Flames' Kris Russell has heart of a rodeo bullfighter | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in CanadaFlames' Kris Russell has heart of a rodeo bullfighter

Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 | 08:00 AM

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Kris Russell (4) of the Flames stickhandles through a crowd in a 5-1 loss to the Wild at Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) Kris Russell (4) of the Flames stickhandles through a crowd in a 5-1 loss to the Wild at Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

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Kris Russell grew up in Carolina, Alta., as a Calgary Flames fans and the son of a rodeo bullfighter has made the most of move to the NHL team this year.

Not every night goes your way.

For Kris Russell and the surprising Calgary Flames, Tuesday evening was one of those nights. Not much went right in a 5-1 loss in Minnesota to the Wild.

It was a different story, however, two nights earlier. The Flames knocked off the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, 3-2. Russell sniped the overtime winner to quiet the raucous sellout crowd at the United Center. The goal was nice by-product for Russell who, like the Flames, has turned out to be better than advertised.

There's no denying the 26-year-old defenceman has talent. As a junior, he won two world junior titles with Canada in 2006 and 2007. He went to the Memorial Cup twice with the Medicine Hat Tigers. He was - and still is - small for a defenceman. But Russell held his own in junior and now in the NHL against much bigger opponents.

A lack of size has been something the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Russell has grappled with his entire career. But it never has held him back. He won't let it. He and his twin brother Ryan, who plays for Leksand IF in Sweden, have plenty of fight.

This is a trait they come by honestly. Their father Doug, known as Shanky, spent 14 years as a rodeo bullfighter. A bullfighter is a bull rider's best friend and is often mistaken for a rodeo clown. But there is a big difference. The rodeo clown entertains the audience, while a bullfighter's job is to protect the cowboys from the angry bulls.

The elder Russell ended his rodeo career when the twins were born. He didn't want his sons to be around the rodeo. So as they got older, they turned to hockey. This was fine with Doug, now a scout for Medicine Hat.

He played tier II and later coached the twins in minor hockey growing up in Caroline, Alta., a village of 500 residents surrounded by rolling foothills and situated east of the Rocky Mountains.

It's a little closer to Calgary than Edmonton, so the Russells were a Flames family. The twins were only two when Calgary won the Stanlely Cup in 1989, but they lived and died with every development of the 2004 run to the league final.

When he was younger, Kris loved to watch another mighty mite in Theo Fleury, whom he met a charity golf tournament a few years ago. But Fleury wasn't the only inspiration for Russell back then. Four-time world champion figure skater Kurt Browning put Caroline on the sporting map.

"There also was the Vandermeer brothers," Kris said of Jim, Pete, Ted, Joe, Bill and Dan.

"Jim, of course, made it to the NHL. They showed there was hockey beyond Caroline. They put the work in."

All went on to play at least minor pro. Pete played two games for the Phoenix Coyotes. Jim, who suited up for 461 NHL games with six different teams, including the Flames, has extended his career at age 33 with the Koten Flyers in Switzerland.

'I owe them a lot'

Unlike the undrafted Vandermeers, the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Russell in the third round in 2005. Russell credits former Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock and his assistant Gord Murphy with helping him make the transition to the pro game.

"They spent a lot of time with me in the video room," said Russell, a terrific skater who can move the puck.

"They taught me how to use my skating, my speed, my stick and how to position myself against bigger opponents. I owe them a lot."

When Hitchcock moved on to St. Louis to coach the Blues in November 2011, one of the first moves he asked for was to acquire Russell. He played well, but Russell was traded to Calgary in July because St. Louis had too much blue-line depth.

With the Flames, Russell has found a sound partner in Dennis Wideman.

"We read off each other and communicate so well, whether on the ice, on the bench or in the dressing room," Russell said.

"It's been exciting. You never want to be the guy traded. But this has helped my career. I've increased my minutes. We're a hard working club and we're getting better together."

Follow Tim Wharnsby on Twitter @WharnsbyCBC

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