When talking with Coaches and General Managers for the last number of years one subject has always been forefront in discussions. “I need a defenseman” is heard at all levels of junior hockey to all levels of college/university hockey and even minor professional teams in North America and Europe. It is always an interesting request and dialogue trying to find a defenseman. One that can fit the mold that teams are looking for is always a challenge.
When contemplating the challenge a few things came to mind. Are defensemen “born” or are they “manufactured”? I think of the truly gifted players that played the position; in some ways they certainly changed the game. No doubt Bobby Orr changed not only the defense position, but he literally changed the game of hockey.
I think of Scott Stevens and how he played the game. It was said he was a throwback to a wonderful era of the game where physicality was prominent. It created energy in arenas everywhere. A gifted player in his own right he was able to play a skill game when required. Stevens possessed a physical game that was second to none at a time where goals were plentiful. Players said for your own safety and the safety of
your teammates you had to be aware that Scott Stevens was on the ice. He made you pay a heavy price to pursue or carry the puck down the
boards and he kept you nervous carrying the “mail” through the middle of the ice. Great players like Eric Lindros and Paul Karyia had unfortunate collisions in the middle of the ice with him. They paid a heavy price to travel that route. Stevens contributed offensively to his teams as a fine puck mover with a solid perception of the offensive side of the game. I am sure coaches and teammates were most grateful for his contributions defensively. Playing defense is the less glamorous aspect of the game that contributes substantially to team success. When Stevens was on the ice it was tough sledding for the opposition in the zone he was defending. They say goals win hockey games and defense wins championships. He is a multiple Stanley Cup winner, that about says it all. A product of hard work and dedication and some influence of a former football playing father. The finished product was an NHL Hall of Famer. Scott Stevens is a product of a great family, from Kitchener, Ontario a great place to grow up learning the game of hockey. Having determination and perseverance that was second to none helped Stevens along the way. Just as important he is a respected teammate and leader and a gentleman to boot.
I have been fortunate to see some great defensemen over the years. Ray Bourque has always been one of my favourites. He did it all for the Bruins and the Avalanche over a twenty-two-year career. A Hall of Fame player that played both ends of the ice. His Stanley Cup victory came during his last game played, marking the end of his illustrious career.
Craig Hartsburg was the best I had ever seen while on the ice with him. He made us aware as youngsters that there was this thing called Hockey I.Q. that was such an important factor. An exceptional puck mover he would be a good one even in today’s game. A great career leading the Minnesota North Stars as their captain. Hartsburg played for Team Canada in the famous Canada Cup in 1987. Transitioning from a shortened career due to injury he gave back to the game as a successful coach in junior hockey and the NHL.
Bobby Orr is forever mentioned as one of the greatest players to play the game of hockey. A gracious man he always deflects the “greatest” type of comments in a different direction and is quick to recognize other greats. A man of average size physically and enormous heart he played the game with passion. His contribution outside the game of hockey is significant. No one before him or to the present day has controlled the puck and a hockey game like Bobby Orr. Fans remember Orr passing the puck, scoring goals, or killing a penalty carrying the puck. The true hockey person remembers him blocking shots, checking players or defending himself or a teammate in fisticuffs. People remember Bobby Orr representing his country on one knee and being the best player in the tournament.
To me that is a hard working, dedicated man of perseverance that made himself into the best defenseman to ever play the game. I believe he was “born” to be a defenseman.
At the end of the day, I guess we never will really know for sure if defensemen are “born” or if they are “manufactured”. I am certain that when a “little guy” is born into a hockey family we never really know for sure how it is all going to shake out. Is he going to be “a good one” like his father or is he going to be a forward or a goaltender? One thing is for sure is he will have every chance to decide whether he wants to play the great game of hockey. How it all turns out, time will tell. We hope he grows to love the game. The most important thing is that he has FUN!
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