If Darren Helm weren't a person, he’d be a popcorn kernel stuck under your gum. If he were a TV character, he’d be Bobby Brady on that date with his brother Greg. If he were a beverage, he’d be sour milk.
Let’s hear it for the hockey pests!
There is precedence for what Helm, the Red Wings’ annoying, maddening, mighty mite of a forward, did to the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the playoffs. And it has its roots right here in Detroit.
Bryan Watson was a marginally talented hockey player who broke into the NHL in 1963 with Les Canadiens du Montreal, an organization that didn’t fiddle around too much with marginally talented hockey players, as a rule.
Watson was a 5’9” plugger whose eyes were always about to swell shut. He looked more like a tomato can boxer who all the other fighters used to pad their record. Of course, boxing and hockey in those days were practically subsidiaries of each other.
Watson came to the Red Wings in the summer of 1965 in the intraleague draft. He wasn’t yet 23 but already had two NHL campaigns under his suspenders, though they totaled just 44 games between them.
Red Wings GM/coach Sid Abel saw something he liked, though, and he tabbed Watson to play for his club, mostly as a defenseman—mainly because Watson was about as offensively gifted as a pitcher with a baseball bat.
Yet Watson suited up for all 70 of the Red Wings games in the 1965-66 season, netting two goals by accident and registering seven assists because he showed up every night. But Watson was a man of big numbers—when it came to minutes spent in the penalty box.
Watson racked up over two hours' worth of penalties in ’65-'66—133 minutes to be exact. He did so by playing half his game inside his opponents’ jerseys and the other half inside their heads.
The Red Wings were one of the four teams to qualify for the playoffs in the spring of 1966—these were the days of the Original Six—and they drew the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Only, back then, they were the Black Hawks. Don’t get me started as to why they changed it.
Chicago’s superstar was one Robert Marvin Hull, a.k.a. Bobby, the Golden Jet.
The left winger Hull, the previous spring, popped in 10 goals in the playoffs, in just 14 games. He added seven assists for 17 points, leading the league in both categories. In fact, in his five previous playoffs, Hull netted 32 goals. Every playoff, it was a Hull of a spring.
But coach Abel had a plan for his Detroiters, in trying to contain Bobby Hull.
Abel went to Watson, a defenseman, and told him that he’d be playing forward, expressly for the purposes of being Hull’s worst nightmare.
From the moment they dropped the puck for Game 1, to the time the Red Wings eliminated the Black Hawks in six games, Watson dogged Hull. Watson was a fly and Hull was you-know-what.
For six games, Watson irritated Hull, and he did so with a smirk on his corduroy face with the swollen eyes.
Hull himself, in a moment of begrudging admiration, called Watson a “pest.”
But Watson’s teammates, notably Gordie Howe, slapped another nickname on Watson.
“Bugsy,” they began to call him.
Watson pestered and bugged Hull so much that the Golden Jet was grounded. Hull managed to score just two goals in the series, one year after dominating the postseason. In fact, Watson matched Hull’s goal total that spring, netting two in 12 games for the Red Wings, who lost a heartbreaking Finals to the Canadiens.
Bryan “Bugsy” Watson’s legend was born in the spring of 1966, as he became the first officially acknowledged hockey irritant.
Others came after Bugsy—guys like Kenny “The Rat” Linseman, Patty Verbeek, a.k.a. “The Little Ball of Hate,” and Theo Fleury, who in his prime had a bounty placed on his head by half the league.
Now here comes Helm, the 24-year-old who looks 14, and he’s going to need a nickname pretty soon. That, and a good lawyer, because it won’t be long before opponents start asking judges for personal protection orders against him.
Helm is from Winnipeg, which is so ironic it’s ridiculous, because his play may have just sent the Coyotes back to that Manitoba burg, as the team’s future remains clouded.
Helm’s legend began two springs ago, when he scored the series-winning goal in overtime against the—fittingly so—Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals, the goal that sent the Red Wings into the 2009 Cup Finals.
At a players and media gathering held before the Finals at the RenCen downtown, I approached Helm as he sat alone, unbothered by the press, at his designated table. I found it odd that no one wanted to talk to the kid whose goal sent the Red Wings to the championship round for the second year in a row.
It wasn’t long before I discovered why; you needed the hearing of a hunting dog to pick Helm’s words up. If he were anymore soft-spoken, he’d be mute.
As I strained to hear him, Helm gave me a bunch of “aw, shucks” and “I’m just having fun” and he was so enamored by his talented teammates I thought he was going to excuse himself to go ask for autographs.
But that’s the Darren Helm off the ice. The Helm on the ice has just emotionally scarred the Coyotes for life.
Helm, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series, was a one-man wrecking crew. His combination of speed and aggressiveness and talent bothered the Coyotes relentlessly.
The speed is bad enough. Helm traverses the ice from end to end like he’s always skating downhill. Whether he’s pursuing puck or person, Helm is Carl Lewis on skates.
Then once he catches you, Helm really gets nasty. It’s not enough that he moves like the Roadrunner; he has to act like Dennis the Menace while he’s at it.
In Game 4, Helm did more on the Red Wings’ second goal of the night than most players do in a week.
He raced behind the Coyotes net on a play that looked as dead as the octopuses that are tossed onto the Joe Louis Arena ice. After arriving, Helm crunched a defenseman so hard that the poor guy took out his teammate—a two-for-one job. Not finished, Helm then assumed control of the puck, skated to the left side of the Phoenix goal, spotted teammate Patrick Eaves at the right of the crease and delivered a perfect pass that Eaves slam-dunked into the net. If it were basketball it’d have been an alley-oop play.
The Red Wings are preparing for the second round now partly because of the spirited, frenetic, incessant play of Darren Helm, the team’s quiet pest. Forty-five years after Bugsy Watson blazed the trail, the Red Wings have spawned another virulent player.
Let’s hear it for the hockey pests!