Back in 1986, a feisty young player by the name of Theoren Fleury, whose intensity belied his diminutive stature, made a big impression at the World Junior Championships for Team Canada. That performance was a harbinger of a successful NHL career fought out below the altitude of the rest of the league. Flash forward almost 20 years, and that history may be repeating itself in the form of Medicine Hat defenseman Kris Russell. Currently manning the blue line at the 2006 World Junior Championships for a Team Canada defense that features five first-round NHL selections, Russell has the opportunity to showcase his talent and follow the path laid by fellow WHLer Fleury.
The old adage concerning the size of the fight in the Tiger making the difference can be applied in spades to Alberta native Russell. Columbus’s third round pick (67th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, the rearguard (who tips the scales at a slight 5’10 tall and 166 lbs.) has developed alongside the third overall pick of the 2004 draft, Cam Barker (CHI), for the Medicine Hat Tigers. In just his third season in the WHL, Russell has already established himself as a key component of the Tiger offense, as evidenced by his breakout 2004-05 campaign that saw him find the back of the net 26 times and contribute 35 helpers in 72 games.
While scouts have knocked Russell for his slight stature, there is little fault to find with the style of game he plays. A feisty, competitive player, Russell has been seen to possess that rare ability to control the pace of the game around him, making plays at both ends of the rink and anticipating the puck with an uncanny hockey awareness.
A veteran of the Under-18 Canadian Junior World Cup team of 2004, Russell is back representing the country. He has been paired with Barker over the Canada’s opening four games, all wins for the Canadian squad. The pressure of carrying the hopes of an entire nation during the formative years of a hockey career can be oppressive, but the feistiness Russell displays on the ice is, interestingly, matched by a sanguinity off of it.
“It’s kind of crazy, but to be part of Team Canada you know you’re going to get a lot of exposure,” Russell said. “Everybody gets to see you, but on the other hand you’ve got interviews every day. But it’s nice, it’s a great time to play for your country and I think any of these guys (would) do it every day.”
While he may take the off-ice pressures of living under the intense media microscope of the WJC, he is far less casual when it comes to Team Canada’s performance.
“Every game is a must-win game, you go into the game wanting to win. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to try to put our best effort out on the table and see what happens.”
Russell’s pragmatism concerning the chances of the Canadian squad is not unfounded; Team Canada has a long history of playing up, and down, to the level of their competition, a tendency which has yet to manifest itself in this year’s tournament.
“We know they’re a good club, but so are we; we just have to make sure we execute our systems. Get the puck deep, work their defense, and just play our game and go from there,” Russell said prior to last night’s showdown with Team USA, a game which saw Team Canada out-grind and out-hustle the faster American squad to a critical 3-2 victory. Russell turned in another solid game, and even assisted on the first goal of the contest, a power play tally off the stick of fellow Tiger and defensive partner Barker.
Working in tandem with Barker is nothing new for Russell. The pair have anchored the Medicine Hat Tigers since the 2003-04 season, on a blue line which graduated the third overall pick of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Jay Bouwmeester, straight to the Florida Panthers lineup just two years previous. Of the three, Russell has turned in the best season as a Tiger, scoring 26 goals and 61 points in an eye-opening 2004-05 season that drew the attention of media sent to watch the highly-touted Barker. Russell has continued to develop under the imposing shadow cast by a top-five NHL selection.
“In the (WHL) I’m looked at as a leader, (with) me and Barks on the back end and power play,” Russell said in describing his current role with the Tigers. “Killing penalties, just getting the puck up ice and getting scoring opportunities. It (this season) has gone alright. I’ve had a couple of injuries that set me back a little bit, but our team’s doing well so it’s been good.”
And yet it was difficult for NHL franchises to overlook Russell’s height when laying out their 2005 entry draft boards. As one scout said, if he were 6’0 tall, he’d be a definite first-rounder. And yet, the realities of the current NHL situation, where there are a scant handful of blueliners below 5’11 and under 180 lbs., dropped Russell into the third round. Where others would feel slighted by the situation, Russell instead looks at his selection by the Blue Jackets as a positive.
“Columbus took me in the third round and I was excited,” Russell said. “I didn’t think (I’d) go that high, or near that high; it was an exciting day.” He shows the same level-headedness when it comes to the glowing reviews some scouts have published about his play. “It helps, but at the end of the day you got to work hard and make it (on your) own. You have to be better than the guy beside you to stay at a club. That’s what I’m going to go for, work hard over the summer.”
It is that work ethic and heart that have made Russell into an exciting prospect for the Blue Jackets. He knows that his road to the NHL will be a struggle against the perceived wisdom that a smaller player cannot succeed as a rearguard, regardless of the rest of the package brought to the table.
“(I’ll) probably just make sure I get stronger and put some weight on,” Russell said about what he needs to do to better his chances at an NHL career. “I know I’m not going to grow much more, so I have to get sturdier and heavier and work harder.”
As one of the newest members of the Columbus franchise, Russell knows that his future role may be decided by the on-ice needs of the big club. Given his intangibles, Russell’s abilities may be better accentuated by a move up to a forward position for the Jackets, an idea which he takes, as could be expected, in stride.
“That’s something that’s in their hands. If it happens, to play at that level, I’ll do anything. But right now I’m a defenseman, so that’s what I’m going to go by.” Russell said regarding his future role with the club. “They’ve been talking to me every two-three weeks. I’ve been on the phone with them and it’s been good.”
Nor is he intimidated by the vagaries of life as a professional prospect, and all of the problems that are attendant on a career in an NHL organization. As with any teenager thrust into that role, the newfound trappings of a professional career can be daunting, but Russell is able to slough it off. “No, I don’t really look into that. That’s why you hire the big agents (laughing). I’ll just play on the ice and try as hard as I can to make a cut like that and let them worry about the business side of it.”
Is there anything that gives Russell pause? There does not seem to be at this point of his development. Is there anyone on his Team Canada roster that he would not want to face one-on-one?
“Probably Blake Comeau,” he said. “Not so much his size, but he changes speed. He’ll come at you quick and slow down and it’s hard to read how he’s coming and how to read off him.”
For now, Russell is concentrating on helping Team Canada repeat as the Under-20 World Junior Champion, a feat the Canadians have not pulled off since an impressive five-year as gold medalist in the mid-90’s.
“You watch this (the tournament) every year on the TV. And I was hoping for the chance and now I have the chance and it’s pretty crazy to go out there. I don’t know how many fans are screaming, but it’s awesome.” Russell said.
The importance of this tournament is not lost on him. “Especially here in Canada, it’s pretty special.”
It is no coincidence that the same can be said of the smallest member of Team Canada.
Matt MacInnis contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.