If you think Boston Bruins center Stephane Yelle is smart on the ice, you should see and hear how wise he is when insults and innuendos start flying across the Bruins’ dressing room.
The 34-year-old Yelle knows just how to toss in a phrase or two and then get out of the conversation unscathed.
“He’s dry. He’s really dry. He’s always throwing his little bombs from the corner,” Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference explained to TheBruinsBlog.net about his longtime teammate this week. “We call him a giant, wooden spoon. He just likes to stir the pot and then kind of get out of there once the water’s moving around.”
That’s a perfect example of how different Yelle is during a game and when he’s not in the midst of battle. For 60 minutes or more between the first puck drop and the final horn, he never backs down from confrontation. He makes sure to bark suggestions to his linemates – these days rookie Byron Bitz and fellow veteran Shawn Thornton – and alert defensemen when he’s available for a pass. But take him off the ice, and he clams up around the media – going about his business with stoicism and confidence and a focus that makes him nearly impossible to distract.
Behind closed doors, he’ll come to life with a joke or two, and always makes himself available to younger teammates looking for guidance.
“I try to bring a lot of experience and what I’ve learned to the guys,” said Yelle, who has potted six goals and chipped in with nine assists in 58 games this season. “But then again, I enjoy being around the guys and teasing and playing games and stuff. I’m the quiet type, but then again I have a side that enjoys the locker room talk with the guys.”
From Colorado to Calgary and now to Boston, Yelle’s been a popular teammate wherever he’s gone. How can you not like a guy that knows his role, accepts his role and plays it almost to perfection? Yelle has been cast as a third- or fourth-line checking center – relied upon for faceoff wins, defense and penalty killing – almost from the time he made his way to Denver from Cornwall of the AHL for the 1995-96 season.
“For me, it was pretty much off the start (that I accepted that role), he recalled. “In the minors, I was offensive – played on the power play and all that – but then I got to Denver and you had Mike Ricci, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg at center in front of you, so you kind of fall into the role that’s assigned. I think from that point on, it’s been pretty much the same.”
“I think I was just – from what I remember – I was just happy to make the NHL and we had a super team that year. It’s just a blur. You’re excited and you just want to fit in and play hockey.”
Another player that enjoyed success in Colorado, Claude Lemieux, remembers a young Yelle fitting right into the mix.
“We all score goals in junior and college and stuff. As a player comes up, he was put in that role and he liked that role, he was comfortable in that role, he took pride in it,” the newly unretired San Jose Sharks center said. “And he always did a heck of a job for us. He was always a reliable tough guy, penalty-killer, blocked shots and chips in (offensively) too. He’s done a great job in that role.”
After seven seasons, including two Stanley Cup-winning years in with Colorado, Yelle was traded to Calgary. There he continued to reap the rewards of his efforts during some productive years, including 2003-04, when he came one game short of a third Stanley Cup title. After last season, Yelle became an unrestricted free agent. It took him until two weeks before the opening of camp, Sept. 8, to find a home with the Bruins.
The late signing might’ve been one of the contributing factors in his slow start to the 2008-09 season. Even he’ll admit that his last two months have been a lot better than the previous two, as he’s settled into life in the Eastern Conference and the Hub.
“I feel more comfortable. Throughout my career, I didn’t move as much, as far as teams. And I remember getting traded to Calgary. That was my first time moving teams. And I thought coming in I’d remember exactly how it feels. But I forgot,” Yelle admitted with a chuckle. “So you’re trying to fit in, you’re trying to get to know everybody, get to the know the city, and it was more of an adjustment that I had remembered.
“It was maybe a longer summer. And when (I signed with Boston) I didn’t have much time to plan things – having a family and so forth. But I feel good. We have a good bunch of guys here and hopefully I can get better down the stretch and through the playoffs.”
With the Bruins on top of the Eastern Conference for quite some time now, the postseason is a guarantee – a far cry from last season when the Bruins had to wait until the last weekend to qualify. One reason the Bruins are so much better is their improved penalty kill, which was near the bottom of the league last year but has succeeded enough to hover around the top 10 all season this winter.
While it’s difficult to determine Yelle’s effects with stats, you can at least look at his work on the PK and throw some of the credit for the improvement his way. Ference for one knows what Yelle means to the shorthanded Bruins.
“I know when you’re on the power play and you have a responsible forward that’s always in your lane – it’s one thing to have guys that go down and blocks shots, it’s another thing when they do it effectively. It seems like guys know he’s going to block their shot, but they still shoot it anyway because he has such good timing with it. So that’s one element that is great,” the blueliner said.
“But the other element that’s great, that probably doesn’t get known as much is, he’s really good at supporting us as defensemen, so we can chip to him as an outlet. We give little bumps, he talks – all those things away from the puck that help you out.”
So Boston turned out to be the perfect fit for Yelle, who last week surpassed 900 career games played in the NHL. And the Bruins are the latest team to appreciate his somewhat unquantifiable contributions.
“It’s a good group of guys, a great organization and a great group of coaches. I’ve had a fun time so far,” he said.
The fun might only be just beginning. And Yelle won’t be retreating from it on the ice or in the dressing room.