January 18, 2014

Wade Redden: Farm Boy At Heart

Wade Redden was the quiet, mild mannered kid from Hillmond, Saskatchewan - a farming homestead 30 minutes or so from Lloydminster. He would go on to a live his childhood dream of playing hockey in the NHL - though it was not always a dream-like career.

Redden grew up in rural Saskatchewan, playing outdoors and in weary, aging rinks that served as community centres as much as anything. The building were simple - wood barns with little insulation and no sound systems or light shows here - and so was life. 

Redden grew up playing in a natural ice arena dubbed Silverdome, which sounds fancy but couldn't stand next to NHL stadiums. It's amazing the old rink stands at all.

Life for a young athlete in rural Saskatchewan nowadays can easily bring back romantic prairie images of decades ago when Gordie Howe and Bobby Clarke were dreaming big. Redden grew up on a farm and there were only two seasons - seeds and harvest. But Redden's dreams were of sports and he, like so many rural Canadian boys, defined the seasons as hockey and baseball.

Wade and his older brother Bart would play both sports any chance they could get. They learned their hockey on a frozen backyard rink. And if it was raining outside, they'd mark up the basement walls and floors. They loved watching Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights almost as much as heading down to the local rink for their own games.

Because Bart was a year older, Wade almost always played on teams that featured older boys. But Wade had natural athletic ability to make up for that. And don't let that quiet, laid back personality fool you. He had tremendous drive to be the best.

It helped that their father Gord was their hockey coach. He played minor pro in the Detroit Red Wings system in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He never really had a shot at the NHL, though, and he never pushed his sons too hard either. All three of them dreamed of something a little simpler - winning the pee-wee provincials.

I'm not certain if the family ever won their provincials, but much bigger things were in store for them. In 1993 the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League recruited Wade. This was his big break, but it was devastating for the family. Brandon was 9 hours away and forced the tight knit family to say good bye to their youngest child. 

It was tough, but with the help of the Wheat Kings' Kelly McCrimmon it became a tremendous success story. Over the next three years Wade was the WHL rookie of the year and won two gold medals with Canada at the World Juniors. In 1995, Redden was drafted to the NHL second overall to the New York Islanders. Then he was traded to the Ottawa Senators Jan. 23, 1996. 

The move to the Ottawa organization was perfect for Redden. A new coach named Jacques Martin also was arriving on the scene and he loved Wade's smart, smooth game and his low-panic threshold. The two went on for many years of success together in Ottawa. 

Wade would lead the Ottawa Senators to 11 consecutive playoff appearances, with the team's journey to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007 being the highlight. Redden was one of the NHL's top two-way defensemen, as proven by his inclusion on Canada's 2004 World Cup team and 2006 Olympic team. He also skated in three World Championships.

It was a pretty charmed life - and financially enviable one, too. Not that Wade Redden was really in it for the money. He donated money to many charities, including Ottawa's children's hospital. Perhaps his biggest luxury expense was buying a backyard pool for his parents - who remained in the same farming home all after all those years. Well, that and some updated farming equipment.

Wade would return to the farm every summer, and help out with all of his usual chores. After all, the 80 head of cattle and rolling acres of canola don't much care who you are.

 "When he comes home, he's not Wade Redden of the Ottawa Senators -- he's Wade Redden from 10 miles north of town," said Brian Sheppard, who operated a used sporting goods store in Lloydminster. A young Redden was a regular customer of his.

"Lloyd" is right on the Alberta, border, so this is Edmonton Oilers territory. But Redden turned many of them into Senators fans when he played in Ottawa. It was not even so much his hockey ability that accomplished that, but more his likeability. 

Redden's NHL dreams started taking different turns following the 2008 season. Despite talk of a "hometown discount," the Ottawa Senators allowed Redden to skate away as a free agent. He signed a monstrous six year, $39 million dollar contract with the New York Rangers.

But for whatever reason Redden struggled in New York almost immediately. The intense media made him into a bit of a whipping boy, largely because of his cumbersome contract in the NHL's salary cap world. After two seasons with the Rangers he was demoted to the minor leagues. Since no other NHL team wanted his contract, he was essentially buried there, forced to ride the busses and sleep in motels like all the other players dreaming of getting back to the NHL. 

"I knew my experience and having played as long as I have that guys would look up to me," Redden said. "I try to be a good influence and a good example — try to walk the walk."

And hey, at least he was still paid in full, and as such he became the highest paid minor leaguer in hockey history. The average AHL salary at the time was $65,000 a season. He was getting paid more than $80,000 per game.

His minor league reprieve did not come until 2013 when a new collective bargaining agreement allowed the Rangers to buy out his contract. He was a free agent and drew interest from around the league thanks to a much smaller price tag. The St. Louis Blues signed him for the abbreviated 2013 season, only to trade him to Boston at the trade deadline.

Redden put in serviceable work but was essentially a depth defenseman at that stage of his career. with no job offers for the 2013-14 season, he finally retired in January 2014.

“I would first and foremost like to thank my family and friends for their unconditional love and support,” he said in a statement released by the NHLPA. “I would also like to thank my teammates, coaches and staff for all the great memories created throughout the years.
“To the fans, I appreciate all your support throughout my career. Playing in the National Hockey League has been a dream come true and I feel very proud and privileged to have played more than 1,000 games in 14 NHL seasons.”
Wade Redden played in 1023 regular season games in the NHL, scoring 109 goals and 457 points. 
He also earned an estimated $70 million dollars in his hockey career. Somehow I suspect today he's out braving the cold, fixing an old tractor on his parents farm.

-- Special thanks to Kathleen Harris of the Ottawa Sun


Anonymous said...

Pretty nice story,I love it!
Thank you!

Ralph Michael Hass said...

Thanks for the career recap!
Wade looked good in RED didn't he?

I saw him six weeks ago with another famous "Man In RED":)
Have a look: Santa for the W!

I guess you could say both are in hockey hibernation now...