Interview with a Grinder: Vernon Fiddler

On February 29, Dallas Stars center Vernon Fiddler played his 800th regular season NHL game. In a 3-2 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings, Fiddler had the primary assist on Dallas’ first goal of the game, then scored the tying goal with 1:31 remaining in the third period, ensuring his team would earn at least one point on the night.

It’s fitting that Fiddler’s 800th game, an uncommon achievement for any NHL player, should fall on an uncommon day, the once-every-four-years “Leap Day” of February 29. The vast majority of players never make it to 800; In fact, the average career of an NHL player consists of about 248 games, spread over roughly five-and-a-half seasons.

Fiddler’s feat is all the more improbable, considering his journey to the NHL. Undrafted after four years of major junior hockey with the Kelowna Rockets and Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League, the pivot worked his way up through the ECHL to the AHL, before signing with the Nashville Predators in the summer of 2002. How rare is it for undrafted players and/or ECHL alumni to play 800 games in the NHL? Consider these numbers:

  • Between the 1969-70 and 2014-15 seasons, just 377 undrafted players have played at least 100 regular season NHL games. Of those players, Vernon Fiddler currently ranks 37th in games played, putting him in the top ten percent.
  • Since 1988, 591 players who began their professional careers in the ECHL have played at least one game in the NHL. Among ECHL alumni, Fiddler ranks 5th in NHL games played. His 807th game, which should come in mid-March, will move him into 4th place.

The Hockey Writers spoke with the Stars’ fourth-line center last fall, and again a few days after his 800th game. In the two interviews, Fiddler spoke at length about his journey to the NHL, his current role with the Stars, the keys to winning faceoffs, the fact that he prefers “Vernon” to “Vern,” and more.

The Hockey Writers: Taking into account your place among undrafted players and ECHL alumni, what does it mean to you to play 800 games in the NHL?

Vernon Fiddler: You know, the journey started fifteen years ago, in 2001. It’s just one of those things where, when I stopped believing in myself, there were people who believed in me: my mum and dad, my wife…I give them a lot of credit, because there was a time when I wanted to go back to school and they were like, “No, you’ve just got to keep going. We think you have a good shot at making the American League and then…possibly getting a shot at the NHL.”  They always would tell me, “If you just get a shot at the NHL, we know you can make it. With your determination and work ethic, we know you can have a career.” My mum and dad were always pushing me in that direction…You know, I have to give them a lot of credit, because when I stopped believing in myself, they kept believing and made a believer out of me. It’s a great accomplishment, but I still feel like I’ve got lots of hockey ahead of me.

THW: What got you to the NHL and kept you here?

VF: I was never drafted, so I knew I was going to have to outwork a lot of people. My dad always said, “Make sure no one outworks you.” That was kind of my mentality when I signed with Nashville. There were guys that were way ahead of me on the prospect list that had a better chance, and probably more lives than I did, cat-wise. I just put my nose to the grindstone and worked my way through it. I always had a good attitude, always smiled when I went to the rink…You know, no one ever outworked me in practice. I always took that as something that when I came to the rink, I was going to be the hardest worker.

With Barry Trotz and David Poile, that did pay off. I remember…they’d use you as an example. They would notice it. So that’s what got me my opportunity in Nashville. Barry Trotz and Brent Peterson spent lots of time with me, helping me. Those two guys would always tell me, “Be good on the penalty kill and on faceoffs, and always bring energy and a good attitude to the rink.” Those are the things I still try to focus on, coming to the rink every day.

THW: When did you realize that you were going to stick in the NHL?

VF: It was my third pro season [third season with Nashville], when I was getting called up-and-down, up-and-down, you know. [I was] playing really well, then they’d have to send me down due to contracts or whatnot. I remember my agent phoning me and saying, “Hey, listen:  The next time you get called up, you’re gonna have to clear waivers. So you’re either not gonna get called up for the rest of the year, or they’re gonna call you up and they’re not gonna be able to send you down.” I got called up, and I remember Barry Trotz telling me, “Listen, get yourself an apartment or a house, whatever you want to do, because you’re going to be a full-time NHL player. We believe you can play in this league every night.” I just remember going to my car after and saying to myself, “Well, this journey is just starting now. Just because you’re in the NHL, doesn’t mean everything’s going to be handed to you.” And I remember saying to myself, “I’m a full time NHLer now. I’ve got to act like it.” That’s probably the time when I knew I was here to stay.

THW: You were born and raised in Edmonton and grew up an Oilers fan. Which players did you look up to, growing up?

VF: I always liked Doug Weight and Marty Gelinas. Marty Gelinas was more of a hard-nosed guy that did all the little things right, [like] the penalty kill. Doug Weight was always my favorite offensive guy, a very skilled guy that I enjoyed watching.

THW: Did you try to pattern your game after those guys?

VF: No, I’m a different player than both those guys. Gelinas was a winger. Weight was a center, but I don’t have that much skill. I define myself as more of a grinder kind of guy.

THW: Talk about your current role with the Stars.

VF: My role is bottom-six forward, be good on the penalty kill and bring energy every night, be a good faceoff guy and when we can contribute offensively, try to capitalize on those [chances]. Be a guy in the dressing room that’s a leader, that does all the little things right. That’s what I try to do every night: lead by example on the ice.

THW: What does it mean to you to wear the alternate captain’s “A”?

VF: It’s a huge honor. It means the management and the coaching staff are counting on you to do the right things every day. It’s an honor and it’s something I don’t take for granted. You can’t take a day off when you’re a leader. It’s something that I try to do for the young guys, so they know how to do things the right way. I try to teach them what it takes.

THW: What do you know now that you wish you’d known as a rookie?

VF: Well…you can’t buy experience. If I could’ve known then what I know now, I’d probably be a little more patient and not be so hard on myself. I find I’m not as hard on myself now as I was when I was younger. Every mistake you make, you take it to heart. You end up thinking about it all night, and lose sleep. Now, you just finish the game and go home and regroup for the next one.

THW: You were with Nashville during the Boots del Biaggio fiasco, then went to Phoenix just in time for the league to take over the team, and finally came to Dallas while the franchise was in bankruptcy. How do off-ice issues affect on-ice performance?

VF: I think we had good management on those teams. Even when I came here in free agency, I knew the situation. [Then-Stars GM] Joe Nieuwendyk had talked to me about how we had a potential owner and the deal was close to being done. But that’s not for players to worry about. That off-ice stuff takes care of itself. I think our group did a really good job of leaving it on the outside, leaving it to management, while we focused on the dressing room part of things.

THW: You’ve long been one of Dallas’ best faceoff men. What are the keys to winning a draw?

VF: Well, I think you’ve gotta do your due diligence on the other guy. We do a lot of scouting on other teams. The biggest thing is, it’s just another battle, a battle-within-the-battle. One of the biggest things I learned from Brent Peterson [former Nashville assistant coach & retired NHL center/grinder] was, “you gotta cheat.” You gotta be in there first and you’ve gotta be hungrier than the other guy. That’s what I tell my little guy, you have to be in there and want that puck more than the other guy.

THW: You have a son (Blake) and a daughter (Bella), ages eight and five. It sounds like Blake takes after his dad.

VF: He’s a good little player. He played a couple years up this year. He played full ice, which is what he wanted. He loves everything about the game that I do. Every morning, it’s something; He’s looking at the standings or stats. He enjoys reading the stat sheets after the game. That’s what it’s all about: Having your kids following in your footsteps, being around the rink…that’s something I really enjoy, too. He doesn’t like it when I tell him what to do [on the ice], but when he sees something I’m not doing right, he’s the first one to tell me.

When THW asked Fiddler a clarifying question about the timeline of his minor pro career, he called over Stars radio broadcaster Bruce LeVine for additional information, as LeVine was with the ECHL’s now-defunct Arkansas RiverBlades when Fiddler joined the team. After getting the time straight (spring of 2001), the Stars center had a question for the radio host:

VF: How was I?

Bruce LeVine: You were good. You were one of our leading scorers in the playoffs.

VF: I was making $700 a week, American. I thought I was LOADED.

BL: (To THW) He was good; fast skater, nose for the net. For an ECHL player, had tremendous hands.

THW: Final question: There are a bunch of guys out there who were passed over at the draft and are trying to keep chasing their hockey dream. You’re a role model for them. Do you have any advice to pass along?

VF: I believe if I didn’t have that time in the minors, I don’t think I’d be where I am today, because those are valuable lessons you learn. Even being in the East Coast League, when I first came in because they didn’t have any room for me in the American League…It was just one of those things where I knew I had to go and use that time. There’s lots of different areas I got to use it on, like offense. I was very offensive in the East Coast, whereas in the American League, I was more of a shutdown guy. So I got to work on different parts of my game, learn from some great people, and [I] still talk to teammates that I had throughout all of those lessons.

To be honest, I was making 425 bucks a week in the ECHL, and those are some of my best times. Those were the times I thought, “Holy smokes, I’m rollin’ in the dough here,” you know? It didn’t matter to me, because I was just playing something that I enjoyed playing. I mean, even the next year, in the American League, I was making a little bit more money, and then I got called up to the NHL and I didn’t even care about a paycheck. Then, you know, two weeks later, you get a paycheck and you’re like, “Holy s–t!” and “I’m actually getting paid to fly around in private planes,” you know what I mean? So it was just one of those things where…it wasn’t ever about money; it was just about coming to the rink and having a good time. That’s what I’m still doing, and making a good living at it.