Monday

Craig Ludwig

Let's start with the obvious - Craig Ludwig was not an offensive defenseman. His skating and mobility were also below the NHL norm. He was a classic stay-at-home defenseman, perhaps the best of his era. He was a hulking 6'3" 220 lb monster who loved to play physically, yet he played remarkably cleanly. He rarely took dumb penalties. In fact he barely average one PIM a game in his career. He made up for his lack of ability with experience and good hockey sense which allowed him to read plays and anticipate what the oncoming attacker was going to do. Mentally tough and poised under pressure, shot blocking was a forte of Ludwig's. Using incredibly thick and wide shin pads (people use to joke he wore street hockey goalie pads for shin pads), Ludwig fearlessly would throw himself in front of any shot. He was a leader in the dressing room and on the ice. He knew his role and played within his own limitations.

Craig was Montreal's third round choice (61st overall) in the 1980 Entry Draft. He had played college hockey at the University of North Dakota of the WCHA. It was a great time for Ludwig, who was part of two NCAA championships in 3 years.

"Being in a school like North Dakota, that at the time was one of the college powers, to see how all the students and everybody reacted to the sport of hockey was a highlight. I was from a real small town and I didn’t realize how big all college sports were, but to go to North Dakota where hockey is their number one sport there was great," said Ludwig. Craig, a native of Rhinelander Wisconsin, also got the opportunity to represent the United States at the 1981 World Junior Championships.

Craig turned pro in 1982 when he came to Montreal's training camp. In those days it was common for rookies to spend a year or two in the minors to develop, especially in Montreal's system. Even greats like Larry Robinson spent some time in the minors before being elevated to Montreal. However Ludwig impressed the Habs so much in training camp that they decided to keep him on that year. During his rookie season with the Canadiens he notched a career-high 25 assists, but no goals. He also showed remarkable composure for a rookie, knowing his limitations and playing a simple game which of course would become Ludwig trademarks, along those big shin pads.

In 1983-84, he scored a career-best seven goals, and tied the career-high 25 points he recorded during his rookie season. But it was 1986 that Ludwig remembers best, as he won his first Stanley Cup. Even after winning another Cup in Dallas years later, the 1986 Habs championship is Craig's career highlight.

"Obviously, the one for me that’s going to stick out is the year that we won the Cup in Montreal in ’86 That whole playoff run that we had, the games that we won, the goals that were scored in overtime, and everything that went into it was one thing. And then I guess for me, was the couple days after when they had the parade in Montreal. I never realized what the game meant to these people in Montreal. Being an American and playing in a Canadian city is one thing, but when you see the people that turn out for this … I was in awe the whole time. Even now when I look back… I’ve got pictures of shots of the parade in St. Catharines Street and the streets that the parade was on, I look at all the people and the people that were climbing up in the lights, the street lights and the things like that, and the cars that got pretty much demolished from going through the parade and everything else. I think that’s something that I’m always going to remember is being part of that, being in that and just looking at all the people and just wondering: ‘What is it, why are you all here for this?’ When you see it, when you look back, you know how important the game is to them.”

Ludwig remained a Hab until the summer of 1990. Fearing that his rugged style of play had put many miles on his body, the Habs felt his career was near completion and wanted to trade him for a younger defenseman while they could still get something for the wily veteran. Montreal traded Ludwig to the New York Islanders in exchange for Gerald Diduck. Of course Ludwig would prove Montreal wrong and go on to enjoy many more years in the NHL, but he did not enjoy his time in New York. He struggled through his worst season in New York, and was the subject of much criticism. The media questioned his attitude and ability, as Ludwig post a career worst -24 +/- ranking.

The problem was Craig had learned to play Montreal's style of defense so well, that he had trouble adjusting to a new system under Islander coach Al Arbour. Montreal stressed that you keep protect the middle of the ice and force the shooter to shoot the puck and then play the rebound. Under Arbour, Ludwig was told to pressure the shooter, thus forcing him to make a play. Unfortunately Ludwig's foot speed hampered his ability to play in Arbour's system. As a result Ludwig would often try to play the Montreal system in New York, even though the rest of the team was playing Arbour's system.

The Isles traded Ludwig to Minnesota in exchange for Tom Kurvers after that ill-fated season. That was a great move for Ludwig as he was reunited with Bob Gainey and soon Doug Jarvis. Ludwig would become an on ice leader once again and help the former Habs develop a winning tradition in the Stars organization, which would eventually earn a Stanley Cup championship of their own. Of course with the guidance of Gainey, Jarvis, Ludwig and eventually Guy Carbonneau, the Stars adopted the old Montreal style of defense under which Ludwig thrived.

After two years in Minnesota, Ludwig moved to Dallas with the entire Stars franchise. Talk about one extreme to another. He cherished his days in Montreal because of how much the people cared about their hockey team, but now Ludwig found himself in the virgin hockey market of Texas of all places. While it took a while for Texans to learn the game, they too eventually appreciated Ludwig's fine play. He was no all star. Heck, scoring more than 2 goals a year was exceeding expectations for him, as it always was. But it soon became obvious even to knew fans just how important Ludwig was to the team's success.

On March 12, 1996, he played in his 1,000th NHL game, becoming the 110th player to reach that milestone. Not bad for a guy who never expected to play in the NHL.

“From the beginning I was a guy that never expected to make it to the league. I expected to be in the minors.

Of course playing that long is one thing, but Craig managed to stay really healthy over his 17 year career too. How does he account for such durability?

“I think luck. I think you’ve got to be very lucky as far as being healthy. I think you play the game a certain way and I was always taught by my dad that you’re supposed to be the one doing the hitting instead of the one getting hit. You stay healthier that way. So, I think that’s got a lot to do with it. And try to be more of an aggressive player. But like I said, I think you need a lot of luck in there, too, to try and stay away from injuries.”

You need a little luck along the way to winning a Stanley Cup championship too. Hard work and natural talent can only take you so far, you need some friendly bounces along the way too. The Stars got a couple of friendly bounces along the way to winning the Stanley Cup in 1999.

1999 was Wayne Gretzky's last year, but it also proved to be Craig Ludwig's last hurrah as well. While no one would ever confused Ludwig for Gretzky, Ludwig in his own way was a superstar. Just a very underappreciated superstar. He did however benefit from playing one particular system for most of his career, and proved in New York that once out of that system he was in trouble. It just goes to show that many good hockey players fail to live up their billing, not because they're no good necessarily, but more because they are misused.

Craig had no regrets about hanging up the skates, even though he was an unrestricted free agent and likely could have cashed in and have played one or two more years. Instead Ludwig accepted a front office position within the Stars organization.

"It wasn't a hard decision. Winning the Cup made it a lot easier. I never thought I'd play in the NHL, and I played 17 seasons. It's time to move on. This gives me the chance to stay involved with the team."

8 comments:

Carolyn,  9:58 AM  

We are having a "Read With the Stars Night" at my school and I need desperately for some of your players to be my guest. Please email me so I can give you all the details.

Anonymous,  1:17 PM  

Craig Ludwig hails from Eagle River, WI--not Rhinelander 26 miles to the south.

Anonymous,  2:14 PM  

My dad is also from Eagle River, and just happened to babysit Craig when he was a kid.

Anonymous,  11:33 AM  

Craig is a B.A. . He and my sister are very good friends! We grew up in Eagle River with him!

Anonymous,  8:39 PM  

Is Ludwig in Wash DC now? what happened to his son? trevor, I think is his name

Anonymous,  5:20 PM  

He was born In Rhinelander and played hockey in Eagle River like anyone that is any good does. They all leave Rhinelander eventually.

Anonymous,  11:33 AM  

trevor is playing for dallas stars farm club. tyler stars at western mich. and youngest cj is captain for junior league

Anonymous,  6:57 PM  

THanks, Craig, for teaching me how to waterski all those years ago at your Grandpa's house. We had so many fun summers in Eagle River!!

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