January 20, 2014

From NEHJ: Purcell running with it

By Bob Snow

Teddy Purcell (16) has 71 career goals and 205 points in 357 games, including 8-11-19 totals this season. (Photo/Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

It was a one-and-done NCAA career for Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Teddy Purcell. 

But what a year it was back in 2006-07.

And what an NHL career since.

Landing on the Black Bears campus at the University of Maine — at an age when he could buy a beer before his first NCAA shift — the 21-year-old Purcell was the quintessential profile of the recruiting system of the late and legendary Maine coach Shawn Walsh.

Walsh and long-time recruiting guru Grant Standbrook parlayed building teams around older players into perennial powerhouses that culminated in two national championships in 1993 and 1999.

For Purcell, his NCAA selection tour also was a one-and-done.

“I was (heavily) recruited by Grant Standbrook,” Purcell told the NEHJ in an exclusive interview. “They were really interested in me from the start; that really impressed me. I went on my first visit there with my dad and thought (Alfond Arena) was awesome and a really cool atmosphere.”

The Orono campus is some 900 miles from his native St. Johns, Newfoundland, but the closest Division 1 program across the 59-team landscape. 

“Coming from Newfoundland and as close as you’re going to get for (U.S.) college hockey, I’d get a good chance to play right away as a freshman coming in as an older guy,” Purcell reflected.

Play right away he did.

And that age and size factor contributed to an ascent that would have him named Hockey East Rookie of the Year in March 2007.

“I think at 21 I was a bit more mature, had more experience playing junior and went in as ready as I could be. Some kids go in a little early and it takes them a couple of years to find their bearings. I went in with nothing to lose and a lot of experience and took my opportunity.”

At 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds, Purcell emerged as a bona fide power forward whose hockey career took off before first ice in the Vacation State, exceeding his wildest expectations.

Purcell racked up 16-27-43 totals in 40 games at the University of Maine in the 2006-07 season. Maine lost in the Frozen Four semifinals to Michigan State.

“I didn’t have those high expectations that only year going in. I was going in as a 21-year-old freshman to get my feet wet and get a college degree to fall back on and who knows from there. Maybe an AHL tryout, who knows? But I definitely surprised myself and things happened very quick. I went from not talking to barely any schools to signing an NHL contract after my first year.”

How quick?

“I thought I was getting pranked,” Purcell smiled about an early season situation. “I got an email from the Anaheim Ducks like the end of November, so pretty early. The wheels started turning. I sent it to my parents to make sure it wasn’t one of my buddies kidding me. But ever since that, I started talking to teams. I realized there aren’t many times you can turn down NHL teams. If it doesn’t work out I can always go back to school.”

The wheels on the Maine bus also started turning early that 2006-07 season with a talented cast that included Purcell, goaltender and now Lightning teammate Ben Bishop, and sniper Michel Leveille.

“I got a chance to play with some really good players that gave me a lot of power-play time,” Purcell reflected. “My second weekend we played North Dakota. They had (Jonathan) Toews and (T.J.) Oshie. They were stacked. We went in and swept them. I had a real good weekend. That was a huge stepping stone to realize, ‘Hey, I can play here and make an impact at this level.’ My confidence just took off from there.”

Purcell and Maine would roll all the way to the Scottrade Center in St. Louis for a Frozen Four semifinal matchup with Michigan State. And a shot at a third title after losing the 2004 championship game, 1-0, in Boston against Denver University.

“We were up 2-1 early,” Purcell smiled. “But they stormed back and it was, ‘Wow, what just happened?’ ”

A 4-2 final “happened” and the Spartans went to beat BC, 3-1, for the 2007 national title.

“Yeah, for sure the ’07 semi and Game 7 in 2011 (Eastern) Conference finals (vs. the Boston Bruins) were my two biggest games (at the NCAA and NHL levels).

“You’re six minutes away, one shot, one goal from the Cup finals.”

While the 1-0 final score in that Game 7 denied the Lightning a shot at a second Stanley Cup, it proved a dynamic bookend over those five years for Purcell.

After leaving Maine with a 16-27-43 total in 40 games, he signed a free-agent contract with the L.A. Kings. And labored in L.A. until a late-season trade to Tampa Bay for Jeff Halpern in 2010.

“It took me a couple of years to get going in L.A.,” Purcell summarized about his tumultuous time in Tinseltown. “The fit didn’t work. I really didn’t have any confidence. I was in and out of the lineup with the coach. I was even intimidated in practice — afraid to make mistakes. You can’t live like that, let alone be a successful NHL player.”

A year after landing in Tampa, Purcell began living the life. His 17 points in the 2011 playoffs established his playing potential on the big sheet.

The following season in 2011-12 was his NHL best with 65 points on 24 goals and 41 assists in 81 games.

He had 16 points this year as December began.

“When I came here, I got a real good opportunity to work with good coaches, so the season went well and it took off in the playoffs. Last year went well. It takes a couple of years to establish yourself as a player.”

Has Purcell caught Lightning in a bottle?

“I do feel like this is home,” he said. “Great team and ownership, management and coaching staff, and a real good group of core guys.

How does a kid from Newfoundland talk about having a boss named Steve Yzerman?

“Sometimes, it’s kind of surreal that he is your boss. He’s giving me these contracts. I’ve signed six years of contracts now; just starting the first of a new three-year one. He’s good with feedback and obviously is a sponge when you talk to him. He’s a wealth of knowledge; pretty cool to work for a guy like that.”

Purcell is the rare NCAA breed who went from juniors to NCAA play to the AHL to the NHL in four years.

How does he explain those skill levels?

“Not much difference between juniors and NCAA play,” he said. “Big difference between NCAA and AHL. Huge difference between AHL and NHL. There should be a league in between because it’s such a big jump. You see so many guys in the AHL that dominate the AHL, but they can’t seem to figure it out in the NHL. I don’t know if it’s just the opportunity or that extra gear you need. Maybe they’re not fast enough or don’t think as quickly or they got away with stuff in the AHL.”

Purcell got his opportunity in the cold climes of Orono, Maine. Now he is entering a peak run of sun and fun in Tampa.

“It was a fun time at Maine and something I’ll always look back on,” Purcell said. “And it’s a fun time to be on this team.”

Bob Snow writes for NHL.com. He will contribute a monthly special for the New England Hockey Journal into the 2014 Frozen Four about an accomplished Division 1 player at a New England college who is succeeding in the NHL.

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