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Joe Reekie's Defense Mechanism
By Dave Feete, Correspondent

In this day and age, defensive players rarely get the attention they deserve. Come to think of it, defensive players NEVER got the respect they deserve. Never, ever, ever, ever... Not ever.

Mostly this is because the Bures, Jagrs and Palffys of the world are so busy pounding pucks into the net, the huge majority of fans just don't notice the guys who are sent out there to stop them (which is no easy task). Probably this has something to do with hearing the names of who-scored-what over and over on the loudspeakers, or on the sports highlights, to the point of being some kind of mass hypnosis. But everybody wants to score a goal -- how many dudes in the world want to throw themselves face-first into a 90-mph Brett Hull slap shot just to prevent one? Now, that number's got to be a lot lower. Just being willing to do such a thing is probably indicative of some rare, unnamed mental illness.

But, no matter what, ya gotta respect a guy who's willing to put his team's chances of winning above his own teeth and facial features. Really, a man who sacrifices any chance he has of personal glory, just to win a game, is a very rare man. Think about it: Everyone remembers who scores the Cup-winning goal, but who remembers the defenseman who tied up the other team's star forward in the other end, making the winning rush possible? Nobody. There are very few who take great pride in this kind of life.

One such man is Washington Capitals defenseman Joe Reekie. Most casual observers probably think of Reekie as a journeyman, who has drifted from Buffalo to the Islanders to Tampa to Washington; a guy who hasn't made much of an impression on the league. Just 20 playoff game appearances in 10 years; 18 goals, 91 assists, 109 points, in 508 games? Whoop-de-friggin'-do... Typical hockey fans would yawn, dismiss him, shrug, whatever. Most of them would assume that the guy hasn't done much of anything, figure he was just filling in a roster spot 'till some hot new prospect comes along.

And they'd all be WRONG, DEAD WRONG! Reekie is no average Joe, he's an INFINITELY more important player than his offensive numbers indicate. Looking at his goal total doesn't tell you how many times he shoved Brendan Shanahan out of the crease, and it doesn't say anything about the times he slammed Messier, Oates, or Lindros into the boards and stripped them of the puck. Nor does it credit him for always being in the right place at the right time, or for running the penalty-killing unit as well as Paul Coffey runs a power play.

Reekie's the antithesis of any great offensive player. His job is to neutralize the potential highlight-film material, a rare breed of fire fighter.

"I find that the guys who come in and bang you night-in and night-out... are the toughest players," said Reekie. "I always find it hard to play against a Rick Tocchet, Cam Neely, a Lindros, a Nolan, those guys. They work hard, they finish their checks, and they're just going to score goals. Like Jeremy Roenick."

A fairly surprising statement, considering it comes from a 6'3", 220-pound monster who's built like Colossus. From looking at him, one would figure he'd have more trouble with little, quick guys, like Theo Fleury, than with fellow monoliths.

"Well, no," he responded. "A lot of the speed guys, you have to respect them, like a Jagr and a Lemieux. But the guys who pound you every game, I find those to be the toughest players."

The only statistic that even comes close to recognizing Reekie's true greatness is his plus/minus rating.

"As a defensive defenseman, I'm not going to get a lot of points in a year," he admits. "But you know, I just can't get scored against. I take a lot of pride in [defense], just like a goal scorer does scoring goals, and I do whatever it takes not to let one in," Reekie explained. "It eats me alive when I get scored against."

For eight straight seasons, Reekie has been a "plus" player. On the surface that might not seem like much, but think about this -- he's played for some really bad teams. Accumulating a +2 and a +8, playing for the first two incarnations of the expansion Lightning, was rather amazing. But it was another season, with another bad team, that may have been, ironically, his finest hour.

Playing for the truly awful 1989-90 Islanders, "Joltin' Joe" ended the season with a +13 rating, while playing in only 31 games. Now, to truly appriciate this magnificent accomplishment, we need to explore how bad this team really was. Hardly anyone on the team could score unless they were named Pat LaFontaine. The young Mark Fitzpatrick and the not-so-young Glenn Healy were an unsteady, unproven tandem, at best. They had a sub-par defensive corps that was still hurting from losing Denis Potvin and Tomas Jonsson two years before. Their starting lines were peppered with tough guys like Mick Vukota, Rich Pilon, Alan Kerr, and Ken Baumgartner; also with retreads and has-beens like Don Maloney, Hubie McDonough, and a worn out, tired Bryan Trottier. This was not a team that was going to pile up goals, or prevent many from being scored.

How was it then, that Reekie could play a mere 31 games and be plus-13? Only when you consider that LaFontaine, who scored 54 goals and 105 points, was a minus-4 (and most of the rest of the team rated in the -10s and -20s), does it become apparent what an amazing job he did. He was the only player on that team with any significant playing time who even registered on the positive side. He often looked like the only one on the ice who knew, or cared, what he was doing.

"That's one statistic for me that's my guideline," he said of plus/minus. "Just like a goal scorer has to score goals. That's my job out there, that's what they look for."

Joe acknowledges that the influx of Europeans has "changed the game a lot." But apparently the increased speed and skill they bring to the league hasn't brought down his game, or effected his style, at all.

"I think there's a lot more speed." He conceded. "I think there has to be more focus on containment than on getting the big hit. When they come over here, they're so strong on their feet. The flow is a lot faster, and you have to think containment."

Reekie went on to notch a +17 in 66 games with the 1990-'91 Isles, before moving on to Tampa Bay, when he was the first defenseman taken in the expansion draft, and he still plays consistently great defense, in virtual anonymity. Still only 31, Joe could certainly be effective for many more years, due to his style of play. Really, if he loses a step off his top speed, who'd care?

In spite of the fact that he's spent the vast majority of his career playing defense, when he remembers the best game of his career, he remembers scoring.

"When I got traded to Washington, [during] the playoffs (1993- 94), I scored two goals against Pittsburgh, and we won the game 2-0," Joe fondly recalls. "We would eventually beat Pittsburgh in that [playoff] series."

"It was my second time in the playoffs, and not being a goal scorer, to get two and then win was probably the best feeling I've had."

It's such a shame that players as good as Reekie can play for so long without being recognized for their years of fine service. The Norris Trophy ("Best Defenseman") pretty much always goes to the defenseman who scores 100 points, and plays decent in his own end. There's even the Selke Trophy for the "Best Defensive Forward." When, oh when, will there be an award for the "Best Defensive DEFENSEMAN"?!?

Then, and only then, these brave, skilled players will get a small amount of the credit they deserve.

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