A Brand New Lease on a Hockey Life
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Shawn Chambers hesitates a bit before answering the question, simply because he can’t be 100% sure when trying to estimate how many knee surgeries he’s had in his life. “Over/under… 16”. The bulk of the problems began in the 1990-91 season when he was with the Minnesota North Stars: a dislocated knee cap followed by surgery before the season started, another dislocation and surgery during the season, another surgery during the semifinals against Edmonton, and his knee got drained before every game of the seven-game series with Pittsburgh in the Finals.
Despite a successful rehab during the summer of 1991, Chambers couldn’t skate. “Soon as I got on the ice, every time I skated it would swell up like a beach ball.” By then he was property of the Washington Capitals, and the constant injuries prevented him from cracking the lineup with an already talented Capital defensive corps. The subsequent surgeries and rehabs prevented him from even skating. In 1991-92 he appeared in seven games, two in the NHL, and for all intents and purposes his career was pretty much done at the age of 25. Then came the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Chambers’ career would take an unexpected turn when he was claimed in the expansion draft on June 18, 1992. The move came with mixed emotions.
“Washington had a bunch of great defensemen, so it was like, ‘Well I’m leaving here and I’m going to Tampa and hopefully I’ll be one of the better guys down there and be one of the leaders on the back line.’ I was a little disappointed when I got to Washington, I didn’t help them. But at the same time I knew Tampa could be a new lease on life basically for my career. I wasn’t unhappy… let’s go there!” But the move to Tampa was hardly a slam dunk at first. The knee problems cropped up again in training camp, and he didn’t make his Lightning debut until November 21st. It was his first NHL action in 21 months, and he owed it all to new laser surgery on his knee, which made a cleaner cut and cleanup of cartilage much easier. “It felt like somebody gave me a new knee, so that was basically where it all started.”
What started was a sudden resurgence in what should have been a dead career. Chambers emerged not only as a steady veteran defensive presence, but he could contribute offensively as well. Despite playing only 55 games that season, Chambers actually led all Lightning defensemen in scoring that season with 10 goals and 39 points. Suddenly the rigors of just trying to skate normally turned in to unbridled joy, especially in front of the new hockey fans at Expo Hall.
“There were times when we were playing in the Fairgrounds there where we’d be over our blue line and all of a sudden the fans would start cheering because they didn’t exactly know what was going to happen when we got down to the other end! I think they thought we were going to score. It was kind of a cool experience, like they were all excited every time we got over the blue line. As a player you’re like, ‘Well at least the fans are excited any time!’ every time we came over the blue line. So it was different that’s for sure!” While fans in the Bay area were learning more about the game, Chambers was polishing his at the right time. In the 1993-94 season, Chambers was healthier, and appeared in 66 games—the most he played in four years. Again he led all team defensemen in scoring with 11 goals and 34 points, and was once again a force on the point on the power play. Other teams were taking notice.
Twenty-four games in to the 1994-95 season, Chambers was again proving his worth with 14 points and a 0 plus-minus rating, which was quite the feat on a 3rd-year expansion club. In March of 1995, he and Danton Cole were traded to New Jersey, as the Devils were pushing for their first Stanley Cup championship. “Going up there, and playing with Jersey and Larry Robinson and [Scott] Stevens and all those guys… it was phenomenal for my career.” Phenomenal to say the least-- Chambers appeared in 20 playoff games, scoring 9 points, while helping the Devils stun Detroit in a 4-game sweep in the Stanley Cup Finals. He would remain in remarkably good shape, and in New Jersey, for two more seasons before signing with Dallas in the summer of 1997. Two years later, he was celebrating again, as the Stars defeated the Sabres in six games in the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals. Another knee injury at the start of the following season would end his playing career, but for a man whose career should have been over eight years before, two Stanley Cups and 625 career games offsets the chronic pain.
Chambers is still feeling the pain as he skates several hours a day, with a torn ACL in one knee and a torn PCL in the other, as he coaches high school hockey with the Northern Lakes Lightning in Minnesota. “I say I’m not getting [my knees] fixed until I can’t swing a golf club.” The irony in his team’s name hasn’t really struck Chambers until now, but as we reminisce about those first few years in Tampa Bay he has nothing but gratitude for what he and his teammates did to plant the seeds of hockey. “It was a good group of guys. We had the character, we had some fun together, and we came together in a hurry which was nice. It was all those veterans, I mean Joe Reekie was huge in our locker room. Gerard Gallant was huge in our locker room, and he was coming from Detroit. You know, Basil McRae and all those guys were there, those guys were leaders. Those are the guys that helped us through all of the things we had to go through. Brian Bradley was a huge leader in that locker room. It’s tough going out there knowing you’re probably going to be 20-60 in a year.”
Along with coaching high school-aged kids for more than a decade now, he is keeping tabs on his two boys who used to play under him with Northern Lakes. Twenty-year-old Cody, an infant when his father’s career was jump-started in Tampa Bay, is a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Seventeen-year-old Connor, born 17 days after his father was traded to New Jersey, is back in Dallas playing for the Stars’ midget major AAA club with eyes on college hockey. The elder Chambers admits it’s a bit easier to coach without having his own flesh and blood on the roster, as it’s a fine line between being a stern coach and a supportive parent. “I’m in the middle right now, whether it’s really fun or not so fun not having my kid to watch too so it’s kind of both right now.”
As he soaks in the moments of being a proud parent with two adult children, Chambers certainly appreciates the raising of a hockey team and fan base he and his teammates went through 20 years ago. And even though he never skated in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, at least as a member of the Lightning, he knows that the early success the team had in the 1990s directly correlates to how the organization is succeeding now. “Them winning the Cup was awesome. For those fans to get that new arena they have down there, it’s awesome. We helped paved the way to get the new arena, to get from Expo over to the dome over to the new arena. To know that we were starting that process, it’s great to see and having Yzerman there, I mean that’s awesome. To see where the Lightning are at, who’s in charge of that program right now, that’s really cool.”
And to think the way was partially paved by a man who 20 years ago had two shot knees, and who never knew if he would ever play the game of hockey again.