More than 20 years later, Jody Shelley remembers the moment with clarity.
Shelley was playing in a Hockey Night in Boston tournament on a team from Atlantic Canada. The 17-year-old heard a message he still quotes.
“The league guy steps up and says, first of all, none of you guys here are ever going to play in the NHL,” Shelley recalled.
Shelley proved that man wrong. He dressed for 627 NHL games for the Flyers, Rangers, Sharks, and Blue Jackets, piling up 1,538 penalty minutes along his path.
Shelley is the first to acknowledge that his hands got him those games, and not because they were tucking in goals and dishing out assists. The 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound Shelley was a pure slugger, the kind to which the NHL is bidding farewell.
Shelley was good at fighting. There was a time when every NHL team made at least one opening for an enforcer such as Shelley. Shelley saw an opportunity, and he grabbed it. Had Shelley not been so skilled with his fists, he wouldn’t have played a single minute in the NHL.
“You don’t grow up as a 12-year-old dreaming of being a tough guy in the NHL,” Shelley said. “But there was a crack in the door. We had to go in it. All in. And we did.”
Shelley is adapting to his first season as an ex-player. He is employed by the Blue Jackets as a radio and television analyst. He also holds the title of team ambassador.
Before the lockout, Shelley was entering the second season of a two-year contract with the Flyers and expecting big things. Shelley believed he’d be a good fit in Philadelphia. He thought he’d dress for every game, play about eight minutes per appearance, take care of the rough stuff, and be a role model for his younger teammates.
It didn’t work that way. Shelley was a healthy scratch for the season opener, which signaled the beginning of the end. Shelley dressed for one game in 2013, then underwent hip surgery to address a wear-and-tear injury.
The Flyers told Shelley he wouldn’t be back. This summer, as an unrestricted free agent, Shelley gave himself a month. If he was unemployed by early August, Shelley would call it quits. And he was fine with that.
“If no one was going to pick me up between July 5 and Aug. 5, if no one was going to do cartwheels the first 10 days, I was good,” Shelley said.
Shelley is at peace with his farewell. It helped that Shelley’s departure was gradual. In 2010-11, he played in 58 games for the Flyers. But Shelley played in only 30 games the following season. At the end of the 2011-12 season, he was 36 years old. It is not a kind age for most players, let alone enforcers with slowing legs.
So, Shelley considered his options. During his career’s later stages, Shelley often chatted about hockey operations and team-building decisions with teammates and bosses. In Philadelphia, Shelley talked shop with general manager Paul Holmgren. In San Jose, during idle moments on the bus or in the dressing room, Shelley hung around Rob Blake. Shelley’s former teammate is now the Kings’ assistant GM.
“He was always asking all these questions,” Shelley recalled of Blake. “I forget the trade that happened. But he was like, ‘Why do you think they did that? Why would they do that when they have this? Why wouldn’t they just do this?’ I’m thinking, ‘Why does he even care?’ But then I realized he’s been around so long and so much, he knew how it worked. There’s a reason why you ask those questions when you get older. It’s all about understanding. That, to me, was my moment when I was like, ‘This is kind of neat.’ And now he’s assistant GM in LA.”
Upon his retirement, Shelley’s first call was to Columbus, where he’d been friendly with president and alternate governor Mike Priest. Team president John Davidson told Shelley he didn’t have any openings in hockey operations. But Davidson, a former TV analyst, pitched the media idea. Shelley accepted.
Now, Shelley’s biggest challenge is managing his time. As a player, Shelley was told what to do and when to do it. Bus was at 12:30. Lunch was at 1:30. Team meeting was at 4:40. Now, it’s up to Shelley when, and for how long, to do his game prep. Also, Shelley is still learning the nuances of the different mediums.
“Radio, you’ve got to be more detailed and explain what’s going on,” Shelley said. “TV, you explain why things happen.”
There aren’t many players like Shelley remaining in the NHL. Fight-first players include John Scott, George Parros, and Eric Boulton. The movement is toward tough guys who can skate and play bottom-six roles such as Chris Neil, Shawn Thornton, and Brandon Prust.
Visors are mandatory for players with fewer than 26 games of NHL experience. Line brawls are rare. But Shelley believes there is still room for fighting in the league.
“I can’t see it phased out,” Shelley said. “But you can see where it’s going. You can see the trend. You could see how it was trending even when I started. When Bobby Orr started, it was different. It’s come gradually. With the league being so aware with head shots and suspensions, that’s really taken care of a lot of the stuff that used to go on. There’s not a guy who sits on the bench for the whole game and plays 30 seconds. It’s evolving. But I don’t think it needs to be pushed out.”
THE OLYMPIC DREAM
Hopefuls state case for spots
The respective Olympic federations held orientation camps prior to the start of the regular season. Naturally, there were some notable non-invitees. Here’s a look at some of the snubbed players and how they’re pushing for flights to Sochi:
Jamie Benn, Canada — Benn is Dallas’s captain and best player. The left wing is strong on the puck, eager to take it into danger areas, and quick to snap off shots. Benn is quiet but a lead-by-example captain. The 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound Benn can grind on the walls and show his scoring skills. When necessary, Benn takes faceoffs. He belongs in Sochi.
Jason Spezza, Canada — The Canadians are loaded at center, but Spezza is pushing hard to gain separation from Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, and Logan Couture. Through 15 games, Spezza had eight goals and eight assists, showing he can shoot and dish. The first-year Ottawa captain is facing long odds because of the competition at the position.
Torey Krug, United States — After 15 games, the Bruins’ Krug had six goals, tying him with former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson for most strikes by a defenseman. Especially on the power play, Krug doesn’t hesitate to rip away from the point or go low for backdoor sniffs at the net. Krug doesn’t do well in corners because of his size, but on a big rink, he could use his speed and offensive instincts to his advantage. Krug is still on the outside, but making his case.
Mark Arcobello, United States — The four-year Yale forward is one of Edmonton’s bright spots. Through 17 games, Arcobello had two goals and 10 assists. The undrafted free agent is a long shot, but the 5-8, 166-pound Arcobello scratched his way into Oilers coach Dallas Eakins’s go-to group. The Americans always emphasize grit and heart in the Olympics.
Panthers have mess on hands
To start the 2013-14 season, Panthers GM Dale Tallon presented coach Kevin Dineen with four camp invitees: Tim Thomas, Ryan Whitney, Brad Boyes, and Tom Gilbert. Thomas blew out his groin twice. Whitney and Boyes were healthy scratches for the Panthers’ 4-1 loss to the Bruins on Thursday. For that, Tallon fired Dineen and assistants Craig Ramsay and Gord Murphy a day later. Peter Horachek replaces Dineen, while former players Brian Skrudland and John Madden will be the assistants. “This is just the beginning of our changes that need to be made,” Tallon said. “If the players don’t respond to this, they won’t be Panthers for very long.” Dineen was Tallon’s guy. Tallon fired a very good coach in Peter DeBoer to land the ex-Whaler. But Tallon has made a string of questionable decisions. The tryout dartboard. Throwing big money at Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, and Sean Bergenheim. Not creating a good environment for youngsters Jonathan Huberdeau, Jakob Markstrom, Aleksander Barkov, Erik Gudbranson, and Nick Bjugstad. Now rival GMs will chase after Tallon’s prospects, knowing he’s desperate to make changes. The Panthers had better be careful. Small-market teams such as Florida can’t afford to be without a vision. If Tallon’s idea of team-building is correcting his own mistakes, he’ll be the next to go.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Tyler Seguin is how much he’s scoring considering how little time he spends with the puck. Seguin’s up-and-down performance and flickering engagement level on the draw drags down his possession time. He then spends most of his shift pursuing the puck instead of controlling it. Seguin is a more effective skater at center, where he can flow through the ice continually instead of stopping and starting on the wing. But unless Seguin’s touch and competitiveness improve at the dot, the Stars won’t be taking full advantage of his skill set. It’s possible that in future years, if Dallas acquires more puck-hungry centers, Seguin would move back to the wing. “It’s nice when you see a player who can play different positions,” said Dallas GM Jim Nill. “That gives us flexibility down the road. We might obtain two more high-end center icemen. Then I know I’ve got that flexibility. He can play anywhere.”
Aside from Ray Emery’s beatdown of Braden Holtby on Nov. 1, the Capitals held their own in their brawl with the Flyers. Tom Wilson tangled with Wayne Simmonds. Steve Oleksy handled Vincent Lecavalier. Aaron Volpatti dismissed Steve Downie. The Capitals’ response was far better than their timid showing last season against the Bruins when Shawn Thornton and Adam McQuaid ganged up on Matt Hendricks March 16. Hendricks had fought Nathan Horton earlier, a tussle the Bruins didn’t like. None of Hendricks’s teammates, including Volpatti and Oleksy, did anything after the tag-team mischief. Nor was there a response in the regular-season finale. As for Emery, the Flyers-Capitals rematch is Dec. 15 in Washington. The Flyers should do the right thing and start Emery. The Capitals should then do the right thing and deploy one of their tough guys to approach Emery early and ask to fight. Emery broke the Code by beating up Holtby. But Emery should understand that he must be held accountable. As he showed against Andrew Peters in 2006-07, Emery can handle himself against legitimate enforcers. And that will be that.
John Tortorella had no problem leaning hard on his stars in New York. Tortorella is doing the same in Vancouver. He has been using Ryan Kesler, formerly the No. 2 center, as top-line running mate for Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The result is a power line that’s logging heavy action. Entering the weekend, Kesler (23:03), Henrik Sedin (22:53), and Daniel Sedin (22:29) were three of the four busiest forwards in the NHL. Those are ice times usually logged by defensemen. But there are two factors at play. According to www.behindthenet.ca, the twins start 61 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone. After 18 games, Kesler had won 52.8 percent of his faceoffs. Henrik Sedin had a 48.6 percent win rate. The more they control the puck in the offensive zone, the less time they spend chasing opponents. Also, all three forwards average more than three minutes per game on the power play. It’s a lot easier to play big minutes when you have the puck.
On Nov. 3, the Senators lost their fifth straight game. The supposed 18,106 fans at Canadian Tire Centre did not let the Senators know of their displeasure. They were too busy snoring. Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is a government town. The rink is a half-hour west of downtown. The drive takes even longer in Ottawa’s perpetual traffic. But all those factors still don’t explain why Ottawa fans are indifferent, rather than angry, about their team’s so-so start . . . The Stars are big on towering second-year pro Jamie Oleksiak. The first-round pick played his freshman season at Northeastern before leaving for the Ontario Hockey League. The Stars have no intention, however, of rushing the 6-foot-7-inch, 20-year-old defenseman. Nill, a former Red Wings assistant GM, is following the Detroit model of allowing defensemen to develop in the AHL. Niklas Kronwall, now Detroit’s No. 1 defenseman, didn’t become an NHL regular until he was 25 . . . Former NHLer Jay Pandolfo served as a temporary radio analyst for two Bruins games this month when Bob Beers was unavailable and drew rave reviews from play-by-play man Dave Goucher. Pandolfo’s reputation as one of the NHL’s top defensive forwards came through in his insight, according to Goucher. Pandolfo hasn’t decided whether a full-time media gig will be the way he stays involved in hockey . . . “The Game,” the best hockey book ever written, will be re-released this month. Ken Dryden’s chronicle of life, both inside and outside the rink, will include an additional chapter on the Stanley Cup visiting Domain, Manitoba, his father’s hometown. Thirty years after its original publication, “The Game” has yet to welcome a peer to the hockey bookshelf.