Aug 5, 2003
His right arm swung ferociously. His eyes were squinted and his jaw clenched tightly as he delivered his fury. His aggression exploded with the kind of raw anger and contempt that you’d expect from someone who had been coldly betrayed by an archenemy. But this was no climactic confrontation between two bitter rivals; rather, it was the first intra-squad game of the Okanagan Hockey School’s Program of Excellence. Some poor soul has just made the unfortunate mistake of crossing paths with Dale Purinton.
What was out of the ordinary, however, was that the future New York Rangers defenseman had not yet celebrated his 15th birthday…his vanquished opponent was closing in on his 20th.
“Just who in G-d’s name was this baby-faced pugilist?” I thought to myself as I delivered the traditional “tapping of the shin pads” as he made his way off the ice. “And where did he learn to throw bombs like that?”
For the rest of the month, Dale and I played together as defense partners, as we would the following summer. Our styles could not have been more opposite. I was an offensive-minded, error prone, glory-hound; Dale was a responsible “stay-at–home” type who basically scared the living be’ Jesus out of anyone from even attempting to stickhandle through or around him. Indeed, Dale would absolutely abuse any opposing player who came down his side of the ice; and he was known to look coldly into the eyes of an opponent and deliver a well-timed and tremendously intimidating, “Don’t f*** around” warning which was often quite an effective tool in throwing a player off his game.
Although a villainous warrior on the ice, many of Dale’s teammates would tell you that, off of it, he is not only an excellent guy but a consummate team player. I can remember tripping over the blue line in front of the entire coaching staff during a Calgary Buffaloes Midget AAA try-out and feeling my chances of making the team crumble before my very eyes.
“Get up and finish the drill Tony, get back in there!” urged Dale.
This is the type of guy Dale is.
As he gains notoriety around the National Hockey League, people are taking notice of Dale’s sense of humor. In one televised interview last season, Dale told the interviewer that he was having a hard time focusing on hockey due to all of the beautiful women wearing summer dresses around Manhattan. He said this with a straight face until finally letting the broadcaster in on the joke by cracking a mischievous grin. He then invited fans to apply to be his personal Christmas shopper. Perhaps a better example of Dale’s humor dates back to our days in Penticton at the hockey school. Dale and I were invited to play in the instructor’s game that took place every night after the programs concluded. Glen Anderson, among other NHLers, was in town to help out as a celebrity instructor. He was sitting a few stalls down from Dale in the dressing room. At the time, Anderson hadn’t been too far removed from his run of Stanley Cups and 50 goal seasons with the Oilers. Here we had a legend sitting no more than a few feet away from us and, with a perfectly straight face, Dale looks over at Glen, introduces himself, and then asks, “so, what team do you play for?”
Glen, who had no idea that Dale was joking, awkwardly replied, “I, um...I play for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Those of us who picked up on the joke desperately wanted to laugh but had to bite our tongues so as not to potentially offend Anderson. Glen Anderson for cryin’ out loud!
After our experience at OHS, Dale and I would go on to become friends before eventually losing touch as many young people do. There was no question that Dale had left a lasting impression on me. I had never met someone with such a nasty disposition on the ice that was so charismatic and entertaining off of it. As a result, I continued to keep an eye on his career.
Roughly two years after our second summer in Penticton, I ran into Dale at a Midget playoff hockey game in Calgary. He was there to watch his former team. At the time I had just come off another frustrating season as a journeyman defender in the RMJHL, a second rate Junior A, tier II league in British Columbia’s Kootenay mountains. As always, it was nice to see my old friend from Penticton and we quickly took a seat next to each other and began sharing stories about the season. It was 1995 and Dale had just finished playing his rookie season as a defenseman with the WHL’s Tacoma Rockets. I had heard the tales of his progression—how he had racked up an astonishing 291 PIMS throughout 65 games; how he had successfully backed up the reputation he had earned as an enforcer with the Vernon Lakers of the BCJHL (as a mere 16 years old). Dale had taken on all comers and, for the most part, had won. Aside from his fists of fury, he was also a tremendously hard working player and I was happy to hear that he had earned a spot in a Tacoma’s lineup.
As it often does when most young hockey players chew the dirt in the off-season, the topic of fighting found its way into our conversation.
“How many fights did you get into this season Tony?” asked Dale.
I replied, “Oh, I don’t know…about 4, I guess (inflating the number by 2), nothing out of the ordinary.”
“You?” I asked.
“I dropped’em 29 times”, said Dale.
He wasn’t bragging because really tough guys don’t need to. He was simply stating the truth. He had led the WHL in fighting majors as a rookie.
Before Dale’s WHL career came to end in 1997, he would enjoy a trip to the Memorial Cup tournament as captain of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Although the back of Dale Purinton’s hockey card reads that he was born in Indiana, he was raised on Canadian soil and reared through the Calgary Minor Hockey Association. His community hockey was played in the South Eastern quadrant of the city and, until the age of 16, he was a member of the Calgary Buffaloes Hockey Association. Dale played midget AAA at the age of 15 years old; very rare indeed. Dale’s father, Calvin, played over 10 seasons of professional hockey, primarily in the East Coast Hockey League, with the Fort Wayne Comets. The older Purinton racked up more than a healthy share of penalty minutes himself—which explains two things: first, the reason why Dale was born in the United States, and secondly, where he picked up the know-how to snot-rag a 20 year old junior player at the age of 15. Just speculating, but his socialization into the game may have been slightly different from that of the norm... just speculating, of course...
Dale’s journey to the NHL has been anything but easy. He has made his hockey dream come true in the most difficult possible way: by using his fists.
It’s not just the fighting that can take a toll on the body. Dale’s role has also called on him to play as physically as possible and to block shots. Ever been hit above the knee with a 95-mile an hour slap shot? How about in the ankle? The willingness to dive in front of the next puck is what separates players like Dale Purinton.
What makes Dale special, however, is not the reality that he has fought his way into the NHL but, rather that he has worked so hard to improve his skills. The 2002-2003 NHL season proved that Dale has become a great deal more than just a fighter. While playing for the New York Rangers, Purinton showed that he can be relied upon to play rock solid defensively and also chip in with some points. Before his injury, Dale was on a role, scoring 3 goals and 9 assists and sporting a positive +/- rating. There are many scouts and managers who previously wrote Purinton off as nothing more than an enforcer; a goon if you will. I would think that those same people are now kicking themselves for passing him up. Not only was Dale a 5th round selection (117th overall) in the 1995 Amateur Entry draft, but he toiled in the East Coast Hockey League for 34 games before making his ascent to the big leagues via the AHL. In 2000, The Hartford Wolfpack won the Calder Cup Championship with Dale playing a big role. A WHL and AHL Champion…Purinton is a winner, period.
In terms of his progress, if you were to watch a video tape of Dale skate in a 2001-2002 NHL game and compared it to footage of him last season, I would guess that you’d have a hard time believing it was the same player. Purinton’s game has come a long a way and his improved skills are a testament to his determination and character. Development of this magnitude is only accomplished through supreme dedication.
This upcoming season should be interesting with regards to how Dale will be used in New York. The Rangers have made some off-season acquisitions on defense but that hasn’t stopped Purinton from earning his spot in the past. Having witnessed his resilience and “never say die” attitude, I would, in no way, shape, or form, bet against him.
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