by Joe Sager || pittsburghpenguins.com
A pair of shoulder pads hangs on a metal hook in the Penguins locker room.
Tattered and torn, one wonders how the piece of equipment remains held together.
The shoulder pads look like survivors of many hard-fought battles throughout the years.
Well, they are. And, that’s exactly how they define their owner – Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Alain Nasreddine, who at 31, is earning a regular spot in the NHL this season.
The shoulder pads represent a journey – almost like an old suitcase covered with shipping labels from all over the world. However, the frayed and faded piece of equipment and its owner seem to have found a permanent home in Pittsburgh after an arduous 12-year journey throughout hockey’s minor leagues.
“I do appreciate [my chance] a lot, especially on the road I took to get here. I saw pretty much everything in the minors,” said Nasreddine. “Every day is a great day for me. Every day I wake up and feel grateful to be in the NHL. I don’t take anything for granted. Every day is a battle for me and every day I have to prove myself and that’s fine with me. I waited 12 years and it’s not a big deal for me to have to do that.”
Nasreddine had appeared in just 18 NHL games before he got a six-game stint with the Penguins last year. He was recalled to Pittsburgh on Dec. 4, 2006, and has been here ever since, playing in 33 games and ranking second on the team with a plus-11 rating.
“It’s a nice story to be 31 years old and earning a spot in the NHL. And he earned that spot. He’s been playing well,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “He’s going to have some ups and downs like a lot of players, but it’s a great story. He was the leader in Wilkes-Barre and always worked hard there. He’s always had a great attitude and he’s always been good with the young players. He was the captain of those young guys there. A lot of our young guys are happy to see Nasreddine get a shot here.”
Indeed. Max Talbot is one of those players.
“As soon as he came to Wilkes-Barre, he was a great leader. He’s the type of guy that you know is going to be there every night,” said Talbot, who is a fellow French-Canadian. “I am so happy for him now that he has his chance in the NHL. He’s been working so hard and he always kept believing in himself. He was supposed to go to Europe a couple years ago, but he wanted to keep playing here. I roomed with him in Wilkes-Barre, so I kind of knew his situation – should I leave or should I stay – he made the right decision and it’s paying off for him.
“When he’s out there, you know he’s going to give everything he has and I think that’s what Coach Therrien wants and that’s what the organization wants. They know what to expect from him,” he continued. “He makes you realize how lucky I am and some of the other guys are to play in the NHL at 22, 20 or 18. The guy battled his entire career. Every day was a battle for him to stay and compete and try to prove himself. Hopefully, he can play more years in the league. It’s fun to have him around. He’s a very great guy.”
Nasreddine went scoreless in his first 30 NHL games in nine seasons. However, he finally recorded his first point – a goal – in his hometown of Montreal on Dec. 16. That’s just one of the highlights for Nasreddine this season.
“I realize that I am in a really nice position right now to be in the NHL with one of the top teams in the league. It’s really overwhelming what’s happened to me in the last few months, but I stay focused and I have to keep that edge that I had when I first came here,” he said. “I have to keep that if I want to stay and perform in this league. I enjoy it, but at the same time, I realize I have a big job to do for this team when I am called upon.”
Another fond memory came off the ice with the birth of his son, Alec, on Valentine’s Day. Nasreddine was allowed to leave the team to help his wife, Josiane, deliver.
“It’s very special for me. I was there for my wife in the delivery room. It was some experience to be there with her all along. It’s something I will never forget,” he said. “Now, we have a little baby boy at home and he’s doing well. My wife is doing a really good job helping me out. I try to help her out; she does most of the work, but she realizes that we need to make sacrifices while the season is still going on. She’s very helpful; she works hard. The baby is great and in great health, so I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Hard work seems to run in the Nasreddine family. It’s exactly what got him to Pittsburgh this year after appearing in 807 professional games in 12 years before his Dec. 4 recall.
“Sometimes, timing is just as important as talent. I got the opportunity in December. When I first came up here this year, I said I was going to make the most out of it,” he said. “I am not trying to do too much like I did in the first few years of my career, which maybe cost me at the end. I just said I was going to play my game and the way I know I can and the way I have been the last few years. If it works out, great. At least I will have no regrets. That’s what I did; I just stuck with it and worked hard and bring everything I have.”
While he battled through the American Hockey League on stops through Carolina, Portland, Fredericton, Quebec, Hamilton, Bridgeport and Wilkes-Barre, Nasreddine enjoyed his tours of duty.
“[The AHL is] obviously not the NHL – you’re not traveling with charters, but you’re still playing hockey and I was making good money with the experience I had,” said Nasreddine, who had short stints with the NHL’s Blackhawks, Canadiens and Islanders.
“It’s not like I had a tough job where I was working 12 hours a day. I was still playing hockey. Obviously, this is nicer, but I have no regrets. It took me a little longer to get to the NHL than what I expected when I first started. But, it’s all worth it now that I am in the NHL on a team like this one.”
Nasreddine is more than just an AHL veteran who wound up in the NHL with the Penguins. He’s played a big part in the evolution of the Penguins’ young talent. After Pittsburgh acquired Nasreddine from the Islanders for Steve Webb on Mar. 8, 2004, he took on a leadership role with the team’s youngsters at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He was the Baby Penguins’ captain the past three seasons and helped lead many of the young Penguins on the NHL roster.
“I don’t change anything. I probably don’t assume as much leadership as I had down in [Wilkes-Barre] because that’s where I knew and that’s where I had my experience,” he said.
“Leadership always comes with what you bring on the ice and the example you set every day. You look at Sidney Crosby. He’s not the most vocal guy, but you see him working his tail off, it’d be hard for you to drift off. That’s what I try to bring here and I get along with everybody. For me, it’s all about respect. When you respect everybody, it’s probably going to be the same toward you.”
He’s having a fun time watching the young Penguins develop while playing alongside them at the NHL level.
“Just to see the guys getting older and growing into what is going to be a very big force in the NHL is something special,” he said. “I am enjoying every minute of it.”