- George Johnson, NHL
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The experiment, Doug Risebrough will tell you, is ongoing.
"It's pretty simple for him,'' the Minnesota general manager says, up in the seats of the Saddledome watching Alexandre Daigle and the rest of the Wild go through a pregame skate in Calgary. "The moment he stops working or becomes complacent, it'll be over.
"He knows that.''
Daigle has learned to live with being famous as a poster boy for
failure. The "Can't Miss Kid" who did.
Eleven years and five teams removed from 1993, when he was the first overall pick of the Ottawa Senators, the next Mario Lemieux can't even claim to be the next Jocelyn Lemieux. And for that, someone had to pay -- and is still paying.
"He wasn't as good as people projected,'' says Risebrough flatly. "Is that his fault? At the end of the day, that's bad judgment on the part of other people. You shouldn't pile it on the kid. But when an 18-year-old doesn't meet expectations, everyone starts panicking and looking for reasons. 'Oh, he's lazy.' 'Oh, he's arrogant.' 'Oh, he's difficult.'
"I'd heard all the stories. But you want to know the biggest discrepancy between what I'd imagined of Alexandre Daigle and what I've seen? This guy cares. He wants to play. He listens.
"Will that last? I don't know. Right now he's enjoying some success. How will he cope when things begin to level off, as they do for every player?''
Risebrough shrugs. "All I can go on is what I see now. And what I've seen has been very, very encouraging.''
Daigle, Marc Chouinard and Christoph Brandner have combined to form what demanding coach Jacques Lemaire calls Minnesota's top checking trio. Anyone who remembers the barrage of publicity when Daigle first arrived at the Senators' camp might snicker at the thought of him being the checking right winger.
But, well, the ol' world has taken a couple of turns since then.
The unit has been tagged the "Bang For the Buck" line. Their combined salaries add up to $1.575 million. The league average is $1.8 million.
No one in Ottawa thought the Senators were getting anywhere near their money's worth when Daigle arrived out of Victoriaville, the most anticipated Quebec junior since, well, since Mario. Midway through his fifth season, the Sens wearied of Daigle and dealt him to Philly. From there, he had short stints in Tampa and Manhattan.
By 2000, considered one of the biggest No. 1 busts ever, Daigle, as fed up with hockey as it was with him, quit. A comeback attempt in Pittsburgh last
season fizzled out after 33 games, then a call to Risebrough landed him this opportunity.
Daigle attended the Wild's training camp but was only signed on Sept. 30, when it became clear neither Marian Gaborik nor Pascal Dupuis, both in contract disputes, would be around to open the season. To his credit, Daigle has proven himself far more than just an insurance policy to date.
"No, I wouldn't say our situations with other players,'' says Risebrough about the reason for signing Daigle. "We've had success with other players at loose ends in search of a chance. Before every season we sit down and try to figure out if anyone out there can help us. We thought Daigle was intriguing so when his agent called me we decided to give it a try.''
By now, Daigle is used to a pretty familiar line of questioning from reporters ("Every place we play in Canada,'' sighs Risebrough, "he has to relive it"). And, to be honest, he handles the whole thing with candor and a good deal of grace. It seems such a long time ago when fans and media were hailing him for the future, not condemning him for the past.
"I didn't score 500 goals. I'm don't think I'm going to score 500 goals. That's what No. 1s are supposed to do. And if you're a No. 1 from Montreal ... boy, you'd better be Mario Lemieux.
"Do I regret (going No. 1)? No. Not at all. The path is easier if you're chosen 11th or 12th or 20th. But that's the way it is. I am bitter about a lot of what was said about me, what was written about me, but I'm not going to stand here and point fingers. I think that stuff was harder on my family than it was on me, especially with them living in Montreal.
"Not much made me mad, except when people said I didn't care. I'm an easygoing guy. I like to smile, to joke, to laugh. But that doesn't mean I don't care. That made me angry.''
The two years away, mostly spent travelling, worked for him on a number of levels.
"I had to clear my mind,'' Daigle says now. "They were great for me. Absolutely essential. I had to get away from hockey. Hockey had become a
burden. That's why I live in L.A. Out there, nobody cares if you're a hockey player. You're free to be yourself.''
During his retirement, Daigle discovered something he hadn't banked on. He actually missed the game. So at 27, Daigle, shorn of the grandiose expectations of his youth, is making one more try at establishing himself as a bona-fide NHLer.
"I don't regret what happened,'' he declares. "I was young, too young, to handle everything that was thrown at me. I understand that now. Everyone talks as if I was still 18. But I'm different than that person. Are you the same person you were your first year of college?''
Sometimes, it takes people longer to grow up. At least that's what the Minnesota Wild are hoping.
"I know he's focusing more on hockey, and that's good,'' says Lemaire. "That's what he has to do if he wants to stay. He understands this could be his last chance.''
A powerful incentive, that sort of knowledge.
"This is a great opportunity,'' Daigle said. "Last year (Pittsburgh) wasn't the right organization for me. They were nice enough to get me back into the league, and I thank them for that, but here I believe I have a real chance.
"(Lemaire) is a great coach. He talks to you. A lot of coaches never say a word to you individually. He always makes it clear what he expects. Here, I'm judged on what I can do, not what I have or haven't done. There's no talk of the past.
"I'm going to succeed or fail on my own. I'm comfortable with that.''
Later that night, Daigle assisted on Chouinard's game-opening goal while helping check the Jarome Iginla line to a standstill as the Wild run out 3-0 winners.
And so the experiment goes on.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Long considered a failure, 1993 No. 1 pick Alexandre Daigle is reinventing himself in Minnesota.