Monday, July 11, 2011

Heart and Soul Cole

Erik Cole has got a lot of really stellar hockey-player qualities. He's big (6'2", 205lbs), skilled (390 points in 620 NHL games) and fast. He plays a physical, go-to-the-net kind of game which enables him to draw a ton of penalties, which is a big plus for a team with a top-ten PP. He's the one who'll take a hit to make the play, and who'll struggle on when injured. He'll willingly put up with sticks in the face when he stands in the crease or risk himself to block a shot in the last minute of a close game. He's what other players call a heart-and-soul guy. At least, he's been all of those things when wearing a Carolina Hurricanes uniform.

The thing with a heart-and-soul guy, however, is that his heart and soul have to be really into what he's doing if he's going to be successful. With the Hurricanes, there was no question of that. The guy loved it in Carolina. The team drafted him and captain Eric Staal was his best friend and roommate. He was mentored by one of the team's icons, got married and had a family there. He won the Stanley Cup with that team. He really, really wanted to stay. In the end, the Canadiens outbid the Hurricanes and the player, who was likely looking at his last chance for a long-term contract, chose security. He went with his head, not his heart.

That's the problem with predicting Cole's transition to Montreal. It may turn out he's able to bring the same level of intensity to the Canadiens that he brought to the Hurricanes. It should be understood that it won't be easy. Sure, these guys are professionals and should understand that moving from team to team throughout the course of a career is likely. Sometimes, however, it's not that simple. A guy who bleeds for his teammates does so partly because that kind of game is in his nature, and partly because his teammates have earned his trust and dedication. It's not the kind of relationship that happens instantly.

It didn't happen for Cole in Edmonton. When his beloved 'Canes traded him before the 2008-09 season, he didn't fit in immediately. He put up only 27 point in 63 games for the Oilers, then 15 in 17 games after being traded back to Carolina before the season ended. When he first arrived in Edmonton, he expressed a sense of regret about the trade.

"They always made it easy for me to go about my business, live my life and enjoy myself and my family," he said of fans and management in Carolina. "We really had a great time raising our children (Bella and Landon) there and, actually, the plan right now is to retire there unless we find someplace better. I've got family that still lives in Raleigh."

On trading for him to come back to Raleigh that same season, 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford said bringing Cole home was the right thing to do, for both the team and the player.

"He's really excited about coming back," said Rutherford. "I don't think that he was as comfortable in Edmonton. He was used to being here, and he views this as his home. He has very good chemistry playing with Eric Staal, and I don't think he found that chemistry playing with anybody else in Edmonton."

Cole himself, even though he tried to paint the Oiler picture with brighter colours at the time, now admits Rutherford was right.

"Going to Edmonton wasn't a great opportunity or situation on a personal level, but my family and I were determined to make the most of it," Cole says. "We always hoped we would make our way back to Carolina at some point, and it turned out to be sooner than expected."

Hmmm. So, it's pretty well established that Erik Cole loves the Hurricanes organization and thinks of Raleigh as his home. The question now is whether he can transplant that emotion to Montreal, because, without the passion for the team, his style of game is a difficult one to play convincingly.

The difference this time around, the optimists among us will contend, is that Cole didn't choose to go to Edmonton. He was traded and forced to simply make the best of it. Montreal is his choice. He could have decided to take fewer years and remain in the city he loves. Instead, he did the wiser thing for the security of his family and his retirement plans. That's where the battle between head and heart came into play. The head won, in this case. It remains to be seen whether the heart will follow.

In a rather nostalgic interview with a Raleigh reporter a couple of days after choosing Montreal, Cole reflected on his decision to leave the Hurricanes. The offers, initially, were pretty close, he explains. Then the Habs upped the ante with an extra year the Hurricanes wouldn't match.

"Carolina's (initial offer) was for $11 million and Montreal for $12 million," Cole said. Had the offers stayed roughly the same, he said, "I think I'd still be a Hurricane. I said all along I would listen to offers. All things being equal, we were definitely going to stay. I had talked to Paul (Maurice) about that. Deep down, my wife hoped at the end point Carolina would come through with the same thing and we'd stay. That didn't happen."

Okay. So we've got a wife who wanted to stay in Carolina, and a player who admits he only left that team reluctantly because the money and term were better in Montreal. The question now is whether Erik Cole can find the same kind of passion for the Canadiens that he had for the Hurricanes. Will he be willing to play through pain if he's only there for the money? Will he crash Cam Ward's crease with the same vigour with which he's crashed Carey Price's if the teams should meet in a do-or-die game?

Canadiens fans hope professionalism on Cole's part is enough to provide the inspiration he needs. Four years and $18-million is a big commitment on the part of the Habs. What they've gained with that commitment is still a mystery. After all, it's been proven in the past, and even with this player, that a team can buy a guy's service, but it can't buy his heart.


Paul. B said...

" He could have decided to take fewer years and remain in the city he loves. Instead, he did the wiser thing for the security of his family and his retirement plans."

I wonder how many millions it takes for any athlete (or anybody else for that matter) to feel comfortable about his family's security ?

Jules said...

One thing for sure though, is that Cole is a notorious hab killer. When he said in a recent interview that the Bell Centre's atmosphere had always been a motivating factor for him in the past, it's hard not to believe him given the amount of success he's had in Montreal. I sincerely hope this has played a big factor in him coming here, and that it will play a factor in him giving all he's got in a Habs uniform.

I just hope that he's not a Donald Audette-type of hab killer, i.e. hurts the Habs whether he plays for or against them.

dusty said...

I wonder if he figured in the tax issues. Less is more in the US. Also, it always amazes me when an player thinks he needs 18 million to live on and 16 just won't do.

I hope he plays well im Montreal but he probably won't. If only the Habs could have gotten Staal too, like they got Gionta for Gomez. Oops, that didn't work out so well did it?

Bonzo said...

I believe that Erik Cole will fit in quite well in the Habs dressing room...PG does a good job finding; as you call "heart and soul-character" guys. You do bring up a good point that he chose the Habs org. and that his heart may be in Carolina along with his families...but let's not forget how the great city of Montreal can really melt the heart's of those who don;t even play for the team...including Mr. Cole's. If there is any city and any group of players in the NHL to make a "home-body" feel at's your 2011-2012 Habs! I have complete confidence that the Cole family will fall in love with Montreal and it's fans. I really hope Cole shows up, because he can be pinnacle for us, teach Patches the power forward ways and make the Habs a tough opponent to beat. Cole obviously chose the Habs for reasons other than money, cuz he did ask Gio about all the intangible things about Gio's personal experience and it was all positive. Can't wait for October to see. Go Habs Go!

moeman said...

Good read. Methinks Cole will thrive in what a real hockey city is. He was maybe too young to appreciate Edmonton but his maturity and remaining skill will be a big plus for his new team. Bienvenu et Bonne CHance Eric.

Anonymous said...

Erik grew up in northern New York state not far from Montreal and according to one interview he gave, just after signing, "cheered for the Habs as a kid"

Anonymous said...

I think you have to give "this player" the benefit of the doubt, unless proven otherwise. It is way too early to question his commitment or his heart, when not even a practice puck has been dropped. Indications are that he is a mature, character player who should prove to be a productive forward on a Canadiens team woefully lacking in grit, precisely one of his stronger traits.

The money? That's the business side of hockey, something that I am not prepared to wax an opinion on, knowing as I do very little about the financial aspects of running an NHL franchise. As a fan, what I care about is to see a competitive product on the ice, and I think Mr. Cole will help in that regard.

Jan_pronounced_Yan said...

I understand that Cole has so far only been successful in Carolina, but I don't think people should put too much stock into his performance with Edmonton.

First of all, he was traded for the first time in his playing career, and went from a city he loved to a young team that was floundering. He didn't play with anybody that was even close to Staal's skill level.

While he still will not play with a big centre like Staal in Montreal, he will probably be playing with Plekanec, who has more than enough skill to help Cole.

As for his integration into the room, I believe the situation in Montreal is much better for him than it was in Edmonton. He was likely counted on as a leader on a young team. He will be in a much more comfortable situation here as we already have several Cup winners.

Pierre pas Pierre said...

I don't think it was a clear-cut head vs heart decision for Cole. In hie interview with the Montreal media, he talked about the passion of the city, the fans, the opportunity to win, etc. With the Raleigh media, he talks about how fantastic it has been and how he would have loved to stay there.
The only conclusion we can draw, in my humble opinion, is that Mr. Cole has a very good PR agent and knows what to say, depending on who he is talking to.

darren said...

I don't think you can compare him signing in Montreal to getting traded to Edmonton.

1) Cole grew up a habs fan. This had to play into his decision.

2) as stated, he made the choice this time. HUGE difference.

3) his career in Edmonton lasted less than a year. its not like Cole has been traded a couple/few times away from Caroline and stunk each time.

4) Edmonton was kinda sucking pretty big when Cole showed up. He wasn't going to a good team. Cole, imo, has always been a big game big games going on when he was in Edmonton

5) chemistry...chemistry...chemistry. everybody states how he has it with Staal, obviously in a short period of time he didn't find it Edmonton. Does that mean he won't find it Montreal???

6) outside of both being in Canada, is there anything even similar between Edmonton and Montreal. It's like comparing Nashville to Paris....apples and oranges to say the least.

Anonymous said...

Good piece JT; thanks for the thoughtfulness. For me, the bigger concern with Cole is the fourth year. I'm wondering how many games we'll get out of a player who plays tough and has had serious injuries. Last year may have been an outlier--if you look at his career stats, it's one of his best, but players have fewer and fewer of those... I'm pretty sure he'll be decent the first two years but he may be down in the 35-40-point range in the third and fourth years.
Hopefully we can start drafting better and getting these players in their prime instead of overpaying for them at the end of their careers.

Anonymous said...

all i have to say is welcome erik cole and the drive for 25 is on baby!!!!!