Hockey’s Future Interview with Serge Payer

By Mark Fischel

Hockey’s Future Interview with Serge Payer

Nearing the halfway point of this NHL season, one of the surprises has been the abysmal start of the Florida Panthers. While there are many reasons for this poor outing so far, most notably a startling amount of injuries that have decimated the team and have never given the Panthers a full roster of healthy players.

Maybe one of the small benefits of a team stricken with this many injuries, is the chance for the unexpected. Having a player get called up to fill in sometimes gives the coaches, management, and most importantly, the fans the opportunity to see a player exceed all expectations and beat all the odds of making an impact in the NHL.

One of these players is Serge Payer. Signed as a free agent in late 1997, Serge was expected to spend time this year in the UHL, but an incredibly strong NHL pre-season turned the heads of Panther brass and Serge was sent to start his professional career in the AHL Louisville Panthers.

What is remarkable is the road that Serge took to get to this point in his early career in the NHL. Jennifer McCarthy of Hockey’s Future AHL report recently did a profile of Serge on her web-site http://www.pantherbytes.com/louisville.html
which is a highly recommended read, as well as a good source for Louisville Panther news.

Recently, I got the chance to sit down with Serge Payer on the day of the Colorado game, and it was apparent during the interview that Serge is in this “I still can’t believe” phase over the realization that he is living his dream right now.

HF: At what age did you start playing hockey?

Serge: I started playing at age 4, but I started skating at 2 years old.

HF:And has it always been at forward?

Serge: I have always been a forward, never played goal and never played defense.

HF: At what point in your life did you realize that you would be able to have
aspirations to play hockey on the professional level?

Serge: It’s always been a dream of mine, I pushed toward Hockey because I love the game and
It’s always been a dream, especially from watching Hockey Night in Canada, it is a big
thing on Saturday night.

HF:What were your favorite teams growing up?

Serge:The Montreal Canadiens were my team, Ottawa wasn’t in the league when I was young, but yeah, since they been in the league they were a favorite as well.

HF:At what point do you realize that you have the talent to make it into the Leagues?

Serge:Like I said, it has always been a dream and I have always believed and tried to reach that dream. And obviously when you are young and growing up, there are some steps to follow, playing in AA, than AAA, than onto Junior. And obviously through those times I wanted to believe that I would play in the NHL someday.

HF:Was there any player that you emulated growing up?

Serge:Obviously, Wayne Gretzky. I have always loved Gretzky….born on the same day as I am! Another player I admired was Steve Yzerman.

HF: What role did your parents have in helping you achieve your goals?

Serge:Just supporting me through the tough times was especially important when I was sick,
back in January with Guillain-Barre’. They supported me through a lot of tough times,
they have been so good to me.

HF:What was your initial impression upon entering the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers?

Serge:I came in as a 16 year old so the team didn’t expect me to score 50 goals right off the
bat, and once I started playing there, they liked me as a defensive forward and I played
strong defensively through my junior career and kept on doing those little things, I was probably forced to do those little things right, like win face-offs and play strong defense.

HF:What was your experience like playing for the Canadian Under-18 Mens Team, especially with teammates like Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton?

Serge:It was an outstanding experience, it was awesome to be selected on the team, that was the number one thing, and than to go out there and win the gold medal was even more outstanding. It was just a great feeling to get the chance and opportunity to represent the country.

HF:What responsibilities did you feel you had as the captain of the Rangers, and how did it effect your play?

Serge:That was another great honor. As a young kid growing up you always dream of being a
leader, the leader of the team and being named captain of the Rangers was another
Achievement that I sure enjoyed.

HF:After you recovered from Guillain-Barre’ syndrome, what efforts did you have to put into the rehab?

Serge:Guillain Barre’ syndrome, that attacked me pretty severely. When my legs felt so numb that I wasn’t walking and I was put in a wheelchair and than started to walk again on crutches, so rehab was basically at first a walking process through step one. It was like growing up again by starting to walk again, very slowly, and day by day. If I didn’t have the energy to walk, it would be something else, to brush your teeth………..

HF:How long was that process, at least getting back up to walking speed and skating where you can skate again?

Serge:It was 8 Months before I put on skates again, around July (1998) and than I came down with Mononucleosis in August (1999), and my first game back was on November 28th (1999), somewhere in that period.

HF:What did playing in the minors teach you about what is needed to play at a higher level?

Serge:You get a lot of character playing in the minors, but I haven’t spent a tremendous long time in the minors so far. (Editor note: Serge was called up to Florida after 17 games in Louisville, and has been with the Panthers a little over a month)

HF:How about juniors?

Serge:Juniors is obviously a developmental league where you can learn a lot as a player, and improve. Playing through juniors and minor I think is what it is all about. Big difference with the minors from the juniors, the guys are bigger, faster and stronger up here, and the guys in the NHL are a step higher than the AHL, the guys are so much smarter.

HF:What Canadian city was your most favorite city to play in while you with Kitchener?

Serge:I have always enjoyed going back home and playing in Ottawa. We only played in Ottawa once a year. Besides that, Toronto was always fun. I also liked the northern trip through Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Sudbury, Barrie.

HFWhen you signed as a free agent with the Panthers, where did you initially see yourself playing for them; what kind of role did you envision yourself making with the team?

Serge: Obviously as a defensive forward and checking forward, play strong defensively and smart in your zone, probably play against some of the other teams top lines. And chip in offensively when I get the opportunity to do so.

HF:What was your proudest moment in your junior career?

Serge:Obviously not losing, but making it far in my second year of juniors where we made it to the Semi-finals. It is an awesome feeling to play in the playoffs, where hockey at its best.

HF:Before Game time, do you do any specific things to get yourself prepared mentally?

Serge: Mentally, just read over my role, follow the game plan and make sure I know what to do in
certain instances. Besides that, no, I just focus on my game.

HF:What do you owe your early success to in the NHL?

Serge:Hard work and obviously determination. I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people who
Supported me through my sickness but obviously, if I hadn’t worked hard to battle back, I wouldn’t be here.

HF:How has dealing with adversity made you into a better hockey player?

Serge:It’s such a battle mentally, although it is physically too. I am built to be a stronger person I think mentally. Battling through adversity is more pressure for people to put on their shoulders. Just go out there and do your job and keep the game simple.

HF:Have you always played on the PK unit?

Serge:Yeah, I have always been a penalty killer in the minors and juniors.

HF:Why do you think Terry has given you that responsibility?

Serge:Probably because he has seen me in the past and he heard that I am OK at the penalty killing.

HF:How did it feel to score a goal in front of your family in Ottawa after what you went
through?

Serge:Just amazing! You can’t describe how good of a feeling it is to score your first NHL goal. The fact that it was in my hometown of Ottawa made it that much better. I had a lot of family and friends there, to give them the opportunity to see them live that dream through me.

HF:How did it feel to go one on one with Cujo in Toronto, almost
scoring again?

Serge:That wasn’t such a good feeling! When I intercepted that pass it was exciting, and (laughs) I wanted to have that chance again, I hope to put bury that.

HF:How gratifying is it for you to be in the NHL after overcoming such adversity?

Serge:It’s amazing. I can’t describe enough how much I thank God for giving me that opportunity, I am going to work harder and hope obviously to stay here and do everything right so that I can to stay here.

HF:What have you learned from playing with guys like Bure, Kozlov, Whitney, etc?

Serge:I have learned a lot. They’re good guys that play here, and have a lot of experience. They know what to do to stay in this game, and they know what to do to stay a long time. Look at a guy like Igor Larionov…..yeah, he is the guy to look up to!

HF:Most young forwards aspire to become goal-scorers. Is it difficult for you to
accept a role that puts less emphasis on the offensive parts of the game?

Serge:Like I said, I will chip in as much offensively as much as I can. As long as I keep doing my job defensively, to be put out on that ice, that is my number one thing to do is to play strong defensively. The other one, scoring, if I get the opportunity. I will go offense and score a little more.

HF:How do you gauge your performance on a game-by-game basis?

Serge:Well, it’s tough. I am living day-to-day; they can whatever they want with me. They can send me down if they want to; right now it is a game-by-game basis. Just gotta go out there and take the advantages that I can, shift-by-shift and game-by-game.

HF:How does the coaching staff communicate its expectations to you before game time?

Serge:Right now, they give out the pre-game speech and tell them what the game plan is. I am treated like any other guy right now. They don’t tell me anything that they aren’t telling the other guys.

HF:Well, I thank you for your time and I know you have a big game tonight against the Avalanche, so I will let you go back to your afternoon routine.

Interviewer Note:

One of the questions I received was regarding what Serge did with his first NHL goal puck. I didn’t want to ask this question in the interview, because Serge did not have the puck in his possession.

The Florida Panthers intercepted the puck and had it sent off to a trophy maker to be placed in a huge trophy. The trophy has a large brass hockey player, the time and place of the goal, who assisted on the goal, and the puck mounted on top. Needless to say, having a trophy with your hometown team on it makes quite a presentation for the trophy room, and a wonderful Holiday gift for Serge.

As always, any comments or questions are appreciated. To be placed on the mailing list, please send your e-mail address to mfisc690@mindspring.com