Thursday, July 1, 2010

Too Bad There Aren't More Like Brind'Amour

Unless in reference to the likes of a world-shaking superstar, I would rarely comment on the retirement of a professional athlete—it happens too often. But Rod Brind'Amour deserves recognition for an outstanding 20-year career in which he proved himself one of the most dependable, valuable, and admirable players in NHL history. A first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, Brind'Amour learned well under head coach Brian Sutter, one of the hardest-working players ever to skate. He logged a first-team All-Rookie Team season in 1989-90, racking up 61 points and, even more impressively, a +23 rating. A workaholic, Brind'Amour left a strong impression on me when the Philadelphia Flyers clashed with the Blues during his first two seasons, and I recall wishing that this hustling youngster wore the orange and black.

General Manager Russ Farwell had the same wish and soon traded captain Ron Sutter and promising defenseman Murray Baron for Brind'Amour and Dan Quinn. The deal turned turned into a steal, even with Quinn lasting only 67 games in Philadelphia. Born to be a Flyer, Brind'Amour never took a lazy shift and quickly became a Spectrum favorite, even on a team in the midst of a ghastly five-year playoff drought. Not just an offensive-minded center, Brind'Amour, like Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, and Brian Propp before him, was entrusted by his coaches with every situation. He worked the power play, killed penalties tirelessly, and developed into one of the best faceoff men of his time. Brind'Amour quickly became a star in the shadow of Eric Lindros and the Legion of Doom. Never as flashy as Lindros, John LeClair, Mikael Renberg, or Mark Recchi, Brind'Amour seldom received ink or screen time equal to Flyers with round numbers, but he was always there, scoring nearly a point per game for more than eight seasons—a franchise-record 484 of those games consecutively, thanks to his fanatical conditioning regimen. Brind'Amour never registered 100 points in a season, or even 40 goals, but no Flyer throughout the '90s was more reliable.

In 1996-97—a subpar 59-point season for Brind'Amour (the only full season in which he would score fewer than 77 points for Philadelphia)—he made amends by erupting for a team-high 13 goals during the Flyers' run to the Stanley Cup finals. But a pair of first-round exits over the next two seasons—even though Brind'Amour rebounded with consecutive 74-point seasons and led the team in playoff scoring both years—coupled with allegations of locker-room friction between he and Lindros fostered a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes for Keith Primeau. It was a controversial and risky trade—Brind'Amour the epitome of diligence, still in his prime, and beloved of Flyers faithful in exchange for the bigger and swifter, but perennially underachieving, Primeau, who had netted a measly 6 goals in 70 playoff games.

In Philadelphia, Primeau had one good season, two strong playoff runs, and the epic five-overtime game-winner, but it was a trade that never should have been made. Brind'Amour was only halfway through his career, playing nine and a half seasons in North Carolina, becoming the Hurricanes' all-time leader in assists and points, helping them to the finals in 2002, and captaining Carolina to its first Cup victory in 2006. Along the way, Brind'Amour finally reaped the rewards of his devotion to complete play, earning back-to-back Selke Trophies. Arguably, he grew even more popular in Raleigh than Philadelphia.

Twenty seasons after first skating onto NHL ice, Rod Brind'Amour should stand in reach of Hall of Fame induction. Some may chortle, but his numbers and accomplishments outweigh Hall of Famers such as Cam Neely and leave in the corners others believed worthy, such as Eric Lindros. Only fifteen players have participated in more games in NHL history. Brind'Amour's 1184 points ranks 46th, ahead of several contemporary Hall of Famers, including Bernie Federko, Glenn Anderson, and Joe Mullen. His 44th-most assists puts him in similarly esteemed territory. And he's got one more Cup than five players elected to the Hall of Fame in the last decade combined.

In an era of high-priced prima donnas who whine about signed contracts, clamor for media attention, skip games because of hurt feelings, and have run-ins with the law, Rod Brind'Amour hustled his tail off, displayed exemplary character, and prospered without complaint.

Thanks for twenty great years, Rod.