READING, Pa. – From the outside looking in, the pre-conceived notions about Reading Royals captain Yannick Tifu were numerous.
Skilled player? Sure. Now in his seventh ECHL season, the 28-year-old has been a point-per-game player wherever he’s been, and the stops have been numerous; Phoenix, Dayton, Florida, Victoria, Elmira, Chicago and now Reading.
Agitator? You bet. Although he’s registered triple-digit penalty minutes just once — a 109 PIM campaign with the Jackals in 2010-11 — he’s long been known as a player that could get his opponents off their game. That, in large part, comes from the realization that Tifu loves to talk. Good as he is at filling a reporter’s notebook, he’s just as skilled at filling an opponent’s ear on the ice or good-naturedly doing so with a teammate at practice.
"Off the ice, even at home, I think my parents are happy when I’m not there. I’m a big talker. I love to talk," Tifu told ECHL.com after Reading’s 4-0 Game 2 win in the Kelly Cup Finals.
"They miss me when the season’s going, they’re like, ‘Nobody’s talking in the house.’ I’m more of a talker, I love to talk, I love to be chatty. I love to come to the rink in the morning and be chatty."
But, according to Tifu, the perception that he’s trying to change the most? That he can’t win a championship. Perhaps it’s a self-motivational tool, as that’s the last thing many would associate with the personable Quebec native, but wherever it stems from, it’s been a driving force behind this year’s Kelly Cup run in Pennsylvania.
"Stats are good during the season, but when you go down in history as the guy that got 700 points but never won a championship, my 700 points mean zero," said Tifu, who has registered 449 ECHL regular season points to date.
"For me, when I was younger, I wanted to get points and go to the (American Hockey League). But I learned quickly that the A doesn’t come with points, you’ve got to be better leadership-wise. When you go to the A, you’re going to play a third or fourth line role, so you’ve got to make sure you’re good on both sides of the ice. But I wanted to change that image of a lot of people, saying Tifu’s been a great player in the ECHL, but he’s never won nothing. Since the run in Dayton, I’ve had a first round exit in the playoffs, so who cares about 70 points in a season when I don’t win nothing. That’s the main key right now, I really want to turn that image around."
That run in Dayton that Tifu is referring to came in his first year in the ECHL, when he led the Bombers all the way to the Kelly Cup Finals before losing to the Idaho Steelheads in 2007. Among the various storylines this time of year is Royals defenseman Patrick Wellar frequently being asked what he’s learned from winning two Kelly Cups (’06, Alaska and ’09, South Carolina) that can help him in an effort to win a third.
But for Tifu, he’s only able to reflect on what knowledge he gained from getting that far and not winning the ultimate prize.
"I learned a lot about myself, I was young at that point. But I think I learned more in the five years after, to be honest," he said.
"But I learned that it’s not given to you to go to the Kelly Cup. The year before in the UHL, I lost in the semis. The year after (with Dayton), I had a long run to the finals. So I thought every year, I’m going to be on a good team. But you realize in the ECHL, you lose some guys during the season. Sometimes, you have a good team and it ends up with four or five guys getting called up and you’re hurt a little bit. I kind of learned after five years that it was going to be hard to get back there. That’s where I learned more about myself, more so than when we lost the Final."
Earlier in the season, it didn’t look like Reading would even make the playoffs, no less still be playing in the third week of May. The Royals started their year with just one win in their first six games, but Tifu, who had just been named the captain prior to the start of the season.
"We were 1-3 and we were in Wheeling, but we had a meeting in the room and we all looked in the mirror…we all talked to each other," Tifu recalls. "That night, we lost, but we played a good 60 minutes I thought. The next game, we lost to Toledo, but we played another good 60 minutes. We were 1-5, but I felt that meeting and the guys looking at each other in the mirror and looking at each other in face and saying what we had to do, I think that was the turning point. And that five-game swing against Trenton was huge, but I really think that the turning point was when we had a meeting in Wheeling. From there, we rolled on and believed in ourselves."
Part of that comes from a team believing in its captain, a captain who has lead the Royals in regular season scoring in each of his two years in Reading, and is also their leading point-getter in the postseason as well. Tifu admits that, with maturity, comes the realization that wearing the "C" is more than just having an extra patch on your sweater.
"Wearing a letter, it’s huge," Tifu says. "It’s not just something that you take for granted and you’re happy with it. It’s not just a letter and you yap, yap, yap. You’ve got to make sure that you act because you have that letter on your jersey. You’re not in the spotlight, but if you don’t lead by example on the ice, guys will say, ‘If the captain is not leading by example, why would I do it?’ That’s something that I learned throughout the year. And I had some great captains like Greg Labenski in Dayton. I learned from those guys too."
Two wins away from finally capturing a championship, and it’s clear Tifu has also made great strides as a leader.
"It’s nice to be skilled, it’s nice to have offensive gifts, but you’ve got to put your heart in it," he said.
"You’ve got to play a gritty game. You look at guys like (NHL stars Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg, they don’t just play the game with skills, they work so hard. I think that’s what leadership is, to show up every night. Sometimes, I had some slumps in the season when my work ethic was probably not the best sometimes. I had to look myself in the mirror and I had to be accountable to my teammates."