By Doug Reese
FLORENCE, S.C. – Call Steve Cygan small. Call him diminutive. Call him undersized.
Just don’t call him an underdog.
Playing professional hockey at 5-6 and 160 pounds, the Pride center fits the part nicely. But Cygan doesn’t believe the notion that small guys can’t compete in a sports world dominated by physical prowess.
And he’s out to prove it.
“Look at (Tampa Bay Lightning forward) Martin St. Louis last year – the guy’s (5-9) and he led the NHL in scoring,” Cygan said. “I don’t know why there’s a stereotype that small guys can’t excel in sports. I don’t know where it came from, but I certainly don’t believe it.”
St. Louis definitely helps make Cygan’s case.
The former fringe NHL player turned Tampa Bay star carved his own case for the little guy at hockey’s highest level a year ago. An NHL lightweight at 180 pounds, St. Louis won both of the league’s MVP awards – one selected by the NHL and one by its players’ association – and led all scorers with 94 points. Perhaps most impressively, he sparked the Lightning’s run to the league’s most coveted trophy, the Stanley Cup.
St. Louis is a prime example for Cygan, but he’s not in this to win a war of words. Pee Dee’s speedy skill forward wants to make a name for himself.
He did so in juniors, where he made the American Frontier Hockey League All-Star team with the Central Wyoming Outlaws.
He did so in college, where he made the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s All-Rookie and All-Star teams with the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was even nominated as one of the league’s top 50 all-time players.
He’s done so in the pros, where he was named United Hockey League Rookie of the Year in 2002-03 and made the UHL All-Star Classic last season with the Rockford (Ill.) IceHogs.
Still, when Cygan made the move to the ECHL last fall, the small-guy stigma reappeared. He signed with Trenton in August in hopes of using the affiliated Titans’ pipeline to the AHL and NHL. Instead, he barely touched the ice.
Trenton’s affiliation worked the other direction. With the NHL in lockout, contracted players took up even more roster spots, and Cygan saw four or five shifts a game.
After posting 53 goals and 62 assists in 152 career games with Rockford, he managed five goals and nine assists with limited minutes in 39 games – and spent the rest of the time miserable on the bench.
“I don’t really know happened,” Cygan said. “I felt like the coach there, for whatever reason, never really gave me a chance. … Obviously I didn’t fit in Trenton.”
A week and a half ago, almost 600 miles south, coach Perry Florio was looking for an infusion of fresh talent for his suddenly slumping Pride.
Pee Dee, at the time on a team-record nine-game losing streak, needed a change. Pride forward Michael Chin wasn’t even in Florence at the time after he combined his on-ice struggles with a violation of team rules that resulted in a suspension.
In one of three trades orchestrated Feb. 10, Florio talked with several coaches in Trenton’s division, including the Titans’ Mike Haviland, about Cygan. They all marveled at his speed, but some questioned the results.
“Everybody said he’s got a tremendous amount of speed,” Florio said. “A couple of coaches said, ‘But not much gets accomplished.’ And I just attributed that to only playing four shifts a game.
When you’re not given a chance to play, how can you accomplish anything? How do you get into the game mentally? How does your body get warm enough to get loose and do the things you’re capable of doing?
“I went on his stats from the United League, where he won rookie of the year and had 27 and 26 goals. There’s obviously something there.”
Florio had never seen Cygan play, but he went on the mixed reviews and instinct and got him. When the coach called his new center just after the deal was made, he was blown away by his energy and speed – and that was just packing his bags.
Within a few hours of the trade that morning, Cygan and his hometown girl were on the road to the Pee Dee. The Pride’s next game was the next night, and he didn’t want to miss a shift.
“I’m a professional, and I take my job that way,” Cygan said. “When he said, ‘We’d like for you to play tomorrow,’ it was a no-brainer. My girlfriend and I packed our stuff and we were on the way.”
Cygan made the game easily, arriving at midnight the same day, and even attended the team’s early morning practice. He proved fatigue was little factor, scoring on a tip-in during his first shift in a 3-2 shootout loss that ended the Pride’s regulation losing streak.
His up-ice bursts were instant hits with Florio, his teammates and Pee Dee fans. And his seemingly perpetual motion on the ice charged the Lions’ Den.
That speed has always been there, Cygan said, though he’s never been clocked on skates. He did, however, claim to have run a 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds – an impressive time by NFL Combine standards.
“I’ve got tapes of when I was playing hockey at 6 years old, and it’s almost exactly the same,” Cygan said. “I’m out there skating around people, and I’m noticeably faster than everybody. It’s a natural, God-given talent I have. It’s an advantage I’ve always had.”
That advantage, more than anything, balances against his stature. But Cygan wants to be known for more than his physical skills.
The speed has played a part in his success – including the two goals, three assists and plus-5 rating in five games since arriving for regular shifts with Pee Dee – but hard work and smart play complete the package.
“He has the work ethic,” Florio said. “He sets a great example. And he’s fun to watch. It’s just a joy to throw him on the ice and watch him create things.”
Judging by the cheers, Pride fans wholeheartedly agree.
In just his fourth game with Pee Dee, Cygan got by far the loudest ovation of the team’s six shooters in Friday night’s breakaway competition. He promptly reinforced the adulation with the game-deciding goal in a 3-2 shootout victory over Columbia.
Fans cheered his appearance and clamored around him in the postgame autograph session – a reaction Cygan said he’s adjusted to over the years.
“It’s something I’ve gotten used to,” he said. “Certainly early in my career I was overwhelmed with the amount of attention I got not only from the fans and media of the home team, but also from the fans and media of the teams we played.”
Florio experienced the latter firsthand Saturday night following the Pride’s game in Augusta, Ga. Cygan scored the first Pee Dee goal and set up the other in a 6-2 Lynx win.
Several Augusta fans came up to Pee Dee’s coach after the buzzer simply to marvel at Cygan’s performance.
“When you see a guy that’s that much smaller than everybody else – a foot, half a foot shorter, 50 pounds lighter – you want to root for him,” Florio said. “You want to see him do well. Then when he gets out there, to see the energy that he brings and constant motion, what’s not to like? Coaches, players, even the Augusta fans the other night after the game stopped me and said, ‘That guy’s incredible!” They loved him.”
In Cygan’s interaction with fans, one of the common questions is whether his official height and weight have been embellished – a seemingly common practice even among sizable pro athletes. Cygan denies anything outside of a slight exaggeration.
“I don’t play make-believe,” he said. “I’m 160 pounds and I’m about 5-5 and three-quarters. It is what it is.”
Florio smiled at the suggestion his new sparkplug forward might be even shorter than his team bio states – and further fueled the notion.
“That (5-6) might be with skates on,” Florio said. “He is a little guy. Whatever he is – 5-6, 5-5 – he’s definitely got the most energy on the team.
“When you work that hard, size doesn’t matter.”
Just what Cygan wants to hear.