By Patrick King, Sportsnet.ca
In Stefan Legein’s world it’s kill or be killed.
Legein, a fourth-year forward for the Niagara IceDogs, has developed a reputation as the Ontario Hockey League’s premier pest. One doesn’t have to look farther than Legein’s favourite player, the New York Rangers’ Sean Avery, to find out why.
"I’m a big Avery fan," Legein affirmed.
It’s no surprise then that Legein agreed with Avery when he had the quote of the playoffs last season. Heading into New York’s second round playoff series with the Buffalo Sabres, Avery boldly said, "I’ve already decided I hate all of those guys."
"You have to hate everyone out there," Legein confirmed. "They hate you and they’re trying to hit you and hurt you and they’re trying to beat you so you have to have that same hate back.
"I have no friends on the ice. Once the game’s over, sure everything’s fine but once we’re on the ice there are no friends."
Like Avery, Legein has always been one of the smaller players at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds. However, Legein proved time and again his success should be weighed by his production rather than his vitals.
"Defenders don’t like playing against him," Legein’s teammate Alex Pietrangelo said. "I know if I was playing against him I wouldn’t like it."
Adding insult to injury is the pleasure Legein gets from getting under opposing players’ skin. As the league’s top agitator, Legein spends a fair amount of time in the penalty box but his head coach said he has become more disciplined as he matured.
"Two years ago, yeah, he was undisciplined but he’s gotten a lot better," IceDogs head coach Mario Cicchillo said. "He’s getting older too so his discipline is coming under control."
"Obviously I’m not going to do anything stupid because I don’t want to be in the box all night," Legein said. "But if I can throw that one little spear and have (an opposing player) punch me in the face and take a penalty, then that’s something I’m going to do."
While Legein is passionate and feisty on the ice, he also carries a reputation among his teammates off it. Legein said he likes to keep the atmosphere around the dressing room light with some good-natured pranks.
Legein and a few of his teammates recently used trade rumours as a springboard to a prank. The group put one of the rookies’ clothes in a garbage bag, taped his sticks together and told him to go see the team’s general manager. The rookie, who was in shock and upset at first, laughed about it after learning it was a prank.
"There’s actually a couple of us (who like to pull pranks on teammates)," Legein said. "Our trainer’s probably the worst at it. He loves taping guys’ stuff together and doing stuff like that so I guess we kind of just feed off each other in that sense."
"(Legein) messes around with the guys’ cars once in a while in the parking lot," Pietrangelo added. "He puts shaving cream under the door handles, stuff like that."
While Legein said his off-ice demeanor is ideally suited for the way he plays on the ice, his offensive production certainly isn’t stereotypical of a pest. After scoring just seven goals in his second season in the OHL, Legein broke out in a big way last season scoring 43 times.
It’s not often a player’s statistics improve that much over the course of a summer but Cicchillo wasn’t surprised.
"You know what, I always thought he could score," Cicchillo said, who has been coaching in the IceDogs’ organization for five seasons. "I thought when he first came in he was probably just a little intimidated."
Through his coach’s encouragement and a rigorous training regimen in the summer, Legein put the team on his shoulders as his confidence grew last season. His offensive production not only helped the team but gave him added ammunition for another favourite of his: trash talking.
"Trash talking means nothing unless you can go out there and do something yourself," he said. "I have that ability to back up what I say."
"That’s his game and I continue to let him do that because that’s the way he plays best," Cicchillo said while adding he asks Legein to tone it down late in games where the outcome is decided.
Trash talking aside, opposing teams sometimes need to alter their game-plan to try neutralizing the league’s top pest.
"I want to be one of the biggest threats on the ice every night," Legein said. "I want them to change their game-plan to adjust to my style of play. I think that’s basically what I want to do. I want to just be a force out there."
And in Legein’s world, being a force can be summed up by one sentence: kill or be killed.