For many players who’ve taken the road less traveled to the NHL, saying they’ve fought their way up there is merely a figure of speech.
Not so for gritty St. Louis Blues winger B.J. Crombeen.
According to hockeyfights.com, the 25-year-old has dropped the gloves no less than 141 times since beginning his junior career, including 54 bouts at the NHL level. Paired with fellow tough guy Cam Janssen, players on the Blues top lines know they’ll be protected at all times.
"B.J. will stick up for anybody at any time, he does a good job of that," Janssen said.
"But he’s also a penalty killer, he’s a very smart player. He’s reliable getting the puck in and getting the puck out and you need a guy like that on your team.
When it’s necessary, we take care of business. Whenever I have a bad hand or am sore and it’s a tough one for me to fight, he’ll jump in there and do the role and do a good job of it. It’s great to have a guy like that on the team, and I’m sure the boys appreciate what we do."
David Backes, a skilled St. Louis winger who played for the United States in the 2010 Olympics, is among the many players thankful to have someone like Crombeen on the roster.
"Those guys definitely have all their teammates backs," he said.
"They’re underappreciated with all the work and the fights that they get into. It’s great to have them around, great to have them on your team and we wouldn’t be where we are today without those guys."
Crombeen’s rough and tumble journey to the NHL started when he was selected with the 54th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft out of the OHL’s Barrie Colts by the Dallas Stars.
"That was obviously a pretty exciting day," Crombeen said.
"I went down the draft and just being around the whole atmosphere and going through the process was a pretty neat thing. To hear your name called — it was higher than I thought it was going to go — I was excited and it was a great experience."
Crombeen would play out his junior eligibility and turn pro prior to the start of the 2005-06 season, a year he split between the AHL’s Iowa Stars and ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads. With Idaho, Crombeen played in just eight games, but tallied five goals and three assists while he was there.
"I had a lot of fun down there, I had a great time," he said.
"I got to go down there when I was in Iowa that year. I wasn’t playing a whole lot or getting a whole lot of ice time, and to come down and get some good ice and get the opportunity to play on a good team, it was a lot of fun and it was good for me as a player."
That experience on the Steelheads would prove valuable for his next season, as he’d eventually join Idaho for their magical Kelly Cup run. But not before the Stars organization saw fit to assign him to Assat Pori in the Finnish Elite League, SM-liiga.
"They just had a very similar team coming back to the American League, and they offered me the opportunity to go over to Finland and play there for the year," Crombeen recalled.
"For a player like me, it was a great opportunity to get over there and play that skill set game and practice that every day. It was a great opportunity for me, but our season ended a little early over there."
So Crombeen headed back to Idaho, where he was reunited with some of the players he’d played with the previous season, as well as head coach Derek Laxdal.
"I saw they had a great team, and we had a chance to go for the championship. It was a pretty easy decision to go back there, and obviously it worked out well," Crombeen said.
To say it worked out well would be an understatement, as he posted a 5-5-10 line in 22 Kelly Cup Playoff games — not to mention 45 penalty minutes — en route to winning his first professional championship.
"It was a blast, we had a great group of guys and obviously we had a good team," he said.
"I was there for about 15 or 20 games and then the playoffs, and it was fun to be able to join that team during the last little stretch drive and the playoffs. We had some hard fought series and we were able to pull it out. It was a lot of fun."
For as on top of the world as you feel when winning the Kelly Cup, however, being at the top level of the hockey world is a completely different story. For many players in the ECHL, the NHL feels far, far away. According to Crombeen, while keeping the distance between the ECHL and NHL is hard to keep out of sight, keeping it out of mind took him a long way.
"It’s two levels away, so there’s some work ahead of you, but it’s something you try not to think about," Crombeen said.
"You’re just focusing on trying to get better at your game and to do the little things you’ve got to do to move up that ladder."
After that Kelly Cup winning campaign in 2006-07, Crombeen’s ascent up the ladder was surprisingly quick. After spending the first half of the following season back in Iowa, Crombeen was called up to the NHL and made his debut on January 19, 2008 in a 3-1 Stars win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"It was (gratifying). I started the year out in Iowa, and I was just trying to take some of the things that I learned in Finland and Idaho and bring them there," he said.
"The year went pretty well there, and then I got a chance to go up to Dallas at the end of the year. It was a huge accomplishment. It was a lot of fun for me to get that opportunity. Hopefully, I can continue to work and get better and stay around here for a long time."
Crombeen was quickly claimed by the Blues off of waivers in November of 2008 and has been a regular in the lineup ever since, even getting his first NHL hat trick later that season.
While there’s no denying that Crombeen has offensive skill — he has a 31 goal season under his belt in juniors and has a double-digit goal campaign in the NHL as well — the role he’s carved out for himself at the game’s highest level is as a grinder and enforcer. And while Crombeen may not fill the left side of the scoresheet every night, Janssen says those in his role have other ways they can contribute besides just collecting five-minute majors.
"You have to bring another element, too," Janssen said.
"You can’t just go out there and just be a fighter, you have to be able to intimidate the other team in other ways such as hitting. Hitting is a huge part of this game. If a guy doesn’t want to fight you, he doesn’t have to fight you, then you’re useless."
"But if you go out there and you’re hitting guys and you’re hitting guys with force and wearing down defensemen and getting their team rattled and then you go out and fight and beat somebody up, then that’s taking it to that next level and adding another element as a tough guy. I try to do that as much as possible, and B.J. hits guys too, but he’s that penalty killer and he’s that guy who gets the puck out every time. We both have our different roles within the fighting role."
According to Blues defenseman Erik Johnson, also a member of Team USA’s squad in the 2010 Olympics, Crombeen’s contributions extend even beyond the scoresheet.
"He brings a whole lot of energy and grit," Johnson said.
"He’s definitely a guy that can energize with a fight or a big hit. He kills penalties. It’s been really nice to have him on this team. He brings a lot of enthusiasm to the group, so that’s been a big plus for us as well."
And for Crombeen, getting to play in the ECHL and win the Kelly Cup has given him the confidence he needs to be a valuable player at the NHL level both on and off the ice.
"The first time I went down there, I wasn’t playing a whole lot in the American League, so it was just trying to get some games in and get some confidence back," he said.
"You’re still working to get better every day, no matter what level you’re at. I had some great coaches down there. The second time, it was an opportunity to play some more games and play on a championship team. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, when you win a championship, you learn some pretty valuable lessons."