Like everyone with ties to hockey, Ken Belanger took the news hard when he heard about the death last Sunday of Steve Montador, a fellow ex-Bruin.
The cause of Montador’s death is unknown. Friends and former teammates disclosed that Montador acknowledged depression and post-concussion syndrome after leaving the NHL following the 2011-12 season.
“It really bothers me because he was 35 years old,” Belanger said. “I don’t know what his transition issues were. But I can relate to the issue of transition. Where do you start over? How do you build your Roman Empire, someone else takes it over, and you’re in the farmer’s field beside it thinking, ‘How do you build it again?’ It can be very discouraging at that point of your life.”
Belanger, who played for the Bruins from 1998-2001, is 40 years old. He lives with his wife and four children in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Belanger is a businessman involved in running a hockey training center, developing hockey-related products (a protector that slips over the tongue of the skate), and helping ex-players network.
Finding his post-hockey niche did not come easily for Belanger. In November 2005, just five games into his one-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings, Belanger called it quits. He had logged 248 games, including 122 with Boston, as an NHL enforcer, the toughest job in the league.
The grind of it all — fighting, not playing much, dealing with post-concussion syndrome — made walking away an easy decision. What came next wasn’t so simple.
Belanger was 31 with no college degree. He didn’t know what to do next.
“I just played,” Belanger said. “You never thought about what was going to happen. You’re going to be a hockey player forever. As an athlete, your brain’s not wired to think about what to do when you’re done. Every day could be your last day as a pro player. But you can’t think outside the box. No one anticipates an injury. As an athlete, you’ll always be that top performer. It’s hard to anticipate that.”
Belanger, like all who gain entry to the NHL, was a good amateur player. He split his OHL career between Ottawa and Guelph. In 1992, after his first season with the Ottawa 67’s, Belanger was drafted by Hartford in the seventh round. In his final year of junior, the left wing scored 11 goals and 22 assists while recording 185 penalty minutes. Belanger was a power forward who could score, check, and fight.
That changed when he graduated from the OHL. In 1994-95, as a first-year pro with St. John’s, formerly Toronto’s AHL affiliate, Belanger racked up 246 penalty minutes in 47 games. The 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound strongman found his calling with his gloves off.
It didn’t change when he became an NHLer. In 1998-99, while playing for Pat Burns, Belanger recorded 11 of his 56 career scraps, according to www.hockeyfights.com. On Nov. 21, 1998, Belanger participated in one of the Bruins’ doozies: a brawl with Washington that ended with buddies Byron Dafoe and Olaf Kolzig pelting each other with punches.
As good as Belanger was at fighting, he despised what he came to do.
“I hated it,” Belanger said. “I did it well. My biggest problem was that in the minor leagues, I stood up for players. I pigeonholed myself. I had [guts] and stood up for players. That’s the situation I put myself in. It was the role I was delegated to. That was the game. Do I want my son doing it? Absolutely not.”
The aftermath: seven or eight registered concussions, which Belanger traces to fighting. Belanger played in just four games for Los Angeles in 2002-03. He thought he was done playing then. But he trained and played in 2003-04 and 2004-05 as he considered returning to the NHL. Belanger’s comeback lasted one month.
“I didn’t feel right,” Belanger said. “I was lying to myself. I knew I wanted to play. But 15 games in, that was it. My goal was to sign a pro contract, and I did. With 95 percent of players, the game ends their careers. Very few players end their careers by their own choice. I was at a point where I ended my career by my own choice. I could live with that the rest of my life, knowing I set a goal to make it back to the NHL, I signed a contract, and I did that.”
Belanger stayed in LA for two years after his retirement. He struggled with finding a calling that engaged him as much as hockey did.
Upon returning to Sault Ste. Marie, Belanger encountered something familiar for most pro athletes. People he once knew had settled into lifelong careers while he was looking to start his second. Those same people did not feel pity for a once-famous hockey player.
“There’s not a lot of sympathy,” Belanger said. “It’s, ‘Poor you, a pro athlete, trying to come back and figure it out. Poor you.’ For any athlete in any sport who’s played at a significant level, the transition period is extremely difficult to see where you fit in. You get no sympathy. People don’t want to see you excel again. You excelled once and achieved. People are envious and jealous. There’s not a lot of support.”
Through guess and check, Belanger settled into life as a businessman. He is the founder of KBX Hockey Club, which trains youth players. He is also the founder and CEO of Global Hockey Loop, a network available for former players to seek out business opportunities.
Belanger has considered another revenue stream: joining one of the concussion lawsuits filed against the NHL. For now, he’s on the fence.
“I have a skate product. I’m in the hockey world,” Belanger said. “Do I blackball myself by being on a list? If I have a hockey product that pro teams are using, I’m suing the owners who are writing checks for my product? I can see both sides. I support guys on it. A lot of guys need the money. You can’t blame them. I’ll support the players right to the end. But on the business side of it, will it make a difference putting myself on a list? I don’t know.”
Bruins’ defensive system tough to grasp
The Bruins need help on defense. They never replaced Johnny Boychuk in their top four. Kevan Miller is out for the season because of an injured right shoulder. The games of Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid have fallen off. They never had the correct mix of personnel to retrieve pucks and move them out of danger.
This may not improve until the summer.
The Bruins play a unique defensive system. The coaches instruct their charges to sit back, be patient, and let opponents come to them. The defensemen stay tight within the dots. They don’t close on puck carriers. This goes against what most defensemen are used to executing. They’re accustomed to playing aggressively instead of waiting for their backchecking forwards to steer opponents into their area.
It takes players time to adjust to Claude Julien’s system. Last year, Andrej Meszaros never got it after being acquired from Philadelphia. Meszaros dressed for 18 games, including four in the playoffs. Corey Potter, who arrived via waivers from Edmonton, didn’t get it either. He played in three games, plus one in the playoffs.
Neither Meszaros nor Potter was an exception. Wade Redden didn’t make much of an impact in 2012-13 following his arrival from St. Louis. The year before, the Bruins traded for Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau before the deadline. Zanon and Mottau were on the ice for Joel Ward’s goal in overtime in Game 7 of the first round against Washington.
On Feb. 18, 2011, the Bruins landed Tomas Kaberle from Toronto. He helped the Bruins win the Stanley Cup as the power-play quarterback and third-pairing defenseman. But he did not have the impact the Bruins expected. On March 4, 2009, the Bruins got Steve Montador from Calgary. He played in 13 regular-season games and 11 in the playoffs on the third pairing.
The only deadline-day defenseman to have a significant impact was Seidenberg, who arrived from Florida on March 3, 2010. Seidenberg played in 17 games, scoring two goals and seven assists. But he was unavailable for the playoffs after tearing a tendon in his left arm.
Blues’ Reaves adheres to the fighters’ code
Last Sunday, Ryan Reaves recorded his sixth fight of the season. It was against ex-Bruin Shawn Thornton. The fight was organic, which is the way the St. Louis strongman prefers his scraps to take place.
The Blues were leading the Panthers in the second period, 1-0. Reaves had just dumped Tomas Kopecky. Thornton came to his linemate’s rescue. Thornton asked, Reaves accepted, and the two fought.
“They were down, I ran somebody right in front of him, he’s a guy who’s going to respond for his teammate,” Reaves said. “He asked me. He didn’t jump me or anything. When you show respect like that, I’m going to give it to you.”
Like all tough guys, Reaves has noticed the falloff in fighting. Staged scraps are just about extinct. He’s fine with that.
On the occasions Reaves finds himself with his gloves off, he’s usually done something physical to prompt the response. Such roughhouse play is why the Blues signed the 6-1, 224-pound right wing to a four-year, $4.5 million contract.
“I’ve never really sat there and thought about fights before the game,” Reaves said. “You prepare the same way. You try and make one come to you by your play. I don’t think you go into any game looking up and down the lineup anymore to say, ‘This guy’s going to want to fight, that guy’s going to want to fight.’ ”
Tough guys have long memories. They don’t forget to settle scores or address a situation that went unchecked before. They also remember who owes them a fight. Reaves did Thornton a solid by accepting an invitation with his team leading by a goal. Now Thornton owes one to Reaves.
Flames chose wisely with Brodie
T.J. Brodie is having a tremendous season in Calgary. Brodie and Mark Giordano may be the best defensive tandem in the league. The smooth-moving Brodie kicked the Bruins in the gut on Monday when he scored an overtime goal with 2.4 seconds remaining. Brodie was involved in one of Peter Chiarelli’s most important trades. On Feb. 10, 2007, Chiarelli acquired Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew from Calgary for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and a 2008 fourth-round pick. The pick originally belonged to Washington. The Bruins got the pick earlier that month in exchange for Milan Jurcina. The Flames used the fourth-rounder to select Brodie. The 2008 draft produced a bounty of defensemen, including Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Erik Karlsson, and John Carlson. But those four all went in the first round. Calgary uncovered terrific value in the fourth round in Brodie.
Ringing endorsements from Hitchcock
Ken Hitchcock was an assistant coach for Team Canada during the 2014 Winter Olympics. So Hitchcock got an up-close understanding of Patrice Bergeron’s value as a 200-foot player. But Hitchcock has also come to appreciate David Krejci’s two-way skill, as well. In Hitchcock’s opinion, having two three-zone centers is one of the challenges of playing the Bruins. “It’s a very unique twosome they have there,” said the St. Louis coach. “They don’t care about the matchups. They don’t worry about the matchups. They play against the other teams’ best players. They still produce points. They play both ends of special teams and produce points. They’re like gold, those players. The thing for me with Bergy, he’s a guy who knows how to beat you if you’ve got quickness. He knows how to beat you if you’ve got size. He just stays with it a little bit longer.”
No thanks, Winnipeg
A poll conducted by ESPN identified Winnipeg as the destination most cited in no-trade clauses. Others included Edmonton and Buffalo, with bad weather and poor teams being reasons. Joining the top five was Toronto, even with its identity as the NHL’s business epicenter. The belief around the league is that a certain personality is required to survive the spotlight of attention from fans and media. “If you’re saying something good about a player, he’s a rock star,” former Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice told Sportsnet on Friday. “And if a guy has a tough night and you want to deal with the media honestly, you’ve got to be careful about how hard you go at his play. Because the next day, or even that day, it’s a drive-by shooting. It’s 40 people in the stall figuring out whether they should pay him, trade him, or execute him. That’s a challenge for controlling that room.”
Cleaning up the house
The biggest problem that’s bothered the Bruins on defense all season is their inability to protect the house consistently. Their coaches repeatedly stress the importance of stationing at least one man in front of the net to disrupt shots, block pucks, and lift sticks. If the Bruins occupy the net-front area correctly, it leaves others to work their way out from there and cover the rest of the defensive zone. It’s been easier said than done. The Bruins have been too quick to leave the space open to hunt down loose pucks or close on opponents. “The front of the net is the main area,” Adam McQuaid said. “That’s something that’s a team thing. It’s five guys coming back and getting in the right positions, then working from there.”
Site for sore eyes
NHL.com debuted its new look Friday. The showcase is its revamped statistics section. The NHL hired SAP to construct visualization via bar charts and acceptance of enhanced statistics. Stats once known as Corsi, Fenwick, and PDO have been transformed into USAT (unblocked shot attempts), SAT (shot attempts), and SPSV% (shooting percentage plus save percentage). The site is affirmation that hockey is finally accepting and progressing into more efficient and insightful stats than the irrelevant plus/minus. On deck: player tracking via chips and video.
Chatter around the league pegs New Jersey as a franchise that could seek a new general manager. Lou Lamoriello is in his 28th season at the Devils’ helm. They have good young pieces in Cory Schneider and Adam Henrique. But too much of the roster has gone gray . . . Ottawa will most likely be without both of its regular goalies for an upcoming five-game trip. Robin Lehner was diagnosed with a concussion after colliding with teammate Clarke MacArthur on Monday. Craig Anderson has missed the last month because of a bruised hand that’s preventing him from holding his stick . . . Seventy-four of the Red Line’s cars were built in 1968 or 1969, according to the Globe. As expected, they’re creaky. In contrast, Jaromir Jagr, born in 1972, could run express from Alewife to Braintree without a hiccup.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.