By Jordan Allard
Former tough-guy Steve Webb made a living out of being a good, albeit tough, teammate. And now, even though his professional hockey days are behind him, Webb is still looking after other people - he’s just not using his fists this time.
After a three-year junior career in the Ontario League, the Peterborough, Ont., native was drafted 176th overall in 1994 by the Buffalo Sabres. Webb broke into the NHL in 1996-97 with the New York Islanders, where he spent the majority of his 321-game career, in which he racked up 532 penalty minutes. From a young age, Webb knew he’d have to play the enforcer role if he wanted to make a career out of the game he loved.
“When you have limited ability at the age of 16, you’re a little bit behind the eight-ball with how far you can progress in your skill level,” Webb said. “I started to inherit the physical role on the team and that naturally involved sticking up for my teammates.”
Webb carried what he learned as a young player with him to the NHL and used it to help bang out a spot on the Islanders. Known as a player who threw himself around the ice like a fireball, he even caught the eye of Don Cherry during the Isles’ 2002 first round series with Toronto. Webb drew both praise and ire from Cherry for his play.
Islander fans hadn’t had much to cheer about before the 2001-02 season, as their team had gone through a tumultuous run that included an ownership change, questionable trades by then-GM Mike Milbury and seven straight seasons out of the playoffs before they matched up against Toronto.
That series turned into Webb’s crowning achievement as an NHLer. He drew praise from Islanders fans, along with jeers from Toronto fans and media, for his involvement in numerous skirmishes. At one point in Game 6, he even had a packed Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum crowd chanting his name after a huge bodycheck on Toronto right winger Darcy Tucker (whose earlier hit on Michael Peca in Game 5 knocked the Isles captain out for the rest of the series). However, the Islanders went on to lose the series in seven games.
"That series with the Leafs was very, very intense,” Webb recalled. “Hearing my name chanted like it was a couple times was real special. The fans here really like good, blue-collar work so it was awesome to hear the effort I was putting in wasn't going unnoticed.”
The physical style with which Webb played finally caught up with him in 2004 when he was forced to retire due to what he described as “persistent aches and pains.” He was working for the NHLPA as a divisional representative when former Islander great Pat LaFontaine approached him about helping a local family send their daughter away to school. After the experiences from his playing career, Webb found getting involved when help was needed came as second nature to him.
“Pat came to me about five years ago asking if I could help out a family in need,” he said. “We were able to throw some fundraisers and raised enough money for their daughter to go where she wanted. Right now she’s actually playing university hockey for them.”
Those events inspired Webb to work with other families around the Long Island area to send their sons or daughters to the college or university of their choice. In May of 2007, the W20 Foundation (“W” for Webb’s last name and “20” for the number he wore for the majority of his career) was launched with the goal of helping pay for the post-secondary dreams of young hockey players who would otherwise be unable to afford it. Parents and their children can visit the foundation website and fill out application forms for potential funding.
Webb - who credits the NHL for making sure players get involved in charity work in the cities in which they play - has continued to have a close relationship with Long Island and its hockey fans.
"The community has been great; they have really embraced us," Webb said. “There are more than seven million people here so it's not easy for a smaller foundation like ours to get noticed, but the community has been really supportive. People here appreciate hard work."
For more great analysis, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.