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01/16/2009 12:59 AM -

Darren Helm is learning to make the most of his tremendous speed.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

Following Darren Helm on the ice is like watching Peter Parker trying to go 42 blocks in seven-and-a-half minutes to deliver eight extra-large deep dish pizzas in Spiderman II.

The fleeting Griffins forward zigzags through defenders like a moped through traffic, evoking images of overturned apple carts and broken panes of glass, as he twists, turns and spins his way into scoring position.

Helm is blessed with “wheels,” which in hockey terminology means that he has exceptional speed, an attribute that alone is not enough to guarantee a ticket to the NHL but one that has given him a healthy head start.

Not wanting to be stuck in the same gear, even a fast one, Helm is willing to listen and learn. He does whatever it takes to keep himself going in the right direction.

For example, he has been working this season with Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek to find ways to maximize his speed.

“He’s been trying to help me to use my speed in different gears, slowing down and picking it up, to throw people off,” Helm said. “I’m trying to be more deceiving instead of going just one speed, where defensemen are able to match my speed and play me a lot easier.”

In action, it occasionally looks like the equivalent of a Chinese fire drill on ice, a combination of stopping and starting with bodies flying everywhere, but Helm is learning to make moves that may someday make Pavel Datsyuk proud.

“If I can change things up a little bit here and there, I think it will make me more effective,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to learn, but I’m trying to do my best.”

Helm surprised some folks last season during the Stanley Cup playoffs, when he seemingly came out of nowhere to become a solid contributor during the Red Wings’ championship run.

Ending on such an incredible high was a complete U-turn for Helm, who had begun the 2007-08 season somewhat dejectedly by skating alone to rehab after suffering a shoulder injury in training camp.

“Things didn’t start the way I expected,” said Helm, who had entered the pros after a couple of all-star seasons in the junior hockey ranks. “I had to start at square one. I had to work out after every practice and every game, trying to work myself into being a player again.”

Part of the challenge was mental, ridding himself of negative thoughts and concentrating on the positives instead. “I focused on working hard,” he said. “I had to do what I did in the first place to get myself into the position I had been.”

It was a slow, painful process for a guy accustomed to going from zero to sixty (feet) in no time flat.

Helm saw more and more action as the season progressed, to the point where he eventually earned his first recall to Detroit. He made his NHL debut on March 13, 2008 against Dallas.

“The first game was extremely exciting, and at the same time I was really nervous,” he recalled. “Just waiting to hear my name called was nerve-wracking. I was sitting there, waiting and waiting.”

He was, to put it mildly, a bit anxious. “The first game was fun, but it probably wasn’t my best game,” he admitted.

Helm saw action in five more contests with the Wings before returning to Grand Rapids, where he was in the midst of an eight-game scoring streak, the second-longest stretch by a rookie in Griffins history (second only to Jiri Hudler’s 12-game run in 2003-04).

“Each game I played, I got a little more comfortable,” he said, noting that the other players did their best to make him relax. “You know you can go in there and not be too worried about things.”

Helm, who also played in the Red Wings’ regular season finale, had never dreamed that he might get to skate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. At best, he hoped to be a member of the team’s Black Aces, getting to practice, but not play, with the big team.

As things turned out, Helm saw action in 18 playoff games. He scored his first NHL goal during Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against Dallas’ Marty Turco.

Hudler made a perfect pass off a turnover and Helm, skating toward the net with a burst of speed, snapped a quick shot that beat Turco’s glove hand.

“I had played a few games (15, actually) without scoring, so it was a nice relief to get that first one,” he said. “I wasn’t too sure that it had gone in, but I gave it the ‘raised arms’ and then celebrated after giving it a double look.”

Helm’s parents – Gary, a meat-processing plant employee, and Coriene, a hotel cook – were present for his first NHL goal as well as his second, which came in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It was pretty special to have them there,” he said.

For his part, Helm tried to keep his emotions in check. He was no stranger to playing in big games, albeit at a different level from the Stanley Cup playoffs.

He was a member of Canada’s gold medal-winning 2007 World Junior team, and he helped the Medicine Hat Tigers win the WHL title on the way to the 2007 Memorial Cup Finals.

“Whenever you can take experience out of playing big games like that, it’s going to help,” he said. “You realize that when it comes down to it, it’s just  another game.”

Even though the level of intensity was greater, Helm did his best to ignore the hype and prepare for the Stanley Cup playoffs just as he would for any other game.

“I was just going to go out and give it 110 percent every night. I wanted to bring a lot of energy and do what I could. I knew if I played well, there was a good chance of me staying in the lineup.

“You try not to think about it too much. You don’t want to stress yourself out before the game because once the puck drops, your energy is going to take over. You want to just let things happen.”

What he didn’t want to happen was anything that might force him out of the lineup.

Helm suffered a calf injury in Game 5, then reaggravated it in a collision with Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik in Game 6. He went back to the dressing room to try to get back into the game, but was unable to return before the Red Wings clinched the title.

He was still feeling the effects when he limped onto the ice for the post-game celebration.

“When I hoisted the Cup for the first time, the weight caught me off-guard and I almost fell because I was standing on one leg,” he said, chuckling at the memory. “That would have been bad.”

Helm’s playoff performance impressed many observers, most notably Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock.

“He's a player that can play against anybody,” Babcock gushed to reporters during Detroit’s playoff run. “He's flat-out fast. He’s gritty. Finishes checks. Smart. Good defensively. Good in the faceoff circle. A real good player.”

This fall, Babcock was still effusive in his praise. “I think Helm’s an NHL player. Every time he’s on the ice, something happens. He’s an elite skater; he’s got good hockey sense.”

So why then, some may wonder, is Helm back in Grand Rapids rather than playing in Detroit?

He would like it to be known that he doesn’t feel like he is spinning his wheels.

“When I first got sent down, I was a little disappointed, but I knew I might get a chance to play 20 minutes a night and really develop as a player. I’m getting to play in every situation and just get better, so when the time comes, I’ll be ready. I’m taking it as a positive.”

Helm, who has already earned a couple of call-ups to Detroit this season, is on pace to match last season’s point totals with the Griffins in roughly half as many games.

“Going up and down, you can’t let your emotions get in the way. You can’t get too high or too low. You’ve got to be focused for every game and be ready to play.”

For Helm, pre-game preparation can be almost as important as going full-throttle every shift.

“Before a game, I try to keep myself busy, whether it’s playing soccer, taping my sticks or stretching,” he said. “I’m trying as much as I can to not think about the game, because once I hit the ice, everything else takes over.”

Helm won’t celebrate his 22nd birthday until Jan. 21, which should mean he has a long career ahead, so he’s in no rush – yet. Besides, he’s having plenty of fun already.

“Last year was a big step for me. Getting called up and winning the Cup with Detroit gave me a lot of confidence. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could play in that league and I think I did that.

“Right now I’m just going to have a lot of fun here. The guys are great, the team is winning and I’m just having fun at the rink every day. And when you’re having fun, you play a little bit better.

“It’s going to be a good year.”

Getting his name on the Stanley Cup is something Helm never expected to achieve so early in his career. But it is an experience he will gladly repeat, as he would eating Fruit Loops out of the Cup with several of his friends.

“I don’t even like cereal, but we had to do it,” he said. “It was great.”

Helm shared his day with the people of St. Andrews, Manitoba, and took the trophy to places where he had played hockey and gone to school while growing up.

“We brought it to the community center where I had played a lot on the outdoor rink. I didn’t expect that many people to show up, but there were 3,000 people. I told my dad that you don’t realize the power of the Cup until you see all the people.”

After four hours of autographs and photos, Helm brought the Cup to his parents’ home, where they held a private party for 150 guests.

“It was really special for me to bring the Cup home to my parents and see how happy they were. I’m sure my mom had a few tears of joy in her eyes at various times. It was a great day.”

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