Enter Sandpaperman: Ducks' Corey Perry rubs foes raw
Get all of Nick Forrester’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
ANAHEIM, Calif. — “Ka-ty Per-ry! Ka-ty Per-ry! Ka-ty Per-ry!”
The infamous chant from last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs just makes Corey Perry laugh.
During Game 3 of Anaheim’s first round matchup against the Jets, it was expected that the hometown fans would be loud and rowdy, as it was the first playoff game in Winnipeg since 1996, but the roughly 15,000 fans at MTS Centre tried to antagonize the Ducks' star winger by chanting the famous pop star’s name at him.
At the time, Perry didn’t hear what they were saying, and when someone told him, he didn’t care. It wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last, time opponents or their fans have taunted him and even though the mysogynistic chant garnered plenty of criticism and talk around the hockey world, he was the one who was laughing at the end of the day, as Anaheim went on to win the game 5-4 and take a 3-0 series lead in the Ducks’ eventual first-round sweep of Winnipeg.
“When those things do happen, teams boo you or whatever, that’s a good sign, that means you’re doing something right on the ice and they don’t like it,” Perry says.
Perry and the Ducks expect to make a run at the Stanley Cup after falling just one game short of the final last year. No doubt there will be plenty of times when the agitating 30-year-old who has scored 32 goals and 74 points in 90 career postseason games will be an object of bitter wrath. If you want a preview of what’s likely to come, just look at the NHL All Star Game last January, which was hosted by Anaheim’s first round opponent, Nashville. During player introductions, as most were welcomed with cheers, Perry was one of two who were marinated in boos. (Chicago’s Patrick Kane was the other). With the stakes much higher now, Perry will surely inspire even more enmity at Bridgestone Arena.
Like fingernails on a chalkboard, Perry has a well-earned reputation for getting under people's skin, whether it’s by “falling” on goalies, spraying water in opponents' gloves, grabbing their sticks or whacking them with his. Such antics have made him one of the league's most villainous players. But if Perry was going to make it in the NHL, playing a little “dirty” was a necessity.
Born in Haileybury, Ontario, a small town of 4,000, Perry was about six month's old when he was diagnosed with clubfoot, a birth defect where the affected foot appears to rotate inward at the ankle. His father Geoff and mother Nancy didn’t think he would ever be able to skate. People with clubfoot often appear to walk on their ankles, but the condition can essentially be cured. After taking their son for treatment, the Perry's saw something him that the world has come to realize in recent years: He fights back. Corey didn’t like the cast on his foot, and his father recalls Corey banging it against the floor and cracking it in an attempt to get it off.
Perry doesn’t recall those days, but the brace he had to wear is still in his parents’ home. “We’ve hung onto it to give him when he gets older and retires,” Geoff Perry says. “He can show his kids maybe one day because it’s a big part of his life.”
With his clubfoot corrected, Perry started skating about a year-and-a-half later and was just like every other kid. When he turned five, he played his first organized hockey and told his parents that he’d play for them one day on TV and win the Stanley Cup. Though many Canadian kids share that dream, Perry started to show that it could become a reality. At eight, he played up an age group and scored 205 goals in one season. His success put a target on his back, and Geoff says parents and coaches would yell at their kids to do whatever it took to get Corey out of a game.
“I watched him play and knew the crap he put up with,” says Geoff, a former Ontario Provincial Police officer. “I didn’t think it was necessary that every coach tried to take him out of the game, every game. I told him basically if they hack you across the wrist, break theirs. You have to protect yourself out there.”
Perry was eventually drafted by the OHL’s London Knights, and, in his last year there, dominated the league by leading it in goals (47) assists (83) and points (130). But the attacks and cheap shots continued until he'd finally had enough. In the second game of the 2005 Memorial Cup final, Canada’s junior hockey championship, against the Sidney Crosby-led Rimouski Oceanic, Perry was sucker punched during his first shift and he missed the rest of the series. He doesn’t remember much about the hit, but his father says it changed the way Perry plays the game. Even though he’s calm and quiet off the ice, that hit forced him to really start standing up for himself on the ice. He simply calls it “turning on the switch.”
After the puck drops, the 6' 3", 210-pound forward is often nothing short of a complete jerk to anyone who happens to be wearing the wrong-colored sweater, especially when he decides to plant himself in his favorite spot on the ice: right in the crease. “I know for a fact that annoys people when you’re always in the crease,” he says. “We don’t like anybody in front of our goalie, so why would they like anybody in front of theirs? Especially when you get a push on the goalie or fall on the goalie, it’s going to cause a stir and that’s probably the most annoying thing.”
Some of those stirs have come with defenseman who are just trying to swat the big gnat out of their crease, but some have even come against the goalies themselves. This season alone, Perry has had scuffles with Toronto's Jonathan Bernier and Los Angeles's Jonathan Quick.
Love him or hate him, it's hard to deny that Perry is one of the best in the league at effectively getting up close and personal with netminders. New York Islanders star and Team Canada teammate John Tavares has said that Perry owns “the best hands around the net in the league.” Perry has earned the nickname “Worm” from his teammates because of the way he wiggles around defenses to plant himself in the crease. The majority of his 330 career goals have been scored from the dirty areas of the ice, as well as some of his biggest, such as the one in overtime of Game 5 of Anaheim’s second round matchup against Calgary last year. Flames were all over Perry during a pileup in front of goalie Karri Ramo, but he still managed to whack a deflection into the net and end the series.
“Obviously you’re going to take your bumps and take your bruises, but when you score some goals, those bumps and bruises don’t hurt anymore,” Perry says.
When Perry is asked about his fondness for camping out in front of opposing goalies, teammate Ryan Getzlaf, sitting nearby, overhears the question and yells, “He couldn’t score from anywhere else on the ice, that’s actually why!”
Perry laughs and says, “That’s what got me here.”
Other sandpaper tactics that Perry employs to great effect can be seen in his tug-of-war with Chicago forward Marian Hossa’s stick during the 2015 Western Conference Finals. As soon as Hossa conceded, Perry just dropped the twig on the ice so Hossa had to go and pick it up.
When Anaheim played rival Los Angeles in the second round of the 2014 playoffs, Perry sprayed Kings center Jeff Carter’s glove with water during a TV timeout. There’s also been more than one occasion when he was caught snow-spraying opponents at the red line during warmups or when he fell on top of a goalie. In a recent National Post poll, players from across the league were asked to name “the biggest pain in the a-- to play against.” Perry, unsurprisingly, was one of four who tied for the top honor. Last year, he won the title outright.
“It’s not going out and cheap-shotting anybody, it’s just the little things,” he says. “Of course, when you get somebody off their game and they’re thinking about you, they’re not going to play their style of game if they’re worried about what you’re doing.”
Perry's antics haven’t always gone over well commentators for that matter. There was an incident during last year’s series against Chicago where NBC's Mike Milbury arguably took the anti-Perry campaign too far when he was asked how he would stop Anaheim's pot-stirrer if he was preparing to face him. Milbury said: “If I were playing against him, I would want to hurt him in a painful and permanent way. And I think most of the rest of the league feels the same way.”
Though Perry loves getting under opponents’ skin on the ice, he’s actually a quiet, low-key guy who enjoys the basics in life: fishing, golfing and spending time with his wife at their summer cottage in Canada. “You wouldn’t know the kid played professional hockey, he’s just one of the guys,” his father says. "He’s probably one of the quietest people you’ll ever meet. He’s very humble. That’s him in a nutshell, he’s just nonchalant and laid back.”
Former Ducks forward Kyle Palmieri, who spent five years in Anaheim before being traded to New Jersey last summer, agrees.
“For my first two years there, I don’t think we really spoke, other than him introducing himself when I got called up for the first time,” Palmieri says. “I don’t think it was anything to do with me being a young guy or a call up, it was mostly just because that’s how he is. He keeps to himself for the most part. But once you get to know him, he’s a good guy.”
Because Perry isn’t the most, shall we say social person off the ice, his personality is a constant source of jokes among his teammates. Forward Ryan Kesler has an internet talk show titled, “Between Two Zambonis,” a parody of actor Zach Galifianakis's “Between Two Ferns.” Like Galifianakis, Kesler often mocks his guest's intelligence or Canadian nationality (he’s an American) but his favorite target is Perry, who he has yet to convince to appear on the show. On one episode, Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa brought out a cardboard cutout of Perry and Kesler said it is “more personal than the real one." Another time, Kesler commented on how sitting next to Perry is like "sitting next to a wall" adding, “He’s there but he doesn’t really contribute to anything."
During a Western Conference Finals press conference, a reporter began to ask Getzlaf about Perry’s personality—“Ryan, Corey isn’t everybody’s cup of tea …”—before he was interrupted by Anaheim forward Andrew Cogliano.
“Not mine, either,” Cogliano mumbled under his breath.
Getzlaf laughing, butted in: “His personality? Well, Perry, he is what he is. He enjoys the game. He likes being at the rink. He’s good to his teammates, despite what Cogs says. Obviously being an opponent of his isn’t a fun thing to do. He’s annoying on the ice. He agitates, does things people don’t agree with all the time, and sometimes we don’t agree with.
“But he puts the puck in the net, goes to the dirty areas, he plays hard and he plays to win. That’s what he can bring to the table. In our locker room, we love him.”
Even Perry's wife, Blakeny Robertson, whom he married in the summer of 2015, joked about the winger’s odd personality in their wedding video where they tell the story of how Corey proposed while the couple was walking its dogs.
“I got down on one knee, didn’t say much,” he says and his new bride agrees, admitting, “No, a man of few words you are.”
At the beginning of the season, Perry was also a man of few goals. He failed to find the back of the net during his first 11 games as Anaheim stumbled to a wretched 1-7-2 record. But during an early November game against Florida, with the Ducks trailing the Panthers 2–1 in the final seconds, things changed. Perry, occupying his customary spot in front of the net, found himself on the right end of a bounce and tipped in a deflection past Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo with just five seconds remaining to send the game to overtime. He fell backwards as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of his shoulders.
The Ducks went on to beat Florida in a shootout that night, but even more important than the two points they picked up: Anaheim's top scorer was starting to get back on track. He followed that goal by lighting up the scoreboard with nine in his ensuing 17 games and eventually finished with 34, the sixth 30-goal campaign of his career. Perry says he and the Ducks are better now because of their struggles.
“Obviously no one wants to remember those first 10 games,” he says. “If you look back at that, we went through a lot of downs. Every team goes through it at one point of the season, and hopefully that was our point in the season where we just went through a losing stretch.”
The Ducks went on become one of the league’s most potent offensive teams. They compiled the longest winning streak in franchise history (11 games), enjoyed the best month in their history by going 12-1-1 in February, and became the first team since the 1984-85 New York Islanders to lead the NHL in both power play and penalty killing percentages. At Christmas, they stormed out of the Western Conference basement and flew up the Pacific standings to win their fourth straight division crown. Now, they enter their first round showdown with Nashville as hot as any team in the league.
“When you’re getting good goaltending, solid defense, not letting too many shots or goals, and you’re now scoring goals, it’s a deadly combination,” Perry says. “It’s exciting around here now, everybody comes to the rink with a smile on their face, everybody’s wanting to play the hockey game that you love to play each and every day. You have to keep it going, you have to play playoff hockey.”
For the Ducks’ agitator extraordinaire, “playoff hockey” means getting under opponents’ skin and rubbing it rawer than ever.