|Wednesday, November 27
Updated: December 5, 1:26 PM ET
Arnason discovers less is more in NHL
By Lindsay Berra
ESPN The Magazine
He's so laid back that he's been called "ho-hum." When he played for the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League, he would show up for team flights wearing a denim jacket over his suit and a visor on his head. He almost flunked out of school for skipping class, in spite of an Ivy-worthy performance on his college boards. And, until last summer, he was downright chunky.
Off the ice, that is.
On the ice, he's never had a problem, and he has the numbers to prove it. Chicago has never seen a bigger enigma than Tyler Arnason, the center in the No. 39 Blackhawks sweater, blowing through holes in the opposing defense.
The talent is in his genes. Arnason's father, Chuck, tallied 163 points in 79 games in the 1970-71 season with the Flin Flon Bombers. He was drafted in 1971 with Montreal's second choice, seventh overall, sandwiched between Guy Lafleur, the Habs' first pick, and Murray Wilson, their third. Chuck played eight years in the NHL with eight teams -- the Canadiens, Atlanta Flames, Pittsburgh Penguins, Kansas City Scouts, Colorado Rockies, Cleveland Barons, Minnesota North Stars and Washington Capitals. In 401 games, he had 109 goals and 90 assists for 199 points.
During his three years at St. Cloud State University, the younger Arnason proved he'd inherited his fair share of hockey skills. He piled up 61 goals and 136 points in 118 games and led the team to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title in 2001. Still, there were constant battles with coach Craig Dahl about the 5-foot-11, 226-pound Arnason's diet and training habits.
"Tyler's a very nice person, but he just doesn't like to be told what to do," said Dahl, whose orders involved cancelling midnight pizza orders and logging extra time on the exercise bike.
On the ice, Arnason wasn't facing any kind of adversity that would lead him to believe he needed to be in better shape. Scoring against Alaska-Anchorage and Michigan Tech wasn't a problem. So, he ignored his coach and his teammates' taunts and decided he could get by on talent alone. His lack of motivation was apparent -- outside of hockey, he never worked out. He started cutting class. Drafted by the Hawks in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, Arnason opted not to return to St. Cloud for a fourth year.
Last season, Arnason scored 56 points in 60 games for the Norfolk Admirals and was named AHL Rookie of the Year, in spite of his baby fat and abbreviated season -- the Blackhawks called him up for the last 21 games of the year. When Arnason made his NHL debut against the Panthers on Feb. 13, he weighed 214 pounds.
He soon discovered he couldn't handle the pace of the NHL game.
"He couldn't go 20 seconds last season," Hawks coach Brian Sutter said. "It was like he needed a hyperbaric chamber every time he came off the ice."
"I realized how in shape these guys are. Some of them are huge and have lots of muscles, but it's their cardiovascular training," said Arnason. "They can just go and go."
Over the summer, Arnason completed a 16-week program with trainer Richard Burr in Winnipeg. Two hours a day, five days a week, he mountain-biked, lifted weights, and ran stairs until he was outperforming even Burr. He cut a lot of the fat and carbs out of his diet and reported to Hawks camp at a comparatively lean 198 pounds. The body he used to hide under baggy skateboarder clothes was gone.
"I wanted to see if I was good enough to play in this league, and you can't do that if you're not in shape," said Arnason. "If you're not in good shape, it doesn't matter if you have talent. You need to keep up."
This season, Arnason has been doing more than just keeping up. In training camp, he earned a spot centering the Blackhawks' third line -- the ABC line -- with Kyle Calder and Mark Bell. Since then, he's moved up a notch and centers for Eric Daze and Steve Thomas. Through 21 games, Arnason is averaging more than 16 minutes of ice time, a seven-minute increase over last year's average. Veteran Alexei Zhamnov is the only 'Hawks center that logs more ice time than Arnason, who is also a fixture on Chicago's top power-play unit and on the penalty kill.
"Tyler would have died if he played 17 minutes last year," said Sutter. "He is quicker now, he has that extra half step, and he is stronger. When you're not tired, your mind is sharper."
In Arnason's case, very sharp. The 23-year-old is leading all rookies with six goals and seven assists for 13 points, and he is tied with Los Angeles rookie Alexander Frolov for the lead in goals.
"He's moving his feet, and when he moves his feet, he makes great plays," said Mark Bell. "He can tiptoe around guys and make good passes."
Arnason is not overly speedy, but he's shifty. He has a knack for finding holes and exploding though them. He excels at stickhandling and weaving his way through traffic, and leads the Blackhawks in shots on goal, which is appreciated by Thomas.
"If he gets 10 shots and I'm going to the net, there has to be something there for me," Thomas said.
As long as Arnason keeps his numbers up and his weight down, the Blackhawks don't care how puzzling he is. It's the other team's job to figure him out.
The Magazine's Lindsay Berra can be e-mailed at email@example.com.