By Danielle Catalano
Neil Petruic is the quietest defenseman with the Binghamton Senators hockey club and perhaps the most laid back player on the team. He does nothing fancy, contend fellow defenseman Drew Fata and assistant coach Mike Busniuk. What you see is what you get. But, the two men quickly point out, that is not a bad thing. In fact, it is what has helped transform Petruic into a blue line defenseman.
“Neil is a very smart player,” Busniuk says. “He reads our plays really well. He plays good defense without sacrificing good offense, and what I mean is, he doesn’t get caught up the ice. He tries not to do too much with the puck. He keeps things simple, and I think that’s probably his best attribute.”
“Trucker’s pretty much one of the most successful players we have,” adds Fata. “He’s not flashy, and sometimes if you don’t notice him out there, then he’s doing a pretty good job. That’s just the way he plays—I don’t think he knows any other style to play. To have a guy back there, you always know what you’re going to expect.”
Considering Petruic traveled halfway around the world to end up where he began his professional career, those words speak volumes of just how far the Regina, Sask., native has come along in the American Hockey League.
Petruic was chosen 235th by Ottawa in the 2001 NHL draft and spent the next four years playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, helping the Bulldogs make it to the semifinals of the Frozen Four during his junior season. The defenseman headed east to Binghamton in 2005, and while he played 51 games, Petruic admits something was off his play. “Not to be clichéd, but like every rookie you don’t know what to expect,” he says. “Everything is kind of new. You’re not as comfortable or playing the way you think you should be playing at times. Just like anything you don’t know, it’s bit more nerve-wracking.”
Petruic remained with the team the following season, but something still wasn’t clicking and at the start of the 2007-08 season, he signed with Bolzano HC of the Italian League. Bolzano ended up winning the league’s championship title, but Petruic’s time in the Italian Alps was focused more on conditioning his form and returning to North American hockey as a more competitive athlete than hoisting a cup.
“You always want to play your best,” he says. “Here, hockey’s more fun, for lack of a better word. There, it was more like a job, as far as enjoying myself.”
Petruic made his way to the States this season via the Stockton Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League. His stay with the northern California club, though, would end after a few weeks when in mid-November, Binghamton defenseman Brendan Bell was recalled by the Ottawa Senators. Days later on Nov. 20, Binghamton signed Petruic to a professional tryout contact. Busniuk, who had urged Ottawa to retain Petruic before he moved to Europe, immediately noticed a change in the defender’s confidence on the ice.
“When he first came up (from Stockton), he really wasn’t playing much, wasn’t really used much, but most players from the East Coast are like that,” Busniuk explains. “As he went along—and I knew this was going to happen because we had him three years ago—he just worked himself into the lineup and just didn’t make a lot of mistakes. When you have a defenseman who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes—and then you have Neil who can play 5-6 or 1-2 compellingly and can play all six defensive positions—then that’s a great type of player to have.”
He’s also the type of player who is not afraid to throw his 6’1”, 200-pound frame into an opposing player to protect the puck, something Busniuk is proud to see developed in Petruic since forechecking has become a significant role in how the B-Sens’ defend the offensive zone this season.
“If you watch the tapes of our games during our video sessions, you see Neil sacrifice his body to make a play,” Busniuk says. “It’s really a tough thing to do when you know that when somebody skates down, he’s going to ram you as hard as he can into the boards. You take the check and then make the play, and I think that’s also one of his best team attributes.”
This grit is appreciated even more so by his linemates as the games down the regular-season stretch are becoming tighter and the team adjusting accordingly. “Obviously, you can take chances a little bit more aggressively because you know what he’s bringing each shift,” Fata says. “You generally know he’s always going to be back there protecting the zone, so if something happens, you know he’s going to be open for you to make a pass and save or carry a play.”
To be the calm amid this flurry may not have been something Petruic could have provided a few years ago, but now, it is second nature to him. “It’s not easy sometimes,” says Petruic. “You hear the fans getting into it, but you just have to keep talking to yourself, just tell yourself to keep that even-keel-type-of-thing and not get caught up with what the fans are yelling or even what the other team’s coaches and players are yelling on the ice. These games are obviously big ones for the team, and to sound like a cliche again, it’s important to not get too much up or too much down. Our chances will hopefully come through in a clutch when we need to.”