When Jamie Heward dressed for Canada's first game of this year's World Championships, his teammates started to howl with laughter when they saw his sweater. On the back, his nameplate read "HERWARD" but game time was just a few minutes away, so like Wayne "GREKTZY" one night for the New York Rangers, Heward had to play with a typo in his name!
There are no complaints from him, though. His inclusion on the Team Canada roster is a fitting end to what has been in many ways his most rewarding season, though if you had told him in 1989, when he was drafted 16th overall by Pittsburgh, that his international career would be more impressive and important than his NHL career, he probably would have given you a funny look. But then again, he was a right winger at the time, too.
"I got drafted in '89 by Pittsburgh," he related after practise today in Turku, "and over the next two years they proceeded to win the Stanley Cup. They had a fantastic team, and they also had some other good draft picks like Straka and Jagr that they wanted to get into the lineup. I changed from a right winger to a defenceman, so it took me a couple of years longer to develop and be ready to play. By that time, I wasn't really in their plans any more so I decided to go with the National Team for a year. It was the best decision I ever made. I got a chance to work on my skills every day as a defenceman, playing against great players and practising more than you usually do when you play professionally, so things worked out really well."
Heward played out of Calgary with the team under head coach Tom Renney, but it was the Pittsburgh organization that had changed him from offense to defence. "It started in junior where I played the point on the power play," he explained. "Then Pittsburgh decided that they had enough forwards, so they told me if I was going to get in the lineup I was going to have to change, so I moved back. It was a tough decision, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was a young guy, and I was just following what they said. As I look back on it, it's probably worked out for the best, but I think I wasn't quite as good on defence as I was as a forward. There are times when I still struggle with reading a play because I still have the mentality of a forward, but I think overall it was a good decision."
Moving from one position to another in hockey is as difficult as making an outfielder into a pitcher or soup out of salad, but Heward was determined to do what it took to make the big time. "As a forward, you always want to score and be up with the play, but as a defenceman I had a tough time staying back and being one of the guys who has to be responsible defensively," he admiited. "And maybe that's a knock on me still, that I'm not as good defensively as some of the other guys because I've always been an offensive player. The biggest adjustment for me was just getting to play defence. But coming to the international game, I think my offense has helped me."
When he got to the National Team in the fall of 1994, he had a further adjustment—from NHL ice to international ice. "It was good I had the whole year to adjust," he said, laughing at the daunting task in retrospect. "The first few weeks that I played with the National Team were really tough, but once I got used to the ice it worked out really well. That was when I caught some general managers' eyes and ended up in the NHL. We practised and played so much that year that I was able to make the transition."
Heward couldn't have chosen a better year to join the National Team than the '94-'95 season. The NHL and NHLPA were involved in a lengthy battle that postponed almost half the season and pushed the playoffs back into the summer, so Canada's team at the 1995 World Championships consisted of non-NHLers. "It was mostly a minor-league team," he explained. "They picked guys from the American league, the IHL, and about five or six of us from the National Team, so I was fortunate to go through the year and play in the Worlds. It also worked out for me because I signed with Toronto, so the '95 World Championships were really the start of my NHL career."
It also worked out because the team won a bronze medal. But when he got to the NHL, things were never perfectly rosy. He played some games in The Show but spent a good deal of time in the minors. And, he bounced from one organization to another. Toronto became Nashville and then the Islanders and, finally, Columbus. Heward never had trouble finding a team to sign him, but he never stayed in any one place for too long, either.
"I looked at it that I had a specialty. I was a power-play, offensive type of player, so some teams needed that for a year or two and then brought in a younger guy, or they made a trade for a Phil Housley or something. For me, I ended up playing for expansion teams or teams in the lower part of the standings because they wanted a power-play guy and someone who could play for them for a while. I was never with the Detroits and Dallases of the league because they obviously had their guys. It was tough bouncing from team to team, but once you get settled it's not that big of a deal. I would have played anywhere in the world for the opportunity to play in the NHL."
So that brings us to the 2002-03 season, in many ways the crowning glory of his career. In the summer of 2002, Heward left the NHL and signed with Geneve-Servette HC, a move he made happily. "I had a few offers from NHL teams, but they were usually on an American league basis to go to the minors and work with the kids as a seventh defenceman or something and if there was an injury I'd get called up. Then I got an opportunity to go to Switzerland, and I felt at my age, 31, 32, I didn't want to play in the American league any more. I tell all the guys here on this team, 'if you're not going to play in the NHL, Europe is the place to be.' You play fewer games, you get paid a considerable amount more than you do in the American Hockey League, and the lifestyle is better. For me, the decision was easy."
Heward's fine season resulted first in a Christmastime invitation to play for Canada at Switzerland's most prestigious tournament, the Spengler Cup. Not only was he on the gold-medal winning team, he was named to the tournament all-star team, further testament to his abilities to play defence in the European game. After finishing a successful year in Geneva, he was one of GM Steve Tambellini's initial invitees to Team Canada for the World Championships here in Finland, and now he is in the lineup on a nightly basis. Heward has seen his ice time dip from a high of 15:10 in the first game, against Belarus, but he brings the right attitude to the dressing room and the right skills to the ice in whatever measure coach Andy Murray asks of him.
From the NHL to Swiss league, from Spengler to World Championships, Herward or Heward has had a fine season of hockey to remember. And a sweater that won't let him forget!
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