Milan Lucic's hard road to the Olympics

The Globe and Mail
8/26/2009 5:42:20 PM
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CALGARY -- Maybe he won't make the cut. Maybe he won't be fast enough or experienced enough to wear the red Maple Leaf in his hometown Olympics.

But for now, Milan Lucic is here, one of 45 select skaters on Saddledome ice competing for a spot on Canada's 2010 Olympic hockey team. How to explain this?

This is a player who wasn't good enough to be drafted by the Western Hockey League and almost quit the game in frustration. This is a young man who, at 15, was told he had Scheuermann's disease, a curvature of the spine that no one else in his family had had. This is a grind-them-up, spit-them-out NHL forward whose game is as subtle as dental surgery.

He's also just 21, with only two NHL seasons to his credit. So again, how to explain Lucic's presence among the likes of Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier and his idol Jarome Iginla?

Simple, Lucic says. "You have to focus on the positives. You've got to have that drive inside you. All of us here have that. I just did it a little bit later than most of the guys."

It would make for the most heart-warming of tales: Vancouver athlete, born to parents who emigrated from Serbia, competes in hometown Olympics and helps Canada win gold. It's a long shot on so many levels you don't know where to start. But Lucic's invitation to the Olympic team's orientation camp speaks to his insatiable drive and the power of dreaming.

When the Olympic team brass began selecting which players would attend camp, they thought of Lucic and how forcefully and effectively he'd played for the Boston Bruins during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. They thought, then they put his name aside.

Eventually, after debating Lucic's value against an array of other players, Canadian officials said, "Let's go with the kid." It was associate director Doug Armstrong who called Lucic and gave him the good news.

"He just burst onto the NHL scene and grabbed your attention," Armstrong explained. "We want to see if he can maintain the pace at this level. He's certainly on the right track. He's very hard to play against and he's gained the attention of the players at the NHL level."

Lucic's game has been defined by two things - his size (6 foot 3, 228 pounds) and his desire. On the ice, he is bullishly strong, a linebacker of a left winger with goal-scoring skills. What powers him is how close he came to throwing it all away.

Ignored in the 2003 WHL bantam draft, Lucic cried and told his mother he was quitting hockey. When he opted to swallow his pride and try out for a B.C. Junior A team, he was told he wasn't good enough and ordered to play for a Junior B squad. Again, he thought about quitting.

Soon after, Lucic was diagnosed with Scheuermann's disease, given how his upper back was hunching. ("It's a condition I've never let bother me," he said.) His new teammates showed their great caring and sensitivity by calling him Quasimodo. Lucic ended that with some fistic demonstrations.

It was at that juncture in his hockey life that things began falling into place. Lucic played his way onto the Junior A team then onto the WHL's Vancouver Giants. After one season, he was drafted by the Bruins and then things really starting rolling - he led his team in scoring, he led the Giants to a home-ice Memorial Cup championship and was named tournament most valuable player. He also captained Canada's junior team in its Super Series demolishing of Russia in 2007.

Then Lucic went to the Bruins' training camp and lo and behold if he didn't make the team. Turned out his second NHL season would be even better - 17 goals, 25 assists, 136 penalty minutes followed by nine points in 10 playoff games. In quick fashion, Lucic had gone from unwanted to unstoppable to widely respected.

Still, he never thought he'd be asked to the Olympic orientation camp. That just seemed a bit much, even for a dreamer like him.

"I don't think it's a bad thing," he answered when asked if he was the Olympic team's consummate underdog. "I've nothing to lose. I'll just go all out. I'm happy about the small ice surface. That's my game. I'll stay on the wall and just give it to the other guys who are better with the puck."

Lucic will give his all; there is little doubt of that. The uncertainty is whether his game fits within the Olympic team's game plan. Maybe it does; maybe it doesn't. Either way, Milan Lucic is here among the finest.

He can hardly believe it himself.

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