A hefty handful of players and coaches with Central Alberta connections are preparing to hook up in a National Hockey League playoff series.
When the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings clash in Game 1 of the Western Conference final on Sunday evening, the best-of-seven set will feature no fewer than eight participants with Red Deer and area ties.
Included in that number is former Red Deer Rebel and current L.A. King Colin Fraser, who is of course familiar with Kings head coach Darryl Sutter and goaltending coach Bill Ranford and has at least met most of the Coyotes with Central Alberta ties — players Shane Doan, Martin Hanzal, Derek Morris and Boyd Gordon and goaltender coach Sean Burke.
Sutter, a former Red Deer Rustler and longtime NHL coach/GM, moved behind the Kings bench in mid-December and guided the then-struggling team into the playoffs. The Kings grabbed the eighth and final post-season berth in the conference and then ousted the favoured Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues to arrive at this point.
Clearly, Sutter’s arrival and everyday presence elevated the play of Fraser and his teammates.
“Darryl is very similar to Brent (former Rebels coach Sutter). They have the same type of personality and even run the same kind of practices,” said Fraser, who resides at Sylvan Lake during the summer months. “I think Darryl is the kind of guy who gets the best out of all of his players almost every night. He’s obviously a tough coach but he’s fair and he rewards you when you work hard.”
Fraser and his fourth-line mates Jordan Nolan and Brad Richardson have been more than noticeable during the playoffs with their dogged work ethic and have been rewarded with some big minutes.
“Darryl likes to roll four lines and he has right from the first day he’s come in,” said Fraser. “It’s kind of nice for the players. It gives you confidence knowing that you’re going to play a regular shift five-on-five and I think our line has been good. We haven’t put up huge points but we feel we’ve played our role very well. We just try to create energy and play in the offensive zone as much as possible.”
Fraser realizes the Kings will have to be at their best against a Coyotes team that has raised eyebrows by winning two playoff series with a cast of role players that includes Gordon and aging veterans like Morris and Doan.
Fraser, 27, is familiar with Gordon, his Rebels teammate during the 2001-02 and ‘02-03 WHL seasons.
“He’s obviously a good defensive forward, very good in the faceoff circle . . . just a steady and solid guy,” said Fraser.
Hanzal played with the Rebels during the 2006-07 season and therefore is somewhat of a stranger to the Kings forward.
“But I’ve been in the league four years now so you get to know these guys by playing against them a lot through the season,” said Fraser. “Hanzal is a good two-way player, he plays well at both ends of the rink. He’s big, he’s physical and he’s one of those guys who can play in all situations. He’s really one of their better players and someone to watch out there.”
Fraser has met Morris, a Sylvan Lake product, although he’s never shaken hands with Doan.
“Morris has played a lot of years in the NHL and went over 1,000 (NHL) games this season, so he’s had a heck of a career really,” said Fraser.
“I’ve never met Doan. I understand that he’s a nice guy, but he’s certainly not nice on the ice because he hits like a truck out there. I’m sure he’ll be all fired up. He plays the game hard. That’s the way he’s always played and I’m sure he always will.”
Like the Kings, Phoenix needed a late surge — a 5-0 run to end the regular season — to sneak into the playoffs. The Coyotes finished with 97 points, just two more than L.A., but got third overall in the conference by placing first in their division.
Doan, the Coyotes captain and 16-year veteran said an 11-0-1 record in February convinced the team that it was post-season worthy.
“Everybody kind of thought we could beat anybody now,” he said. “We really did. We thought we could beat anyone. That was probably the first step.”
The Halkirk native, who busted into the NHL as an 18-year-old with the Winnipeg Jets in 1995, had never progressed beyond the first round of playoffs prior to this year.
“When you’re younger you have so many veteran guys telling you that it’s not that easy and it doesn’t happen very often, that you don’t get that many opportunities (to experience a playoff run),” said Doan. “You’re thinking, ‘I appreciate that,’ but you don’t really understand it until you’re going through it.
“Someone like Derek Morris, who hasn’t been out of the second round in 15 or 16 years, appreciates how hard it is. A guy like Martin Hanzal has been through the playoffs three years in a row and realizes that it’s a progression.”
Hardly an explosive team, the Coyotes have nevertheless been shut out just once in the playoffs and 13 players have registered at least one goal. Balance has been the key, with players like Hanzal and Gordon coming through in spades.
“You count on so many different guys, and so many different guys are the heroes every night,” said Doan. “It makes it fun.”
The Coyotes and Kings boast top-notch goaltenders in Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick, the respective MVPs of both teams.
While he’s been getting almost universal praise for helping Smith evolve from an average NHL goaltender to one of the league’s best, Burke deflects the credit.
“He’s a guy with an incredible amount of athletic ability and a good work ethic,” said the Coyotes goalie coach, a former summer resident of Sylvan Lake who blocked pucks through 18 NHL seasons.
Burke is dumbfounded by the fact Smith is not one of the three candidates for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. Quick, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne are the finalists.
“To me, Mike is the hands-down winner and for him to be not even among the finalists tells me something is wrong,” said Burke.
While Burke has worked wonders with his student, Kings goaltender coach Ranford has done a similar job with Quick, Fraser pointed out.
“Quicky has been awesome all year. He’s a Vezina candidate for a reason,” said Fraser. “Through the tough stretches of the season, he was stealing us games. We also lost a lot of games 1-0 because we couldn’t get him any goals. He’s been good all year for us.
“Quicky was drafted by the Kings and came up through the system, so the team has done a good job of developing him into an elite goalie and Bill gets some credit for that.”
With red-hot stoppers minding both nets, the Western Conference final could be a low-scoring affair.
“Both goalies have great numbers and both teams play a defence-first kind of style,” said Fraser. “And of course it’s hard to score goals in this league.
“But you never know. Everyone thought that Nashville and Phoenix was going to be a defensive battle too, but they were scoring goals all over the place the first couple of games.”
On both career and personal levels, Fraser has to believe in the old adage that everything happens for a reason. He was riding a high when he signed with the Edmonton Oilers in 2010 after winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago, but that was tempered by a disappointing season and a subsequent trade to the Kings a year later.
To make matters worse, Fraser was nursing a broken foot at the time of the transaction and was uncertain about his future in L.A. after undergoing surgery last summer.
“It was just kind of a circus,” said Fraser, who rents a home in Hermosa Beach — a 10-minute drive from the Kings’ practice facility in El Segundo — with his wife Carli.
“At the start of this year, I didn’t know where I was going to be, where I was going to fit in or if I was even going to be in L.A.,” he continued. “But the Kings gave me a chance to play and we are where we are now and it’s obviously a good thing for me and a good thing for the team.
“Hopefully it all works out going ahead here, too.”