Blackhawks

LaHair took the hard road to the All-Star Game

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LaHair took the hard road to the All-Star Game

KANSAS CITY Bryan LaHair contacted his old high school basketball coach and asked if he wanted to meet up in the lobby.

At the winter meetings, everyone has an angle: Agents and reporters using each other, executives running interference, college kids looking for internships.

But LaHair had known J.P. Ricciardi since he was a kid growing up in Worcester, Mass., and received some tough love at Holy Name.

Ricciardi had worked in the Oakland As front office and became a figure in the bestselling book Moneyball. He went on to become the Toronto Blue Jays general manager before joining the New York Mets as a special assistant to Sandy Alderson.

As the rumors about Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder spread throughout the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, two things became clear.

They value your type of player, Ricciardi told LaHair.

The Pacific Coast League MVP had traveled there last December to pick up an award after a monster 2011 season at Triple-A Iowa (.405 on-base percentage, 38 homers and 109 RBI) and meet with Theo Epstein and the new Cubs front office.

But Ricciardi also sensed the anxiety in LaHair he was down in the dumps knowing that he was only playing winter ball in Venezuela because he needed to support his young family after six seasons on the Triple-A level. LaHair would have much rather been training in Arizona to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I had no choice, LaHair said. I had to go make some money. I had to take care of my family. I knew that this year was an important year for me and I wanted to be as ready as I could possibly be.

At the age of 29, and after almost 1,000 games in the minors, the timing is finally right for LaHair, who will be shoulder-to-shoulder with the best players in the world on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.

How LaHair wound up on the National League All-Star is far more complicated than a Cinderella story.

Ricciardi remembers sticking LaHair on the JV as a sophomore, even though it was clear he was good enough to make the varsity, because his grades werent nearly good enough.

For lack of a better term, we just busted his -----, Ricciardi said. We tried to teach him a lesson, (that) youre not going to be able to skate through life like this.

LaHair was a bright kid who didnt seem to be applying himself.

Yeah, that was a big turning point in my life, LaHair said. That was really disappointing for me and my mom and dad. It was a tough little road. I had a lot of growing up to do. I had to pick better friends. I just had to go in a different direction.

Nothing was handed to LaHair in Worcester, an old, gritty city about an hour west of Boston. His father works for Budweiser, his mother works at a nursing home facility and they had already used up their vacation time visiting Wrigley Field last month, and couldnt get to Kansas City on such short notice.

Not that long ago, LaHair being voted into the All-Star Game by his fellow players wasnt on anyones radar. He never really had the pedigree.

Out of high school, LaHair signed with Clemson University, where he was squeezed for playing time and didnt find a great fit with the staff. He probably needed a harder edge and didnt last his freshman year.

From there, Ricciardi helped LaHair land at St. Petersburg College. In 2002, the Seattle Mariners took him in the 39th round as more of a draft-and-follow pick, but he jumped at the chance to sign and focus on his career.

The path that I took to get here, LaHair said, somehow I ended up being an All-Star. I dreamt it this way, but obviously wasnt 100 percent sure if it was ever going to work out this way.

LaHair spent seven seasons in the Seattle system, but played only 45 games for the Mariners in 2008, and was released the next year. Epsteins takeover at Clark and Addison meant everything to LaHair. The Cubs had nothing to lose.

Five years from now, he might not be that guy, Ricciardi said. The Cubs in five years are going to be a whole different animal. His timing couldn't have been better. Maybe with a different regime, they cut him loose."

LaHair was hungry and cost-effective. He saw a lot of pitches and could grind out at-bats. He had hit everywhere else. He had earned it.

Cubs utility man Jeff Baker was a sophomore at Clemson when LaHair came in at the wrong time.

Its kind of the perfect storm, Baker said. You got an opportunity in an organization that said, Hey, were going to give you 500 at-bats. Were going to let you go out there and do it. You dont see that too much, where a guy gets an opportunity this late.

Because once you start to get labeled and pegged, its hard to kind of shed that and create your own new mold. Hes done a heck of a job with that. He very easily could have probably went over to Japan and made some good money playing over there and done that route.

But he stuck it out, grinded it out, dealt with a lot of adversity and now hes an All-Star.

Thats the only label that matters now. But the goal is to play 10 years in the big leagues.

LaHairs month-to-month splits could be a warning sign, and he still has to prove he can hit left-handers. But the Cubs definitely would have taken this as they sat in their hotel suite at the winter meetings: LaHair hitting .286 with 14 homers and 30 RBI in the first half.

LaHair is spending time here with his wife, his brother and his agents. Inside Arrowhead Stadium during Mondays media availability, he sat at a table and looked at the BRYAN LaHAIR ALL-STAR GAME sign above his head and asked: Hey, can I take this? The plan was to cover it with autographs.

Its been a cool ride, it really has, LaHair said, and hopefully it continues.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

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USA TODAY

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."