Corey Perry’s passion, desire to win fuelling season with Canadiens

MONTREAL—Why would a Stanley Cup winner, two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup champion, member of the exclusive Triple Gold Club, former Hart Trophy winner, former Maurice Richard Trophy winner and four-time NHL all-star who has earned over $85 million through the first 15 years of his career decide to sign for the league minimum in his 16th season with a team that can’t even guarantee him a spot on the roster?

Why would someone so accomplished make the heartbreaking choice of leaving his wife and three-year-old son for an extended period—and for the second time in just months—to join a deep team that has warned him it’s likely he’ll have to start on the taxi squad?

“Because I love playing hockey,” Corey Perry said in an interview with Sportsnet earlier this week. “I love going to the rink, I love being around the guys, I love the camaraderie, I love the competitiveness and I know there’s still lots of good hockey left in me.

“But the main thing is I want to win. I’ve had that feeling before—I was young, and I don’t know if I appreciated it as much as I should’ve. It was only my second year in the league and I thought maybe every year you could do this, but I’ve only been back to the Stanley Cup Final once and that was last year and we lost in six. You get that feeling and you’re so close that you want to continue that journey and you want to get to that final and win.”

When Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin made a contract offer on Dec. 28, Perry, with the blessing and support of wife Blakeny, immediately signed, packed up his gear and a few belongings, said a tearful goodbye to his son Griffin and then drove straight from the family’s London, Ont., home to his new place in Montreal.

“I got the call, it was like 9:30, 10 in the morning, and I was on the road by 1 p.m. driving to Quebec,” the 35-year-old said. “It was about a seven-hour drive by myself and I had some time to think, get excited and reflect on what’s at stake and where we can go.”

There had been conversations with other teams, but no official offers outside of Montreal’s. Perry had a sense something would come soon enough from someone else, but there was no guarantee another opportunity would come with a team that would give him a chance to resolve the unfinished business of last fall.

The Canadiens, who had an unexpectedly good run in the Toronto bubble before adding Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson to their team, presented exactly that.

“I jumped at it,” said Perry. “I knew a little bit about their team, and watching them in the bubble and seeing where they were going and the additions that Marc Bergevin made, I thought this team had a really good chance and I jumped at it right away.”

Since landing in Montreal, Perry’s gone from taxi squad to utility vehicle squad, from bottom six to top six within games—producing six goals and six assists in 24 games.

It’s not just Perry’s production that’s stood out, as he’s averaged only 12:24 per game, it’s the influence he’s had on a power play that’s scored 10 goals in its last 29 attempts and soared to the top of the NHL since Dominique Ducharme took over from Claude Julien and Alex Burrows took over from Kirk Muller as Canadiens coaches. The 6-foot-3 right-hander put one in himself, set up two more and stood in front of the net on another four.

The Canadiens have also scored three goals late in games with their net empty and Perry’s accounted for one, assisted on one and screened the goalie on the other.

Tyler Seguin, Perry’s old Stars teammate who’s been sidelined from all games this season post-hip surgery, said no one should be surprised.

“When I see the highlights, I see Corey Perry scoring Corey Perry goals,” Seguin said when we caught up with him last week. “He’s so good on the power play in front of the net, we didn’t talk enough about it in Dallas through the media. I don’t care if you’re 20, 30 or 40, it’s a special gift he has and he’s a special player.”

Perry started as one in Anaheim. The New Liskeard, Ont., native was drafted 28th overall by the Mighty Ducks in 2003, halfway through a prolific junior career with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, and he made his NHL debut with them in 2005-06—their last season before changing their name to the Ducks.

Perry jumped from 13 goals and 25 points in 56 games his rookie season to 17 goals and 44 points in his sophomore year, which culminated with six goals and 15 points in 21 playoff games and a Stanley Cup celebration. He then cemented himself as one of the best players in the NHL, with five consecutive seasons of at least 70 games played, 27 goals scored, 60 points notched and 104 penalty minutes served.

In 2010-11 he scored 50 goals and 98 points and won the Hart and Rocket Richard Trophies. And Perry continued to score a minimum of 33 goals in four of five seasons that followed (he had 15 in 44 games in the lockout-abridged 2013 season).

It wasn’t until 2016-17 that the goals started to dry up—19 in 82 games that year, 17 in 71 the following one—and his decline became undeniable.

“It was tough,” said Perry.

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But he seemed to be able to put it in perspective immediately, adopting the attitude that he could contribute in other ways and still prove himself valuable every time he stepped on the ice.

Perry’s role was reduced, but those close to him say he never let on that he was bothered by it.

“I think the most impressive thing I’ve seen from Perrs, and I think it speaks to him as a person and teammate and it’s probably what I’ll remember most about him after we’re done playing hockey, is that he was a Hart Trophy winner and near the end in Anaheim it just wasn’t the same—everyone reaches a point where those goals don’t go in and the production goes down—but his attitude, how he was around the rink and who he was towards us never changed,” said former Ducks and Stars teammate Andrew Cogliano in a telephone interview last Tuesday. “I wasn’t a player like him, and there’s not many who are, but I envision that when you are of his calibre and things aren’t the same, I’m sure there’s players whose moods change and perspectives change at the rink and on an everyday basis. Perrs’ never did.

“I’m pretty confident anyone that ever played with Perrs would say the same thing. That’s why I think he’s always on winning teams is because he has that attitude and that mindset, and he’s a guy that you just want around.”

A guy willing to battle through mental adversity, and one willing to fight through the physical grind, too.

It was torturous for Perry on that front over the two seasons prior to this one. In his last year in Anaheim, he tore the meniscus in his right knee in warmup of a pre-season game and then had surgery to repair that and a long-damaged MCL. It lead to a four-month rehabilitation before returning to play (nowhere near 100 per cent) for the final 31 games of the season.

“It felt normal,” Perry said. “But being comfortable on the ice? I’m probably looking back and saying, ‘Yeah, I was comfortable,’ but I wasn’t comfortable in doing the things that I do.”

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The Ducks could tell. They bought out the final two years of Perry’s contract in the spring of 2019, after he produced just six goals and 10 points and finished as a minus-16.

Then he signed a one-year, $1.5-million pact with the Stars. It was an immediate shot at redemption, nearly spoiled by some more terrible luck.

“It got off, no pun intended, on the wrong foot,” said Perry. “Walking down your stairs to let your dog out and you trip on the last step and break your foot the day before training camp starts—that doesn’t help. And you’re going to a new team.

“Not having a training camp, you miss four weeks and the first seven games of the season and you’re coming in—you’re around the team but you’re not skating—pretty much a fresh face and trying to learn everything on the fly. I think I had two practices and I played. It’s not easy. As much as people think you just go out and play, you’re playing with brand new people, you have no idea, no chemistry and all those things come into play.”

With only five goals and 21 points in 57 games, the idea that Perry was done being an effective player was gaining traction outside of the Stars’ room.

Inside it, the opposite was happening.

“I wish I could’ve been his teammate for a longer time,” said Seguin. “It’s kind of the clichés of the ultimate guy, the ultimate winner and the ultimate competitor, but that’s who he is. It was great to have another voice like that in the dressing room, and his insight and his passion for the game was contagious. Loved being around him. He was a pretty fun guy, but his resume speaks for how he is as a person and a player. He just knows how to win, knows what it takes, and when he spoke up he had everyone’s attention. It was great.”

Particularly in the playoffs, where Perry had five goals and nine points in 27 games and helped propel the Stars to within two wins of the Cup. It was a confidence-inspiring process.

Perry said it left him “wanting more, wanting to continue to play and wanting to have that chance to win.”

He feels the Canadiens have given him that chance. They signed him and have used him the same way the Stars did—mostly in a fourth-line role, but also on their top power play unit and as a rover who fills in on whichever line needs a boost or is most likely to come up with a rally goal late in games.

Perry has loved every second of it.

“Everything about being in Montreal has been great,” he said. “The organization has been phenomenal, and we’re trying everything we can to put a good product on the ice and go out there and try to win every single night. What I see of this team is that it’s a special group and we’re looking forward to continuing this season and making that push in those playoffs.”

Perry’s hopeful that will be with at least some fans back at the Bell Centre. And he’s expecting that, as COVID restrictions loosen in Quebec, once the majority of the at-risk population gets vaccinated, he can finally have his family join him.

“It’s been tough,” he said of being away from Blakeny and Griffin. “Obviously with a three-year-old at home, he’s got his pre-school and she has a little bit of help there…I talk to him every morning before he goes to school, and every day it’s a little bit more talking. He wants to tell me about his cars and his transformers and things like that. It’s been good that way in that FaceTime is live, but it’s been hard not being there and seeing him grow up, having a chance to skate on the outdoor rink that my buddy built in our backyard for the winter.”

But Perry’s chasing the dream while he still can, as his family and friends want him to.

“He’s a guy that really loves the game, and I think he loves being part of something special like that with a special organization, and he loves being in the heat of things in such a special hockey atmosphere and there’s no better place than Montreal and places like that,” said Cogliano. “I think you’re going to see big moments from him, I really do. I’ll be watching, and when it happens I won’t be surprised.”