For Keith Carney, it was Chris Chelios.
Carney was still a young defense- man trying to figure out the NHL when he was traded from Buffalo to Chicago during the 1993-94 season. He didn't get to play much, but he watched. And he saw a veteran defensive corps that included Eric Weinrich, Steve Smith, Gary Suter and Chelios.
Carney saw how early they got to work, how hard they worked before they got on the ice, and how they refused to cut corners during practice.
"I was trying to figure out how I could last in this league," Carney recalled. "That's all you want as a young player. Just to play. So you look at the older guys. How do they approach their job? Those guys took a lot of pride in what they did."
One stall from Carney in the Wild dressing room and you'll hear Brent Burns say the same sort of things. Burns is a young defenseman for the Wild who has begun to figure out things; he'll say it comes from watching and playing with a veteran. For Burns, it's Carney.
"Carnes, I don't think he even sleeps," Burns said. "He has all those [four] kids, so he's up at 6 a.m. eating breakfast. He gets here early, he's stretching, getting warmed up. He works so hard."
There are so many reasons why Carney, 37, can be so valuable.
First, on the ice. He has become the team's steadiest defenseman. Carney is a plus-21, which would be a franchise record. He plays heavy minutes and in all defensive situations.
"He's a veteran," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. "He's been in the playoffs, he knows what it takes to win. When you have that, you carry that at different times during the season -- that energy that you need to have to win games."
But there's more. Carney is also a mentor to the defensive corps -- most notably to Burns -- Carney's playing partner. They talk on the ice, of course. But after every shift they talk on the bench. Sometimes Carney will reinforce a good play. Sometimes Carney's job is to calm down a young player who is struggling.
An example: The Wild were in Vancouver on March 13 and, in the opening minutes a couple of bad bounces -- including a puck that went off Burns' skate and into the net -- had the Canucks up 2-0.
"I was ready to jump off a bridge," Burns said. "He just said, 'Hey, it's two bad bounces. Turn it around.' "
In the second period Carney, usually a stay-at-home defenseman, jumped into the Vancouver zone, took the puck away from Matt Cook and backhanded the puck to Mikko Koivu, who scored. It started the Wild's comeback, one that ended with Burns' goal in overtime in a 3-2 victory.
"He'll tell you one of the things that drives him bananas about me is positioning," Burns said. "He'll be battling in the corner and the puck will squirt out and I'll run after it like a chicken with my head cut off. He'll say, 'Burnsie, you have to stay back and relax.' Then I'll hear [Wes] Walz yelling, 'Less is more, less is more ... ' "
Carney believes keeping things simple is the best way to go, the kind of play that brought him to the Wild's attention. Carney was playing for Anaheim when the Ducks and Wild played in the 2003 Western Conference finals. Walz remembers Carney as Anaheim's best defenseman. He especially remembers how good he was on the penalty kill.
"He'd be in the corner and he'd always make this soft little pass in front of the net to his forward, who would clear the puck," Walz said. "He did that over and over. I remember specifically talking about that in the dressing room, about how we had to get on him. Well, now he's making that little pass to me."
And he's passing on a career's worth of knowledge to guys like Burns.
"I'm definitely proud of him and the way his game has come along," Carney said of Burns. "I don't think it's anything I've done. He's playing the way he is because he's working hard, he's focused and he's confident."
Right. And where do you think he learned that? So Burns was asked if, 10 years from now, he'll be telling some young player about what he learned from a guy named Carney.
No, Burns said rather emphatically. "I think in 10 years I'll still be playing with Carney."