If you’re Teddy Purcell and rummaging to uncover even a hint of something good in what’s otherwise a gloomy NHL labour climate, you might be reminded things could always be a bit worse.
Purcell, like the other 750 or so NHLers, stands to lose quite a few dollars if the NHL owners opt to lock out the players next month. But for the 26-year-old winger from St. John’s, at least he’ll be losing money on his current $2.375-million contract, and not any dough from the new three-year, $13.5-million deal ($4.5 million per) that kicks in September 2013.
“At the same time,” he was saying this week, “you’re still losing a year of getting better in the NHL. It’s another year can’t win anything and, obviously, you’re still losing a lot of money, too.
“You have to be positive, but at the end of the day, I don’t think anything good can come out of not playing.”
Hardliners may feel differently, but it’s easy to understand Purcell’s reasoning.
Since joining the Tampa Bay Lightning midway through the 2009-10 hockey season, Purcell has elevated his game to a point where he’s one of the Lightning’s top players. And GM Steve Yzerman has given him the contract to prove it.
“When Yzerman took over, he didn’t know a whole lot about me, but gave me that first contract for $750,000 and I just kept getting bigger and taking on more of a role, and I think I’m at the stage now where I want to embrace that role of being a go-to guy, a guy who the coaches have faith in.
“As an athlete, you hear people say, ‘Oh, you’ve made your money now ... you can go on Easy Street.’ But you want to get better and you’re hungry for more success and you want to prove to everyone that the organization made the right decision.”
Last season, Purcell was third in scoring on the Lightning with 24 goals and 41 assists. He started slowly, but from the all-star break, he caught fire with 12 goals and 38 points in 34 games. Only four National Hockey League players — teammate Steven Stamkos, Pittsburgh’s Evgeny Malkin, New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk and Joe Thornton of San Jose — had more points than Purcell from Jan. 31 onwards.
Coincidentally, the streak came about after Purcell was elevated to Tampa’s top line with all-world Stamkos and Martin St. Louis after his longtime centre, Vincent Lecavalier, was injured (“I hit the lottery there,” he laughs).
When the Lightning failed to earn a playoff berth, he was one of 13 forwards added to Canada’s roster for the world hockey championship in Finland and Sweden.
Whenever the new season begins, Purcell will be expected to continue filling the net as the Lightning hope to get back in the Stanley Cup playoff dance.
Teams are willing to shell out big bucks to pro athletes, but they want — make that, demand (unless your name is Gomez, Scott) — a return on their investment.
“I’ve had talks with coaches and management about that, and they’re going to be harder on me with the money they gave me,” he said. “But that’s part of it. If we were all mentally weak, we wouldn’t be in the NHL. It’s a tough business and it’s a performance business. As an athlete, you’re never satisfied where you’re at and you always want to go to the next level.
“I’ve gotten better the last two years and this year I want to take that step again and become a go-to guy, not just sometimes, but all of the time.
“Guys like Stamkos and St. Louis are the top guys every night, and I want to take that step where I’m one of those guys, too.”
While the sky is the limit for the Gonzaga high school and St. John’s AAA Maple Leafs midget product, it wasn’t all that long ago Purcell played under a dark cloud.
After turning pro with the Los Angeles Kings organization following a single year at the University of Maine, Purcell lit up the American Hockey League in Manchester en route to copping rookie-of-the-year honours. And then came the Kings experience, where he was drained of ice time and, as a result, confidence.
“I’d get opportunities for a period at a time, or a game at a time and then I’d be scratched,” he recalls. “It was a continuous cycle and at the end, it was like an avalanche. I lost all my confidence. I was afraid to make plays in practice, let alone games. … I was pretty much a mental case.
“Then I went to Tampa (along with a draft pick for Jeff Halpern) and I started having fun. The coaches believed in me and I wasn’t afraid to make a mistake. Once you taste success, you build up confidence and once you get that confidence, you get more of a chance to play and you roll with it.”
After a summer in St. John’s where he crashed in Buffalo Sabres defenceman Adam Pardy’s downtown condo (Purcell has purchased some land in the east end, but isn’t certain if or when he will build), Purcell will head back to Tampa Sept. 5.
If part of the season is cancelled, he may explore playing in Europe for a few months while the NHL Players Association and the owners browbeat each other.
If the NHL season started tomorrow, Ryane Clowe would be the highest-paid Newfoundlander, at $4 million per year, followed by Michael Ryder ($3.5 million), Danny Cleary ($3 million), Teddy Purcell ($2.375 million), Adam Pardy ($2 million), Colin Greening ($800,000) and Luke Adam ($787,500). Figures are according to capgeek.com … Can’t blame Corner Brook Royals’ owner Ross Coates for moving his team to Deer Lake and renaming it the Western Royals if the fans aren’t coming out. Must be twice as difficult when he’s paying through the nose to rent the Pepsi Centre (speaking of which, if you’re arena management, wouldn’t you want to cut your main tenant some slack and offer a bit of a rate rather than lose the team entirely?). Said it before, and I’ll say it again: local hockey’s got a good thing going with the new provincial senior league, but just watch, those at the helm (and that includes the teams) will manage to derail it … So, the jig is finally up with Lance Armstrong. What took so long? What a fraud …
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email email@example.com