Mike Weaver has been an inspiration to those who know his story, but the 35-year-old Florida Panthers defenceman may play an even more rousing role in hockey's future in Canada.
Weaver already spends his summers teaching the game at his invitation-only Defence First hockey schools in Toronto and East Lansing, Mich., that he co-founded with his former Michigan State teammate Jon Insana.
The unique school teaches young teenagers - whether a forward or blue-liner - the aspects of the defensive game. The thoughtful Weaver is a big believer in skill development.
He also has a telecommunications degree with a minor in web design and software development. Weaver already has plans to create an internet program that will help teach the game more effectively down the road.
"I was reading an article recently that predicted that Europeans will eventually overtake North Americans in all aspects of hockey because in Canada it's all about games, games, games, it's not about perfecting your skills," Weaver said before the Panthers visited the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
"It's a lot easier to throw a forward on the ice and tell him to score a goal than to tell him to stop an opponent from scoring a goal. That's what our school tries to teach."
Undrafted and undersized
Even though he went undrafted and has an undersized five-foot-10, 185-pound frame, Weaver has scratched out a 14-year pro career because of his attention to defence.
There was a photo that hung in the Michigan State dressing room during Weaver's time there in which all five Spartans, including Weaver, were lying on the ice trying to block a shot from the point.
"I couldn't score goals, so I had to find something else to do out there," joked Weaver, who was voted to his conference's defensive defenceman of the year in his final two seasons at Michigan State.
He's a shutdown defender. He's a shot blocker. He's a penalty-killing specialist. He knocks down a lot of passes from the opposition with his extra-long stick.
The Atlanta Thrashers saw his efficiency in his own end, signed him as a free agent and assigned him to the Orlando Solar Bears of the IHL for the 2000-01 season.
His pro career, however, did not start well. His coach back then, Peter Horachek, who just happens to be his current coach with the Panthers, made Weaver a healthy scratch for the first 10 games. But once Weaver got his chance, he didn't come out of the lineup.
Orlando eventually traversed on and won the Turner Cup championship that season. During the victory celebration, Horachek and his assistant coach Jim Hughes had a quiet moment with Weaver and told him they were thankful that they finally put him in the lineup.
"He competes. He blocks shots. He's always been a player who has been committed to a lot of the hard things that most players don't want to do," Horachek said.
Weaver won a Calder Cup with the AHL Chicago Wolves the following year, but didn't become a full-time NHLer until 2005 with the Los Angeles Kings.
Now, sometime after the Olympic break he will play in his 1,000th pro game (regular season and playoff combined in the IHL, AHL and NHL).
"A lot of the guys who are drafted in the first or second round have things handed to them," said Weaver, who played in his 591st NHL regular season and playoff game on Thursday. "Personally, I would rather have done it this way because I've had a taste of everything. It's a hard route, but you appreciate it more in the end.
"I've always looked at this being fun. When I was younger my dad forced me to play other sports. Nowadays, for these kids, it's just hockey, hockey, hockey. My parents [Pat and Ron] gave me an appreciation for other things and I just enjoyed the journey. Everybody in Canada who plays hockey one day has a goal of playing in the NHL. Every level, for me, was just a bonus."
The first bonus was a provincial junior A crown with his hometown Bramalea Blues back in 1996. After Michigan State, he went from the Solar Bears to the Trashers, back and forth between the Wolves and Thrashers for three seasons before he was signed by the Kings and assigned to Manchester in 2004.
He became a full-time NHLer with the Kings after the 2004-05 lockout and made stops in Vancouver and St. Louis before he landed in Florida four seasons ago.
"Sometimes players try to hard to impress a coach or a general manager by playing outside of their game," he said. "You have to find what you're good at. Early in my career I was able to figure that out."
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