace, Blake Parlett and newcomers Sean Collins, Logan Pyett and Steven Delisle, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of the Rangers deal for All-Star left wing Rick Nash. Defenseman Tim Erixon was traded to Columbus in the Nash deal, Lee Baldwin signed with the Greenville Road Warriors, the Whale’s ECHL affiliate, free agents Brendan Bell and Sam Klassen remain unsigned and aren’t likely to return, and Pavel Valentenko signed with Avangard Omsk in his native Russia and Jared Nightingale signed an AHL contract with the Syracuse Crunch.
Beukeboom also might have been working with his son Brock, a defensive defenseman who was a third-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010 before being traded to the St. Louis Blues. Brock, who also has had problems with concussions, was scheduled to play for the Rangers team in the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., that was canceled because a new CBA hadn’t been reached. Brock, who was born in Greenwich while dad was with the Rangers and was a forward during much of his youth hockey career, is a free agent and could have signed a pro contract with the Rangers. But he opted to play another season with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs, who acquired him from Sault St. Marie last season.
After six seasons with Edmonton and the AHL’s Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Oilers, Jeff was traded to the Rangers for defenseman David Shaw on Nov. 12, 1991 to fulfill the future considerations part of the deal that had sent Mark Messier to Broadway for center Bernie Nicholls and wings Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk on Oct. 4, 1991. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Beukeboom quickly established himself as a fan favorite and an anchor of the defense with heavy body checks and a willingness to protect his teammates, through fighting if necessary. He was usually on the Rangers’ top defensive pairing with Cheshire native Brian Leetch, a standout at Cheshire High, Avon Old Farms, Boston College and the U.S. Olympic team who played 18 years in the NHL.
Beukeboom was an alternate captain, and his stay-at-home play allowed Leetch to lead the rush and kept opposing players out of the goal crease. He led the team in penalty minutes three times (1992-93, 93-94, 95-96) and was also known for his philanthropy, including Ice Hockey in Harlem. In 1996, he won the Rangers’ Crumb Bum Award, given for service to local youngsters.
Because of his physical play, Beukeboom suffered multiple concussions, the most devastating coming on Nov. 19, 1998, when he was sucker-punched from behind by the Los Angeles Kings’ Matt Johnson, who got an earful from several Rangers, including former Hartford Wolf Pack goalie Dan Cloutier, and received a 12-game suspension for intent to injure. While Beukeboom returned after a few games off, his style of play and history of concussions left him predisposed to another concussion, which he suffered on a minor collision on Feb. 12, 1999. Afterward, Beukeboom was left with recurrent headaches, memory loss, nausea and mental fogginess that lasted for months. He was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, ordered to never play hockey again and officially retired on July 15, 1999. Even after retiring, he continued to suffer post-concussion symptoms for almost two years before finally recovering.
Leetch credits Beukeboom as a major reason that he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
“Once Jeff trusted me as a friend in our first year (1991-92), we became great partners on the blueline,” Leetch said via email.“He would let me know what his weaknesses were as I would let him know mine, and we would figure out the best way to play to both of our strengths. The best compliment I can give Jeff as a player was the bigger and tougher the game, the better Jeff played and the more you noticed him. I don’t think he was ever a ‘three star of the game’ against the bottom half of the league.
“As a person, he became a caring teammate as he realized his growing importance on our team. He stopped trying to force his opinions on people and instead realized the right words of encouragement or relaying a story about himself as a young player in the NHL meant much more. As a coach, I know he has enjoyed that part of it.”
Beukeboom called Leetch “a special player.”
“People don’t realize how competitive Brian was and how hard he competed every night,” Beukeboom said. “Even though he was maybe 190 pounds, he went into the corners with the big and small (opponents), always competed hard and blocked shots. He was very hard on himself, but that’s probably why he ended up where he is, in the Hall of Fame.
“I was fortunate to play with Brian, and my first defense partner was Paul Coffey. So I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of great people and players and learned quite a bit from a lot of them. And I continue to learn on a daily basis.”
Leetch is one of several Hall of Famers who have been teammates of Beukeboom. Others include Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr and Oilers president Kevin Lowe. Beukeboom also said he is indebted to former New England Whalers defenseman and captain Ted Green, who was an assistant coach in Edmonton when Beukeboom was playing for the Oilers.
“He was a really good mentor to me and a lot of other young defensemen who came through there,” Beukeboom said. “It’s a long list of people who helped me, and as an adult, opposed to a kid coming up through the system, you take all the good and try to wrap it up and pass it on.”
Beukeboom said he was never a tough guy, just a tough player who usually played against the other team’s top lines.
“I was proud of my accomplishments, especially with the Rangers because the team was so deep in Edmonton that I was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs,” Beukeboom said. “When I came to the Rangers, it was a different scenario where I was one of the leaders and Brian and I played against a lot of the other team’s top players. And he was so prominent in our power play and penalty killing, and I’d go out and do penalty killing as well. So those were special times.”
Gernander and the Whale hope Beukeboom can continue the traditions set by Daigneault, who helped develop Rangers defensemen Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Stu Bickel, Michael Sauer, who is recovering from a concussion that sidelined after Dec. 5, and Michael Del Zotto, who is still an unsigned free agent. Gernander said Beukeboom will work mainly with the defensemen and run that end of the bench, but it might be another six weeks before all the coaches’ roles will be finalized, especially as far as the special teams, a mainstay of Daigneault.
“We’ll have to see how things evolve,” Gernander said.
Regardless of whether the NHLPA resolve their issues, the AHL will play, as it did during the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout season. The Whale will play three preseason games, starting Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. against the Albany Devils at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell, the team’s practice facility away from the XL Center in Hartford. Proceeds from the game will benefit Middlesex Whalers Youth Hockey.
The Whale’s only road preseason game is Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. against the Worcester Sharks at the College of Holy Cross’ Hart Center in Worcester, Mass. The Whale concludes their preseason Oct. 7 at 2 p.m. at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College in Hartford. The game will benefit the Ryan Gordon/Connecticut Whale Community Scholars Funds, with donations accepted at the door in lieu of an admission charge. The fund memorializes Gordon, an avid Wolf Pack fan who died in 2006 at 18 and asked that a portion of the monies set aside for his college education be donated to the Connecticut Whale Community Foundation.
The Whale, who began as the Wolf Pack after the Hartford Whalers left for North Carolina in 1997, starts their 16th season at home on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Bridgeport edged out the Whale for the Northeast Division regular-season title in April before being swept by their intrastate rival in the first round of the playoffs.
Scott Pellerin is the new coach of the Sound Tigers, the top affiliate of the New York Islanders. Pellerin succeeds former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson, who was elevated to an assistant under Islanders coach Jack Capuano, former coach of the Sound Tigers. Pellerin, 42, was the assistant coach of the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs the past six seasons as the New Hampshire team went 253-173-21-29 in the regular season and made five playoff appearances. In the 2006-07 season, Pellerin helped the Monarchs to a franchise record in wins (51) and points (110) before they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in the playoffs. He also was part of the Monarchs team that made it to the conference finals in 2010.
Pellerin was replaced in Manchester by Freddy Meyer, 31, a veteran of 418 NHL and AHL games in a nine-year pro career from 2003-2012. The native of Sanbornville, N.H., had 20 goals and 53 assists in 281 NHL games with the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Phoenix Coyotes and former Atlanta Thrashers and 23 goals and 28 assists in 137 AHL games with the Philadelphia Phantoms and San Antonio Rampage. He was a member of the 2005 Calder Cup-winning Phantoms that included current Los Angeles Kings forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. That team was coached by Kings assistant and former Hartford Whalers defenseman John Stevens.
Most recently, Meyer had three goals and nine assists in 31 games for Modo Hockey of the Swedish Elite League in the 2011-12 season.
“It is a great honor to be the next assistant coach of the Manchester Monarchs and to be part of the Los Angeles Kings organization,”Meyer said in a statement. “Growing up in New Hampshire and playing youth hockey throughout New England, I look forward to returning to the Granite State and getting my coaching career started.”
As a 2003 graduate of Boston University, Meyer was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team in 2000, was a NCAA East First All-American Team and a Hockey East First All-Star Team in 2003. He signed his first pro contract as an undrafted free agent with the Flyers in 2003 and also represented the Unites States internationally on the 1999 U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team, the 2001 U.S. National Junior Team, the 2006 U.S. Men’s National Team and the 2011 U.S. Men’s Select Team.
MESSIER NAMED BEST NHL CAPTAIN EVER
NHL.com columnist John Kreiser selected his top 10 captains in NHL history, and Messier was No. 1.
“There’s more to being a leader than merely wearing the captain’s ‘C’ on your jersey,” Kreiser wrote. “Leadership is knowing how to push your teammates to levels they didn’t know they could reach, making sure they don’t accept anything less than their best on the ice – and off. Of all the great leaders in NHL history, only one has an award named for him. That would be Messier, whose Mark Messier Leadership Award is presented each year to recognize a player who’s a superior leader on his team on and off the ice.
“That description fits Messier, who’s been recognized for his leadership skills after becoming the only player in NHL history to serve as captain for two Cup-winning franchises. He became captain in Edmonton after the Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky in 1988 and led them to the Stanley Cup in 1990, then wore the ‘C’ (and scored the Cup-winning goal) when the New York Rangers ended their 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994. Both years were marked by signature performances in which he refused to let his team lose.
“Messier’s career ledger includes six Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies and a Conn Smythe Trophy, and he’s No. 2 on the NHL’s all-time scoring list. But it’s his leadership skills that have become his legacy and earned him the honor of being regarded as hockey’s greatest leader.”
In his story, Kreiser repeated a comment that Messier once told a writer: “I think in the end, it’s just trying to help people realize their potential and figure out how to motivate them. You have to get to know a player on a much deeper level than just hockey. … In the end, they have to know that the only thing that matters to both of you is trying to find a way to win, and that you don’t have any ulterior motives against them. You’re just trying to find out how to get the best out of them, and they respect that.”
Completing Kreiser’s Top 10 were the Detroit Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman, whose 19 seasons and 1,303 games wearing the “C” are the most of any player in NHL history, the Canadiens Jean Beliveau, Islanders Denis Potvin, Red Wings Nicklas Lidstrom, Flyers Bob Clarke, Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby, Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche’s Joe Sakic, Boston Bruins Ray Bourque and Coyotes Shane Doan, who is the target of the Rangers in the free-agent market and said he will announce his decision by Sept. 15. I’ve got no problem with those 10, but I’d certainly include the Whalers’ Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen on the honorable mention list.
ODDS AND ENDBOARDS
The Oilers signed right wing Jordan Eberle to a six-year, $36 million contract extension. Eberle, 22, is entering the final season of a three-year, entry-level contract, and the new deal will take affect with the 2013-14 season and keep him with the team through the 2018-19 season. Eberle, who had 34 goals and 42 assists in 78 games last season, is the second member of the Oilers’ young core to sign a long-term contract. Linemate and close friend Taylor Hall signed a seven-year, $42 million extension on Aug. 22. “Obviously I’m pretty excited,” Eberle, the 22ndpick in 2008, said on a conference call. “With Taylor getting his done last week, I was pretty anxious. I’m happy to be an Oiler … and I think with the direction the team’s going it’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot of excitement level around Edmonton and throughout our locker room. … We’re stating that we want to be here, we want to be the core guys of this team that help us win.”Eberle, a roommate of Taylor who began his pro career with the Springfield Falcons in 2008, has led the Oilers in scoring in both of his NHL seasons and was 15th in the league in goals and points last season.
Winnipeg Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian likely will miss 4-to-6 months after having surgery Friday to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist. Bogosian, 22, a third-round pick of the Thrashers in 2008, had five goals and 25 assists in 65 games with Winnipeg last season, giving him 29 goals, 60 assists and 208 penalty minutes in 264 NHL games.