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The Natural

02/15/2002 1:58 PM - Griffins rookie Josh Langfeld excelled at baseball and football before dedicating himself to hockey.
Story and photos by Mark Newman

Josh Langfeld was never going to be a professional jockey or sumo wrestler, but he probably could have been anything in between.

Today, he is one of the top rookies playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins, but hockey wasn’t his first love. In fact, he didn’t become serious about the sport until he was 18 years old.

Langfeld dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player and he had talent to match, possibly major league talent. Afterall, there aren’t many guys who can lay claim to having beat Anaheim Angels outfielder Darin Erstad in a home run hitting contest.

“Baseball was my sport,” Langfeld recalls. “I played baseball forever, from the time I was four or five years old. I played football in the fall, then hockey, but when baseball season came, baseball was it. Not to pump my own tires, but that was my sport. I loved it.”

The native of Coon Rapids, Minnesota was a solid hitter who could play either catcher or first base. At the age of 12, Langfeld came within one game of going to the Little League World Series. Three years later, he was a member of an under-17 Olympic team out of his home state.

“We played everywhere, almost 100 games from June to August,” Langfeld recalls. “We played practically every day. It was a lot of fun. I got to see a lot of the world when I was young.”

He even got to meet the Pope during his second year on the U.S. squad while playing in a world tournament in Rome. The event overshadowed the fact that his team lost to Dominican Republic to finish in third place.

“We had our own session with the Pope and even had a private mass,” he recalls. “It was pretty amazing.”

Yet for all the thrills, Langfeld found that he was losing the desire to play. “It got to the point where I didn’t enjoy baseball any more. I played so much during the summer that I began missing my friends back in Coon Rapids.”

In reality, he was playing too much baseball. “It was fun, but it got to the point where I was so worn out from playing doubleheaders and tripleheaders. If three games a day isn’t burnout, I don’t know what is.”

Fortunately, his talents weren’t restricted to baseball. Langfeld, whose uncle (Denny Smith) played for the Dallas Cowboys, was no slouch on the high school football field. As a junior tight end, he led the state in receptions.

But Langfeld lost half of his senior season after smashing his knee against a teammate’s helmet during the first week of practice. It was a bless-ing in disguise. “I enjoyed football, but I was being pushed by my family to play,” he says.

Knee surgery, in fact, led to his decision to take a closer look at hockey – even though baseball and football scholarship offers were waiting. “I had never really given hockey a shot,” he says. “I decided to give it a year.”

At an age when other kids are giving up their hockey dreams, Langfeld was beginning his. As an 18-year-old, he played junior hockey in Montana for Great Falls in the American Frontier Hockey League. He made a good first impression, scoring 45 goals and 85 points with 105 penalty minutes.

“Our line was so good that other teams would line brawl us just to get us kicked out of the game,” says Langfeld, explaining that fighting led to immediate ejection in junior hockey. “Our team stunk that year, but we had fun.”

Having established himself as a prospect, Langfeld was chosen by Ottawa with the Senators’ third pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. He moved to Lincoln, Nebraska and the United States Hockey League for the 1996-97 season.

But his family was growing impatient. “My parents told me this was my last chance. If things didn’t work out, I had to go to college or they weren’t going to pay for it any more.”

He started the season on the fourth line. He pleaded for more playing time and, after Lincoln coach Steve Johnson granted him more ice time, he responded. Langfeld scored 35 goals and 52 points in 38 games.

“I’d go to the mailbox and I was getting all these letters from schools,” Langfeld says. “I was going to have my choice of all the best colleges: Wisconsin, Minnesota, St. Cloud State.” Langfeld hadn’t even visited the University of Michigan when Wolverine head coach Red Berenson flew down to see him play.

“He took me out to dinner and talked for two hours,” Langfeld recalls. “I don’t think I even ate anything, he was so intimidating. But he sold me on Michigan and I committed that night.”

It was a decision that would pay almost immediate dividends. He tallied 19 goals during his freshman season, but none bigger than the one that he scored with 2:09 left in overtime of the 1998 NCAA championship game.

If you think Langfeld has tired of talking about the goal that beat Boston College in its backyard before a sellout crowd at the FleetCenter, you’re wrong. “I still get goose bumps when I think about it,” he says.

At Michigan, Berenson helped polish the prospect’s raw skills. “He tries to get you to improve on something every day – that was his motto,“ Langfeld says. “If you can do that every day, you’re going to be a better hockey player.”

Langfeld admits that he wonders where he might be today if he had dedicated himself to hockey a lot earlier. “I didn’t go to hockey schools or power skating clinics when I was a kid,” he says. “It’s hard to teach a guy how to skate when he’s 24 years old.”

Of course, it’s entirely possible that he might have tired of hockey had he become serious about the sport a lot earlier. Who knows? Maybe he’d be fighting Erstad for a spot in the Angels batting lineup.

But Langfeld isn't the type to lose sleep over what might have been. Besides, he's too busy trying to show that he has the talent to eventually play in the National Hockey League.

After a strong training camp with the Senators, Langfeld went scoreless in his first five games in Grand Rapids, including two games in which he wasa healthy scratch. He broke loose with a five-point game on Oct. 24 against
the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.

"I'm not going to score every night. I don't think that's my job -- although If I could, I'd love it," he says. "My job is to go hard to the net and finish my checks. I'd like to play more physical. I don't want to go looking for fights, but if one comes, well, that's part of the game."

He admits that his first season in the pro ranks has been a bit of a roller coaster. "When you're at a peak, it's the greatest thing in the world, but when you're in a slump, it's terrible. That's just how it is."

Langfeld is learning to stay level-headed and if that's one way that he's matured this season, all the better for his future. "When you have success, things are always fun. If I can remember what got me here and do the little things, I think I'll do alright," he says.

"Playing in the NHL is definitely a goal of mine, but at the same time, I know you have to pay your dues and if that's what I'm doing, that's fine. I'm just happy to be playing hockey."

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