'I feel bad' about Crosby hit: Steckel

Maple Leafs forward David Steckel shoots during practice at the Mastercard Centre in Toronto, Ont.,...

Maple Leafs forward David Steckel shoots during practice at the Mastercard Centre in Toronto, Ont., Oct. 5, 2011. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:19 PM ET

TORONTO - David Steckel wants it known that the Maple Leafs have acquired a diligent checker, penalty killer and faceoff maestro, not a rogue who targets NHL stars.

There will be ample time to discuss his Oct. 29 return match with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the next few weeks — if Crosby has returned from a concussion — but Steckel arrived in town Wednesday anxious to make a good first impression.

He gets his first chance in front of an audience in Thursday’s opener against the Canadiens, playing left wing or centre on a line with Philippe Dupuis and Colby Armstrong.

He joked with the media at the MasterCard Centre that the first Crosby-related question came four or five softballs into the session, much longer than he’d anticipated.

“Every day (I’ve heard it), from the incident, right to the end of the season and then now,” Steckel said.

But the 6-foot-5 mammoth from Milwaukee has not changed his tune since the Winter Classic, when he appeared to blindside Crosby, who was looking up the ice at Heinz Field in the game against Washington.

“I feel bad that he’s not back playing and by no means was it on purpose,” Steckel said. “I didn’t see him, and after that game, I told one of their players I knew, Deryk Engelland, ‘Tell him I didn’t see him and I’m sorry’. That’s the only contact I’ve had.”

Crosby was silent about the shoulder to the head at first, then critical of the league for not penalizing Steckel on the play or applying supplementary discipline.

“If you see the video, I try to avoid him at the last second,” Steckel protested. “You can argue it both ways, but I had no intent and there was nothing I can do about it.

“I wish him the best. You don’t want to see anybody out of the game that long with that type of injury.”

Reminded of Crosby’s anticipated return this month, Steckel said, “I can’t wait. I’m not saying that because the questions are burdensome, but it’s the same question. When he comes back, I hope he’s better than ever.”

Though large, Steckel is not known to play on the edge. He has 113 minutes of penalties in three full seasons with the Capitals, and briefly last year with the New Jersey Devils.

“Being on the fourth line, if I was taking penalties, there was probably a good chance I wouldn’t be seeing much ice after that,” he said.

Dealt to the Devils for Jason Arnott in February, Steckel went from Stanley Cup contender to a team that didn’t make the playoffs. This new season in Newark was turning into a sour experience, too, as the forward was bounced down to the fifth line in recent practices.

Trying to make salary room for the return of Petr Sykora, the Devils traded Steckel to the Leafs in a hastily arranged deal for a fourth-round pick next June.

“I sat down and had a meeting with management in New Jersey and it just wasn’t going to work out,” Steckel said. “I’m very fortunate that Mr. (Lou) Lamoriello was kind enough to get something done for me.”

Brian Burke and his management team liked two things about Steckel, size in the middle after years of mostly small-fry centres and that he was a wiz in the faceoff circles. He averaged a league-best 62.3% (511 of 820), where the highest Leaf was Tyler Bozak at 54.6% and 20th overall. Steckel credited Team USA development coach Bob Mancini with alerting him to work on the draw years ago.

“He reamed me out after one practice and said, ‘If you want to be an asset as third-line or fourth-line centre, then you have to do something else’. And winning draws was that.”

Steckel, whose long limbs are useful in battling for the puck drop, insists he wasn’t studying charts to see who was trying to usurp him in faceoffs. Manny Malhotra in Vancouver was the only other player to get more than 60%.

“I knew if I was winning faceoffs or not,” Steckel said of the mental scorecard he kept during games.

The third line appears to be his assignment for now, though he was on the left side Thursday. The Leafs have one centre hurt (Tim Connolly), one who hasn’t played in a year (Matthew Lombardi) and one who has been injured in the last few days of camp (Tyler Bozak).

“It’s a tryout for me,” Steckel said “I think I’m a coachable player and the game comes relatively easy. So as far as learning systems (in a rush), I’m not really worried about that.”

His birth certificate immediately makes him part of the village elders.

“I didn’t think I was old at 29,” Steckel laughed. “I was part of that team in Washington when we were young for a bit and now the tide has turned. It’s good to bring some experience and leadership here.”


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