Grizzled vets lead to record-setting month
Season of Celebrations: Installment 3, Part I
Sunday, 12.21.2008 / 6:10 PM / Feature
By Bob Matuszak
This season marks the 10-year anniversary of the Dallas Stars first Stanley Cup championship. What follows is the third of seven installments that delves into that magical 1998-99 campaign, from training camp all the way to Brett Hull's Cup-clinching goal in triple-overtime in Game 6 in Buffalo.
Character, hard-work and leadership only begin to describe Guy Carbonneau. A true warrior with a passion for the game of hockey, Carbonneau came to Dallas prior to the 1995-96 season with one thing on his mind -- winning his third Stanley Cup.
The oldest player in the league, the 38-year-old Carbonneau was hitting his stride in his fourth year with the Stars. Despite modest offensive totals -- the 24 points registered in 1997-98 was his highest in a Dallas uniform -- Carbonneau brought a penchant for lifting a team to extreme heights with his undying will to win. In 1993, he captained the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory over the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings, and six years later he was trying to repeat some Cup magic in the Lone Star state.
"Players like him love the game for all the right reasons," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I don't care if these games were played in an outdoor rink, it doesn't matter to Guy. He just loves the game. He absolutely loves it. And he never picks his spots. He just plays. He's a competitive person. Money and the amount he gets paid is irrelevant to Guy Carbonneau. That's why he's an older player who can survive in a young man's game."
"I don't think of myself as an old player, I think of myself as a player," said Carbonneau, Montreal's third-round pick in 1979. "I think that would be unfair to myself and unfair to my team if I was trying to be different and say I can't do this because I'm old, or I can't do that because of my age. I mean, I'm part of the team and I'm just one piece of the puzzle. I've got to pull my weight."
Pull his weight he did. Carbonneau was a huge part of Hitchcock's tenacious defensive scheme, killing penalties, taking key draws, and playing at critical times of the game. When Dallas had a lead to protect, you'd certainly find No. 21 on the ice.
"He wants the challenge of playing against the other team's best player," Hitchcock said. "He wants the challenge of being the go-to-guy all the time, and to him age doesn't really matter. I think that he has such fierce pride."
Early in the 1998 season, the Stars were getting strong minutes out of their fourth line, which consisted mostly of Carbonneau, Dave Reid, and Brian Skrudland. Those three would wind up netting 14 goals combined in '98-99, but that didn’t matter. What did was their ability to shorten the game for Hitchcock.
"The more often they play, the better," Hitchcock said. "You become a better coach if you go a couple of years with an experienced team, because you kind of have to check your ego at the door. As long as you respect that they understand what time the game starts, that's the upside. The downside is sometimes at practice they're not there."
Carbonneau certainly showed up on time to play in his 1,200th career NHL game in mid-December when Dallas skated to a 2-2 tie at Chicago thanks to Pat Verbeek's third-period power-play goal that knotted things up.
"I only view the age of a guy's heart, and Carbo really believes in his heart and in his head that he's the best player on the ice," Hitchcock said.
Shot-blocking in hockey has never been for the feint of heart. That's why Craig Ludwig never thought much about it.
In the late 1990s, there weren't many fearless defensemen that would stand in front of a slap shot traveling in excess of 90 MPH. Ludwig was the exception. Piecing together his exorbitantly wide and disintegrating 20-year-old shin pads with duct tape to keep them from falling apart, Ludwig thrived in making life easier for Stars goalie Ed Belfour.
"Shot-blocking really is a mindset," Ludwig said. "It's a form of mental toughness."
The 37-year-old Ludwig, the Canadiens third-round pick in 1980, played alongside Carbonneau for nine seasons in Montreal, and the pair won a Stanley Cup together in 1986. Reunited in Dallas, they were on a mission to drink once again from the silver chalice.
"I don't think either of us thought in '82 when we started that we would still be playing and playing together," Carbonneau said. "He hasn't really changed much. He doesn't think much about the game when he's away from the rink, and I think that helps him a little bit."
Indeed, as Ludwig kept himself busy by riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and playing slow-pitch softball in the summers.
Acquired by Minnesota from the New York Islanders in a 1991 three-way trade that also involved Dave Babych going to Vancouver and Tom Kurvers being shipped to the Islanders, the rugged Ludwig was brought in to help in the toughness department on a team that had just lost to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in a six-game Stanley Cup Finals series.
"I'm not glamorous because I can't be," he said. "I wouldn't be in the league if I tried to be. I've known from Day 1 that I can't be an offensive defenseman."
The numbers certainly verified that claim. Through the first 33 games of the '98-99 season, Ludwig had tickled the twine exactly zero times, and came into the campaign having potted a modest 36 goals in 1,176 games. In fact, his last goal came two years earlier in a game at the Hartford Whalers on Dec. 20, 1996.
On Dec. 9, Ludwig suited up for his 1,200th career NHL game in a 3-3 tie with the San Jose Sharks, a feat that was overshadowed by his accomplishment on New Year's Eve three weeks later. In a 6-1 romp over the Boston Bruins at Reunion Arena, Ludwig snapped his personal 156-game goal-scoring drought by beating goalie Rob Tallas in the third period.
But what Ludwig lacked in goal scoring he more than made up for in guts.
"Sure, I'd like to score a goal here and there," he said. "There's no doubt I'd like to be a bigger part of the offense. But it just doesn't fit. I don't have the skills to do those things. In our system, everyone has to play a role. I look at my job as pretty easy. I run around, run into people and get the puck out of my own end."
Putting it together
The Stars entered the final month of 1998 in second place in the Pacific Division. It was to be the last time their name occupied that slot in the standings.
After finishing November by winning two of three, things were looking up for the veteran-laden team. Coming off a 4-0 win over Washington the day after Thanksgiving, Dallas was also anticipating the return of Jere Lehtinen, who was ready to play after breaking his thumb in mid-November.
The Stars started December exactly how they ended November, as Belfour earned his second consecutive shutout by turning aside 26 shots in a 3-0 win at San Jose. The outing came just under a month after Belfour was yanked in San Jose after allowing three goals on six shots, and got the Stars four-game road trip off on the right foot.
"We made a better commitment to defensive hockey and the work ethic that goes with it," Hitchcock said. "Eddie is a direct reflection of that work ethic. He's making three or four big saves a period."
Two nights later, though, Markus Naslund's third career hat trick gave the Vancouver Canucks a 4-1 win in British Columbia. Despite outshooting the Canucks by a whopping 37-18 margin, only Lehtinen was able to solve Vancouver goalie Garth Snow, scoring his sixth of the year in the second period.
"Vancouver came out flat and we didn't take advantage of it," Hitchcock said. "We didn't bear down and obviously Snow played very well. But when you don't capitalize on your opportunities, particularly on the road, it comes back to haunt you."
Hitchcock actually had it backwards, as the stinging loss struck a nerve. Instead of being troubled by the defeat, Dallas embarked on a collision course with franchise history.
TOMORROW: December Becomes Month To Remember