The myth of Dave Bolland
Blackhawks Magazine gets to know the man behind the myth
Dave Bolland isn’t the Blackhawks biggest star, but he plays one of the team’s most important roles: shutting down the opponent’s top line. “The Rat,” as he’s affectionately referred to, gained almost cult-like status among fans during the 2010 Stanley Cup run for getting under the skin of players like Joe Thornton, the Sedin twins and Mike Richards. But even still, Bolland seems to move among the shadows on a team deep with talent.
So who is Dave Bolland? How’d he acquire the nickname? And has he always had some peskiness to his game? Blackhawks Magazine talked to friends, coaches, teammates and opponents to get to the bottom of the myth of Dave Bolland.
DAVE BOLLAND (Blackhawks center): I was about 6 when I got on skates. My older brother was always skating, and I remember I kept bugging my parents to put me on the ice, put me on the ice. Eventually they just threw skates at me, and after that I kept going and going.
JOHN LADESIC (childhood friend of Bolland): I played high school hockey and lacrosse with Dave since we were maybe 8 years old. He was a vicious guy when we were playing lacrosse. He would go in the corners, get the loose balls, and he wouldn’t be afraid to dish it out.
BOLLAND: I think it really helped out with my toughness —take some hits, give some hits — conditioning and eye-hand coordination. I loved lacrosse almost as much as hockey, but it came to a certain time where it was either hockey or lacrosse, and hockey was the one to go with.
BILL BURKE (then-manager of the North York Rangers): We were at a trial for another team, and one of the coaches said, “Boy, the kid with the turquoise and purple socks on, that’s the best kid on the ice.” Dave had been playing Double-A, and this was for Triple-A.
PAUL CAPIZZANO (agent with MFIVE Sports Management): His compete level was high at that age, and he had great hands. The thing that stood out to me was how he could take the game over. He’s just got great hockey sense; he doesn’t play a real pretty game, but he’s a competitor.
BURKE: At a young age, everyone is pretty respectful, but certainly as he moved on and played his later years in the GTHL (Greater Toronto Hockey League), he would get under your skin. For sure when he played in the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) for the London Knights he was tough. Tough around the net, tough with the goalies.
CAPIZZANO: He really admired Dale Hunter, who coached him there, and he played a lot like that. Gritty, in your face. But he never wanted to get suspended.
DALE HUNTER (retired NHL center, former London Knights head coach): He used to live with us too, so I think he heard a few stories… But he was one of the best penalty killers plus power play guys plus my shut-down-the-top-line guy. He’s good defensively, and he’s good offensively, and he has a great shot. He logged a lot of minutes for me.
STAN BOWMAN (Blackhawks general manager): He was on some good teams in London when they had some players like Corey Perry who were a little bit older than him. In order for him to get ice time, he had to be a responsible player. But a lot of guys don’t learn that at a young age because they’re just told in junior to go score points.
DANIEL CARCILLO (Blackhawks left wing): I had the pleasure of playing against him a couple years in junior, and we had the London-Sarnia rivalry. He was the same as he is here (with the Blackhawks); he was just a guy that you hated playing against. He was great in his d-zone, but he was also very skilled, so he brought every aspect to the game.
BOLLAND: Coming up from minor hockey and into junior, I was mostly a goal scorer. My first year in junior, I only had 17 points, but I kept building and building and getting better. The third or fourth year, I had 130 points.
ANTON THUN (co-director of MFIVE Sports Management): He’s never been the guy who’s at the extreme end of anything. He’s never been the leading scorer, he’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the biggest hitter. But the thing that you can’t quantify is competitive nature. If there was some type of rating scale that could measure that, Dave might be at the top of that list.
BOWMAN: He was a very highly regarded guy back in his draft year. We noticed right away that he was able to play both ends of the ice. He was always kind of undersized, but he had the ability to play against top players, even at a young age, and as a scout that’s something that really catches your eye.
BURKE: It’s funny — when he was drafted by Chicago, I phoned his dad, Drew, and I said, “Well, he’s won the OHL Cup, he’s won the Memorial Cup, he’s won a World Junior gold, and Chicago’s going to win a Stanley Cup because he’s a winner.
But before he could win a Stanley Cup, he needed to make it to the NHL — and stay there. He’d been selected in the second round, 32nd overall, by the Blackhawks in the 2004 Entry Draft. But would his game translate to the NHL level? If he took on a grittier assignment, there was a chance he’d not only play with Chicago, he’d excel.
AL MACISAAC (then-general manager of the Norfolk Admirals, Blackhawks vice president/assistant to the president): Coming into pro hockey, he lacked only one thing: the physical part of it. He was 170 pounds maybe, and none of that was muscle. It was just Dave Bolland, the hockey player. It was a tough first year; I don’t think he would say anything else. Mike Haviland (then-head coach of Norfolk) and the coaching staff, and then the staff when he came into Rockford, all gave him the same advice: If you work hard off the ice, it’ll translate into positive things on the ice. The results speak for themselves. He is a complete player because he gave himself the opportunity to train.
THUN: There are certain things that sometimes get in the way of a player’s development — sometimes it’s work ethic or lack of confidence or the inability to deal with stressful situations. David is almost exactly the opposite. It doesn’t matter if he’s competing against a guy 30 pounds or 6 inches bigger than him; there’s a lot of fight in the dog.
BOLLAND: I knew coming into the NHL that my role was going to be a little bit different. It got a lot tougher coming out against some bigger guys, and the speed was a lot quicker, so I knew I wouldn’t be a 50-goal scorer like I was in junior. Under Mike Haviland and Dale Hunter, who taught me the role of being a defensive forward and taking care of my own zone, I sort of brought that into effect. If I wanted to get called up — and then stay up and keep my job — I had to do that.
BOWMAN: He probably could be a better offensive player on other NHL teams because he’s got the ability; he’s just not given that role on our team. He ends up scoring a fair amount in the process, but his primary assignment is against the other teams’ best players. And he’s fine with it, which is unique. Most guys want those accolades. That’s the reason he’s so valuable to us. He totally swallows his pride. He’s very unassuming, and we’re lucky that he is.
JOEL QUENNEVILLE (Blackhawks head coach): With Tazer and Kaner and Sharp, there are a lot of guys the other team has to be concerned with. Bolly flies under the radar. We have an appreciation for what he brings to our team; when you don’t have Bolly, our options aren’t the same. When he’s in the lineup it seems we have more purpose in our team game.
JONATHAN TOEWS (Blackhawks captain): You realize how important a centerman position is when he’s in the lineup; it just gives our four lines much more depth. He’s always playing against the other team’s top line, and that lets the other lines just focus on offense and go out there and do their jobs. He always makes his teammates a lot better; he’s good at spreading the pressure out.
BOWMAN: He understands that he’s not a big guy, so he uses his brain to be in the right position, to anticipate. As a result, he’s able to kill plays in the defensive zone. That’s really the biggest key to his game.
EDDIE OLCZYK (Blackhawks TV color analyst): That’s the one thing that impresses me the most about Dave: He understands his role. Being a former player and coach, I appreciate that he knows what his job is and goes out there and plays against the other team’s top guys and executes. He chips in offensively, but he knows his job is the shutdown guy. It’s not a limelight job, but it’s important to have a guy like that.
BOWMAN: Just the way it is in the media, he’s never going to get a lot accolades because he just doesn’t have the offensive numbers that people tend to gravitate towards. But when you talk to coaches about the important ingredients to a winning team, he’s got all of those.
Bolland played his first full season in Chicago in 2008-09, but it wasn’t until the 2009-10 campaign that there was a feeling among fans and the media that this Blackhawks team was different. Bolland, however, battled a back problem, a hold-over from the previous season, and after just 13 games had to undergo surgery to fix a herniated disc. Bolland returned three months later, playing the last 26 games and recording four goals and six assists. While the regular season was somewhat disappointing, it was the playoffs where Bolland came into his own. He played a large part in pushing the Blackhawks past Nashville, past Vancouver and, most notably, past Joe Thornton and San Jose in the Western Conference Final.
MACISAAC: For a guy 180 pounds to go up against Joe Thornton and basically shut him down and dominate, that’s pretty impressive.
BOLLAND: It’s fun playing against Joe Thornton. It’s a challenge. He’s big, he’s good with the puck, and he sees the ice well. It’s always tough playing against Joe, and he’s a great player, but to shut him down, it’s fun.
QUENNEVILLE: It’s not just Joe Thornton. You’ve got the Sedins. You’ve got (Mike) Richards and (Danny) Briere. He seems to welcome that challenge and has a knack for getting the job done.
BOWMAN: He’s scored some big goals for us too. Shorthanded goals in the playoffs are hard to come by. I know he scored one against Vancouver, one against Philadelphia, and I’m pretty sure he was on the ice when Hossa scored the overtime goal against Nashville. That was an incredible comeback. He just has the tendency to be around when those big moments happen.
OLCZYK: That slash that Thornton gave him, the great goal that he scored against Nashville, the shorthanded goal he scored against Vancouver… but it’s just the consistency that he plays with and the little things he does that are so impressive. He does everything.
VINCE VAUGHN (actor and producer, friend of Bolland): He really gives it 110 percent. He’s a really gutsy player. He seems to really kind of aggravate people, so it’s fun to watch him out there antagonizing.
ANDREW LADD (then-Blackhawks left wing): He’s kind of always in your face, always there. He’s chirping a lot. He just knows how to push guys’ buttons. He was such a big part of that 2010 Cup team, and to play that part and still be such a great player is something not many guys can do.
CARCILLO: First off, you take a look at the guy and you want to punch him in the face right away just because of the way he looks. He’s got the jersey up over the elbow pads, you know he doesn’t really want to fight.
JAMAL MAYERS (Blackhawks right wing): He’s a very skilled player, but he also has the ability to track extremely well, he skates really well, he’s got a stick defensively — and he’s a little bit cocky. So when you combine all those things, it makes him a very effective hockey player. Any time you check one of those skill players real well, you tend to annoy them. Certainly I’ve heard that he gets under the skin of those guys.
BOLLAND: I don’t really have a strategy, but I know whenever we’re out there against Joe Thornton or the Sedin twins or whatever top line we’re playing against, we’re going to play hard against them and keep to our game. If I know who it is, if they’re easy to get to, I try to annoy them a little bit — just be around them all game and get in their face. It gets to their game. It’s fun. For me, it does bring some enjoyment.
Something else that was fun was having a Stanley Cup. The Hawks had beaten Philadelphia 4-2 in the Final to bring home the silver chalice. New attention had been brought to the team — and to Bolland himself. The nickname “The Rat” was born, though the details are fuzzy, much like some of the Stanley Cup championship celebrations.
BICKELL: The nickname actually started a long time ago. We were in Norfolk, and David Koci was on our team, and we used to play against the Albany River Rats. We’d only play against them a couple times a year, but Dave used to do it back then —stir up the pot — and Koci always called him the Albany River Rats, and “The Rat” just stuck from there. I know a couple other guys that we’ve played with the past couple years think they made it up, but that’s the original story.
"He understands that he’s not a big guy, so he uses his brain to be in the right position, to anticipate."
"A little whack here, a little whack there… he’s got some abrasiveness to him. I don’t know if it’s ratness or sneakiness — or intelligence."
"He’s kind of always in your face, always there. He’s chirping a lot. He just knows how to push guys’ buttons. He was such a big part of that 2010 Cup team, and to play that part and still be such a great player is something not many guys can do."
"He really gives it 110 percent. He seems to really kind of aggravate people, so it’s fun to watch him out there antagonizing."
LADD: I think maybe it was Dunc that started it, just because during the playoffs Dave has that role of getting under guys’ skin and being a “rat.”
DUNCAN KEITH (Blackhawks defenseman): I have no idea when it started. I didn’t make it up. I think Buff (Dustin Byfuglien) did.
OLCZYK: I have very little information, and what information I would have, I’m sworn to secrecy. But I will say it’s a pretty darn good name. He is everywhere. He’s really good in close areas and in corners. He finds the puck all the time. And he’s a little bit of an agitator. The original “Rat” that I know is Ken Linseman (NHL, 1978-92). Similar type of player, but Davey’s got a lot more offensive skill. Maybe that makes him a classier “rat”?
MAYERS: Yeah, I think Kenny Linseman has that name wrapped up, but sure, certainly it’s a compliment any time your opponent considers you an effective player, and that’s not to diminish his skill level because he is able to do a lot more than check.
MACISAAC: I don’t know where it started, but when I think of “The Rat,” I think of Linseman, the quintessential hard-nosed, gritty, in your face, little guy that was a pest. Dave, to me, has more to offer. “Rat” is a good nickname, a good moniker to put on him, but he’s more well-rounded than that. You can’t put a rat on a power play.
CAPIZZANO: I don’t particularly like the name “The Rat.” I’m not sure he’s too fond of it either… Sometimes you think of the word “rat,” and you think of someone who’s dirty, who’s suspended. I don’t see Dave being dirty. I think he’s just a player that gets in everyone’s skates because his compete level is so high.
THUN: I think it’s a compliment to be quite honest. He does the dirty work in the corners and goes to the dangerous areas when some players don’t want to do that. Be rest assured that there’s no National Hockey League team that’s ever won the Stanley Cup simply with a bunch of skilled players. What Dave does doesn’t always show up on the scoreboard, but it contributes to success.
CARCILLO: It’s kind of mean. I mean, rats spread diseases. But he definitely gets the other team off their game and gets them thinking about him, which is what you want to do as an agitator.
BOWMAN: I think “The Rat” is a good description for his game. I think he certainly agitates. It is frustrating for some of these bigger guys because he is a little scrawny guy, and they think ,“How can he be so effective against us?” That kind of adds to the annoyance factor. But he just finds a way to make plays and get under their skin; he does all the little tricks.
QUENNEVILLE: A little whack here, a little whack there… he’s got some abrasiveness to him. I don’t know if it’s ratness or sneakiness — or intelligence. I just think he really does have the instincts, both offensively and defensively, that compliment his style of play.
TOEWS: Yep, the white rat… because he’s really pale.
JULIA ZALUCKI (Bolland’s fiancée): I think his play makes a lot of people upset and angry, and that’s the point. So we’ll keep the nickname. But he also likes to be called “Greyhound.”
We may never know the true origin of “The Rat,” but the fans and media embraced it, and they expected to see the same pest out on the ice for the 2010-11 campaign. And they did — for a while. Tampa Bay came to town in March, and Bolland was victim to a nasty blow to the head courtesy of Pavel Kubina. It resulted in an even nastier concussion. But his comeback was grand again. With Chicago down three games to none and facing elimination by the Canucks, Bolland returned for a one-goal, three-assist effort in Game 4 and helped propel the team through to a heartbreaking overtime loss in Game 7.
BOLLAND: It’s tough sitting out for 20-some odd games. For me, I can’t watch games if they’re on the road and I’m out because I get so intense. I really want to be in that lineup, and I really miss the game. Then those first two, three games of the playoffs, it was so hard watching the guys and me just sitting around and hoping that the next day I’d be better, but it kept going and going…
QUENNEVILLE: We were anticipating that he was going to come back maybe for Game 2, and then Game 3, and we didn’t get him for Game 3. Then it was like, we better win Game 3… Then, all of sudden, Bolly returns for Game 4. Some guys would have said, “Well, we’re down 3-0. I don’t know if I should come back.” But he came back and gave us a jolt of energy and got us to Game 7 overtime, and anything could’ve happened. There’s something about his game that makes our team more effective.
BOWMAN: Just mentally, for our guys to have him back, we needed some kind of boost. Even if he hadn’t been very effective in the game, I think it would have helped us. But on top of it, he played an incredible game too.
BOLLAND: It’s just the challenge of the playoffs. I think that’s when most players come out to play and you see things happen. After getting the Stanley Cup and seeing how much fun it was, you want to do it again. It’s something you thrive on.
And the playoffs is where he hopes to end up this year too, but there’s a full season ahead. If his October is any indication though, “The Rat” is back.
QUENNEVILLE: I think the regular season the past couple of years has been unpredictable for him. He had a tremendous year a few years ago, and I think the playoffs are an area where Bolly just loves that challenge. But I think having a strong regular season with consistency and health, he could be one of those players that other teams mention.
BOWMAN: I don’t expect his game to change very much. In our system here, it’s a critical role for us; we’ve been saying that internally for a long time. I think his offensive game is probably going to be around what it was last year — or maybe even a notch higher — but I expect his importance to our team to be the same as it’s always been.
BOLLAND: I’d like to put up a few more points. More goals, more assists. Stay healthy. And keep to what I’m doing now. But I think another goal would be to win that Stanley Cup again. There’s just so much pride and so much fun in winning it.