Tampa, Fla. — He’s actually quite quiet, his tone of voice makes you want to lean in just as much as his witty words do. He’s a friendly guy, quick to challenge a teammate or joke with reporters. He’s a great teammate, throwing himself completely into any role, whether it’s a top man on the top line or a deep scorer in the bottom 6. He was popular wherever he was.
Who is this lovely, friendly, intelligent person? Why, of course, Corey Perry.
“Just fantastic,” said Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Cooper.
“Awesome teammate,” Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy said.
“Exciting,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said.
Now, this other guy, he’s a raging madman—cruel and fiery. His eyes narrowed and his eyebrows furrowed, fists and spit ready to start flying at any moment. He’s an elite trash talker, but also casually dismissive and, for lack of a better word, rude, in a way that drives you crazy. It cuts the line between tough and dirty to play with. He’s sly when he’s aggravating. He is the target of cross checks from opponents and raises from supporters, and he gets each of them. If we’re being honest, he’s kind of a jerk.
Who is this annoying, intractable pain in the argument? Why, of course, Corey Perry.
Hockey fans in North America said, “(It’s too canceled).”
Perhaps no player is simultaneously loved and hated in the league like Perry, the 38-year-old former Hart Trophy winner who joined the Blackhawks this offseason to fill the leadership void left by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. He’s the player you love to hate and the player you love to have.
Just the way he wants it.
“That’s a good thing, I don’t mind that,” Perry said of being scorned by a large fan base. “Those (compliments from teammates) are nice to hear, but once the puck drops, it’s all about me. I’ve been in a few groups, met a lot of people along the way. But once the puck drops, it’s a new Corey.”
New Corey is the worst person ever. Countless NHL defensemen have learned 19 seasons into his illustrious career.
“He plays a lot around the net front, so as a defensive back, you spend a lot of time there, fighting guys,” Murphy said. “He’s very good at the net and knows how to get in those tough spots. He is also good at using his stance. So if you push him hard, the only place he’s going to fall is the keeper, so he’s going to meet the keeper and make the keeper’s night tough.
Then Murphy laughed.
“Everybody had to deal with him at some point.”
Perry has complete self-awareness, knowing exactly what everyone on the ice thinks of him. And he uses that to his advantage. Intimidation is intimidation. Help out any poor baby deer-footed rookie he finds in a puck fight or a war of attrition with Corey Freaking Perry.
“One hundred percent, absolutely,” Perry said when asked if his fame helped him. “I’m a guy who wants to win every night, and to get that chance to win, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Of course, those opportunities have come a little more frequently than they have in previous locations in Chicago. In 14 seasons (and 11 playoff appearances) with the Anaheim Ducks, Perry reached three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals with Dallas, Montreal and Tampa Bay. Those teams didn’t win the championship, but Perry — who won it all with the Ducks in 2007, in his second year in the league — has played in 196 career playoff games, the most among active players and tied for 22nd all-time with Detroit. The legend Steve Yzerman.
In Chicago, the work is different. He’s not here to put the Blackhawks on top at the end of the climb, he’s here to help the Blackhawks — especially 18-year-old Connor Bedard — take their first steps up the mountain. It’s a different role, but one Perry seems to embrace wholeheartedly.
“It’s definitely a work in progress,” he said. “This will not happen overnight. But at the same time, it’s the little things, day in and day out. What to do with objects on stage or on ice. Whatever it is, whatever he wants, just come and see me, I told him. I am a voice for him.
Perry was one of the key veterans who organized a players-only meeting after Sunday night’s seemingly routine loss in New Jersey, warning of complacency and preaching accountability and brotherhood. Life lessons like these go a long way on a team with few rookies.
“The things he says carry weight,” Murphy said. “He doesn’t just throw clichés and words out there. It’s the things that capture the tone and play the game the right way when talking about the game.”
That presence was felt just as strongly in Tampa, among the colorful group of All-Stars. Cooper had to compose himself before even talking about Perry on Thursday morning. He seems to be talking about his own son.
“This is difficult for me to answer; I could be here all day,” Cooper said. “What he meant not only to this organization but to me personally. I don’t know where he will end up in his career when he finally finishes, but I hope he comes back with us. Because you can’t find a more first class guy than Corey Perry – a guy who puts everything on the line to win. What he meant to the coaching staff and the bench, he was a gem to have on this team. He was like an extension of us. He just gets it. People who know, there’s not a ton out there. And he’s one of them, I’ll tell you that.”
Richardson Perry had been an assistant in Montreal and had a similar view of Kaggi’s veterinary practice. Richardson told a story about how Perry would “yell” at his teammates on the bench during simple drills where they were working on dumps. A couple of turnovers on the blue line got him going.
Regardless of the situation, the standard is always the standard.
“It makes the coach’s job a lot easier because I think the player is going to be more scared of him than I am,” Richardson said. “(It’s like a parent) ‘Make your bed and take out the trash.’ It will be like old hat. They don’t want to hear it anymore. But when your peers tell you, you pull your socks up and do it right next time. That’s what it brings.
If Richardson is a dad, Perry and his friend Nick Follingo are the young Blackhawks’ big brothers, pushing the kids their own way — often making hockey noggin and dead-arm opponents.
“I think it’s the way we’ve been taught to play the game (and) I think it’s the right way to play the game,” Follingo said. “You should never be easy to play.”
For almost two decades now, Perry has been anything but easy to play. Easy to hate? for sure. Is it easy to get angry? Oh, yes. Is revenge easy to accept? for sure.
Easy to love? Well, yes, that, too. But only if they wear the same jersey as him.
(Best photos of Corey Perry and Brad Marchand: Michael Reeves/Getty Images and Bill Smith/NHL by Getty Images)