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After prolific career, Sergei Gonchar ready for new role in Pittsburgh

Sergei Gonchar retires as one of the most prolific, and somehow underrated, defensemen of his era. Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

And to think, as a 6-year-old in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Sergei Gonchar had visions of playing a different sport altogether.

"To begin with, I was thinking about soccer, I wanted to play soccer,'' Gonchar recalled this week, chuckling.

"Then my father told me that we had better hockey schools in our hometown. He convinced me to change sports. Once I started playing hockey a bit more, I loved it more and more. So eventually there was no question for me, I never thought about soccer again.''

Thank you, then, Papa Gonchar. The NHL would not have been the same without your son's 811 career points (220 goals, 591 assists) in 1,301 regular-season games over the past couple of decades.

But for whatever reason, the announcement by the Pittsburgh Penguins that Gonchar is retiring and taking a job within the organization didn't get nearly as much attention as it should have. The guy had an amazing career, but that's par for the course for a player whose greatness was always under the radar during 20 NHL seasons.

"He was a hell of a player,'' former Penguins GM and current New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero said of Gonchar. "He developed into one of the best defensemen in the league for a long time. His defensive work was really overshadowed by his great offensive work. But he was quietly competitive, a wonderful person, made people around him better both on and off the ice.

"I think that says a lot about him as a player and a person and the longevity he had to play at such a high level for as long as he did.''

When you consider Gonchar played part of his career during the Dead Puck era, the fact he put up four seasons of 50-plus points before 2005 underlines his natural offensive talent.

"To play for 20 years in the NHL and the level he played at, the production he had, you hate saying he flew under the radar, but didn't he?" said former Penguins assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald. "You almost never heard him for the Norris Trophy."

George McPhee, former GM of the Washington Capitals, the team for which Gonchar played the first 10 years of his career, also called him very underrated.

"He was pretty gifted offensively,'' McPhee said. "He was a deceptive skater. He had Paul Coffey ball bearings in his skates, like he's moving without pushing. He would come up the ice, shift his weight, and get around people. It didn't look like he was pushing hard. He could really move the puck and he had a real bomb from the point.

"And he was a very quiet, respectful, very decent human being. He never wanted any attention or acclaim, but was a very effective player.''

Gonchar never won a Norris, primarily because he played in the Nicklas Lidstrom era, when few blueliners were able to come out of Lidstrom's shadow.

"I was very fortunate to play with good guys and great players," Gonchar said humbly of his terrific career.

Twenty seasons in the NHL? The kid back in Chelyabinsk, Russia, never would have predicted that.

"When I was growing up, nobody ever dreamed of playing in the NHL," said Gonchar, 41. "It was maybe making the local team or even the national team. That's all we thought about. When I got older, the world opened up and I got an opportunity. I remember when I got to the NHL, everyone was bigger and quicker. I didn't know if I would make it or play in the league a long time. Now, looking back, you feel so fortunate.''

Winning a Stanley Cup in 2009 with the Penguins was the obvious high.

"You realize how tough it is to win a Cup," Gonchar said. "So when you win one, you appreciate it even more. You understand how hard it is. Winning the Cup was probably the biggest highlight of my career.''

Gonchar went to camp with the Penguins last month on a tryout but didn't crack the roster. He had no interest in trying elsewhere. Pittsburgh is where he wanted to end his career. Now, he gets to stay on with the Penguins as a defensemen development coach, a role GM Jim Rutherford created for Gonchar.

"I have a lot of time and respect for Sergei,'' said Rutherford, who met Gonchar over the past year but didn't take long to be impressed by him.

"Bringing him on board is a good step for him in this transition period from being a player to the front office. It's also going to be good for the Penguins; he brings a lot of knowledge and experience."

Gonchar's family base will remain in Dallas at this point -- he didn't want to uproot his 6- and 13-year-old daughters from school -- so he will commute for his new gig. His schedule with the Penguins is flexible as he dips his toes into a new field.

"I'm excited about the opportunity and looking forward to it, but at the same time, only time will tell," Gonchar said of whether a permanent career in coaching or management could be his calling.

"It's a lot of time commitment with a lot of travel, probably even more of a time commitment than playing. That's why I want to see, maybe do this kind of work for a year or two and then see. It's not just about me, but also my family. But this is a very exciting opportunity.''