Thursday, September 12, 2013

NHL Alumni Interview with Bryan Helmer

The journey to the NHL is a remarkable one, and as the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association, I have heard many wonderful stories and met many amazing people. Every player that reaches the world’s greatest league travels a unique path and it is an honour to share their stories here as the NHL Alumni Insider. This particular interview is personally special for me though. For the first time, I am welcoming a close friend into Hockey’s Greatest Family - Bryan Helmer.

An undrafted free agent, Bryan’s invitation to the New Jersey Devils training camp in 1993 would mark the beginning of a 20-season professional career. Going on to play 146 regular season NHL games with the Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals during that time, Bryan announced his retirement this summer. In becoming an assistant coach with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes, he leaves the game as a three-time Calder Cup champion and one of the all-time greatest defensemen in the history of the American Hockey League.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and raised in Winchester (which is about 40 minutes East of Ottawa), I began our conversation by asking Bryan if he ever envisioned that his invite to that 1993 training camp would lead to a 20-season career and numerous accolades.

“I couldn’t even believe I was going to a New Jersey Devils training camp to be honest with you,” Bryan reminisced. “To get sent down to Albany, it was the River Rats back then, and becoming a professional hockey player was a big thrill. I can still picture the day I signed the contract. I was so excited!”

“My signing bonus was $2,500 and I thought it was a million dollars,” he continued. “I didn’t know at the time how much other guys made and I thought that $2,500 to sign your name on a piece of paper was quite a thrill! When I went back to the rink the next day and found out guys were making $50,000 and $100,000, I was pretty surprised. But, I would never change that experience for anything. It was a thrill at the time and it still is when I look back.”

A Montreal Canadiens fans growing up, the 1994 lockout provided Bryan a unique opportunity to meet and work with one of his idols, and a fellow Winchester native, Larry Robinson.

“To have Larry come down to Albany in ‘94 during the lockout and have him work with our team was amazing,” Bryan recalled. “I think I learned more in those two months from him than I had in my whole life up to that point. It was really beneficial for myself and for the team to have him there.”

“Also though, looking back at that first training camp in New Jersey, you walk into the room and there’s Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer. Two more guys that I idolized watching them play for the Canadiens. And there I was in the same dressing room with them. I was a little awestruck and so happy to be there.”

As Bryan’s career and confidence continued to grow, so too did his offensive numbers. Building on his rookie season (93-94), where he scored 4 goals and added 19 assists in 65 games, he scored 14 goals and had 63 points by the time his fifth season ended; his last in Albany.

Signing as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes organization for the 1998-99 season, he would fulfill the dream of every young hockey player, putting on an NHL jersey and stepping onto the ice for his first regular season NHL game. As was the case with the start of Bryan’s professional career, that came in an unexpected fashion as well.

“It’s hard to explain,” Bryan said of putting on an NHL jersey for the first time. “I had a really good year my last year in Albany and I ended up signing with Phoenix that summer. I got hurt a week into training camp - I sprained my MCL. So, I was hurt for all of camp until the end. They told me to go watch the final exhibition game and said I would be off to Las Vegas where they had their older players in the IHL. It just so happened that during that final game, Deron Quint got hurt and I was told I was going to stay and play that first regular season game. It was in Phoenix against Ottawa, so that was a real thrill.”

“I still remember the morning skate. I was so nervous all day and I don’t think I slept a wink. I remember being at the hotel and Jyrki Lumme picked me up; he was my partner that night. He was an older guy and had been in the NHL for a lot of years and I think I probably talked his ear off the whole way down to the rink. It was a dream come true!”

Part way through his first NHL season with the Coyotes, Bryan was off to St. Louis, where he became the defense partner of a young man that had already established himself as a powerful force to be reckoned with in the NHL, Chris Pronger.

“Chris was a good guy and actually younger than I was,” Bryan said. “But he was really mature and with the experience he had in the NHL, he helped me out a lot. He was an easy guy to play with I can tell you that - and he made me look good too.”

“When you play with Chris, you are playing against the opponent’s top lines. I think every time we were on the ice I was thinking ‘Go down his side of the ice and stay away from mine,’” Bryan said with a laugh.

“Did they?” I asked.

“No, they didn’t,” Bryan answered, still laughing. “They figured it out pretty quick. Let’s go down Helmer’s side of the ice and stay away from Pronger.”

Being a fan of the game and having the shutdown role with Chris in St. Louis, provided Bryan many memorable nights, but one in particular stands out for Bryan. Every hockey fan’s dream, but every defenseman’s nightmare - trying to shut down the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky.

“That was surreal for me,” Bryan explained. “We were up against Gretzky all night long. It’s funny, because I told my wife Pam before the game that if I’m on the ice with Wayne, make sure to get a picture. I was on the ice with him all night!”

“I can still remember one play, where he was behind the net setting up and Chris and I were on each side of the net. I was just moving my stick back and forth, just trying to get him to make a move, but he was so patient back there. He finally came out on my side and I think I got the toe of my blade on it, or my skate and the puck went off into the corner. I just remember sitting there watching him and saying to myself, ‘Wow, how many times have I seen this?’”

Becoming part of the Vancouver Canucks organization in 2001, Bryan split his time between Vancouver and their AHL affiliate in Winnipeg (the Manitoba Moose). It would be Bryan’s only time spent in Canada as a player, so I asked what that experience was like.

“Well, it was amazing actually,” he answered. “The Vancouver fans are really, really good fans. I would be walking down the street and I was the 6th, 7th defenseman at the time and they knew who I was and would yell across the street ‘Good job last night Bryan’. So, it showed a lot about how the fans there appreciate the Canucks players and the organization.”

“I remember one of the highlights was playing against Detroit in the playoffs,” he said of his time in Vancouver. “We were up 2-0 and that first home game in Vancouver, I remember skating out on to the ice for the warm-up. The crowd was just going crazy - it gave me goose bumps. For the whole warm-up, it was just absolutely crazy!”

While that Detroit-Vancouver series would be his only visit to the NHL playoffs, he was no stranger to playoff hockey. When the games meant the most, Bryan had the ability to lead his teams deep into the AHL playoffs. One of his many AHL records is for games played in the playoffs, which reached 159 games by the end of his career. After being part of a Calder Cup championship in Albany during his second year as a pro, he would lift the Cup as the captain of the Hershey Bears in back-to-back seasons in 2009 and 2010.

“You win the Calder Cup in your second year and you think you’re going to get back there every year,” he explained. “But it took 14 years to get back to the Finals. To win back-to-back was probably the biggest highlight in my AHL career. In my first Calder Cup, I didn’t play in all the games, so to be the captain for my next two was pretty special.”

“The two teams that we had there in Hershey were probably the two closest teams I have ever played on. Everyone got along and everyone loved coming to the rink - and that showed on the ice. Not only did we win the Cups, but we had great seasons both years too.”

It was during his time in Hershey that he received a hoped for, but still unexpected phone call. After five years, he was heading back to the NHL as a member of the Washington Capitals. For several years, Bryan’s son Cade, who was too young to really remember his dad playing in the NHL would ask, “When are you going to play in the NHL dad?” - Bryan would respond by saying, “It’s not that easy to do son...”

“It was another thrill - like the first time I ever got called up to the NHL,” Bryan said of that phone call from Washington. “You get that call and next thing you know, you are driving to Washington. I was calling everyone to tell them and I remember I had butterflies. I still thought I could play in the NHL during that time, which was why I did not go over to Europe. But what I was nervous about though in the NHL, was that I had not been in the league since the new obstruction rules came in after the lockout. I had played with those rules in the AHL, but I wasn’t sure how it was going to be in the NHL.”

“Bruce Boudreau (the Capitals coach at that time) started me that night and I was nervous when the national anthem was going on. I was reminding myself that I had done this before and was trying to relax. When the puck dropped, Kovalev got the puck and was coming down towards me and I just kind of poked the puck away from him. I kind of relaxed after that, knowing I could still play in the NHL.”

“I was there for 12 games and had a lot of fun. Cade and my daughter Rylan got to see it and now they can remember me playing in the NHL.”

As a friend, it was strange to say ‘looking back on your career’ to Bryan, but there is little doubt a call from the AHL Hall of Fame will come one day. He is the all-time leader for points scored by a defenseman (564 points), assists (433) and he is third on the all-time list for games played with 1,117. When he broke John Slaney’s point record while with the Oklahoma City Barons, the Hockey Hall of Fame called asking for some of his equipment from the record-breaking game.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Bryan confided. “I’m just proud of what I accomplished and happy with all the players that I met during my career. Plus, the coaches, the people that work for the organizations and the media; I was fortunate to meet a lot of good people and play on a lot of good teams.”

Moving on to life after hockey is difficult for every player in varying degrees, but knowing Bryan, I know that he didn’t leave anything in the tank at any point in his career. He gave it his all for 20 seasons and it was time to move on and start the next chapter in his life and hockey career - for himself and for his family.

“That’s exactly right,” Bryan said of my observation. “It was tough, but it wasn’t tough. Obviously, you want to play forever, but I just felt it was time. We had a good conversation as a family after the season and came to the conclusion that it was time. I have my health and it was kind of a quit while I’m ahead decision. I can’t complain one bit about my career - I put everything into it and had success and I wouldn’t change anything.”

As his playing career ends, a new chapter begins, and in just a few weeks time, Bryan will be behind the bench as an assistant coach with the Peterborough Petes. His experience as a player will enable these young OHL players to work on their game and perhaps fulfill their own NHL dream one day.

“I’m really excited about it and I just can’t wait for training camp and the season to start,” he said of his new coaching career. “Everything happened so fast. I was going to take the summer and relax and then once Fall came closer, I was going to figure out what I was going to do, but then this coaching opportunity popped up. I had another good conversation with Pam and we thought it would be a great thing to do.

“It’s not too far from home, I can get my feet wet to see if I’m going to like coaching and I can stay involved with the game. I have a lot of respect for Mike Oke, Jody Hull and Andrew Verner and I think we will all have a great working relationship. I think its going to be a good fit for myself and Im looking forward to getting started.

The support of Pam, his son Cade and daughter Rylan has meant a lot to Bryan and contributed to his success on the ice. Hockey fans are aware of their favourite player’s hockey life, but real life happens as well. During his career, he has watched his children arrive into the world and grow into amazing kids. He has shared his success on the ice with his family, but more importantly, shared in the love that abounds in the Helmer household.

“If it wasn’t for Pam, I probably would have been done with the game a long time ago, Bryan said. I cant say enough about Pams support because she was there through everything - the highs and lows. Im sure I probably talked her ear off tons of nights, but she was so positive about everything.”

“To let me play for that many years - she sacrificed a lot! She had to leave her friends and family to follow me around. You talk to some people and they will say It must be so great that your husband is a hockey player. Well, you need to be a certain kind of person to be the wife of a hockey player because you have to sacrifice a lot.

“The kids are amazing too, he continued. Cade is at the point where he is old enough now that he really missed his friends at home, so it was getting hard that way. He didnt complain at all and the last few years, hes been coming to the rink with me and being a stick boy. I think when he gets older, he is going to really appreciate that time in his life. He doesn’t realize how proud his dad was to see him hand me my gloves or a stick.

In all honesty, there is only one way I can think of to wrap up this article:

Here’s to a great friend, an awesome dad, an amazing hockey player and a future AHL Hall of Famer - Welcome to the NHL Alumni and Hockey's Greatest Family Bryan!

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