As long as there’s been hockey, there’s been The Pest.
He’s the gnat circling your face. The army of ants invading your picnic.
The hockey pest is a whirling dervish of skating, checking, and supreme harassment.
They’ve had nicknames over the years—like hockey gangsters.
Bugsy. The Rat. The Little Ball of Hate. Terrible Ted.
What pack of NHL banditos would be complete without guys with monikers like that?
Yes, those are actual tags hung onto some of the game’s greatest disturbers.
Kenny Linseman seemed to be so close to his opponents as to be inside their jerseys. No doubt it was an exasperated victim of Linseman’s persistence who first called him The Rat.
Pat Verbeek possessed the typical physical trait of the NHL pest: he was short. Hockey players have often subscribed to the Napoleonic Complex. And Verbeek added just enough mean-spiritedness to his play to be dubbed The Little Ball of Hate.
Terrible Ted, of course, was Ted Lindsay. Enough said.
So how could a certified hockey pest be such a nice, quiet kid? How could he be so unassuming and shy that you think you’re talking to a high school freshman instead of a key player on the defending Stanley Cup champions?
Darren Helm and I spent some quiet moments together Friday during Media Day prior to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Of course, that’s easy to do, because Helm makes a clam with lockjaw seem talkative by comparison.
This is how deep the Red Wings are: on just about any other team in the league, the player who scored the game-winning goal, in overtime, to send his side to the Cup Finals would be mobbed by reporters on Media Day—the first opportunity to get 1-on-1 time with the hero.
Yet there Helm and I were, amidst all the frenzy, while the cameras and microphones and notepads surrounded, well, everyone else, it seemed.
“I’m more of a depth guy,” Helm said, as I strained to hear him. “I just try to chip in.”
And this is the guy who coach Mike Babcock called “The Energizer Bunny”?
Someone replace his batteries!
Helm does his talking on the ice, and that’s where he gets all pest-like.
Blazing speed. Obnoxiously persistent checking, to the point where sometimes you swear the kid is working with two sticks. Or that the Red Wings are working with two Helms: one for each side of the rink. At the same time.
I asked him how he learned to skate so doggone fast.
He gave me one of his “Aw, shucks” embarrassed grins before practically whispering, “Just hard work, I guess.”
I didn’t buy it. And I won’t, until I see a rabbit on a treadmill at the gym.
Or until I see a gym, period.
Helm is the 22-year-old Manitoban who propelled the Red Wings to where they are now—about to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals: The Sequel—thanks to his goal at 3:58 of overtime on Wednesday night in Game Five of the conference finals against Chicago.
Not that you would know it.
The reporters continued to ignore Helm as he told me about how his parents instilled a work ethic into him and that “anyone in this room” could have gotten that series-winning goal—present company excluded, of course—and that he plays “hard between whistles.”
The more I talked to him, the more I either wanted: a) him to be six years younger, or b) my daughter to be six years older.
Memo to all you dads out there: you’d be thrilled if your little girl came home with a kid like Darren Helm in tow.
The Red Wings, for all their success, have remained an even-keeled, level-headed bunch. There’s not a prima donna in that dressing room. And there won’t be in the future, if the future is in the hands of players like Helm and Jonathan Ericsson and even Henrik Zetterberg, who’s not all that old yet himself.
I liked Helm from the get-go last year, when he functioned as a sort of X-factor for the Red Wings in the playoffs.
The speed, of course, stood out first. How could it not, when Helm makes everyone else on the ice look like inanimate objects?
Then there’s the dogged checking—fore and back—which is so thorough that you can practically hear the other team’s guys sigh in annoyance from the press box.
And don’t forget Helm’s uncanny ability to “chip in,” as he puts it, with the occasional big goal.
Why, he’s Kris Draper—only 16 years younger and with more of a scoring touch, at least so far.
Since we had so much time to chit-chat, I asked Helm to describe the series-winning goal against the Blackhawks.
“The play was pretty fast,” he said of the course of events, in which a Brett Lebda shot from the point ping-ponged off the end boards and ended up in the goal crease, behind goalie Cristobal Huet.
“The puck was just lying there. I poked it in.
“But it all happened pretty fast.”
Only Darren Helm could describe scoring a clutch goal as if he was a mugging victim, giving his statement to police.
But just because Helm is young and looks like he’s about to cut your grass for 10 bucks, doesn’t mean that the kid isn’t mature.
To wit, about the big goal on Wednesday night: “That goal doesn’t mean anything now. We’re trying to win the Stanley Cup.”
Ahh, so THAT’S why everyone was leaving him alone.
Why bother talking to a kid who just scored a goal that doesn’t matter anymore?
Especially when you can barely hear what he’s saying.
No worries; Helm’s play is like fingernails on a chalkboard to his beleaguered opponents.
He’ll get his unflattering nickname, soon enough...which means he’s doing his job quite well.