Audio: Habs sign Cole, Budaj; Hamrlik, Halpern join Caps, Pouliot to Bruins, Auld to Senators

erikcole

New Canadiens forward Erik Cole, signed for four years and $18 million this afternoon.
Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

• Carolina Hurricanes forward Erik Cole brings his grit and durability – 26G, 26A in 82 games last season – to Montreal for four years and $18 million in the Canadiens’ major unrestricted free agent signing today.

AUDIO: Erik Cole conference call | Habs GM Pierre Gauthier

Video of Erik Cole taping his stick. One more thing you now know about him:

• Peter Budaj is in, Alex Auld is out: Budaj is signed to a two-year, $2.3-million contract to back up Habs starting goaltender Carey Price. Auld, meanwhile, returns to the Ottawa Senators for the same $1 million he earned in Montreal last season.

• Roman Hamrlik: 2 years, $7 million to Washington, and possibly a partner for Mike Green; Jeff Halpern: one year $825,000 to Washington.

Benoit Pouliot in a Bruins jersey, for $1.1 million. Who’d have thought that?

• Jaromir Jagr, who many believed would be wearing a Canadiens jersey next season, signs for a year with Philadelphia. Says here that’s just as well.

• James Wisniewski signed six years and $33 million with Columbus – stunning money. The Blue Jackets had exclusive negotiating rights with the defenceman, a mid-season acquisition by the Habs, until 12 noon ET today, and Wiz agreed to terms an hour before that. This gives Montreal a fifth-round draft pick in next June’s entry draft.

AUDIO: James Wisniewski conference call

I had a one-on-one interview with Erik Cole five springs ago, the Hurricanes in town for the playoffs, Cole sidelined with a fractured neck. (A few interesting parallels with Max Pacioretty five years later.) We sat in the stands at the Bell Centre as the Canes took part in their morning skate. Our talk yielded this story:

Young gun on mend
Erik Cole can only watch and envy Hurricanes teammates
as they play Habs in playoff series while he recovers
from broken neck suffered eight weeks ago

Published Saturday, April 29, 2006

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette

On Monday, doctors in Raleigh, N.C., will remove the cervical thoracic brace from around the broken neck of Erik Cole.

And then the Carolina Hurricanes left winger will hold a special ceremony for the plastic-and-steel support that’s been clamped to him almost every minute since early March.

“I’m going to run over it a few times with my Cadillac,” Cole said yesterday. “And then I’m going to drive at least a few miles down the highway, dragging it behind the car.”

He vows there won’t be even a single bolt left to sell on eBay.

It was eight weeks ago today that Cole was crushed head-first into the boards by Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik. The check produced a compound fracture of Cole’s C5 vertebra, a hit from behind that doctors say came within fractions of an inch of paralyzing one of the NHL’s top young stars.

Monday, Cole will shed the hard brace and be fitted for two weeks with a less rigid collar, “just to remind me that I broke my neck,” he said, “so I don’t snap my head from side to side.”

Yesterday, the 27-year-old from Oswego, N.Y., stood at the boards during the Hurricanes’ morning skate at the Bell Centre, remembering what it was like to be on the other side of the glass.

He’s eager to get back on skates, of course, though there’s no firm timetable for that. Cole was having the best season of his four-year NHL career when he was injured; he had 30 goals, eight of them game-winners, and 29 assists in 60 games.

He is healing well, since the frightening idea of surgery was floated six weeks ago, and Cole’s presence in the dressing room has been an inspiration for his teammates.

“It’s going to be pretty emotional stepping back on the ice with the guys, whenever that will be,” he said.

But sooner will come the joy of again scooping up his children – daughter Bella, 4, and son Landon, 21 months – and of being less reliant on his wife, Emily.

“In the last eight weeks, I’ve put my children to bed maybe five times, and putting my little guy to bed is great, because his personality is really starting to come out,” Cole said. “It’s not easy when he’s trying to climb up your leg and his mother has to say: ‘Let Daddy rest.’ ”

This might be the only way the Canadiens could have kept Cole off the scoresheet. He was poison in three regular-season games against Montreal this year, scoring five goals on only six shots – including a Jan. 31 hat trick – and adding three assists.

On Wednesday, and again last night, Cole inhaled this city’s unique playoff air from the press gallery, wishing he’d been on the ice seven storeys below.

“It’s pretty miserable sitting upstairs,” he said. “You’re so close to being a part of the energy, but you’re not. It’s hard to come to this building, because I love playing here. This is such a great hockey atmosphere.”

Many times Cole has replayed the Orpik hit that fractured his neck. The Penguins defenceman, who was suspended for three games, bristles at charges from the Hurricanes and others who label it a cheap shot, and has suggested that Cole shares the blame, saying he turned and ducked just before impact.

“I didn’t know that my neck was broken,” Cole recalled. “I’ve been hit hard before, and I’ve had stingers. But the jolt that went down my arms was a lot more severe than anything I’ve ever felt.”

He was transported to a Pittsburgh hospital, and returned home the following day wearing only a collar. When Raleigh doctors believed the vertebra might be moving, he was fitted with a more restrictive brace – the same one that will wear Cadillac tire treads on Monday.

Cole says that late last month, Orpik tried to get his cellphone number from Mark Recchi, who had been traded to the Hurricanes from Pittsburgh five days after the check.

“I told Mark to tell him not to bother. I wasn’t interested in his call,” Cole said. “At that point, I felt a call was more for his benefit than for mine, of him trying to clear his conscience.

“It’s up to a player to make decisions out there. Things happen quickly, and you choose to take advantage of situations or you don’t. Accidents will happen, and there are always going to be mistakes and misfortunes.

“But I think his first comments told me how he really felt about this. I definitely look forward to next year, when we get to play Pittsburgh.”

Cole’s rehabilitation did not at first include coming to Montreal for Games 3 and 4 of this series. But when the Hurricanes lost the first two at home, he got clearance from his doctors and was welcomed by head coach Peter Laviolette.

“I think my wife was ready to kick me out of the house, too,” he joked. “She was a little worried about my being comfortable on the road, but she also understood it would be good for me.”

And what fun to goof around with teammates and trainers, “because they run away, knowing they can’t fight back.”

Cole and his family will spend the summer in Raleigh instead of returning to New York state. They’re eager to enjoy the weather and the beaches, and will be close to his doctors, should they be needed.

“This is a week at a time,” he said of his recovery. “I’ll have to get my range of motion and strength back. Then have another X-ray to rule out ligament damage. If there is, it will require surgery. But getting out of this brace will boost my spirits, for sure. With that, healing will come more easily.

“I feel very fortunate that this wasn’t much worse,” Cole said, wistfully watching his teammates breeze around the rink. “I’ll never take for granted being able to pick up my children.”

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