“To tend goal for the greatest junior team ever” – Ted Tucker, former California Golden Seals and Montreal Junior Canadiens goalie

Three of them won the Stanley Cup. One is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Arguably three more should be. Six were NHL All-Star selections. Each one of them played professional hockey, whether it was in the NHL, WHA, or in the minors – they all made it to the pro level. And I am fortunate enough to have one of the two goaltenders for the 1968-69 Montreal Junior Canadiens – the team still widely considered the greatest junior hockey team of all time – to be sharing his story with me.

Edward (Ted) William Tucker was born May 7th, 1949 in Fort William, Ontario. From his earliest moments of playing street hockey or shinny, Ted Tucker wanted to be a goaltender. Beginning to play organized hockey at the age of nine, there was minimal opportunity to start the game at a younger age. “At the time that I started playing hockey, there were no Tom Thumb, Mites, or Squirts programs in my hometown. There was a small ad in our local newspaper from the Elks organization, looking for players and asking which position you preferred to play. I asked my parents if I could sign up, and right from the get-go I wanted to be a goalie”.

As a youngster, Tucker’s play between the pipes would take some time to develop, though improvement took place each year as he played. “In my first year of hockey, I was a pretty bad goalie because in 12-games I let in around 120-goals and finished in last place out of 12-teams. But in my second year we placed sixth out of the twelve, and in my final year we came in second, won the championship in the playoffs, and I won my first goaltending trophy”.

Here is where Ted’s story takes an interesting turn. Prior to the expansion of 1967, National Hockey League teams used what were called “C”-forms as a means of securing prospects for the future of their organizations. There were also “A”-forms, which committed a player to a tryout with the club, and “B”-forms which gave the team the option of signing a player in return for a bonus. But the “C”-forms were the most binding of the three forms, as they committed the professional rights of the player to that particular hockey team. “C”-forms could only be signed by the player at the age of eighteen, or by the player’s parents, often in exchange for some type pf signing bonus. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Montreal Canadiens were almost notoriously known for securing talent for their club’s future by nearly any means necessary. “After I finished Pee Wee hockey, all of the graduating players would have a choice as to what teams they wanted to try out for and play on. My dad, who did not know it at the time, offered my services to the Fort William Canadiens, who sponsored two teams in the Bantam and the Midget divisions. So I ended up signing with Fort William, a branch of the Montreal Canadiens, in exchange for a pair of goalie skates; not knowing at the time that by doing so I also became their property for life as a minor league player”. Just like that, Ted Tucker was owned by the Montreal Canadiens. The irony being, that although Tucker was now property of Montreal, his favorite hockey club as a kid was the Detroit Red Wings, particularly their superstars “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe and arguably the greatest goaltender of all time, Terry Sawchuk.

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Ted Tucker tended net for the 1968-69 Montreal Jr. Canadiens; the team believed to be the greatest junior hockey team ever assembled. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

While with Fort William, Tucker’s success would continue to build each year, winning the division and the championship his second year at the Bantam level, and then also repeating the feat with the Canadiens at the Midget level as well. Tucker won goaltender trophies in his last year with each division. His success level was strong enough to vault Tucker into four more years of Junior-A hockey with Fort William, as opposed to playing out his time in the juvenile divisions. Sharing the goaltending duties initially with the Canadiens Junior-A squad before solidifying himself as the number one through his solid play, Tucker would once more win the division for Fort William, another goaltending trophy of his own, and another championship as well.

Montreal’s Canadiens must have taken note of Tucker’s play in Fort William, and invited him to their Peterborough training camp the following year, and then sent him to their Junior Canadiens camp that same time. Tucker was faced with some decision making, as to where he wanted to play and how he would handle his schooling. “I practiced there (Junior Canadiens’ camp) for about a week and a half, and they offered me a chance to play in the Montreal Junior Metro League. I turned that down and said that I wanted to go back home and finish my grade-12, and also play more with Fort William since I was now their starter; to me, this was the right decision to make”. Though Tucker’s choice to return to the Fort William team did not secure a championship that year, it did provide him with an opportunity to have his first run at a major title. “I was picked up by the Port Arthur Marrs (named after the trucking company and their sponsor, W.H. Marr, Ltd.), and we played and lost to the Toronto Marlies 4-1 in the Memorial Cup Championship”. It would be the Marrs only shot at a Memorial Cup title.

Following the 1967 season, Ted would have more decisions to make as he deciphered which path he wanted his hockey career to go down; that of continuing to play Major Junior hockey, or go the route of university; both seemingly lucrative options for an eighteen year old. “I had two offers come in after that season. One was a full ride to the University of Minnesota Duluth, and the other was with the Montreal Junior Canadiens. I turned down the scholarship for two reasons. One was that I would only play about 15-games my first year, and two, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be after I left college. On the other hand, Montreal said they would pay for my education, and I would also be playing in the best junior hockey league in all of Canada, the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA)”. The decision made by Tucker was well-reasoned, but having to balance both school and hockey would prove exceptionally difficult, and soon he would have to pick one or the other instead of tackling both. “Unfortunately, with all the travel that we did, I got into an absenteeism problem at school. I was told by the school that I either had to stop playing hockey, or I would not be able to write any of my exams, even though I had passing grades in every class. I knew that Montreal wouldn’t pay for my schooling if I just went to school, so I ended up quitting school”.

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Ted Tucker pictured here during his time with the IHL’s Toledo Goaldiggers – some of his best hockey memories came during his years with this particular team. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

I suppose that an outsider could argue either way about Ted Tucker’s decision to forgo school and focus on hockey instead. Tucker’s electing to play for the Montreal Junior Canadiens would be an opportunity of a lifetime that would be even more of a special rarity than what he ever could have surmised at the time. An opportunity that would see him become part of one of the greatest assemblages of hockey players on one team, at one time. Not an All-Star roster. Not an Olympics or Canada Cup team. Rather, a hockey club that was combined for a regular season of play – not a meaningless festivity for fun, or a temporary allegiance for one’s country.

“In my first year on the team, there were only four English players, and the rest were French. Our coach, Roger Bedard, was also French. He would say everything in French in practices and in games. If he had anything to say to one of us four, or if we didn’t do a play right, then he would talk to us in English. In my second and last year playing Junior, there were only three English players on that team”, Tucker tells me. That final year being 1968-69. Take a moment to contemplate this particular team’s roster. They had two-thirds of what would become the Buffalo Sabres’ fabled “French Connection” line in both Gilbert Perreault and the late Rick Martin. Even with Perreault and Martin on their roster, The Junior Canadiens leading scorer that season was Rejean Houle, who put up 53-goals and 55-assists for 108-points in a mere 54-games. Once making it to the NHL, Houle would go on to win five Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens. Left-winger Marc Tardif would finish his career as the all-time leading goal scorer in the World Hockey Association, though even he would get his name inscribed on Lord Stanley’s Cup prior to jumping to the WHA when he won it with Montreal in 1971 and 1973. The ever-colorful Andre “Moose” Dupont patrolled the blueline for the Junior Canadiens that year as well, long before he became one of the “Broad Street Bullies” and won two Stanley Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers. Throw in the likes of Josh Guevremont, Guy Charron, J.P. Bordeleau, Bobby Lalonde, Norm Gratton, Richard Lemieux, and Serge Lajeunesse, all of whom would go onto strong, lengthy NHL careers, and you have a team whose talent level will never be achieved again on one roster in junior hockey.

Tucker affirms this by saying, “This was the highlight of my Junior career, as we went on to win the Memorial Cup that year. The history speaks for itself. If you Google the ’68-’69 Montreal Junior Canadiens, they say that this was, and still is, the best junior hockey team ever assembled. Every player on that team went on to play pro hockey”. All in the one year, that Junior Canadiens team captured the Memorial Cup, the J. Ross Robertson Cup as the winner of the OHA’s playoff championship, the Hamilton Spectator Cup as the team that finished with the best record in the OHA, and the George T. Richardson Memorial Trophy as the champions of the Eastern Canadian Junior “A”.

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Ted Tucker and the many teams he played for throughout his hockey career. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

Ted Tucker’s memories of this team and his teammates are still very vivid to this day. I ask him to share with me some of his fondest memories from that hockey club. “Even though there were only three English speaking players on that team, we never felt anything but appreciation from the French players. They all joked around with us, and it was amazing to see the passion Gilbert Perreault had for wrestling; he would go into these wrestling, clowning-around episodes on the ice and in the locker room. The other thing that they would do was play “keep away” with the puck, and you could see all their talents come out, especially Marc Tardiff’s and Gilbert’s when they did that in practice”.

Believe it or not, the excitement and the passion amongst fans towards the ’68-’69 Junior Canadiens rivaled and even sometimes surpassed that of the NHL’s Canadiens. As Tucker recalls, “my first year playing in Montreal in the old Forum, the crowds started out small; maybe some nights 5,000 people. But as the season progressed, we would get it up to 8,000 to 10,000 fans. Then in my second season, we were averaging anywhere from 12,000 to 14,00 a game. One night, the NHL club drew 16,000 on a Saturday night, and we had a big rivalry with Oshawa and outdrew the Canadiens as we had over 18,000 attend the game. This was unreal for Junior hockey at the time”.

Can one even imagine the concept of a junior club outdoing the greatest hockey franchise of all time, the Montreal Canadiens? It seems unfathomable, though the NHL greats certainly seemed to appreciate what these teenagers were doing for the organization and for the game of hockey. Ted remembers that, “our dressing rooms was just down the hallway from the NHL Canadiens, and to see these players practicing was amazing. Being able to go into that room and see all the players, and every once in a while, some of them would show up at our games to watch us play. Guys like Gump Worsley, Jean Beliveau, and John Ferguson, just to name a few”. Even these Canadiens’ and hockey greats were fans of Tucker and his junior teammates.

The problem with being a goaltender in the Montreal Canadiens’ organization, especially during the 1960s, was that there was a logjam of talented netminders  that the club owned, and opportunity for advancement and playing with the parent club was slim to none for a lot of Canadiens’ prospects, including Ted Tucker. Suffice it to say that when his Junior career ended, there was next to no chance that Tucker would find himself on the NHL Canadiens’ roster, or even with one of their top minor league affiliates. “In the Fall of 1969, I attended my first professional training camp with the Montreal Canadiens, and I was one of fifteen goalies to participate in the camp”, Tucker tells me. “I knew the odds of making the AHL or the CHL affiliated teams were pretty well stacked against me. But I practiced very hard, and started making the goalie cuts as they needed a total of eight goalies for their teams (the NHL roster, AHL’s Cleveland Barons, CHL’s Houston Apollos, and IHL’s Muskegon Mohawks). I survived the cuts, and was one of three goalies for the final cuts to be made for Muskegon.

“After a week of working out with Muskegon, I was called into GM Morris “Moose” Lallo’s office. I was given the option of either staying with Muskegon and being the backup to Bruce Mullett, who I just happened to be paired with during my first year with the Montreal Junior Canadiens at a week salary of $150, or go play with the Clinton Comets in the Eastern Hockey League, who were a farm team of the Minnesota North Stars”. Minnesota did not have enough goalies of their own in order to stock the Clinton team, so that is how the opening presented itself.  “Moose told me that I would be the only goalie there in Clinton, and he said he would tell them that I was going to be paid $180 for playing in Muskegon, which was a lie. To me it was no-brainer as I would get to play every game, and make $30 more a week, which was a lot back in 1969”.

Deciding to play for Clinton, Ted Tucker was the youngest player on the Comets’ roster, his first year of professional hockey. Despite his young age, Lallo’s word  held true and Ted Tucker would suit up for nearly every one of Clinton’s game for his first two years; 69-games played in 1969-70, followed by 74-games in 1970-71. Some of Tucker’s teammates, like Len Speck, were twice his age or close to it. I ask Ted to tell me about those first few years of pro with the Comets. “After arriving in Clinton, I found out that they played in two separate arenas; one was the Clinton Arena where they played the majority of their games, and the other was the Utica Arena, which was about a 20-minute drive from Clinton, and we would usually play there on Friday nights”. The way that the Utica Arena was maintained could be a nightmare for goaltenders, as Tucker quickly become familiarized with. “The interesting part about those games was they wouldn’t put a whitewash down on the ice because they took the ice out after every game to accommodate basketball games and concerts, so that they could save money; they would just paint the standard face-off circles, the goal-lines, blue, and center ice lines. Needless to say, this was very hard to see the puck, as it was basically playing on black ice.  So to start every period, I would have my teammates scrape the ice in the same manner that a goalie scrapes his crease, just to try and make a little more texture to the black ice”.

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An early rare team photo of Ted Tucker with the Clinton Comets in the front row with his goaltender pads. Tucker would win a championship with the Comets during his first pro season (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

The novelty of the black ice and the two separate arenas, the joy of regularly playing close to 70-games a season, and the veteran leadership amongst teammates culminated into early success for Ted Tucker and the Comets, as they would win the EHL Walker Cup championship, after compiling a superb record of 50-16-8 in his first pro season. “I still cherish my three years of playing with the Clinton Comets, as it allowed me to develop at a faster rate.  This first year was like a dream come true and a magical season, as I also won the Rookie of the Year Award, I was a First Team All-Star, and I won the trophy as the top goaltender for 1969-70. I will always remember and cherish that playoff run. In the second round of the playoffs we were playing the New Haven Blades. We won the first two games at home, and the first in New Haven. My roommate when we went into New Haven was Ian Anderson, who was one tough SOB; he kept the guys from screening me in front of my net. Ian said to me before the start of Game-3 that if I got a shutout, he would give me a pair of new golf shoes, as he knew that I loved golf and he also owned a sporting goods store in Utica. Wouldn’t you know it, I get the shutout that night and we were all bubbly about going up three games to none in the series. Here’s where the plot thickens – Dave Hainsworth, who was a terrific goalie for New Haven, gets super hot and proceeds to shut us out three games in a row to force a Game-7 in Clinton. So here we are now in Game-7, and New Haven comes out flying and they score two quick goals and are outplaying us in every aspect of the game. Somehow we weathered the storm and eventually tied the game up in the third period. Everyone in the building is thinking we are going to go into OT as we were in the last minute of play. All of sudden, we scored with 15-seconds to go in the period. To this day, you can ask any player on that New Haven team, and they’ll tell you that the goal shouldn’t have counted, as it went in from the side of the net through a hole in the netting. The refs checked and rechecked the netting and found no hole, so the goal was counted. Just before we took the final faceoff, (center) Jack Kane comes up to me and says, ‘just stay calm, and you’d better stop anything that gets shot your way'”. After that wild affair in the round against New Haven, Ted Tucker and his Comets teammates went on to play Greensboro from the Southern Division for the Walker Cup. Though they would lose the first two games of the series, they would rally to win the next four games in a row, including an all out firestorm in Game-3 which saw an 8-7 overtime victory, after Tucker was pulled for an extra attacker, being the Comets means of tying the game. At the end of it all, Ted Tucker was an EHL champion in his first season of pro hockey.

One last side note on Ted Tucker’s three years in Clinton – he would actually play two playoff games for a completely different team during the 1970-71 season by suiting up for the Syracuse Blazers, even though he was still a Comet. “In the EHL, most teams only carried one goalie to save on costs. In the playoffs, you were allowed to pick up a goalie for emergency situations. Well, we had lost in the first-round that year, and Syracuse’s goalie hurt his knee. Since Clinton is only 50-miles from Syracuse, they asked me if I would play for them”. The Blazers would end up being one of ten professional teams that Tucker would play for during his career. 

In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, the National Hockey League was growing at a rapid pace. The league would expand from six teams to twelve in 1967, followed by adding two more into the fold in 1970 when they added Buffalo and Vancouver. Then, two years later they would add the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames For players like Ted Tucker, who had been on the periphery of the NHL, expansion opened up potential job opportunities that were once much harder to come by prior to 1967. In one day, Tucker was property of three different NHL teams. Having been a prospect for the Montreal Canadiens since he was a teenager, in June of 1972 the Habs would ship his rights in exchange for cash to the expansion Atlanta Flames, who would then trade Ted to the California Golden Seals that same day. For some players an experience like that may have been disconcerting, but not for Tucker. On the contrary, he felt like he now had opportunity within his grasp. “For the first time I actually felt wanted by an NHL team and I thought that I finally caught a break. Garry Young was the General Manager for the Golden Seals, and he was the one that wanted me in the trade. My first contact with Garry was over the phone, and he said ‘Welcome to California!’. I thought that it was a prank call, and kept saying ‘Who is this?’. Garry assured me that it was not a prank call, that he would call me back in a couple of days to talk contract with me. I was on Cloud-9. He called me back, and just like that, over the phone we settled on a 2-year contract with a signing bonus included”.

Perhaps being a bit overexcited with this lucrative offer from California, Ted accepted the deal without at first considering some of the other incentives that likely could or should have been included. He ended up reaching back out to Young to see if some changes could be made and a restructuring of the deal. “Once everything was starting to sink in, I remembered that I hadn’t asked for any performance bonuses, like shutouts, averages, wins, or picking up any awards, so I called him back and explained the situation to him. Garry told me that he would call me back after he looked over what the other goalies were making. He ended calling me back and saying he would be upping my base to $10,000 the first year and $12,000 the second year if I were to play in the the minors, and then $21,000 the first year and $23,000 the second year if I made the NHL club, plus bonuses in each league”. Hearing Ted Tucker speak of this, I could see some GMs playing hardball, and saying something to the effect of “Tough luck; you should have asked before”. The fact that Young raised his salary and included the bonuses was testament to the Golden Seals wanting Tucker to be part of their organization.

Tucker would end up playing a full season and a bit more with California’s minor league affiliate, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, of the Western Hockey League. “The fans were terrific, and the city itself was also terrific. If you looked to the East you would see the mountains, and if you looked to the West you would see the open pit copper mine”. Though it was very scenic and welcoming, Tucker would need to get acclimated to a variance in elevation, as well as a bizarre setup for the team’s rinks. “There were no more bus rides with Salt Lake, as we flew to every city. The one disappointment I had was that even though I liked Al Rollins as a coach, I thought that he would show me more about playing goal as he was a former NHL goalie (Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs). It was also a test for endurance as now we were playing at 4,200-feet, and when we would play Denver at 5,200-feet the air would be so thin that we would have to carry oxygen tanks on the bench for the players. We also practiced in a satellite rink, as we shared the Palace with the ABA’s Utah Jazz. Two sides of the rink were enclosed, and the other two sides were wide open to the air. Depending on the weather, if it was cold we would leave the pucks at the Palace, and we would skate for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and our trainer would joke that the pucks went to the dry cleaners”.

Low and behold, Ted Tucker would see his first shot at the NHL during the 1973-74 season by appearing in five games with the Golden Seals. It was what he had waited an awful long time for, and the dream had now finally come true. “I was called up as an emergency replacement for Gilles Meloche. What happened was that the back of his hand got cut by the skate of Reggie Leach. From what I was told, a warm up for a game day practice was over, and Reggie says to Gilles that he wanted one more shot. Reggie came down, and somehow his skate ran over the back of Gilles catching glove, which at the time didn’t have the protective cover that is on the back of gloves today. Gilles was very lucky, as a tendon was cut, but they were able to reattach it in an emergency operation. I was there with the team for 3-months”.

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Ted Tucker would play 5-games for the 1973-74 Golden Seals, registering 1-win, 1-loss and 1-tie. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker)

I ask Ted if he remembers his first NHL game and what took place. “I got the call that I had to fly to San Francisco, and then a limo rushed me to the arena because the game had already started. So here I am, rushing to get dressed and when I make my way to the bench during a stoppage in play, and the announcer says my name over the PA system. I get this round of applause from the fans and I’m not even playing in the game! My first playing time though came against the St. Louis Blues. We were losing at the time, Marv Edwards had hurt his knee. I came in off the bench and ended up leading us to a win, which I got credited for”.

Tucker would go on to play in four more games for the Seals after that, finishing his time in the NHL officially with a record of 1-win, 1-loss, and 1-tie across the five games. “My loss was against the Vancouver Canucks, 3-to-2, and the tie game was when I replaced the starting goalie as we were losing and I ended up backstopping us to getting a tie”. Though on the whole, the Seals were among the NHL’s bottom dwellers they still possessed a modest amount of talent during those early to mid-1970s teams with players like Reggie Leach, Ivan Boldirev, Walt McKechnie, and Joey Johnston. It was the core of this Seals roster that really pushed for Tucker to have more opportunity to play. “It was tough sitting on the bench game-in and game-out because I thought to myself ‘Here’s my chance’. Fred Glover, who at the time was the Head Coach, GM, and President of Operations wouldn’t give me a chance to show what I could do. The players were on my side though. During one game at the Coliseum which we were losing, the fans were yelling ‘We want Tucker!’. Joey Johnston and Walt McKechnie both turned to Glover and said, ‘Put the kid in’. But it didn’t happen”.

After all of his time waiting to get there, it seemed that Ted Tucker was still not getting a fair shake at demonstrating how he was capable of performing at the NHL and opportunity was running out. “Another time we were losing 7-to-1 in Pittsburgh, and I figured ‘Okay, I’ll start the 3rd period’. Well I didn’t, but Bob Champoux  (third-string goalie after Meloche and Edwards) gives up the 8th goal in the opening minute of the 3rd, and so then Glover says, ‘You’re up. Go in’. I shut them down until a deflection got past me with less than a minute to go in the game. That was the last time I got into a game in the NHL, other than sitting on the bench”. But Ted made it just the same. And if I do say so myself, he did quite well, especially considering that he was playing for the Golden Seals. Just look at the numbers themselves. For the 1973-74 season, the Golden Seals finished dead-last in the league with an abysmal record of 13-55-10. Yet Tucker, in only 5-games, accounted for one of those 13-wins and 1 of those 10-ties. His California teammates provided a minimal support network for any goalie (Ted included), albeit on the stat sheets, as the Seals would only post 195-goals that season, as opposed to allowing 342.

Ted further explains, “When I was there, Glover got fired right near the end of my third month with the team and Marshal Johnston took over as coach. Johnston called me into his office and told me that I had a choice – I could either stay with the big club, or I could go back to Salt Lake to play, and hopefully win a championship as they were going to be in the playoffs. If I had stayed, my next game would have been in Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. But I decided that I would go back to Salt Lake City because I had at least two-and-a-half more months to play, and the Seals’ season was done at the end of the month. Do I regret making this move? The answer is ‘yes’ because I never got another chance to play in the NHL and show them what I could do”.

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Ted Tucker would suit up between the pipes of the IHL’s Toledo Goaldiggers through parts of 4 seasons. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

After his lone season in the NHL, Ted Tucker would go onto play six more years of professional hockey in the IHL with six different teams. The teams that Tucker would play for were as colorful as their names; the Toledo Goaldiggers, the Columbus Owls, the Port Huron Flags, the Muskegon Mohawks, the Saginaw Gears, and the Dayton Gems. Tucker would add two more championships to his résumé; in 1974-75 with Toledo, and again in 1980-81 with the Gears. The 1980-81 Turner Cup trophy being a very fitting ending, as that would be Ted Tucker’s final season of pro hockey. “I feel very blessed to have been part of four championship teams, between Montreal, Clinton, Toledo and Saginaw. I also played on three runner-ups with the Port Arthur Marrs, Salt Lake City, and with Port Huron”.

From those years in the IHL and those championships, I ask Ted to tell me which memories stand out as the most important in his heart. He tells me, “The Toledo Goaldiggers championship means a lot to me, as it is every goalies dream to play in a seventh game on the road, in Saginaw, on the road, before a sell-out. And I played in that game. We arrived back home to a crowd of over 10,000 fans, and it was just one big party downtown”. There were a number of other interesting facts that helped make the Toledo team extra special. “First”, Ted says, “we were an expansion team in the IHL in 1974, and we barely made the playoffs. I can still remember (Head Coach) Teddy Garvin saying to the press that none of his teams ever backed into the playoffs, but that he would take it that year because we had been in a slump and had been just holding onto the fourth and last spot for the playoffs. We then beat the Columbus Owls in five games, then came back and beat the Dayton Gems in seven, after being down three games to two and facing elimination at home.

One of my favorite stories that Ted Tucker shared with me is the practice after the Goaldiggers had gone down 3-to-2 in the series against Dayton. I immediately cracked a smile and chuckled heartily. “We had just gotten blown out in Dayton to go down 3-to-2. In practice, Garvin told us to all line up on the goal line while he is standing at the blue-line with no skates on. He then says to us, “Who has won championships?”. He calls Kent Douglas (who had won the Stanley Cup in 1967 with the Maple Leafs) to the blue-line. Darwin Mott puts up his hand too, and Garvin calls him to the blue-line too. I guess he didn’t see my hand, and proceeded to call the rest of us a bunch of losers. He said, ‘You quit on me in the last game. Now I’m quitting on you! And you can run your own practice!’, and he proceeded to walk off the ice and sit in the stands. Juri Kudrasovs, who was our captain, took over and started running the practice. Meanwhile, Garvin is up there laughing at us and calling us quitters. Juri got really pissed, and flung his stick at Garvin, just barely missing him. The rest is history – we went on to knock off Dayton in seven games”.

Six years later, the ’80-’81 championship with Saginaw would also be a memorable one for Tucker, but in a different way. “Saginaw is also special to me. It was like a bookend to my career. We only lost one game in all of the three series that we played; winning twelve and losing one. Wren Blair, who was the GM and part owner of the Gears made a comment to us at the banquet that we had actually cost him money, we hadn’t played enough home games during the playoff. Out of the three series, we could have played twelve home games as we had home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead, we only ended up playing seven home games, as we swept two series four games to none”. After the ’81 Turner Cup with the Gears, Tucker would retire but would stay on with the team as their PR man until the franchise folded in April 1983.

Tucker’s life after hockey seemed to settle in one location instead of the many that he played in throughout his career. He made a home for himself in Temperance, Michigan where he raised a family and retired from working with Jeep from the time the Gears folded in 1983 up until May 2008. Ted also coached his son, Travis, through all levels of hockey, up to junior varsity in high school. And up until recently, he kept himself involved in playing in a Sunday night pickup game until last year when he turned 66-years old. These days Tucker loves playing golf, which he informs me is “much easier on the body”.

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Picture here at a Toledo alumni game, following his retirement n 1981, Ted Tucker continued to play hockey recreationally until the age of 66. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

I ask Ted Tucker what is the most important thing that he has learned from hockey. “Wow, so many things come to mind. One would be good work ethic. But also integrity. Honesty. And a passion for the game”. Ted goes on further to say, “I don’t believe that the passion is there for the players anymore. It’s about money, and ‘How much can I make?’. When I signed my first NHL pro contract, the minimum was $15,000, and now it’s $575,000. I also believe that the new young player doesn’t have the respect of their fellow players as they try to hurt them the first chance they get. Don’t get me wrong; I love a hard-hitting game. But not the cheap headshots you see now in the NHL”.

Tying into what Ted Tucker says, it is obvious to me that this man played the game with a sincere work ethic of his own. Every place that he played, he gave it his all and wanted to show that he was capable of being the top netminder. He also exuded a true sense of both integrity and honesty, in knowing what he wanted and what decisions he chose to make. Choosing hockey over school. Returning to Salt Lake City instead of staying with the Golden Seals. Asking the GM to reconsider and renegotiate his first contract with California for better incentives. Recognizing that he was in fact wanted by an NHL club. Good, bad, ugly, or otherwise, Ted Tucker upheld his integrity and his honesty.

But what stands out most to me, personally, and what really makes me admire Ted, is that passion for the game the he mentioned. You do not win four championships without that passion. You do not begin your professional career with a championship, nor end it with one, if you do not have that passion. Hell, Ted Tucker also won a championship smack dab in the middle of his career too. Even more noteworthy, you do not tend goal for the greatest junior hockey team ever assembled and go down in history as such, if you do not have his passion either. I want today’s NHL young player to be more like Ted. I want them to know his story, and see how this man played the game. He is admirable, and his career means something to hockey. Today’s hockey player wanting to be in the NHL, heed the experience and the character of Ted Tucker. After all, he was the goaltender for the greatest junior team of all time.

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As a kid, Ted Tucker grew up admiring the Detroit Red Wings even though his own rights belonged to the Montreal Canadiens – contemporary Marcel Dionne is pictured in the background photo. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).
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HK Ukrainochka’s defender Marina Kobchuk – growing Women’s Hockey in Ukraine

“Ukrainian women’s hockey does exist, and its rise is unstoppable”, the young defender for HK Ukrainochka tells me with great conviction. There is an obvious fire in her eyes, and a fire in her belly too, as Marina Kobchuk makes this declaration. And when she begins to explain to me the great strides that the founders of the women’s hockey movement in Ukraine are making, her excitement is both contagious and I am all ears, eagerly wanting to learn more.

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HK Ukrainochka’s” defender Marina Kobchuk is a pioneer for women’s hockey in Ukraine (Photo provided courtesy of Marina Kobchuk)

HK Ukrainochka came into existence in late 2015, and the organizers of the hockey club made sure that they started the program properly. Kobchuk explains to me that “the initiators managed to formalize the team as Ukrainochka Hockey Club. They passed the club law, confirming the founding members, they developed the logo and jersey design, and made a business plan for the future”. The beginnings of Ukrainochka are very interesting, especially learning from Kobchuk some of the trials in the early goings of the club, but inspiring too when learning the commitment level and personal interest from her coach, Evgeny Alipov. “During our first year, the team played a lot of games with amateur men’s teams, occasionally requesting the help from juniors and sports schools. It didn’t always prove worth doing though, given different skill levels and speed. But our new coach (Alipov), who started training the team in August 2015, inspired optimism in us by also bringing along his twin daughters to join our team. Even when his girls were doing synchronized swimming, he was dreaming of training them to play hockey”.

With Alipov at the helm on the bench, as well as even having the President of the Women’s Ice Hockey of Ukraine, Yulia Artemieva as a teammate at forward position, Marina Kobchuk was greatly appreciative of the strides that Ukrainochka invoked to continue building the team and doing it rightly. “First, the women’s hockey team received several sets of hockey gear from the NHL thanks to the charity fund, ‘Melt Ice In Hearts’. Second, the junior members of the teams (including Kobchuk herself) were invited to Washington D.C. to join a training camp within the scope of the SportUnited program. Third, the founding members of our team have set up the Women’s Committee of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine“, Kobchuk tells me. And the fourth , and perhaps the most important factor at its very roots, if not the most fun, is that Kobchuk’s Ukrainochka played against one of the other fledgling women’s clubs in Ukraine, the Dnipropetrovsk Belki (Squirrels). The inaugural first game between the two newly christened rivals created the necessary spark for giving Ukrainian women’s hockey its momentum to build and grow. Kobchuk further explains, “the game results were mixed with Ukrainochka and the Squirrels coming on top in turns, but more importantly, our team played and showed it could win games. That gave the girls unforgettable fireworks of emotions that we had never felt before. These were the first women’s hockey games in Ukraine in many years”. The game itself featured a strongly contested race between the two clubs, which seemed in doubt as Ukrainochka allowed an early lead to turn into a 7-7 deadlock as Dnipropetrovsk rallied to knot it up in the third period. Fortunately though for Kobchuk, one of her teammates put home another marker to make the score 8-7 late in the third, thus sealing the victory for Ukrainochka. “We all fell over in happiness; it’s a moment that I’ll never forget”, she recalls.

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Marina Kobchuk and her teammates of the inaugural HK Ukrainochka (ХК Україночка) hockey team (Photo provided courtesy of Marina Kobchuk)

These early matchups between Ukrainochka and Dnipropetrovsk have already helped to double the amount of teams in the Ukrainian Women’s Hockey League for the 2016 season, and Marina can already see that the competition will increase twofold from here. “This season will be a very serious championship, with four teams in contention; HC Ukrainochka, HC Dnipro Squirrels, HC Avalanche from Kremenchug, and the HC Panthers from the city of Kharkiv”. To see the league double in size in a year’s time is a good indicator that the women’s game in Ukraine has the momentum to continue building itself. The opportunities to grow the game are being sought out by the organizers. “At this point there are few opportunities in Kiev”, Kobchuk tells me. “We are the only women’s team, and there are only three ice arenas. But they are open and available to train at even at 11:00 at night”. As we have talked the past few days, I know that Kobchuk has made great use of the late-evening practice and training times available to her, working on her game until midnight more than once.

Marina Kobchuk is only 17-years old, and it is even more remarkable to learn that she only began playing organized hockey just two years ago. A national women’s ice hockey team for Ukraine has not seen any formalized playing action since the early-mid 1990s, so there was very little for Kobchuk and her teammates to familiarize themselves with and look up to. “We haven’t played any international games yet, but in five years time I would really love to play for Ukraine as a member of Group-B”, referring to the lower-tiered rankings of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s grouping of the women’s national teams.

That being said, Marina Kobchuk has still very much fallen in love with the game of hockey, and has developed a strong understanding of it at an early age. “I play defense on the left-hand side. At the very start, I was actually drawn to playing the goalie position, but later I moved out a bit further from goal and settled into playing defense. I was advised to this position by Coach Alipov, and I was happy about that”. In a short time Kobchuk developed strong positional play, utilizing her body and her size to diminish scoring opportunities by the opposition. “I like pushing and knocking down my opponent, and mind you, I manage to do all that without breaking any rules. A defender is good at organizing attacks and especially counterattacks. In order to do that though, one needs to be able to see the ice, the players’ positions, and then be able to evaluate the situation in terms of attacking well before engaging in a fight for the puck, and even after having won the puck. Skating and interaction between your partners is essential”.

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Even defending in the fog, Marina Kobchuk is a solid defender for HK Ukrainochka. (Photo provided courtesy of Marina Kobchuk).

It is somewhat easy to see how Kobchuk has become so enamored with the game, and why her hockey sense is flourishing – she has support coming from all avenues. “My mother did figure-skating and competed at the amateur level, and my dad has played hockey with his friends for years. I also have a younger brother, and he will be playing hockey soon too”. When speaking of Ukrainochka,  the constant support of her teammates has kept Kobchuk on track, especially that of her coach’s twin daughters Helen and Elizabeth, two 18-year olds that have been by her side all along. “Never for a second have they ever gave up on me. They always keep me mind, and it has allowed us to play in the top-five together for our club”.

Like any lover of hockey, Marina Kobchuk has her professional heroes too. “There is one hockey player that I like a lot, and that’s (Alex) Ovechkin. Not only does he score a lot, but he is an inspired scorer. Every time he gets the puck, spectators pay more attention to the game. He can score even when falling to his back, he can do a figure-skating trick to get around a defenseman, he can do a wrap-around, which is one of the most beautiful things in hockey”. Like Kobchuk, I have long admired Ovechkin myself. Despite any critics he may have, I do not think that there has been a more exciting player in hockey for the last decade.

To me, it is inspiring to have met Marina Kobchuk and to see the amount of excitement she has for hockey. This is how the women’s game in Ukraine will grow – by having motivated, hard-working young ladies like Kobchuk be part of the early beginnings. Marina is the kind of player that any coach would love to have on their club, and it is something that she can pass along to others, particularly girls her own age and younger. “Ice hockey is character-building”, she says. “It hardens you and builds up your stamina. Ice hockey instills positive emotions that are not dependent upon the result of the game, and it gives you the opportunity to vent any negativity. Every game is something new that you have not experienced before. Hockey players are role models, in terms of their will to win, their strength, and their daringness”.

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The formidable #13 for HK Ukrainochka, Marina Kobchuk (Photo provided courtesy of Marina Kobchuk).

Marina Kobchuk will be a key contributor to Ukrainian women’s hockey for many years to come. She is an intelligent and inspiring young lady, and she is made up of the type of character that any fledgling project needs to get itself going, and to get others onboard. But most importantly, what is most remarkable about Marina is her true love of the game. This girl plain and simple loves hockey; it is her life, and her passion. I feel inspired to have made her acquaintance, and I know that the Ukrainian Women’s Hockey League has a gem of a person and player in Marina Kobchuk.

If you would like to help promote women’s ice hockey in Ukraine, please offer support to them through this GoFundMe page for providing donations to support their game:

https://www.gofundme.com/forwomenshockeyua

 

 

“The Story of Jonah” -former Washington Capitals defenseman, Jay Johnston

“During my time in Hershey, one of my teammates was a guy named Mike Haworth”, Jay Johnston is telling me. Johnston and Haworth were both defensemen for the Hershey Bears at the very end of the 1970s and into the early-1980s. “Mike was a helicopter pilot, and sadly he died in a helicopter crash (August 14th, 2008). In the locker room in Hershey, he gave me the nickname ‘Jonah’. He always called me ‘Jonah'”. Even to this day, Jay Johnston’s Hershey teammates still call him by the same nickname when they get together. “For years, I never knew where he got the name from. Well, if you have ever read the Spider-Man comics,  the editor-in-chief for the daily newspaper is named J. Jonah Jameson”. I laugh when Johnston tells me this, as I know the Spider-Man comics quite well and I can see where he is going with this. “Look up J. Jonah Jameson online, and you’ll see that there is a striking resemblance between the two of us”. Indeed, there is.

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Jay Johnston would suit up for 8-NHL games with the Washington Capitals between the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons, including a fight in his very first NHL game against Calgary’s Willi Plett.

The thought of making it to the NHL someday never crossed the mind of Jay Johnston, let alone playing hockey professionally, no matter what league it would be in. In fact, compared to most Canadian kids, Johnston started playing the game very late in life. “I actually didn’t start playing until I was 10-years old”. Born February 25th, 1958, Jay Johnston grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, and though hockey would take him to numerous other cities throughout his career, as we talk this evening he is residing in Hamilton once more, and has been for quite sometime. “The employees for Westinghouse were organizing hockey and lacrosse teams for their youngsters. My uncle worked for Westinghouse, and got me into lacrosse the first year. The following year he asked me if I wanted to play hockey, so I figured I would give that a try”. As a youngster, Johnston’s favorite hockey team was the Detroit Red Wings, and the legendary “Mr. Hockey”, Gordie Howe, was his favorite player.

Despite the late start to playing, Johnston would play his Junior-A hockey with the Hamilton Mountain A’s before he was drafted by the Hamilton Fincups to play his Major-Junior hockey in the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League. The oddity being that although the Fincups were originally from Hamilton, during Johnston’s first year with the team they had to relocate for a season and were briefly the St. Catharines Fincups; the move necessitated by the fact that the ice making equipment for the old Barton Street Arena (also known as the Hamilton Forum) stopped working and was considered irreparable, with the arena eventually being demolished in 1977. For Johnston’s second year with the Fincups though, the team returned to Hamilton by utilizing the Mountain Arena.

No matter where they played, the Fincups were both incredibly talented and very tough. During Johnston’s two years of Major-Junior, the team was laden with future NHL talent in the likes of Dale McCourt, Ric Seiling, Al Secord, Rick Wamsley, Willie Huber, Randy Ladouceur, Gaston Gingras, and Al Jensen, while Johnston was one of ten teammates his first season, and six teammates his second season, that hit triple digits for penalty minutes. The 1976-77 season saw the Fincups achieve an outstanding record of 50-11-5, thus solidifying for them the Hamilton Spectator Trophy awarded to the team in the OHL that finishes with the top regular season record.

Even while he was a part of these great teams and superb successes, it was not until the second half of Johnston’s final season of Major-Junior where he had the notion that making it to the NHL was even possible. “I had expected just to go onto University; I wasn’t even thinking of the NHL. But (defenseman) Willie Huber ended up getting hurt my second season, and that opened up a regular spot for me to play. Up until that point, I hadn’t played a lot, but when I started playing more regularly I figured that I had a shot”.

And at least in the minds of the Washington Capitals, Jay Johnston had more than just a shot.  “Well, for starters, I never expected to be drafted. But then I started hearing that I was going to go in the eighth-round of the draft”. Whatever scouting report touted Jay to go as late as an eighth-rounder ended up being quite false, as Washington would end up selecting him in the third-round of 1978 NHL Amateur Draft, the 45th-player overall. The selection likely prompted by the Capitals recognizing Johnston’s hard work and determination on the ice, as well as his natural sense of commitment to whatever was best for the team. When I ask him his thoughts about going to the Capitals, a team that had perennially been an NHL bottom-feeder since their inaugural 1974-75 season, Jay clearly tells me that he “really didn’t care who” drafted him; he was going to give it his all no matter where he ended up.

Jay Johnston’s first season of professional hockey was with the Capitals’ IHL (International Hockey League) affiliate, the Port Huron Flags. When I ask Jay what that first season of pro hockey was like, he responds with a question of his own, “have you ever seen the movie Slap-Shot?”. When I chuckle and affirm for him that of course I had, he elaborates. “Well, I had seen the movie too, and I thought it was complete B.S., but when I got to the IHL that was exactly what it was like”. In that first season with Port Huron, Johnston put up a staggering 409-penalty minutes, and even that total only ranked him third overall in the league for PIMs. “Fighting wasn’t something new to me. The Fincups were known as a rough team, but when I got to the IHL it was just at a higher level. The main reason why I got those 409-penalty minutes was that there was maybe just one other guy on the team who would fight, and so we did the bulk of the fighting and the numbers added up”.

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A March 8th, 1980 roster lineup for the Hershey Bears from a game against the Syracuse Firebirds. Circled in red is #7 Jay Johnston. Also visible are colorful NHL veterans Ray McKay, Gary Inness, Bob Girard, and the late Brian “Spinner” Spencer.

After a lone season with Port Huron, Johnston would spend the next five years of professional hockey splitting time between the Capitals and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears. That first season though with Hershey, 1979-80, and only Johnston’s second pro season, would bring about a rarity in sports that is hardly ever seen. I have heard great players such as Mark Messier attest to the fact that when teams win championships, a brotherhood of sorts is formed. If I recall correctly, I remember him using the line “we will walk together for the rest of our lives”. With all due respect to “The Messiah”, while his words ring true, I do not know if they hold the same degree of true companionship and closeness that is shared by the 1979-80 Calder Cup Champion Hershey Bears.

“To this day, we get together every five years. We have a reunion, and ninety-five percent of the team gets together. A handful have died, but as many of us that can make it, do”. To hear the sense of camaraderie in Johnston’s voice and affection that he feels for that particular team gives me goosebumps. The ’79-’80 Bears were arguably the truest definition of the word “Team”. That may sound quite cliché, but look closely at that team and what they accomplished when the odds were very much stacked against them. The Bears sported a losing record that year of 35-39-6. Not a single player on their team finished in the AHL’s top-ten for point scoring that season. While Nova Scotia’s Norm Dube led the way with 101-points, Hershey’s top point getter was Claude Noel with a modest 62. A quarter of the team, if not more, were 30-years old or older, and were deemed as castoffs. Guys like 6’4″ 33-year old defenseman Ray McKay who had seen his fullest NHL season with the defunct California Golden Seals, as well as other members of the over-30 gang like Bob Girard, goaltender Gary Inness, defenseman Roger Lemelin, and in his final season of professional hockey, the ever colorful Brian “Spinner” Spencer. “At that time Washington was not a good team”, Johnston tells me, “and they were really trying to clear out the veteran players from their roster. That’s why there were so many down in Hershey”. But even the younger guys on Hershey’s roster were almost entirely unproven, like rookies Greg Theberge and Harvie Pocza. Or players that did not have much in the way of credentials when they were selected in the fourteenth-round of the NHL draft like Wes Jarvis.

But what the 1979-80 Hershey Bears lacked in talent, they made up for in teamwork times a thousand. “That was the most special team that I ever played on”, Johnston states, letting his mind travel back to that time. “When we had success, it was never one individual. Look at the team we faced in the Calder Cup Finals, the New Brunswick Hawks. They had all this talent. At least twenty of those guys went on to solid careers in the NHL”. Looking at the Hawks roster, Jay is spot-on. The Hawks had Ron Wilson, Darryl Sutter, Murray Bannerman, Bruce Boudreau, Paul Gardner, just to name a few; all had substantial NHL playing careers, mostly in the years proceeding that Finals series. And yet, it was a ragamuffin Hershey Bears roster that defeated them in the six-game Final and won the championship. One for the ages, and a closeness that may supersede many Stanley Cup winning teams.

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Jay Johnston with his son Taylor, posing with the Calder Cup Trophy during the 30-year reunion of the 1979-80 Hershey Bears championship winning team (Photo provided courtesy of Jay Johnston).

Perhaps stemming from that successful championship season the year prior, Jay Johnston would see his first taste of an NHL game in the following 1980-81 season. “I was getting ready to play a game with Hershey against the Adirondack Red Wings when I was told that I got called up by the Caps. The first person that I called was my dad to let him know. I had to join the team in Calgary, and would play my first game against the Calgary Flames. It was before the Saddledome had been built, so the Flames were playing in the old Stampede Corral stadium, which only sat about seven or eight-thousand. Even still, as I was skating around during the warmup, I thought to myself ‘Here I am; I made it to the NHL’. I even got into a fight in my first game”. Jay tells me that he squared off with Flames’ longtime tough-guy Willi Plett, an eventual veteran of over 2,500-PIMs. When I ask him how the fight went, Jay dryly says to me, “Well, I’m still breathing, aren’t I?”. I cannot help but laugh raucously at his point being made.

Jay Johnston only suited up for a total of 8 NHL games, but the point is that he made it. Many never even get a sniff of NHL playing time. I ask him to share more with me about his time with the Capitals and what his best memories are. “Obviously the first game sticks out in my mind. But another thing that was really special was that we went to Sweden for training camp the one year, and the Caps played the New York Rangers there for exhibition. (Hockey legend) Bobby Hull was trying to make a comeback with the Rangers, so I actually got to play against him in the game. Afterward, there was a reception at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, and Bobby came up and talked to me for a while.  So that was pretty special that he would take the time to do that”. When I ask Jay to talk about his defense partners while playing for the Capitals, although he was not paired with anyone in particular, he was usually teamed up with veteran Pierre Bouchard; a five time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens. Yes, his time in the NHL was brief, but definitely some special moments experienced while Johnston was there.

From 1984 until 1987, Jay Johnston would play the final three years of his professional career back in the IHL, this time with the Fort Wayne Komets, though this time around the IHL experience would be a bit different; a better brand of hockey. “The Central Hockey League had disbanded in 1984, and so the IHL really took over as one of the top minor leagues. In fact, many NHL teams had their number one farm teams in the IHL. So it was a much higher level of hockey than before”. Partway through his third season with the Komets, Jay knew it was time to step down. “I had hurt my knee in Muskegon, and most of that year with Fort Wayne I was playing with my knee hurting me nonstop. It took a while to figure out what was going on, but eventually they found that blood clots were causing the pain in my knee. I found out that I have a blood disorder that causes me to be susceptible to blood clots. The prior summers, I had spent a lot of time trying to recover from injuries as it was. And then they had me on blood thinners to help deal with the blood clots. I was told that as long as I was on blood thinners, there was no way that I could keep playing professionally. So I knew it was time”.

Though he could look at having to retire due to health concerns with bitter sentiments, Jay Johnston actually looks more positively on the experiences of his career without regrets. “I knew that I would not be making it back to the NHL. To be honest though, in Hershey and Fort Wayne, I got to play with two of the best hockey teams that anyone could have hoped for. Both teams had strong followings. They regularly had attendance between eight or nine-thousand. And both teams had a lot of longevity as franchises”. The 1980 Calder Cup winning Bears certainly being the pinnacle of Johnston’s time with either of the two franchises.

After retiring, Johnston dabbled a bit in coaching. A short time after he finished playing, the company that his former wife worked with transferred her to Hartford, Connecticut, and Johnston took up coaching a high school team for four years, Windsor High. “It was kind of funny. The local newspaper did an article on me coaching the team. Well, a former teammate of mine from Hershey, Tommy Rowe (also a former Washington Capital and Hartford Whaler) saw the article and looked me up. He asked me to come play for the Hartford Whalers Old Timers. I said to him, ‘Tommy, I can’t play for the Whalers Old Timers; I never played for the Whalers!’, to which he said, ‘C’mon, sure you can’. So I ended playing for the Whalers Old Timers, and guess who my defense partner is in my first game? Gordie Howe!”. Very cool to see Johnston’s life come full circle at that point by meeting his boyhood hockey hero and being paired up with him on defense.

In 1990, Johnston was contacted by Hamilton’s OHL team at the time, the Hamilton Dukes, for yet another coaching opportunity. “The gentleman who owned the Fincups also owned the Dukes. He offered me the position, and I ended up coming in to finish the end of the 1989-90 season, and then coach the entire 1990-91 season”. Unfortunately for Johnston, the Dukes were a team that struggled heavily and possessed a minimal amount of talent. During his lone full season coaching the Dukes, the only player on the team who would see any substantial time in the NHL was tough-guy Alek Stojanov. As stress and the pressure to be successful mounted, Johnston and the Dukes would merely compile a record of 17-43-6, and that would be it; Johnston was released by the team for the following season.

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Though winning was hard to come by, Jay Johnston did serve as head coach of the OHL’s Hamilton Dukes in the early-1990s.

These days Jay Johnston has not been involved with hockey for quite sometime. Though he coached his son’s team for a few years, he has since left coaching and the game, and has been enjoying retirement. Even still, it is the life-lessons that hockey taught him that he still carries with him to this day. “It taught me how to work with others. I never cared if I received any attention or not; it was always the team that came first as far as I was concerned. As long as the team did well, that was all that mattered to me”.

Wrapping up our conversation, Jay and I again touch upon how the rare bond of the ’79-’80 championship Hershey Bears has stood the test of time. “Even when we get together now, everybody still calls me ‘Jonah’. Claude Noel was my best friend on the team, and still one of my best friends to this day. Everyone still calls him ‘Christmas’. I look at Ray McKay, and think ‘gosh, when we played together, he was over 12-years older than me; he’s got to be in his 70s now’. I had never even known until recently that he had played in the NHL prior to that team in Hershey. All these years have gone by, and we still get together, and it’s like no time has gone by at all”. And that is the testament to Johnston and his Hershey teammates; that is what makes them such a special brotherhood, as opposed to most championship teams in any sport. Because they put the team first and foremost when they were on the ice together and in the locker room, when they see each other today they are able to pick up right where they left off. Most sports teams, when they come upon an anniversary of a championship team, have to have their public relations groups put together an event with pomp and circumstance, and have to seek out the players to attend, making arrangements to get them all there, with the players sometimes accepting begrudgingly. Not so the case with Johnston and his Bears teammates.

Despite their ages now. Even though some of them have now passed on. They come from all across Canada and the United States to get together every five years. To recollect and share in what they accomplished over 35-years ago. Just as meaningful to Jay Johnston and his Hershey teammates today, as it was so long ago. And true to his character, when Jay Johnston talks to me about his career, he’s not the one to bring up his 8-games in the NHL, nor his 409-penalty minute season, nor even his status as a third round draft choice. Jay, more than anything else, wants to talk about the team and what they accomplished. And that’s what is most remarkable about Jay Johnston – he is a teammate in every sense of the word.

 

“Dream Big” – A Conversation with Freddy Meyer, former NHL defenseman

What always stands out in my mind about Freddy Meyer was the size that he played the game despite being diminutive physically; he never backed down from anyone. At 5-feet, 9-inches and roughly 190lbs., Meyer’s stature is significantly less than that of most NHL defensemen throughout the 2000s when he played. But to illustrate my point of playing much larger, during a December 23rd, 2010 game in Boston against the Bruins, in what would be his last NHL season, Meyer absolutely dropped one of the most intimidating players in the game, former Bruin Milan Lucic, with a big hit; stood him right up and belted him to his backside. Meyer did this despite a rash of his own injuries that season which limited him to only 15-games. He did it despite the fact that there were less than five minutes left in the game; he could have eased up or chose the easy away around the boulder to thus avoid any conflict – but that just isn’t in Meyer’s character. And he did it despite Lucic being five inches taller than him and outweighing Freddy by forty pounds – as if to invoke a David versus Goliath tale of his own. For Freddy Meyer, any so-called lack of size never held him back in the least.

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Freddy Meyer, here with the Atlanta Thrashers, begins to move the puck out of his own zone during his final NHL season (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images).

Born January 4th, 1981 in Sanbornville, New Hampshire, Freddy did not take an immediate interest in hockey when he was a kid. “I started at age 6”, he says. “My brother started playing the year before me, but I didn’t want to play. But after spending the first year watching him I decided that I wanted to give it a try”. Little would Meyer realize at the time that the initially reluctant decision to play hockey would eventually lead him to playing four years collegiately, nine more years professionally, and for the United States at multiple international competitions. “I lived in a small town in New Hampshire, and there were limited opportunities to play besides the local youth program. I played there for two years, and then moved onto a local select hockey team that would compete in Massachusetts.

Being from the New England area Meyer naturally became a Boston Bruins fan, as well as finding a hero in a Boston and true hockey legend. “My dad shared season tickets to the Bruins with a few friends, so we went to several games a year growing up. Being a defenseman, I always enjoyed watching and admiring Ray Bourque”. There are at least some comparisons that can be made between the Hall of Famer Bourque, and the way that Meyer may have mirrored his game similarly. Throughout his own career Meyer moved the puck very well,  particularly out of his own end. He also excelled on specialty teams, and was a regular along the blueline on powerplays.

While in high school, Freddy Meyer became enrolled in the United States National Team Development Program. Initially becoming involved with the program for the 1997-98 campaign, Meyer showcased his skills alongside fellow countrymen that also would make it to the NHL, including Andy Hilbert, Rick DiPietro, John-Michael Liles, Jordan Leopold, David Tanabe, and more. In 37-games with USNTDP team that first year, Meyer put up 11-goals and 10-assists. And once again to prove that a lack of size never kept him from robust play, Meyer led the team in penalty-minutes that year with 113-PIMs.

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Never one to shy away from physical play, Freddy Meyer skates past Boston’s Tom Fitzgerald who has been upended (Photo credit: Hunter Martin, NHL Images/Getty).

Electing to continue his hockey career collegiately, Freddy would enroll at Boston University where he would continue to develop his game and would begin attaining multiple accolades. “My decision came down to the University of New Hampshire, BU, and the University of Maine. It was obviously a tough decision, but having the opportunity to play in Boston under head coach Jack Parker was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up”. Having retired as head coach of the Terriers after the 2012-13 season, his 40th, Jack Parker finished his coaching career as one of the most decorated college hockey coaches of all time. A three-time NCAA Tournament champion, a record 24 NCAA Tournament appearances, the records for Most Wins with One School, Most Frozen Four Appearances, Most Beanpot Victories, as well as seemingly countless other honors, it was not too difficult to see why Meyer would elect to go to BU and play under Parker’s leadership.

Meyer and his Terrier teammates would find themselves obtaining both adversity and success. He tells me that, “three out of my four years we lost the game that would have put us in the Frozen Four – those stick out as missed opportunities. But obviously winning three out of four Beanpots was pretty special”. The Beanpot is an ice hockey tournament that has been in place since the 1952-53 season, and sets the stage annually for bragging rights amongst the four major college hockey schools in the Boston area; Meyer’s BU, the Boston College Eagles, the Harvard University Crimson, and the Northeastern University Huskies. Winning those three Beanpots is definitely an exceptional feat for Meyer and his teammates. In addition to those successes, Freddy Meyer was also heralded as a member of the 1999-00 All-Hockey East Rookie Team, alongside future NHLers Rick DiPietro, Ron Hainsey, and Krys Kolanos. Other collegiate honors include being named to the 2002-03 All-Hockey East First Team and the ACHA East First-Team All-American.

Freddy Meyer was never drafted by an NHL team. In fact, the thought of playing in the top professional league did not seem something attainable to him until his first season of pro hockey. “I wasn’t drafted and had to battle for every chance that I had. I didn’t realize the NHL was close until my first year pro”. The Philadelphia Flyers took note of Freddy’s hard work and determination, and ended up signing him as a free agent in May 2003. “They (the Flyers) were the most interested and it appeared as the best opportunity. Being a 5-foot-9 defenseman in 2003 before the lockout and the rule changes, there weren’t a lot of teams interested. It just inspired me to train harder and keep battling”.

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Throughout his entire career, Freddy Meyer was a puck-moving defenseman who played the game much large than his 5’9″ frame (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer; Photo credit: Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images).

The 2003-04 hockey season, Meyer’s first professionally, would see him spend almost the entire season with the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms. With head coach John Stevens and assistant coach Kjell Samuelsson at the helm, Meyer put together a very promising first season, tallying 14-goals and 14-assists for 28-points in 59-games. Freddy’s 14-goals were second only to John Slaney for goals scored by a defenseman on the hockey club. With 46-wins, 25-losses and 7-ties to go with 2-overtime losses, the Phantoms would capture the AHL’s East Division, only to lose to their division and cross-state rival the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. Regardless, for a player never drafted to play professionally, that first season demonstrated that Freddy could indeed play at an elite level. And he would even have one late season opportunity to do so in “The Show”.

“I remember my first NHL game. It was a surreal feeling. The whole experience went by so fast”. Freddy Meyer would make his NHL debut, a single game appearance with the parent club Flyers, in early March 2004. A 23-year old rookie, Meyer would take twenty shifts on the ice that game, logging over 15-minutes of ice time and getting a shot on goal. Though brief, Freddy Meyer had made it into an NHL hockey game; the first of what would be many more to come. “It was great to get a taste of the experience”, he says, “and realize that the ultimate goal wasn’t far away”.

The National Hockey League would go into a lockout for the 2004-05 season. Though this would only stand as a temporary setback in Freddy’s continuing the start of his NHL career, the lockout provided him another full season of AHL hockey with the Phantoms, and it would be a most memorable one. Accompanied by future NHL stars R.J. Umberger, Joni Pitkanen, Patrick Sharp and Dennis Seidenberg, Meyer and the Phantoms would reel off another superb season in which they amassed a record of 48-25-3-4, and would finish second in the East Division. More importantly however, the Phantoms went on a tear through the AHL playoffs, this time defeating rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the second round of the playoffs, finishing them off in five games, and then making it all the way to the Calder Cup Finals championship against the Chicago Wolves. The Phantoms would make short-work of the Wolves in the Finals by sweeping them in four games straight, and outscoring them 10-goals to 4. Meyer was widely recognized for his role in capturing the Calder Cup, as he appeared in all 21-Phantoms’ playoff games, putting up 3-goals and 9-assists along the way. The proof was there for the Flyers hierarchy, and the following season would see Freddy join them for what would be the second fullest season of his career.

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Freddy Meyer would spend parts of four seasons with the New York Islanders, combining two separate stints with the team (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer; Photo credit: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

In all, Freddy Meyer would play in the Flyers’ organization for three and a half seasons, between the Flyers and the Phantoms, before a December 16th, 2006 trade with the New York Islanders would see him shipped to Long Island with a 2007 3rd-round draft pick in exchange for veteran defenseman Alexei Zhitnik. Freddy’s time with the Flyers contains some of his best hockey memories from his career. He recalls, “playing on the powerplay in PA with Peter Forsberg, and thinking to myself ‘what am I doing here?'”. When I ask him if any veterans took him under their wing during his time with the Flyers, he says, “I played with a lot of great players. Eric Desjardins jumps out in my mind. It wasn’t his spoken words, but his work ethic and commitment level. We trained together for a couple summers in Philly, and he was amazing at his age”.

Upon being traded to the Islanders in 2006, Freddy Meyer would go onto play four more seasons in the National Hockey League, including a second stint with New York after a brief stop in Phoenix with the Coyotes. After his final NHL season in 2010-11 with the Thrashers, Meyer opted for a year in Sweden with MODO Hockey of the Swedish Elite League; his final year of the professional game. Freddy tells me, “I loved my experience of playing in the Swedish Elite League. We were in Sweden as a family, and have a lot of great memories from the six months we spent there. It’s great hockey, and an unbelievable quality of life”. Former NHL teammates Rob Schremp (New York Islanders) and Mikael Tellqvist (Phoenix Coyotes) also played with MODO that season too.

Unfortunately though, Freddy would call it a career shortly after his lone season with MODO. “I had had a season ending concussion in Atlanta, and then the following season in Sweden I received another concussion. At that point, we made a decision as a family that it was time to step away from the rink”. In 281-regular season games in the NHL, Freddy Meyer amassed 20-goals and 53-assists for 73-points; solid offensive career numbers for any defenseman to have played a similar amount of games. But the career statistic that comes most to mind (at least for me) about Freddy is that in those 281-games, he also compiled 155-penalty minutes. That number speaks to a fearless style of play that he embodied, and is at least a statistical insight into Meyer’s play as a constant battler on the ice and in his own end. Besides the Lucic play while he was with the Thrashers, if you ever had the pleasure of watching Freddy on the ice, you would have seen multiple instances of him utilizing his 5-foot, 9-inch frame to place a hit on an opposing player, thus neutralizing a scoring rush by the opponent; it was always a pleasure to watch him play.

Team USA called upon Freddy too in three separate international tournaments; the 1999 World U18 Championships in Germany, the 2001 World Junior Championships in Moscow, Russia, and then the 2006 World Hockey Championships in Riga, Latvia. “It’s an incredible feeling to wear the Red, White and Blue”, Freddy says and, “nothing compares to the experience of competing with your fellow countrymen”.

After retiring as a player, Freddy became thoroughly involved in coaching the game instead. “We returned to the USA, and I started looking for job opportunities. I was hired by the Los Angeles Kings, and worked two seasons for their minor league affiliate the Manchester Monarchs as an assistant coach. I am currently going into my third year being the head coach of a Tier-3 junior team in the Greater Boston area, the East Coast Wizards. Additionally, I started Dream Big HockeyStars, where we run camps, clinics and private lessons for aspiring players”.

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Freddy helping to coach youngsters in his “Dream Big HockeyStars” program. (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer)

As a player, Freddy Meyer exemplified a quality that is dear to me personally, and that made a him a very successful hockey player – the concept of outworking his opposition. I ask Freddy what the most important thing is that he has learned throughout his hockey career. “Set your sights high and Dream Big. I was an undersized defenseman that wasn’t drafted. I needed to outwork my competition in order to have success. Never give up, and continue to push yourself outside of your comfort levels”. It is obvious to me that Freddy Meyer indeed set his own sights high and dreamed big – he played nearly 300 games in the National Hockey League with strong success, despite anything that would have inclined himself or naysayers to think otherwise. He outworked the opposition, whether it was physically out on the ice, or whether it was any doubt that may have crept in – Freddy kept it all at bay. Freddy Meyer’s career is an inspirational one consisting of big dreams that came true.

If you would like to learn more about Freddy Meyer’s hockey program, please visit his website at http://www.dreambighockeystars.com

 

 

“Every Step”: A Conversation with Lorne Stamler

“The hockey world and players are like an extended family”, he says. “The person you fought with on the ice will have your back off the ice in anything that you do. We are a special breed…”. In my mind’s eye, as he shares his story with me, I realize that Lorne Stamler has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Hockey players and those who love the game are unique, but are bonded with one another. I think that this applies especially to the generation of hockey enthusiasts from the time that Stamler played the game; the colorful 1970s and early-80s were a magical time for hockey. And this former Los Angeles King, Toronto Maple Leaf and Winnipeg Jet is a very kind man, who possesses an immense understanding of the interconnection of each facet of hockey. The players, the fans, the coaches, the teams, the arenas, the dynasties, the heroes, the goats… Stamler’s introspective nature into hockey gives me both goosebumps and a warmth in my heart at the same time.

Lorne Stamler was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on August 9th, 1951, but would live there for only the first two years of his life before he and his family moved to Atikokan; a township in the Rainy River District of Northwestern, Ontario. It would be in Atikokan where Stamler would begin to play hockey. “I started to learn to skate at the age of two, and started to play organized hockey when I was three years old”, he tells me. I know that this is not an uncommon age to begin learning the game in Canada, but I marvel nonetheless at the tender age Lorne was when he first laced up his skates. “My dad was the coach, and my older brother Greg was one of my teammates. Ice time was never a problem, since the outdoor rink was by our house. We would skate before school, during lunch time, after school, and then would play our regular hockey game after dinner”, Stamler recalls. “This is what we did from the middle of October until the end of April; all outside”.

While I am sure that the same childhood memories ring true for seemingly millions of Canadian kids, there is something about the way that Stamler describes his youth that is warm and inviting. It was a different era indeed, and as far as the NHL was concerned, the 1950s and 1960s, prior to expansion, were arguably the game’s “Golden Age” – hockey at its finest. “When I was growing up, there were only six teams in the NHL. Living in Canada, if you were French, your team was Montreal; if you were English, it was Toronto”. So many of the great players from Stamler’s childhood, almost too many to name, have since been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Simpler times indeed, but a greater game perhaps. “I was always a Toronto Maple Leaf fan”, he recalls, “and my dream was to play for them some day. My favorite hockey player was always (Chicago Blackhawks legend) Bobby Hull, but (Toronto’s) Johnny Bower and Dave Keon were right up there too”.

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Lorne Stamler would see many of his childhood dreams come true, one of those being playing for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler)

Though he was a Maple Leafs fan regardless, Lorne Stamler would soon find himself residing much closer to “Les Habitants” than Toronto, and would see himself delve further into the game as he worked his way from Bantams, to Midgets and Junior. “When I was eleven, we moved to Matagami, Quebec; about 600-miles north of Montreal. My dad was a miner and a master mechanic, so we went to where the jobs were”. A year before beginning his Junior career, Stamler regularly trekked back and forth between Matagami and the main town on the Harricana River, the town of Amos, Quebec – a distance of 114-miles – where he would play for the Amos Comets. “My dad and I would go to Amos three times a week for eight o’clock games, and get home at two o’clock in the morning. He would go to work, and I would go to school the next day”. Hard to even imagine, but the commitment was obviously there in Lorne’s heart from a very young age, and the support came readily from his parents.

While playing for Amos, Stamler was drafted by the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey League for Major Junior hockey. Though he would assemble decent seasons with the Marlboros of 2-goals and 3-assists in 25-games played in 1968-69, followed by 6-goals and 12-assists in 51-games the following year, the initial transition at first was not that easy for Lorne. “I lived with a family there and went to York Memorial High School. The first three weeks that I was there, I was homesick”; though this would not last for long and Stamler had a great support network around him. “The family I lived with was exceptional and made me a part of their family. I still visit with their children to this day. My mom and dad were my rocks though; they would always call me after every game and boost me up. My second year there, Fred Barrett (former Minnesota North Stars and Los Angeles Kings player) lived up the road from me, so we became very close; still to this day”. Having numerous positives from family and friends carried over onto the ice as well, as Stamler and his Marlboro teammates would make it to the OHL’s championship that second season, but would lose the J. Ross Robertson Cup to the rival Montreal Junior Canadiens; Stamler would put up 4-goals and 7-assists during Toronto’s playoff run.

Recognizing that his success level in Major Junior was not necessarily translating into a direct route to a professional career, Lorne Stamler decided it was best to prepare for the future, perhaps envisioning the responsibilities that come with life after hockey. “I was a mediocre junior player, and I knew that I needed to get an education first”. College scouts recruited players on the edge of the professional bubble, if not outside of it, and when Michigan Tech sought out Stamler, he readily accepted the opportunity; the lasting impact upon him that attending university would have would be profound. With Toronto Marlboros teammates Graham Wise, Rick Quance, and Gary Crosby all considering attending Michigan Tech too, and eventually doing so with him, Lorne found the place where he was meant to be and play hockey. “The coach at Michigan Tech was John MacInnes, who was very well known as a great coach. So to get good coaching and an education was better than struggling in juniors”.

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Skating for the Michigan Tech Huskies, Lorne and his teammates made it all the way to the NCAA national championship in 1974. (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

Thinking back on his time at Michigan Tech, Lorne is able to summarize the experience quite concisely – “Michigan Tech was the greatest four years of my life”. While posting a modest 8-goals and 5-assists in 32-games throughout his freshman campaign, the following years would see him become a most productive scorer, putting up seasons of 20, 17, and 26-goals in no more than 39-games each season. On top of that, Stamler would be named a Second Team All-WCHA player during his senior season (1973-74) and make a run with his fellow Huskies to the National Championship game that same season. As a quick summary of those four years at Michigan Tech, especially his senior year championship run, Stamler says “I received a great education while playing the game that I love. And to top it off, my freshman year I was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings (8th-round of the 1971 NHL Amateur draft, 103rd overall). Senior year was the most memorable because we had such a good team, and going to the Frozen Four in Boston will never be forgotten. I remember playing against Harvard in the first game, and we were losing 5-to-3 with about 3-minutes to go. We scored, and then scored again with just seconds left to tie it. We went into overtime, and our line scored the winning goal. Just an awesome memory. We lost to Minnesota in the finals, but the following year the same four pairings (in the Frozen Four) were in St. Louis and Tech beat Minnesota in the finals (Stamler had already graduated). I still go back to Tech every so often for reunions and see all the guys”.

I closely examine a photo that Stamler has sent me of him posing with skates on and stick in hand, wearing the long ago gold and royal purple colors of the 1970s Los Angeles Kings. I am a traditionalist, and I wish that the Kings never strayed away from those colors and jerseys to begin with; they are far more regal in my opinion than black and silver, or any of the variations that the Kings have had since. Stamler’s first NHL goal was scored November 28th, 1976 in the long forgotten McNichols Sports Arena against goaltender Michel Plasse of the Colorado Rockies; a team and a goaltender from a bygone era. I am imagining the retro jerseys of both teams, the purple colors at least partially emblazoned on both teams, as Stamler beats Plasse from the high slot.

I am anxious to learn of Stamler’s memories with Los Angeles. He tells me, “being drafted by L.A. was a big surprise. Being in college, we never expected to get drafted because they were not taking kids from there at the time. I think they (the NHL) knew we would stay in college and let the colleges develop the players like the NFL does. They had to offer you a contract, and I remember getting a letter from the Kings offering me $3,500 a year; that was enough incentive to stay in school. But at least when I graduated I had a choice to either go to camp or go out in the workforce”.

Beginning his professional career in 1974, Stamler would see his first two seasons with the organization being spent with their minor league affiliates; the former Springfield Kings of the American Hockey League for the 1974-75 season, and the Fort Worth Texans of the Central Hockey League for all of the 1975-76 season. Stamler’s numbers with the Texans in ’75-’76 were quite good, as he finished third in team scoring by posting 33-goals and 33-assists for 66-points in 76-games. Los Angeles would take note, and it would not be long into his third season of pro hockey that he would receive a promotion to the NHL.

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Stamler would score his first NHL goal November 28th, 1976 against the Colorado Rockies and goaltender Michel Plasse (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler)

“I was called up in 1976-77 because the Kings had a lot of injuries”, he recalls. Stamler had been in the midst of his second season with Fort Worth when he got the call. “I remember going into Colorado, and Krazy George was in the stands”. The Colorado Rockies were one of the many professional sports teams that Krazy George Henderson, the self-proclaimed inventor of “The Wave” and drum banging wild fan, worked for during his career. “My first goal was very exciting, and then when I scored another I thought I was good to stay for a while. Well, politics plays a big roll in the game, and thus I was sent back down to the minors”. Stamler would actually have a superb second season with the Texans both before and after his call up to the Kings, and he would finish the 1976-77 CHL season by recording 19-goals and 21-assists for 40-points in a mere 48-games, plus an additional 4-goals and 2-assists in 5-playoff games as well. Despite a brief stay in the NHL, Lorne fondly recognizes, “my dream had come true though. Playing in the NHL and scoring a goal; I was a happy camper…”.

Lorne Stamler would only play two more games as a Los Angeles King, as part of a brief appearance with the parent club during the 1977-78 season. Stamler’s all-time totals as a Kings player ended up being 2-goals and an assist scored in 9-games. But memories and friendships are not captured at all in numbers. The Kings of the 1970s possessed an array of colorful veterans, with whom Lorne would receive guidance and tutelage from. “Playing with (Marcel) Dionne, (Butch) Goring and all the other greats was very intimidating, but they took me under their wing and helped me every possible way”. Recently inducted Hockey Hall of Fame goaltending great, Rogatien Vachon, likely played the biggest role in adjusting Lorne to life in the NHL and Los Angeles. “Rogie was the biggest help; he had me up to his place for dinner several times because I lived in the hotel. He is one of the nicest people around”. Recognizing that everyone had a job to do just the same, Stamler kept things in perspective. “Everybody was helpful, but deep down you are fighting for a job. They wanted you to do well, but as long as it didn’t mean you taking their job”.

June of 1978 would see a good sized trade go down between the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Lorne would see yet another dream come true by suiting up with the team that most of his childhood heroes played for. The Kings would ship Stamler along with tough guy Dave Hutchison to the Leafs in exchange for Brian Glennie, Scott Garland, Kurt Walker, and a 2nd-round draft choice that would eventually become one of the Kings’ all-time great defensemen, Mark Hardy. For Stamler, the trade brought excitement and much opportunity on the horizon. “Toronto was the team I wanted to play for when I was a kid and my dreams came true. Being traded to Toronto was a good thing because Roger Neilson was the coach, and he believed in specialty teams. I was a penalty-killer and my partner was Garry Monahan. We backed up Jimmy Jones and Jerry Butler as the second set of killers. To play with greats like Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, and Mike Palmateer was a thrill”.

With the Leafs, Stamler would play his most full NHL season up until that point in time. 45-games would see him contribute 4-goals and 3-assists. The stint in Toronto brought warm moments for he and his family, but bittersweet too. “My mom and dad got to see me play live and score a goal, so that kind of completed the circle. Dad was very sick, and after the game where I scored he went home and passed away shortly after. He had completed his journey in life”. Reflecting on what Lorne said, there is a profound gravity to his experience. Idolizing the Leafs, playing Major Junior in Toronto, living in Ontario, donning the Maple Leaf crest, having his parents see him play an NHL game before their own eyes, one of his last moments shared with his father. As each individual step was traced, it would not be until afterward that the circle on that portion of his life was complete. It is remarkable to contemplate this, and what Lorne must have felt at the time.

In 1979, the National Hockey League would expand to include four new teams out of the defunct rival World Hockey Association. The NHL welcomed the Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets into the fold. With their seventh selection in the expansion draft, Winnipeg selected Lorne, nabbing him from Toronto. The inaugural season Jets were a very interesting team in many ways. They possessed talent in leading scorer Morris Lukowich, future firepower in “Miracle on Ice” gold medalist Dave Christian, leadership from Swedish great and team captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, toughness coming from the likes of Jimmy Mann and Barry Melrose, and though briefly, even hockey royalty and greatness in the likes of Bobby Hull, Stamler’s number one boyhood hero.

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Lorne Stamler would see NHL action with three different teams; the Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

Looking back on the expansion Jets, there are fond memories for Lorne. Jokingly he says, “We had a great time in Winnipeg, but it was too cold”. But on a more meaningful and serious note, Stamler adds, “when I went to Winnipeg, it was another chance to continue my NHL career. I still had a lot of relatives there, so it was great to see them all again. Tom McVie was our coach, and he kept things very interesting, knowing we would struggle during our first year in the league. The two most memorable things though in Winnipeg were that my oldest daughter Loren was born there, and then in January Bobby Hull sat beside me in our dressing room. The thrill of playing with an idol of mine was awesome. I had a picture of me with Bobby, Ken Wharram, and Gump Worsley when I was eleven at Bobby’s hockey school in Hull, Quebec and I showed it to him; he said to me, ‘see where it got you!'”. Once again, things had seemed to come full circle for Lorne. Returning to the city of his birth, being close to family again, and the opportunity to play alongside his childhood hero.  In what would be his final NHL season, Stamler would finish 1979-80 having played 62-games, totaling 8-goals and 7-assists.

The Jets opted not to resign Stamler in 1980, and for a brief period of time Lorne considered calling it quits. New York Islanders scout and eventual Assistant General Manager Jimmy Devellano entered the picture, and ended up signing Lorne to the Islanders organization with the thought that he could be useful to the team on Long Island as they were enjoying the beginnings of their four-year run at the Stanley Cup. Lorne instead ended up being assigned to play with the Isles’ CHL affiliate Indianapolis Checkers. “I still wanted to play, so I went. Indy turned out to be awesome, and after my second year there I was working in the office and also served as a part-time player-coach. With the late Coach Fred Creighton, we won two cups back to back and I was a big help in those victories”. In fact, Stamler played in every playoff game for both years of the Checkers’ championship campaigns. Familiar Checkers teammates on those championship teams included long time NHL goaltender Kelly Hrudey, Stanley Cup champions Greg Gilbert, Gord Dineen and Mats Hallin, as well as former longtime Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier. Rather remarkable too is that in the two years that the Checkers won the CHL championships, the New York Islanders mirrored the success those same seasons by winning the Stanley Cup.

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Stamler mixing it up in front of the Chicago net with defenseman Mike O’Connell and goaltending great Tony Esposito (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

After the four years with Indianapolis, it was time for Lorne to move on from hockey. Another completed circle. The last part of the circle for Lorne’s time in Indianapolis was the birth of his second daughter, Lisa, during his final season with the Checkers; a most fitting bookend to four wonderful years with the organization. “I retired in 1984. And at this time in my life, I have not had the blades on in seven years. I tried to get involved when Phil Esposito was getting the Lightning going in Tampa, but they didn’t want any help at the time. So at present, I am not involved in hockey”. Living in Florida, Lorne occasionally takes in an NHL game, but things have changed. “I go to one Lightning game a year. I am not a fan, but I like to sit in the nosebleed seats and see what should happen. The game has changed so much and has become more European; I really can’t relate to it”.

Lorne Stamler’s hockey career seems to be typified by very unique, purposeful but unpredictable circles of life that make complete and total sense once they are complete. Like I said at the beginning, it is very interesting to take notice of how Lorne recognizes, seemingly from the outside looking in at his life and his hockey, that everything is interconnected in one way or another; things happen for a reason. “I have learned many things throughout my career,  but most of all is – if you have a dream, don’t ever stop pursuing it. Things happen in a strange way, and the Good Lord will watch you every step”. As he tells me this, I have a bit of an epiphany – Lorne Stamler is absolutely, one-hundred-and-ten percent correct. Strange things do happen in our lives and in our careers, but they end up making sense in the end. Lorne has seen it take place a few times in his career and in his life. I have learned something from Lorne. Not just about his hockey career and his story. I have learned something about myself too. Perhaps we all can. We just need to keep following our own circles – every step!