01/16/2009 12:32 AM -
Story and photo by Mark Newman
At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Jiri Fischer played a big role on the Detroit Red Wings’ blueline. The belief was that he was “Built Ram Tough,” his rugged style of play leading to an appearance in a Dodge television commercial with fellow NHL defenseman Chris Pronger.
But Fischer’s career as a player was cut short when he suffered cardiac arrest during a game against Nashville on Nov. 21, 2005. “His heart had stopped beating and there was no pulse,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said at the time.
Thankfully, Fischer was resuscitated by CPR and defibrillator and he was taken to a hospital, where he recovered. He had played his last hockey game, however. It was time to embark on a new career in the sport.
Three years later, Fischer is in his second season as the Red Wings’ director of player development.
“Jiri fulfills a very big role for us,” said Jim Nill, Red Wings assistant general manager. “He’s the connection between management and all the young players we have around the world.”
Serving as the liaison between the team’s front office and its prospects, Fischer acts as a mentor of sorts, providing advice and encouragement not only to Griffins players, but also to the Red Wings’ draft picks in junior hockey, college and Europe.
“He goes wherever we have a prospect,” Nill said. “He’s watching them play, keeping in touch with them in terms of what they need to do to get to the next level, whether it’s getting stronger, working on their skating or picking up the pace of their game.
“He’s helping these kids with their growth so they’ll be ready to take the next step.”
For Fischer, it’s a new lease on life.
“It’s my second year and, honestly, it’s really still a lot of learning,” Fischer said. “Player development is a unique position. My role is still evolving, and I’m learning where the boundaries are.”
The job requires a different mindset, but it’s a new challenge that the cordial and friendly Fischer wholeheartedly embraces.
“As a player, you only have yourself to worry about really. Now all of a sudden with this position, I’m dealing with 40 different guys who all play and respond differently. But that’s what’s so interesting about my job.”
Fischer has described his job as a hockey season with no home games. If it sounds like he’s complaining, he’s not.
“I get to be around hockey and most of the guys are pretty much my age,” said Fischer, 28. “It’s really fun being around extremely motivated guys who want to get to the next level.”
In his travels, Fischer sees Detroit prospects in many different environments. Every coach has his own style; every organization its own way of doing things.
“Our philosophy for our prospects is to be the best at their level, to find a way to compete and be successful in whatever organization or system they happen to be playing,” Fischer said. “Just make sure they’re the best.”
Of course, excelling is not always easy when you’re not getting the ice time you would like, don’t like the guys on your line or are still adjusting to living in a new place, let alone learning how to play for a new team.
“When I was a player, I tried to deal with everything myself,” Fischer said. “That works to a certain point, but sometimes you really hit the wall and your play suffers.
“I try to relate to the guys as a player. I don’t try to be the guy who always tells them what to do. Everybody has their own way of doing things. So instead of trying to correct them, I’ll try to help them reach their potential in their own way.”
During his playing career, Fischer was accustomed to seeing the results of his efforts become evident on the ice. He no longer lives in that world of instant gratification. His modus operandi is now patience.
“As players, if we prepare harder, if we compete harder, we see it in our play, whether it’s more ice time, or on the stat sheet,” he said. “Everything in player development is a long track. It takes years.”
Fischer points to the example of Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski, who spent four years at the University of Wisconsin, then played four years in Europe before seeing his first NHL action with the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000.
“For some guys, it may take two years, others may take six or seven. It all depends. Everybody has their own path. The guys who don’t learn are the ones who never make it.”
A first-round pick of the Red Wings in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, Fischer was only 19 when he began taking a regular shift in Detroit. His minor league experience consisted of just 25 games in the AHL with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.
Of course, his career ended just as quickly as it started.
“My transition from playing was probably a little more unusual than most,” he said. “I didn’t make the conscious exit that most professional hockey players do. The last time I played, I ended up unconscious and basically dying on the ice,” he said.
“There wasn’t any option of playing again, and dealing with that was certainly the toughest thing I’ve had to face in my life. Dealing with the cardiac arrest and all that came after wasn’t easy at all. Facing death is the ultimate adversity.”
As tragic as his story appears, the incident helped put things in perspective.
“It’s about putting balance in your life,” he said. “ For me, family is the balance. Certain things that I thought were more important three years ago don’t seem as important now.”
Fischer credits his wife, Avory, with making sure that his heart was in the right place. A two-year-old son further underscored his shifting priorities.
“My wife’s been one of the best teachers I’ve ever had – she’s been there for me,” he said. “I try to remember what she taught me when some of our guys are going through tough times on the ice. Sometimes all you need to do is listen.
“Just being there for them might be the best thing you can do.”
And so Fischer spends most of his days on the road, visiting future Red Wings players as they climb the proverbial ladder.
“With the structure of the salary cap and the way teams are built today, guys really have to go through the process. There are very few who are fortunate to make the transition (to the NHL) right away from college or juniors.
“A lot of times it’s not just about the individual skills, the skating or the hockey sense. It’s about building character and facing adversity and dealing with injuries and all the travel. It’s a lot of learning.”
Fischer is learning as he goes. For example, he has learned that not everyone sees the same things when they’re watching a hockey game.
“When I watch games from the press box, there are so many things that I can learn from the guys in Detroit. Based on what I see, I try to pass the information down. But that’s the funny thing.
“Everyone in management – Ken Holland, Jim Nill, Steve Yzerman, Ryan Martin and all of our scouts – will watch the same game and yet we all have a different opinion of the game. Somehow we’re able to come together and decide what will be best for the development of our players.”
Fischer knows watching a game from high above the rink is not the same as being on the ice, and so once clearance came from his doctors, he began making occasional appearances at Griffins’ practices.
“Being on the ice, you learn about the guys and the way they interact and how they work,” he said. “It’s hard to get the full effect of how hard someone is working unless you’re next to them on the ice. Plus, being on the ice is just fun.”
Fischer speaks as though he hasn’t entirely given up the notion of playing.
“I would love to play again,” he said. “I’m in different shoes from the guys who stopped playing at 35 or 40, where everything hurts and it’s hard for them to get out of the bed in the morning. Every day I feel better and better.
“I believe in possibility and I believe in hope. But now I hope for a good life, a good career, good health and having a family.”
He is thankful that the Red Wings have given him a good job, one that has become his motivation in the past two years. His competitive nature compels him to continually strive to be better.
“Everybody can improve,” Fischer said. “Player development doesn’t really end anywhere because everybody can get better. I like the individual approach. I try to relate to players on a personal level.
“It’s an interesting process but it’s been really great.”
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