Diminutive Steve Sullivan has become a big-time scorer for Chicago
When you're 5'9" and 158 pounds and you make your living among the brutish body-bangers of the NHL, you need a plan. "I try to get in and out of traffic before anyone flattens me," says Blackhawks right wing Steve Sullivan. "My goal is to have my carcass intact when I retire."
Considering that Sullivan, 26, is having the most productive season of his five-year NHL career—he led the Blackhawks with 67 points through Sunday—and that he recently signed a three-year, $9 million contract extension, it's easy to forget that 16 months ago most general managers had given up on him. After scoring 20 goals in 63 games with the Maple Leafs in 1998-99, Sullivan suddenly didn't fit in Toronto's plans early last season when the Leafs shifted to a more physical style, and general manager Pat Quinn placed him on waivers. "I was in limbo for two days," Sullivan says. "I was thinking, No one's taking me. I'm going to the minors."
On Oct. 23, only hours before he would have cleared waivers and been sent to the Maple Leafs' minor league affiliate, Sullivan sat in his kitchen picking at his lunch. The phone rang, and he steeled himself for the worst. It was Quinn. "When he said that Chicago had taken me, it was like getting a new life," Sullivan says.
Lorne Molleken, the Blackhawks' coach at the time, gave Sullivan regular ice time, and when Chicago acquired crafty center Michael Nylander from the Lightning three weeks later, Molleken paired them on a line. Sullivan and Nylander combined for 115 points last season and have continued to excel this year under coach Alpo Suhonen. Through Sunday, Sullivan had 31 goals and 36 assists; Nylander had 22 and 34. "They're tough to shut down because they feed off each other," says Detroit right wing Darren McCarty. " Nylander passes so well, and Sullivan has great anticipation."
That anticipation, along with a combination of straightaway speed and darting quickness, makes Sullivan a scoring threat on open ice. His league-best seven shorthanded goals include two in 51 seconds against the Avalanche on Jan. 26. Sullivan also showed mettle after he got hit by a puck that broke his left ring finger on Feb. 18 against the Kings. The next day, with the finger painfully swollen, Sullivan set up a pair of goals against the Rangers.
"He's achieved an identity as an exciting player in Chicago, and we see him as a centerpiece in our rebuilding plan," says general manager Mike Smith. "There will always be doubts about a little guy playing at this level, but he's made me a believer."
No Longer on Thin Ice
As of Sunday, eight games after a Feb. 15 promotion from the AHL's Quebec Citadelles to his hometown Canadiens, Francis Belanger, a scrappy 23-year-old rookie left wing, was still looking for his first NHL point in his role as a spot player. Points or no points, the mere fact that he's in the league is remarkable.
In July 1999, a year after he was drafted in the fifth round by the Flyers, Belanger was driving a motorboat on a lake in Kelowna, B.C., with fellow Philadelphia prospects Dimitri Tertyshny and Mikhail Chernov. Tertyshny was kneeling on the boat's bow when it hit a wave and he was pitched into the water. He was struck by the propeller, which cut his jugular vein, and was bleeding profusely when Belanger and Chernov pulled him back into the boat. Tertyshny was pronounced dead at the scene.