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The Life

January 8, 2003
ESPN The Magazine

Billy Guerin is a troublemaker. Must be. Look at the facts. Four teams in six seasons. Contract issues always cropping up, finding their way into the newspapers in this city and that. So what if elite NHL center icemen -- guys like Doug Weight, Jason Allison, Joe Thornton and Mike Modano -- would walk barefoot through Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in January to skate a single shift with Guerin on their right wing. Ignore the coaches, too, from Herb Brooks to Jacques Lemaire to Mike Keenan to Guerin's new boss, Dave Tippett, who would carry Guerin's smelly hockey gear right into their team's dressing room and clear out a Barry Bonds Corner for him. And feel free to scoff at Tom Hicks, the spendaholic, lame-duck owner of the Dallas Stars, the man who was willing to make Guerin, at $9M a year for five years, the richest player in Stars history. Dallas will learn what New Jersey, Edmonton and Boston learned about Guerin: The guy's trouble.

Bill Guerin
Everyone loves Guerin -- unless you're a GM.
Only not in the traditional sense. In reality, Guerin is as much a troublemaker as Mario Lemieux is a washed-up old man. In the unwritten but universally accepted Hockey Team Assembly Manual (in English, French and several Eastern European and Scandinavian languages), it is understood that all teams need a guy like Guerin. Just listen to Stars GM Doug Armstrong describe him: "Power winger. Score ya 30 or 40. Got a mean streak. Sticks up for his teammates on the ice. Good in the room. And come playoff time, makes ya harder to beat." All good teams have a guy like Guerin. All bad teams need one.

But as Guerin says, while tearing through a couple of fish tacos in a Tex-Mex joint near the Stars' training center in suburban Dallas, "I am a suitcase. Can't deny it."

In his 12-year NHL career, Guerin has been nothing but trouble for the general managers of the tight-fisted teams he has outgrown. The guy easily could have been a fixture in Jersey, playing out his entire career for the team that drafted him No. 5 overall when he was 18 years old. But Guerin was considered one part of a "system" team there, and as his salary status climbed into seven-figure land in 1997, that part was deemed replaceable. So Devils GM Lou Lamoriello shipped him to Edmonton -- a city he actually loved. There, playing alongside Weight, he hit the 30-goal level for the first time in his career. But almost two years later, the Oilers knew Guerin would soon be too expensive for their budget, so they sent him to Boston.

And that is where Guerin created the most problems. There are two words in the Boston hockey lexicon that mean "the player every B's fan wants/obsesses over/assumes the club will never find again." Those two words? Cam Neely. Fans have sat through enough games in Greater Boston -- from Peewees, Squirts and Bantams to the Catholic Conference to BC, BU, Harvard and Northeastern's annual Beanpot Tournament -- to know that another Bobby Orr is not coming along in anyone's lifetime. So they dream of finding another Neely. Another wing who can fly and hit and score. And fight. A real man's hockey player. They know there's another one out there because Neely -- who, like Orr, had to quit before his time because of knee injuries -- was as much about heart as skill.

No one really knew that when the Bruins got Guerin from the Oilers a quarter through the 2000-01 season, they'd found another Neely. It just kind of happened. His 28 goals in 64 games for the B's, combined with the 12 he scored for the Oilers, made him a 40-goal man for the first time. Then last year, in his first full season in Boston, he scored 41 more. But more than that, Guerin was a local. Grew up in Wilbraham, Mass., home of Friendly's ice cream. Played two years at BC. Here was a kid who not only had a "wicked haad slap shawt" but who actually said "wicked haad slap shawt." A Neely fan? Stupid question. Who wasn't a Neely fan?

"They started throwing around the Neely comparisons with Billy," says Stars veteran Scott Young, another Boston-bred player, "and they were accurate. Billy's that type of player. A goal scorer, sure, but a gritty guy. A fighter. And the Bruins had this resurrection season last year. I mean, hockey was back in Boston, finally, after so many bad years. Being a Boston guy, I thought, 'They gotta lock Billy up forever.' It just made sense."

To everyone but the Bruins ownership. "It was a great year to be an athlete in Boston," Guerin says. "With the Pats winning the Super Bowl and the Celtics turning it around, and the Sox having that great start, and the Bruins ... I mean, I didn't want to leave Edmonton at first, and I was a little afraid to go to Boston. But it turned out to be the best thing for my career, and I loved being home, around my friends and family. We had a great team and an awesome group of guys. I was a hometown kid living his dream. And I wanted to stay. I tried to stay. I know Bruins history, how they operate on a strict budget. Maybe I was naive, but I just thought it would be different with me. It wasn't."

By the time the B's had rolled up about three-quarters of their 101 points -- their best in nine seasons -- Guerin knew he was too rich for Boston's blood. He and his wife, Kara, who was pregnant with their fourth child at the time, started to prepare for yet another move. (Daughter Lexi was born Dec.2, joining Liam, 2, Grace, 3, and Kayla, 5.)

Obviously, things could have been worse. Guerin was headed into unrestricted free agency (having reached his 31st birthday) and coming off the best two seasons of his career, not to mention a stellar Olympic performance. "I don't think I've been hardheaded about my contracts," Guerin says. "But look at who I've dealt with. The three stingiest teams in the league. The Devils, Oilers and Bruins all do business the same way. That's fine. But I've never overpriced myself. I've never been ridiculous."

So here was Guerin's chance to see, on a completely open market -- when the big spenders could step up without having to worry about losing draft picks -- what the league thought of him. It didn't take long for him to find out. While Guerin has never been considered the No.1 guy on any team he's played for, he learned that, outside of Boston, there were teams ready to pay No. 1 money to a No. 2. Particularly the Stars, who knew how much their best player, Mike Modano, had loved playing with Guerin on past Olympic and World Cup teams and how badly he missed his old right wing, Brett Hull. "I let them know how I felt about going after Billy," says Modano. "But they were way ahead of me."

Shortly after the Red Wings kissed the Stanley Cup, Hicks, Armstrong, Tippett and special assistant Guy Carbonneau flew to Boston to meet with Guerin at the Four Seasons hotel. They'd also prepared a DVD. Hicks, the coaching staff, some of the players and their wives looked into a camera and spoke. Says Guerin, "They told me everything from how they want to win a Stanley Cup so bad, to how great a place Dallas is for a young family. It was really, really good."

So was the money -- $45M over five years, an average exceeded by only 13 players in the league. The Stars, who'd grown a bit soft since back-to-back trips to the Cup Finals in 1999 and 2000, convinced Guerin that he would make them a team to be feared every night.

Bill Guerin
Guerin set the tone early: "Don't mess with me."
Eager to make an immediate impression, Guerin may have taken his new responsibility a little too much to heart. In his first training-camp scrimmage with his new team, Guerin slashed a minor leaguer named Brett Draney across the back of the neck -- an infraction that would have cost Guerin a major suspension had it occurred in a league game. Guerin quickly apologized to Draney, who accepted. But, says Young, "It sent a message around here that Billy is not a guy anyone wants to piss off." Says Tippett, "Our team's grit level went up quite a bit as soon as Billy stepped on the ice."

Of course, you could buy grit for a lot less than $45M. The Stars were also banking on the hope that Guerin's scoring output over the past two seasons was not just a couple of career years, but a sign that he'd evolved from a shooter into a true scorer. Never timid about letting the rubber fly on the rush -- he led the NHL in shots last year -- Guerin has gotten more crafty with experience. He's now a player who can score in every way imaginable, be it with a deflection in traffic, on a one-timer from the top of the circle, with a quick move on a breakaway, or simply by letting one rip from the point.

"It's confidence and a mind-set now that I can score," he says. "And it's who you play with, too. In Jersey, I was more of a third-line player, out there to run around and hit guys and chip in the occasional goal. But since then, playing with Weight, Allison, Thornton and now Mo, it's been great. As I've scored more, I've also been given more opportunities to play on the power play. One thing's led to another, and it's all added up to more goals."

It's no coincidence that Guerin meshes so well with Modano. For one thing, they're both 1970 babies, which means they've been playing on U.S. select teams together since they were teenagers. (Modano grew up in Michigan.) For another, Guerin's spent a lot of time -- since the U.S.'s 1996 World Cup title -- trying to mimic the off-the-puck movements of Hull. "I've talked to Brett a lot over the years," Guerin says. "And he's taught me different ways to get open. He's not the fastest guy in the league, but he's always going to beat you to the open ice around the net. He'll go hang out in the corner, but then when he sees a guy who can get the puck to him, he sprints to the perfect spot for a shot. Or he'll make this big loop and come down really quick through the slot. And his one-timer is the best."

It's been so-far, so-good this season for Guerin, who approaches the halfway point on a pace to score 30-40 goals again. The Stars, who also invested large this off-season in Young and veteran defenseman Phillipe Boucher, look like they could run away with the Pacific Division. Still, Guerin, who has not been past the second round of the playoffs since he won the Cup with the Devils in 1994-95, knows a nice regular season will mean little in North Texas. "This team's built to win now," he says, as a second helping of fish tacos is dropped in front of him, cortesía de la casa. The Stars may not receive Cowboy Treatment in Dallas, but there are plenty of fans who know this team's got a really good chance to party in June -- and that Guerin's the guy to lead them.

"One thing I really believe is that the teams that win have guys that actually give a crap about each other," he says. "I know the guys understand that, but I try to reinforce it from time to time. Now's when we have to learn how to win the hard games and then carry that attitude into the playoffs. If we can do that ... "


This article appears in the January 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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