Jamie Heward thought his NHL career was finished. It had been three seasons since he had skated in the league, and his phone hadn't exactly been ringing off the hook.
But to Heward's surprise, a call came from Washington Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon in June. The game was about to change, and players such as Heward, an inexpensive, puck-moving defenseman who had been playing in Europe, were about to become valuable commodities.
"I had seen Jamie play on a big ice surface against some really good players and he had no trouble," said Hanlon, who coached Heward, 34, on Team Canada in the Spengler Cup last December. "He's doing the things we want him to do."
Those "things" would be skating swiftly with the puck, making long and accurate passes out of the defensive zone, directing the power play and, occasionally, scoring. In the past, such skills were a bonus for a defenseman; they are prerequisites in the new NHL, which has implemented a host of rule changes aimed at promoting flow and increasing scoring.
"As of right now, the rule changes are opening up the game," Heward said. "Defensemen can't get away with as much, as far as the hooking and holding. You've got to be able to poke pucks away and be in position, more so than getting a lot of hits."
"The new rules are going to benefit me," he added. "I played in Europe, so I'm used to no red line, looking up and seeing the far pass instead of the shorter pass. It's going to open it up for more skating. Those are things I can bring to this team."
Heward signed a one-year contract for the league minimum of $450,000 in August and has been one of the Capitals' best players during training camp. In four exhibition games, the 6-foot-2, 207-pound native of Regina, Saskatchewan, has had three assists and leads the team in shots on goal (16) and ice time. He's also quarterbacking the power play, another point of emphasis in the new NHL.
Heward assisted on both of Brian Willsie's power-play goals Sunday in Hershey, Pa., where the Capitals won for the first time in five preseason contests, 3-2 over Pittsburgh.
"It's Jamie's mobility and ability to move the puck," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. "The days of having defensemen who just defend may be waning. With today's game, and the pace and tempo, and the requirement that a defenseman has to be able to make plays, makes Jamie as attractive as ever."
"Forwards don't get to handle the puck as much as they used to," McPhee added. "They used to get the outlet pass and bring it up the ice. Now, it's a quick outlet pass or two and get the puck deep. Now, it's the defensemen who have more time with the puck. Now, you need defensemen who can not only make the play, but have the poise to hang onto the puck if the play isn't there."
Heward's route to Washington was circuitous. Drafted 16th overall by Pittsburgh in 1989, he has played in only 239 NHL games, logging just three full seasons (with Nashville, the New York Islanders and Columbus from 1998 to 2001). He recorded career highs in goals (11) and points (27) with the Blue Jackets in 2000-01.
After a short stint in Columbus the following season, Heward found himself suiting up for HC Geneve-Servette of the Swiss Elite League. He then skated for ZCS Lions Zurich in 2003-04 and SC Langnau last year.
"When I went over there, I thought it was a graveyard," Heward said. "I knew once you go over there, it's really tough to get back.
"But I kind of got the itch to play in North America again. It's not as competitive over there as it is in the NHL on a nightly basis. I missed that and starting thinking about it a lot."
Then Hanlon called.
"I wanted to come back and see if I could make a team, maybe help a young team like the one here, so we decided to go for it," Heward said. "We'll see how it turns out."