DETROIT – The possibility that he might get his name etched on the Stanley Cup as a member of the Detroit Red Wings this spring blows Darren Helm’s mind.
The 21-year-old forward from St. Andrews, Man., had never played an NHL game before March 13, yet, here he is strapping on the pads in the Western Conference final.
“I didn’t think I’d be in this spot, so I’m pretty happy I’m here,” he said after pulling off his practice sweater and before unlacing his skates.
While some Red Wings fans are still wondering who’s wearing No. 43, they were on their feet celebrating Helm’s first NHL goal Saturday night. Helm took a pass from Jiri Hudler, skated into the circle to the right of goalie Marty Turco fired in a wrist shot 5:56 into the game and raised his arms as he circled behind the net
Helm played seven regular-season games but sat out when the playoffs started. He was inserted into the lineup April 18 for the fifth game of the first-round series against Nashville.
Helm has jumped the queue in a talent-rich organization, and coach Mike Babcock was asked after the morning skate prior to Game 2 against the Dallas Stars on Saturday how this has happened.
“We didn’t have expectations of him whatsoever,” Babcock said. “The first time we called him up, I was scared to play him and he was scared to play.
“Then when we called him up again he played really, really well. Now, in the playoffs, he’s a player that can play against anybody. He’s flat-out fast. He’s gritty. Finishes checks. Smart. Good defensively. Good in the faceoff circle. A real good player.”
The same night he made his playoff debut, Chris Osgood took over from Dom Hasek in the nets. Thus began a seven-game winning streak that the Wings rode into their game Saturday.
“I’m playing pretty well and, hopefully, we can keep things rolling,” Helm said.
Helm and Osgood both played major junior hockey in Alberta for the Medicine Hat Tigers.
Helm skated on the fourth line with Jiri Hudler and Kirk Maltby during the 4-1 win over Dallas on Thursday.
“Just using my speed,” he replied when asked what he’s concentrating on. “It’s my biggest asset so I’ve got to use my speed to be effective.
“Finishing checks, trying to be strong in the faceoff dot, being alive in our own zone, trying to create energy for the team – that’s pretty much it.”
Helm was on Canada’s victorious 2007 world junior team and helped the Tigers win the WHL title to get to the Memorial Cup tournament and those experiences helped him mature as a player.
“I’ve been in a few big games,” he said. “If you’ve been in a couple, you kind of realize you don’t have to do anything different to prepare.
“You come in and prepare pretty much the same. You know the level of intensity is going to be a little bit higher but it’s still another game to be ready and focused as soon as the puck drops.”
In other words, he doesn’t get rattled, which impresses Babcock.
Helm’s dad, Gary, works in a meat processing plant. His mother, Coriene, works as a cook. They were in Joe Louis Arena on Thursday, had tickets for the Saturday game, and fly back to Winnipeg on Sunday. Helm has two older brothers and “about 24 cousins” in Manitoba.
“They think it’s awesome,” he said of his parents’ outlook during their visit. “They’re extremely excited, for sure.
“They can’t stop talking about the game, the crowd and how loud the fans were. They’re loving the playoff atmosphere at The Joe. They were talking about never-in-a-thousand-years did they ever think I’d be playing here now, and thrown into the lineup for the Cup run.”
The six-foot, 180-pound forward was a fifth-round draft pick, 132nd overall, in 2005. Two years of rapid development with the Tigers followed.
He had 16 goals and 15 assists in 67 AHL games with the Grand Rapids Griffins before being called up in March. Veterans such as Dallas Drake know little about him, but their appreciation of his contributions has been instant.
“He’ll go into high-traffic areas and finish his checks,” says Drake. “I’ve been real impressed by him.
“I didn’t know much about him until a few weeks back. He’s stepped right into the fold here. He looks to me like he’s been here all year.”
The Wings are strong down the middle with Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, Kris Draper and now Helm.
Tigers coach Willie Desjardins gets a heartfelt thanks from Helm for guidance through the years in Medicine Hat.
“I went in there and I didn’t really know what to expect,” Helm said. “He gave me a really good opportunity.
“He gave me ice time and he pushed me along and showed me what I had to do to be successful. He always kept me positive and on the right track. He’s a great coach and a great guy to talk to.”