Aug. 25, 2011
Perhaps the most respected college hockey writer in the country, Neil Koepke joined the staff of MSUSpartans.com as a staff writer in August for his 40th season of college hockey coverage and 26th of Michigan State hockey. In his first piece for the website, Koepke catches up with a number of the program's NHL players.
At 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds, Mike Weaver is one of the smallest defensemen in the National Hockey League.
But when his team needs to shut down the opposition late in games to preserve a victory, the former Michigan State standout is usually on the ice doing what he does best: playing physical in front of his net and in the corners, blocking shots and clearing the puck to safety.
He's using the same skills he learned during his four seasons as a Spartan under former coach Ron Mason, and then enhanced during his 11-year pro hockey career and an eight-year stay in the NHL with five teams.
"I think I have created an identity across the league. NHL people know I'm tough to play against and that I'm a good guy in the dressing room,'' Weaver said this week during MSU's annual Pro Camp at Munn Arena.
Weaver, 33, who is from suburban Toronto, is starting his ninth year in the NHL and second consecutive season with the Florida Panthers. And he hopes there are more seasons ahead. "I would love to play a couple more years. I feel good physically and it's a good situation in Florida right now,'' said Weaver, whose two-year contract expires after this season.
"Our general manger, Dale Tallon, is one on my favorite GMs that I've played for, and our assistant GM, Mike Santos, is a great guy, too. You can go up to talk with either of them and it's very comfortable. They're great with the players.''
The durable Weaver played in 82 games last season and had two goals and 11 assists for 13 points. In his two previous seasons playing for St. Louis, Weaver appeared in 77 games in 2010 and 58 in 2009.
"I know my abilities and over the last few seasons in St. Louis and Florida, I've had coaches who understood what I can bring and played me in situations I could thrive,'' he said. "There's not really a stat for my game.
"For forwards, there's goals and assists, for fighters there's penalty minutes, but for a defensive defenseman there's just the plus-minus and sometimes that stat really doesn't show how valuable a player really is.''
Weaver's game has always been about covering the opponents' top scorers, being responsible in his own zone and using his strength and positioning to help keep the puck out of his team's net.
"I've always said that as long as my name isn't in the papers or in any game story, then I'm playing well and on my game,'' said Weaver, who was never drafted by an NHL team. "But if I'm mentioned in a story, then it's because I've done something wrong.
"I'd rather block a shot than score a goal. I'd rather win a game than get any attention.'' One thing Weaver would love to do is win more games for the Panthers, a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons but appears to be on the rise.
"We've got a new coach in Kevin Dineen and he's done great things in the minors so we're all looking forward to playing for him,'' Weaver said. "We've made a lot of changes and have brought in guys that know how to win.
"We've got the ingredients. We just need the chef to mix it all together.''
The Panthers will have a strong Spartan flavor this season with two other MSU graduates on the roster -- David Booth is starting his sixth season in Florida and Tim Kennedy begins his first full season with the Panthers, second in the NHL and fourth as a pro.
Weaver, who has also played for the Atlanta Thrashers, Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, has played in 421 games. He has six goals and 49 assists for 55 points and has accumulated 168 penalty minutes.
Weaver and center Shawn Horcoff of the Edmonton Oilers have the most longevity in pro hockey in North American than any other ex-Spartan player. Horcoff is beginning his 12th year as a pro and is in his 11th season with the Oilers.
Mike York and Bryan Adams are in their 13th pro seasons, but York is starting his third year playing in Europe (which includes one during the NHL lockout) while Adams is in his ninth.
"For a lot of guys, it's not that hard to make it to the NHL because teams will give the top prospects a lot of opportunities, but it's not that easy to stay,'' Weaver said. "It's all about consistency and being comfortable - but not too comfortable that you think you've got it made.
"When you look at Horc and myself, I think that's why we've lasted as long as we have.''
NEW HOME FOR LILES:
After a seven-year stay as member of the Colorado Avalanche, offensively gifted defenseman John Michael Liles was traded this summer to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The former MSU All-American is looking forward to playing for an Original Six team and in the so-called center of the NHL universe in Canada.
"I'm really excited to play in such a great place and with a tremendous organization. When you start to play hockey and dream about playing in the NHL, a lot of people dream about playing in Canada and in a city that is crazy about hockey,'' Liles said during a break in MSU's Pro Camp at Munn Arena.
Liles, 30, a Spartan from 1999-2003, will be the oldest player on the Leafs' roster. "My dad pointed that out as soon as I got traded. That's scary to be the oldest player on the team,'' Liles said with a laugh. "But I'm looking forward to starting another chapter on my career.''
Liles played in 523 games with the Avalanche and had 68 goals and 207 assists for 275 points. In 2006, he was a member of the United States Olympic Team.
"They're not looking for me to reinvent the wheel. It's just about playing my game, bringing some offense and experience to a young team that has lots of energy and is ready to do to move up,'' Liles said.
"I'm very familiar with (general manger) Brian Burke and (coach) Ron Wilson and I know (vice president of hockey operations and former Notre Dame coach) Dave Poulin, and their new assistant coach, Greg Cronin, was an assistant coach at the U.S. hockey program in Ann Arbor when I played there.
"I like the energy that Brian Burke brings and the team's mentality. The L,eafs haven't been in the playoffs in six years and I hope I can help change that and help build them into a contender.''
Liles, who led MSU in scoring as a junior (13 goals, 22 assists, 35 points) and as a senior (16-34-50), is in the last year of his contract and hopes to play several more seasons.
"If you're having success helping the team, the contract will take care of itself,'' he said. "You find your role, you play it and hope you contribute to team success. I want to be part of the puzzle that gets this team into the playoffs. They have a good young team and finished last season on a good run.''
Although MSU has been well represented on rosters throughout the NHL, Liles will be the first Spartan to play for the Maple Leafs since Bobby Reynolds played seven games in Toronto in 1989-90.
NO MORE CONCUSSION TALK: David Booth suffered two serious concussions during the 2009-2010 season, but the Florida Panthers left wing recovered last summer and showed no effects last season.
The former Spartan standout played in all 82 games for Florida in 2010-11 and chipped in with 23 goals and collected 17 assists for 40 points. Still, he gets questions about the concussions.
"I was still getting them on April 9, when the season ended and I had played in 82 games,'' he said with a sarcastic laugh. "It's behind me. I've moved on. Playing in all 82 games was a huge goal.
"This year, I just want to get back to the 30-goal mark and go from there.''
Two years ago, the concussions limited Booth to 28 games.
In 2008-2009, he had 31 goals and 29 assists for 60 points, career highs.
Like Weaver, Booth is looking for the Panthers to contend for the playoffs this season, his sixth as a pro and in the NHL, all with Florida.
"It's exciting. We have a new coach, different players and we've changed the atmosphere here,'' Booth said. "We have guys who will work hard for our coach (Kevin Dineen). I really love it there and with all our changes, I believe we're going to win. We have a great opportunity to surprise a lot of people and once we start to win consistently, the fans will come out and support us.''
FORMER THRASHER, NEW JET:
Jim Slater would have loved to see hockey succeed in Atlanta, where he's spent all six years of his NHL career. But since the Thrashers only made the playoffs once during their 12-year stay in Atlanta, crowds were low and the franchise this summer was sold and moved to Winnipeg.
Slater, a high-scoring Spartan forward from 2001-2005, is looking forward to playing in front of close to 16,000 fans each home game as a member of the Winnipeg Jets.
"It'll be a great experience. As a player, you kind of always want to play in a Canadian market because of the great fans and all the attention,'' Slater said. "It'll be a big change from Atlanta. I loved it there and it would have been great if things had worked out. But I remember growing up when Winnipeg had the Jets and it'll be fun to play up there.''
Slater said he liked Atlanta's mild climate in the fall and winter but isn't worried about moving to one of the coldest cities in Canada.
"I've always liked the snow and it'll be very cold, but we'll be traveling around the league and going to the south and southwest so that will give us a break now and then,'' he said. "The season is so busy that you hardly notice and when we do get a break, we'll just have to find other things to do.''
Slater, known as a solid, defensive forward and strong on faceoffs, hopes to stay healthy this season. Last year, a wrist injury and season-ending concussion limited Slater to 36 games after playing in 61 and 60 in his two previous seasons.
"I feel good and I'm ready to go. You never know what we'll have when we get to training camp but we had a solid foundation in Atlanta and we still have most of those guys,'' he said. "I think I've had a good career and have done the things coaches have asked me.
"This will be my fifth coach and third GM. You always have to prove yourelf. But I see myself as a good, two-way center who can kill penalties, play on a checking line against the other team's top line, take key faceoffs and chip in here and there on offense. I embrace those roles.''
LERG HEADED TO ITALY:
After two disappointing seasons in the East Coast Hockey League, Jeff Lerg is taking his goaltending talents to Italy.
Lerg, a Spartan standout from 2005-2009 and who helped MSU win the 2007 NCAA title, will play this season in Asiago, Italy.
Lerg spent three days at MSU's Pro Camp and was expected to fly to Italy on Thursday. Training camp opens on Monday.
"I've had some tough luck the last two years, with injuries and then not getting a fair chance to win a starting job,'' he said. "I'm looking for a fresh start and see where it leads. I'm going to get a chance to be the No. 1 guy.''
Last season, Lerg played in 27 games for the Trenton Devils of the ECHL, a New Jersey Devils farm team. He had a 3.15 goals-against average and a 12-12-4 record. In 2009-2010, Lerg spent the first four months recovering from knee surgery and played in only two games for Trenton.
Asiago is in the northern Italy in the Italian Alps, near Venice and Milan.
"Last year, I never got a chance to get in a good groove until the end of the season. My record was pretty good at the end,'' Lerg said.
Teams in the Italian league, Lerg said, play two or three games a week, mostly on Thursdays and Saturdays and an occasional contest onTuesday.
"It'll be great experience to play hockey and see the sights in Italy and travel around Europe,'' he said.
Lerg said he was excited to see Tom Anastos take over as MSU coach.
"I thought it was an awesome hire. He'll bring back a lot of the alumni that really care about this program, and I think he'll get things on track,'' Lerg said. "I've known Tom for most of my life. When I first started playing goalie, coach Anastos was running the practice. My dad coached him when he was a young kid. He has some great ideas about bringing our program back.''
Once his season in Italy starts, Lerg will be joined by his wife, Laura. The Lergs were married in June.
"The only thing she's worried about is getting the Sling Box set up so she can watch all the Michigan State football games when we're over there. MSU basketball, too,'' Lerg said.
"That's my project before I leave - setting up it up and connecting to the computer. She's a college football diehard.''
Former Spartan defenseman Brad Fast took part in MSU's Pro Camp this week but it wasn't to get in shape to play another season. Fast skated as a forward to give the camp enough bodies for scrimmages.
After an eight-year pro career, the last three years spent playing in South Korea, Fast is retiring and changing careers. He's looking to get involved in some aspect of hockey training.
"It's been a lot of fun but I've got a family and I've been injured a lot the last few years and it's taken its toll on my body,'' said Fast, who lives in East Lansing with his wife, Lindsay, an MSU graduate, and their two sons, Riley, 4, and Beckett, 2.
"It seemed like a good time to call it quits and settle down here in town. I loved playing here, being part of Michigan State. I had some ups and downs in my pro career, but I got to play all over the world and see some great sights.
"I would have loved to play more up top (in the NHL) but I have no regrets.''
Fast played three years in the minors and one game for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes and scored a goal.
He played three seasons in Anyang Halla, South Korea, just outside of Seoul. The Asian League consisted of two teams in South Korea, four in Japan and one in China. Before going to Asia, Fast played two years in Switzerland and Austria/Germany.
"Hockey has been in South Korea since the 1930s but it's not as big as baseball and basketball and other sports. We did get good support. Our building had a capacity of about 2500 and it was sold out more than not,'' Fast said.
"Getting involved in the culture was difficult at first. In Europe, everybody speaks English but when we got to South Korea, it was a little harder. But as time went on, we made some good friends and learned to enjoy the culture.''
Former MSU forward Brock Radunske also played in South Korea for the last three years and he's starting his fourth season with Anyang Halla.
"It's definitely good financially playing in most places in Europe and in Asia. Not only do you get to play hockey, but we had a great time going sightseeing and hanging out as a family,'' Fast said. "But now, it's time to find a job.''
The two-time All-American goaltender and 2001 Hobey Baker winner and his fiancée, actress Noureen DeWulf, will be married during Labor Day weekend in Los Angeles.
The newlyweds won't go on an extended honeymoon. They'll spend some time at the Toronto Film Festival, where DeWulf has a new movie opening. Then it'll be time for the start of training camp for Miller.
Miller spent this week at the MSU Pro Camp, getting ready for his seventh full season with the Buffalo Sabres and his 10th year as a pro.
The Sabres have added two solid defenseman and new owner Terry Pegulia says he'll do whatever it takes to make Buffalo a Stanley Cup contender.
"I think we learned a lot of lessons the last few seasons and now we need to put them to work. We feel the talent we brought in is complementary talent to what we have,'' Miller said.
"I've liked our teams the last few years but we got into situations where we didn't match up well because we had a lot of players who were talented but played the same roles. If we make strides and come together, I believe we can challenge (for the Stanley Cup).''
Miller said once he and DeWulf are married, they'll still pursue their respective careers and DeWulf will continue to live in Los Angeles.
"We're going to have to balance it out, which is what we've done since we first met,'' he said. "She has a career and I want her to be her own person and I have my career.
"Our careers are separate but our lives are intertwined. I've heard about some couples with more challenging situations that we do. `'
Neil Koepke is a writer for MSUSpartans.com and covers the MSU hockey program. He spent 25 years as the program's beat writer for the Lansing State Journal. He is in his 40th season covering college hockey.