Monday, March 22, 2010

Willsie captaining the cause and leading by example

When former Hershey Bear, Brian Willsie, was growing up, his first job was framing houses with his dad. This, of course, is a job that can leave those who choose that line of employment with various aches and pains of body and mind.

However, that initiation into the working world was probably a breeze to the 31-year old native of Belmont, Ontario, compared to his rookie campaign in Chocolatetown during the 1998-99 season, in which he endured a lengthy goalless streak to start the season, before finishing strongly with a very respectable 19 goals.

“The adjustment to pro was more difficult than I expected; I didn’t score a goal until my 26th game,” said Willsie, a junior teammate of former Bear, Nick Bootland, with Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League. “I had a big zero on the board up until that time, but Mike Foligno who was the coach, still showed a lot of confidence in me, and worked a lot with me. Once I got those first couple, I was fine, but getting there was a challenge.”

Willsie’s second season in Hershey, which saw him earn his first NHL recall, a one-game stint with Colorado Avalanche, started just like the first one, very slowly, with him finding the net only once in his first 16 contests before he again found his stride and finished the season right at the 20-goal plateau.

Hampered by a nagging back injury incurred during training camp, Willsie missed the first 30 games of his third season and spent the entire season in Hershey. He again finished the season hovering around the 20-goal mark, with 18 markers.

The 2001-02 season brought a couple of firsts for the wily Willsie: his first full season in the NHL and his first NHL goal, the game winner, scored against the Carolina Hurricanes and goaltender, Arturs Irbe. Irbe is currently the goaltending coach of the Washington Capitals and also periodically commutes to Hershey to mentor the Bears’ goalies. Willsie’s goal also had another Hershey flavor, with former Bear, Brad Larsen, picking up a helper.

Willsie’s fifth and final season in the Avs’ fold, 2002-03, was a roller coaster ride filled with ups and downs, consisting of five rides on the Hershey-Denver shuttle; however, that season also saw him register a career high 29 goal with the Bears, including the first overtime game-winning goal by a Bear in Giant Center history.

While his impressive showing in the previous season was not enough to earn a spot on Colorado’s talent-laden opening night roster, the Washington Capitals took a flyer on Willsie and acquired him in the NHL waiver draft just prior to the opening of the 2003-04 NHL season.

Willsie spent the entire season in the district and netted 10 goals, including the game-winning goal against the Atlanta Thrashers and goaltender, Byron Dafoe. Dafoe and Willsie, intertwined by Wilsie’s first game winner as a Capital, also are both members of Athletes Against Autism, an organization founded by a group of athletes to raise awareness and funds for autism research, treatment and education programs. The group was founded by a pair of former Baltimore Skipjacks and Washington Capitals netminders, Dafoe and Olaf Kolzig.

When the NHL returned in 2005-06 after a lockout wiped out the previous season, Willsie found himself back with the Capitals, and the Capitals thought enough of his leadership skills, first honed in Hershey, to entrust him with mentoring future NHL superstar, Alex Ovechkin, in his rookie season.

“I was actually the captain for a few games here in Hershey (2002-03), when Brent Thompson was out of the lineup with an injury,” said Willsie. “It was kind of a last minute thing that I ended up being his roommate. It was a lot of fun, and I tried my best to teach him a little bit of the off the ice stuff. Obviously, he’s turned into a pretty special player.”

Willsie continued, “Likewise, the Capitals have developed into one of the marquee organizations in the league--not only the parent club, but the club they have here in Hershey. George McPhee has done a spectacular job in the trades before the lockout and developing the players and championships here, and I’m sure there will be championships there in the years to come.”

After a couple of seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, Willsie rejoined the Avs organization prior to the 2008-09 season, and has spent the majority of those two campaigns in the AHL with the Lake Erie Monsters, but has also spent a few games with the Avalanche in each season.

This season, Willsie has taken on the full-time captaincy role with the Monsters, a role he has enjoyed.

“It’s been fun. Darren Haydar is part of the leadership group and he’s been around a while, and Tom Preissing and Brian Fahey (former Bear) has also been a big help. It’s a fun group, and it’s nice to have the honor. It’s rewarding to see how far the team has come and the direction we are heading.”

While he may be enjoying his leadership role in the city that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls home, Willsie, who at 31-years of age, could be considered old by AHL standards, but in his prime for an NHL player, was very honest in answering the question of how he can balance his role of captain while on one hand he is partially responsible for nurturing the Avs prospects for a shot in the NHL, but on the other hand is still keeping his eyes on the NHL prize himself.

“That’s a good question, but I think that’s part of the leadership role,” Willsie said. “ I’ve played quite a few games in both leagues, so not only do I want to get back there, but I can also show the young guys what it takes to get there. In one sense, it’s rewarding to see the guys go up, but at the same time, a little bit selfishly, I want to be going up as well.”

Willsie, who stated that he always looks forward to retuning to Hershey, and recently he returned to Giant Center for the second time as a visiting player. Just like his first visit as a member of the Portland Pirates in 2004-05, he netted a goal, this time against former Monsters’ teammate, Jason Bacashihua.

“It’s partly due to the crowd and the building. I seem to get up a little more for games, where there are big crowds, especially in the former places that I’ve played.”

Like just about any other player who donned the Chocolate and White and skated for the Bears in their former barn, the HERSHEYPARK Arena, Willsie gets very sentimental about the venue and about the special players that he called teammates during his time spent there.

“I was trying to tell some of my teammates here how great it was to play over there. I was trying to explain to them how the crowd was right on top of you and the wonderful atmosphere that was in the building. Some of the playoff series we had against Philadelphia there were great to play in. I was fortunate to play with a lot of good players in that building. A couple that come immediately to mind are Mitch Lamoureux and Steffon Walby, but there were so many of them; it was a very special place to play.”

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