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  • Sunday, February 6, 2000

    Wade Redden: An intimate portrait

    From the heart of Saskatchewan to the hearts of Ottawa: An intimate portrait of Senators' Wade Redden

    By KATHLEEN HARRIS -- Ottawa Sun

      HILLMOND, Saskatchewan -- Planted on the open, rolling stretches of rural northwestern Saskatchewan is an aging arena the smiling locals call "Silverdome."

     After a busy 37 years, the near-relic is not quite as sturdy as she once was. Yet the weary building stubbornly survives, one year after the next.

     Her simple construction is a rudimentary pairing of heavy wood planks and light sheets of aluminum; she was brought to life with a little money and a lot of love.

     Most often the Silverdome sleeps now, quiet and still. But the sprawling barn-like structure, mother to a generational continuum of tiny hockey players, regularly wakes up to receive the young. A bit unsteady on the ice and unrecognizable under their game armour of jerseys, pads and helmets, they come after school to move a puck across the natural ice floor.

     In distance and in fashion, the Silverdome is a long way from the Corel Centre, the ice Wade Redden now calls home. In Hillmond, a full portrait of the suited-up Ottawa Senators defenceman hangs beneath arched beams of the rink where time has peeled paint and weakened foundations.

     This is where Redden first found his passion for hockey.

     This, as the painting proudly declares, is the true "Home of Wade Redden."

     Prairie seasons are necessarily marked by seeds, plows and harvests.

     Growing up on the Redden family farm, the seasons were also distinguished by gloves, bats, pucks and sticks. Summer was softball, winter was hockey.

     People who live in the community's small cluster of homes and surrounding farms can skate or go to school in Hillmond, but they can't buy a loaf of bread or a litre of milk. To shop, they must travel about 30 km into "town."

     Lloydminster, or "Lloyd" as it's affectionately known by its 21,000 residents, has the unique distinction in Canada of straddling two provinces. Heading north up the main street of "The Border City," you find Alberta on the left and Saskatchewan to the right.

     One road east, Brian Sheppard runs a busy shop selling new and used sports equipment. In winter his well-stocked shelves are lined with skates and sticks, helmets and pads.

     "Shep" figures if you're old enough to walk, you're old enough to skate. He found steady business in the athletic Redden family.

     Shep fitted Wade Redden with his first pair of skates and, based on his rough mental calculations, about nine pairs after that. It was always a pleasure to serve the quiet, well-mannered boy who wasn't easily enticed by passing trends. He always wore Bauers -- the same brand he wears today.

     "He was never one for the fads," Shep said. "If it fit and felt good, that was good enough for him."

     It seems Redden is drawn to that comfortable fit in life as in skates. When the NHL season ends, he migrates west to his friends, family and rural roots where there is no big fuss and no bright lights.

     "When he comes home, he's not Wade Redden of the Ottawa Senators -- he's Wade Redden from 10 miles north of town," observes Shep.

     Lloydminster people measure success by one's personal conduct before one's wealth, status or celebrity -- and Lloyd is fiercely proud of Wade Redden. Here, they still call the 22-year-old hockey star "kid" -- and they admire the kid for his strong work ethic, good manners and solid footing in spite of fame and fortune. They can't help but marvel at the local hero's sharp skills on the ice as well.

     Redden has even managed to convert more than a few loyal Oilers supporters into Senators fans. When Ottawa plays at the Sky Reach Centre, they travel by busloads to cheer him on in Edmonton, two hours west.

     As a teenager, Wade Redden was notorious for running late. It was a habit that began at birth -- he arrived two weeks after his due date, on June 12, 1977.

     The third child of Pat, a nurse at the local hospital, and Gord, a hard-working cattle farmer, Redden weighed in at a healthy 9 lbs., 5 oz. He was a chubby, blond toddler, then a slim boy who was always tall for his age. Now he measures 6-foot-2 and weighs 205 lbs.

     Wade was born five years after sister Niki, a physiotherapist, and not quite a year behind brother Bart, a mechanical engineering student at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

     In the cosy finished basement of the Redden home, the walls are lined with baseball and hockey team pictures. Stacks of photo albums are stored here too, chronicling the simple joys of life on the farm: Tractor rides, traditional Christmas celebrations and playing with Biff, the family's Labrador/St. Bernard mix who is now lazy with age.

     Upstairs, the comfortable country home is filled with more family pictures, on the walls and in albums. The door is closed to Wade's old bedroom, making the room chilly. The walls are lined with team photos and a poster of Muhammad Ali.

     Close in age and appearance, it's easy to see how some mistook the young Redden brothers for twins. The pair grew up inseparable at play, school and sport; they had duplicate interests with different attributes.

     Wade was the quiet one who was happy to have his chatty, outgoing big brother do the talking for him. Pat Redden says he didn't really speak until he was three years old.

     "He would sort of grunt, and Bart knew what he'd mean," she said. "Bart always did all the talking."

     Making up their own rules, the brothers played with a competitive edge that never got too rough.

     "I was more concerned they'd break something in the house -- I was never really concerned they'd break each other," their mom said.

     After the kids left home, the basement walls were redone to cover the scars of indoor play -- remnants of the rainy days. Most family time was spent outdoors, though, labouring on the land and playing on the grass or ice.

     "Anything that was long and skinny was a stick or a bat and anything that was hard and round was a ball or a puck," said Pat.

     When things weren't naturally shaped that way, the pair got creative. In a shared room, Bart and Wade slept on bunk beds that were eventually split up and placed side-by-side. At night, they would roll socks into tight balls and toss them at each other.

     The boys first learned to skate on a homemade rink at the side of the house; Wade was three and Bart four. They began playing in a league when Wade was five; they went skating four nights a week and on their only day off they'd tug at dad's sleeve, begging him to take them back to the arena.

     Like many families across the country, Hockey Night in Canada was a Saturday night ritual. The national anthem sung before the puck dropped became known as The Hockey Song and when Wade heard O Canada in another setting, he was perplexed by the playing of the hockey song when there was no hockey game.

     The highlight of those Saturday nights came at the end of the televised game, when the three stars were announced. The young brothers took turns "skating" in their socks from behind the TV set, lapping up the rounds of applause.

     "We were two brothers who were also best friends," said Bart, who now plays forward for his varsity team, The Lakers.

     With 80 head of cattle, vegetable gardens and acres of oats, canola and wheat, there was always plenty of chores to be done on the Redden farm. But even farming projects mixed with play; dirt wars and potato pitches were all in a day's work.

     Before the siblings became heavily involved in sports, the family enjoyed summer camping at Loon Lake with their close friends and neighbours, the Manns. The two families, each with two sons and one daughter, have a friendship that goes back five generations.

     As the children grew older, family life came to revolve around a busy schedule of practices, games and tournaments.

     Wade's athletic abilities shone at an early age and developed with diligent practice and strong coaching from his father. Always one year ahead of his age group, he played on the same hockey and ball teams as Bart.

     In fastball, Bart is catcher and Wade is pitcher; in hockey Bart plays forward, Wade defence. They are also different personalities off the diamond or rink; Bart is organized, open and expressive, while Wade is quiet, reserved and laid back.

     "You just have to look at Bart to tell if he's mad, sad or whatever," said Niki, who is expecting her first child with husband Jason in May. "With Wade, he sits there and you have to watch him for awhile to figure him out."

     Gord Redden, who played minor pro hockey with the Detroit Red Wings chain in the late '60s and early '70s, inspired, encouraged and coached his sons, but he never pushed too hard. His dream was to coach them in pee wee provincials -- he never dared dream one would make it to the NHL.

     Inside the red-brick, single-storey school in Hillmond, there is a special cork board with newspaper articles, photographs and posters of the former student who's living the Great Canadian Dream.

     Mary Rogers, who teaches English and music, says Wade Redden was more fond of sports than square dancing, but he was an eager participant in all activities. He had a twinkle of mischief in his eye but was too "nice" to do anything wrong.

     Rogers recalls an incident when Grade 9 home economics students were assigned to serve a meal of chicken cacciatore to their invited guests. Wade's mom was working, so Rogers received his invitation. The students cooked, served and cleaned up after their guests.

     "I thought, wow, for a student to invite a teacher -- that was really something," she said.

     Having Redden as a student also exposed Rogers to the first haiku poem she had seen written about hockey. She still has the work, carefully handwritten in ink on lined paper, which earned him a perfect score of 10 out of 10.

     Teacher Rick Bell still teases Redden about how he must have picked up his athletic skills from his elementary school phys. ed. class. It came as no surprise to him that Redden was selected to wear the letter 'A' on his Senators jersey. Wade, a follower of Bart in his early years, began to demonstrate leadership qualities in elementary school.

     "If someone wasn't quite up to speed, Wade was the guy who would go over and help that other person better their skills," Bell said. "He always tended to put others before himself."

     Redden also came to be known as a real team player; the win or loss and how members performed collectively were always more important than counting his own runs or goals.

     As for getting into trouble, only one incident sticks out in Pat Redden's mind. Wade had been fooling around, and pitched a door stop that grazed the face of a teacher.

     At home that night, Redden anxiously awaited a call from his teacher. As soon as the telephone rang, his head dropped; he started crying and went tearing to his room.

     "You realized how much respect he had for his father," said Pat. "If he'd upset his father, that was the worst thing. Now, of course, we just roar about it."

     Wade always excelled in school, but Bart usually achieved higher academic results.

     "I think he thought, 'It's cool to be 80. Ninety? I'll let my brother do that,'" said Pat.

     The pair transferred to Lloydminster Comprehensive High School for Grade 10. That meant driving into town for classes, and Wade's habit of being late was a daily source of frustration for Bart.

     "From the minute they got up, Bart would be yelling at Wade to get ready," said Niki. "He'd always wind up waiting out in the car, honking, then he'd have to speed all the way into town."

     Teachers there say the Reddens did an enviable job of juggling sports and scholastics.

     "He's an unbelievable kid who was respectful and polite," said Jim Berry, who taught Wade Grade 10 physics. "He never lost sight of the value of school work and never sacrificed one for the other."

     Many girls had eyes for the tall, handsome, quiet teen, but Redden preferred to hang with the guys and focus on hockey.

     "He was never rude or made anyone feel awkward," said Chris Popoff, who was one year ahead of Wade in high school. "He'd go to parties and stuff, but he would always go with the guys."

     It seems the popular jock was just more interested in romancing the puck than the girls.

     "At that age anyway, I'd rather be hanging out with my buddies instead of going on dates ... I was just sort of scared of girls, I guess," Redden said.

     He has passed that girl-shy stage. He plans to marry, settle down and have a family one day, but today, he is single with no steady girlfriend.

     There were early signs that Wade Redden was destined to play professional sport. People noticed a rare, superior athletic strength that matched unfailing co-ordination with an ability to perform well under pressure.

     A pivotal point on his path to pro came in 1993, when he was recruited by the Brandon Wheat Kings at age 16. It was an important career move, but it set off great anxiety for the close-knit Redden family.

     "I thought it was the end of the world for him to go to Brandon," said father Gord. "It was nine hours from home and he was only 16 years old. Terrible. I felt terrible. It was the worst I ever felt as a father, to send my kid away at that point."

     General manager Kelly McCrimmon said Redden was scouted at 14, and the Wheat Kings worked over the next year and a half to establish a rapport with the family.

     The next three years unfolded like a great success story. While other players were knocked out with injuries, Redden managed to stay healthy. He was named the Western Hockey League's rookie of the year and helped Canada win two gold medals in World Junior tournaments.

     McCrimmon describes Redden as unassuming and modest; a player who doesn't impress with flashiness but wows with poise under pressure.

     "His panic point is very low," he explained. "He makes the right decisions under pressure, and makes it look easy."

     Handling junior hockey life off the ice was somewhat more difficult. The discipline, hard work and sacrifices weren't a problem, but the premature separation from family was a tough adjustment. Fortunate to be billeted with a warm, caring family, he still had bouts of loneliness and homesickness.

     Wade's departure and success were also tough on Bart, who had his own aspirations to play in the NHL and was now watching his little brother skate ahead.

     "He was proud of Wade," said Gord. "He wished he was there, but it never stopped him from supporting him."

     Wade returned to high school in Lloydminster to finish Grade 11, and graduated Grade 12 by completing a farm work program for his final credit.

     Wade enjoyed three solid, successful years in Brandon, and his luck and hard work paid off with a ticket to the big league.

     In 1995, Redden was drafted to the NHL second overall to the New York Islanders. Then he was traded to the Ottawa Senators along with Damian Rhodes on Jan. 23, 1996.

     At the time, Gord Redden worried about his son's future with a team that was sitting at the bottom of the league and suffering serious management troubles. But there was a management shuffle and a new coach named Jacques Martin came on board, and now he believes the trade was the "best thing in the world" for his son.

     Arrival at training camp was an "eye-opener," but by the first game time three weeks later, Redden had acclimatized to the calibre of the game. He was sure of his talents and believed he belonged.

     That first game against Montreal on Oct. 5, 1996 was, in his own words, a "surreal experience."

     "You work hard and you think about playing in the NHL since you're three years old. Then game No. 1 comes and it kind of evolves. You can't believe you're really there," Redden said. "You have to sit back and say, 'Wow, you're in the NHL now. That happened really fast.'"

     His style is smart, smooth and focused; he doesn't rattle or shake easily. So in typical relaxed Redden fashion, he mentally approached that first game as he would any other.

     Watching the televised version after attending a live game of Bart's in North Battleford, Sask., Gord and Pat couldn't keep that same calm composure. The game was broadcast in French, but they didn't need to understand the language -- they saw their son's goal, on his first shot, in his first game in the NHL.

     "I just bawled. I was so nervous for him," said Pat. "Here he was, playing defence. He calls for the puck -- in fact he calls for it twice -- then he scored. I just couldn't believe it."

     It was the eighth time a rookie had scored in his first game in the 79-year history of the NHL. Redden was named the game's third star -- and this time he wasn't skating in his socks from behind the TV screen.

     The Reddens now attend about 20 games a year, but still shudder at the "thrill of a lifetime" -- watching their son's debut at the Corel Centre in Kanata.

     "To see how big and strong and skilled (Mario) Lemieux and (Jaromir) Jagr were, and Wade at 19 was on the ice against them," said Gord Redden. "To think that your kid could step on the same ice as them on a day off, let alone play a game against them, they were so good. It was unbelievable."

     Redden enjoyed being on the road and playing with the pros. But it was tough being the youngest player among more mature teammates who were close and friendly, but mostly married.

     Gord Redden credits Senators' management and coaches for helping guide his son's professional and personal growth through that transition period.

     Last September, Redden signed a contract with the Senators which pays him $3.57 million over two years. Pat regrets her son will never know the true value of a dollar, but is grateful he isn't materialistic by nature. Friends say he hasn't let the money go to his head.

     Sensible about his wealth, Redden says he has invested well and "just lets it grow." He has helped his parents out with the farm, bought them a satellite dish and put in an inground pool in the backyard of the family home in Hillmond. He also helped install it.

     "That was probably my biggest purchase, right there," he said.

     The money and position have also allowed him to help others. In his rookie year, he bought a Corel Centre luxury box which hosts sick and terminally ill children from the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and their guests. Wade's World allows the kids to watch a live game and enjoy snacks, beverages and autographed memorabilia.

     "I think he's nice because he cares about kids who have problems," said Derek Leonard, while munching on a hot dog at a recent game.

     With the Sens in the midst of a campaign drive to boost sales of season tickets and suites for next year, Redden has renewed his commitment on Wade's World.

     Capone's Ristorante West Side is a favourite haunt for Senators players between games and practices.

     Drawn by the friendly owner as much as the good food, Redden is a regular who's on a first-name basis with the staff. He tries not to be superstitious on game days; he believes a well-rested body and mind are the best preparations. But there is one game-day ritual -- a meal of soup, salad, chicken and spaghetti at Capone's.

     Living in a two-bedroom apartment near Elgin St. in downtown Ottawa, Redden is close to many other restaurants and bars he enjoys frequenting with his friends during down time.

     But being an NHL player means every move on and off the ice is scrutinized. Being recognized as an Ottawa Senator may get you to the front of the line, but it also means you must be very careful about your behaviour in public.

     Friends say Redden is approached by swooning women wherever he goes. He's a teenage heartthrob; his picture hangs in the lockers of many lovesick girls across the region, fan websites are devoted to him.

     Redden is a bit uncomfortable with the flood of media attention -- especially reports that portray him as "some sort of an angel." He guards his privacy and admits it can be tough to let the guard down.

     At home in Ottawa, he likes to play pool or go to movies.

     His apartment has hardwood floors, a big kitchen and a pool table. His living room features a huge entertainment centre with DVD player and a big-screen TV.

     Redden is friends with everyone on the team, but when he goes out it's usually with the other younger, single players. On Wednesday nights he takes guitar lessons with teammate Chris Phillips.

     "I want to be able to sit down at the camp fire and be able to play," said Redden. "I've always liked to sing. Music is always a lot of fun -- there's a song about everything."

     Both young country boys from the west, Redden and Phillips are former roommates and close friends. Last summer, they met to kick up their heels at the Calgary Stampede.

     @:"He's a mixed personality, I guess," said Phillips. "He's pretty laid back and easygoing, but at the same time, he can be really wild and outgoing. It's a bit of a split personality -- or at least two different sides."

     Team captain Daniel Alfredsson describes Redden as a quiet, funny guy who likes his privacy but always shows up with a smile.

     "He's not the most vocal guy, but he really leads by example. He's got the respect of all the guys," he said. "He mingles with everyone and goes to dinner with different people. I don't think he's a very good cook, so I don't think he eats at home very much."

     Coach Jacques Martin says Redden has earned that respect from his teammates with character, values and commitment to the game. He plays smart, is a tremendous passer and understands hockey; but there's maybe room for more aggression.

     "I think the one area I'd like Wade to gain some experience in would be to become more physical and maybe a little meaner so he protects himself better as far as using his stick," said Martin. "Maybe to become a little more vicious."

     Redden has learned valuable lessons from Martin. And from former assistant coach Craig Ramsay, who said the millions of dollars are less important than the friends made and the team's successes. Redden isn't in the game for the money -- he thinks it's "a little crazy" what the players earn -- and is driven by work ethic, discipline and passion.

     "I love the game and still have a lot of fun. Just that feeling you get when you have a win," Redden said. "That's where it all starts. That's where the money comes from, but it's just a love of the game. It's always going to be that."

     Redden learned hockey from his father, who told him to play tough, play honest and not to take any cheap shots. It is advice that applies off the ice as well. He often thinks about his father's humble roots -- a tiny home on a hill near Hillmond that now sits hollow and abandoned.

     "I realize how lucky I am, for the life they've provided. To do that with my own family is something I want to be able to do." Sometime soon, Redden plans to buy a home in Ottawa; maybe a summer place in Sandy Beach, close to his parents. But for now he's focused on playing hockey for many years to come and can't see beyond life in the NHL.

     "It's too far ahead to say. I'll see if I have a family by then. Obviously that will be a big factor in what I decide to do," he said. "The farm is always there. It's a good life to go back there and raise a family."

     Once, after watching the movie Legends of the Fall, Redden mentioned that he could see himself ranching in Montana one day.

     Back home in Hillmond, close friend Morgan Mann, a Grade 8 teacher, suggests with a smile that perhaps Wade will marry a supermodel. His buddy has lived what he calls a "charmed life" -- at the arena and at home.

     It's a credit to a person's character that after achieving fame and fortune, your greatest fans are still the old friends and family back home.

     Morgan and his brother Mervin look forward to Redden's return to the farm each summer, when they play beach volleyball, hit the golf course and just chill out.

     Last September, Redden hadn't yet signed a new contract and was riding a swather -- a piece of machinery that cuts oats. Opening the door to spit, he lost control, and sent the craft veering into the crop. He cranked the wheel and broke the chain drive on the axle.

     "He used the radio to tell us he needed help -- it looked like an all-day fixer," said Morgan. "Then the call came in from his agent, that he'd just signed. He said, 'To heck with it, we should just get a new one.' "

     This summer, Bart plans to do course work and Wade may spend more time in Ottawa. But the pair who were once joined at the hip will make time for each other, as always.

     "He's the same guy he was five years ago or 10 years ago. The only thing that's changed is his bank account," said Bart. "That's a real statement about what kind of a guy he is."

     In past summers, Wade has returned to the familiar long driveway, lined with spruce trees where visitors are greeted with a "Redden" family sign. White-tailed deer prance in the nearby woods and parking in town still costs 25 for two hours.

     Redden has learned important lessons from this community.

     "You see other places around the world, where people are getting killed. Our community is very family-oriented. There's a lot of love there," he said.

     Hillmond and nearby Lloydminster have bred their share of hockey talent, including Skip Krake, who spent 12 years in the NHL.

     "Wade was brought up the right way," said Krake, now assistant manager at the Fountain Tire store. "He shows respect for people and has an appreciation for his lot in life without being boastful about it. He fits in just like one of the boys."

     Redden has kicked his habit of running late; perhaps it's a sign he has grown up.

     A non-smoker, he feels most comfortable dressed in Diesel jeans, running shoes, driving a black four-by-four GMC rather than a fancy sports car. Krake says Redden has matured into a steady, dependable and level-headed guy -- whether he's playing hockey or helping out on the farm.

     "When you're an NHL player and you come home for the summer and you're told, 'There's the sh--, go shovel it, there's the truck, go drive it' -- that keeps your head in a pretty good place."

     In the front lobby of the Hillmond arena, there is a photograph of Jim Redden, one of the founders of the rink in 1963.

     "Grandpa Jim" died in 1987, but you can't help but think somewhere he's wearing a wide, proud smile over that portrait above the ice -- Wade suited in his Senators' jersey.

     Still rosy-faced and damp after a strenuous after-school skate at the Silverdome, 11-year-old Cody Jans has accrued a lot of trivia about his favourite NHL player, the Senators' No. 6.

     "He's pretty cool," Cody said. "He's tough and he's a good player. If you want an autograph, he'll sign it for you and you go away happy."

     Cody believes he has one of the largest collections of Redden hockey cards; there are 250 of them in circulation and he has 180. But his sights are set on more than plumping up his card collection.

     "I want to be the next Wade Redden," he says. "That's my dream."

     Norman Jans believes his son would be hard-pressed to find a finer role model. Redden is driven, dedicated and successful, yet unspoiled by the fame and glory.

     And most people around town don't expect that will ever change, no matter how bright Redden's star shines.

     Wade will always be Wade -- the quiet, mild-mannered farm kid from Hillmond, Sask., who just happens to be living out his childhood dream.


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