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Hockey Notes

Ex-Catamount reaches mountaintop in NHL

By Fluto Shinzawa
June 20, 2010

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Patrick Sharp was born in Winnipeg and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, but he’ll always be an adopted son of Burlington, Vt.

The Blackhawks alternate captain, last seen raising the Stanley Cup and partying during the homecoming parade in Chicago, spent two seasons with the Catamounts prepping his game for the pros. Appropriately, among the well-wishers texting Sharp during the finals was former Vermont assistant Damian DiGiulian, who played a significant role in bringing a Canadian youngster with a junior-style game to Hockey East.

“Very happy for him,’’ said DiGiulian, now coach at Rice Memorial Prep in South Burlington. “Great kid, great family.’’

Thunder Bay has always been a stable for hockey talent, with the Staal boys being the town’s most famous exports. But what few people know is that Thunder Bay once fielded a team in the USHL, one of the few Canadian teams to cross the border and gain entry into the Midwest-based junior league.

The Thunder Bay-Burlington connection began in 1998. That fall, Bryson Busniuk, a Thunder Bay Flyers forward, committed to UVM. During the 1998-99 season, while keeping tabs on Busniuk’s US Hockey League progress, UVM assistant Joe Gervais noticed that a 16-year-old had scored 20 goals for the Flyers by the season’s midway point. It was Sharp, who had drawn zero interest from other schools, and whose parents were pushing their son to attend college instead of playing major junior in the Ontario Hockey League.

“He was under the radar, especially in Thunder Bay,’’ recalled DiGiulian, who competed only with Lake Superior State for Sharp’s services. “We went out and saw him play.

“I loved the way he skated, shot — the whole thing. We offered him a scholarship [later in the season], and he accepted pretty soon after that.’’

While Busniuk was a freshman at UVM in 1999, Sharp played one more season in Thunder Bay. That year, former Thunder Bay teammate Jeff Miles, who had left the Flyers to play in the Ontario Provincial Junior A League, was also recruited by UVM.

Sharp and Miles kicked off their freshman seasons at UVM in 2000-01. For much of two seasons, coach Mike Gilligan played them with Busniuk. Gordon Woodworth, the school’s sports information director, dubbed them the Thunder Line.

“His skating was always incredible,’’ DiGiulian said of Sharp. “He flew. He was a natural goal scorer. He was on the left point, down on the side on the umbrella on the power play, for a one-time shot. He was pretty much in the same position as he is now. Took big faceoffs. Played both ways. Very similar.’’

After two seasons at UVM, where he collected 25 goals and 28 assists in 65 games, Sharp signed with Philadelphia (the Flyers drafted him in the third round in 2001, the same year Chicago picked Miles in the ninth round). Sharp impressed then-coach Ken Hitchcock, who liked his smart, all-around, gritty game, and made the big club out of camp.

Sharp shuttled between the Flyers and the Phantoms, their AHL club, winning the Calder Cup in 2004-05. On Dec. 5, 2005, Philadelphia traded Sharp and Eric Meloche to Chicago for Matt Ellison and a 2006 third-round pick.

Sharp finished this year’s playoffs with 11 goals and 11 assists, third on the Blackhawks behind Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

When the Blackhawks won the Cup at the Wachovia Center, Busniuk was in attendance.

Because of Chicago’s cap issues, teams have inquired about the 28-year-old Sharp, who is on the books for an annual $3.9 million through 2012. But Sharp can do everything — think Patrice Bergeron — for the Blackhawks: power play (No. 1 unit, on the right point next to Duncan Keith), penalty kill, faceoffs, defense. Sharp (25-41—66 in 82 regular-season games, 18:07 of ice time per outing) was one of the bubble players for Team Canada, most likely battling Bergeron for the 13th forward spot.

Before general manager Stan Bowman considers trading the alternate captain, he should look to move Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, or Dave Bolland, to say nothing of goalie Cristobal Huet.

“Of course, I’m very biased,’’ said DiGiulian, “but I’m surprised he didn’t get more Conn Smythe buzz. In all three zones, he was their best player.’’

A BIG ASSIST
Help and hope for paralyzed
More than a month has passed since the Bruins bowed out in the second round of the playoffs.

That’s not enough time for Matt Brown.

“I don’t mean to be rude,’’ said Brown (above), “but can we talk about something else?’’

Brown, the Norwood High hockey player who was paralyzed in January, has been home since May after leaving Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, where he underwent rehabilitation for nearly three months. Two days a week for the last two weeks, Brown has been working out at Journey Forward, a Canton organization that specializes in exercise-based rehab for patients with spinal cord injuries.

For two hours each day, with assistance from therapists, Brown cycles through a series of stations designed to stimulate muscle activity and re-fire the connections blocked by his injury.

“I feel stronger,’’ Brown said. “The arms and even the legs.’’

Brown can rotate his left arm so his palm faces up. He can also rotate his left wrist. During workouts, Brown has thrown his left arm off a table to amuse his therapists. He has slight movement in his right biceps and right wrist.

Michael Brown, Matt’s father, said his son also has sensation in his left foot and knee.

“He talks about a line of touch from his left hip to his left knee to his left foot,’’ said Michael. “What that means? We don’t know. But it certainly sounds exciting. So we keep monitoring that.

“You look for little signs. He gets excited by it. You’ll see him, whether he’s lying in bed or in his chair watching TV, you can see him doing his little movements. He continues to try to move. I think that’s great.

“We talk a lot about visualization — to visualize his mind sending a thought down his right arm or his left arm.’’

Journey Forward was launched by Dan Cummings, a Hyde Park native who broke his neck in June 2000 in a swimming accident.

“I was told I was never going to walk again,’’ said Cummings. “I’d be a C-6 dependent quadriplegic for the rest of my life.

“I felt that, going to physical therapy around here the first few years, I was just being taught how to live in a wheelchair. I was going through traditional physical therapy 45 minutes, three days a week. It was never enough. I knew that I needed more.’’

Cummings relocated to San Diego. He spent four years at Project Walk, going through exercise-based recovery. Cummings is now on his feet with help from a walker.

“That left me with a new mission,’’ Cummings said. “I couldn’t understand why coming from Boston, Mass., the capital of the medical field, why I had to move 3,000 miles away to find a place to help me walk again.

“I wanted to bring that program back to Boston. We came back here, raised the money to start Journey Forward, and it’s been two years now. It’s about giving them the opportunity — the opportunity to get out of their wheelchairs.’’

(For more info on Journey Forward, visit www.journey-forward.org. To donate to Brownie Points, Matt Brown’s fund, visit www.mattbrownnumber3.org.)

ETC.
This forward is a keeper
Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis (left), coming off an 82-game, 94-point season in which he was Steven Stamkos’s primary wingman, hasn’t shown any signs of decline in production or wear on his wheels. In the last seven seasons, St. Louis has appeared in 572 of 574 games — a fabulous run of health for a forward who doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas on the ice. Because of that, general manager Steve Yzerman told the St. Petersburg Times that he would like to negotiate an extension for St. Louis, who has one year remaining on his current deal ($5.25 million annually). However, St. Louis turned 35 two days ago. As with any player 35 or older (think Tim Thomas, his old UVM teammate), St. Louis’s next contract cannot be wiped from the books upon retirement or buyout. Around the league, St. Louis is considered the heart and soul of the Lightning. But it would be in Yzerman’s best interests to go shorter than longer with St. Louis’s extension.

Trade market could be busy
Unless they re-sign with their current clubs prior to July 1, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrick Marleau, and Tomas Plekanec will be the high-end forwards available upon the opening of free agency. After that, the difference-making ability drops off significantly. Sergei Gonchar would require a 35-and-older contract (the ex-Bruins defenseman turned 36 in April). Scott Niedermayer, also in the blue-plate-special club (37 in August), will most likely re-up with Anaheim if he doesn’t hang up the skates. Because of how thin the market projects to be, the trade chatter, already raucous, could turn downright vuvuzela-like at the draft. “I think there’s going to be more trades,’’ said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “I don’t know that they’ll necessarily happen that draft weekend. I think they’ll happen before July 1. There’s been a lot more talk among the general managers than I’ve ever seen, since I’ve been here and with Ottawa.’’ St. Louis started early by swiping playoff hero Jaroslav Halak from Montreal for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. By dispatching Halak, the Canadiens made Carey Price their default starter via trade for the second time in his career. In 2007-08, then-GM Bob Gainey sent Cristobal Huet to Washington, giving Price the No. 1 job for the playoffs. Time will tell how Price — a restricted free agent with new bargaining power now that Halak is gone — reacts to the pressure this time.

Practice, practice, practice
Fascinating read in the May 31 New York Times Magazine by Michael Sokolove. The story explored how Ajax, the Dutch soccer club, identifies, recruits, and develops boys in its academy (ages 7-19) with the hopes of producing a handful of elite players who could play in Europe’s elite leagues. Until they turn 12, the boys train three times a week, then play one game on the weekend. The emphasis is on developing skills and practice habits, not playing games and executing coaches’ systems. It’s an approach that youth hockey programs in the US and Canada should mirror, according to Toronto GM Brian Burke. “From long conversations with [Henrik and Daniel Sedin], Markus Naslund, the practice-to-game ratio is the key,’’ said Burke during a conference call regarding the World Hockey Summit, which will take place in Toronto in late August. “An ideal thing, if you ask someone in hockey, the ideal ratio for a young player is three practices to one game. We’d kill to get two. But in fact it’s one-to-one or less in youth hockey associations by the time the kid is a peewee. I think this is misguided. I’ve ranted and raved about this. I think we should have more practices and fewer games. I think the parents are a big part of the problem. They don’t want to watch a practice. They want to see Johnny with four other skaters, two referees, and a linesman.’’

Loose pucks
Startling if not surprising sight during Game 6 of the finals: Jonathan Toews struggling to return to the bench at the end of his third-period shifts. The 2009-10 games played total for Toews: 108 (preseason, regular season, Olympics, playoffs). One remedy to ease fatigue: Scrap the morning skate. Far better to let the players sleep on game days and arrive in the afternoon for meetings, light workouts, maintenance, and stick preparation. The Bruins didn’t skate prior to Game 7 against the Flyers, which might be one reason they came out with such spunk early . . . My All Skill-Plus-Sandpaper Team: Zach Parise (LW), Toews (C), Daniel Alfredsson (RW), Niklas Kronwall (D), Tim Gleason (D), Chris Mason (G) . . . The road teams in the three Winter Classics (Pittsburgh in 2008, Detroit in 2009, Philadelphia in 2010) lost in the Cup finals in those seasons. But there’s also a winning side to the story. In the seasons following their outdoor appearances, Pittsburgh (2009) and Chicago (2010) won the Cup. So place your bets on either the Bruins or Flyers lifting the Cup in 2011.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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