Regehr leaving a mark on playoff opponents

Updated: May 7, 2004, 8:11 AM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Robyn Regehr recoiled in horror.

"ME?" he stammered, searching frantically, perhaps for an escape hatch in the floor of the Calgary Flames' dressing room. "You want to talk to ME?"

Robyn Regehr
Robyn Regehr should build on his postseason performance.
He rolled his eyes, shuffled his feet, stared off into the distance. "C'mon, who'd be interested in ME? Can't we talk about something else?"

Understand, Robyn Regehr isn't daydreaming of seeing his likeness on kiddies' lunch pails or fancy T-shirts or bobblehead dolls. He doesn't live to be a $10.99 collectible action figure at Toys 'R' Us.

Leaving an imprint, his distinctive signature of hurt, on the Markus Naslunds and Brendan Shanahans and Patrick Marleaus of the world, his world, is more than enough for him.

"That's my job," he protests. "To play against the other team's top lines and be hard on the top players. That's what I'm paid to do. I don't see anything special in that."

Oh, but others do. In these playoffs, Robyn Regehr, an 18-year-old first-round pick the Flames chose from a list surrendered by the Colorado Avalanche in the Theo Fleury deal back in February of 1999, has blossomed into a dominating, debilitating defenseman. A budding Blake. A Pronger-in-waiting.

Here's someone who, five months after the trade, crawled out of a car wreck just outside Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with two broken legs and still had the courage and desire to make his NHL dream come true. Who less than two years ago was a sometimes healthy scratch for this hockey team, which at the time wasn't a very good hockey team at all. And now his name is being bandied about for the Team Canada camp leading up to the World Cup of Hockey.

That's not just one of those cliched "steps" people in the game yammer on about. It's a quantum leap, the difference between gravity and weightlessness.

These playoffs, with the eyes of the hockey world charting Calgary's improbable progress, have given Regehr a profile he lacked before. Logging almost 28 minutes a night (including a faint-inducing 42 during that triple-OT loss in Game 6 of the Vancouver series). Hitting everything foolish enough to venture down his side of the ice. Out there in every crucial situation of these astounding playoffs as he and his teammates make an absolute mockery of the form charts.

His consistency, often a problem for a big man, has been nothing short of ruthless.

Injuries have decimated the Calgary defense. At one stage of the Detroit series, three of the top six -- Denis Gauthier, Toni Lydman and Rhett Warrener -- were all out of action. Regehr dutifully stepped into the void and simply refused to let the foundation crumble.

He is every bit as big a reason for the Flames readying themselves for the San Jose Sharks and the Western Conference final as Jarome Iginla or Miikka Kiprusoff or automatic OT hero Martin Gelinas. The green hardhat that has become a staple of the Calgary dressing room, presented after each game to an unsung hero, seems practically invented for the guy.

This is what coach and GM Darryl Sutter envisioned when he handed his cornerstone defenseman a five-year contract, the longest in the history of the franchise, over the summer. That deal made a statement, most loudly to Regehr himself: He was expected to be The Man, the lynchpin for the foreseeable future, and Sutter had the utmost faith in his ability to handle the mantle.

"Regehr," Anaheim Mighty Ducks coach Mike Babcock will tell anyone who'll listen, "is a star. Nobody knows his name, but he's a star all the same."

I told him one day to measure his effectiveness by how many times teams dump the puck in his corner. If he's doing his job, they'll be dumping it in the other guy's corner because they don't want anything to do with him.
Jim Playfair, Flames assistant coach
Darren McCarty knows his name. Knows his hips, shoulders and elbows, too. The take-no-prisoners Grind Line winger of the Detroit Red Wings got a face-full of Regehr throughout their Western Conference semifinal. All the Detroit players did.

"You can tell the difference in him," lauded McCarty. "It's all confidence. He plays strong. Mean. A ton of minutes. And he's not a spot-picker. With Regehr, you know you're going to get hit. And you know he'll go in the corner and take a shot, too. You can't help but respect a guy like that.

"He's become a great defenseman."

A bit of Pavel Datsyuk shake-and-bake doesn't unnerve him. A load of Ed Jovanovski bearing down at freight-train speed won't faze him. But comparisons to Rob Blake or Adam Foote ("A bigger, stronger Adam Foote" is how teammate Shean Donovan puts it) or Chris Pronger leave Regehr absolutely tongue-tied, bordering on speechless.

"I'm not close to those guys," he scoffs, almost pleadingly. "Miles away. Miles. Miles."

He shakes his head, as if talking to a crazy man.

Well, maybe not so crazy. Ex-NHL defenseman Jim Playfair is in charge of Regehr's progress, and he says only the surface has been scratched on this kid. The biggest difference in the 24-year-old's game from, say, a year ago?

Ice management, according to Playfair.

"He isn't looking for a train wreck out there. He gives people room, then takes it away and then delivers the big hit. That's what I mean by ice management. If Robyn Regehr goes running around chasing Pavel Datsyuk, I can almost guarantee you he isn't going to find him, let alone hit him. But if he plays the angle, takes away the time and space, suddenly Pavel Datsyuk has nowhere to go, and you see some of those crunching hits Robyn laid on in the last series.

"Those hits -- like the one that knocked Datsyuk's helmet off in Game 3 -- send a message to everyone on the other team. And on your team.

"By establishing a physical reputation, staking his territory, everything else will open up for him. He'll have that extra second to make a play, get the puck out of the zone or get off a shot -- and he's got a cannon -- from the blueline. I told him one day to measure his effectiveness by how many times teams dump the puck in his corner. If he's doing his job, they'll be dumping it in the other guy's corner because they don't want anything to do with him.

"Robyn is just realizing how vast his potential is, that he can be in that next generation of elite NHL defensemen. When that light swtich goes on, when someone understands what he can do and what he has to offer, well, that's the real kick in coaching."

And despite his own stubborn protestations, he's becoming a hot, noticeable property.

Keep this up, and as much as it might pain him, Robyn Regehr, reluctant star, could yet wind up a collectible action figure on toy store shelves near you.

"They did a tremendous job in grooming him," praised McCarty. "They brought him along slowly, gave him more and more responsibility and the time and the care shows. You trace his progress and he just gets better year after year.

"Like most young guys, it took Regehr a while to find his way.

"I'd say he's found it."

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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