Oilers prospects are teammates and enemies

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers are always looking for character players who possess an instinctive competitive fire in their belly. Since the turn of the century when Kevin Lowe, Scott Howson and Kevin Prendergast assumed managerial control of the Oilers, there has been a concerted effort at each draft to greatly increase the size, strength and toughness of their team. And on day one of the last NHL training camp back in 2003-04, Edmonton head coach Craig MacTavish used the word “greasy” to characterize what he wanted the Oilers on-ice identity to become.

When it comes to large, rugged and fiery prospects in the organization, the Oilers have a wide selection of players fitting that description, including Colin McDonald, Brad Winchester, J.F. Jacques, Zack Stortini, Troy Bodie and Doug Lynch. The organization likes to see its players showing that internal fire and competitiveness even at training camps when the occasional scrap will break out as players fight for jobs. But there are two prospects in the system that not only fit the bill as big, nasty players, but it would be fair to say that they’re also not pen pals.

In the Greene corner…

As captain of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, it’s Matt Greene’s job to lead his teammates both on and off the ice. It’s a job he now relishes after admitting to Hockey’s Future that there was an initial awkward period.

“It was a great honor and I had a lot of fun doing it, it was fun trying to adjust to it,” Greene said recently. “You have to find a way to approach the game a bit different because you have to make sure everyone else is ready to play their game and if they don’t, it’s kind of your fault. It’s more responsibility but that also makes it more fun.”

Wearing the ‘C’ on his sweater altered the way Greene saw the game to the degree that he was more attuned to the mental make-up of each of his teammates and he was able to read the emotion of a game, knowing how the players on his squad were going to react. He was their leader and led by example, the others took their cue from him.

With the graduation of several of North Dakota’s more offensive players, Greene’s point totals dropped this season, but that was neither a surprise nor a big disappointment to the defensive blueliner.

“We lost a couple guys in Brandon Bochenski (OTT) and Zack Parise (NJ) and a lot of my assists were breakout passes where they’d take care of the rest,” he explained. “You take guys like that out and the whole team is effected but I’m never going to be a big point guy so I’m not too worried about that.”

And the challenger…

Drafted 57th overall in 2004, Geoff Paukovich completed his rookie season with the University of Denver Pioneers, winners of their second consecutive national title. The local Colorado product realized a personal dream by dressing for Denver this past year.

“Growing up we always had season tickets to Pioneers games and I always dreamt about playing here,” Paukovich told Hockey’s Future in May. “When I got the opportunity to play here, that was unbelievable and playing in front of friends and family every night is a pretty awesome experience.”

Unlike Greene who was a junior last season, Paukovich was just trying to find a way to fit into the team, not an easy thing to do after the success the school had enjoyed in 2003-04.

“Considering Denver was the defending national champion, I just wanted to play,” he said. “I had some good linemates this year, got some lucky bounces and had a pretty good offensive season so I was happy with how it all went. I got better as an offensive player and I think it really pushes me next year to do even better.”

Spending most of his time on a line with sophomore J.D. Corbin (COL) and senior Jon Foster meant the rookie had experienced people around him. At the end of Denver’s campaign, Paukovich had compiled 21 points in 41 games, impressive for a two-way forward in his first year.

The rivalry

The WCHA was completely dominant in 2004-05, all four teams that comprised the year-ending national tournament coming from that league. The Frozen Four semi-final featured match-ups between longtime rival schools including Denver against Colorado College and then North Dakota and Minnesota. As fate would have it, Greene and Paukovich would meet one another in the final game in what was expected to be one of the most exciting single match-ups of the year.

Not only were the Pioneers the defending national champions, but also they had recently captured the WCHA title beating North Dakota along the way in the semi-finals. To refer to the emotions of that game simply as ‘a bitter rivalry’ might not be doing it justice.

“Yeah it’s really heated,” Greene said. “Nobody likes to lose and I think they’ve got the better of us the last five or six times we’ve played them. They’re a great team and it’s difficult to play them because they can run and gun or just trap; they can do it all. They also play very physically like we do and it’s frustrating to play a team that is solid everywhere.”

“You go into a pre-game meeting and you can’t pinpoint a weakness, they have great goaltending, solid defense and a solid forward core so you’re left wondering how to attack or when to just weather the storm,” the captain continued. “It’s fun to play against them, we always have gritty games, and it’s just a shame that lately we’ve come out on the wrong side of the games.”

Everyone knows that the outcome of that National Final saw Denver successfully defending their crown with a decisive 4-1 victory but this story doesn’t end there. The intertwining tale of Greene and Paukovich started even before the NCAA tournament began.

Considering the roles each of the two players have on their respective teams, sooner or later everyone knew that they were going to meet. Paukovich, at 6’4 and 220lbs, describes his job as “the two-way center that goes out and contributes at both ends of the ice. I played a strong power play presence by working the front of the net; I was pretty much third line all year and second unit power play and it was my job to go to the net and try and get my stick on anything that came in my vicinity.”

Not surprisingly being such an immovable force at the top of the crease, Paukovich found success there and scored a dozen times.

“That’s how I probably score most of my goals, by going to the front of the net and then picking up the dirty rebounds so that’s the place I like to go to create opportunities,” he said.

For Greene on the other hand, his job is to clear the front of the net at any cost. At 6’3 and 225lbs, the North Dakota captain is one of the roughest and toughest blueliners in all of NCAA hockey and rarely is faced with a challenge he can’t overcome.

“In front, you don’t battle with him because he’s so big and so strong and he has a tremendous mean streak,” one scout commented in regards to Greene, while another said “You want him on your team, you don’t want to play against him.”

Denver and North Dakota met four times over the course of the season and playoffs with the Pioneers winning each match and outscoring the Fighting Sioux by a combined 14-6 score. Paukovich netted two of Denver’s goals both coming in the same game, their first against North Dakota.

“I scored twice against North Dakota this year but I’m not sure if (Greene) was on the ice,” said the 18-year-old center before remembering that his second of the game, a powerplay marker, went in while Greene was on playing. There was controversy on the play as many of the players, including Paukovich, thought the Pioneers were offside but there was no whistle which infuriated the Sioux.

“I’ve never seen a man so mad in my life!” said Paukovich referring to Greene who was expressing his directing his displeasure with the official. “The ref was standing right next to us as we were celebrating and I’ve never seen a guy yell so loud and violently in my life, I had to get out of there!”

Greene remembers the play slightly differently.

“Yeah, I wasn’t on the ice!” he laughed.

When asked who generally won the battles in front of the net between the two, the 22-year-old Greene reacted with mock astonishment.

“Are you kidding me?” he feigned.

And as you should expect, Paukovich begged to differ. “I’d like to say I did, I mean, I don’t recall really getting into it with him in front of the net too often but… I’d like to say that I did.”

“Come on!” countered Greene. “It’s me, all the time.”

Greene is able to laugh about the season now, but during the year he’s all business and there is no time for making friends, it’s all about protecting them. That mantra was in effect every night but really came to the fore on the afternoon of March 18th, the semi-final game of the WCHA tournament. In one sudden moment, the game turned ugly and the Paukovich-Greene rivalry reached a dangerous new level.

The incident

The moment came early in the second period with Denver controlling the puck while the referee had his arm in the air ready to blow the play dead as soon as North Dakota touched the puck. It’s a scene played out in rinks around the globe often, but on this afternoon in the heat of the battle, something went wrong.

As the puck came free along the boards, sophomore defenseman Robbie Bina reached to touch it thus triggering the whistle and stopping the play. But when the 5’8 180 lb Bina played the puck, he was simultaneously hit from behind by Paukovich, crashing heavily into the boards.

“It was a delayed penalty touch up and Bina got hit from behind, that’s it,” Greene bluntly stated, clearly still bothered by the memory. “He was two feet off the boards and got hit from behind and it was a delayed penalty call, so as soon as Robbie touches the puck, which he did, the whistle blows and that’s it. I don’t want to point fingers or anything, but from where I was sitting, it didn’t look like it needed to happen.”

Bina lay motionless for a period of time before being carried off the ice, the extent of his injuries not immediately known. Oiler VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast, who was in attendance that night, wasn’t aware of the severity of the injury until it came up in casual conversation with Hockey’s Future a day or two later back in Edmonton.

“The way he went into the boards, his stick slammed so loudly that I thought it sounded worse than it was,” said Prendergast. “Clearly, I was wrong.”

The result to Bina was a broken neck and possibly the end of his playing career. On the other hand, for the momentary lapse of judgment, Paukovich was given a one-game suspension by the NCAA and another from his coach. However, it should be pointed out that at the time of the incident, the only penalty given to the Denver forward was a two-minute minor for boarding. Whether it was the blown call by the ref, the hit itself or something else, North Dakota’s captain reacted immediately.

“It’s tough, you know, you’ve got your buddy lying on the ice and you can’t do anything about it,” Greene said with frustration in his voice. “If I would have done anything about it I would have had three minutes more in penalties than Paukovich had for breaking the kid’s neck plus a game misconduct and it was at a time when we were dealing with single elimination games for the rest of the year.”

“It was tough to swallow, Robbie’s one of my best friends on the team but regardless of being a teammate or not, you never want to get too personal with things. But when you see a guy every day in classes and then you see him take a hit like that, it kind of messes with your mind,” he added. “I was frustrated, but there wasn’t much you could do about it in that game.”

Paukovich, who was genuinely and deeply regretful for his actions, says his memory of the incident is still largely a blur but clearly recalls Greene’s reaction.

“I was kind of in a daze but… he was pissed” the rookie described. “He and I had some words and that kind of set the stage for the National Championship game. He wasn’t a very big fan of mine after that, that’s for sure.”

Bina missed the rest of the tournament schedule, but was in attendance providing emotional support for his team all the way to the NCAA finals held in Columbus. The prognosis for the diminutive forward is still unclear and at last contact Bina was still wearing both a neck brace and a never fading smile, a trait Greene admires immensely.

“His personality through the whole thing has been unbelievable, a guy that had every reason to be down with just the fact that we were playing in the National Championship game and he was in the stands wearing a neck brace where he would have been playing,” praised Greene. “He never lost the smile off his face, he always came around happy and was always cracking jokes and even now when I go for lunch with him, he’s a great guy.”

Paukovich struggled emotionally after the hit and although he played his way through to the end of the year, some say he was clearly not the same player on the ice.

“That really bothered Geoff in a big way, it’s going to take him some time to recover emotionally,” Denver head coach George Gwozdecky said during an Edmonton radio interview on the TEAM 1260 in April. “He was able to play for us in the Frozen Four and played pretty well but you could tell he was being very careful.”

“It wasn’t a deliberate thing, he’s a very physical player but he’s not a dirty player,” defended Prendergast. “The incident was unfortunate but he didn’t mean to injure him. We talked to him after the game and you could see it in his eyes that it had rattled him, when you see a kid taken off the ice on a stretcher it affects you.”

What now?

For now, the two adversaries are in two different cities at two different schools and on two different teams, however, sooner or later they’re going to meet at an Oiler training camp. The Oilers have already acknowledged the possibility of fireworks between the two and are making mental notes to deal with it.

“They did go at each other a couple times this year and I think one of the comments made was ‘I’ll see your ass in training camp one day!’ and the other’s response was ‘that’s great with me!’ confirmed Prendergast with a chuckle. “We’ll just have to make sure that when we draw up the teams for training camp that they’re on the same team!”

“Things change when you become teammates and hopefully it doesn’t carry over into that,” said the Oiler executive. “Kids have long memories, but they’re prospects of the Edmonton Oilers and not of North Dakota and Denver.”

Considering how highly the Oilers are coveting players with that fire and competitiveness, should these two behemoths meet and drop the gloves at training camp, the management will likely have smiles from ear to ear behind their outward poker faces.

And the players themselves?

“I actually talked to Mr. Prendergast at the National Championship and he was mentioning something about that too,” laughed Paukovich when asked he expects fireworks at the next Oiler camp. “I think if it was a thing where we happened to come together and fight it would be a ‘one and done’ thing. A lot of people might like to see it because it’s two big guys coming together but I think we both respect each other enough as hockey players to realize that if it happens it happens but if it doesn’t it doesn’t and just move on from there.”

“You never know, some things can be water under the bridge,” said Greene. “I’ve never talked to the guy off the ice and so I’m not sure.”

Although a CBA settlement is expected any time now, until there is one the Oilers have been told by the league that no summer camps will take place. Down the highway the Calgary Flames have camp plans well underway, something the Oilers have not yet committed to, claiming the league frowned upon such things during the work stoppage.

As much as fans might want to see a camp involving the two NCAA prospects, they might have to wait another summer for one to actually be held that they can both attend. Neither would be able to participate in an Oiler training camp due to NCAA regulations.

Two sides of the same coin

The similarities between Matt Greene and Geoff Paukovich are uncanny by comparison and the truth is that the pair might be alike in more ways than they are different. The list of obvious differences begins with their ages, Greene being Paukovich’s senior by almost exactly three years, and the fact that one is a forward while the other a defender.

Both Greene and Paukovich were active in the US Developmental Program prior to the beginning of their college careers. Paukovich was as a member of the U18 squad that captured a silver medal in Belarus in the spring of 2004. Greene won a silver at the US hosted Five Nations Cup in 2000 in Lake Placid. While Greene represented the States at the 2003 World Junior Championships in Halifax, Paukovich is looking forward to participating in his first U20 camp this summer.

Greene was a second round pick by the Oilers in 2002, Paukovich in the same round two years later. The two players are both noted for their aggressive and physical play and not surprisingly both have been team leaders in accumulating penalty minutes. That’s not likely to change when they turn pro because both are gladly willing to fight.

“It comes with the territory, if you’re going to play hard then you have to be prepared for whatever happens,” Paukovich said. “I fought in juniors, I fought last year so I’m not afraid to do it. I’m not an enforcer type who goes out there looking for a fight, but if one comes my way I’m definitely not afraid to take it on.”

Ironically enough, when asked to describe Paukovich to another player for Edmonton listeners, coach Gwozdecky elected to use Greene as his comparable calling the defender “one mean son of a gun.”

“He was telling me about that,” laughed Paukovich when told of the remark. “I take it as a compliment in that Matt is such a well-respected player around the WCHA. There definitely are some similarities because we both play hard and physical, we’re both big guys so we create our fair share of stuff.”

Prendergast not only agrees with the comparison but also drew the same one himself in an earlier conversation.

“(Paukovich) has a lot of Matt Greene in him in that he has a mean streak and he’ll do anything to win a game,” said Prendergast earlier this year. “We consider Matt Greene as one of our top prospects and when we drafted Paukovich we knew exactly what we were getting.”

How did Greene react to the news that he was compared to his bitter rival?

“I think it’s nice to be compared to another physical player like that and if your name is being used as a comparison then maybe you’re doing something right,” the defenseman said. “I think that the way he plays, he does his job and he knows his role and I think that’s a lot more than some people can say about a young kid coming into college, especially in his freshman year. As a rookie, you want to try and do everything and be everything, but he knows exactly what his role is and he executes it. He does a great job and he really filled a void that they had at forward. He went out and banged everybody that he could, he was a big part of their team.”

Wait a minute. That sounds a little too much like respect and admiration between the pair rather than the spitting mad insults normally associated between heated adversaries.

“He’s a tough player to play against, he knows his role,” began Greene. “You play against a lot of guys who may be big like him that want to try and play a finesse game but he’s not scared to throw his weight around and he knows what he’s out there to do; he’s out there to cause havoc and with all that (Bina) issue aside, he’s a tough player to play against and you have to give him a lot of respect for the way he plays.”

“He’s a hell of a competitor and I respect him a ton for what he did this year,” Paukovich said. “Everybody kind of thought North Dakota was down and out of it around Christmas time but with his leadership he was able to get that team to the National Championship game. We went at it a lot this year, we had our feud and some words have been said but I still respect him a hell of a lot as a player.”

Perhaps it’s a case of two players who recognize the obvious similarities in themselves when they play against each other that has led to their mutual appreciation. It’s hard to be critical of someone when the biggest difference between him and yourself is the color of the sweater they wear.

“He is by far the toughest defenseman I have ever had to play against in my career,” praised Paukovich. “The writing was on the wall that we were going to come together this year considering the way he plays and the way I play; we were eventually going to be in each other’s face.”

“The way he plays and the way I play, you’re going to run into a lot of conflicts,” agreed Greene. “It’s not like I don’t like the guy, I’ve never talked to him off the ice once so I can’t say that I have a dislike for him. I respect the way he plays because I play the same style.”

Obviously the similarities come through even in their comments.

2005-06 outlook

With the graduation of several key forwards, there will be a larger role available to Paukovich next season with the Pioneers and he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“I just want to build on this season,” said the forward known to his teammates simply as ‘Pawko’. “Twenty-one points is a respectable season, but with some of the guys who are leaving, the rest of us are going to have to step up and carry a bigger offensive load and I’m looking to be one of those guys.”

Now as two-time defending champs, the Pioneers will have everyone gunning for them and Denver will have to be at the top of their game every night.

“This year when we took nights off we got beat,” agreed Paukovich. “We got beat by Michigan Tech at home and Mankato on the road and I think next year is going to be even more important that we never take a night off.”

Plans for Matt Greene at the moment are still open although admittedly, he’s quite prepared to return to school for his final year.

“There are so many things that are up in the air right now with the CBA that you can’t make any early decisions,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything from Edmonton about any kind of offer or deal if the CBA did get settled, so right now I’m approaching it as though I am going back to North Dakota.”

Greene is already considered a man amongst boys in college and some within the Oiler organization have questioned what hockey benefit there would be for the big rearguard in delaying his jump to pro for yet another year.

“I think there’s enough, you can always develop a skill game even though I know that’s not going to be my thing when I move on,” countered Greene. “You can develop your skills so if the CBA isn’t in place next year or even when it comes right down to it, I’d be happy to come back to North Dakota.”

Paukovich, a real estate finance major, is also not looking to leave college for the foreseeable future, but should he follow the example of some NCAA athletes who leave school and cross the border to play major junior in Canada, he knows where he’d be.

“I was pretty close to playing major junior, I was drafted by Medicine Hat when I was a sophomore in high school and I was planning on going,” admitted Paukovich. “A couple of my minor hockey coaches were from Canada and they were pushing me towards that route but after I was drafted, the University of Denver approached me and I think after weighing my options it was better for me to stay and develop.”

Their commitment to education is just another common ground between Greene and Paukovich. While both definitely have their hearts set on playing for many years in the NHL, they also realize the importance of having an education in case their hockey dreams fall short. However, all indications are that they won’t have to rely on their book smarts anytime soon. The Oilers are already envisioning a day when they have Greene in their defensive top four and Paukovich centering Zack Stortini and Jean-Francois Jacques.

The future outlook for the two opponents looks very positive and it would be ironic if their future successes remained closely tied to one another. In that case, the age-old proverb would have to be altered to read: ‘With enemies like these, who needs friends?’

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