Meet David Booth, Florida's rising star

HELSINKI -- Late in practice, with some players already off the ice, there was David Booth on Wednesday, stick-handling between a line of pucks in a makeshift drill he concocted.

There's always something to work on -- that's been Booth's mantra for a number of years, and that work ethic has paid dividends.

"It's an amazing story on how a guy can transform his game," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said Wednesday.

DeBoer remembered scouting a 16-year-old Booth eight years ago in minor midget in Michigan when he was running the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers. He saw a great work ethic, but certainly not the kind of offensive skill on display today.

"At that age, at the time, he was an energy player, a forecheck player; he wasn't a big scorer," DeBoer said. "He went to Michigan State and kind of continued in that role there. To see what he's transformed himself into, being a pure goal scorer at the NHL level, it's a testament to all kids out there about working and not being pigeonholed into what people think you are.

"Because this guy had to work to become an offensive player in the NHL."

Booth is a bona fide NHL star without the bona fide NHL star profile. For now.

"He's a diamond in the rough, and I don't think a lot of people know about him," Panthers captain Bryan McCabe said. "He led our team in goals last year. He's a consummate professional; he works hard on and off the ice."

Booth has gone from three goals in his rookie NHL season in 2006-07 to 22 goals the following year to a team-leading 31 goals last season. But, as Booth explained, it's not just about working hard.

"A lot of people work hard, but they may not be working hard at the right things," the 24-year-old winger told ESPN.com in an interview Wednesday at Helsinki's Hartwall Arena.

When he was 17 and 18, Booth worked hard in the gym but focused on the wrong training.

"I was much thicker, more muscular. I was doing mostly football training, and I wasn't very athletic," he said. "Then I started changing my routine; I started working more on my skating, on my shot, on stick-handling. Before, I'd just be in the gym doing weights. That doesn't transfer too much to the game of hockey. Switching my training has really helped me become a player."

So did having veteran Gary Roberts as a teammate. Roberts is legendary in NHL circles for his borderline fanatical devotion to fitness and nutrition. Booth smiled from ear to ear when Roberts was mentioned as a possible influence on his own ultra-fit regimen.

"Big-time," Booth said. "That's why I chose No. 10, because I respected him and how hard he worked. Seeing him at age 40 and what he did, I was so impressed. He helped me become more efficient with the way I was working out."

McCabe also chuckled. He got put under the Roberts fitness spell nearly a decade ago in Toronto.

"To meet someone that's very focused like that on his career when you're at a young age is very helpful," McCabe said. "I think Boother has taken it to the next level. He takes pride in what he does on and off the ice, and it proves itself in his play."

He's also a guy who wanted to stay in South Florida. In a year when the most national media coverage the Panthers received was for Jay Bouwmeester's predictable exit, the story that got much less attention was Booth's signing a six-year, $25.5 million contract on the eve of his restricted free agency.

Yes, while a stud blueliner couldn't wait to get out, another young star embraced the organization.

"He's critical to our franchise," said Randy Sexton, who made it a priority to sign Booth after taking over as acting GM in early June. "He embodies everything that we think a Panther is. He is absolutely committed on and off the ice. He's our hardest-working player. He was our leading scorer last year. He has a positive attitude, has impeccable character, he's great in the community and he's committed to winning.

"This kid is a champion," Sexton added. "For me, as a franchise, it was the most strategic thing we could have done last summer."

Will Booth have problems handling his newfound fame? Booth laughed Wednesday when asked whether he'd been recognized in the streets of Helsinki.

"I don't get recognized anywhere, not in Florida, not in my hometown," he said, chuckling.

Ah, but that's not totally true. There was that one day last season in Sunrise, Fla.

"I remember getting on the freeway -- it's a 10-mile drive to the rink -- and there was a cop behind me the whole way," Booth said. "I couldn't figure out why, because I hadn't done anything wrong. Then, we stop at a light, he comes out and comes over to me and says, 'Are you David Booth?' I don't know if it's because I had a Michigan plate on. But he says, 'OK, good luck tonight.' I wish I had taken his number, so I could get out of trouble."

Turns out Alex Ovechkin isn't the only NHL star who likes put the pedal to the metal. Booth conceded the occasional speeding ticket.

"I like to go fast on the ice and off it, too. I've got to get a new car soon; the guys are teasing me about my 2002 Camaro," Booth added with a laugh. "Hey, it's the last year they made them; it's a collectors' item. I'll keep it, but I'll get something new here shortly."

But his true passion? A perfect day in his world involves a bow and arrow. "You bet you it does," he said.

Whether it's hunting antelopes with his brother every August in Montana, or elk with his dad in Colorado the first week of September every year, or turkeys in his native Michigan, Booth is an avid hunter.

"I shot a pretty nice antelope this summer," he said. "I was pretty excited. With a bow and arrow, you have to get within 70 yards, which is tough to do, so I was pretty proud of that."

He's also proud of his beliefs. Asked to share something about him that perhaps some readers didn't know, he didn't hesitate.

"My faith is a big part of my life," Booth said. "I grew up in a Christian home, and those values were instilled in me. It's something I take seriously. I go to church whenever I'm home. God's given me a great ability to play hockey and whatever I can give back to him is something I want to do."

Giving back to his country is also on the agenda. Booth passionately speaks of the chance to play in Vancouver next February.

"There's nothing more I'd rather do in the game of hockey than represent the U.S. in the Olympics," Booth said. "You can't take for granted wearing that uniform. There's so many people out there that give us this freedom we have to play a game. There are people in less fortunate places in the world that are dying for us. It would mean so much to wear that uniform."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.