On a Friday morning last September, I stood beside Caps right wing Eric Fehr up against the glass at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. We were watching Caps rookie center Nicklas Backstrom go through his paces in his first official practice as a Washington Capital on this, the first day of on-ice activity at the Capitals’ 2007 training camp.
“Whaddya think?” I asked Fehr.
“I can’t wait to play with that guy,” Fehr responded. He didn’t need to be more specific about who he was referring to; I knew who he meant.
Tomorrow night in Columbus, Fehr will get that chance. As an added bonus, a guy named Alex Ovechkin will make up the third part of that forward line.
It was killing Fehr not to be out on the ice with Backstrom on that September morning, but that was because Fehr’s back was killing him, too. The personable winger played for the Caps in a home game against San Jose last Feb. 21, and then was forced to shut down for the rest of the season because of a troublesome back ailment that was later discovered to be a herniated disc.
Multiple cortisone shots, multiple visits to specialists, rest, rehab and an off-season wedding did nothing to curtail Fehr’s pain, and he started the 2007-08 season on a the sidelines. Just days past his 22nd birthday, he had no idea when he would play again.
In December, reports starting filtering down from Hershey that Fehr was feeling better. Then skating. Then practicing. Soon after that, he returned to the lineup in mid-January and has played 10 games since. The Winkler, Man. native has two goals and six points in those 10 days, and the reports on his performance were good enough to earn him a recall to Washington, just a few weeks after he had returned to the lineup.
I first met Fehr at the NHL Entry Draft in 2003, the day before the Caps made him their first-round (18th overall) choice that June in Nashville. I was present when the Caps interviewed Fehr, and was struck by his confidence. He told the Washington assemblage that he was going to score 50 goals (for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings) in 2003-04, and he did. Coming from a guy who had netted 26 the season before, this was a pretty big proclamation. Fehr followed up with 59 goals for the Wheat Kings in 2004-05, earning WHL player of the year honors in the process.
He turned pro in 2005-06, scored 25 goals and helped lead the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup championship. In the key seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals series against the Portland Pirates, Fehr scored two goals — including the overtime game-winner — to propel the Bears to the Cup finals. Fehr totaled eight goals and 11 points in 19 playoff games that spring.
In 2006-07, Fehr potted 22 goals in 40 games with the Bears, and added his first two NHL tallies in 14 games with Washington. Then came the back problems.
Now Fehr re-joins the Caps, and re-joins his Calder Cup championship coach from Hershey and seven of his Bears teammates in Washington. In most of his previous trips to the District, he has skated sporadically (he has averaged just 8:32 over his 25 NHL games to date), getting fourth-line time and playing alongside less skilled players.
This trip will be different. He will join fellow first-rounders Ovechkin (22) and Backstrom (20) and hopes to help the Caps add some secondary scoring. Fehr will be the elder statesman on that line in terms of age — he’s 10 days older than Ovechkin — but he’s the baby of the group in terms of NHL experience.
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, Fehr has never been shy about going to the net. On a team that has lacked some scoring punch from the right side and that has struggled for secondary scoring, Fehr could be a tonic.
“I want to go out, I want to produce, and I want to help this team win,” said Fehr after his first practice with his new linemates on Monday. “I’m hoping to add a lot to this team. I like to stand in front of the net and I like to try to produce that way. Whatever I can do to help the team — whether it’s screening goalies or making plays, taking hits — whatever it is, I want to do it.
Fehr knows this recall is different in substance from his previous visits to Washington.
“I think this is a lot bigger for me,” he admits. “I came up and I played a few games here and there. I didn’t play a lot of minutes. Now it’s time to put up or shut up. I’ve got to go out and I’ve got to play, and that’s what I expect to do.”
This time, Fehr wil be on the right side of Backstrom, instead of being on the other side of the glass.
“It feels great. I watched those guys in practice today and they see the ice unbelievably well. I think it’s going to be an easy job for me; just try to get open and just try to give them the pick. It’s pretty simple stuff. Backstrom is an unbelievable player and Ovechkin, obviously everybody knows about Ovechkin. I’m just going to work as hard as I can and just try to help them produce.”
Finally, I’ll leave you with a testimonial to Fehr’s confidence and ability from former Bears teammate Graham Mink. In the jubilant moments immediately after the Bears won the Calder Cup in Milwaukee in June, 2006, Mink gave me this quote:
“We had different guys showing up every night. We had great players like Eric Fehr. He came in here at the beginning of the year and told us, ‘I only score big goals.’ I looked at him and thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ But it was absolutely the truth. The kid has a nose for the net and a flair for the dramatic. It’s players like him and Mike Green and Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon, Dave Steckel. The list goes on. Just the chemistry and our experience was the biggest difference-maker. We have a lot of old guys and a lot of guys who have been around before and maybe haven’t won a championship, but could show us the way. That was the secret, I guess. Chemistry.”
It’s going to be fun to watch and see what kind of chemistry Fehr can produce with fellow first-rounders Backstrom and Ovechkin.