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02/20/2005 7:43 AM - With an eye toward the playoffs, Bryan Helmer is helping the Griffins stick together in their pursuit of the Calder Cup

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Bryan Helmer has played on more than his fair share of good teams over the course of his 12-year professional career.

There were four straight division titles in Albany, including a Calder Cup championship in 1995. He helped the St. Louis Blues win the Presidents Trophy for the best record in the NHL during the 1999-2000 season. He was a member of solid Vancouver teams from 2000 to 2003.

Helmer knows the Griffins have the talent to finish strong. He’s seen what it takes to win and he thinks his teammates are up to the challenge. “A lot of it has to do with confidence,” he says. “When you have confidence, it’s a good feeling – it seems like you can’t do anything wrong.”

From experience, Helmer knows it’s how well you handle adversity that often determines your fate. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or so the saying goes. “I look at our team and I really believe (our first half) will help us down the road.”

Helmer should know. There was a time, early in his career, when he felt disillusioned, even when things couldn’t have been going any better for his team.

After the New Jersey Devils signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Tier 2 junior hockey, he started his career in Albany. He toiled five seasons with the River Rats and, despite being an integral part of a winning team, never got even a passing look in the NHL.

“It was really frustrating, especially my last year,” Helmer says, referring to the 1997-98 season when he led all AHL defensemen with 49 assists and was runner-up with 63 points, both career highs.

“They didn’t give me even a sniff, not even calling me up to practice with them a few times. Nothing. It would have been nice to have finally gotten a game with them because they did give me my start, professionally speaking.”

Rather than be bitter, Helmer decided to leave it all behind. “The Devils gave me the opportunity to re-sign with them, but I thought it was time to move on,” he says.

Looking back, Helmer knows the extra seasoning did him good. “My first few years in Albany, it was like, ‘Yikes, don’t put him out in a defensive situation.’ Fortunately, I had a lot of good teachers over the years.”

Specifically, Helmer remembers spending considerable time with Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson.

“He was an assistant coach in New Jersey and during the ‘94-’95 lockout he came down to Albany for two months. I learned so much from him during those two months, just talking with him and gaining from his experience.”

For the past six seasons, Helmer has split his time between the NHL (Phoenix, St. Louis and Vancouver) and the minors. He’s learned to live with being on the bubble, being the seventh defenseman who’s never sure what city he might wake up in next.

“It’s tough mentally, especially once I had a family,” says Helmer, who married his wife Pamela in 1999 and now has a three-year-old son, Cade. “It not just me who’s affected; it’s them, too.

“Thankfully, my wife’s a positive lady. She’s a good listener and she really helps keep me on an even keel. You get to the NHL and you think you’re a big shot, and she’s always reminded me that I still had to work hard and do my job.”

He knows all too well the feeling of being on the top of the world one day and then getting a call the next to go back to Worcester, Kansas City, Winnipeg or Springfield for more seasoning.

“One thing I never did when I came back was pout,” he says. “You see some guys with their bottom lip out and they’re like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be here.’ I told myself it was something that I would never do.”

Even so, Helmer admits that the constant back-and-forth can play on more than a player’s psyche.

“Physically, it’s definitely draining,” he says. “It seems like the farm teams were always far away on the teams I played for, so there was a lot of traveling, playing a lot of games in a short amount of time. The older I got, the worse it seemed.”

At age 32, Helmer still hopes to play “five or six more years,” but he realizes that his body doesn’t recover the way it once did. Thankfully, he never had to face any major injuries until last season.

He missed the majority of the year when he injured his shoulder during Phoenix’s first exhibition game. “I was going back for an icing and they waved it off and when I went to turn, I got hit from behind and just blew out my shoulder,” he says.

Helmer rattles off the damage – tears in the labrum, subscapulari and teres minor – as he relates the emotional shock of being told that he would be out of commission for at least four months.

“It was devastating,” he says. “Phoenix had traded for me and I was happy going there and then this happened. I couldn’t believe it. It took me exactly four months to get back.”

Helmer wasn’t allowed to do anything for the first 1-1/2 months following surgery. “But there’s a positive in every negative,” he says. “They actually sent me home, and in that aspect I got to spend some quality time with my family.”

Both his wife and his son love hockey. Pamela actually tried playing the game for a year when they were first dating and Cade is already a fan at the age of three. “I come home from practice and he wants to play downstairs with the little sticks.”

Eventually, Helmer would like to spend more time with his son, maybe open a restaurant or start a bed & breakfast with his wife. In the meantime, his business is being part of the glue that holds things together in the Griffins locker room.

“It’s been 10 years since winning the Calder Cup with Albany, so it would be pretty cool if I could win it again,” he says. “When I looked at all the players here at the beginning of the year, I thought we had a good opportunity to win – and I still do.”

Helmer would love to experience the thrill of winning a Calder Cup all over again. “I remember we lost only two games the whole playoffs,” he says.
“It felt easy, but it wasn’t. We fought hard. It was like going to battle with your brothers.”

He has seen that kind of camaraderie on every good team for which he’s played. “It’s always like that,” he says. “You would do anything for the guy next to you and vice versa. It’s like having 23 brothers.”

Winning the Calder Cup was one of his best experiences in hockey. Another was scoring his first NHL goal. “It was awesome – one of the best feelings ever,” he says, noting that it came in his 50th career game in the NHL.

“It was in St. Louis against Anaheim,” he recalls. “I got called up that day, got into the hotel about four o’clock, found a bite to eat, then went to the rink and played that night. It was a one-timer from the slot, on the power play. My goal was actually the game-winner.”

Following the contest, Helmer found a videotape of the goal waiting in his stall. “it’s funny because that following summer whoever came into my house had to watch that goal. They would just get done taking off their boots and I’d be putting the tape in the VCR. ‘You gotta watch this!’”

Even though more were to come, that first goal was an experience that Helmer didn’t mind living over and over. “You dream about it growing up and when it comes true, it’s even better,” he says.

He would love to get another chance to add to his NHL totals. “When I signed with Detroit, I was excited because they said there might be a chance that I’d play some, so (the lockout) is disappointing in that respect,” he says.

“But I’m glad I’m getting a chance to play and not sitting at home or trying to find a job in Europe. I like Grand Rapids and I think we have a good team here. We’ve just got to find ways to win.”

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