Sunday, July 29, 2007

Craig Billington

I always have a special soft spot for players of the 1980s-early 1990s Canadian national team. And for some reason, goaltenders usually top my favorites list from this team. That is unusual for me, as I prefer and understand skaters more so, but perhaps it was valiant efforts of the horribly overmatched Canadian puck stoppers against the might Soviet Union national team that won me over.

The Nats alumni include Sean Burke, Andy Moog, Rick Tabaracci, even Mario Gosselin. Another favorite...Craig Billington.

Billington was a real studious kid, both on the ice and in the classroom. This probably comes as no surprise for anyone who knew the 1985 OHL scholastic player of the year.

"I always idolized Ken Dryden, who was then the star goalie of the Montreal Canadiens when they were winning all those Stanley Cups in the 1970s. I also was impressed by his intellect and the fact that he continued going to college and eventually became a lawyer. It was terrific how he managed with his education and also played hockey at such a high calibre for such a long time," said Billington in the Stan Fischler book Goalies: Legends from the NHL's toughest job.

The son of two educators was born and raised in London, Ontario, but moved to the smaller Belleville to play junior hockey. He would quickly establish himself as one of the top goaltending prospects in the world. The New Jersey Devils made him the 23rd overall pick in 1984.

"By the time I had reached Belleville, my priorities were pretty much in order. My immediate goal was to help the Belleville club win hockey games, but my long-range goal then was to eventually make it to the New Jersey Devils. If that didn't work out, I had decided that I would get an education. Long range, I had my heart set on going into the business world. Even as a teenager, I thought about business, whether it meant dabbling in the stock market or running my own business."

"Biller" wouldn't need to pursue a business education. It took him a while, but he established himself as NHL goalie by the early 1990s. But not until after many ups and downs, and stints in the minor leagues. But by 1993, he was playing in the NHL All Star Game.

Billington credits veteran presence and friend forever Chico Resch with helping him become a NHL quality netminder.

"At the time the Devils didn't have that good a team, but they did have Chico Resch as their goalie and a nicer guy you'll never find. I spent time living there with his family and getting tutelage from him. It was a difficult time for the Devils organization because they just didn't have the talent, and it certainly was demanding on the goaltenders because of all the rubber we faced."

Billington could never quite fully establish himself as the Devils go to guy between the pipes. He was perhaps mishandled a bit early on his career, not getting the playing time he needed. In fact at one point in his rookie season he was doing radio color commentary rather than dressing for games. But eventually they tried sending him down to the minor leagues to apprentice properly. That is where Billington met legendary minor league coach Tom McVie.

"He was notorious in the business for being a tough hombre, but Tom was very fair. One of McVie's virtues was that he made the game of hockey simple to understand. Another was that he could push you to a level that you may never have thought you could reach before."

But it was an assignment to Dave King's Canadian national team program that really allowed Billington to grow into a big league puck stopper. The former world junior gold and silver medalist was eager to play for Nats as he knew how valuable the experience would be.

"What helped me along the way was the year I spent playing for the Canadian Olympic team. The international experience taught me a couple of things, among them that there is a different style of play overseas with the wider ice. Playing over there, I came to respect the passing and the intricate European style plays. I learned to read plays much better and have come to see how the NHL integrated that formula into its system."

"The other thing I learned overseas was the difference in customs among various nations. I learned how to adjust to different cultures. The sum total of the experience made me mentally stronger and tougher, particularly because I had to perform at a high level under Olympic pressure.

"Looking back, I can say that they Olympic experience saved my career because it put things into perspective for me. It gave me a chance to work at my game and really appreciate the hockey business, where I was, and where I wanted to go from there."

After helping Canada capture a silver medal in the 1991 World Championships, he returned to New Jersey, though he faced stiff competition. Chris Terreri was a highly regarded goalie in his own right, and the Devils were giving him every opportunity to prove his worth. And a young Martin Brodeur had just been drafted into the system.

Undaunted, the improved Billington wrestled the starters job away from Terreri in 1992-93, posting 21 wins and 2 shutouts to earn an invitation to the midseason all star game.

Despite the improved play of Billington, the Devils were forced to part with one of there goalies due to continued expansion. To avoid losing one of there goalies through the expansion drafts, the Devils opted to keep Terreri and moved Billington to the lowly Ottawa Senators.

Though he was a human target in Ottawa, he welcomed the opportunity to be a starting goalie and to be reunited with Chico Resch, who was now a goalie coach. Still, it proved to be a very trying time.

"With the Devils, I was growing up with an expansion organization, and was with them as they became a successful and competitive club. It was very exciting and I felt that I was well respected there. Believe me, it was difficult leaving that kind of environment, going to another expansion team which was five to ten years away from being extremely competitive. I was starting from scratch, so to speak, all over again."

"Chico would remind me what I already had learned which is that it's a lot of fun to be a goalie, although on many nights it doesn't seem that way. I learned that you've got to love the game to get through the kind of frustration that many of us goalies do."

He played in 63 games, winning only 11 and losing 41. His GAA was a bloated 4.59 and his save percentage just 0.859. Despite the statistical facts, Billington played well in Ottawa, although history may have been archived incorrectly because of a rocky relationship with the media.

"I learned in Ottawa that you can't win with the media. The people who cover the Senators can be very difficult and, as a result, I can be very uncooperative at the same time.

"We did the best we could. One of the problems was that we didn't have the size on defense to clear the front of the net. But a lot of times it wasn't the defense. The forwards weren't holding up for them, allowing the D to stand up at the blue line. The system was just not executing, and that was my part of the challenge. But one of the things I learned is that I have to stay positive and remain a positive influence on my team. That's something I can control and something that has to be there, especially in the dressing room and around the guys."

Billington would be pardoned to Boston where he learned to be a back up while playing behind Bill Ranford. That experience proved to be very valuable to him, as in 1996 he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado's other goalie was the incomparable Patrick Roy. Billington immediately knew he was there to pinch hit for the goalie great, and he not only accepted the assignment with zest, but he became one of the few people to become exceptionally close to Roy.

For three years Billington would back up Roy before Billington was moved to Washington to round out his career in 2003. That's when Roy and Biller were reunited, as Billington returned to Colorado as a goaltending coach.

Though he had run a summer goaltending school back in Ontario for years, how could Billington coach arguably the greatest goalie of all time?

"I said Craig would be the perfect guy for the job," said Roy back in 2003. "He's a great student of the game -- and we were always on the same wavelength. I've been around long enough that I don't need someone to baby sit me. But Craig has a set of creative eyes that I trust. And we've already worked on a few of his ideas."

Billington was able to parlay his tenure as goaltender coach into a broader role of director of player development. He oversees the franchises minor league teams and prospect progress, as well as numerous scouting missions. It's a new world for Billington, but one that he excels at because of what he learned in life through the eyes of a goaltender.

"I've been working the mental skills and the mental training for the past six or seven years," Billington once said while still playing. "It's an ongoing process. It's constantly changing, and it's really a journey. I think the greatest lesson I've learned is that it's not just for hockey. I can apply this anywhere in life. In raising a family, you talk about belief, commitment, discipline, and respect. That's the type of person I want to be, no matter what I am doing, because I always want to get the best out of me. We only go through this life once, and I want to get the best out of Craig Billington every day. Whether it's at the hockey rink, the gym, with my friends or family, that's the way I want to be."


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