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Fast and Looch

The rapid ascent of a 20-year-old wunderkind

By John Powers
Globe Staff / March 31, 2009
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - His picture hangs next to Bruce Springsteen's at the entrance to the gallery suites inside the Pacific Coliseum. There is The Boss and there is Looch, hoisting the Memorial Cup above his head. In this corner of Canada, there is no question who is the bigger celebrity.

Milan Lucic carried the Giants on his muscular shoulders two years ago when they produced the greatest hockey moment in this town since the Millionaires claimed the Stanley Cup in 1915, beating Medicine Hat for the junior version of the sport's biggest prize.

What immortalized him, though, is what fans still call "The Shift" - Lucic's early demo-derby number on four rivals that set the tone for that championship afternoon.

"He just demolished three players, won a fight, and that was it," remembers Rod Tanabe, a counselor at Killarney Secondary, Lucic's high school. "The game was over."

The Shift, which every kid in town has viewed a dozen times on YouTube, is the essence of the pugnacious and practical philosophy that propelled the 20-year-old Lucic from Junior B to the Bruins in just three years: Get on the scoresheet somehow.

That's what Dan Kesa, who played four seasons in the NHL during the 1990s, told his nephew back when he was struggling to make junior teams.

"He always said, 'No matter what it is, you've got to do something to get noticed,' " Lucic says. "Whether it's just going out there and making big hits and getting in everyone's faces and fighting or scoring. When you're going into a tryout, you want the general manager and the people picking the team to walk away and say, 'Did you see that Lucic kid?' "

To understand the roots of Looch, you have to know something about East Vancouver, the sprawling melting-pot neighborhood that historically has been the first stop for the city's immigrants - the English and Welsh, the Scots and Irish, the Italians and Germans, the Greeks and Serbs, the Chinese and Indians.

"Usually, the East Van kids had hard-working parents with not much money trying to build their lives up," says Kesa, who grew up in the Serbian community there.

Lucic's mother, Snezana, arrived in East Vancouver when she was 2. His father, Dobro, grew up in Sarajevo, where World War I was kindled, and emigrated at 29, becoming a longshoreman because there was no market for his background in Yugoslav law. Three sons arrived within four years - Jovanin 1987, Milan in 1988, and Nikolain 1990.

All three were athletes, all three were musicians. Milan, an accomplished alto saxophonist equally adept at Beethoven and Coltrane, traveled with percussionist Jovan and the school's concert band to Beijing, where Killarney won a global music festival with Milan playing a solo on national TV before a live audience of a couple of thousand people. "Playing hockey is easy compared to that," he says.

The Lucic brothers approached every activity as if a trophy were at stake.

"My mom was like, 'Why does everything have to be a competition?' " says Jovan. "Anything we did, we wanted to do it the best."

Especially the middle son, who could not abide defeat in anything.

"When he was a kid, if his team lost a game, on the way home he was crying," recalls his father. "The other kids would say, 'Oh, we tried hard.' Milan would say, 'Yeah, but we didn't win the game.' "

Head-to-head contests were even fiercer.

"When we played tennis, we had wooden rackets to start off, but he broke both of those," says Jovan. "We'd be playing and I'd call the ball out and he'd get mad. He was like a McEnroe in tennis."

Milan was an extraordinary athlete, adept at a half-dozen sports. He played power forward in basketball, third base and pitcher in baseball. He was a promising boxer who had three amateur bouts at 15. He was so good at box lacrosse that he was voted MVP of a tournament in which his team didn't even make the semifinals. And he was so talented at rugby that he was asked to try out for the national team.

"Any sport I would have played would have been awesome," says Lucic.

A few hits in hockey
But hockey was where his passion was. His father might have been a soccer star back home, but Milan was a child of Canada and the NHL was his fantasy league. Having Canuck tough guy Gino Odjick playfully put him up against the boards at a Christmas skate was the best present imaginable for a 5-year-old. Having an uncle in uniform - for the Canucks, Stars, Penguins, and Lightning - was like having a back-stage pass.

"Every team he played for, he would bring us into the dressing room," says Lucic, whose black Bruins bathrobe has "Gino" stitched on the back in gold.

Yet it was hockey that brought Milan the most disappointment. He was a big, strong kid (his parents passed him off as Jovan's twin when they first signed him up) who was full of energy and heart, yet he often found himself overlooked, starting with the Bantam draft in 2003.

"We were sitting at the kitchen table having dinner, and he would go on the computer every five minutes to check," Snezana remembers. "At the end, when it was finished, Milan came down and the tears just came rolling down his face.

"I said, 'Micho, don't worry about it. If you really want it, Mom and Dad, we're behind you. Don't let anybody put you down. You just keep on working hard. If you want it, it's going to come.' "

But when? After he was passed over for the zone team for B.C. Best Ever development program, Lucic was devastated.

"Once again, I was disappointed, discouraged, all that type of stuff," he recalls. "You start thinking to yourself, what's going on?"

I went through the same things, his uncle told him. Don't worry about what other people think.

"I tried to build a little fire under him," says Kesa. "I said, 'Try to prove them wrong.' "

It wasn't so much that Lucic couldn't play as it was that nobody knew that he could. He was an East Side kid who didn't belong to a winter club, who performed for Tier II teams that scouts didn't bother watching.

"I went into situations where people had no clue of who I was just because I wasn't scouted by them," Lucic says. "So my mind-set was, I'm going there to make a team, just like everyone else is. I'm going to make it hard for them to cut me."

The Neely comparison
His first break came in 2004, when he stepped off the plane after the numbing 11-hour flight from China and went straight to the rink to try out for the Delta Icehawks, a Junior B team.

"The coach was so impressed with that that he took him into the back room and signed him right away," recalls Snezana. "Because he knew he had that passion, that drive."

Lucic reminded people of Cam Neely, another British Columbia guy who played three years for the Canucks before being dealt to the Bruins.

"He was my favorite player," says Dobro, who watched Neely duke it out in the first NHL game he ever saw. "All the time I was telling Milan, 'If you can play like Cam Neely, you're going to be somebody.' "

Someone with that much size, that much gumption, that much persistence, couldn't slip through the cracks forever. After the Coquitlam Express, the Junior A team, cut him in rookie camp, the club quickly realized that it had made a mistake.

"I think there was a bit of confusion with some of our scouts," remembers Sean Crowther, who coached the team then. "We said, 'We've got to get this kid back.' "

So Lucic was brought in to skate with the veterans, and though he was sent back temporarily to Junior B, he soon returned and stayed.

"He has this real burning desire to prove to people that he can do it," says Crowther.

Nobody overlooked Lucic again. The Giants, who wanted an imposing physical player who'd go to the net, latched on to him.

"He was pretty raw, not very polished," says coach Don Hay. "What we liked about him was his work ethic and how good an attitude he had."

Scott Bradley, the Bruins amateur scouting director who was based in the area, noticed that Lucic seemed to improve every time he watched him.

Instant folk hero
On draft day in 2006, Boston snatched him in the second round with its third pick, after Phil Kessel and defenseman Yuri Alexandrov. That made sense to his coaches, who figured that Lucic would be a perfect addition for a club that wanted to get back to its lunchpail roots.

"Guys like [Terry] O'Reilly and [John] Wensink and [Stan] Jonathan," says Hay. "Milan could fit into that era easily."

If anyone doubted that, they only needed to watch The Shift, where Lucic blew the roof off the Coliseum and essentially won the Memorial Cup in less than a minute. The Giants, who'd lost the Western League title two weeks earlier to Medicine Hat in double overtime in the seventh game of the finals, knew they needed a jump-start.

"It was the biggest game of our lives," says Lucic. "We'd talked about it, that we had to do something early. I just came off the bench and the timing was right."

In rapid succession, Lucic bowled over Matt Lowry, Jakub Rumpel, and Trevor Glass, and fought Jordan Bendfeld and the Giants went on to win, 3-1.

The Cup victory made Lucic an instant folk hero. For the first time in more than 90 years, a Vancouver hockey team had won something big.

"Everyone likes the Canucks," says Kesa, "but they don't really do anything at the end."

The picture of Lucic hoisting the trophy adorned city buses before the next season, urging a repeat. Odds were he'd be back - he was still only 19, the team's captain-to-be. But when his father and uncle were driving him to the airport to send him off to Bruins camp that fall, they hoped otherwise.

"Don't go there to try out, go there to make the team," Kesa told him. "I don't want to see you back here until the season's over. I want to visit there and see you play."

In Wilmington, Lucic took the same approach he always had: "You've got to do something every night."

When camp broke, he was still on the team. Once Lucic played 10 games and the club had to keep him, he realized that his life had changed overnight, and that he'd become decidedly wealthier.

"He never thought that it would come this quickly," says Snezana, who works for Air Canada at the airport. "He kind of pinches himself. Even I and my husband do. People at work say, 'Wow, your kid plays in the NHL.' "

Roots run deep
Lucic may be playing 2,500 miles away, but he's still the same kid from the East Side, still a familiar figure around the neighborhood and his old school. "He knows where his roots are," says Tanabe.

When Lucic had his uniformed homecoming as a Bruin last October, the Vancouver Province ran a baby picture ("He hated me for that photo," says his mother with a laugh) on its back page with the greeting: "Welcome home, tough guy."

It was toughness, fearlessness, and dedication - the classic East Vancouver virtues - that got Lucic to Causeway Street when he was still a teenager and have kept him there.

"The kids from East Van persevere," says Tanabe. "When the chips are down, you'll take an East End boy."

No matter what he does in Boston - and his father's fellow dockworkers already are bantering about the Stanley Cup - Milan Lucic always will be remembered for one hard-nosed and inspired minute that made history in the Coliseum. That's why he's hanging next to Springsteen, as a reminder of the glory days.

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