Commentary

It all worked out for Sheldon Souray

Updated: November 16, 2011, 3:19 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Sometimes the guys in the Dallas Stars locker room will give it to Sheldon Souray.

Call him rookie.

Give him the gears about having been banished to the nether world of the American Hockey League.

"Nothing's off limits for those guys," the big defenseman quipped.

"But you wouldn't have it any other way."

The ribbing doesn't bother Souray, because it's yet another reminder of the journey he has traveled to the far end of the hockey spectrum and back. The joking reinforces that the past is the past and that his future is what he imagined and hoped it might be even when things looked most bleak.

[+] EnlargeSheldon Souray
Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty ImagesTo the delight of the Dallas Stars, Edmonton wanted nothing to do with Sheldon Souray.

"It was altogether a real forgetful year," Souray acknowledged.

For most of the past year, Souray had been exiled in hockey purgatory, playing for the AHL's Hershey Bears.

Just as training camp for the 2010-11 season was about to start, Souray was told by his employer, the Edmonton Oilers, that he wasn't wanted in camp. He had asked for a trade during the offseason and battled internally with the team about a variety of issues connected with the team.

Still, Souray thought they would move on from that squabble, and he had prepared for last season as though he would fulfill his duties as a battle-hardened veteran for the young Oilers. But the team had other plans.

Although they were paying him $4.5 million, the Oilers told Souray they were sending him to the minors. But that wasn't it. They didn't want him around their young players so they were loaning him to the Hershey Bears, the top farm club of the Washington Capitals.

In a society where loyalty and the good of the group being put before all things are seen as a kind of doctrine for success, to be banished in this fashion was the equivalent of the old scarlet letter. Only Souray's letter didn't have an "A" but an "H," as in Hershey.

When Souray rolled into his new hockey home in Hershey, Pa., in his Land Rover and stepped out, head coach Mark French figured Souray's suit was worth more than the coach's car.

In their first meeting, French told Souray that he was in control of the situation with the Bears. He could make it work by being a positive, hard-working member of the team and hopefully get another shot at the NHL. Or he could be unmotivated, uncooperative and a drag on the organization.

"He chose to take it very positively," French said.

"He was a very down to earth and regular hockey player," the coach said.

It's difficult to work up a tremendous amount of sympathy for a guy that's making $4.5 million to play a game. But put aside the money for a moment and something like this reveals a lot about a guy's character.

It's such an overworked cliche' in sport, no? Teams talk about their collective character. Whenever a GM signs a new player, he talks about his character.

It's a quality that's a lot easier to say than to see in many cases.

Still, this was a defining moment for Souray, who played his first NHL game back in 1997 for the New Jersey Devils and turned 35 less than two weeks after Dallas signed him to a one-year deal last July 1.

It was just a matter of days, though, before Souray dropped his gloves and broke his hand in a fight.

You might say that's simply part of Souray's character. If he was going to play in Hershey, he was going to play the way he knew how. The fact he broke his hand immediately simply added to the notion that this was a season to forget.

Still, that moment and others like it had an impact on those around him in Hershey.

"That showed us this guy's going to play the game no matter what," French said.

Souray understood that although the situation wasn't ideal for him, it was likewise unusual for the Bears organization and its players.

He understood he was taking a roster spot from another player, and he understood that he was something of an interloper given the circumstances and his whopper contract.

And so Souray tried to make the awkward fit less so by being generous and open with his teammates in terms of his time, explaining some of the nuances of being an NHL player.

"In the end they're just guys. They're trying to do their own thing and trying to make the NHL," Souray said.

He took teammates to New York and paid for hotel rooms.

"Some of those guys, it was their first time in New York. Those were my favorite moments," he said.

If the experience was meant to break or humiliate Souray, it has done neither.

Instead, the experience seems to have galvanized the big defenseman who has been a significant factor in the early-season turnaround of the Stars, who signed Souray to a one-year deal worth $1.65 million.

"You hope for the best. And I was probably more positive and upbeat than I've been in a lot of years," Souray said.

And there was the not-so-small matter of wanting to prove to everyone -- Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk, rookie head coach Glen Gulutzan, the rest of his teammates and, of course, the Edmonton Oilers -- that he could still play.

"If you go back in time, the reason I got sent to the minors it wasn't because I couldn't play for that team [Edmonton]," Souray said.

That's not to say there weren't lessons to be learned.

For a player like Souray who, when healthy, has proven to play at the highest level in the NHL three times, scoring 15 or more goals and twice topping the 20-goal mark, it wasn't the lack of competition that was felt so keenly in Hershey -- but the uncertainty.

For weeks, Souray wasn't sure how long he'd be staying in the American Hockey League. Would the Oilers find a trading partner? Would they put him on re-entry waivers at some point hoping another team would take him? Sources tell ESPN.com at least one team was interested, but the Oilers didn't want any of Souray's salary on their NHL books and so he stayed. The anticipation reached a peak around the NHL's trade deadline but nothing happened.

Throughout the season the uncertainty made it difficult to see his two daughters, ages 4 and 8 at the time, who live in California with their mother. Usually they make regular visits to see their dad pending the NHL schedule, but not last season.

"I think that's what I was most upset with," Souray said.

"That was a real challenging year mentally," he said. "At the end I guess I learned that I don't really control anything. In the end, you ultimately don't control your own destiny."

That is a humbling lesson, regardless of how much money you make.

Even right up until the free agency period, Souray wasn't sure how his saga would play out. But the Oilers bought him out of the final year of his deal, and by the end of the first day of free agency, the thorny issue of who might give Souray a chance was settled.

[+] EnlargeSheldon Souray
Mitchell Layton/NHLI/Getty ImagesSheldon Souray was dealt a heavy dose of humility, but he always kept a positive attitude.

As the NHL moves toward the quarter pole, things couldn't have worked out better for Souray or the Stars.

Dallas occupies the top spot in the Pacific Division and is one of the surprise stories of the league.

"How any team could give him up. He's a great person in the dressing room," teammate Vernon Fiddler said.

"I don't know what happened in Edmonton, but we're happy it happened because we're very happy to have him."

Souray has produced offensively with 13 points in his first 17 games, making him one of the league leaders among defensemen in scoring.

But apart from the booming shot from the point, Gulutzan has been more impressed with the defensive abilities that Souray has exhibited.

"Everybody gets fixated on those [offensive] numbers, right? But the number I'm fixated on a little bit on as a coach is that plus-11 [before Tuesday's game], and he's played against the best players that we've had to play," said Gulutzan who, like Souray, joined the Stars after toiling in the AHL.

"The thing with Hammer is he's nasty; he's genuinely nasty. You don't have to bring it out of him; it's just right there. He plays you hard.

"He has a great stick and he brings us that veteran savvy presence. He doesn't panic with the puck. If guys are coming to run him over, he's not in a hurry to make plays. So his defending for me has been the biggest thing in my mind that he's brought to the team," he said.

"The way he's defended has made us better."

Captain Brenden Morrow has faced off against Souray plenty of times but has managed to avoid getting into any real scrapes with the 6-foot-4, 233-pound defenseman. The two played together at the 2005 World Championships, "and we kind of became buds, so there were a few times when the blood got boiling a little bit but it never got any more than that and we'd laugh it off after the game," Morrow said. "I'm smarter than that. I know how big he is; I'd stay away from that when he was angry."

Center Mike Ribeiro played with Souray in Montreal and isn't surprised at Souray's contributions.

"I'm sure he sees it as a chance to restart his career after what happened last year. I think he's strong mentally," Ribeiro said.

Souray describes the group of guys in the Stars' locker room as a kind of "sorority" with everyone joking and hanging out together.

He's the oldest guy in the room, but he said he feels like he's shed five, seven, eight years since he's arrived. Guess that's what it's like when you make that long trip back from purgatory.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.