A banger from British Columbia is making a big impression with fans in Boston.
Heard that story before?
Let me clarify. This isn’t the one about the guy who gets traded to the Bruins on his 21st birthday, immediately becomes a genre-defining power forward and leads Boston to a couple Stanley Cup final appearances before being pushed into early retirement because of serious hip injuries.
This is the one about the kid drafted 50th overall in 2006, who makes the Bruins out of training camp as a 19-year-old and instantly endears himself to New Englanders with his throwback style of play.
Four games into his black-and-gold career, 6-foot-4, 220-pound Milan Lucic posted a Gordie Howe hat trick. It’s safe to say every B’s fan was on board after that.
And while his seven goals and 25 points through 72 games aren’t exactly vintage Cam Neely numbers, there’s no denying Lucic shares some traits with the man who terrorized opposing goalies and defensemen for far too little time.
What Lucic also shares with just about anybody who speaks to him (off the ice) is the infectious grin of a young man who’s thrilled to be living out his NHL dream. It’s on display even when a reporter asks him, certainly not for the first time this year, about those Neely comparisons.
“Obviously, he’s a Hall of Famer, that’s a lot for anybody to live up to, what he did,” said Lucic, who, like Neely, grew up in B.C. “I’m just going out there trying to play my game.”
While Lucic was busy earning a roster spot on the ice last September, Neely re-entered the Bears’ den when he was named team vice-president just weeks before the season.
“It’s nice having him around the rink, giving me advice,” said Lucic of Neely. “One thing he told me is don’t worry about all the comparisons and all that type of stuff, just go out there and play your own game.”
And don’t think for a minute Boston fans don’t appreciate Lucic’s approach just as it is. Under coach Claude Julien, the Bruins are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout ended. But the means of getting back to the post-season – a top-to-bottom defense-first approach – has turned a team historically known for its tenacity into the Big Bland Bruins.
In a city where Terry O’Reilly will always play better than Lady Byng, Lucic has served as a bridge to the past. He adheres to the coach’s plan, but bruises as many people as possible along the way.
But that nasty disposition – which serves him so well on the ice – quickly disappears when he trades in his stick for a Sharpie.
“People see this rough, tough player on the ice and they’re surprised to see how approachable he is off the ice,” said Eric Tosi, who’s privy to a lot of player-fan interaction in his role as Boston’s media relations manager.
Lucic, who’s especially friendly with kids, also reached out to the hockey community in his rookie season by blogging for thn.com. Boston fans rewarded Lucic for his hard work this year by recently voting him winner of the 7th Player Award, given annually to a Bruin whose play exceeds expectation.
As for future accolades, if history is any indicator Lucic’s numbers are in for a spike of some kind.
After netting nine goals and 19 points in his first full season with the Western League’s (and his hometown) Vancouver Giants, Lucic led the Giants with 30 goals and 68 points during his sophomore major junior season. That same year he led Vancouver to a Memorial Cup title, taking tournament MVP honors and scoring seven goals and 19 points in 22 playoff games.
And those still curious about the Neely parallels will be interested to know before blossoming into a 50-goal man with the Bruins, Neely averaged just 17 goals over three seasons with the Canucks before they dubiously decided Barry Pederson’s future was brighter. Recalibrate the eight goals Lucic is on pace for this year in Julien’s defensive system to 1980s scoring levels and you can probably at least see 17 from there.
Then also consider that power forwards (think John LeClair, Todd Bertuzzi) often round out at 25 years old before the goals start coming in abundance and all of a sudden you get the feeling we’ll be seeing Lucic punish opponents in a plethora of ways down the road.
In the meantime, he’ll keep the same rugged approach Beantowners love.
“If I get away from that, I’m not going to be effective out there,” Lucic said. “That’s the way I contribute and I’m just going to keep playing this way.”
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears every second Friday.
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