PRINCIPE: Eric the Red, the Black and the Blue
Gene Principe looks at the hard knocks taken by Oilers centre Eric Belanger
(Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club).
Eric Belanger had a tough first year in Edmonton. 4 goals, 12 assists for 16 points. Below expectations for Belanger who was signed July 1, 2011 by Edmonton. What the Oilers were expecting was a double-digit goal scorer with between 30-40 points. The centreman was coming off a career-high 40 pts. He would also be a key component in the penalty kill and provide a top notch faceoff man. Belanger did his part in the faceoff circle leading the Oilers with a 55.3% success rate. The rest didn't fall into place. When speaking to Eric on camera, off camera, in a lobby on a bus or anywhere else, he could never understand why. His frustration piling up game-by-game, week-by-week which eventually led to months and an entire season that never followed the plan.
Time to move on. It started in the off-season after a good chat with head coach Ralph Krueger. A chance to hear from the new bench boss how important Belanger would be to this still very young team in need of veteran leadership from the 35 year old. It would be a clean slate. What happened in 2011-2012 was so last year. I realized that on Saturday when I watched him and the rest of the Oilers take on the Colorado Avalanche. In the first period Belanger took a rocket off his foot and hobbled to the bench and was gone. Never to be seen again. Wait a minute he's back already. Only to get dinged by another howitzer and you guessed it another trip to the bench. Only this time it didn't look like he was coming back.
The reason he didn't return was because Belanger had to go for X-rays. I don't know if it was on his foot or his hand where he took the second shot or maybe both. Generally when a player gets carted away during a game for x-rays that's all for his day or night. Belanger was dealing with two separate issues. Can't get much worse for a hockey player to injure what he needs to skate (strike 1) and what he needs to hold and use his stick (strike 2). I figured strike 3 meant he wasn't coming back. I was so sure of it I tweeted it then deleted it after Kevin Quinn and Louie Debrusk said that Belanger was back on the bench.
Remember Saturday versus Colorado was game 8 of the season and there was Belanger making his return. This wasn't a playoff game or a game to get you into the playoffs and yet Belanger approached it that way. That is something that could not have been missed by the coaches or by his teamates. Especially the young ones who had to notice what happened to Belanger and his will to come play. Leading by example isn't always easy to do but I think Eric Belanger did that on Saturday.
After the 1983 Stanley Cup Final in which Edmonton was swept by the NY Islanders. The famous story is how the Oilers walked by the Islanders to see all the ice bags and the bumps and bruises it takes to be a winner. You need some players in your own room with ice bags along with bumps and bruises. On Saturday, Eric Belanger was that player. He departed Colorado in a walking boot and kicked aside any concerns about his commitment, desire and willingness to win and made the sacrifices to prove it.
Gene Prinicipe is the host of Oilers games on Sportsnet West and Sportsnet Oilers.