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May still answering the call

March 11, 2010
Photo: Bobby Pulte

by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive 

Several new faces have been added to the Grand Rapids Griffins’ lineup in the waning weeks of the regular season, one of which is 19-year NHL veteran Brad May, who was waived by the Detroit Red Wings prior to the NHL’s Olympic break and assigned to Grand Rapids.

Having played 1,129 combined regular-season and playoff contests during his NHL career without a single game in the minors, May could have easily chosen a different path or attitude about his situation. However, like the bright sun for which his namesake month is known, the 38-year-old May is gleaming with positive energy in the Griffins’ locker room.

After clearing waivers and spending time with his family in his hometown of Toronto, May joined the Griffins on Mar. 2 and appeared in his first American Hockey League game two days later in Peoria. That game also happened to kick off his first three-in-three stretch as a pro. Or at least the first that he can remember.

“We’ll say that was the first one, since I cannot really recall playing any in the past. Maybe in juniors, but that was quite a while ago,” May commented. “Either way, though, I enjoyed it. I like stretches when there are more games, and I think it was an easier three-in-three to start with since two of the games were at home.”

With the attitude May brings to the Griffins, it’s no surprise he would enjoy a gauntlet that’s common by AHL standards but unheard of in the NHL. All smiles and enthusiasm during his first practice with the team, he talked to the media afterwards about how his love for hockey is still fueling his desire to play.

“Honestly, I’m 38 and still playing hockey at a high level and still loving the game,” May said. “I took my son to some practices over the (Olympic) break and he loves playing for nothing. I get paid to play a great game I love, so it is a pretty good living, and being part of a team is the best part.”

May, who was Buffalo’s first-round pick, 14th overall, in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, shows 288 points (127 goals, 161 assists) and 2,248 penalty minutes through his impressive career with Buffalo, Vancouver, Phoenix, Colorado, Anaheim, Toronto and Detroit. Currently among the top 40 all-time leaders in penalty minutes, May won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Ducks and appeared in his 1,000th NHL contest as a member of the Maple Leafs on Apr. 8, 2009, becoming the 243rd player in league history to reach that milestone.

Welcoming a player with that resume was easy for Griffins head coach Curt Fraser, who has nothing but good things to say about May and his work ethic, something he is hoping passes down to his younger players.

“With the career May has had, he is the ideal player to many of the younger guys on the team. Sure, he commands respect, but he also helps these guys and talks to them about different experiences he has had. Plus, when players see just how hard a guy like him works both on and off the ice, that kind of preparation and work ethic rubs off on the younger guys, to show just what they have to do to hopefully one day make a career out of playing in the NHL,” Fraser said.

Of course, Fraser himself spent his entire 12-year pro career in the NHL, racking up 433 points (193 goals, 240 assists) and 1,306 PIM from 1978-90, so he would have understood if May had decided to hang up the skates after being placed on waivers. However, had May chosen that option, Fraser would have quickly picked up the phone to use his powers of persuasion.

Brad May has had a long successful career. He didn’t need to come to Grand Rapids. He could have just as easily gone home, which he has earned the right to do since he has played hard for a long time,” said Fraser. “But if he would have done that, I would have got on the phone and said, ‘Don’t do it, come back and work with our guys.’ But he decided to come here on his own and is a real good addition to our team, and one I wish we would have had all year long.”

It goes without saying that May’s veteran leadership is top-notch. Like sponges beneath a leaky facet, younger players soak up every drop of information May has to provide both on and off the ice. And with such a contagious, positive attitude and intense passion for the game, May is not shy about sharing his experiences.

A fellow newcomer to Grand Rapids, right wing Riley Armstrong, has already gained valuable knowledge from May, in the form of a 30-minute fighting lesson after a recent practice. Acquired by Detroit from Calgary in a trade for defenseman Andy Delmore on Mar. 3, Armstrong is a sixth-year pro with nearly 400 professional games under his belt, but he still learned a lot from the master.

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“He showed me a lot of great tips, actually, and he has been awesome to me so far in the short time I have been here,” said the Saskatoon, Sask., native. “I wouldn’t say I am one of the most experienced fighters in the league, but the way I play I tend to get under some guys’ skin and have to answer the bell occasionally when called upon. So it is always good to have a few tips under my belt from an experienced veteran like him in the fighting department.”

While tutoring Armstrong in the pugilistic arts, May was sure to express that fighting is not about winning or losing, or even proving yourself to somebody. Like many other aspects in sports, a good defense is what it takes to be successful.

“I try to give good defensive tips. (Armstrong) is a bit of an agitator and plays that feisty style, so the biggest thing with players like him is being confident and comfortable that he can take care of himself in those situations,” said May. “That all comes from technique and thinking defense first. It’s cool you have the courage to fight, but you have to have the brains, too.”

Rookie goaltender Thomas McCollum has also enjoyed having May around the room. Although he was not even one year old at the time May was drafted, the Cambria, N.Y., native still recalls a few of May’s years with the Sabres in the 1990's, having grown up near Buffalo.

“It’s pretty special to see him playing in front of me since he played for so long near my hometown as I was growing up,” said McCollum. “He is great as a mentor towards the younger guys and it’s nice to have somebody like that to give you pointers. He has been through just about everything there is to go through in hockey and handled everything well, which is why he has had such a great long career.”

To be precise, May has enjoyed the third-longest NHL career of any player prior to donning a Griffins sweater, also making him one of three players in franchise history to have appeared in 1,000 NHL games. He joins Kelly Miller, who played his first minor-league game with Grand Rapids in 1999-2000 after 1,176 NHL contests, and Chris Chelios, who had a two-game conditioning stint with the Griffins last season and ranks fourth all-time with 1,644 regular-season NHL games played.

Throw in Darren McCarty’s 13 contests for the Griffins in 2007-08 with Chelios’ stint last season and May’s current ride, and that gives Grand Rapids the services of a well-known, Stanley Cup-winning NHL veteran for the third straight season. The trio combined to play 3,904 NHL contests before first skating onto the ice for the Griffins.

For careers to last that long, it takes not only the skills necessary to play the game at such a high level, but also an attitude of enjoying every minute.

“You have to enjoy what you do and relish the chances when you’re on the ice to have fun and improve,” said May. “An old coach of mine, John Muckler, once said, ‘When you get older, you do not lose your skill overnight, you lose your desire to work on that skill.’ So you really need to keep working and enjoying it throughout your career, because once you stop enjoying what you do, that is when the desire to work starts to dwindle.”

To achieve the prolonged success that Brad May has, a player must maintain both a love of the game and a continuous desire to work at his craft. For May, simply enjoying each day as if he were still in his early 20's is enough fuel for him.