“Virta with a bouncing puck, watched by Middleton. Ahead to Cyr. Back it goes to Virta. In front… Andreychuk… the rebound… DAVIS!… Mal DAVIS!! On the rebound, and Buffalo takes the lead 7 to 6! Holy mackerel!!”. The voice of legendary Buffalo Sabres broadcaster Rick Jeanneret bellowed over the play. The Boston Bruins had once been leading the game 6 to 1 in front of what would become an absolutely raucous crowd at Buffalo’s venerable Memorial Auditorium on February 25th, 1983. Number-25, Mal Davis, would cap off the greatest comeback in Buffalo Sabres history, scoring the game winner with just minutes remaining in the game to send the Buffalo faithful home happy.
Malcolm Sterling Davis was born October 10th, 1956 in Lockeport, Nova Scotia. But in the USA, they called him Mal. In Canada, he goes by Mac. In Nova Scotia, it’s either Mac or Malcom. In Finland, they call him Malli. “Sometimes people just shout a name that starts with ‘M’ and I answer them”, Davis tells me, laughing.
Though they would live in Lockeport for 2-years, there is a Davis family legend that the house overlooking Cranberry Island was so cold that some water leaked onto the floor once and 2-year old Mal was sliding on it from one side of the kitchen to the other. Davis’ father who was a teacher would move the family from Lockeport to Tidnish, Nova Scotia. And while Mal’s father would take different teaching jobs throughout his career, one thing was always consistent – wherever they lived Mr. Davis would build an ice rink for Mal and the local kids in the area to play on. Mal would start playing organized hockey at the age of 12 or 13, but with the importance of sports in the Davis family, Mal would play on the outdoor rinks his father built since the age of 3.
Like a large number of Canadian kids, Mal’s hero in his younger years was the great Gordie Howe. Mal was fortunate enough to meet Howe in 1963 at an Eaton’s store promotion, and received an autographed picture from Gordie that he still has to this day. That year, Howe would score 38-goals and 48-assists for 86-points in 70-games. Howe had already scored over 1,000-points in his NHL career by that point, and had been hockey’s premier player for well over a decade. Mal’s favorite hockey team was Howe’s Detroit Red Wings, and while Mr. Hockey would play 15 more years professionally, Davis’ favorite player would soon change in dramatic fashion.
Enter legendary Soviet player and Hockey Hall of Famer, Valeri Kharlamov. In 1972 during the epic Summit Series between the best hockey players that Canada and the Soviet Union had to offer, Kharlamov was absolutely brilliant on the ice. Kharlamov would score 3-goals and 4-assists throughout 7-games in the series. Team Canada defenseman Don Awrey recalled Kharlamov by saying, “he was so fast, so hard to defend against out there. I admired the way he used to come from behind and how he kept everyone on their toes. He was simply outstanding!”. It was easy to see why young Mal Davis would become enthralled with Kharlamov and the Russian style of hockey; Mal would even wear the number-17 in honor of Kharlamov, who wore the same number. “I loved the skill of the Russians; the passing and teamwork was a joy to watch. My family loved watching them play”.
On the advice his father, as a young man Mal Davis opted to play hockey at the university level instead of going the Major Junior route. After being recruited by a number of different universities, Mal chose St. Mary’s University in Halifax as the best option for him. “(My dad) said if you are good enough and work at your game in practice, you could play at the next level; it doesn’t matter as long as you have this attitude. You could get injured playing so many junior games, and getting an education while playing will give you more options after your playing days are done”. During Mal’s three years at the university, The St. Mary’s Huskies had a solid team that were routinely ranked in the top-10 programs throughout Canada. One of Mal’s seasons at St. Mary’s included an appearance in the national finals, where the Huskies unfortunately fell to the University of Alberta.
After playing three years at St. Mary’s, Mal wanted to garner some attention at the pro level and sought out an opportunity to go to a professional camp. Former Boston Bruin and coach for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey Association, Wayne Maxner, was able to get Mal a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings. Maxner would go on to actually coach Mal in the Red Wings organization within only a few years. For a young player who grew up following the Wings and cheering for Gordie Howe, it must have been a real life dream come true. Davis would be offered a pro contract right out of camp, and although it would be a challenging transition for him, he would be on the cusp of attaining regular success at the pro level.
“My first year of pro was tough (1978-79). First the rookie camp; then the main camp. I changed my position from center to rightwing, and had a good camp. (Detroit legend and Hockey Hall of Famer) Ted Lindsay offered me a contract and I signed. Paid off all my student loans, so life was good”. Mal would be assigned to Detroit’s CHL affiliate, the Kansas City Red Wings, and would just explode on the score sheets. Mal would lead Kansas City in scoring with 44-goals and 66-points; good enough for second overall in goal-scoring and seventh overall in points for the entire Central League. “Ted Nolan and I were rookies on this team. The CHL was a good skating league, but the first month of the season was tough. All teams tested each other, so there were a lot of fights and brawls… We had a good coach in Larry Wilson, and he told me what I needed to work on. Skating and shooting were my strong points, but my overall pro game needed work”. Mal had plenty of help adjusting and building his pro game, as Kansas City was laden with NHL veterans. 38-year old veteran and 5-time Stanley Cup champion Terry Harper, netminder Ron Low, J.P. LeBlanc, and Larry Wright were all teammates of Mal’s during that first year.
Mal’s immediate success in Kansas City would see a call up to the parent Red Wings in December 1978. Davis’ first NHL game would be at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium against none other than the Montreal Canadiens, who were in the middle of a four-year run of consecutive Stanley Cup championships. At this point in the junction, there was a sense that Mal’s great start in Kansas City would not immediately carry over into the NHL game. “I missed some chances to score but otherwise I realized that to get to the next level, it wasn’t going to be easy. I was sent back down after 5-games”. Mal would spend the remainder of the season in Kansas City.
The 1979-80 season would see Mal with Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings. Once again, Mal’s numbers were superb – 34-goals to lead the Wings in goal-scoring and good enough to tie for ninth overall in the AHL. Mal’s 65-points placed him second overall in scoring for Adirondack, and his 2-goals and 2-assists in 5-playoff games during the Red Wings’ first round exit at the hands of the New Brunswick Hawks would tie for the team lead in playoff scoring. While this sophomore season would be a fine one by any standards, it would be the 1980-81 season that to Mal would seem magical.
While Mal could not capitalize against the Habs during his first NHL game, he would not miss the opportunity during the second go-round when he would face them early into the 1980-81 season. “I scored my first NHL goal against Montreal at the Forum in November”. Mal had found an early roster spot in Detroit’s lineup, which would see him register 2-goals in 5-games with the “Winged Wheels” and be at a plus-5 during the season’s early games. Despite the early output, Mal’s stay in Detroit would not be for long. “That season was interesting. I was playing good in Detroit, but the team was not winning. I was told to find a place to stay (in Detroit) but the Red Wings management and coaches Ted Lindsay and Bobby Kromm were fired, and I was sent back to Adirondack. My first game back I broke my wrist against Maine and was 16 weeks in a cast”.
While to most the demotion to Adirondack and the upheaval in the organization, not to mention the broken wrist, would seem like a serious streak of bad luck for Mal, it would also appear that the proverbial cloud would have a silver lining once he returned to Adirondack. While Detroit was doing their restructuring, they moved a lot of their veteran players down to Adirondack. Veteran players that had won Stanley Cups and had played in nearly every situation imaginable. Veteran players that could still win. Mal rattled off the names of his new Adirondack teammates; “(Pete) Mahovlich, (George) Lyle, (Dennis) Polonich, (Bill) Hogaboam, (Tom) Bladon, (Greg) Joly, (Dan) Bolduc, (Dave) Hanson, (Wayne) Wood, along with myself, (Ted) Nolan, (Jody) Gage, and a great co-coaches in Tom Webster and J.P. LeBlanc. We had a contender”. Amongst that group, Mahovlich had already been a four-time Stanley Cup champion with Montreal, while Tom Bladon had won two Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers. These were NHL players, some of whom may have been on their last legs, but they still had their winning ways.
After eliminating the Binghamton Whalers and the Hershey Bears in 6-games each in the earlier rounds, Davis and the Red Wings would face the Maine Mariners in the Calder Cup Finals. “Maine had been dominating physically in the league that year but we had a tougher team with more skill. I had 6-goals in the final six games of the playoff run. Played on good line too with Ted Nolan and Bill Hogaboam”. The Calder Cup is the second oldest trophy awarded in professional hockey after the Stanley Cup, and by no means is it a simple task to attain. Especially when considering the Mariners were the number one team overall in the AHL’s Northern Conference, and possessed NHL caliber talent in the likes of Bruce Crowder, Thomas Eriksson, Blake Wesley, Lindsay Carson, and the late great Pelle Lindbergh in goal. Despite a 10-1 spanking by the Mariners at home in Game Four of the series, the Red Wings would clinch the Calder Cup within 6-games, outscoring Maine by 22-goals to 19. “Winning the Calder Cup in Adirondack was not easy, and the area celebrated for week or so with a parade . It is so hard to win a championship at any pro level; things have to fall in place. And for a team that barely made the playoffs it was a highlight of my career, so far”.
Mal’s career was about to blossom into further success, as he would soon leave the Red Wings organization and move onto the Buffalo Sabres. Mal had become a free agent after the 1980-81 Calder Cup winning season, and upon signing with the Sabres, would be assigned to their AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans for the 1981-82 season. That season’s edition of the Amerks was potent offensively, and under the guidance of legendary coach “Iron Mike” Keenan, Mal would finish sixth overall in team scoring with 65-points in 75-games, and fourth overall in goal-scoring for Rochester by finding the net 32-times.
This was only the beginning though, as the best years in Rochester were yet to come for Mal. The 1982-83 AHL season would see Mal win the Calder Cup for the second time in his career and first time with Rochester. Though after putting up stellar point totals during the regular season with 43-goals and 32-assists for 75-points in only 57-games, Mal would be called up to the Sabres for their own playoff run and would not be part of the Amerks run to the Calder Cup. In his return to the NHL that season, Mal would suit up for 24-regular season games in “the blue and gold”, and register 20-points (8-goals, 12-assists); his most productive time in the NHL until that point. And while the Sabres would lose in a heart breaking second round Game-Seven loss to the Boston Bruins in the NHL playoffs, Mal’s Rochester teammates with Keenan at the helm would take the Calder Cup in 16-games, including a 4-game sweep of the Mariners in the Finals. Meanwhile, Mal had appeared in 6 of Buffalo’s 10 playoff games and contributed a lone goal. Mal Davis may not have been on the Amerks bench when they won the championship that season, but his contributions during the regular season certainly helped place them in great standing for the playoffs.
Coinciding with his call-up to Buffalo, Mal had been the vital cog in the aforementioned greatest comeback in Buffalo Sabres history. After being down to Boston 6 to 1 already into the second period of the game, the Sabres mounted a most unlikely comeback against the Bruins. Mal and former Red Wings teammates Dale McCourt, Mike Foligno and Brent Peterson all contributed to the comeback, as well as the Sabres newly claimed youth movement in Dave Andreychuk, Paul Cyr and Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Housley. “I was on a line that night with Andreychuk and Cyr, and we were minus-3 after the second period. We scored early in the third and the momentum really swung our way. We tied it up (on a goal by Andreychuk), and late in the game I came in late on the play and slid the puck past Ray Bourque for the winner. That year I had two game winning goals versus the Bruins late in the game. (For the comeback game) the good thing was Scotty Bowman stayed with us and kept putting us out there. I didn’t feel I was one of Scotty’s favorites, but I do respect him for the fact he had me on the ice late in the game”.
Mal Davis would spend three more years in the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, playing primarily in Rochester but receiving call-ups to Buffalo each season. A lot of positive things happened during those three years, including arguably Mal’s finest professional season in 1983-84 when in 71-games for the Amerks he would score 55-goals and 48-assists to eclipse the 100-point plateau. Mal would also lead the way to a second in a row Calder Cup Finals appearance against Maine with 15-points in 15 of the Amerks 18 playoff games. Unfortunately, Mal and the Amerks would lose this time to the Mariners, 4-games to 1. But because of his season-long heroics, Mal would be the recipient of the Les Cunningham Award for that season, presented to the AHL’s Most Valuable Player.
In thinking back on this season in particular, and his career as a whole in both Rochester and Buffalo, Mal recalls his professional moments in Western New York quite fondly. “Some of my fondest memories are being named the captain of the Rochester Americans, being part of Calder Cup team in ’83 and then making the Finals in ’84. We had great coaches in Mike Keenan, Joe Crozier, and John Van Boxmeer. The fans in the upstate area were great to me on and off the ice. The MVP award was special, considering all the good players that went on to play in the NHL and the AHL. Those were great years to be a hockey player playing for that organization. A very classy bunch from the owners on down… I played around 89-games with Buffalo; not always a regular shift but I cherish those memories, and it’s great that it is easier to remember games when you only have 100 at the NHL level”.
After the 1985-86 season, Mal would make a dramatic change in his career and pursued the opportunity to play overseas in Finland for the Finnish Elite League. The Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans had a vast array of talented Finnish players, including stalwart defenseman Hannu Virta, as well as Kai Suikkanen, Heikki Leime and Timo Jutila. Having played with these players on an ongoing basis and forming friendships, it was easy to see why Mal might try an opportunity to play in the homeland of his friends and teammates. According to Mal, “Hannu Virta and Hiekki Leime were two Finns that I knew who were part of the Buffalo Organization. I had given my best shot at making the NHL on a regular basis. I felt that I needed a change, and maybe the bigger ice surface would make it easier for me to protect myself. My last year in between Buffalo and Rochester, I had a bad head/neck injury, and I felt that if I wanted to continue playing, that maybe playing less games and on a bigger surface might be the way to go”.
With continuing to put up stellar offensive numbers with his new team, TPS Turku, Mal found that the style of Finnish hockey was much more to his liking and truly suited to his style. In fact, it was so much closer to the style of play that Mal had seen exuded by his hero, Valeri Kharlamov, and those great Soviet-era hockey teams. In responding to my question about playing in Finland, Mal shared with me that “the hockey there was better than expected. It was more a puck possession game, and I felt it was a better brand of hockey; stressing teamwork within 5-man units. The ‘dump and chase’ hockey (found in North America ) didn’t work over there. I loved playing there, but I also saw a lot of North American players that played in the NHL that couldn’t adapt to the new style”.
Mal would have only brief difficulty in adapting, and would eventually average nearly a point per game. Across his five seasons in Finland, Mal would score 115-goals in only 184-points, and his assist totals would raise him up to 174-points for his Finnish career. “It was hard for me at first but I learned to be more patient when shooting and smarter using your speed. If they had counted rebound and second assists in Finland, I would have led the league in scoring (laughs). Most of the players I played with over there had a good skill set so I found it better for my style; I didn’t have to carry the team in scoring goals and assists, as with other countries in Europe. The Finns can play hockey and a lot of their game is based on the team concept”, Mal recalled. Davis was known amongst the Finns to have a hard snap and wrist shot, which only further empowered his capabilities on the ice.
With great surroundings culturally and geographically, as well as being able to play with some very talented teammates including Virta and Leime, as well as former Edmonton Oiler Steve Graves and future Buffalo Sabres draft choice goalie Markus Ketterer, Mal ended up feeling right at home. Finding a place for himself as a hockey player, Mal also looks back on his time in Finland as an experience that broadened his life as a whole. “TPS was a great organization to be a part of. I loved living in Turku; it was a special city, and most people there can speak some English. And the food was awesome! The friendships I made there will always be strong. I spent five years with TPS. We won 3 national championships together. It was a part of my life that I will never regret. I realize now that my decision to go to Europe was the best decision I have ever made; not only living in another country, but learning the cultures and seeing Europe. The city of Turku embraced me and made me feel loved. Above and beyond what I was expecting. Most of the teams in the Finnish Elite League would give an NHL team a good game. Life in Finland was awesome. And I didn’t just play hockey there; I was also teaching conversational English at the University of Turku and Abo Akademi University. Doing that (teaching English) made living there very enjoyable”.
Mal Davis’ final season of hockey would be the 1991-92 season which he would spend playing in Germany, for the Essen-West hockey club of the second-tiered German league. In 18-games, Mal would still put up some explosive numbers with 19-goals and 7-assists. Though he was still scoring, playing in Germany just was not the same for Mal as it was playing in Finland. “My last year in Essen was interesting. I missed my Finnish teammates and more was expected of me to carry the team. I always felt that I was only as good as my teammates around me. The talent wasn’t strong on that team (Essen). My career was coming to an end, and I found myself watching the clock, hoping the game would hurry up and get over. I realized it was time to retire”. Mal would liken his recognizing the time to retire to the old saying of, “my mind was writing checks that my body couldn’t cash”.
These days Mal Davis is still involved in hockey, but not as seriously. “I play a couple of times a week for exercise”. His non-hockey career finds him working as medical representative for Bayer, INC. Mal also enjoys the time that he can spend fishing and living on the ocean.
Thinking back on his career, when I ask Mal who his closest friends were out of his teammates, he has a difficult time answering; there were just so many for him. “This is a tough question, as I loved my teammates like brothers, both in North America and Europe”. He tries his best to rattle them off for me. “My favorite players I played with were Mike Ramsey (Buffalo), the late Warren Harper (Rochester), Jody Gage (Jody and Mal would spend time together in both the Detroit and Buffalo organizations, and their minor league affiliates), Gilbert Perreault (Buffalo), Claude Verret (Rochester/Buffalo), Harri Jaakola (TPS), Hannu Virta (Buffalo/Rochester/TPS), Heikki Leime (Rochester/TPS), Steve Graves (TPS) and Victor Tyumenev (TPS). My closest friends were Greg Sanford (St. Mary’s University), Mike Backman (St. Mary’s University and former New York Ranger), Ted Nolan (Adirondack), Jody Gage, Gates Orlando (Rochester/Buffalo), Geordie Robertson (Rochester)…” Mal is still close friends with both Ted Nolan and Jody Gage to this day.
In addition to the game winning goal versus Boston, Mal considers his other NHL “claim to fame” that for players who played at least 100 regular season games, no player has a better shooting percentage than he. Coming in at 25.0%, which equates to scoring a goal every four shots on net, Mal’s shooting percentage is better than the likes of Mike Bossy (21.18%), Mario Lemieux 18.99%, Jari Kurri (19.13%), Johnny Bucyk (19.09%), Peter Stastny (18.96%), and even “The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky (17.6%) – all of whom are some of the greatest goal scorers ever to play the game.
Mal Davis had an incredibly successful hockey career. In the AHL, the NHL, throughout Finland and other parts of Europe – no matter where he played, Mal brought a superb talent level to the teams he played for, and a very keen and unique mindset and skill set for the game. I felt highly inclined to interview him because I recalled him fondly from his days with the Buffalo Sabres; a childhood hero of sorts. And I do not think it is a coincidence that we both marvel at the sheer brilliance of the legendary Valeri Kharlamov. For while I am not old enough to have seen Kharlamov play live, I consider him the greatest hockey player whom I never had the privilege to see play during his actual career. DVDs of the Summit Series and the New Year’s Eve game against Montreal will have to do.
Taking my memories of Mal into consideration, it was perhaps most interesting to me to ask him what he has learned from his hockey career that he still carries with him to this day. Mal responds very scholarly, and as someone who has had a lot of wonderful experiences:
“It doesn’t matter where you come from; it is your passion for something that will determine if you will be successful. Stick to what you do best. I was a goal scorer from the start; I didn’t want to be anything else. It took me on a 15-year ride all over the world – just to play hockey. But most importantly for me was the compliments I got from former teammates; many said that I was a good team man. If I had become a defensive-forward, I may have had a short career . With regards to leadership and being a captain, leadership depends on simple human qualities. Confidence of your teammates. And this can only be gained by commanding their respect for your personal character, your sense of justice and common sense .The pride you take in being their leader will carry your team through difficult times . From my hockey career I learned that team concepts can apply to most aspects of work. I notice from time to time that most people do not understand the team concept because they have never been on a team. I always tell people, ‘at one time in my life, I had a dream job'”.
You did have a dream job, Mal – and you definitely made the most of it. Thank you.