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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Slot machine hits every time

Sniper Stone pumps em in like Espo, Kerr

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EDMONTON — One day they’re calling out 177 names before yours at the NHL entry draft.

Less than two years later, the names they are calling out before yours — at least for the sake of comparison — are former stars like Tim Kerr, Dave Andreychuk and Phil Esposito.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of junior hockey, where personal stocks can rise and fall with the volatility and uncertainty of a Kim Kardashian marriage.

And if Mark Stone was a stock, here’s a free tip: Buy.

After all, the 19-year-old Winnipegger entered the world junior tournament widely considered a one-dimensional plodder with great hands — good enough mitts, in fact, to lead the Western Hockey League and the Brandon Wheat Kings in scoring (65 points in 33 games).

Always with the "But"... can’t skate.

At least, not at the level to be an impact player on the junior global stage, or the NHL, where Stone was drafted 178th overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2010. Funny how it works, though. In 199 games with the Wheat Kings, Stone was a young man with a hole in his game. But after just three games in a Team Canada jersey — and a team-high six goals — the big forward is suddenly being likened to Esposito and Kerr, two wide-bodied pillars who made a living in the slot.

"Obviously, I came into the tournament (camp) just to try to make the team," Stone said. "From Day 1 of camp I was fighting for a spot. Now I’m fighting for minutes on the team."

Stone isn’t fighting for minutes on camera, though. The other night, TSN analysts Bob McKenzie and Ray Ferraro were tossing out names to describe Stone’s game, which centres around a 10-foot radius in front of the opponent’s crease. One compared Stone’s style to the Hall of Famer Esposito, the other to Kerr, a four-time 50-goal scorer.

Stone shrugged.

"I’m just taking it all in," he said, when asked about his new-found fame.

"This is my only chance at the juniors, so I want to win a gold medal. The media and all that is second."

For Stone, however, some things haven’t changed. Sure, he’s spent the last year focused on improving his skating and fitness. His foot speed has improved significantly, and the physical conditioning has helped.

But the means of production remain largely the same — dating back to his minor hockey league days at the Keith Bodley Arena in Winnipeg.

"I had to find a way to score goals when I was younger," he said. "I wasn’t one of the fastest skaters out there so I just had to get myself to the net. That’s the way I’ve been scoring my goals.

"I think I understand my strengths," Stone added. "For me, it’s understanding what I can and can’t do."

Still, as much as Stone’s hands have been a subject of praise this heady week in Edmonton, a couple of hockey men who know the player best say his best asset is found a little higher up the body.

"His intelligence really separates him," said Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon. "I think it really helps compensate for areas of his game that need to be better because he’s so smart. His anticipation, his ability to see plays develop, to get open, to find the open man. Very responsible defensively. He’s really at an elite level for a player of his age, the way he understands the game."

Turns out, that’s exactly what Stone has displayed in Canada’s opening three victories, where he notched a tournament-opening hat trick against Finland (8-1 Canada), another goal against the Czech Republic (5-0 Canada) and a three-point effort, including two goals, in a 10-2 romp over Denmark.

Every one of those six goals was a combination of opportunity meeting execution in burying loose pucks in the slot.

Perhaps Winnipeg Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger, who watched Stone play minor hockey with one of his own sons, best summed up Stone’s gift on the ice.

"His hockey sense is off the charts," Heisinger said, "and he has the balls of a burglar." Excuse me?

"It means he’ll try stuff that nobody else will have the balls to try and get away with because he’s so smart."

Does that mean offensively or mischievously?

"Both," Heisinger replied.

Which brings us to the former NHL player who Heisinger sees in Stone: Winnipeg product Mike Ridley, a late bloomer who walked his way onto the New York Rangers to carve out a 12year career from the mid-80s to 1997.

Ridley was an undrafted free agent who was thought to be too slow for the big leagues, too. Wasn’t even considered good enough to play major junior hockey.

Before Ridley was done, he had amassed 758 points in 866 NHL games. Said Heisinger, of Ridley: "He didn’t have to skate that far, because he knew where to go."

Hence the comparison.

"Do I like Mark Stone?" Heisinger concluded. "I love Mark Stone because I like guys who are smart and I wouldn’t bet against Stoney finding a way."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 31, 2011 C4

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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