Q&A with Steve Sullivan
No NHL player has defied the odds quite like Steve Sullivan.
At age 14, he was described as an undersized forward and was cut from his Bantam team. Never drafted to play major junior hockey, Sullivan could have given up on his dream, but he didn't. Now in his fourth NHL city, the 31-year-old has proven to all his detractors that he belongs with the best players in the world, and the Nashville Predators are loving it.
In this edition of "Facing Off," Sullivan talks candidly about his karma and meeting Shania Twain, another star from his hometown.
Question from David Amber: When you were just 14 years old, you were cut from your local Bantam AAA team. Describe that experience.
Answer from Steve Sullivan: At the time, it was a tragic event in my life. You play with the same guys from Atom hockey on; it had been six years together. But at that age, some kids grew faster than me, and our coach at that time didn't think that I could play. I had to go play on a regular team. It was one of those stumbling blocks that you either grow from it or you pack it in. At that moment, I knew I had to work a lot harder if I was going to keep playing hockey and I was able to.
Q: You didn't play major junior hockey until you were 18. How did you get that chance?
• Sullivan has had six straight 20-goal seasons.
• Drafted in 1994 by the New Jersey Devils in ninth round, 233rd overall.
• Collected 10 points in first three games with Nashville (that's the most points by a player with a new NHL team since 1988, when Wayne Gretzky had 10 points in his first three games with the Kings).
• In 2000-01 season, led the Blackhawks with 75 points and led NHL with eight shorthanded goals.
• Won Calder Cup with AHL's Albany River Rats in 1995.
• Won Memorial Cup with OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 1993.
A: I was never drafted to the OHL. I got an invite as a 17-year-old to try out for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. I didn't make the team. They had a very strong team that year, they had just gone to the Memorial Cup. The next year [at 18], they invited me back, and thankfully, I made that team. They gave me a chance and I made the best of my opportunity.
Q: At 19, you were drafted into the NHL in the ninth round by the Devils. Going that late at 19, what kind of hockey career did you expect to have?
A: I didn't think about it at the time. I was just excited to get drafted. I wasn't sure what to expect. I went to my first NHL training camp just trying to get a contract. I ended up getting a two-way deal with the Devils where I got sent to the AHL team, the Albany River Rats. Robbie Ftorek was the head coach in Albany. He was such a good teacher and he's a small guy, too. So he helped me prepare for games, it was great.
Q: You are listed at 5-foot-7, 155 pounds. How many players are smaller than you in the NHL?
A: I'm not sure. Probably none lighter. I played with Theo Fleury and I was a little taller than him, but he was a good 20 pounds heavier than me. I may not be the shortest player, but I'm definitely the lightest.
Q: At first, things weren't easy for you in the NHL. You were traded from the Devils to the Maple Leafs. In your third season in Toronto, you scored 20 goals, and the next season after seven games, they put you on waivers. How tough was that for you to be told you're not wanted?
A: That was extremely difficult. I had been up for a few years and suddenly I didn't know if I have an NHL future. I thought my career might be over. There was a chance I was going to St. John's, Newfoundland, to play for the baby Leafs. I didn't know if I would get another chance. Those 48 hours were a horrible time. I was relieved when I found out I had been picked up by Chicago and would have another chance.
Q: And now, here you are in Nashville. The Predators started the season with eight straight wins, one of the best starts in NHL history. How do you explain such a quick start?
A: The new rules were a huge factor because we are a fast-skating team and our goaltender Tomas Vokoun was outstanding in net. Probably half those games we shouldn't have won, but he was great, and so we snuck out some close games that we shouldn't have.
Q: How have the new rules changed your game?
A: It's been huge. I love the new rules. They are putting the game back in the hands of the good skaters. Speed is my biggest asset, with the new rules if you have speed you've got the upper hand on the other players because they can't grab you unless they have great position. These rules have really helped me a lot.
Q: Who is the fastest skater on the Preds?
A: I think David Legwand. He's really fast.
Q: Wow. Faster than you and Paul Kariya?
A: Paul Kariya is fast, too. I might be a little quicker at the top end of speed, but I think he has an edge with the explosive speed to get to your top speed the quickest. A race blue line to blue line I think Paul would catch me. If we did a full lap I think it would be close.
Q: You have scored 186 goals in the NHL, which one is most memorable to you?
A: The first one, without a doubt, the first one. It wasn't flashy, it wasn't pretty, but just knowing you've made it was great. It was my very first game in the NHL, we were at home playing against the Canadiens, Pat Jablonski was in net. There was a shot from the point, the puck came to me behind the net and I wrapped it around and that was it. It was a very emotional time because really it was a dream come true. It was weird living out a dream knowing you have made it to the pinnacle of what you were trying to do.
Q: How is hockey atmosphere different in Nashville than other NHL cities?
A: I think in Nashville they are more fans than critics. In the Original Six cities the fans have watched hockey their whole lives and they want to watch a hockey game. In Nashville, the fans want to be entertained. They like to cheer and have fun. It's a great atmosphere, they are loud and they get into it.
Q: Have you visited Graceland?
A: Not yet, but my parents came down during training camp and they went to Memphis to go to Graceland. So I plan to go there soon. It's on my list of things to do. I'm not a huge Elvis fan, but he's an icon in music and Graceland is something you have to see.
Q: Speaking of music icons, you are from the same hometown as Shania Twain. Have you ever met her?
A: Yeah, we met a few times. She threw a huge banquet concert in Timmins, Ontario, in 1999. She had a big dinner the night before the concert and I was invited to go meet her. I was star struck when I met her. We talked for awhile, and during the concert, she brought me on stage with her. She's a great girl, down to earth. Her fame hasn't changed her. She's totally down to earth.
Q: When you drive into the town line of Timmins, what does the sign say?
A: It says "Welcome to Timmins: Home of Shania Twain."
Q: What would it take for that sign to read: "Welcome to Timmins: Home of Steve Sullivan?"
A: [Laughs] That won't ever happen. We're on different scales in the celebrity world. She is the top-selling female artist ever. Timmins has produced a lot of great hockey players, like the Mahovlich brothers, who have put up a lot better numbers and won more Stanley Cups than I have, so my name won't be on that sign.
Q: A few years ago, you were hit in the face by a puck during a game in Colorado. A fan in the first row was cheering as you were gushing blood. Later in the game, you returned to the ice and Patrick Roy accidentally shot the puck over the boards and it hit that same fan right in the face. What do you remember about that episode?
A: [Laughs] Every minute of it. Where that fan was sitting, it was nearly impossible for him to get hit. It was just karma. He had been heckling me and he ended up needing more stitches than I needed. I was really [angry] that he was cheering and laughing at my injury. So when he got hit, I went up to the glass and I laughed at him, it was hilarious. His girlfriend thought it was funny, too. She was sitting beside him and she gave me the thumbs up. [Laughs]
David Amber is an ESPN anchor and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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