By Shawn Rine
Ohio Sports Editor
The Intelligencer & Wheeling News Register
It seems like just yesterday Paul Bissonnette was one of the premiere defensive players in the ECHL. In reality, though, it’s been a year. A really long year that included a position change, a lifetime worth of maturity, and a renewed trust from those who essentially would decide when, if ever, Bissonnette’s career took off.
”You do a lot of growing up,” Bissonnette said Friday from Pittsburgh, where most days now he’s the left winger on the fourth line of the defending NHL Eastern Conference champion Penguins. ”Everyone is calling me and I’m doing interviews.
”It’s mind boggling. Even I don’t have all the answers.”
To know the answer, you have to understand why there were questions. Nobody doubted the guy’s talent, which made it obvious he had no business playing on the ECHL level.
What they did doubt was his arriving for warm-ups one night prior to a Wheeling Nailers game with a mock championship belt around his waist, the result of a an earlier fight in which he was the clear victor. And for the life of Penguins management, which used a fourth-round pick (121st overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, it couldn’t figure out why an athlete with so much to gain, but even more to lose, would allow himself to be suckered into a late-night bar fight.
”There comes a point where you have to look at yourself and say ‘obviously, (that stuff) isn’t getting me anywhere,” said Bissonnette, who earned the nickname Biznasty here in Wheeling for his willingness to fight anyone – big or small. ”Maybe to people it seems (like everything has happened so fast), but it took a lot of work over a year as far as growing up and getting in the right frame of mind.
”A lot of that credit goes to the Wilkes-Barre coaching staff and to Glenn Patrick.
”I just talked to Glenn to tell him ‘thank you’ for everything he did for me. He always believed in me.”
Now, the Penguins front office, and coach Michel Therrien, in particular do too.
It’s been well publicized that the Penguins coach lobbied hard for Bissonnette to make the Opening-Night roster, which meant a road trip to Stockholm, Sweden, for the first two games of the season.
”Obviously, I heard the same thing,” Bissonnette said. ”Basically my mindframe is I want to play hard for him, considering he’s pulling for me. He’s putting himself on the line.
”I’m pretty good with knowing my role and what to do.”
That role is one of protector.
It’s a role that will require both skill and guts.
And it requires that he somehow finds a way to keep his fists in good shape.
Bissonnette’s arsenal isn’t limited to fighting, but it’s apparent that’s how he made this team. With the departures of guys like Georges Laraque, Gary Roberts and Ryan Malone, the Penguins were in need of a little toughness. The team signed Eric Godard in the offseason, but needed someone to work with him.
Enter Bissonnette, who had been working on his trade in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, racking up 145 penalty minutes, including 25 fights, in 46 games. Then in the preseason, he fought noted enforcers David Koci (twice), Ryan Hollweg and Jamal Mayers. He held his own in each, and in some instances dominated.
Bissonnette welcomes the challenge.
”Basically if anyone, for instance, would hit (Sidney) Crosby. I’ll skate over and ask them to fight,” he said. ”If they don’t want to fight there’s not really anything I can do other than make sure he knows I’m not going to tolerate that.
”You don’t want to go grab a guy and end up getting an instigator. The power plays at this level are unbelievable.”
That’s the toughest part of his job – knowing when and where to pick his spots.
The easiest part? That’s a tie between the way he’s treated like royalty, and the opportunity to play on the same line with Crosby, who is arguably the greatest player in the game today.
”I don’t miss the bus trips, if that’s what you’re asking,” Bissonnette said with a laugh. ”I don’t know how these guys get used to it.
”For instance, you get on the plane and there’s food waiting for you. It’s all still new to me.”
As for Crosby?
”It’s overwhelming- my friends kind of chirp me about it,” he said. ”He does a good job making me feel comfortable.
”He knows the right way to do things and he treats everyone with respect. There’s a reason why they modeled the NHL around him.”
Bissonnette cherishes the opportunity just to make it to the league. But he’s also aware that each level he moves up the ladder, the higher the expectations – especially on a club with championship aspirations.
”It’s a good thing, but there’s a lot of expectations this year,” he said. ”This is a team that wants to win and needs to win.
”Either we win the Cup or its a disappointment.”
That’s where his mind is these days. Now that he’s made it – admittedly there’s still a chance this is just a cup of coffee – he doesn’t have to worry about repeating any of his earlier mistakes, in part because Bissonnette says he’s past that. Partially, though, the atmosphere has a lot to do with it.
”Definitely it’s a lot more serious- a lot more guys are trying for your job,” Bissonnette said. ”A lot of the past year was gaining good habits and taking care of your body.
”They don’t party at this level. It’s rare to socialize and have a few beers. A lot of these guys have families and they go home to that every day.”
For now, he’ll keep doing whatever he’s asked to do. If that means dropping the gloves from time to time, that’s fine. But when it’s all said and done Bissonnette wants to be known more for being an all-around player.
”That’s the thing – if I could just fight then I don’t think I could make it to this level,” he said. ” Even the tough guys, like Ottawa’s Chris Neil who we just played, he’s a very good player.
”It’s more about becoming a better player.”
Bissonnette has done that and so much more.