Shawn Horcoff: Two-Way Threat

Originally published in Rinkside in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

After losing Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Carolina Hurricanes in June 2006, Shawn Horcoff and his Edmonton teammates couldn’t have known that times would soon get even tougher.

Superstar defenseman Chris Pronger surprisingly requested a trade a few days later, and other players who’d earned double-digit point totals in the Cup run–like Mike Peca, Sergei Samsonov, and Jaroslav Spacek–weren’t re-signed. The crowning loss was heart-and-soul winger Ryan Smyth, who was shipped off to the New York Islanders at the February 27 trade deadline after not coming to terms with GM Kevin Lowe on a new contract. In 2007, the Oilers missed the playoffs with a 12th-place finish in the Western Conference, dropping 12 straight games during the stretch drive to seal their fate.

That was a totally unacceptable result for Horcoff. However, the 29-year-old alternate captain believes this year’s off-season roster turnover will make it easier for the current team to forget about yesterday’s troubles and focus on success in 2008.

“It’s a whole new team this year,” said Horcoff. “Half the guys on the team weren’t even part of what happened last year. Once the off-season set in, we put what happened behind us. It’s early, and there’s still lots of reason to be optimistic about this year’s team.”

Notable new acquisitions include defensemen like Sheldon Souray, Joni Pitkanen, and Dick Tarnstrom, all of whom could boost the power play, and forwards like Dustin Penner, a big-ticket free-agent signing who won a Cup with Anaheim last year, and Geoff Sanderson, a veteran with more than 350 NHL goals.

But many of the new faces in the lineup are also new to the NHL, and the Oilers hope their young prospects will deliver on the offensive potential they’ve previously shown.

In October alone, 2007 Canada-Russia Super Series scoring leader Sam Gagner (18), two-time World Junior gold medalist Andrew Cogliano (20), former OHL scoring champ Rob Schremp (21), and Alberta-born talent Kyle Brodziak (23) were among the Calder Trophy-eligible rookies aiming to make an impact. Overall, Edmonton started this season tied with Phoenix for the league’s youngest roster, averaging 26.6 years of age.

“The future’s bright for the organization, that’s for sure,” Horcoff said. “But at the same time, you give up some experience. As a young guy, I remember thinking at times: ‘Why am I not playing as much as I’m used to?’ It’s hard to understand. But I think as you get older, and especially after the run we made to the Stanley Cup Finals, you realize just how important experience is. It’s reflected in the little plays, and often those little plays are what result in games being won. Nonetheless, all these young guys have come in and played great. They’ve brought a lot of energy to our locker room. They’re good kids and they work hard.”

Horcoff realizes everyone will have to contribute meaningfully this year, not just veterans like himself: “Sure, you want to lead by example and say the right things. But you also have to count on your teammates to go out there and do the right things. In this locker room, we’re going to live and die by four lines.”

Getting his personal production back up to speed will be a priority. Since breaking into the League in 2001, Horcoff had managed to increase his scoring totals every year, peaking at 73 points in 2006-07. But last year, he slumped to 51.

Horcoff, who currently ranks 15th among all-time Oilers scorers (ahead of Kelly Buchberger’s 240 points and behind Dave Hunter’s 290 points), feels good about his chances of rebounding. As usual, the 6-1, 204-pounder trained in the off-season at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach with fitness guru T.R. Goodman, who claims Horcoff’s workout is second in intensity among NHLers only to that of Detroit’s Chris Chelios.

“I’m happy with where I’m at right now,” Horcoff said. “I worked hard in the summer, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”

Although head coach Craig MacTavish will undoubtedly juggle lines in search of the best attacking combinations, it’s a pretty safe bet that Horcoff will suit up alongside Ales Hemsky in five-on-five and power play situations. During the 2006 playoff run, Horcoff ranked second in team scoring with 19 points and Hemsky third with 17 as his linemate. Afterwards, Horcoff signed a three-year, $10.8-million contract, and his gifted Czech center landed a six-year, $24.6-million deal less than two weeks later. The Oilers need both players to cash in offensively.

“Hemmer is a really creative guy,” said Horcoff. “We’ve played together predominantly for the last two years, and we’re pretty comfortable with each other. If you get him the puck, you just get open and he’s going to find you.”

Competing with and against the NHL’s most talented players is a tribute to how far Horcoff’s come since originally getting into hockey as a boy in British Columbia’s industrial heartland.

He was born in Trail, best-known as the home of the Smoke Eaters team that won the 1961 World Championships, but he grew up in nearby Castlegar. With an annual snowfall of close to 90 inches, the mining-based community was a winter wonderland.

“I got started at age two or three,” Horcoff recalled. “I remember going out there with my dad, and he wouldn’t give me a stick for the first couple of years. He just wanted me to learn how to skate, because he knew that was the most important part of the game. Those are pretty fun memories.”

Since Horcoff’s dad played at the University of Alberta from 1973 to 1975 under Clare Drake, the winningest coach in Canadian university hockey, the youngster had a pretty good mentor. But skating was hardly the only area in which Horcoff received parental guidance. His parents, John and Bruna, are both schoolteachers, and they motivated him to keep his grades up while simultaneously starring as an athlete.

“Shawn Horcoff was in my class and I always thought he was such a well-behaved boy,” said Twin Rivers Elementary School teacher Nick Verigin. “He excelled in all sports, but he never flaunted his superiority, nor did he ridicule the less able athletes.”

Horcoff went on to make the honor roll in each of his five years at Stanley Humphries Secondary School, and just kept rolling. In 1994, playing for Trail, he was named the MVP of the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League. He totaled 154 points in 96 career RMJHL games. Horcoff then jumped to the Chilliwack Chiefs of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, and had an outstanding 1995-96 campaign on the Junior A circuit. With 145 points in 58 games, he won the scoring title, was named to the First All-Star Team, and captured MVP honors.

As a 17-year-old, why didn’t he opt to play major junior and suit up for a Western Hockey League team instead? “Every kid growing up in Canada wants to make the NHL, and their first thoughts, in Western Canada at least, are toward playing in the WHL, because it’s the quickest route. But my parents had the foresight to tell me that being patient and going the educational route would pay dividends.”

Horcoff set his sights on going to college, and it didn’t take long for him to figure out that Michigan State would be the ideal option. Head coach Ron Mason was the winningest bench boss in NCAA history, and in 2001, the CCHA championship trophy would be re-named after Mason.

“Those were the four best years of my life. I really credit becoming an all-around player to going to Michigan State and playing for Coach Mason. He put the most college players into the NHL. That had a big influence on my choice of Michigan State. He always used to tell us he knew what it took to put players into the NHL, and we just had to listen to him. At the end of the day, he was probably right.”

When Horcoff wore the green-and-white uniform of the Spartans, his teammates included future big-leaguers like Ryan Miller, Mike York, John-Michael Liles, Adam Hall, and Andrew Hutchinson. Being surrounded by that talent level helped him improve consistently. The Oilers drafted him 99th overall in the fourth round in 1998. By 1999-2000, he was the team captain and a Hobey Baker finalist, in addition to other honors, after tallying a CCHA-best 65 points in 42 games.

Was he ever tempted to leave college early and jump to the pros before completing his finance degree? “A little bit, I guess, in my junior year. But not too much. I realized that I was in no rush to turn pro and then go straight to the minors! I knew that the college game was a good game. There was still a lot for me to learn. Going back for my senior year was definitely the right decision.”

With all those great memories, it’s no wonder Horcoff has maintained his Michigan ties. Nowadays, he and his family have an off-season home in Birmingham.

“My wife Cindy is from Northville, there at Michigan State,” said Horcoff. “We have tons of friends and family in the area. Now that we’ve got a couple of young kids, we needed a home base, and it was pretty much a no-brainer for us to go back there.”

After graduation, though, Horcoff was at a different point in his life and career. Despite his hopes of securing full-time NHL employment immediately, he split time between the Oilers and the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs in 2000-01, tallying 16 points in 49 NHL games. The following year, he became an NHL regular.

“I think my ability to adapt is what kept me in the NHL early on,” Horcoff said. “You know, I played wing for a full year. I look back now and if I wasn’t able to do that, it would have been a lot harder on me. I would have had to stick it out in the minors. You realize eventually that not too many players come in and step into an offensive role right away. You’ve got to pay your dues, and that’s what I did. I’ve played pretty much every line and every position you can, from fourth-line wing to first-line center. Because of it, I feel like I’m a pretty well-rounded player that can play in any situation.”

The one area in which he was lacking early on was significant NHL playoff experience. The Oilers missed the playoffs altogether in 2002 and 2004 and made first-round exits in 2001 and 2003.

However, Horcoff was able to extract something positive from his situation. When invited to join Team Canada at the 2003 and 2004 IIHF World Championships, he accepted. There, he proved he could be more than just a well-conditioned role player versus elite talent, scoring an identical seven points (3-4-7) at both tournaments en route to gold medals. Horcoff was a particularly prominent two-way threat in 2004, potting the winner against Slovakia in the semi-finals and then helping to shut down Swedish stars Peter Forsberg and Daniel Alfredsson in the championship finale.

“I gained a lot of experience and confidence,” said Horcoff. “You’re going up against some of the best players in the world. When you play well on a stage like that, you can’t help but start to believe in yourself and your abilities. It was a turning point in my career. I wanted to step up and become more of an offensive player, and it gave me a chance to do that.”

During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Horcoff demonstrated how much he’d improved when he signed with Mora IK of the Swedish Elitserien and finished third in league scoring with 46 points, trailing only Timra’s Henrik Zetterberg (50) and Linkoping’s Kristian Huselius (49).

The ‘06 Stanley Cup quest, of course, cemented Horcoff’s status as a top-six NHL forward. But his savvy demeanor has also continued to earn him respect away from the rink. His Michigan connection with two veteran NHLers partly led to his selection as one of five members of the NHLPA committee seeking a new executive director to lead the association.

“I know Chris Chelios and Mathieu Schneider pretty well,” said Horcoff. “After last season, I was heading back through Detroit. Those guys know I live around there in the off-season. Well, we were obviously out of the playoffs and the Wings were just starting their playoff run. They both gave me a call and asked if I could take over their PA jobs a little bit during the playoffs. Obviously I said I’d oblige. I had no problem with that. From there, it just went further and further. It’s been a great experience.”

Now, Horcoff and the Oilers hope that under new captain Ethan Moreau, they’ll also get quality leadership and start building toward Edmonton’s first Stanley Cup since 1990.

“I don’t think there were any questions in our locker room about who was going to be the captain,” said Horcoff of Moreau’s selection. “The guy’s been here the longest out of all of us, now that Jason Smith has left. Him being named captain, it was deservedly so. He’s a guy who’s got great leadership skills, and his work ethic’s impeccable. He’s a force out there in the game. I think he’s the best choice by far for us.”

And on a team level, what will be the key to a successful Oilers season?

“It’s going to be about staying positive. We know we have a relatively inexperienced team, and there’ll be lots of ups and downs. We learned last year that it can be a roller-coaster. The more even-keeled you can stay, the better chance you’ll have to be successful.”

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