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John McGourty | Staff Writer
Feb 2, 2007, 9:23 AM EST

Whack! Thump!

Whack! Thump!

Whack! Thump!


The local coal baron built a home for his newly married daughter in the 1890s, but two generations later, a changed economy, estate litigation and a mounting tax bill left the oddly located mansion in the middle-class neighborhood empty for over a decade before my parents bought it. The carriage room, a long space with the smoothest concrete floor I've ever seen, and the stable, were under the dining room. The heavy wooden doors were removed, replaced with a roll-up garage door and stored at the end of the room.

The slick concrete was perfect for launching slap shots and the doors perfect for stopping them. I spent hours drilling pucks in all seasons.

"Me, too," said St. Louis Blues right wing Bill Guerin, born a generation later and halfway across Massachusetts. "I took so many shots in our garage, I pushed the wall back. My mom wanted to redo the kitchen for 10 years, but held off so my friends and I could play 'knee hockey' there and hack around, playing hockey all over the house.

"It was unbelievable. I just loved the game. I played other sports and I think that's important for kids, but hockey was always on my mind. It would be 90 degrees and we'd be outside playing hockey. If it was raining, we'd go inside and play on our knees in the kitchen or shoot in the garage.

"I did it for fun, but my dream was to play in the NHL. I loved the Boston Bruins and always cheered for them. My dream was always to play for them and my dream came true.

"I never thought, 'Gee, I better shoot 50 pucks or I won't make it.' I shot 200 pucks because I loved to shoot pucks. My dad built a rink in the backyard every year for 15 years. My buddies and I would put on our skates in the kitchen and walk a rug path to the rink. We'd skate all day, into the night, all winter. It was just pure fun then, no business."

The play/work paid off. Guerin, 36, will play in his 1,000th NHL game tonight when the Blues meet the Detroit Red Wings in Joe Louis Arena. How appropriate. Guerin won his 1995 Stanley Cup when the Devils upset and swept the Red Wings. The box scores provide a perfect picture of Guerin's game in those days. After picking up slashing, boarding, roughing and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties, Guerin set up the Devils' last three goals to seal the deal.

He was good with his hands, regardless of how he used them.

Guerin is one of the most successful American-born players of all time. He is tied for 10th among Americans with 340 goals and 22nd with 684 points in 979 NHL games over 15 seasons. Fifty-eight of his goals have been game winners and his 41 goals were tied for second in 2001-02. Taken by the Devils with the fifth-overall pick of the 1989 Entry Draft, Guerin helped lead New Jersey to the 1995 Stanley Cup. He has also played with the Edmonton Oilers, Boston Bruins and Dallas Stars.

Guerin is highly charged with an intense sense of on-ice justice, as witnessed by his 1,411 career penalty minutes. In his younger days, he was quick to raise his hands but not so much anymore. That's because he perfectly fits the "don't wrestle with pigs" warning. He may not be the toughest guy, but he lands haymakers, takes a punch well and comes away grinning maniacally.

The biggest civilizing effect on the young Guerin was his marriage to the lovely Kara and the four little anklebiters at home, three girls and a boy.

He hasn't gone totally corporate, though. Guerin's a biker, wears No. 13 and has one of Bruce Springsteen's guitars hanging on a wall in his New Jersey home.

Imagine trying to raise a boy like that? The warm room at the skating rink became his mother's refuge.

"I was a kid with a whole lot of energy and we had cold, cold Massachusetts winters," Guerin said. "It wasn't easy to send a two- or three-year-old kid outside to play. My mom was home all day and needed an out, so she took me ice-skating one day. She says I loved it from the first time I ever did it. As far as I can remember, I never wanted to do anything else. I am so, so lucky it worked out."

Guerin remembers being awestruck by only one player his age while growing up.

"We were 10-years-old and our coach told me to look out for this kid, Jeremy Roenick," Guerin recalled. "He was just incredible at 10, head and shoulders above everyone else. He was just awesome."

Wilbraham, Massachusetts, is famous for two things: The Springfield suburb is home to the national ice-cream restaurant chain, Friendly's. The company advertises its location in a plot fronting on the Massachusetts Turnpike with a large hedge trimmed to spell its name. It's a well-known landmark. Wilbraham is also where Guerin grew up.

"I started playing for the Wilbraham town team and then the Springfield Pioneers in the Metro Boston League," Guerin said. "It was a great league and I played against Steve Heinze, Marty McInnis and Tony Amonte. Then I played four junior seasons for the Springfield Olympics.

"My mentor was Gary Dineen, who passed away in April. I went to his hockey school from the time I was eight-years-old. I started playing for him when I was 14. He had the biggest influence on me as a hockey player and a person. He always told me there was more to life than a slap shot. His goal was to build good hockey players and better people and he succeeded. He stressed schooling and being a good person. He was really special to me."

Guerin was pleased when told Dineen had always said equally good things about him.

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