Changes for the fake Panthers

I promised some screen shots of the various players I’m talking about, however, I’m suffering through some computer issues… I can post thanks to the laptop but can’t get the war horse to operate properly.  The game runs.  The screen shots save.  Getting them to load to the internet, however… heheheh.  Well, I’ll keep working on it.  In the meantime… the fake Panthers have been entirely quiet in free agency.  Only one thing breaks the monotony of the summer…

JULY 21, 2021

Denis Kulyash retired today.

The media corps is dutifully compiling the various statistics and career highlights to use in their press release.  AGM Joe McDonough has told Ryan McGill, who is in turn going to notify the coaching staff.  Then the team will hold a press conference at 4:00 to announce the news, and Beginner and Kulyash will dutifully stand in front of the microphones and issue the usual statements about the event, about the player always being a part of the team “family,” the gratitude of franchise and player, and possibly some suppressed emotion.

One suspects this will not be a routine formality like for many other players.  For the one thing, Kulyash has had a fine and rewarding career: fourteen NHL seasons, seven Stanley Cups, runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the 2008 Rookie-of-the-Year, and all for the Panthers.  The affable Russian has also long been a fan favorite.  In his rookie year, the home fans would serenade his booming slapshots and hard checks with cries of “Den-NEEEEEE,” as if he were a French-Canadian, and it stuck as a nickname even though Kulyash pronounces his name “DEH-niss.”

Beginner has a great story behind that nickname in “Hockey and Other, Less Serious, Business” –

Denis arrived with enough English to get along with his teammates.  He had to: it was quite an international room, with Finns, Swedes, Czechs, and others to go along with the majority North American demographic.  And his strong play drew a lot of media attention, which tested and honed his English skills in much the same way opposing forwards were testing and honing his on-ice performance.

He didn’t have the cultural background, however.  It began to quite annoy him that nobody would pronounce his name properly.  One night this resulted in him nearly refusing to go back onto the ice when named one of the three stars, because he knew the fans would serenade him with “Deh-NEEEEE!”  Since I was at that particular game I went down to the locker room to reassure him.

“They mean it as a complement, Denis,” I said.

“It’s not my name,” he replied.

“Well… they know, Denis.”

He scowled.  I realized that I’d made it sound like they didn’t respect him.  I tried again:

“There was a guy who used to play goal in the NHL about 15 years ago,” I said.  “Everyone called him GEE AY-bear.  But he’s American.  He always pronounced his name Guy HEH-burt.  They pronounced it the way they would in Montreal.”

“He should have said something,” he replied.

“He did.  But after a while, it stuck.  But he realized that they meant it kindly.”

He scowled.  I realized that I’d made it sound like nobody respected his entire country.  Ignoring the first rule of holes, I grabbed my shovel and kept on digging:

“Denis – they mean well.  It’s… it’s affectionate.  Like a nickname.  Like having 19,000 girls call you something cute.  Well… except that most of them are drunk dudes.”

The look on Denis’ face at this point convinced me that he was heading to the KHL on the next possible flight out of Fort Lauderdale.  The whole room was staring.  I don’t even remember how I left – I was told later (with much laughter and comic impressions) that it was the most conspicuous getaway in history.  (Joel Kwiatkowski called me “the day-glo ninja.”)  But that came later.  At the time it was just mortifying.  I even considered skipping the custom I followed whenever I was in town on getaway day, that of seeing off the team buses when they left for the airport.  But I finally decided it would do no good to hide.

When I went back the next morning, the team, from the merest rookie all the way up to Jacques Martin, studiously avoided catching my eye, until Denis came out.  He scowled, and then pointed to the back of his head.  For a moment I was lost; then I realized that he was indicating the pony tail that I wore at the time.  He pointed at me and said to the rest of the team, “One of my 19,000 girlfriends.  Deh-NEEEEEEE!”

Everyone started howling with laughter.  No doubt they could have used my face in the same way Santa used Rudolph’s nose, but I laughed too, from relief if nothing else, because somehow I’d managed to dig that hole all the way through to Russia, and Denis got it.  He warmed considerably to the nickname after this.  The unfortunate side effect was that I earned a nickname as well, one Denis still will break out when he’s annoyed with me: “Babushka.”

“Babushka,” idiomatically, means “grandmother” and not “girlfriend.” Denis was putting his own pawkish twist on things.

Though in future years he became more of a second pair, penalty-killing defender, Denis never lost that huge slapshot that first garnered notice around the league, even when his “boxcar” numbers dropped after his big debut year.  For the low cost of a fifth-rounder to Nashville, the Panthers secured 1013 games of stalwart two-way play from Kulyash, plus another xxx in the playoffs.

This is also a watershed moment for Beginner, professionally and personally.

When Beginner was a boy on Long Island, he was naturally enough an Islanders fan.  Growing up to get a job under Bill Torrey was a big moment.  After years of education under the master, Beginner was almost destined to try to build his own team in the same manner as Torrey built the Islander dynasty.  In this, he actually did his mentor one better in a small detail, one that made a big personal difference to him.

In New York, Torrey’s first draftee was Billy Harris; his first captain was Ed Westfall, obtained in the expansion draft.  It meant a great deal to all three to see the Islanders consummate their hard work and perseverance with a Stanley Cup victory, but in the end, only Torrey made it to the finish line: Westfall retired in 1979 and Harris was traded to Los Angeles on March 10th, 1980; 75 days later, Bob Nystrom would score the goal that launched their run of four consecutive Cups.  And Torrey had to move Harris in order to bring in Butch Goring, the player who anchored their second line and helped bolster their strong penalty-kill unit; he sacrificed a great deal of his personal feeling to make the deal that put the team over the top.

Beginner likewise had a soft spot for his first draftee, Bryan Cameron, and his first obtained player, Kulyash.  The difference was that Beginner had many of the pieces he needed already in place: he didn’t need to draft for a Potvin or Trottier or Bossy, because he already had Bouwmeester, Jokinen, and Horton.  He didn’t have look far for the youngsters to supplement them, because Anthony Stewart and Kenndal McArdle and Stephen Weiss were already there, needing only time to become a formidable second line.  He was able to keep both Cameron and Kulyash around for the first championship.

Cameron long ago became too expensive under the salary cap.  Beginner, taking another lesson from Torrey, knew the time had come to deal him; Weiss and Stewart would follow in time.  Ruslan Fedotenko and Michael Frolík and Josh Harding and Eric Brewer all moved along evenutally.  But Kulyash, despite the knee troubles that had begun to hamper his effectiveness in 2017, remained.  Beginner signed him to a three-year deal, even as his production began to slip and he was sheltered on the third pair.  He signed him to a one-year deal in 2020, and he could only play in 25 games, with one goal and one assist.  Beginner, amazingly, signed him yet again to one year, and even included a no-trade clause; but those two points would turn out to be the last of Kulyash’s career.

Turns out that even a man who spends the previous two months preaching a youth movement, and who had no problem following through on trading popular players over the years, can’t always cut ties so easily.

So it ends with a press conference, as usual… but not quite as usual for this unusual franchise.  There will be other moments as well – the team is visiting Russia in five weeks, and Kulyash will likely make the trip.  There will be a Denis Kulyash Night, and one more chance for Floridians to chant “Deh-NEEE” at their “French-Canadian” defender.

And then Denis Kulyash will go home to Omsk.

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