By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009
When Mike Green skates onto the ice tomorrow to begin the second round of the NHL playoffs, Dave Green will be squarely in the Verizon Center stands, watching his boy at a pinnacle he never thought possible. Kate Green, Dave's wife and Mike's mom, will wake up some 1,970 miles and two time zones away, back in the family's home town of Calgary. She and her two other children will have breakfast, and then she will most likely leave them, almost certainly to go out for a walk, perhaps to do some shopping at Wal-Mart, sometime after the puck is dropped. Megan, 18, and Matt, 28, will settle in to watch their brother on television. Kate Green will wander.
Only later in the day, after the result has been determined for Green and the Washington Capitals -- who face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals -- will Kate Green return home and hear the result. Only then will she turn on the DVR player and watch the game in relative calm, the outcome long since determined, one way or another.
This is what happens when a son develops into an NHL star -- and Green is inarguably that, one of the league's best defensemen even though he's just 23 -- and his mother suffers a massive heart attack, leaving her still recovering more than 10 months later. This is how a mother deals with the stress of blood pressure that would rise with each hit, each shot, each shift, were she to watch the game live. This is reality for the Greens, whose son is living a life he never really expected even as the one person who could envision it -- his mom, Kate -- can't be on the scene to support him.
"I'd love to be there for Michael," Kate said by phone. "But I don't know if I'd be any help."
Mike Green would argue otherwise, because he believes he became who he is because of his parents, western Canadian people with western Canadian values. Dave has worked for the city of Calgary for 34 years, overseeing the lift stations that pump water to the citizens. Until her heart attack, Kate worked in insurance, picking up other odd jobs from time to time, at least in part to support her middle child's burgeoning hockey career. He is the kind of star who didn't get new skates every time he needed them, whose parents neither coached the game nor pushed their son into it, who still spends his summers in and around Calgary and boasts: "I get my stubbornness from my mom, and my calmness from my dad."
The latter sense, however, was shaken last June 20. Mike Green was at the Calgary airport, ready to board a flight for Tofino, a vacation spot in British Columbia, just to get away. Kate Green called from work; she wasn't feeling well. Mike offered to stay; Kate said go. By the time he landed, he had a voicemail from his father. That morning, Kate had been to the doctor, been sent home with medicine for antacid and suffered five mild heart attacks. When she called Dave at work, still feeling miserable but not yet diagnosed, it was 2 p.m., about 2:20 by the time he arrived home.
"She's sitting on the steps, and boy, she looked terrible," Dave Green said. "I walked up to her, and just as I did, she went white as a ghost, and collapsed."
That was the big one, a massive heart attack. Here, then, came Kate's stubbornness. After her condition stabilized, she was able to talk to Mike by phone from the hospital. She persuaded him to stay in Tofino, to enjoy his vacation. "I was protecting him," she said. Green, too, was in the midst of negotiating his four-year, $21 million contract, one he would sign in the ensuing days.
"Just so many emotions," he said. "So scary." His week-long vacation was shortened to two days. And when he returned, and saw his mother in the hospital, she could read his face.
"I could tell it was devastating for him," Kate Green said. "He felt guilty for not being there, even though I told him not to come."
This was the woman, after all, who had walked the corridors of the arenas when her son played junior hockey, frequently leaving Dave to watch the games by himself. She couldn't sit still, an ultra-jittery hockey mom in a province full of them, worried about the next hit or the next goal.
Though Dave Green said he never expected his son to be a true prospect -- "I'm still trying to get over watching him on TV," he said -- Kate heard otherwise. As she walked through those arenas, fidgeting, the whispers would come: Look at that kid, the speedy defenseman.
"My God," she thought. "It's not just his mom and dad who were proud of him. People were noticing."
The idea that Green would not be good enough -- that he wasn't destined to be part of a run like this one with the Capitals, that he wouldn't be one of the pillars of the franchise -- would seem odd for anyone who has watched the bulk of Washington's past two seasons. He is one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy, given annually to the league's best defenseman. He scored 31 goals, eight more than any other defenseman in the league, even though he missed 14 games -- more than a sixth of the season -- with an injury. No defenseman had scored 30 goals in 16 years, and his run of eight straight games with at least one goal -- a glorious stretch in January and February that culminated with Dave in the stands to watch the final goal in Tampa -- is a record for defensemen.
For Capitals fans, this is all rote by now. But for Green, it is still somewhat staggering. Consider that in his first season with the Capitals, he had one thought.
"I couldn't wait to get sent to Hershey," he said.
Uh, Hershey, Pa.? In the minor leagues?
"Seriously," he said. "That first year, it was just really difficult. Probably my hardest time playing hockey -- ever."
That would include a season in juniors, with Saskatoon, in which his team won seven games. After being selected in the first round of the 2004 NHL draft, Green spent most of his first pro season in the American Hockey League, helping lead those Hershey Bears to the 2006 league championship. He even made 22 appearances with the Capitals, the first on his 20th birthday.
Still, he was happiest with the Bears. Glen Hanlon, a former NHL goaltender, was the coach of the Capitals, and his conservative style didn't mesh with Green's more creative, push-the-puck-up-the-ice ways. Bruce Boudreau was the coach in Hershey, and, as Green said, "He understood me."
The other Capitals could see Green's immense talent -- the fluid-but-fast skating, the stick-handling, the quick shot release -- when he appeared at training camp. "He'd just carry the puck through the neutral zone," team captain Chris Clark said, "and you'd come up on him, and he goes one way or the other way, and you're standing there feeling stupid, because he's by you. It was amazing to see that talent at that age."
So the Capitals felt that, in 2007-08, Green would join absurdly talented forward Alex Ovechkin -- taken in the same draft as Green -- as an anchor. Hanlon, though, remained as coach. General Manager George McPhee thought Green would be one of the reasons Hanlon would have more success, one of the reasons the Capitals might finally return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
"It didn't happen," McPhee said. "Whether that's coaching, whether that's a different development pace, we're not sure. But we were surprised. I was waiting for him to kind of break through, and he didn't that year."
So the turning point in Green's career came that Thanksgiving. With the Capitals in a tailspin -- losing 15 of 18 games, carrying with them the worst record in the league -- McPhee fired Hanlon. When Green heard the replacement -- Boudreau -- he all but yelled with joy.
"I knew, personally, that this would completely change things for me," Green said. "My first year, I didn't really know the pro game that well, and then having somebody put limitations on you and try to change you as a player was tough on me. With Bruce coming in, I knew -- I absolutely knew -- that I would be able to play the game and let things come natural to me."
So they came naturally. Green scored in the first two games Boudreau coached, and eventually led the league in goals by a defenseman with 18 -- 15 of them after the coaching change. Boudreau was satisfied that Green had learned enough about defense that he wouldn't kill the Capitals by frequently getting caught in the offensive zone. And he had learned about him en route to that league championship in the minors. In the Calder Cup playoffs against Portland that year, Boudreau used Green for more than 30 minutes of ice time in one game.
"He kept getting stronger, and we kept throwing him out there," Boudreau said. "I told people he reminded me of the Hulk. The madder he gets, the stronger he gets. This guy, he just doesn't tire."
That, though, wasn't true at the beginning of this year's first-round playoff series, in which the Capitals beat the New York Rangers. Watching on television, the Greens knew their son wasn't right.
"He told me, 'My mind wants to go, but my legs won't,' " Dave Green said. All parties are convinced the sluggish play had to do with the after-effects of a flu Green came down with late in the season. Yesterday, Boudreau was all but defensive when asked if Green would play as well as he did during the regular season.
"He puts a lot of pressure on himself because of what happened this year," Boudreau said.
What, ultimately, happens this year will be determined against the Penguins, and perhaps beyond. Through it all, Kate Green will endure her routine. She is still strengthening her heart muscle, still uncomfortable with the idea of traveling. So if Mike Green scores in the playoffs, she will hear about it from others, then sit back, and watch it herself, blood pressure squarely under control, pride about her son less so.
"Any story, it's not about me," she said. "Whatever Mike has done, he's done himself."