Ron Gabrielli can tell you quite a few stories about Dennis Widemans teenage years, but its the more recent ones that give him the most pleasure.
Gabrielli and his wife, Susie, served as billet parents for Wideman when he played for Dale Hunters London (Ontario) Knights from 2001 to 2004, and every now and then the Capitals 28-year-old defenseman shows his appreciation with random acts of kindness.
One came around Christmas a few years ago, when Gabrielli received a text from Wideman, instructing him and his wife to be ready at 6 p.m. on a Saturday. When Gabrielli asked Wideman what was going on, he texted back, Just be ready.
Sure enough, when their doorbell rang at 6 p.m., Ron and Susie found a limo driver waiting to take them to one of Londons finest restaurants, Moxies Classic Grill, where a bottle of wine awaited them.
It wasnt so much the gift that mattered, Ron Gabrielli said. It was the time and thought that he put into setting it all up.
I always said to Dennis, Your day in the sun is coming. And now hes having it.
Long considered one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL, Wideman is spending this weekend sharing laughs with some of the leagues top players as a first-time participant in the NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa.
It is a fitting reward for a player who has spent much of his playing career bouncing from one team to the next.
To see his hard work and perseverance result in an All-Star Game is a tremendous accomplishment, Capitals teammate Matt Hendricks said. A lot of guys that play in this league never get that opportunity. Were very happy for Dennis. Were rooting for him and hope he plays well.
Widemans road to the NHL began in the Mennonite town of Elmira, Ontario, where his father worked at a feed mill and his mother weaved quilts. Wideman played for the Elmira Sugar Kings until he was 15, when he left home to play for the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL. A year later, he was traded to the London Knights and was placed with Ron and Susie Gabrielli and their two daughters, who were 13 and 10 at the time.
You have to leave your parents home at 15 and youre eight months with another family, Wideman said. The coaching staff and management and billets are kind of like your family, basically. If you get in trouble, youre dealing with them.
Youre growing up and maturing as a man. Theyre not only teaching you hockey, but teaching you how to be a professional as well, and thats important.
In their 10 years billeting for the Knights, the Gabriellis had a few simple rules. Show respect for other members of the family, complete all school work and make curfew at night.
I told the kids that if you break curfew, Im not going to call the coach and throw you under the bus, but if they call here looking for you, Im not lying for you, Ron Gabrielli said.
Dennis was a very nice young man, very mature. And honest as the day is long. Hes a straight shooter and never pulled any punches.
As a player, Wideman became one of Hunters favorite players, confident in his abilities but willing to listen. In his first 24 games with the Knights, Wideman was a minus-24. In his final season, he was a plus-52.
When he came to us, he was sure of himself, Hunter said. He was confident he could be an NHL player. He didnt just say it was going to happen. He worked at it. Right away, I saw he had the smarts. Hed played 38 minutes for me when he was 18 or 19 because he could pace himself. Hes a real smart, intelligent player, and thats what separates him.
In his draft year of 2002, Wideman was passed over 240 times before the Buffalo Sabres took him in the eighth round with the 241st selection. When the Sabres failed to sign him after two years, Wideman signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues and made his NHL debut in 2005.
Wideman lasted less than two seasons in St. Louis, recording 46 points and a minus-38 rating in 122 games. The Blues traded Wideman to Boston for Brad Boyes just before the 2007 trade deadline, and Wideman spent parts of four seasons with the Bruins.
In June 2010, a year before they won the Stanley Cup, the Bruins made Wideman part of a blockbuster deal that sent him to Florida for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell. Wideman lasted just 61 games in Florida before the Panthers traded him to the Capitals just before last years trade deadline.
Widemans season was cut short on March 29 when a collision with Carolinas Tuomo Ruutu left him with acute compartment syndrome in his right thigh. The injury resulted in a ruptured artery that required six surgeries and threatened his career.
The whole reason we got him was to add another threat, teammate Karl Alzner said. You can see by what hes doing this year what he could have done for us last year. Especially in that second series a four-game loss against Tampa. We could have used him a lot. Hes a big-time player for us.
Wideman spent his entire summer rehabbing his right leg, which still sports a foot-long scar, and arrived in training camp with about 70 percent strength. That hasnt stopped him from leading the Capitals in ice time (24:29) and setting a career-high pace with nine goals and 34 points in 48 games.
He plays the same game for me now that he played in London, Hunter said. He runs the power play. Hes got a good shot. He knows when to jump in the play. At the end of the game, you want him on the ice because hell block a shot with his face to save a goal. Hell throw his body in front of stuff because he wants to win. You have to be fearless to do it, but hell do it to win the game.
The Gabriellis will not be able to attend this weekends festivities in Ottawa, but theyll be in front of their televisions Saturday and Sunday watching Wideman enjoy an experience they say is well-deserved.
Hes become one of the best defensemen in the league, but there are so many things he does for people that go unnoticed, Gabrielli said. Hes a humble young man, and Im happy for him to get the recognition he deserves.