WEBER'S NHL PATH RUNS THROUGH IOWANov 21, 2016
By Tom Witosky| Follow @toskyAHLWild
Mike Weber has always embraced his blue-collar upbringing.
“It’s who I am and how I play,” the 28-year-old son of a Pittsburgh auto mechanic said in a recent interview. “I am a self-taught hockey player who had a lot of good people help me along the way. I never stop, I never quit.”
But Weber is now experiencing what so many other blue-collar workers are having to deal with -- changing demands to stay on the job. A year ago, Weber played in two Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Washington Capitals and had nearly 10 minutes of ice time in the crucial 1-0 victory by the Capitals in Game 7 of the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
That happened after spending 10 years in the Buffalo Sabers organization, including six as one of the Sabers’ regulars on defense. Weber was drafted in the second round of the 2006 NHL entry draft out of the Ontario Hockey League.
Today – just a few months later – he finds himself skating for the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League unable to hitch on as a free agent with an NHL team after coming out of training camp this fall.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience for me,” Weber said. “I was traded to play a depth role with Washington. When I played, I played hard and solid, but it wasn’t on a regular basis. So you could see where that was leading. “
As a free agent following last season, Weber got a tryout with the St. Louis Blues, but was released during training camp after the Blues determined there wasn’t room for him in St. Louis or with Chicago of the AHL. In October, he signed an AHL 25-game tryout contract with Iowa, where he has played regularly in the club’s early season.
“We’ve had other offers, but Minnesota was a unique opportunity,” Weber said. “They showed a lot of belief in me and raised the possibility I might get back up there again because of the type of player I am.”
Derek Lalonde, Iowa’s head coach, said that Weber also brings valuable NHL experience to a group of young defensemen with lots of potential, but also a lot to learn about playing on the blue line.
“He knows who he is and plays the style of hockey that got him a couple of NHL contracts,” Lalonde said. “Some guys in a similar situation won’t accept a situation like this very well, but Mike has embraced it and been great in the locker room and great with the younger players.”
One example, Lalonde said, was when Weber dove to block a puck in the waning seconds of a narrow 3-2 victory over Chicago. Weber was called for delay of game, but managed to help drain the game to its final four seconds by blocking a shot on goal.
“That’s what he does,” Lalonde said. “He is willing to make plays that gets us to win a game. He is a true professional.”
Weber said that how he plays the game has changed over the years. Starting out with Windsor in the OHL in 2003-04, Weber said that defensemen were expected to play tough on the line and in front of the goal.
“Before the 2005 lockout, it was clutch and grab, hook and fighting. Back then everything was acceptable,” Weber said.
But rule changes that followed the lockout changed how defensemen were expected to play the game, he said.
“The rules changed from the NHL down to the OHL,” he said. “You had to become faster, you had to skate more, and that was my first transition. I had to accept that.”
Weber said his four years in the OHL gave him the confidence that he could play NHL hockey. Much of the credit, he said, belongs to D.J. Smith, a former NHL player and now an assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“He was the one who gave me a purpose, gave me the job and said this is what you have to do. He could see potential in me. I completely bought in and was willing to do whatever it takes,” Weber said.
Since then, the game has continued to emphasize speed as opposed to brawn, although that kind of emphasis does change during the season, Weber said.
“The game got faster on all of us. Then it went back the other way some. Not completely to clutch and grab, but it got more physical,” he said.
As a result, Weber said he now spends every off-season working on improving his skating and stick handling.
“In the offseason, it’s not like I am working on block shots or getting better at fighting,” he said. ”It’s always about working on my hands and working on my feet.”
Weber said that he wants to finish the season with Iowa, if possible, and remain with the Minnesota organization. Retirement is the furthest thing from his mind because he believes he can make it back to the NHL.
“Father Time does march on and certain things are going to slow down,” he explained. “But I am trying my best at staying sharp and doing my best, and that means being able to stay in this game and play at the best of my ability. I feel like I am ready to get back there.”