One word describes Mathieu Dandenault as a hockey player more than any other: versatile.
Back on that draft day nobody, least of all Mathieu Dandenault, could have expected the career path he would take. Not that he would complain in hindsight, mind you. But he could never have guessed he would become a quality NHL defenseman.
Starting in his second NHL season Detroit coach Scotty Bowman experimented with the idea of playing Dandenault on the blue line. Due to a rash of injuries, Bowman figured Dandenault's skating would allow him to play there, at least short term. But Bowman, who similarly employed Jimmy Roberts in such fashion with Montreal back in the 1970s, was impressed enough to make it permanent.
"I had never played defence in my life and to start learning at the NHL level against the best players in the world was difficult. But you know, you learn and I worked hard and the guys helped me out a lot, and eventually I got comfortable and starting playing well."
Over the course of his career he would the ultimate swingman, capable of playing responsibly in his own zone or as a physical speed merchant up front on a 3rd or 4th energy line.
"I was a forward my first year and then Scotty Bowman asked me to play defence my second year." Dandenault said. "My third year, I was a forward and then my fourth year, I moved to defence and that's where I stayed, although there seemed to be a couple of weeks every season where there were injuries and I played a little forward."
Dandenault, a veteran of 13 NHL seasons and a three-time Stanley Cup winner, never complained. It meant he was a very valuable member of the powerhouse Detroit teams. No matter what the circumstances called for - be it a rash of injuries or a needed change of pace mid-game - Dandenault knew he would be called on to make important contributions to the team's success.
Bowman, arguably the greatest coach in NHL history, must have been very impressed with Dandenault even before the switch to the back end. Bowman preferred veteran players over rookies, but he kept Dandenault with the Wings as a 19 year old and only apprenticed him in the minor leagues for four games.
Dandenault played in 868 career NHL games and recorded 68 goals and 135 assists for 203 points, to go along with 516 penalty minutes. He spent the first nine seasons of his career with the Detroit Red Wings (1995-96 to 2003-04), and four seasons with his hometown Montreal Canadiens.
"It was a childhood dream of mine to play in the NHL and having the opportunity to play for two original-six franchises made it even more special," said Dandenault. "I grew up a huge Montreal Canadiens fan so skating out onto the ice in Montreal for the first time as a member of the Habs is something I will never forget. I feel honoured to have my name engraved on the Stanley Cup as a Detroit Red Wing.
On the international stage, Dandenault won a gold medal as member of Team Canada at the 2003 World Hockey Championships in Finland.
Mathieu Dandenault was one dandy hockey player. It is incredibly rare for a life-long forward to adequately make the switch to defense at the NHL level. Dandenault acquitted himself nicely.