Knock On Wood

The Maple Leafs feel lucky to have Dave Andreychuk, a.k.a. Wood, who takes lots of licks but scores lots of goals
March 28, 1994

It's axiomatic in the NHL: The more goals an established goal scorer scores, the more abuse he is likely to take. So night after night, when Dave Andreychuk of the Toronto Maple Leafs deposits himself in the slot, he becomes a 6'3", 220-pound target for knees and forearms and cross-checks designed to make his backside resemble a Venetian blind. In spite of the pounding, Andreychuk, through Sunday, had scored 49 goals this season, third most in the league, behind Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings (51 goals) and Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins (50).

Yet this, too, is axiomatic in the NHL: The fewer goals a reputed goal scorer scores, the more abuse he is likely to receive. So night after night, when Andreychuk suited up for the Buffalo Sabres from 1982 to '93, he became the lightning rod for the fans' frustrations as the Sabres developed their habitual case of vertigo in the first round of the playoffs. Andreychuk may have averaged more than 30 goals a year in Buffalo, but he scored only 12 times in 41 postseason games, a rate that earned him the nickname Andreychoke.

In other words, since entering the league 12 years ago, the 30-year-old Andreychuk has taken a lot of punishment both physically and verbally, as a stand-up guy and as a fall guy, whether succeeding wildly or failing mildly. If he bears any marks of these travails, they aren't readily apparent, except perhaps for the few gray hairs in his temples or the occasional cautiousness in his dark eyes. Sit with Andreychuk awhile and you sense his self-assured calm, a temperament so unvarying that it might easily have been forged in the steel mill in Hamilton, Ont., that has employed his parents for a total of 50 years.

"In his entire career David has never discussed anything with us in a negative way," says his father, Julian, a retired foreman at Stelco. "Not management or another player or an official or anyone else."

Nor will his son be baited into doing so. "Yes, there have been times I've been abused, but that's part of the game," Dave says. "Most times, I feel like I end up getting the upper hand."

That may be as close as Andreychuk ever gets to a self-congratulatory cackle, but few would begrudge him the last laugh. Before joining Toronto on Feb. 2, 1993, with goaltender Daren Puppa and a No. 1 draft pick for Buffalo goalie Grant Fuhr and a conditional draft choice, Andreychuk was seen less for what he was than for what he wasn't. He may have had the size, strength and reach to coldcock some of the cementheads who gouged and clubbed him, but he seldom dropped his gloves. He may have been formidable near the goal, but he was so plodding in the open ice that he was called Wood, after one wag's imaginative estimation that "Dave Andreychuk has the speed of wood."

While he may have been a bona fide scorer, it was not a role he filled often enough to suit the city of Buffalo. Since leaving there, however, he has averaged a goal every 1.4 games. In the playoffs last spring, the erstwhile Andreychoke scored a Toronto-record 12 times to lift the Maple Leafs to the Campbell Conference final, their deepest postseason penetration since 1978. Andreychuk's goal total through Sunday had already surpassed the team-record 48 for a left wing, set by Frank Mahovlich in 1960-61. And Andreychuk's 90 points have been vital to the Leafs, who at week's end had the third-best record in the league and were fighting the Red Wings for the top spot in the Central Division.

As is now abundantly clear, what Andreychuk does have is a prescient sense of where the puck will be, and a pair of hands that can wield a 60-inch stick as deftly as a conductor waves a baton. With a 37-inch sleeve attached to his maximum-length stick, Andreychuk has one of the longest reaches in the NHL, which gives him an enormous advantage in deflecting the puck and reaching rebounds. Once he gets planted in the slot and begins leaning on his blade, Andreychuk is about as tractable as a mainsail in a 100-mph head wind.

"I'd never played with a guy like Dave," says Toronto center Doug Gilmour. "A lot of guys have strength, but he's amazing. Once he gets in front of the net, you can't move him. And once he gets his stick on the puck, he doesn't miss many chances."

Certainly much of the credit for Andreychuk's emergence goes to Gilmour, who has brought out something in Andreychuk that even centers Gilbert Perreault, Dale Hawerchuk and Pat LaFontaine could not in Buffalo. "I played with some big-time offensive centers, but now I spend less time in my own end because Doug's so good defensively," Andreychuk says. "When the puck goes into our zone, he gets it out right away, and we're on the attack again. We're not chasing the other team, because most of the time we have the puck. He always seems to be looking for me. Doug attracts a lot of attention—a lot of attention—so that helps free me up."

Or as Toronto coach Pat Burns puts it, "They complement each other well."

Burns, too, has applied some finishing touches to Andreychuk. Between 1988 and '92, when he was behind the Montreal Canadiens' bench, Burns would look at Andreychuk and wonder if he was giving his all for the Sabres. Since they have been united in Toronto, Burns has discovered that Andreychuk has more to give than he ever imagined. While Andreychuk's size and opportunism had made him a fixture on the power play—he led the league with 32 man-advantage goals in 1992-93 and at week's end had 20 this season—his oaken skating and his reputation as a defensive liability had made him an unlikely candidate to kill penalties. But Burns, admiring not only Andreychuk's reach but also his grasp of the game, has used him to do just that this season. The result: Through Sunday, Andreychuk was tied for second in the NHL in shorthanded goals, with five.

"The first time Pat tapped me on the shoulder to go out there to kill a penalty, I couldn't believe it," Andreychuk recalls. "I don't think I took a breath when I got on the ice. I came back to the bench, and I was hyperventilating, I was so nervous. I never expected it—ever. Now, getting the chance to score shorthanded goals, I just go, Wow."

Andreychuk grew up blessed with exceptional hand-eye coordination; as a teenager he could whip adults in table tennis while playing on his knees. Once he set his mind to something, his resolve was seldom shaken, but early in his first year of juniors he did make an unscheduled departure from Oshawa, Ont., because he was homesick. Julian counseled his son on the importance of seeing things through, and Dave returned to the team. That may count as one of the few moments in Andreychuk's career that he has been shaken by anything.

So even though his parents might have found the atmosphere at Memorial Auditorium so hostile to their son that they could barely drag themselves to Sabre games, Andreychuk lived year-round in Buffalo and never ducked the potshots and the brickbats. Besides, Buffalo is where he met his wife, Sue, an occupational therapist and the mother of their one-year-old daughter, Taylor. Among the first words Dave uttered to Sue were, "You know, it's really hard to be my girlfriend." (And this guy is supposed to be as slow as wood?)

"I think a big weight was removed when we left Buffalo," Sue says. "Dave was finally able to perform to his fullest. He may not say it, but it was hard for him."

No, Dave won't say it. "Most of the heat I took in Buffalo was pretty justified," he says. "I look at it this way: I was put in a situation where I had to play well for the team to win, and when the team didn't win and I didn't play well, I was more disappointed than anyone else. Those were some long summers. But there were a lot of people in that organization who stuck by me, who gave me a fair chance and realized what talent I had. In the past years in Buffalo, because of the failures, trades were made just to shake things up. They didn't just trade me to trade me; they got rid of me to get a quality guy."

Actually, the trade was one of necessity—for Toronto. With the expansion draft coming up, the Leafs could protect only one of their goalies, and 21-year-old phenom Felix Potvin made Fuhr expendable. It is some measure of both the Sabres' dire need in the nets and Andreychuk's plummeting stock that Leaf general manager Cliff Fletcher was also able to extract a first-round pick, who turned out to be Kenny Jonsson, the promising 19-year-old Swedish defenseman. Although the Sabres advanced to the second round of the playoffs with Fuhr, the deal has turned out to be a steal for Toronto. "It was simple: We were looking for a scorer and a left wing, and Andreychuk was the best one available," says Fletcher. "It was just a case of a player being at the stage of his career when he needed a change."

Still, Andreychuk was apprehensive about going to the sport's capital city, to the team he followed as a kid, to a market with more than one newspaper to revile him. His outlook brightened as he played alongside Gilmour and before supportive crowds, and he overcame his fears about being stigmatized with a "playoff problem," racking up 19 points during the Leafs' postseason run last spring. "Hockey heaven," Andreychuk now calls Toronto.

These days, then, the abuse he suffers is merely sticks and elbows and crosschecks, and with each goal he metes out a different kind of punishment. Rob Pearson, a 22-year-old Toronto wing, watches in awe as Andreychuk stands firm against the blows, refusing to allow his stick to be tied up, keeping his eyes fixed on the puck while he calculates the likely angle of a defenseman's slap shot for a rebound or a deflection. "Every day you watch him," Pearson says, "you see something new."

Andreychuk reminds us of what Teddy Roosevelt said about how to walk and what to carry. He may not brawl with the enforcers who challenge him—and thereby play into their hands—but he stands up to them in his own stolid way. "Toughness has nothing to do with fighting," says New Jersey Devil defenseman Ken Daneyko. "I've cross-checked Andreychuk pretty hard over the years, and he's always come back for more. That's toughness."

All Andreychuk wants is to help his team win, night after night. And since coming to Toronto, that's all he has done. As he reflects on his blossoming as a Leaf, he laughs. "Not everything has changed," he says. "I'm still as fast as wood."

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOIt's almost impossible to move Andreychuk(14) out of the slot once he gets position. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHODespite slow feet, Andreychuk has used his fast hands to become one of the league's leading scorers. PHOTOPETER SIBBALDTwo of Dave's biggest supporters are Sue and baby Taylor, who has already mastered the Wave.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)