|McDonagh and the Rangers fell behind the Kings by dropping Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final on Wednesday.
June 6, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- All of these years later, almost three decades later since competing as a player in a Stanley Cup final, Wisconsin hockey coach Mike Eaves still has a soft place in his heart for the special experience now being shared by two of his former Badgers skaters, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh.
Given the magnitude of the NHL stage, Eaves was understandably excited for Stepan, 23, a center from Hastings, Minnesota, and McDonagh, 24, a defenseman from St. Paul. Both have been valuable contributors on a New York Rangers team making its first Stanley Cup appearance in two decades.
McDonagh, who worked his way into the Norris Trophy discussion this season, leads the Rangers in playoff scoring with 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists). Stepan, who was fitted with a facial shield to protect a broken jaw sustained in the Eastern Conference finals, is tied for second with 13 points (5, 8).
Although the Los Angeles Kings rallied for a 3-2 overtime victory Wednesday night in the opening game of the Cup final, Eaves recognized that the Rangers have already exhibited their resiliency during these playoffs by bouncing back from a 3-1 series deficit to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“We tell our kids here (at Wisconsin),” Eaves said, “that you have no idea what your body is capable of doing until you push it in these situations …”
It definitely applies to Stepan, who has been living on smoothies since Game 3 of the Montreal series when Brandon Prust, a former Rangers teammate, broke his jaw with a blindside hit. Stepan left the ice for X-rays but returned to assist on the game-tying goal with 28 seconds left in regulation.
The following day, Stepan had surgery on his fractured jaw and summarily invested in a Vitamix -- due to a six-week moratorium on solid food -- while Prust had a disciplinary hearing with the NHL and was given a two-game suspension (they would later hug in the handshake line following the series).
After appearing in 349 consecutive games for the Rangers, dating to his rookie season (2010-11), Stepan sat out game Game 4. But he was back centering his line in Game 5 and scored twice in a 7-4 loss to the Canadiens, who got a hat trick from Rene Bourque, another ex-Badgers skater under Eaves.
“His hands, his vision and his head are his strengths,” Eaves said of Stepan, who left UW after his sophomore year. “He’s not the fastest guy around, but he’s really intelligent about angles. It’s the way his mind processes what he sees and his ability to send those messages to his hands.
“Obviously, when he was here, there were things that indicated that he would have a chance (to play in the NHL). But for every kid who leaves college, there’s a big step (to the pros). And you have to be able to show people that you have that next gear in your gearbox to play at that next level.”
|“It’s an honor, it’s a privilege to be there and realize that these are the last two teams standing and you have a shot at winning it all,” said Eaves, who played for the Cup with Calgary in 1986.
McDonagh has shown that gear, and then some, since joining the Rangers after his junior year.
“The blinders have been taken off,” Eaves said, “and he now realizes what he’s capable of doing. He always had the physical attributes. His nickname here was ‘shot from a cannon’ because he could be three strides behind and still catch guys at this level.
“Now, he’s doing it at that level … what has grown immensely is his confidence and ability with the puck. It’s a quantum leap from what he did here. Maybe we didn’t give him enough opportunities to show what he could do because we had other guys … he never got much power play time. “
Eaves suggested that McDonagh has proven he can handle more since those days in Madison when he was overshadowed, at times, by some other quality UW defensemen like Brendan Smith (Detroit Red Wings), Justin Schultz (Edmonton Oilers) and Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs).
“He’s seeing the game in a whole new perspective,” he said.
To this end, the 57-year-old Eaves can offer his own unique perspective on playing in a Stanley Cup final since he came out of retirement in 1986 to play for the Calgary Flames against the Canadians. “Just being a part of it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.
Especially since Eaves had no intentions of returning to the ice after suffering a concussion in training camp prior to that season. “I didn’t get hit that hard to have the kind of reaction that I had,” said Eaves, who had accumulated multiple concussions during his career. “Something told me this isn’t right.”
So he retired after seven years in the NHL, the first five with the Minnesota North Stars and the final two with the Flames, who were then coached by the late Bob Johnson. Eaves had played for Johnson at Wisconsin and wanted to learn more about coaching at the pro level from him.
“Bob let me stay on the staff as kind of an apprentice, I was like an intern,” Eaves recalled. “I would sit in on meetings and I would listen. If they asked my opinion, I would speak.
“I drove his secretaries nuts because I was writing everything down -- the thoughts that I had on my life in hockey up to that point -- and I asked them to type it up for me.”
In early May, the Flames lost Carey Wilson to an injury. He was one of their role players, one of their penalty-killers. “I remember Coach Johnson pulling me aside,” Eaves said, “and he asked me, ‘Hey, would you think about coming out of retirement to kill penalties for us, if we need you?”’
Johnson took it a step further. He also spoke with Mike’s wife, Beth. “It was one of the unique things about the situation,” Eaves said. “He wanted to make sure that it was good with her.”
Beth Eaves gave her blessing, telling Johnson that “Mike knows what he’s doing.”
The Flames got past Winnipeg and Edmonton in the first two rounds before drawing St. Louis in the conference finals. That’s when Johnson approached Eaves and asked, “Are you ready to go?”
He was ready. Johnson picked his spots with Eaves, who wound up appearing in eight playoff games overall -- he had a goal and assist -- including the Stanley Cup final. Behind the goaltending of Patrick Roy, who was named the MVP, the Canadiens won the championship in five games.
Eaves didn’t go home empty-handed. He got a job offer during the Cup final from UW-Eau Claire, which was looking for a head hockey coach. “The athletic director came up and interviewed me after one of the games (against Montreal),” Eaves said. “I knew that I was done as a player.”
Eaves, thus, took the first step in his coaching career by taking the job. “Within three weeks, we were out the door,” Eaves said. “We packed up our conversion van. We had a 5-by-9 open trailer and we looked like the Beverly Hillbillies coming across the prairie (to Eau Claire).”
Years later, almost three decades later, he still looks back fondly on that Stanley Cup experience.
“It’s an honor, it’s a privilege to be there (in the moment) and realize that these are the last two teams standing and you have a shot at winning it all,” Eaves said. “Even though we didn’t win, what a way to go out -- on a personal level -- having a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.”
Years from now, win or lose, Stepan and McDonagh will appreciate it more than they do today.
They can take their old coach’s word for that.