SOCHI, Russia — Right there in the cattle pen they refer to as a mixed zone at the Winter Olympics, just seconds after stepping off the ice of an important win for his Swedish national team, Alex Steen wasn’t caught off guard when a question about Don Baizley came his way.
Likely because he was already thinking about him.
Baizley, the beloved player agent from Winnipeg who had a star-studded client list that included Joe Sakic, Ulf Nilson, Anders Hedberg and Teemu Selanne, died last summer and left a hole in all of hockey.
For players like Steen, who turned over large parts of their life to the rumpled and generous but razor sharp lawyer, the void is ever present.
"Where do I start with this? It’s a very emotional subject for me," said Steen, his helmet pushed up on his head as he stood behind steel fencing that separates media and players. "Everything that family has done for me, for me as a person and also my family. Losing him this summer was tough for sure. Baiz was a father figure to me, someone I called and talked to about everything, about hockey and life. He was a big part of my life. He’s the reason I am where I am today, for sure."
Where Steen is today is atop the hockey world, playing in his first Olympics and tied for fifth in NHL goal-scoring race with 28 for his St. Louis Blues so far this season.
In Sweden’s 4-2 win over the Czech Republic Wednesday, Steen had an assist and played a key role on a Henrik Zetterberg goal, parking himself in the slot and giving Czech goalie Jakub Kovar no chance to see the puck until after it had whooshed into the netting.
Skating on the left side with Zetterberg in the middle and Gabriel Landeskog on the right wing, Steen was in on the action all night, seeing both power-play and penalty-killing duty to lead all Swedish players with 19:27 in ice time.
It wasn’t uncommon for hockey people to bump into Baizley wherever the game was played anywhere on the planet. Steen was thinking it would have been nice to have his old friend in the building on this night.
"It’s tough not being able to call him after this," said Steen, before softly shaking his head and excusing himself from the media to return to the dressing room.
Steen, born in Winnipeg and the son of Jets royalty Thomas Steen, is quick to talk of the impact the Baizley family had on his life, but there is also evidence of the 29-year-old giving back to his mentor.
St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong is also a member of Team Canada’s management team and was asked about the season Steen is having. Armstrong was effusive about Steen’s success with the Blues but quickly steered the conversation from his player’s hockey attributes to his qualities as a person.
"We talked to him in the summer about trying to sign an extension, but his priority was with Don Baizley’s family. It showed a lot about his character. He didn’t want to worry about a contract," said Armstrong.
"He wanted to be supportive of Don. And then Alex wanted to be supportive of the family after his passing. That showed the true man he is. I said to him at the time, ‘Whenever you’re ready to sign, let me know.’ We were in Ottawa before Christmas, and we had breakfast and he said he was ready. We were done the contract in less than 48 hours."
When news of the three-year, $17.4-million extension broke, the fingerprints of Baizley’s guidance were all over the pact. Baizley clients have shared one of their agent’s maxims since his death which centred on not forcing a GM to stretch his final offer too far. Sign for a little less, went Baizley’s thinking, and the GM will be both comfortable and grateful.
Steen almost certainly left millions on the table, but he picked up a full no-trade clause, and both he and the Blues are happy with the arrangement.
Baizley’s son Gord was emailed Wednesday and asked: Was his father aware of Steen putting business on hold last summer?
"To my knowledge, my dad wasn’t aware that Alex had delayed his negotiations on account of his illness. It’s a powerful gesture that my dad undoubtedly would have discouraged," wrote Gord.
"Our family only became aware of it when the video of the press conference announcing Alex’s signing was sent to us. Alex’s comments were hugely touching for us as you can imagine though shouldn’t have been surprising in light of the way my dad spoke about both Alex and his dad. He was always very proud to have been able to work for the Steens, and we’re thrilled that Alex is having such great success this year."
Steen played much of his minor hockey in Winnipeg, but moved to Sweden as a teenager when his father took a job scouting in Europe for the Minnesota Wild. He was never on Hockey Canada’s radar, but the Swedes offered him a chance to play in the Four Nations Cup as a 16-year old, he took it. International Ice Hockey Federation rules stipulate once a player commits to a nation, except in rare circumstances, he must stick with his decision. So for Steen, it’s always been Sweden when it comes to international hockey.
While Steen may wear the Tre Kroner in hockey, he still has strong Winnipeg roots and owns a business as well as basing his Amadeus Steen Foundation in the city. The charity, which honours his brother who died at the age of two, raises funds in support of the children’s hospital wing where Amadeus died due to a cardiac virus.
Most Winnipeggers will cheer for Canada should they lock horns with the Swedes. But just like Steen still has part of his heart in our town, we should save a little room in ours for him.