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Former Sabre John Scott and his odyssey of extremes

ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland – A solitary set of footprints dotted the crusty snow along Cape Spear. Face winds gusted so forcefully you had to gasp to breathe. Spray from the Atlantic Ocean became tiny icy pellets, threshing exposed skin with relentless pecks.

The only other sounds were the surf pounding the jagged coast below and a foghorn moaning into the shrouded horizon.

At North America’s easternmost point you are closer to Reykjavik than to Buffalo. Peer at the Atlantic oblivion and a continent’s entire population is behind you; 96.5 percent is at least two time zones away.

On Cape Spear this particular day, a person couldn’t feel any more isolated.

Dank remnants from a World War II fort still stand near Cape Spear’s tip. Given the austere weather it resembled a Siberian gulag, with rusted iron bars securing windows and cells. Graffiti further begrimed the cracked, weather-beaten concrete. Footsteps echoed in an underground bunker that provided shelter from the frigid winds.

John Scott figured his bizarre 2015-16 odyssey would conclude in Newfoundland, a remote island known as The Rock.

Scott, the trudging enforcer, had been exiled in a suspicious Jan. 15 trade-and-demotion seemingly orchestrated to prevent him from playing in the NHL All-Star Game.

St. John’s is breathtaking despite its wicked winters and is a picturesque tourist destination in warmer months. Downtown is vibrant and eclectic all year round. But it was a hockey Shawshank for Scott, punished for a perceived transgression not of his doing.

Wooden stairs, covered in snow, leading up to the Cape Spear lighthouse in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Wooden stairs, covered in snow, leading up to the Cape Spear lighthouse in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The NHL wanted him to renounce the satirical on-line campaign that made him an All-Star captain. His own team, the Arizona Coyotes, didn’t support him.

Scott wouldn’t back out. The Coyotes shipped him to the Montreal Canadiens, who relegated him to their minor-league club in St. John’s, as geographically far away as possible while remaining on the continent. Danielle Scott, already looking after daughters of 4 and 2, was nine months pregnant with two more girls.

The three-team trade Jan. 15 made little sense, involving journeymen and broken prospects.

Two weeks later, Darcy Regier left the Coyotes’ front office for personal reasons he hasn’t divulged publicly. Many around the league say Regier, the former Buffalo Sabres general manager who brought Scott to Buffalo in 2012, was mortified about the trade.

Regier did not respond to The Buffalo News’ phone or email messages about Scott.

[Mike Harrington (of all people) finds 23 positives in the Sabres' season]

The Coyotes received defenseman Jared Tinordi, who on March 9 was suspended for 20 games. Tinordi failed a test for illegal performance-enhancing drugs while still with the Canadiens.

The NHL claimed the trade was kosher. But after it was made, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said, “I have a reason that I can’t really tell you why, but if I could, you would probably understand.” The Coyotes, an organizational mess since their 2009 bankruptcy, were owned by the NHL until 2013.

“I’ve learned not to focus on that stuff,” Scott said last Monday over lunch. “I’d drive myself crazy if I did. But I tend to believe every negative theory I hear. They make too much sense.”

What came off as ham-fisted shenanigans backfired because fans rebelled. The pawn not only played in the All-Star Game, but his team also won, and he was voted most valuable player.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had to swallow hard and hand him the oversized check. Scott’s teammates skated him off the ice on their shoulders.

“Trade me. Send me to St. John’s. Try to keep me out,” Scott said. “It was a perfect scene when I got that check from Gary.”

John Scott's teammates carry him off the ice after their team won the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 31. (Getty Images)

John Scott's teammates carry him off the ice after their team won the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 31. (Getty Images)

Best-selling author and columnist Mitch Albom is writing a screenplay about Scott’s ordeal.

A few months ago, Scott was convinced he would need his Michigan Tech engineering degree upon retirement. Now he’s optimistic the All-Star exposure and subsequent networking will lead to a lifelong hockey career. TSN has approached him about being an analyst.

In the meantime, Scott had to report to the minor leagues. His assigned team was in a city closer to Africa, closer to Italy, closer to Germany than to Phoenix.

St. John’s was a significant part of Scott’s whipsaw winter. He began happily in the Arizona desert as a respected leader on an upstart club before the season turned sinister, fragmented his family and made him a sports demigod before shoving him back into obscurity.

Minor-league treatment

TORONTO – Each time Scott touched the puck March 29 against the Toronto Marlies in Ricoh Coliseum, a handful of bros in Section 112 pounded empty seatbacks and chanted.

MVP! MVP! MVP!

Maybe they were lauding Scott’s achievement in Nashville two months earlier, but their giggles indicated they probably were mocking the 6-foot-8 enforcer for knocking around the minor leagues.

Scott was on the Canadiens’ lowest rung. His eight NHL seasons granted no special status. Montreal clearly wasn’t headed to the playoffs, and neither was St. John’s. Yet Scott, who can play forward or defense, served on the fourth line in the minors, too.

That was the joke. Scott was the antithetical representation of an All-Star, which is why Internet trolls stuffed the ballot box to put him on the roster. The campaign gained enough momentum that Scott – the Coyotes’ lone representative – finished with more votes than any other player, making him Pacific Division captain.

The stunt wasn’t original. Scott wasn’t even the first or second player with Buffalo Sabres ties to be an intended punch line.

Nine years earlier, former Sabres defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick nearly was voted into the All-Star Game. Fitzpatrick, who spent more time with the Rochester Americans than with the Sabres, had joined the Vancouver Canucks when VoteForRory.com was launched. A computer programmer later designed a method to thwart NHL.com and stuff the e-ballot box for him.

“Vancouver made it clear they wanted me to go, to represent the team and be a part of it,” Fitzpatrick recently said while on vacation with his family in Sanibel Island, Fla. “So I would have went, but I didn’t want to.”

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault and assistant Rick Bowness were supportive. Fitzpatrick recalled they met with him at least twice for encouragement.

“They were smart enough and knew it wasn’t about me, wasn’t something I was creating,” Fitzpatrick said. “They thought it would be a great opportunity for a guy that never had a chance of being in an NHL All-Star Game.”

 

MONTREAL, QC - APRIL 05: John Scott of the Montreal Canadiens skates during the warmup prior to the NHL game against the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre on April 5, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

John Scott skates during warmups before his one-game stint with the Montreal Canadiens at the close of the regular season. It was his first appearance in an NHL uniform since teammates gave him the MVP treatment at the conclusion of this year's NHL All-Star Game. (Getty Images)

 

When informed of Vancouver’s philosophy, Scott was envious. But there was a smirk, too. Earlier on Monday, Scott learned Coyotes GM Don Maloney had been fired.

Fitzpatrick said he found his oddball cause amusing at first. Then he took heat from Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry.

Fitzpatrick was trending to be a Western Conference starter before he suddenly plummeted down the voting chart and didn’t make the 2007 All-Star roster at all.

Slate columnist Daniel Engber investigated and wrote “evidence suggests the NHL cooked the books.” An entire ballot needed to be filled out for an online vote to be valid, but Engber’s research showed Eastern Conference defensemen received 16 percent more votes than Western Conference defensemen.

“I was told the way the votes were counted it was impossible that I didn’t get enough and that it was clear the NHL interfered and made it so that I didn’t go,” said Fitzpatrick.

“When the final votes came out I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. But with the amount of stuff I dealt with since and watching them handle John Scott, I feel bitter they were so against me going.”

[The goal -- and the words -- of John Scott after a wild night]

Would the NHL conspire to manipulate their product by subverting Fitzpatrick and Scott?

Consider how the league has handled an even weightier matter.

A federal judge last month unsealed emails that revealed NHL executives privately acknowledge a link between repeated head trauma and long-term health problems such as depression, pain-killer abuse and suicidal thoughts. Scott’s former teammate and fellow enforcer, Derek Boogaard, died from an oxycodone overdose in 2011.

The NHL, however, has publicly dismissed any connection and is defending itself against class-action concussion lawsuits. Canadian networks TSN and CTV reported two weeks ago the NHL Alumni Association’s president, former Canadiens and Sabres forward Mark Napier, was feeding the NHL information from retired players meeting to sue the league.

If the NHL can collude to defy the long-term significance of head injuries, then plotting to trade a fourth-line winger and bury him in St. John’s seems effortless.

Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons last year was the subject of an All-Star lark the league let slide.

Girgensons, propelled by his Latvia countrymen, received more All-Star votes than anybody else, but every team gets to send a player, and the Sabres didn’t have any obvious candidates. Girgensons implored Latvians not to vote for him again this season.

Fitzpatrick retired in 2010. Now he runs a couple ice rinks. He and his wife own the Cooper Deli in Irondequoit. He played 287 NHL games, one more than Scott.

“As a player representing the league and the organization the best you can,” Fitzpatrick said, “to be treated the way you were ...” His voice trailed off. “It’s almost comical they let it happen to me, then last year with Girgensons and then they still couldn’t figure out how to prevent it from happening again.”

Remote, no control

ABOARD THE MV BLUE PUTTEES – Fresh vegetables are a dear commodity in Newfoundland. Supplies of any kind get low when bad weather prevents ferries from bringing trucks across the Cabot Strait.

“You notice it in the grocery stores,” said Chris Carter, a native Newfoundlander and captain of the MV Blue Puttees seabridger. “After about three days, you’ll see a lot of empty shelves.”

Marine Atlantic shuttles ferries from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland twice a day, weather permitting. Cancellations are common. Ice was so thick last year, Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers got stuck trying to free Marine Atlantic’s fleet.

This winter was mild. Usually around now seals can be seen basking on floes, but ice never became an issue the past few months. Gale-force winds, though, remain a concern and shut down ferry service three times just two weeks ago.

“A lot of people say this job must get monotonous, going back and forth, back and forth,” Carter said. “But it’s different every day.”

As the MV Blue Puttees navigated the 110-mile route from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland on a foggy afternoon – her last run for a few days because of an incoming snowstorm – seals and porpoises popped out of the water.

When athletes get traded, sometimes they just load their gear and drive to their new city. Their families make roadtrips to watch games.

To reach St. John’s that way, you must drive your car into the hull of a ship such as the MV Blue Puttees.

John Scott stood out among his St. John's teammates -- and no just because he bame MVP of the NHL All-Star Game. (Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald)

John Scott stood out among his St. John's teammates -- and no just because he bame MVP of the NHL All-Star Game. (Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald)

St. John’s from Buffalo is a 35-hour ride on the Trans-Canada Highway, past countless fromageries and a Quebec town called St.-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! Through the Appalachian Mountains. Past the Potato World Museum and the world’s longest covered bridge in New Brunswick. Along seaside Nova Scotia roads that produce g-forces, past town-limit signs written in Gaelic and over a one-lane bridge before you arrive at the Cabot Strait coast.

The Cabot Strait is so far east it was the site of a World War II naval attack. In October 1942, the Canadian passenger ferry S.S. Caribou, making the same route the Marine Atlantic fleet travels twice a day, was sunk by Nazi German submarine U-69, killing 136 passengers.

And once the MV Puttees crosses the strait, St. John’s is another 10-hour drive away.

A flight to St. John’s is much faster, but only a tad more pleasurable.

Danielle Scott learned of her husband’s trade shortly after pulling into the driveway of their home in Michigan. Daughters Eva and Gabriella were in the backseat of their minivan; twins Sofia and Estelle were still in her belly, but for only three more weeks.

Danielle asked herself, “Am I getting punked?”

She thought she was falling in love with an engineer who just happened to play hockey after they met at Michigan Tech. He wasn’t drafted, but they agreed to see how far pro hockey could take him in three years. She was working as a biomedical engineer when Scott made the NHL in his third season.

Engineers don’t face dubious work transfers like this.

John Scott talks with his wife, Danielle, after the NHL All-Star Game. (Getty Images)

A contractor, at the Scotts’ house to repair a basement damaged by burst pipes from the previous winter, stared at Danielle through the windshield while she tried not to burst into tears.

“I started looking at flights right away, and my heart sank,” Danielle said. “It was 14-hour flying time from Traverse City and $1,500 for one seat. That was overwhelming.

“We almost made it through the birth of the twins. The physical distance when he was in Newfoundland really killed my spirit.”

Blown over

PORT AUX BASQUES, Newfoundland – The steering wheel can get clammy upon entering the Long Range Mountains and passing through the Twin Hills.

The Wreckhouse shows no pity.

Along the southwest coast of Newfoundland, a weather phenomenon in the winter and spring dictates who may pass.

Symbolic of Scott’s NHL career, you can be moving straight ahead one moment and wrecked the next.

Gusts off the Atlantic often pick up speed here once they reach land. Winds that reach the Long Range Mountains funnel through the valleys and gulches and become stronger yet, sometimes reaching hurricane-force.

Wreckhouse winds toppled locomotives until the railway was shut down in 1988. Tractor-trailers and recreation vehicles get dumped into the ditches. Cars wobble along the Trans-Canada Highway here, death grips recommended.

The Wreckhouse adds to Newfoundland’s rugged mystique. In the same region, a potential Viking settlement recently was unearthed. If confirmed, the find would be the first of its kind in 50 years and the deepest into North America.

On the way to St. John’s along Route 1 is Gros Morne National Park, a United Nations World Heritage Site that offers a rare glimpse of the earth’s exposed mantle and the ocean’s deep crust.

The roadside is dotted with more pictures of animals than a children’s picture book. Beware of moose, steer, even cowboys on horseback. Billboards advertise whale-watching and puffins, the provincial bird.

Tourists want to spy moose, while locals bemoan them.

When the Winnipeg Jets relocated their AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, to St. John’s five years ago, the nickname changed to the IceCaps. Moose carry a negative vibe because of frequently fatal highway collisions.

‘A useless trade’

MONTREAL – The Canadiens looked like Stanley Cup favorites through the first three weeks of the season. They began with nine straight regulation victories, an NHL record.

They crumbled. Star goaltender Carey Price suffered a season-long injury Nov. 25. The Canadiens finished 13th in the Eastern Conference.

But when the Canadiens acquired Scott on Jan. 15, they were in the eighth playoff spot. They were flailing, perhaps needing the kind of spark Scott’s brawn could provide.

Over draft beers at McLean’s Pub on Rue Peel a couple weeks back, Canadiens fan Felipe Barrios tried to make sense of Scott’s situation.

“For the first couple days, people were excited about the trade,” said Barrios, a 36-year-old from Montreal who works in sales. “Then he gets buried in the minors, and everybody forgot about him.

“We all know our team is small. We’ve been looking for another Brandon Prust, and this guy was big enough and experienced enough. Didn’t happen. C’est la vie.”

[Trade and demotion not so great for ex-Sabre Scott]

The Canadiens traded Prust last offseason and didn’t restock his enforcer role.

Barrios remarked there would’ve been protests outside the Bell Centre if Scott were, say, “Sebastien LaValliere,” a name Barrios conjured as an example of a Quebecois homeboy Habs’ fans drool over.

“It was a useless trade,” Barrios said. “They had been under pressure to trade Tinordi.

They just washed their hands.”

Barrios’ friend, who declined to provide a name, interjected: “The NHL asked us for a favor. Maybe in return we’ll get an outdoor game or something.”

Five nights later, the Canadiens summoned Scott for perhaps his last gasp of NHL air. He conceded his NHL return was “a pity call-up,” but he was grateful. Scott knew he would play only one game for Montreal and then return to reality.

A line from the John McRae poem “In Flanders Fields” has adorned the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room since 1952: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.” Beneath it, Scott pulled the revered red sweater over his torso. He noticed the photo of Canadiens legend Gump Worsley hung above his stall.

“Even if it’s for one game,” Scott said, “I still can say I played for the Canadiens.”

He started against the Florida Panthers and lined up against Jaromir Jagr for the opening faceoff. Scott skated 14 shifts, delivered a couple nasty hits and served a high-sticking penalty.

Scott was on the ice when the final horn sounded, a 4-1 Florida victory. He stood by the gate and let all his teammates exit first. He took a deep breath. He looked at all those banners in the Bell Centre rafters. Scott tapped his stick on the ice, a personal salute to a sport that − mostly − has treated him well. Then he passed through the bench and headed down the tunnel.

“I knew what was ahead of me, going into that locker room. And who knows what next year brings?” said Scott, whose contract is up. “I wanted to look around and realize ‘OK, you’re in Montreal. You just played in the NHL. This is cool.’ “

Bergevin pulled Scott aside and gave him a choice. Scott could finish the season with St. John’s in a 6,287-seat arena or return home to five ladies in Traverse City, Mich.

Scott chose his family. He asked the Canadiens for his No. 22 jersey, packed it inside his equipment bag and flew home.

Put in his place

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Scott’s basement has been remodeled, but his walls remain bare. A tall bundle of autographed sticks lean in a corner. Jerseys and other memorabilia wait to be mounted.

While Danielle and their daughters napped upstairs Monday afternoon, Scott spoke in a whisper.

“The moment I stepped off the plane here in Michigan, my fame was over,” Scott said, his bare feet resting on an ottoman. He wore a gray NHL Players Association hoodie and dark jeans.

“People saw me picking up my bags and said, ‘Oh, you play hockey?’ All right. Back to normal.”

Scott has been wheeling around the family’s Toyota Sienna minivan, complete with a preschool sticker on the back. But the Honda Pilot SUV he won as All-Star MVP is on its way.

[All-Star audio: Hear from O'Reilly and Scott]

He’ll turn 34 before next season starts and would like to keep playing. He realizes he’ll probably have to sign a two-way contract, which would pay him a much lesser salary if sent to the minors. He hasn’t played on a two-way contract since 2009.

Europe is another option, with the kids not old enough yet to worry about schools. Maybe he could play defense full-time over there.

“I’ll play as long as they let me,” Scott said. “I still feel valuable. I think this was my best year, honestly. As much as people talk crap about tough guys, I contributed.”

Scott said he wouldn’t mind returning to St. John’s as long as the Canadiens gave him an honest chance to play for them. A commitment from Montreal would provide more peace of mind if there’s a next time.

Eva was the first to emerge from her nap. She bounded downstairs in a shirt Scott’s agent, Ben Hankinson, made for her: “My Daddy, the 2016 All-Star MVP.” Then came Gabriella in a mermaid top and a tutu and a sleepy Danielle with the twins, born five days after the All-Star Game. Their father stayed in Michigan for their arrival.

Her husband took Sofia, but he couldn’t tell until he checked for the painted fingernail, the Scotts’ system for telling their newborns apart.

“It’s been just a few days, and it’s felt like a lifetime,” said Danielle, slumped on the couch with Estelle. The rest of the family had gone upstairs. The girls howled and stomped above.

“Since he’s been home,” Danielle said, “everything is ‘Dada do it! Dada do it!’ They don’t want me, and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, Daddy can do it.’ That feels great.”

email: tgraham@buffnews.com

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