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A net gain?

From the time Marc Denis first volunteered to stand in goal, he showed up with an eye toward improving. Both he and the Lightning believe the next step is winning.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published September 27, 2006


TAMPA — Marc Denis raised his hand.That is how it all started, the Lightning goaltender said. That was how he got on his life’s path.Denis said he was 7, playing for one of his first organized teams.“Who wants to be in net?’’ the coach asked.

Denis said his hand shot up.Rated for drama, that story comes in somewhere between a yawn and a sigh. Even Denis said with a laugh that if he watched that on television, he might change the channel.“There is no drama in my life,’’ he said.

“There are no dramatic experiences. I did not get hit by a bus and figure I could stop everything, so I figured I’d become a goalie.’’

But Denis, 29, sells his story short, at least when it comes to what molded his character which, in turn, helped mold his game.There is bedrock stuff, such as the way he admired his father, who without fanfare did his job without complaint or expectation of reward.

There is the dramatic, such as the season with AHL Hershey when he was booed by the home fans whom he said probably took personally his statement that, you know, all things being equal, he would rather have been with the Avalanche, the team that drafted him.

Other influences are more subtle.“He’s very serious, very competitive, very spirited,’’ said Lightning defenseman Luke Richardson, Denis’ teammate the past three seasons with the Blue Jackets.

“In practice he doesn’t like people scoring on him and hootin’ and hollerin’. He lays a rebound in front of the net and you can hear him swearing behind you.’’

Anything quirky?

Not really, Richardson said, though, “When he lets a goal slide by, he’s the first guy to apologize to the defense.’’
Denis claims no diversions other than watching movies at home with his family, no passions other than hockey, wife Marie-Josee and sons Thomas, 4, and Olivier, 2.

He is the sum of these parts. The Lightning, which got him from Columbus to lead it deep into the playoffs, hopes he is greater.

“He’s poised,’’ said Rick Wamsley, Denis’ goaltenders coach in Columbus. “He’s coming into his prime. If things fall into place, he’s going to have a monster season.’’

Weathering the storm

Denis knew only success when, in 1997, he took over as No. 1 for Hershey, Colorado’s top affiliate.
The year before he helped the Bears win the Calder Cup, adding to a resume that included a world junior title and a spot in Canada’s Memorial Cup tournament.

Instead of a comfort zone, Denis, at 20, entered a hornets nest.

It didn’t help that “I might have said a few comments in the papers that I want to be in Colorado. I don’t want to be in Hershey.’’

Add that Denis replaced playoff MVP J.F. Labbe and got off to an 8-20-1 start, and, well, you know the drill: fans booed, carried unkind signs and the media piled on.

“Those first few months,’’ Denis said, “were tough.’’

“It’s a tough place to play,’’ said Lightning general manager Jay Feaster, Hershey’s GM that season. “Many a young goaltender has been run out of there. But Marc showed so much of his character and metal toughness and maturity. He understood the situation.’’

Denis finished the season on a 9-3-3 streak. The boos stopped. The signs disappeared. And while Denis ended the season a mediocre 17-23-4, he said a lesson was learned.

“It shows you that if you’re going through hell, just keep going,’’ he said. “You can go through adversity and it’s not going to kill you. It’s going to make you stronger. It was a humbling experience but a great experience.’’

The home front

Perhaps, Denis said, he would not have been as strong without the example set by his father, Jacques.

Denis said his home in Montreal was not glamorous. Jacques works for a floor covering company. Mom, Lise, was a lunchroom attendant at an elementary school.

But an example was set.

“My dad wasn’t an athlete or anything like that,’’ Denis said. “He never had his own company. He always worked for somebody else. But you know what? He taught me one thing, to show up. My dad showed up every day of his life.

“In hockey, that’s something you can take. Win, lose or draw, the next morning you have to go back at it.’’

As Denis did in Columbus, where he spent five years establishing himself as a No. 1 goalie, and in 2002-03 played 77 games and a then-record 4,511 minutes. But the Blue Jackets never had a winning record, never made the playoffs.

“It felt a little like being on the highest level of a treadmill,’’ Denis said. “You know, you’re getting a great workout, but you’re not getting anywhere. You’re not moving. You’re not winning championships.’’
And championships, Denis said, are what define careers.

“I didn’t necessarily like the fact I had to put wins and losses on the back burner the last few years,’’ he said. “You want to win championships. You want to be part of a journey. At 29, I feel this is a good time for me to make the next step.’’

A monster season?

“I don’t know about that,’’ Denis said. “But I’m definitely ready to win.’’