Reconnecting with Meadow Lake’s Jeff Friesen
By Mac Christie
He honed his skills in the frigid winters of Meadow Lake, on a homemade rink in his backyard.
One his father Daryl flooded on a tennis court so his son could play until he could no longer bear the cold.
It’s a story that could apply to any number of hockey players across Canada, but this one belongs to Jeff Friesen.
“I played hockey out there around the clock,” Friesen, 35, recalled on the phone from Calgary on the way back to southern California where he now calls home. “Growing up in that cold of weather, it toughens you up and makes you ready for the challenge of the NHL.”
But it’s a challenge the 12-year NHL veteran no longer has to worry about.
After playing the past two seasons for Eisbaren Berlin in Germany, he decided to call it quits on a career that saw him win a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2002-03.
His decision was influenced in large part by being away from his young family – his wife Rhonda, daughter Kaylee, 6, and son Benjamin, 2. They would visit for about six weeks per season.
“The last stretch (in Germany) was about three months of not seeing them,” Friesen said, “that was just not for me.”
“I wanted to be part of my kids’ life and not hang onto the dream forever.”
He stepped away from a career which saw him leave home at age 15 to play AAA Midget in Saskatoon, then junior for the Regina Pats.
He was drafted 11th overall by the San Jose Sharks in 1994 and played 893 NHL games, tallying 219 goals and 516 points for five teams, and won gold medals at the World Championships and World Juniors.
Looking back, while it was fun to represent Canada, he said the highlight of his career is definitely the Stanley Cup triumph with the Devils.
His first NHL goal also sticks out.
“It was a breakaway, short side on Felix Potvin,” he said with a laugh.
But his career wasn’t without hardship. A recurring groin injury limited him to five games in the 2007-08 season, and he missed all of 2008-09, before heading to Germany.
Now that he’s retired, he’s still not far from the game as a partner in Base Hockey, a company that makes custom-fitted hockey sticks.
“Once you’re done playing you want to stay competitive and stay with the game you love,” he said. “Helping grow the game is something I’ve always felt passionate about.”
While many players have difficulty moving into their post-hockey life, Friesen said his time in Germany helped him get used to being out of the public eye.
“I think it takes a few years,” he noted. “Just to get that competitive edge out and the adrenaline rush that comes with making the NHL and being in the spotlight.”
But even though he’s no longer playing the game, Friesen was still touched by what was a tragic summer for hockey. His former teammate Ruslan Salei was among those who perished earlier this month in the plane crash which claimed an entire Russian hockey league team.
He also grew up playing against fellow Saskatchewan native Wade Belak, who was found dead in his Toronto hotel room in late August. The recently retired Belak had battled depression.
“It’s unfortunate,” Friesen noted. “It’s kind of disturbing that stuff like this happens, but that’s just the reality of what people go through. It doesn’t change because you’re in hockey and you’re an NHL player.”
Although he admitted he misses playing in some ways, he’s ready for a change.
“It’s fun to play hockey, but I’m ready to move on and do something else,” he said. “To be a dad and just kind of be normal for a while.”