'The Big Easy' is here to stay in Buffalo
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The NHL's all-time winningest coach sat down for a game Oct. 24 in Tampa Bay and marveled at the 6-foot-8 rookie blueliner logging the puck up and down the ice for the Buffalo Sabres.
Scotty Bowman, whose six decades' worth of hockey knowledge would need several hard drives to store, is not easily impressed. But he was on this night by a 19-year-old kid named Tyler Myers.
"His stride," Bowman recalled to ESPN.com on Tuesday night. "He just came out of his own end and skated right by guys. I couldn't believe how fast he was. I haven't seen many guys in my time that big who was such a fluid skater. He gets up and down the ice so fast."
Never mind the fact Myers is clearly an early-season candidate for the Calder Trophy in his rookie NHL season. There are those who believe you are watching the baby steps of a player who will bring home the organization's first Norris Trophy before his career is over.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. His NHL career is only two-plus months old. But what he's already shown is nothing short of remarkable. He leads the Sabres in ice time at just more than 22 minutes per game, which is second only to Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman among all NHL rookies.
Just like Drew Doughty last season in Los Angeles, Myers is trying to defy the long-lasting belief that teenage defensemen aren't supposed to be able to handle this kind of workload at the most demanding position for a rookie.
"I think I am surprised, because it's a tough position for a young player," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff told ESPN.com after practice this week. "It's a tough position to be consistent for a young player. You can have stretches, you can have a good week as a young player, but usually that young player will drop off."
But, as Ruff attests, there hasn't been a drop-off for Myers. And that's a credit to Ruff and his coaching staff. They've brought Myers along nicely, giving him just enough information bit by bit, not overwhelming him.
"He's been able to maintain a very high quality of play," Ruff said. "To this point, you hope you can keep him there. You have to put in the work to keep him there. You don't want him to do too much. But he seems to be able to take in a lot and move forward with it."
Not much flusters Myers. He's smooth and composed on the ice and laid back off of it. That led to his Sabres teammates' finding an appropriate moniker for him: "The Big Easy."
"I like it," Myers said in an interview with ESPN.com on Tuesday. "They can keep calling me that."
Just about a year ago at this time, Myers began a whirlwind 12 months that has rocketed him to the upper echelon of the hockey world. Myers entered the World Junior Championship in Ottawa as somewhat of an unknown factor on Canada's talented squad. He wrapped it up as one of its biggest contributors. The stud blueliner had arrived.
"It was definitely the turning point for me," Myers said of the world juniors. "Most of it was just mental. It just showed me that I could play with the best junior players in the world."
He carried that into a huge second half with the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets, all the way to the Memorial Cup championship game, where his team lost to the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires. Four months later, he attended his second NHL training camp with the Sabres and never looked back. He's a mainstay on the power play (his 15 points before Wednesday night's game are second-best among rookie blueliners), and also kills penalties.
"I'm surprised how smoothly it's gone," Myers said without a trace of cockiness but rather honestly while scratching his head. "My first goal was to get a spot on the back end on this team. Once I did that, I wanted more. The big thing for me is not settling for anything. I'm taking whatever I can from the players in the room and the coaches and showing them I will continue to improve."
There's a maturity beyond Myers' years, and a lot of that comes from a bit of tough love from his father, Paul. Growing up, the young prodigy was forced to keep up his grades -- or else. When the grades slipped a little in Kelowna one season, Paul flew into town from their home in Calgary and took away Tyler's truck.
"At the time, I wasn't too happy," Myers said with a smirk. "But looking back on it, and it's just not that, a lot of things he did helped me. I didn't see it then, but I can see it now."
Myers is not your wide-eyed teenager let loose on the world for the first time. He's got his own apartment downtown instead of bunking in with a veteran player, as many teenage NHLers prefer to do.
"My parents helped me out growing up, showed me how to do laundry and cook food, so I have no problem doing that on my own," he said. "I just wanted my own place, a place where I could relax and have some alone time."
He's not exactly alone, however. His grandparents, who live in Pennsylvania, have driven to many of his games so far this season.
"They just love watching me, so they're everywhere," Myers said. "They're here right now actually for this home stretch. They helped me set up my Christmas tree yesterday. Makes me feel at home in my new place."
And what does a 19-year-old NHL rookie do in his spare time? Not a whole lot.
"Usually I'm either sleeping or eating," he said with a laugh.
He enjoys cooking, and even makes his own protein bars. He was a little embarrassed when that bit of information was put to him.
"I mean, it's not high-end protein bars," he said, his cheeks reddening. "It's just like a peanut butter bar."
As in peanut butter, powdered milk, bran flakes and honey.
"You mix all that up, and you've got yourself a peanut butter bar," he said. "I'm trying to gain some weight with this big frame of mine."
He's listed at 222 pounds, some 33 pounds lighter than the 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara of the Bruins, who is also an inch taller than Myers. The kid has some filling out to do, which is natural. He's just hoping he's done growing. Seriously. His growth spurts were difficult to deal with as a junior player. He literally could feel them, and they weakened him.
"I could always tell because I felt very fatigued on the ice during games," he said, trying to explain what the growth spurts felt like. "I can't stay on the ice as long during shifts. My coordination is off, my stick might need an extra inch. But I got used to it. Hopefully I'm done with all that now."
He's felt great physically over the past 11 months or so.
"Hopefully that means I'm done growing up and I can start growing out," he said.
Born in Houston, Texas, Myers moved to Calgary with his father and stepmother when he was 10 years old. He has dual citizenship but made the decision a few years ago that he would represent Canada internationally. It wasn't a decision he took lightly, given the career-long implications, not to mention that he'll have a lot more competition from other Canadian players to make future Olympic or World Cup teams.
"I didn't base my decision on what team was going to be easier to make or what teams could give me opportunities in the future," Myers said. "I just felt that had I not moved to Canada, I would not be where I am today. I feel like I owe Canada a lot. It's such a big hockey country. I honestly do believe I'd be playing a different sport had I stayed in Texas."
Basketball's loss was hockey's gain, specifically for the Sabres, who took him 12th overall in the 2008 NHL draft. Sit back and enjoy him, Sabres fans; this kid has the potential to be one of the best defensemen in franchise history.
The Big Easy is here to stay.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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