Story and photos by Mark Newman
In sports, they call them money players. They are the ones who can raise their level of play when the chips are down and the stakes are high. Rich in talent, they have a Midas touch when it comes to scoring in the clutch.
No player in Grand Rapids’ hockey history has had more success in depositing the puck into the net than Michel Picard.
Seven seasons ago, he scored the first goal in Griffins’ history and — outside of stops in several NHL organizations and a stint in Germany — he’s been piling up the points in Grand Rapids ever since.
Picard is the Griffins’ all-time leading scorer because he has an uncanny knack for cashing in. Put your money on lucky #7 and it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll find a way onto the scoresheet.
In the seasons that he has played the entire year in Grand Rapids — the inaugural 1996-97 campaign and the current season — Picard has gone without a point in more than two consecutive games only three times.
Picard has long been a money player. Just ask Wayne Gretzky.
Originally the property of the Hartford Whalers, Picard was traded in 1992 to San Jose, where he spent a year before he found himself without a contract. He landed a tryout with the Los Angeles Kings, for whom Gretzky was playing back in the early 1990s.
Assigned to the Kings’ farm team in Phoenix, Picard and his fellow minor leaguers were slated to face the parent club in a preseason exhibition game.
To balance the rosters, a handful of Kings players agreed to play for the Phoenix squad.
“When I got there for the pregame skate, I found out my linemates were going to be Gretzky and Tomas Sandstrom,” Picard recalls. “It was unbelievable.” Before the contest, someone challenged Gretzky to put money on the board for the player who would score the game-winner against his regular Kings teammates. The Great One complied, posting a hefty bounty for the lucky player.
But Picard — in his early 20s at the time — wasn’t thinking about getting a goal. He was more worried about making a mistake.
“Just to be out there with Gretzky, I was so nervous,” he says. “I was just skating up and down the wing. I’m thinking, ‘Don’t give me the puck, keep it, I don’t want it.” Picard spent only a period on the Gretzky line before the coaches gave the opportunity to another teammate for the second stanza and a different player for the final period.
“The game ended 5-5, so there was a shootout and I was the last guy to shoot,” Picard says, telegraphing the punch line with a big grin. “I scored and we won the game.” Back in the dressing room, the man who would become hockey’s all-time greatest scorer happily paid out the prize to the guy who would become the Griffins’ all-time scoring leader.
“Gretzky came up to me and . . .” — here Picard makes the sound of someone riffling cash like a deck of cards — “‘There you go. Game-winner.” It’s a Great Story about the Great One and certainly one of the more memorable moments in Picard’s 14-year pro career that has seen him play for six different NHL clubs and European teams in Sweden and Germany, in addition to five years with the Griffins.
He’s played for 15 different professional teams. At every stop, he’s carried the reputation of being a goal scorer.
“Pic definitely brings an element of scoring to the game,” Griffins head coach Danton Cole says. “When he’s on the ice, he’s always a threat to score and that’s nice to have because it takes pressure off the other guys.” Entering the final month of the season, Picard was challenging for the AHL scoring title. He finished fourth in the IHL during his first year with the Griffins when he tallied 46 goals and 55 assists for 101 points in 82 games.
He benefited that year from being paired alongside Pavol Demitra, the future NHL All-Star with whom he had also played at Prince Edward Island and Ottawa. The two would be reunited again later in St. Louis.
In fact, Picard feels he has been fortunate to play with many talented linemates over the years: from Kevin Miller and Derek King (when the Griffins went to the Turner Cup finals in 2000) to Mark Recchi and Keith Primeau (when he was recalled by the Philadelphia Flyers two seasons ago).
This season, Picard has been paired mostly with Mark Mowers, along with a a long list of talented forwards, from King to Stacy Roest to Jason Williams, among others.
“It’s easy to adjust because they’re all highly skilled players,” Picard says. “I’ve gotten to know Mowers — we just read off each other. We never talk about what we should do on the ice. It just happens.” Which is not to say it’s easy. In fact, if anything, Picard has found that he needs to work a little bit harder, if not smarter, as he’s gotten older.
Picard celebrated his 33rd birthday this past November and his body definitely lets him know that he’s not 20 anymore.
“Three games in three nights are very tough, especially the third game,” he says. “They’re tough for everybody, but the older guys don’t recover as fast as the younger guys.” It used to be that Picard spent more time preparing his sticks for a game than he did his own body. Back spasms finally convinced him that it was time to change his routine.
“In 14 years, I never stretched,” he admits. “Now Snitzy (Rob Snitzer, the Griffins’ medical trainer) stretches me before practices and games. It’s helped big time.” Picard would love to keep playing as long as his body allows. When he signed last fall, he inked a two-year deal with the Red Wings that will keep him in Grand Rapids for at least one more season.
He knows his chances of ever playing in the NHL again are slim and none.
He understands that his NHL playing days are probably behind him.
“In my mind, it’s done,” he says. “If it happens, great, but I think it’s over. There are so many young guys out there with great talent who deserve a shot. I’ve had my shot. Let the kids play — it’s their turn.” Picard would be the first to admit that he would have loved to have played his entire career in the NHL, but he’s not been the sort to complain about the hand that he’s been dealt.
“If I retired tomorrow, I would be very happy about my career,” he says.
“I have no regrets at all.” He finds it difficult to believe that he could play his 1,000th career game sometime early next season — “It goes pretty quick when you really think about it,” he says — and it’s hard to fathom that it’s been more than a dozen years since he scored his first NHL goal for Hartford. He still remembers the latter like it was yesterday.
“I was very nervous,” Picard says of that day in Pittsburgh. So nervous, in fact, that he cannot even recall whether Mario Lemieux was on the ice (although he played against him later).
“I didn’t know if I was going to play or sit on the bench for a long time, but then Bobby Holik got a 10-minute misconduct. I thought, ‘Oh boy, here’s my chance. I’ll get to play as long as he’s in the penalty box.’ Sure enough, the coach called my name.” He scored on his second shift in rather un-Picard-like fashion.
“Todd Krygier was going wide with the puck on his backhand as I was going to the net,” Picard says. “He fired the puck across the crease and (goalie) Tom Barrasso poke-checked the puck — it hit my chest and went into the net.” As ugly as it was, the goal was a big thrill for the Beauport, Quebec native, who apparently wasn’t too passionate about hockey as a little boy.
“ I don’t remember, but my dad tells me that I’d just lay on the ice and do nothing,” Picard says, chuckling. “I didn’t want to skate. I just wanted to lay on the ice.” Needless to say, Picard isn’t too concerned that his sons, Raphael and Frederick, occasionally exhibit the same somewhat laissez faire attitude toward the sport.
“They’re in the Learn to Skate program at Griff’s IceHouse, but sometimes they get up and they don’t want to go,” he says. “But when they go, they have a good time. We don’t try to push them.” Picard and his wife Sonia are happy to be back with the Griffins after spending last year in Germany. “We had a great season, but as soon as I heard the news about Detroit and Grand Rapids, I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going back to Germany.’ Not only do I like it here, but my wife does too.” They enrolled Raphael this season in preschool, even though he only speaks French at home. “At first we were a little afraid of putting him in preschool three days a week because all the other kids speak English, but the first day was great, the second day was perfect and now he wants to go every day.” Of course, life is all about adjustments and the time will come when Picard will have to face a change of his own. Even money players can’t play hockey forever.
“Sonia and I have talked about it the last few years, but I still don’t know (what else to do),” he says. “When you’re playing, you don’t want to talk about retirement. I don’t want to think about it, but I know it’s out there.” He talks about maybe working a day or two a week next summer with his father, who installs ceramic tile for a living. It’s something he did when he was a teenager, but he knows it’s not easy work, and wants to be sure he does something he knows he will enjoy.
Of course, it is a decision that he hopes is still a few years away.
Besides, he still has some work to do in Grand Rapids — there’s some business concerning a championship that this money player would like to finish.
Picard has previously won Calder Cup trophies with Springfield in 1991 and Portland in 1994.
In Springfield, his teammates included former Griffins Mark Greig and James Black, along with Travis Ricards’ brother, Todd. Jeff and Todd Nelson were teammates in Portland, where Byron Dafoe and Olaf Kolzig split the goaltending chores.
“We had great teams, but you still have to work,” says Picard, who thought the Griffins had a championship caliber team in 2000 when the Chicago Wolves beat the club in the finals.
“It’s a big thrill to win. I know it’s not the Stanley Cup, but every hockey team works all year long to win the championship. When you think about what you did to get there, it’s amazing.” Every once in a while, Picard relives those championship memories by pulling out a videotape and watching highlights from those seasons. He would love to be able to have a similar keepsake from the Griffins.
“I think we’re more balanced this year than the team that went to the finals,” Picard says. “We have four good lines, a strong defense and good goaltenders. I think we’re playing more together. We’re all in the same boat.
“We all want to win.”