Rosemount's Tom Preissing has earned respect and recognition, some anyway, in hockey-mad Ottawa.
OTTAWA - "I am a defenseman that plays on the Ottawa Senators and I'm the league leader in plus-minus. Who am I?"
Give Tom Preissing credit for being a good sport. The Canadian sports TV network, Sportsnet, persuaded the Senators defenseman that it would be fun to go to the Rideau Centre, the biggest mall in Canada's capital, to see if anybody recognized him.
When nobody in hockey-mad Ottawa on that November day could identify him, Preissing put on his helmet and jersey to give folks hints.
Not even that worked.
Patrons guessed Jason Spezza and Patrick Eaves, Chris Phillips and Dany Heatley. Two even chose Preissing's defense partner, Joe Corvo. Some even called him a liar, yelling, "No you don't," when he claimed to play for the Senators.
Finally, after asking "Who am I?" to more than a dozen people, one shopper guessed, "Tom Preissing."
Ecstatic, a stunned Preissing screamed, "Ding! Ding! Good work. That's huge, I'm not going to lie."
Six months later, the Rosemount High School graduate finds himself entrenched on Ottawa's third defense pair in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Preissing also kept that league-leading plus-minus pace going, tying for first among defensemen (plus-40) with some guy named Nicklas Lidstrom.
"Hey it was fun," Preissing said of the mall stunt. "It was a good-spirited piece, and to be honest with you, I'd rather go to the mall and have no one recognize me than be like [Daniel] Alfredsson or Heater who go out in public and get approached by a lot of people.
"It was a little bit cheesy, but it was good TV, I think."
Preissing, who was born in Illinois but grew up in Minnesota, is still stunned anybody recognizes him. After all, it wasn't long ago where the NHL was just a dream, and even that's an exaggeration.
"Every step of my career growing up, I just kind of hung around and was able to do something a little bit good," Preissing, 28, said. "I never really was one of those kids pegged to play in the NHL like a lot of those youth hockey kids in Minnesota.
"I never was all-state or anything like that. I was an above-average high school player. That's about it."
The turning point came in 1998-99, when Preissing played for Green Bay in the USHL.
"My career was almost stalled," Preissing said.
But with him languishing as a forward, Preissing's coach -- St. Paul's Mark Osiecki, a journeyman defenseman who played 93 NHL games for Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa and the North Stars -- experimented by putting Preissing on the blue line.
"Tom was a very gifted athlete and a gifted hockey player, but as a forward, for whatever reason, he wasn't seeing any opportunity to score any points, and we couldn't figure out why," said Osiecki, now an assistant coach at University of Wisconsin. "He could see the ice tremendously well, so we were talking as a staff for a long time that just maybe if he had control of the puck starting out in his own end, he'd flourish.
"Then, all of a sudden we had a couple injuries, and we asked him to move back. He was willing to adapt and take a chance. Honestly, if he didn't move back, he may not have gotten a scholarship because he was a third- or fourth-line forward in the USHL."
Preissing agrees, saying, "Realistically, if I didn't move to defense, I was probably good enough to be a Division III forward at the time."
Instead, Preissing earned a scholarship to Colorado College. During his senior year of 2002-03, he captained the Tigers to the WCHA championship, led the nation in defensemen points with 52, tied for first in the nation with 17 power-play goals and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist.
He signed a free-agent contract with San Jose days after his senior season ended. He played two years for the Sharks before being traded to Ottawa last July in a three-team deal that saw star Martin Havlat land in Chicago.
An unrestricted free agent this summer, Preissing's not under the radar anymore -- even if he's still barely recognized in his home city.
"He's just a real smart player," Senators coach Bryan Murray said. "He's not very big, he's not physical. But he's got good hands, and to me, what Tom is, is a real smart hockey guy. He sees the ice, he makes the play, he knows when to shoot.
"He's one of those players in the NHL because their head put him there and keeps him there."
Osiecki, who was on the Senators' opening night roster and played 34 games during Ottawa's inaugural season in 1992-93, said: "It does really come down to his overall intelligence. He was a sponge then, and he's continued to be a sponge all the way through to where he is now."
Preissing has had a strong postseason, the highlight being the winning goal from a bad angle to beat New Jersey's Martin Brodeur for Ottawa's third victory in the conference semifinals.
"Lucky goal, but I'll take that any day of the week," Preissing said.
With the Senators down 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Anaheim Ducks, Preissing's parents -- Mark and Cathy, both teachers in the Minneapolis area -- are traveling to Ottawa for Saturday's Game 3.
"The commitment they've had to make to get me to where I am now with how expensive hockey is, I hope it's every bit as exciting for them as it is for me," Preissing said.
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