Way back in training camp, Tim Priamo said he’d do whatever it took to help the Guelph Storm win games.
In December, he had the chance to back up those words with actions.
In a move as unselfish as you will see in the Ontario Hockey League, Priamo left his comfort zone on the wing, the only position he has played during his junior career going all the way back to his time playing Tier II in Burlington, and stepped into the complete unknown as a defenceman.
Sure, when Priamo volunteered to play defence in a home game against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the move was supposed to be temporary, maybe a period or two. Veteran blueliners Corey Syvret and Nathan Martine were serving 10-minute misconducts, leaving the Storm with just three available defencemen.
But a strange thing happened during that abbreviated stint against the Greyhounds — Priamo didn’t look out of place, didn’t appear to be a forward playing a position he knew virtually nothing about.
So the experiment was extended and, when Storm head coach and assistant general manager Jason Brooks was unable to acquire any defensive help prior to the trade deadline, the overager from Guelph had the position switch made permanent.
“Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures,” Brooks said of the original reason for dropping Priamo back to the blueline. “His hockey IQ is so high he could do that. When he started the season, as a forward, he could play on any line. He’s always played his role, whatever that role is at the time. He’s never complained about his ice time or minutes.
“He wears a letter for a reason. He’s out there to do the best for the team. He cares more about the Guelph Storm logo than any player. He wears it with pride. Being a hometown kid, he has that pride behind it.”
It was a risky move for Priamo, potentially damaging any chance he might have of playing pro hockey next year, but he didn’t hesitate when the team needed another veteran presence on defence.
“The first and foremost thing is it helps the team out,” Priamo said, explaining a decision that could have had negative personal repercussions. “The situation arose in the Soo game when we were left with three 17-year-olds back there. At the time it was to bridge the gap. Brooksy was pursuing help on the back end at the deadline but it didn’t work out.
“It’s taken off from there. (Defence) is where I was going to help the team best down the stretch.”
But that’s not to say it’s been a simple transition for Priamo. He figures the last time he played defence was as a six-year-old or fooling around in road hockey or in summer scrimmages with friends.
“I can’t say it was easy,” he admitted. “But the game is in front of me now. One of my strengths has always been my ability to read the play. That’s probably been the biggest thing that’s helped me. The coaching staff has been really great with me. They understand I’m going to make mistakes.”
The mistakes haven’t been as many as you might expect, though. Priamo has tried to avoid the fancy plays, instead opting to make a strong first pass or chip the puck out, as he learns a position that has plenty of nuances.
“For a forward who has never played that position before, he’s showing that simple works,” Brooks said. “For the most part he does (keep it simple). It allows him to play the position efficiently. He does move the puck very well back there.With that high hockey IQ, he’s able to read the play well.
“That’s why playing on the back end doesn’t hurt him. It’s pretty impressive that he can adapt to it with never really playing the position before.”
Although he’s still a work in progress, Priamo has adapted so well, the only question that remains unanswered is why he didn’t make the move earlier.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder had never scored more than 11 goals or 26 points in a season before the 2008-09 campaign and he was known more for his ability without the puck than with it.
“I’ve thought about it myself,” Priamo said, adding that nobody else has ever brought it up. “Playing in the D-zone has always been an area I took pride in. It took a few weeks to really adjust to it. I’ve enjoyed it.”
Interestingly, Priamo’s offensive production has gone up since he became a full-time defenceman. In the first 35 games this season, when he played up front, Priamo had just five goals. In 23 games since, he’s added eight goals, giving him a career-best 13 on the season.
The additional goal output hasn’t just improved Priamo’s numbers either. It’s had a positive effect on the entire team.
“Since he went back there, our power play has jumped up,” Brooks said. “It’s given our power play more depth.”
Reducing his offensive expectations has been a real boost to Priamo, who struggled to score on a regular basis in 2007-08 and sometimes felt like he wasn’t contributing enough.
“Being an older guy, you want to produce more,” he said. “Moving back there has taken some of the pressure off. But uour defence has had something to say (offensively) the last couple of weeks.”
Dave Pollard is Senior Sports Editor with www.canoe.ca
Throughout the 2008/09 season, articles written by Dave Pollard will be published exclusively on GuelphStorm.com.