A few words with: Bruce Hoffort, former Philadelphia Flyers goaltender

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Goaltender Bruce Hoffort would play 9 games in the NHL for the Philadelphia Flyers, compiling a record of 4-0-3

Bruce Hoffort never considered himself your typical “blue chip prospect” during his collegiate and professional hockey careers. How he feels in retrospect about his goaltending and his playing career goes back even to his days as a youth. “I really didn’t watch much hockey. I really wasn’t a ‘rink rat’, so to speak. I spent more time on my snowmobile”. And as I spend my afternoon chatting with Bruce Hoffort for an hour or so, I do notice that he is correct. Bruce is not your typical person or typical hockey player. Bruce realized that there was something different that had made him an NCAA Championship winning goaltender, and an aspiring talent for the Philadelphia Flyers. And the more that I listen to him recollect his playing career, it makes me wish that there were more people and more professional athletes like Bruce Hoffort in this world today.

Bruce Hoffort was born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada but after a little bit of moving around, spent his time growing up in North Battleford, another Saskatchewan city, beginning around the age of 4-years old. There are numerous hockey talents to have come out of North Battleford, including NHL talents of the 1970s and 1980s like Skip Krake, Dale Hoganson, Ron Delorme, Bernie Lukowich, and even legendary Hockey Hall of Fame inducted coach, Emile “The Cat” Francis. Hoffort recalled that “these were the names you heard growing up in North Battleford, and that you kind of looked up to”.

Unbeknownst at the time as to how his career would eventually play out, as a kid Hoffort would cheer for the Philadelphia Flyers and idolized their legendary goaltender, Bernie Parent. “When I was a kid and was playing really strong, my teammates and friends took to calling me ‘Bernie’ even. The only time that I ever received something back when I wrote to a hockey club (fan mail) was from the Flyers. They sent me a team photo probably from around the early to mid-1970s, and there was Bernie Parent in the photo too, and I believe the Stanley Cup was depicted as well. And I used to look at that photo endlessly”. In addition to the Flyers and Parent, Hoffort fondly recalls watching Hockey Night in Canada after Bingo, and watching the stellar goaltending of Ken Dryden, Mike Palmateer, and Richard Brodeur. Once the region started carrying more Edmonton Oilers games on television in the 1980s, Hoffort strongly admired the brilliance of the Oilers’ superb goaltending tandem of Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog.

While he had played goal a bit here and there in street hockey and recreationally at school, Bruce Hoffort had been a positional player as a defenseman in organized youth hockey. But around the time that he was playing in pee wee or travel leagues, about the age of 12 or so, he decided to give goaltending a try. “It was much easier than what parents have to do these days as far as handling equipment costs. Basically in North Battleford they had a big room filled with all sizes of goalie equipment. You picked out whatever fit you, and that was your goalie equipment that you played in”. From that point going forward, Hoffort was permanently a goaltender in organized hockey.

Heading into his teenage years, Bruce Hoffort would play his junior hockey in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, initially for North Battleford. But after not seeing much playing time in the nets, Hoffort would request a trade which saw him be shipped to the Melville Millionaires. The 1985-86 season, at 19-years of age, saw Hoffort appear in 40-games for the Millionaires, and string together a streak 15-18-2 record while pitching 2-shutouts. Hoffort’s junior career would include stops in Nipawin at the junior-B level and returns to North Battleford as well. Around this time, the Regina Pats had approached Bruce about adding him onto a protected list with the intent of signing him. Hoffort received advice around that time from friends, cautioning him that accepting the addition to Regina’s protected list would negate his ability to play collegiate hockey. It would come down to deciding what was the best road for Bruce to follow; college hockey or major junior hockey.

The decision would soon be made much easier for Bruce, as assistant coach of Lake Superior State University, Jeff Jackson, would begin scouting him quite seriously, and in turn would offer him a scholarship to play stateside with the Lakers. Jackson, who presently is the head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey program since 2005, would recognize the “battler” in Bruce. It was Jackson who would refer to Hoffort as a “junkyard dog”, often having to fight for the most out of difficult situations. The decision to attend school and play hockey at Lake Superior would pave the way for Bruce to play some of his best hockey, achieve great personal and team accolades, and eventually the opening of a door into the NHL.

Bruce Hoffort and the Lakers found immediate success in their first year together, the 1987-88 season. “Half of our team were freshmen, and it was a very talented team. By far, Mark Vermette was our best player. He scored 45-goals in 46-games. Vermette was very tough too. Scoring 45-goals on top of having over 150-penalty minutes”. Mark Vermette would eventually be drafted in the 7th-round of the 1986 entry draft by Quebec, and would suit up in 67-games for the Nordiques across four seasons. “Drew Famulak was my roommate”, Hoffort went onto say. “My best friend on the team was Doug Laprade out of Thunder Bay. Mike Greenlay was our backup goalie, and he’d end up playing a few games with the Edmonton Oilers”. Besides Hoffort, Vermette and Greenlay, four other Lakers would also go onto the NHL, including Dan Keczmer, Mark Astley, Rene Chapdelaine and future Stanley Cup champion Jim Dowd.

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Hoffort was a standout goaltender for Lake Superior State University, and backstopped his team to the NCAA Championship his freshman year.

Hoffort would backstop the Lakers to a most memorable championship run which would see Lake Superior State defeat St. Lawrence 4-3 in overtime of the championship game, which was held in Lake Placid that April. The earlier rounds of the tournament saw the Lakers defeat Merrimack in a two-game, total goals format quarterfinal with a 4-3 loss and a 5-0 victory, as well as defeating the Maine Blackbears 6-3 in a single elimination game semi-final. “The program had never previously won anything significant. So it was great for that program and that community. And getting to play at Lake Placid was amazing, of course. After we won the tournament, we were the first hockey team since the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ team that was invited to the White House. We got to meet Ronald Reagan and take individual photos with him. You would be in a separate room, and the Secret Service would wave you in, and you’d be like, ‘wow, there’s Ronald Reagan!’. It was a truly amazing experience”.

Hoffort’s performance at the tournament and for the entire 1987-88 NCAA was simply spectacular. So much so that Bruce would receive the accolades of being named to the All-CCHA First Team, as well as the All-NCAA Tournament Team to go along with being awarded the Most Outstanding Player for the entire 1988 NCAA Tournament. Few players have been more celebrated with accolades than what Hoffort was that memorable 1988 season.

After the freshman year championship run, Bruce Hoffort’s sophomore year was even more remarkable statistically. Throughout 44-games in the 1988-89 season, Hoffort finished with a record of 27-wins and only 10-losses to go with 5-ties and a strong 2.71 goals against average. It was around this time that the thought of playing professional hockey really started to take shape for Bruce. “After my freshman year, I actually had an offer from the Quebec Nordiques to see if I was interested in turning pro. I began to think to myself, ‘Wow! Maybe I can play professionally. Maybe I can do something here’. I wanted to have a great second year and see if I could continue to go up”. After actually having and playing that very solid second year, things did in fact continue to go up for Bruce.

“A friend of Jeff Jackson’s was Bob Goodenow, who at the time, was working as a player agent and had a couple of players like Brett Hull. We had an informal meeting in Sault Ste. Marie, where Goodenow asked me if I wanted to go professional. It was at this meeting that I realized that I did. Bob started soliciting offers, and there were at least 10 teams that were interested”.

Eventually for Bruce, the choice of where he would sign professionally would come down to choosing between two teams; the Edmonton Oilers and the team of his childhood dreams, the Philadelphia Flyers. For Bruce, it was never about the money. Some hockey players are more concerned about playing where they are going to get the biggest salary and living the good life. That was never the case for Hoffort; he simply wanted to play in the NHL. “Glen Sather, whom I had met with just prior in Lloydminster, called me up one night and told me that he’d give me $50,000 less than whatever the Flyers offered me”. Listening to Bruce tell me this, I am banking on the fact that Sather thought the enticement would be more so the fact that the Oilers were perennial Stanley Cup champions, and still had the likes of Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Kevin Lowe on their roster. “What ended up being more important to me was being a bit further away from home, and not so much being under the microscope anymore. Plus, there was the tie of idolizing Bernie Parent, and that he was serving as a goalie coach in Philadelphia at the time”. It became no surprise then that Hoffort chose to sign with the Flyers.

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Hoffort felt that he was less under the microscope by being further away from home, so he opted to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers instead of the Edmonton Oilers.

Bruce Hoffort’s first professional hockey season was 1989-90. All appearances would be that Bruce would have a legitimate shot of making the Flyers roster right out of training camp that summer. “I had had a very good training camp. (Ron) Hextall was out at the time with a contract dispute. I had seen a lot of playing time in the pre-season. John Paddock (the assistant GM for the Philadelphia Flyers at the time) told me that he believed I would be there”, Hoffort recalled. Though he would not make the Flyers roster right off the bat, it really would not take Bruce that long to see his first taste of NHL play. “I think after only 6-games in Hershey, I got called up”. Hoffort would sit backup to Vezina-trophy winning and multiple All-Star selection Pete Peeters, while Hextall remained out with the contract dispute and the other veteran netminder, Ken Wregget, was out with an injury.

Over a quarter of a century later, I am amazed at how well Bruce is able to recall his first NHL game. Not even just down to the details of the game, but remembering the feelings and emotions that he felt at the time too. Hoffort’s first NHL game would be a November 5th, 1989 showdown against the New York Islanders in Philadelphia for a game that he was not even expected to play in. “Early in the 2nd-period, there was a goal mouth collision. Pete Peeters had gotten hurt, and looked as if he had hit his head the ice. Immediately as he was being attended to, I hopped over the boards and started stretching, getting ready to go in”. Hoffort was raring to go, and who could blame him? This was his chance. This was his opportunity. Suiting up in an NHL game and being able to show what he could do.

In asking him what memories stand out the most from this first NHL game, Bruce recalls a very unique, quirky situation about playing that first game at The Spectrum. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘if they don’t score, they can’t send me down’. I had played with Pat Jablonski’s twin brother, Jeff, at Lake Superior State. Pat was a goalie at the time for the St. Louis Blues, and Jeff had told me a story about him. Pat had played a game in Philly, where the shooter faked him out and pretended that he was going to dump the puck in. Anticipating the dump in, Pat left the crease too early to play the puck and the shooter just put the puck right into the open net. Remembering this, I wanted to make certain this didn’t happen to me. Wouldn’t you know it, the first play of the game for me, (the Islanders’) Gerald Diduck is skating in and looks like he’s ready to dump the puck in, then suddenly slaps it hard right on net! Diduck was figuring ‘here’s this rookie goalie, I’m going to mess with him’. I stopped it obviously, and survived getting embarrassed”. Bruce and I had a good laugh over this recollection of his first game.

Despite having been replaced by him after getting injured, Pete Peeters was very welcoming to the young Hoffort and was very instrumental in helping to develop him in his early career. Peeters made sure to spend time with Bruce, and show him a few veteran tricks of the trade, so to speak. “Pete was great right off the bat. He was engaging with everyone, and was involved on the ice. Pete wanted to know my opinion about things, and how I had been taught. Throughout his career, Pete Peeters was known as a great puckhandler. He taught me a few things about shaving my stick down, so that it was easier to hold for flipping the puck out”.

Despite posting a superb 3-0-1 record in just his first few games in the league, Hoffort was understandably dismayed when he was sent back down to Hershey once veteran Ken Wregget came back from injury. “Paul Holmgren had kept telling me, ‘ you keep winning, you keep playing'”. Despite being sent down, Hoffort would eventually be called back up later in the season and appeared in a string of three games in late-March, early-April. But things would not remain the same as they had been for his earlier success, and Hoffort would show signs of struggle.

Glenn “Chico” Resch had replaced Bernie Parent as goaltending coach for the Flyers, and would have a different approach to his goaltenders than what Parent exemplified. “Bernie Parent was a standup goaltender, and I was a standup goaltender, so it worked really well. Chico wanted me to adopt a butterfly style. But what he wanted me to do was to gradually develop into a butterfly style goalie, whereas I tried to do it immediately and replicate it right off the bat; that’s not what Chico had meant for me to do. I ended up getting into a slump”.

Unfortunately, Bruce’s slump would continue into his second professional season, and it would be a tumultuous one at best. Despite being with the Flyers for two months during the 1990-91 season, Hoffort played in only two games, and of those two games combined, played a mere total of 39-minutes of ice time. On paper, Hoffort registered a decent 1-0-1 record for those two games, but his other numbers were quite rough, having come away with .850 save percentage and 4.62 goals against average. Not the kind of numbers that could keep you in the NHL, but when he only logged 39-minutes of play over two months, Hoffort had not been given a fair shake. Even in Hershey with the Bears, Hoffort saw the bulk of the netminding duties being given to 20-year old rookie Dominic Roussel and veteran Marc D’Amour as Roussel’s backup. Not finding a solidified position in Hershey either and with no real opportunity in Philly, Hoffort would even be shuffled over to the IHL’s Kansas City Blades so that he could be utilized somewhere. Being in Kansas City would be not be all bad, as Hoffort would be able to learn firsthand from head coach, former NHL goaltender and Stanley Cup winner Doug Soetaert, as well as co-coach and four-time Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Ken Morrow.

Never quite finding his groove, Bruce Hoffort would bounce between three teams in three different leagues for the rest of the season. In fact, one weekend during the 1990-91 season saw Hoffort play a game with the Blades in Indianapolis on a Friday night, having to play in Portland on a Saturday with Hershey, and then serving as a backup to Ken Wregget on the Sunday for a game in Pittsburgh. It would not surprise me if Bruce Hoffort was the only player in hockey history to have suited up in three different professional leagues, for three different teams, all in three consecutive days. It was no wonder that Hoffort never was able to get into a rhythm that season.

Bruce Hoffort’s final professional season would be the 1991-92 season with the San Diego Gulls of the IHL. The Flyers organization basically told him, “hey, we are going to leave you alone in San Diego and give you a chance to find your game again. We won’t bounce you around like last year. You can be the top goalie in San Diego, and have the opportunity to get your game back”. Longtime NHL and minor league player, Tim Tookey, who had been a teammate of Bruce’s in Hershey warned his friend that it likely would not be so simple in San Diego. “Tim Tookey knew Rick Knickle (the other goalie in San Diego) from their days with the Los Angeles Kings, and knew that Knickle was a really good goalie. He knew that I would not simply get the job”.

Don Waddell, who was head coach at the time for the Gulls, made a familiar assurance to Hoffort that “if you win, you play”. Starting to find his former self again and the former ways that worked for him at Lake Superior State and in the first part of his season in Philadelphia, Bruce Hoffort knew that he had to fight for his position again and rekindle that “junkyard dog” mentality that Jeff Jackson had originally seen in him. And while Hoffort would indeed scrap wholeheartedly to get in for 26-games for the Gulls and go 11-9-4 in that stretch, a very scary injury would perhaps signify that his professional career was coming closer to an end. “Shortly before Sean Burke was brought in, I had a really nasty collision on the ice. They had to take me in an ambulance to the hospital, and I ended up having a really bad concussion. By the time I got back, Sean Burke was in goal, and that was it”. Sean Burke, a stellar goaltender in his own right and an NHL goaltender for many years afterward, would quickly assume the starting duties for the Gulls.

Hoffort did have an opportunity to play professional hockey one more season in 1992-93 with the Gulls once more. Hoffort had been bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers and was a free agent to play wherever he wanted. The thought at the time was, “hey, why not San Diego again. Take a chance to do some soul-searching”. The trouble being that former Buffalo Sabres player and head coach, Rick Dudley, had taken over the head coaching duties, and had decided to bring in an entire selection of former Sabres players, including Lindy Ruff, Scott Arniel, Bill Houlder, Dale DeGray, Don McSween, Tony McKegney, Mark Ferner, and goaltender Clint Malarchuk. Once Malarchuk arrived, the proverbial writing was on the wall for Hoffort. “I showed up one morning, and there were my equipment bags all packed and outside the locker room. I was like, ‘uh oh’. I went to Don Waddell’s office (Waddell had become President and General Manager of the Gulls by that point) and told me he could offer me an opportunity in the ECHL. Not wanting to go that low in the professional leagues, I decided to say ‘that’s it'”.

Having left the game and officially retired, Bruce Hoffort returned to Lake Superior State University as a volunteer goaltending coach. “It was great. I got to be there in 1994 with Blaine Lacher (who would go on to play for the Boston Bruins) and John Grahame who would win a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay”.

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Bruce Hoffort’s rookie card as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers.

 

These days Bruce is no longer in hockey, but works as a successful businessman in the pulp and paper business overseeing paper conversion.

I mentioned at the beginning that I view Bruce Hoffort as being the kind of individual that we need more of in this world, and whom I wish other professional athletes were like. Throughout his story, Bruce was a “junkyard dog” type player, as bestowed upon him in college by Jeff Jackson. Thinking back on his career, Bruce recalls that he “always had to work very hard. Fighting for scraps like a junkyard dog. During those difficult seasons, I lost sight of where I came from. What made me a talented player was that I was always fighting, scraping, clawing to make the most out of difficult situations. You have to fight for things in life; nothing is just handed to you on a silver platter. In the NHL, you are kind of on your own in a sense. Now, in the business world, with a wife and kids in college, you have to fight for success. Nothing comes easy, and you have to continue to fight through challenges and battles”.

Bruce Hoffort gets what it seems that less and less people are getting these days. In a day in age where so much of life is about entitlement, Bruce understand that if you want something out of life, you have to work hard for it. Maybe he gets it because he lived it as a professional hockey player. Maybe it is what helped lead to him an NCAA Championship and to be able to play in the National Hockey League. It is comforting to know that there are people like Bruce Hoffort that still recognize these types of values; the types of values that you would want to pass onto the youth of today and the young professional athletes of today. I have the utmost respect for Bruce Hoffort, and I know that these ideals that he exudes and holds dear are what have made him so successful and respectable to this day.

 

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A few words with: Mike Torchia, former Dallas Stars goaltender

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Mike Torchia tended goal for six games for the Dallas Stars during the 1994-95 NHL season, compiling a winning record of 3-2-1

Two things impress me the most when I think of my conversation with former Dallas Stars netminder, Mike Torchia. Firstly, how courteous, soft-spoken, and professional he is. Talking hockey with him is a sincere pleasure, and he automatically puts you at ease. Plain and simple – Torchia is a great guy. Secondly, it is how vividly he can recall his hockey career, starting from the time that he was just a young kid, all the way up through the four years of his junior career, his eleven years at the professional level, and into the present with his involvement in the game today. Mike Torchia is perhaps best remembered by NHL fans for his lone season with the Dallas Stars during the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. Personally, I became curious to know more about Mike’s hockey career leading up to that season in the NHL, and to find out what he has been doing since.

Mike Torchia was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Torchia began playing hockey at the age of 4-years old when he first started skating. Up until the age of 7-years old, Torchia had always been a positional player when one day while playing for a Selects hockey club, the team’s goaltender did not show up. Torchia’s coach asked of his players at the time if anyone was willing to suit up in net. Torchia had always been intrigued by the position, and figured that he would give it a go. With Torchia between the pipes, the team would end up winning the game 6-1. From that point forward, Mike Torchia became a goaltender permanently and never played a game as a position player again.

Growing up in Toronto, it was difficult for anyone to be a Leafs fan during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly when it came to cheering on the Leafs’ goaltenders. While Toronto certainly possessed considerable talent on their roster, a winning team never came to fruition for the Leafs. From a goaltender perspective, the Leafs best bet was arguably Mike Palmateer, but he would be traded away in the summer of 1980 to the Washington Capitals. From that point forward, the Toronto Maple Leafs became a revolving door for netminders, with the likes of Jiri Crha, Vincent Tremblay, Jim Rutherford, “Bunny” Larocque, Rick St. Croix, Ken Wregget and a handful of others all seeing time in the Toronto nets; most of whom were regularly averaging between 4.00-5.00 goals allowed average each season.

It would not be hard to understand then why Mike Torchia’s favorite team growing up was the Boston Bruins and the stellar goaltending of Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers, as well as perennial All-Star selection and Vezina Trophy winner Pete Peeters. As the mid-1980s approached, Torchia also came to admire another legendary goaltender, the Montreal Canadiens’ Patrick Roy. For Torchia, a young goalie himself growing up in Toronto, these were his hockey heroes.

Shortly after he had turned 16, Mike Torchia would be drafted by the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers. Torchia would be taken in the second-round of the 1988 OHL Priority Selection draft. The 20th selection overall, Torchia would be selected ahead of the likes of Adam Foote, Owen Nolan, Chris Simon, Jassen Cullimore, Kris Draper, and other longstanding future NHLers. For Torchia, being selected by the Rangers in 1988 would eventually bring many wonderful moments and opportunities to his life; both as a youth hockey player and continuing even to this day.

Mike’s success with Kitchener would be almost immediate. The first two seasons with the Rangers in particular, at the ages of 16 and 17, would be his best of the four years in juniors, at least from his team’s standpoint. The 1989-90 OHL season, his second in the league, would see Mike and the Rangers finish second overall in the Emms Division with a record of 38-21-7. Kitchener had immense firepower, and would lead the OHL in team scoring that season with 358-goals scored; a full 24-goals more than the next highest scoring team in the league. The leading scorer for the Rangers was Torchia’s future brother-in-law, Gilbert Dionne, who would lead the way with 48-goals and 57-assists for 105-points in just 64-games. Joey St. Aubin and Jason Firth would also eclipse the 100-point mark that season for Kitchener, while 28-goal and 39-goal seasons came from future NHLers Shayne Stevenson and Steven Rice respectively. Anchoring Kitchener’s defense that season were future NHL blueliners Chris LiPuma and Jason York. Considering this team’s output and the caliber of the players they possessed, it was no wonder that the Rangers went as far as they did for this particular season.

Mike Torchia was just as exceptional as his teammates for 1989-90. As the number one netminder for Kitchener, Mike would finish with an impressive 25-11-2 record in 40-games, while registering a 0.875 save percentage and a 3.58 goals against average to go with 1 shutout. Perhaps more importantly though, Torchia would be at his very best in the OHL playoffs that season, backstopping Kitchener all the way to a 7-game showdown in the Finals against Oshawa that would go the entire distance. Mike posted a playoff run of 11-wins with only 6-losses during the 17-game stretch, and held opposing shooters at bay with a solid 3.52 goals against average. Torchia was so strong in the Kitchener nets that the Rangers had ripped through the North Bay Centennials and the Niagara Falls Thunder each in a series where they won 4-games to 1. It would not be until the Finals against Oshawa where Torchia and his Kitchener teammates would lose more than one game in a series.

Despite the 4-3 Finals loss to Oshawa, Torchia and the Rangers earned a birth in that spring’s Memorial Cup tournament to determine the major junior hockey league champion of the Canadian Hockey League. Mike Torchia and his Kitchener teammates would come ever so close to winning the Cup. Despite beating Kamloops 8-7 in overtime and Laval 5-3 in the round robin of the tournament, as well as a 5-4 semi-final victory over Laval once more, the Rangers would lose a heartbreaker in the championship game, losing once more to Oshawa that would take two overtime periods to resolve. Regardless of these tight losses in the finals and at the Memorial Cup, Mike Torchia had garnered attention and respect across Canada and in junior hockey. Torchia would be named to the 1990 Memorial Cup All-Star Team and would be named the Hap Emms Trophy recipient as well, as the top goaltender in the Memorial Cup tournament for that season.

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With the Kitchener Rangers, Mike Torchia would finish his junior hockey regular season career with a record of 89-68-16 in 182-games across four seasons.

After four highly successful seasons with Kitchener, Mike Torchia would see a dream come true in 1991 when he was chosen by the Minnesota North Stars in the NHL entry draft. Mike described the moment to me as a “surreal experience”. Not in the least bit out of cockiness, Torchia knew that making it into the NHL was where he was supposed to be. “I said to myself, ‘this is what I wanted to do. This is what I am going to do”. Being selected in the fourth-round at seventy-fourth overall, it was indeed a very surreal feeling for Mike. “Here I am at the time, walking down after being selected and being greeted by Bobby Clarke, who was the general manager of the North Stars at the time, and who I had watched as a kid with those missing teeth, winning Stanley Cups. And then Bob Gainey (who was the North Stars head coach at the time), and you think of all that he accomplished in his career, and it was just very, very surreal for me”.

Initially Torchia would be encouraged by the North Stars to play somewhere that he could get a lot of training in, and so he joined the Canadian National Team during 1992-93. “There was a very strenuous training regiment that Hockey Canada used at the time. We would start as early as 6:30AM in the morning, and going all the way into the evening. We did not play in a lot of games, but there was a lot of practice”, Torchia recalled. For the period of time that he was with the national team, Torchia was living in Calgary with teammates and friends like Hank Lammens and Adrian Aucoin, both of whom were on the national team and who would find NHL success in their careers as well.

In addition to his brief play with the national team, Torchia spent his first few professional seasons with the Stars minor league affiliate the Kalamazoo Wings of the IHL. While seeing regular action with the Wings, the Minnesota North Stars would relocate down south to Dallas and became the Stars. It was during their second season after relocation, the lockout shortened 1994-95 season, that Mike Torchia would make first his NHL appearance. When asked about what his first NHL game was like, Mike laughed and said “I guess I have Bob Gainey to thank for it”. Explaining further, Torchia said “Darcy Wakaluk had gotten hurt and was out for 2-weeks. So they called me up from Kalamazoo and flew me to Detroit on Friday for a Saturday game against the Red Wings. Then they called Manny Fernandez up, and I got sent back down to Kalamazoo, while Manny got the start against the Red Wings. I guess they intended to split the games between Manny and I. The next day I got called up and we flew to Chicago. About 4-hours before the game, Bob Gainey looks at me and says ‘you’re starting'”, again Torchia laughs, “I didn’t even have time to get nervous!”.

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Mike Torchia would stop 29 of 30 shots in an April 2, 1995 debut and 2-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Chicago Blackhawks would be an incredibly tough test for Mike to face in his first NHL game, as they were truly talent-laden. Garnered with All-Stars such as Eddie Belfour, Chris Chelios, Gary Suter, Jeremy Roenick, Joe Murphy and Tony Amonte, the game would conceivably be a shooting gallery against Torchia, while also having to outduel a future Hall of Fame goaltender in Belfour at the opposite end of the rink. Torchia was up to the challenge, and was absolutely superb in net. The Stars would win the game 2-1, with Torchia stopping 29 of 30 shots for an 0.967 save percentage. “The one goal I let in was the one I likely should have stopped. Joe Murphy let go of a wrist-shot, but didn’t get anything on it and it just fluttered into the net”. Torchia also reminded me that this was the game where “(Derian) Hatcher put a big hit on Jeremy Roenick and ended up injuring his knee”. When I tell him I am impressed with how well he recalls the details of this first game, Torchia responded with “the first game is always really special. I remember it like it was yesterday”.

During that first season in Dallas, Torchia learned a great deal from the Stars top netminder and veteran winner of three Stanley Cup championships, Andy Moog. While Darcy Wakaluk “was very quiet and kept mostly to himself”, Moog offered the young Torchia some great tutelage. “Andy Moog was just brilliant to be around. He taught me about making saves with the middle of the body. Simplifying things in terms of positioning. So many little details that I still use to this day”. Perhaps this mentoring by Moog in his first season is what helped Torchia achieve a respectable record of 3-2-1 in his rookie season, with wins over Toronto and Winnipeg in addition to the win over the Blackhawks.

After a solid rookie season, the 1995-96 season would be a tumultuous one for Torchia. Being involved with a summer trade from Dallas to the Washinton Capitals organization, followed by a trade to Anaheim in March of ’96, Torchia would end up playing for five different teams all in one season. Between injuries and conditioning assignments, as well as battling it out for limited NHL spots in the Capitals and Ducks organizations, to go along with a temporary loan from one team to another, Torchia would bounce from the cities of Norfolk to Kalamazoo to Orlando to Portland to Baltimore. Going from four straight years of being in Kitchener, to three to four years in Kalamazoo, and then suddenly five cities in one year would prove very difficult.

Eventually things would settle for Torchia during the 1998-99 season when he took the opportunity to play in Italy. “Looking at my background and heritage. My parents were from there. My sister was actually born there. I had met my wife and were married two years prior. We did not have any kids at the time. It was a great opportunity to see my roots. It became more about the experience than the hockey”. When asked about the fact that there were numerous other NHL experienced or drafted players (i.e. Reggie Savage, Tony Iob, Trevor Gallant) on the same team as Torchia, “Asiago HC”, Mike remembered the fact that Italy was a very enjoyable place to play for everyone. “We had a blast! There was one English speaking channel the whole year, so you could only watch so much TV. We would play cards. The wives would spend time together. The city we were in was more of a tourist spot, ski resort area. It was a lot of fun being with friends”.

Torchia would continue to wrap up his professional career overseas, as after his time in Italy he would play from 2000 through 2003 in the British Ice Hockey League. “Of the 18 skaters on our team, 17 of us were Canadian. Dale Craigwell, Scott Metcalfe, Trevor Gallant, Scott Allison. We would end up winning what they call the ‘Grand Slam’; all three or four trophies that were available for clubs to win”. Mike would have stops with the Sheffield Steelers, the Manchester Storm and the Guildford Flames. Mike would be named an ISL Second Team All-Star after an extremely solid performance with Sheffield which saw the Steelers finish first overall and lose only 9 of 48-games.

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Mike Torchia suiting up for the Manchester Storm of the British Ice Hockey Superleague during the 2002-03 season.

These days Mike Torchia is still very busy and still very much involved with the Kitchener Rangers. “I do color commentary for their radio broadcasts, and had done so on television too. I was their goalie coach for a while as well”. Torchia’s son Nathan, a goaltender just like his father, is now ranked in the top two goaltenders for the upcoming OHL draft and is slated to go very high in the 2016 Priority Selection. In fact, the younger Torchia is one of the top goaltenders in the world for those in his age group. When I congratulate Mike on his son’s success, he humbly reminds me that “nope, it’s all his doing”.

The last question that I leave Mike with is this – when he thinks back on his career, what is the most important thing that he learned which he still carries with him to this day. “Enjoy every day. It doesn’t last forever, and the end is very tough. It’s not so much the games. It’s being in the locker room with your buddies before or after a game. Being able to go for a skate with your buddies. Make sure you enjoy every day, every moment of it”.

I wish Mike the best of luck in all of his future endeavors, and I am excited to see what his son is going to accomplish in the years ahead. I have a hunch that he must be a lot like his father – courteous, professional, soft-spoken, truly a great guy. Those qualities breed success no matter where you go in life, and Mike Torchia certainly possesses them.

 

Remembering: The “OV-Line”

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From left to right, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Johan Garpenlov combined for one magical season in San Jose to lead the Sharks on an improbable run.

In the game today, when hockey fans think of “OV” everyone immediately envisions the great number-8 of the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin. But long before Ovechkin lit up the rinks of the NHL, the “OV” nickname was applied to a trio of three star players for the San Jose Sharks who were combined together for one magical season. Two were wizard-like Soviet legends who had been linemates for over a decade together in Communist Russia; arguably they were the two best hockey players in the world who were not in the NHL for many, many years. The third was a Swede, nearly 10-years younger than the Russians, who found opportunity to be a top-line winger after coming to the Sharks via trade from the Detroit Red Wings. The last names of this trio all happened to end in the letters “ov”. Their style of play possessed an entirely high-speed, puck-on-a-string, weaving-in-and-out, European flavor to it. And for the 1993-94 NHL season, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Johan Garpenlov would combine to lead the San Jose Sharks on a playoff run for the ages, and still one of the most exciting sagas in San Jose Sharks’ history.

The San Jose Sharks were an NHL expansion team that first saw action during the 1991-92 season. Their first two years in the NHL were abysmal, going 17-58-5 in their inaugural season, followed by a second season in which they registered a mere 11-wins while going 11-71-2 in a bitterly long 84-game season. Yes, expansion had not been kind to the Sharks. And after two years with one of the worst records in NHL history, finding success in a third season would have been inconceivable to practically all hockey minds. The “OV-line” was about to show otherwise.

The first to arrive in San Jose was Johan Garpenlov, who came over via trade with the Detroit Red Wings in March of 1992 in exchange for original Shark, Bob McGill. Garpenlov had been a 5th-round 1986 draft pick of Detroit’s who had had a decent solo season with the Red Wings the year prior when he rattled off 18-goals and 22-assists; his only full season with Detroit. After the trade, Garpenlov found immediate success in San Jose, quickly becoming the team’s top winger. Garpenlov would finish up 1991-92 with 11-points (5-goals, 6-assists) in 12-games with the Sharks, and then followed up with a 66-point campaign (22-goals, 44-assists) in 1992-93, finishing second overall in Sharks team scoring. Garpenlov would merely need the right linemates to further accentuate his production. The Russians were coming.

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Johan Garpenlov was the first member of The “OV-Line” to arrive in San Jose coming over via trade with Detroit in 1992.

Igor Larionov would be claimed off of waivers by the San Jose Sharks in October 1992 from the Vancouver Canucks, but would not arrive in San Jose until late in 1993 after choosing to play a season in Switzerland to avoid losing a portion of his salary to the governing sports body, Sovintersport, in his homeland, who had allowed their Soviet players like Larionov to finally play in the NHL. Sergei Makarov, the 1989-90 Calder Trophy winning Rookie of the Year, came to the Sharks in August 1993 in a trade with the Hartford Whalers as part of compensation that saw the Sharks trade their 1st-round 1993 draft choice to the Whalers which had landed them Chris Pronger. Once Makarov arrived in San Jose, it was easy for Larionov to join his former linemate with the Sharks and return to the NHL from Switzerland.

Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov are two of the greatest hockey players in the history of the game. They represent two-thirds of the famous Soviet “KLM-Line” that led the Soviet Union to what seemed like endless international championships. Before either player arrived in the NHL, Larionov and Makarov won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988, as well as numerous medals in the World Championships, including bronze in 1985, silver in 1987, and gold medals in 1982, 1983, 1986 and 1989.

Larionov was known as the “Russian-Gretzky”, and if you ever saw him play, it was easy to see why. Larionov would win three Stanley Cups during his NHL career, while having registered 204-goals and 230-assists for 434-points in only 457-games with the Soviet Union, to go along with his 169-goals and 475-assists for 644-points in 921-NHL games. Larionov would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008, and is currently a member of the Hall’s selection committee.

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Igor Larionov, a 2008 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was known as the “Russian Gretzky” before he had even played a game in the NHL.

Sergei Makarov was the sniper of the two Soviet-born players, and did he ever put up numbers! In 519-games for the Soviet Union’s CSKA Moscow team and Traktor Chelyabinsk, Makarov scored 322-goals and 388-assists for an uncanny 710-points. During the 1980-81 season with CSKA Moscow, Makarov scored 42-goals in 49-games and added 37-assists for 79-points. Coming to the NHL as a 31-year old rookie, Makarov was named Rookie of the Year, which led to an age limit being added to the trophy. In addition to the international medals that Makarov won as a teammate with Larionov, Makarov also won Olympic silver in 1980, and World Championship gold in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1990, as well as another bronze in 1991. It is unfathomable to me that Sergei Makarov has not yet been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame himself.

Even though they were 35 and 32 years old respectively for the 1993-94 Sharks’ season, when you look at what Makarov and Larionov had accomplished all those years prior, it should be no wonder that they still had some magic left in their tanks. Combining both Russians with Garpenlov, the San Jose Sharks suddenly had one of the best first lines in the NHL. With the “OV-Line” lighting up the goal lamps, the Sharks jumped to a 59-point improvement from their horrendous 11-win 1992-93 season. And garnering a record of 33-35-16, the Sharks finished third in the Pacific Division behind the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, and earned their first playoff birth in only their third year of existence.

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The 1989-90 NHL Rookie of the Year, Sergei Makarov led the 1993-94 San Jose Sharks in scoring with 30-goals and 68-points.

The “OV-Line’s” regular season numbers were certainly impressive. At 35-years of age, Sergei Makarov led the San Jose Sharks in team scoring with 30-goals and 38-assists for 68-points in 80-games. In only 60-games played, Larionov who would turn 33 in March of that season, finished fourth overall in team scoring with 56-points (18-goals, 38-assist), averaging nearly a point per game. Garpenlov would finish in sixth place by registering 18-goals and 35-assists for 53-points. While those are all pretty good scoring numbers, it would not be until the playoffs that the “OV-Line” would be at their finest.

The opening round of the 1993-94 playoffs would feature a match up between the 82-point Sharks and the 100-point Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings had the all-time greatest hockey coach, Scotty Bowman at their helm, and were fueled by the likes Sergei Fedorov (56-goals, 120-points), Ray Sheppard (52-goals, 93-points), Steve Yzerman (28-goals, 82-points in only 58-games) and Paul Coffey (63-assists, 77-points). Not to mention that the Red Wings had seven other players on their roster who hit double digits for goal scoring. The vast majority thought that the rocket-powered Red Wings would make short work of the upstart Sharks. The total opposite would happen.

The Sharks would take the Red Wings through the complete 7-game series. The “OV-Line” would combine for 21-points as a unit in 7-games. Larionov led the way with 10-points (2-goals, 8-assists), while Makarov blasted away 6-goals in the series to total all of his points for the opening round, and Garpenlov would tally 2-goals and 3-assists. The “OV-Line” put the Red Wings “to bed”, completely stunning Detroit who were poised to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup that season. No one would have surmised an outcome such as that. The Red Wings actually outscored the Sharks in the series, registering 27 markers while San Jose put up 21. The difference seeming to be the Sharks tenacity and relentless play, especially led by the worldly experienced Makarov and Larionov.

As they moved into the second round of the playoffs, the San Jose Sharks seemed unstoppable. Next they would scare the living daylights out of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And while the Leafs would win the series, it would take another 7-games to stifle the Sharks, and Toronto would escape amongst the narrowest of margins, needing a 3-2 overtime victory in Game Six to come from behind in the series, and then a hard fought 4-2 victory in Game Seven to finally be rid of San Jose; the Sharks having at one point been ahead in the series 3-games to 2. The “OV-Line” would continue to score in abundance in the second round against Toronto. Larionov would lead the way again with 8-points in 7-games (3-goals, 5-assists), while Garpenlov would tally another 5-points (2-goals, 3-assists) and Makarov would be kept to 4-points (2-goals, 2-assists). While Larionov and Garpenlov would score with some regularity, the difference in the series may have been the Maple Leafs shutting down the goal scoring of Sergei Makarov. Although Makarov registered 2-goals and 2-assists, all four of those points came in Game Five of the series, while the Leafs kept Sergei off the board for the other six games. Regardless of the second round loss, the San Jose Sharks did their damage against the Leafs. Meeting the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals, Toronto was gassed from their seven game battle with the Sharks and would fall to Vancouver in 5-games.

All in all, the “OV-Line” tallied an astounding 38-points as a line in 14-playoff games. Though they did not make it past the second round of the playoffs, Sergei Makarov still finished 10th place overall in playoff goal scoring for the 1994 playoffs, while Igor Larionov would finish tied for 7th place in playoff assists and 9th for points. In fact, through his first two rounds of the playoffs, Larionov would tally the same amount of points (18) as eventual playoff scoring leader and playoff MVP, Brian Leetch, would have through his own first two rounds.

Sadly, the “OV-Line” would be very short lived. Though San Jose’s playoff success would be repeated the following season in 1994-95, the line would be broken up permanently after a March 1995 trade saw Johan Garpenlov sent to the Florida Panthers. 1994-95 would be Sergei Makarov’s last season in San Jose, becoming an assistant coach for the Russian national team for 1995-96. Igor Larionov would have many more superb seasons in the NHL, playing until the age of 43 and winning Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

Though they played together for only one full season, the “OV-Line” should not be forgotten. They brought excitement, history and winning ways to a brand new franchise in a non-traditional hockey market. They were pure fun to watch; plain and simple. And they demonstrated one of those enjoyable rarities in sports; the aged underdogs rising up and defeating the heavily favored powerhouses. Makar-OV, Larion-OV, and Garpenl-OV – they were truly a line for the ages.

Andy Moog: not to be overlooked

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A 3-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers, Andy Moog is too often overlooked for his accomplishments on the ice.

In front of him during his 18 NHL seasons was a long list of Hall of Fame caliber teammates. Gretzky. Messier. Fuhr. Kurri. Bourque. Recchi. Neely. Modano. Nieuwendyk. So many other names, that the 1990 Jennings Trophy and 3-time Stanley Cup winning goalie, Andy Moog, often gets overlooked. Closing in on twenty years since his last NHL game, Moog’s accomplishments to the game of hockey are nearly forgotten. This is a shame in my eyes. Not only because Moog was always one of my favorite goaltenders, but also because I believe his achievements are noteworthy. The argument could even be made that what Moog did on the ice should make him a consideration for Hall of Fame candidacy.

I will focus on a couple of key numbers. First, and perhaps the most remarkable – Andy Moog was the second fastest goaltender in NHL history to record 300-wins. It took Moog only until his 543rd game to reach this feat. The only goaltender that did it faster was the great Jacques Plante. But what makes this achievement so much more significant is the fact that Moog never played more than 62-games in a season, and only 5-times did he play at least 50-games in a season during his 18-year run. Plante, on the other hand, had 9-seasons of at least 50-games played, including the 1961-62 season when he suited up for all 70 of Montreal’s games (Plante also played in 69 of 70 games of the 1959-60 NHL season).

Take a look at a few particular contemporaries of Moog’s that are also members of the 300-win club. Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph, Eddie Belfour. All five goaltenders played during the same era as Moog, have at least 300-wins and in some cases well over 400-wins (Brodeur leading the pack with an astonishing 691), and all had at least one season where they played in 70 or more games. Moog still reached 300 career wins faster than any of them. Of these same contemporaries, only Brodeur and Hasek have better career win percentages than Moog; Andy having won 52.17% of his career regular season games. No matter how you splice it, to recognize that Moog was able to hit this milestone faster than anyone else except for one other goaltender, and in less games, has to count for something.

The other number that I would like to pinpoint about Andy Moog is career appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not only did Moog win three Stanley Cups during the Edmonton Oilers dynasty years (Moog was a member of Edmonton’s championship teams in 1984, 1985 and 1987), but he also played in the Finals on three other occasions. In fact, between 1983 through 1990, only two years did a team make it to the Stanley Cup Finals that did not have Andy Moog as one of their goaltenders. Only former teammate Grant Fuhr equaled that task of six Finals appearances during the same time period. Fuhr and Moog being teammates for the first four Finals series together in Edmonton (1983, 1984, 1985, 1987), and then adversaries for the later two (1988 and 1990). Moog tended goal for a total of 15 Stanley Cup Finals games, and although his record in those games played is not ideal (3-wins, 10-losses), Moog still has his name inscribed on the Cup three times as a player.

How quickly he surmounted 300 career wins and the number of appearances in the Finals are what I find to be most impressive about Moog’s NHL career. But most certainly, there are other numbers of Andy’s that can be looked at and appreciated. Fast approaching twenty years since his last NHL game, Moog still sits at 15th place for all-time career wins with 372. That is more wins than Hockey Hall of Fame enshrined goalies Gump Worsley, Harry Lumley, Billy Smith, Bernie Parent or Ken Dryden.

Playing during a time period when goal scoring was at its most prolific, Moog still possesses a solid career save percentage. In 713 regular season games, Moog finished his career with a .892 save-percentage. You have to take into consideration that this number was attained throughout seasons when opposing players like Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux were scoring over 80-goals a season, and Bernie Nicholls, Teemu Selanne, and Alexander Mogilny were surpassing the 70-goal plateau (obviously I did not count Moog’s teammates during a portion of this era, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri who put up astronomical numbers themselves).

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In between the pipes for the Boston Bruins, Andy Moog would win the Jennings Trophy with Rejean Lemelin for fewest goals allowed during the regular season.

Andy Moog was also an NHL All-Star in 1985 and 1986 when both he and Grant Fuhr were selected together as goaltending teammates, as well as selections in 1991 and 1997. In an era before NHL players were allowed to play in the Winter Olympics, Andy Moog shared the goaltending duties for Team Canada during the 1988 Calgary Olympics and helped lead Canada to a fourth-place finish, after he decided to leave the NHL briefly in 1987 to play for the Canadian national team. These are just a couple other achievements of Moog’s that I feel are worth noting.

This is what often happens when you play on great teams. Superb players like Andy Moog fall into the backdrop. In Edmonton, there were just too many great names during those dynasty teams and everybody remembers Grant Fuhr as the cornerstone in goal. Moog gets forgotten. Especially because Fuhr became the frontrunner in net for the Oilers, and at best for Andy, he and Fuhr were a tandem; it was never really the case that Moog was the number one guy while the Oilers were winning Cups; it was either Fuhr or the duties were shared.

In Boston, Moog’s heroics were kept out of the limelight by the accolades achieved by Bruin superstars Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, not to mention the fact that once again the goaltender duties were shared concurrently with Rejean Lemelin, although this time Moog had the edge towards being number one. Then in Dallas and in Montreal, Moog was certainly the number one goalie, but it was achieved during the final leg of his long career. Moog put up very solid numbers with both the Stars and the Canadiens, but I think arguably his best years in the game had already been played by that point.

Yes, this is what happens when you play on great teams. I think Ken Dryden experienced it in Montreal playing behind Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey and all those great Habs players. I think that Chris Osgood can also relate from his time with the Detroit Red Wings teams of the late-90s and 2000s. Most people do not even know that Osgood is in eleventh place on the all time wins list by a goaltender and that he reached the 400-mark.

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In his final NHL season, Andy Moog suited up for the Montreal Canadiens.

I hope that in writing this I can at least draw some attention back to Andy Moog and what he accomplished during his NHL career. Do not overlook him. I remember seeing Andy in net in Buffalo at the old Aud on November 15th, 1995 when he was with the Dallas Stars. The Sabres won the game 2-1 (it was also the same night that “The French Connection’s” jerseys were retired in unison), but Moog turned in a decent 17-save performance for a 0.895 save-percentage that evening. Sitting in the stands with my father, I felt fortunate that I was getting to see Andy Moog play in person. I hope that anyone else who got to witness him play, whether as a fan, teammate, rival, coach, or official, feels at least a little privileged to have seen Moog play. Or at the very least, is able to recognize that they were witnessing a player who was better than most. Not to be overlooked.

A few words with: Kirill Safronov

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Kirill Safronov, an aspiring young defenseman during the early years of the Atlanta Thrashers.

About five years ago I got in touch with former NHL defenseman Kirill Safronov. At the time, Safronov was in the first of parts of three seasons with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Since that time Kirill and I have remained in contact. Having retired from professional hockey after the 2014-15 KHL season, Kirill is still quite busy and very actively involved in hockey. I thought it would be nice to reach out to my old friend again, and share a bit of his story from the time that he had spent in the NHL, and what led him to the rinks of the North America.

Safronov was born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia; one of the most beautiful cities in the world (I spent two weeks there in the mid-2000s, and the beauty and culture that are found there are like no other). At the age of five, Kirill began playing hockey. Living in a 2-bedroom apartment with his parents, grandparents, and a dog, there were outdoor hockey rinks to be found in nearly every park of the neighborhood where Kirill grew up. Parents used to do all of the ice work for their children, cleaning the surfaces and freshening it with water. The first team that Kirill played on was called “Titan”, and it was where he took his first steps on the ice; the Soviet Union in 1986.

Fast forward ahead about 10-years or so, and Safronov is playing for the Russian National U-16 team; this was when Kirill first found aspirations of playing in the NHL. Playing for the Russian national team, Kirill traveled a lot and was able to speak with multiple NHL scouts. Safronov had a leg up on many of his peers, as he was readily able to converse with scouts; Kirill’s English was always very good, as his grandmother, an English teacher herself, taught him to the point where he became very proficient in the language. Something that certainly helps when conversing with NHL scouts.

Safronov would find great success while playing for the Russian national team, most notably at the 1999 World Junior Championships held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Team Russia would win the Gold Medal in a 3-2 overtime victory against host nation Canada. Safronov was one of numerous players on the Russian team who would eventually play in the NHL, including Roman Lyashenko, Vitali Vishnevski, Denis Shvidki, Denis Arkhipov, Maxim Afinogenov, Petr Schastlivy, and the game winning goal scorer, Artem Chubarov. In seven tournament games, Kirill recorded 2-assists and was a plus-5.

The gold medal in January 1999 was just the beginning of a great year for Safronov. That June, Kirill would be a first-round draft choice of the Phoenix Coyotes; nineteenth overall, and the Coyotes second pick of that draft. The 1999 draft was a considerably deep draft, as it was also the same draft which saw the Sedin twins be chosen by Vancouver, as well as longtime NHL mainstays like Nick Boynton, Ryan Miller, Henrik Zetterberg, Radim Vrbata, Martin Havlat, Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold, Mike Comrie, Craig Anderson, and numerous other players get drafted by NHL teams; many of whom are still playing in the NHL today. Safronov, being taken as early as he was in the opening round, would be drafted ahead of many of these players. Kirill shared with me that “it was great to be drafted, especially in the 1st-round. I felt, and was told by the management that I would play in the NHL for many years. It was amazing for a young man from Russia to come to the USA in the early-2000s and see a different life”.

After he was drafted by Phoenix, Kirill went to his first NHL camp at 18-years of age. In order to adjust both to life and to hockey in North America, Coyotes management felt it would be best that at the completion of training camp that Safronov be sent to a junior team. Safronov’s first season in North America would be with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the 1999-00 season. Safronov would have a great first year, leading the Remparts in scoring amongst defensemen with 11-goals and 32-assists for 43-points in 55-games. The Remparts would make it to the second round of the playoffs, where they would lose a hard fought, 7-game series to the Moncton Wildcats. Safronov would finish the Remparts 11-game playoff run with a pair of goals and 4-assists.

After one year in junior, Kirill Safronov began his professional hockey debut in the American Hockey League with the Coyotes’ affiliate at the time, the Springfield Falcons. With the Falcons, Kirill would play his first two full seasons in North America. Both seasons in Springfield, Safronov and the Falcons would miss the playoffs but Kirill would garner valuable playing experience under coaches Marc Potvin, Norm Maciver and Brad Shaw; the latter two having been highly accomplished NHL defensemen themselves prior to beginning their coaching careers.

It was during his second season of professional hockey that Safronov would receive his first taste of the NHL during a December 23rd, 2001 call up by the Coyotes. Kirill recalls, “My first NHL game was a nightmare. I was very nervous…”. The game would be a 4-0 loss against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in Phoenix. Kirill would play just over a mere 6-minutes in the game, and ended up as a minus-2. Definitely a tough first start in the league. This would end up being the one and only game that Safronov ever played for the Coyotes, the team that had initially drafted him. A few months later, at the March 19th, 2002 NHL trade deadline for that season, Safronov was shipped to the Atlanta Thrashers along with Ruslan Zaynullin and a 4th-round pick in the 2002 draft in exchange for Darcy Hordichuk and 4th and 5th-round draft picks. It would be in Atlanta that Safronov found his groove and have his longest stay in the NHL.

During the 2001-02 season, Kirill Safronov ended up playing professional hockey in four different cities; Springfield, Phoenix, and after a trade, two games in Atlanta with the NHL’s Thrashers and their AHL minor league affiliate Chicago-based team, the Wolves. While Safronov would only play two more NHL games that season, both of which were losses for the Thrashers that came at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils, his ice-time improved to over the 20-minute mark. But perhaps more importantly for his experience level in North American professional hockey, Safronov was able to be part of a Calder Cup championship run with the Wolves, appearing in all 25-playoff games as the Thrashers affiliate would capture the second oldest trophy in professional hockey, after the Stanley Cup.

The Wolves were a collection of some of professional hockey’s golden oldies; former NHL sniper Rob Brown leading the way, along with other over-30 players like Steve Maltais, Dallas Eakins, Guy Larose and longtime minor leaguer Bob Nardella. You probably could not assemble a better grouping of veteran players for Kirill’s tutelage.

Coming off of that Calder Cup championship, the 2002-03 season would see Kirill Safronov make his big break in the NHL. Though they suffered a number of losses along the way, the ’02-’03 Thrashers were a helluva fun team to watch, as they possessed two of the best young snipers in the game; Dany Heatley, who would rattle off 41-goals that season, and Safronov’s fellow countryman, Ilya Kovalchuk, who would net 38 himself that season. The Thrashers were very young and very Russian. With Kovalchuk leading the way on offense, veteran presence came from 30-year old, two-time Stanley Cup champion Slava Kozlov, as well as forward Yuri Butsayev, and Kirill himself. The three other Russians were Safronov’s closest friends on the team, and Kirill would end up suiting up for 32-games that season for Atlanta.

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During Atlanta’s 2002-03, Safronov was one of four Russian-born players who helped bring excitement to the NHL’ newly founded Thrashers franchise.

Kirill’s first NHL goal would be scored October 19th, 2002 in a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders in Atlanta. He would add a second goal in March coming in a victory against the Predators in Nashville. On the whole, Safronov would finish the 2002-03 season with 2-goals and 2-assists, and would average over 15-minutes of ice time per game.

Despite this fair amount of success with the Thrashers, Kirill Safronov would play just one more season of professional hockey in North America – but this final season would definitely be another successful one and an exciting one. Though he would begin 2003-04 with the Thrashers’ affiliate the Wolves, a December 2nd 2003 trade would see Kirill become property of the Nashville Predators along with Simon Gamache in exchange for Ben Simon and Tomas Kloucek; the irony being that Safronov’s last NHL goal had come against the Predators. Safronov would never actually suit up for the Predators, as he was assigned to their AHL affiliate team, the Milwaukee Admirals.

Though not in the NHL, Kirill and his new teammates would enjoy a most prosperous season in which the Admirals would make a run for the Calder Cup, and Safronov would thus win his second American Hockey League championship. Despite coming over late in the season, Safronov would still finish third amongst defensemen in scoring for the Admirals, and he would play in all but one playoff game during their championship run. The champion Admirals were a very diverse group of players, comprised with the likes of 37-year old Stanley Cup champion Tony Hrkac, 6’4″ and 240lbs. Latvian monster Raitis Ivanans, 35-year old journeyman netminder Wade Flaherty, and up-and-coming youngsters like Scottie Upshall, Vernon Fiddler, and fellow Russian Timofei Shishkanov; Shishkanov being one of the few players from his North American days that Safronov still remains in touch with. The Admirals were a fun, unique team that won the championship despite any variance in the players’ backgrounds.

The NHL lockout would come for the 2004-05 season, and Kirill Safronov would find himself back in Russia playing for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Voskresensk Khimik during the stoppage in NHL play. Unfortunately, it was also during this time that Kirill’s father would become ill with cancer. With no offers to return to the NHL, and the more important need of taking care of his family, Kirill would accept a 3-year offer to play for his hometown Saint Petersburg SKA so that he could continue his professional career and be close with his family. Quite sadly, Kirill’s father would pass away from his illness a year after he started playing hockey with SKA.

Starting with the 2005-06 season, Kirill would play a total of 10 seasons in his native Russia, 5 seasons of which were with St. Petersburg SKA. Upon completion of the 2014-15 KHL season, Safronov would hang up his skates for good, at least as a professional hockey player. Injuries and age had hampered his knee, despite training very hard from month to month to keep in game shape. Though there were offers from various European leagues, Safronov decided to let go of playing professional hockey. Kirill is still very much involved in hockey these days, and keeps himself plenty busy. Safronov finished his degree in sports management at Lesgaft University in Saint Petersburg, and also received his agent’s license. Kirill also does some television work as a hockey analyst and expert, and serves as Vice-President for a kids hockey team called “Red Star” in Saint Petersburg as well. He will skate three nights a week in a recreational league, and finds that nowadays he often works from 7:30AM until late in the evening. Kirill told me that “thanks to hockey in my life to give me a strong character and a will to win”.

KHL Season 2009/10
Safronov skating with Saint Petersburg SKA.

Though Kirill Safronov’s NHL career may have been brief, he still had remarkable success in North America by winning two Calder Cup championships. Not to mention the fact that Safronov found international success by winning a gold medal in the World Junior championships. In addition to being an accomplished hockey player, Kirill is one of the nicest guys I know, and I thank him greatly for sharing his story with me. All the best to you, Kirill!

 

From Russia with Might: Liudmila Belyakova

Belyakova leading the rush
Liudmila Belyakova #9 leading the rush out of the Riveters zone against the Buffalo Beauts.

At just 21-years of age, Liudmila Belyakova is the youngest player in the National Women’s Hockey League, and is just one of two Russian born players in the newly established American women’s professional hockey league. Liudmila is also my favorite player!

Despite being the youngest, Belyakova brings a long list of achievements that even many veteran players do not have on their respective résumés. As a member of the Russian women’s national hockey team, Belyakova has played in 92-games, while registering 34-goals and 22-assists. She was a candidate for 2010 Russian Olympic team at the Vancouver Games, and was tagged as a first replacement for Team Russia at the 2014 Games in Sochi. In 2013, Belyakova helped lead Russia to the bronze medal in the Women’s World Championships which were held in Ottawa that year; in six tournament games she notched 1-goal. But perhaps most impressive on the international stage was Belyakova’s paving the way for Team Russia to the gold medal in the 2011 Women’s U18 Division-I Championships – there she scored an unfathomable 11-goals in 5-games of the tournament, and added another 5-assists to lead the entire tournament in scoring. Liudmila would be voted as the “Best Player” and “Best Scorer” of the tournament. It would be remiss not to mention that Belyakova’s U18 international career saw her record 30-goals and 11-assists in 28-games; better than a goal-per-game(!).

Those accolades at such a young age are truly remarkable! But what I notice about Belyakova on the ice is not so much her scoring prowess, but how sound she is in her own zone. I do not know if I have ever seen another female player backcheck with the same amount of responsibility that Belyakova exudes. Belyakova never takes a shift off, and when the puck is in her own zone she is readily found defending in front of her team’s net in the thick of the action. Yes, in the game of hockey this is the job of the center – to backcheck and assist the defense. But when Belyakova is on the ice for the New York Riveters, it is virtually like having three defenders and three forwards on the ice at the same time. A number of forwards will fall to the habit of “cherry-picking” and shirking their defensive responsibilities; Belyakova is the total opposite. There is not a time when she is on the ice and the puck is in the Riveters’ zone that Belyakova can be found out of place.

Belyakova on the draw
Liudmila Belyakova preparing to take the face-off for the New York Riveters in a January 31st, 2016 game against the Buffalo Beauts.

I enjoy making comparisons between up and coming players like Liudmila Belyakova and players of the past or present. Liudmila is so strong; it is noticeable in her build and her physical attributes, and you can see it specifically when she fights for a loose puck or picks up her assignment on an opposing player. As I watch Belyakova skate on the ice today, I begin to draw comparisons in my mind to another great Russian player, Sergei Nemchinov. Like Belyakova, Nemchinov was a remarkably strong player physically, who could turn on the offense when needed, but at the same time be responsible in his own end. It was what led Nemchinov to win two Stanley Cups; one in 1994 with the New York Rangers, as one of the first Russian-born players to have his name engraved on the Cup, and then a second Cup championship in 2000 with the New Jersey Devils. Perhaps the irony being that Nemchinov, and now Belyakova, found/are finding success in “The Big Apple”.

The fact that Liudmila Belyakova is able to transition so easily between forward and defense reminds me off another great Sergei – Sergei Fedorov. Though it is early in her professional career, and it will be interesting to see if Belyakova’s scoring capabilities grow into the likes of Fedorov’s, there is no doubt in my mind that she is able to switch from “O” to “D” just as cleanly as Fedorov did. This is perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of Belyakova’s game to watch. As I said, it is almost like you have three defenders and three forwards on one shift together anytime that Belyakova is on the ice; she just moves that flawlessly; appearing that she is in two places at the same time.

As I see her skate onto the ice after each intermission, I notice that she does a choppy, deliberate skate-step-skate-step-skate onto the ice; a bit of a shuffle. This tells me that Belyakova is an individual and unique. Not only are those the types of players who are a sincere pleasure to watch, but they also seem to be what the really great players grow and develop from. Wouldn’t it be remarkable for the New York Riveters if Liudmila Belyakova grows into another Nemchinov or Fedorov?!

Belyakova breakout
A Belyakova breakout from the Riveters’ zone.

Belyakova’s international numbers certainly demonstrate that she has the offensive capabilities that the greatest players possessed, including Fedorov. Then combine the fact that she is so sound defensively and so physically strong – the outcome is that the New York Riveters have a young lady whom they are only now just seeing a glimpse of her potential.

It is my sincere hope that after this inaugural season of the NWHL comes to a close, that fans, players, coaches, and owners, will be able to reflect on the year and notice that their league has potential to blossom into greatness. Much the same way that their budding young stars like Liudmila Belyakova possess too – the best is still to come. I am overfilled with eagerness to see what Liudmila is going to accomplish in her professional career, and my hope is that she will help the league to continue to be the place where professional women hockey players aspire to be. Belyakova is a hockey player that fans of the game will marvel at for years to come.

liudmila and nate
Liudmila and I before the start of the Riveters game; amazing person, amazing hockey player!