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GEM OF A DEFENSEMAN

Veteran Garnet Exelby has polished his play over the years to become a dependable defenseman coveted by coaches.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Coaches can teach skating, stickhandling and how to play defense, but one thing they can’t teach is experience.

So when the Detroit Red Wings saw an opportunity to add Garnet Exelby in the offseason, the NHL club signed the veteran blueliner to provide depth within the organization.

When he was assigned to Grand Rapids, Exelby was a natural choice to become the captain of the Griffins. He entered the 2011-12 season having played in 408 NHL games, nearly as many as his 22 other teammates combined.

Griffins head coach Curt Fraser believes Exelby has been everything he was advertised to be and more.

“I think he’s been even better than we thought,” Fraser said. “He’s a good leader on the ice as well as in the locker room. He’s been a real stabilizing force who helps all of our young defensemen, plus he’s physical and can find the back of the net once in a while, which is a bonus.”

There’s no secret to why a player like Exelby is a good fit on a young team like the Griffins. He is the epitome of “what you see is what you get” – a strong defenseman who isn’t afraid to pressure the opposition and who likes to throw his weight around when the opportunity presents itself.

“Overall, I’ve tried to become a steady, solid player,” Exelby said. “If I can pitch in with other facets of the game besides defense, I will. But for the most part, I just want to be dependable.”

Exelby concedes that he is a better defenseman than he was 10 years ago when he was a member of the Calder Cup-winning Chicago Wolves as a rookie in 2001-02.

“Experience is obviously the best teacher,” he said. “I think I’ve gotten better positionally, doing less running around. I’m a little more patient now. I’m continually trying to be more poised with the puck and make good plays.”

Exelby, who grew up playing hockey on the western prairies of Canada, developed a reputation that could be traced, in part, to a strong work ethic. He also has a knack for knocking the heads off unsuspecting opponents with bone-crushing, open-ice hits.

There was one game in 2007, for example, when Exelby leveled three Colorado Avalanche players in the span of five seconds. Other YouTube staples show the hard-hitting defenseman blasting Mats Sundin and Miroslav Satan on separate occasions.

Now, at age 30, Exelby is careful to pick his spots. He hasn’t become gun-shy, but he has learned that he doesn’t want to punish his team by trying to put the big hurt on an opponent.

“I still like to be physical, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to let the game come to you,” he said. “You don’t need to be running around, looking for hits. When you get a chance and the guy’s got no way out, then you can put a good crack on him.

“You’ve got to look at the risk-reward and weigh your options. It happens fast, but if you smell danger, you probably should back off and assume a defensive posture. It’s the best way to stay out of trouble.”

Exelby is trying his best to be a good example to the Griffins’ young defensemen. He gladly points to his counterpart on the Red Wings as the epitome of the perfect defenseman. “Nick Lidstrom makes it look easy, but there’s a reason – he’s never caught in a bad spot.”

As a veteran who played six seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers and one with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Exelby knows his play will be scrutinized by the younger players who aspire to reach the NHL, and he’s fine with the attention.

“The older I get, the more I want to be a leader and good mentor to pay it back,” he said. “I had a lot of good examples to follow when I was younger and I think it really helped me.”

He is thankful for the example set by his parents. His father, a pharmaceutical sales rep, and his mother, an auditor for Revenue Canada, worked hard to provide for Exelby, his brother Danny and sister Whitney.

“They were always completely supportive,” he said. “They were always there for me and to take me to my little hockey tournaments and games. You hear these nightmare stories of parents getting into altercations with coaches and other parents, but they never yelled and screamed. All that mattered was that I was having fun.”

One of the biggest influences on his career was the late Brad McCrimmon, the former NHL defenseman and Red Wings assistant coach who was killed in the Russian airplane crash last September that claimed the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, including former Griffins Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek and Stefan Liv.

McCrimmon, who was known as “Beast” for his gruff demeanor, was a keen and confident coach who earned the respect of those who played for him. He was the coach of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades during Exelby’s first two years in junior hockey.

The pair were reunited in Atlanta, where McCrimmon served as an assistant coach from 2003-08 before joining the Red Wings’ coaching staff under Mike Babcock.

“He made me a pro before I even had a chance to become a pro, which allowed me to hit the ground running,” Exelby said. “I was lucky enough to play for him again in Atlanta, and it’s still hard to believe he’s gone. He seemed so indestructible.”

Exelby also learned a lot from current Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins, an NHL journeyman who was his senior by 14 years and who served as his first defensive partner in Chicago.

“Dallas helped me so much,” Exelby said. “We played so well together that at some point they wouldn’t pair us in training camps because they wanted me to learn to play with other people. He was definitely a good influence on me.”

Exelby has very fond memories of his rookie season in Chicago. “It was one of my favorite years,” he said. “Chicago’s a great organization and I got treated very well. Winning a championship there was incredible.”

Being so young, Exelby said he didn’t appreciate at the time how difficult it really is to win a title. To illustrate his point, Exelby said he has been in the playoffs only twice in the ensuing decade.

He would like nothing better than to change his luck this season. He knows if he can help the Griffins win a championship, it might do more than look good on his resume.

“I still relish the idea of playing in the NHL and I’d like the chance to get back there,” he said. “In the short term, I want to try to be a good example here, but at the same time you never want to give up that fight because once you do, you might find out you don’t have a job in any league.

“You always want to keep pushing to play in the NHL.”



ROAD WARRIOR

Exelby got married last summer. He and his wife Kate hope to find time to go on their honeymoon this coming summer, although they have already done their share of travel.

In the summer of 2008, for example, they took a five-week odyssey to Dubai, Egypt, Italy and Croatia. Staying at hostels and budget hotels, they embraced an “Amazing Race” mindset, making arrangements on the fly, often booking only their airfare in advance.

“You want to see everything when you go on these trips and you never can because it’s impossible,” he said. “You rank what you want to see and do the best you can.”

Here are his off-the-cuff impressions:

“Dubai was quite interesting. I thought it was a long way to go for a place that is really trying to be like here. It was a lot like going to South Florida. They had a black diamond ski hill in a mall there and that was a lot of fun. You can’t say there are a lot of places in the world with something like that.”

“In Egypt, we went almost everywhere on the Nile from top to bottom. It’s incredible to see how much has taken place in that country: from the invention of paper to the mathematics that allowed them to build those incredible structures 5,000 years ago, it’s amazing.”

“Italy was fun. To see in person things like the Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City – all those places you see in the movies or on TV – is incredible, and to see the scale of the artwork is pretty amazing. We waited three hours to see Michelangelo’s David and it was worth it.”

“Croatia was my favorite place of all. It’s this very naturally beautiful country that got a bad name from the turmoil with the former Yugoslavia and the conflict with Bosnia. The beaches are beautiful and their national parks are incredible. It was a great way to wind down the trip.”


DISHING IT OUT

When Exelby travels, he tries to eat the local food as much as possible. “Even if it’s something that nobody would eat here, I’ll try it,” he said. His wife, who studied abroad and has traveled to close to 50 countries, doesn’t share his culinary interest. “She’s a vegetarian anyway, so her choices would be limited.”

What are some of the more exotic entrées he’s tried?

“In Iceland, I ate horse meat, which is not something you find here. It wasn’t too bad, but I kept thinking about eating a horse, so I couldn’t get my head around it.

“One of the big things in Iceland is bird-watching, especially puffin, but I couldn’t really eat it, so I settled on this other sea bird called the guillemot. It’s comparable to puffin. If you’ve ever had ostrich, it’s a bit liver-like. Lots of iron. It was alright – I didn’t mind it.”

“In Croatia, I had a black ink squid risotto. They use the ink sac of the squid as a sauce. It's got quite a strong fish taste to it. I’m not sure if I enjoyed that one or not. I definitely gave it a good shot.”



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