Last Friday, an instant after he thumped his shoulder into Raitis Ivanans, Milan Lucic's ear caught the chirp he's heard dozens of times before.
Whether it's delivered with a curse (usually) or a snarl (almost always), what Lucic heard was the pre-fisticuffs, code-demanded invitation, a comparably genteel precursor to the fight it beckons.
Ivanans, the Los Angeles Kings tough guy, had 14 fights last season and outweighed the 19-year-old Lucic by 43 pounds. But with a drop of his gloves, Lucic accepted and stood toe-to-toe with the 28-year-old Ivanans.
By the end of the night, Lucic bore a strawberry-sized welt on his left cheek, the product of a straight right by Ivanans. But Lucic also had the puck from his first NHL goal, the satisfaction from his team's 8-6 win, and the admiration of watchers around the league.
"He stood up to a pretty big guy," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "I thought he did a great job. He earned a lot of respect from guys around the league."
The 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound Lucic (pronounced loo-cheech), who will make his debut in front of Bruins fans tonight at TD Banknorth Garden, didn't win the trust of his teammates by battling Ivanans. He had earned that long ago.
"To go after a 19-year-old kid when both me and [Zdeno Chara] were out there, I don't think that's right," said Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton, who scrapped with Ivanans twice last season. "But [Lucic] did a great job. I think it gives him confidence more than anything. Now he knows he can go with any guy in the league."
Lifelong long shotYesterday, Dobro Lucic, who had attended three of his son's first five games (the season opener in Dallas and the split against Anaheim and Los Angeles), was on a plane once more, this time en route to Boston to watch his boy's first game in home blacks.
It's somewhat of a surprise that both father and son are in Boston today. Lucic is one of only six players with junior eligibility still with his NHL club (Chicago's Patrick Kane, Edmonton's Sam Gagner, St. Louis's David Perron, Minnesota's James Sheppard, and Phoenix's Peter Mueller are the others). If Lucic, who has played in all five games (1-1 -2), appears in five more, then 2007-08 will count as a season on his entry-level, three-year contract, although he can still be returned to his junior team at any time.
Lucic, however, has been surprising his followers for some time.
By his own admission, Lucic struggled as a 15-year-old midget in his native Vancouver, hardly drawing attention from the Canadian junior hockey powerhouses.
As a 16-year-old, Lucic tried out for the South Delta Ice Hawks, a Junior B team. Lucic made the club, played a handful of games, then was promoted to the Coquitlam Express (Junior A), for whom he recorded 23 points and 100 penalty minutes in 50 games in 2004-05.
"The toughest thing was getting into the junior ranks," said Lucic. "Once I got in there, things started going right for me."
The following season, Lucic graduated to major junior, skating for his hometown Vancouver Giants. Lucic scored 19 points in 62 games and was pegged as a bottom-line grinder who had no reservations about dropping his gloves, indicated by his 149 PIMs.
"In the beginning, being a mother, it was kind of nerve-racking. I didn't know what to expect," Snezana Lucic said of her son's penchant for scraps. "But I know he can handle himself. He does quite well. It's part of his game."
His size and fight skills, as well as his willingness to listen and learn, attracted the attention of NHL scouts, including Bruins director of amateur scouting Scott Bradley.
"He kept improving for me," Bradley recalled. "From the first game, he was the raw kid that needs some development. But every game I saw him during that year, he had taken a step forward. He kept catching my eye."
That June, the draft was held in Vancouver. After grabbing Phil Kessel with the fifth overall pick, the Bruins had two second-round picks: Nos. 37 and 50. There was debate at the Boston table. Bradley didn't think Lucic would be available at No. 50, but the Bruins selected defenseman Yuri Alexandrov at 37, held their breath, and exhaled when their man was still around.
"I don't think he would have been there the next round," said Bradley. "We were fortunate to get him."
Before they drafted Lucic, the Bruins performed their due diligence, obtaining character assessments from his coaches and studying medical reports. The year before, Lucic had been diagnosed with an ailment that affected him on the ice - just not in the expected manner.
Thrown a curveWhen her son hit his growth spurt around 15, Snezana Lucic, who came to Vancouver from Yugoslavia when she was 2, noticed that his posture was especially poor.
" 'Milan, straighten your back,' " Snezana recalled telling her son. "He tried to. But he couldn't."
They visited a doctor, hoping a back brace might improve his posture. The Lucics were told the teenager would grow out of it. But when Coquitlam's medical staff examined Lucic before the 2004-05 season, one of the doctors thought there was something behind the curve in his back.
The Coquitlam doctor was right. Lucic was suffering from Scheuermann's disease, a condition that causes the upper back to curve. It wasn't painful, but it caused the teenager to stoop and round his shoulders.
"It was never really an issue for me," said Lucic. "Growing up, the only reason I really noticed was that people started telling to me to stand up straight."
The condition didn't affect his play until some opponents started to notice his back. Two years ago, Everett forward Kyle Beach shrugged his shoulders at Lucic in a hunchback style. The enraged Bruins prospect chased Beach, and several games later beat him up.
Last season, Kamloops defenseman Ryan Bender called Lucic a hunchback during a game and was slapped with a game misconduct, which was later changed to a 10-minute misconduct.
"You don't like to see that," Lucic said. "You hope guys are classier than that. But guys who do that have it coming to them. You just take care of it."
With his gear on, Lucic's condition makes it look like he's wearing an extra-large set of shoulder pads. But when he removes his equipment, the upper part of his back curves like a cresting wave.
"He doesn't let it get to him," Snezana Lucic said of the taunts, which she heard during the 2007 Memorial Cup. "The fans calling him names - they're the ones that have the problem with it. Milan doesn't. People are going to be people. They can make comments, but he's a strong kid."
Exceeding expectationsAt nearly every step of his career, Lucic has exploded through any preconceived checkpoints. Lucic opened eyes by making the Vancouver club in 2005-06. Last season, after being projected as a bottom-six forward, Lucic exploded for 30 goals and 38 assists in 70 regular-season games, then led the Giants to a Cup championship. This past summer, Lucic captained Team Canada in the Super Series romp over Russia.
"That's what you hope for in every prospect," Bradley said. "You want him to keep moving up the train tracks and hopefully he peaks around [age] 35."
Despite the fatigue of a long 2006-07 season and a summer of global travel, Lucic hit his marks during camp, forcing the Bruins to keep him around. By the season opener, Lucic had rendered Jeremy Reich irrelevant, as he manned left wing on the fourth line alongside Thornton and Glen Metropolit.
In the fourth game, Julien promoted him to the third line. Lucic responded immediately, fighting Ivanans in the first period, then assisting on Aaron Ward's second-period goal. In the third period, Lucic and centerman David Krejci sprang loose for a two-on-one. Krejci, skating down the right wing, hit Lucic with a cross-crease pass that the rookie tapped past goalie Jonathan Bernier at 15:19 for the winning goal.
"Didn't see it," admitted Snezana Lucic, who was presented with the commemorative puck after the game. "I was so excited. In the moment, we all just jumped. My mom was there, my younger son, my husband, and an uncle who lived in San Diego with his son. We were all there and it was just so exciting. I didn't even hear the announcer say his name when he scored the goal."
For now, Milan Lucic is living in a downtown hotel, wondering if his nine-game stay will become a permanent one. If he dresses in every game leading up to it, the ninth match, his last chance to impress, will take place a week from tonight against Chicago at the Garden. Julien already has said that Lucic has shown him he can play at this level. But Lucic isn't taking anything for granted.
"I guess you could say," Lucic said, "that the 25th is a big day for me."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.