“To have a dream and never quit” ~Chris Langevin, former Buffalo Sabre

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Inspired as a boy by their introductory song, Sabre Dance, Chris Langevin would end up playing 22-games for “the Blue & Gold” of the NHL. (Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images).

You can picture him clearly. A boy all of 11 or 12 years of age. The early 1970s. Expansion of teams in the National Hockey League had become somewhat of an epidemic at that time. And there was a rival league too. Huddled up in bed at night, a small AM radio in hand hidden under the covers to prevent his parents from hearing. Evening in the suburbs of Montreal no less, and a young Chris Langevin is listening to broadcasts of Buffalo Sabres’ hockey games. The frenzied trill of an orchestra as the Sabres’ introductory theme, Sabre Dance, leads them onto the ice, instantly invoking visions of their fabled “French Connection”-line soaring along the ice. Richard Martin, Rene Robert, and Langevin’s future teammate, the greatest Sabre of them all, Gilbert Perreault.

“I can still hear that song in my head. That rally song had something about it; almost hypnotic. It had a real impact on me. I’d be lying in bed at night as a kid listening to the Sabres game. Living in the suburbs of Montreal, I don’t even know how we got that radio broadcast, but we did. And that music… I’ll always remember the music of that song coming through my radio. For some reason, it really reached into me. Something that I have never forgotten, and every time I think of that song today it still can give me chills”.

It’s mid-October, and I am spending a rainy evening in Buffalo chatting with former Buffalo Sabres winger Chris Langevin. To say that Chris did his job as a hockey player is an understatement. In fact, it is so greatly understated that many are unaware of what this man accomplished in a relatively brief professional career. Chris himself downplays it to me, whereas I look at him in an almost a heroic light. But I feel compelled to remind him that the way he played the game of hockey truly meant something to other people. Whether it be the teammates that he protected, the odd but incredibly talented coaches he played for, or the fans of the game like me.

“I started skating when I was about 3 or 4-years old. My family and I lived in West Mount, a suburb of Montreal. Some of the memories that I’ll always have are skating in circles on an outdoor rink as child”, Langevin is saying, and I feel like I am right there with him as he looks back in his mind’s eye. “The rink was covered with a roof but it was totally open on the walls. I used to wear these Montreal Canadiens socks. They were probably a bit too large for me. I would be skating around in circles. I just loved to skate; always have. My parents would be watching me and laughing at me because the socks would start to fall down and you could see my long underwear underneath. I must have looked ridiculous”, he recalls with a hearty laugh.

While Langevin was always a Canadiens fan, it was those radio broadcasts and that entrancing Sabre Dance theme that really took hold of him during his younger years, leading him to falling in love with the game of hockey; a sport that was readily available to him in the province of Quebec. “It was pretty easy and obviously a really good thing for kids to play hockey. Organized hockey was always around, and the costs were included with the taxes that we paid, so there was really no cost other than the equipment we needed to play. I probably started playing organized hockey at the age of 10. We played about one game a week, and most of the games we played were played outdoors”. Perhaps stepping back into hockey’s roots, the simpler game of Langevin’s youth seems far more enjoyable to me. “Because most of the games were played outdoors, you know, we would have to shovel the ice and all. It certainly wasn’t the same as the game is today. It was a just a bunch of us kids playing. It was hilarious sometimes too – I remember playing some games in the rain. I lived fairly close to the rink, so sometimes when it was raining I would be walking to the rink only to find that we weren’t playing because of the weather, and you would just be devastated because you were really lucky if you played even two times a week”. Born November 27th, 1959, the proximity of Langevin to hockey’s most storied franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, provided some early thrills. “I remember getting to see Jean Beliveau score his 500th career goal. And I actually had the opportunity to meet him multiple times.

The more that Chris Langevin skated and played, the better he became. And though that was the case as he progressed through all levels of the game, as a teenager the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League took note of the young lad. From here, Langevin’s place in the game would forever change. “I was one of the last draft picks taken during my draft year for junior. I remember thinking, ‘Chicoutimi? Where the hell is that?!’. But to me though, it was my dream. I was never a good skater, and so I had never thought or envisioned getting that far”.

In Chicoutimi, Chris had to contend with one of hockey’s oddest coaches of all time in Orval Tessier. “Orval was the strangest coach that I ever played for. He’s the same guy that when he coached the Chicago Blackhawks made that infamous quote about his players needing heart transplants after the team had lost during the playoffs. He never really helped you learn anything. I remember going to him sometimes and saying to him, ‘I have been working on this play, what do you think?’ or ‘what do you feel about this in my training to help me be a better player?’, and he’d just say ‘I don’t care’ and walk away. It was really bizarre”. As Chris and I talk, we agree that he played for a natural hat trick of coaches who marched to the beat of their own drum; Tessier, Mike Keenan and Scotty Bowman. “With the other two coaches, (Keenan and Bowman) they were much different in their own way but were obviously incredibly successful. Tessier on the other hand was just plain weird. After he made that ‘heart transplant’ comment, I don’t know how much more coaching he did after that”.

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Battling for a puck along the boards, Chris Langevin was a superb team captain during his time with the Rochester Americans. (Photo provided courtesy of Chris Langevin).

The star player for the Sagueneens during Langevin’s time was a future 3-time Stanley Cup winner Guy Carbonneau. Langevin and Carbonneau were teammates in Chicoutimi for three years, and during that stretch Carbonneau finished in the top ten in scoring for the QMJHL, including the second overall scorer his final year in major junior. Carbonneau would need a protector out on the ice, and Langevin fit the bill quite well. “Guy was certainly an offensive force, eh?”, Chris asks me. “I had always been a goal scorer, myself. But I went to camp, and ended up playing with Carbonneau on a line. I would stick up for guys like him. I would drop the gloves, and I actually did very well at it. But it was very different for me. It was my job to protect Guy, but at the same time I went away from being a goal scorer; I protected a player like him. But it is also funny how things work out too. I transitioned from being a goal scorer to being a protector, and then Guy later in his career went from being a scorer to one of the best defensive specialists to play the game”.

While Carbonneau would explode for seasons of 141 and 182-points his last two years of major junior, Langevin would put up solid numbers of his own, including two straight 20-plus goal seasons and a final season with the Sagueneens that saw him score better than a point per game (22-goals and 30-assists for 52-points in only 46-games). Besides Carbonneau, many of Langevin’s Chicoutimi teammates would go onto careers in the NHL. Gilles Hamel, a teammate of Langevin’s during his final year of major junior, would eventually end up being alongside him with two more teams, the Sabres and the Rochester Americans, later on in their careers, while other Sagueneens players Gilbert Delorme, Alan Haworth, Gord Donnelly, Sam St. Laurent,  Louis Sleigher, and “Super Mario’s” older brother, Alain Lemieux, would all spend time in the NHL. “I’d have to say from my time in Chicoutimi, a good 10-12 players went on to spend at least some time in the NHL”, Chris recalls.

Despite a new found role and top-notch teammates whom he protected, Langevin never thought of his career going much further than playing major junior. In fact, he would not even be drafted into the league by an NHL team. “I honestly thought that I wouldn’t be playing hockey anymore. But I ended up getting invited to a camp in Saginaw (the Gears of the IHL). I had always been an aggressive player, but I could still score. I did a lot of hitting, was good in the corners, and I was always protecting the better players. I felt that I was complimentary to the skilled guys. But I ended up walking into the dressing room in Saginaw, and I immediately thought to myself, ‘Are you friggin’ kidding me? This is a joke! It was like Slap-Shot 2‘. Even though I played a physical game, I was not necessarily a big guy at 6-foot and close to 200lbs. I looked around, and there are all these huge guys who were really not good hockey players”.

Elaborating more on that thought, Chris explains that “the IHL really needed to have a certain amount of rookies to qualify as a minor development league. The IHL could probably be equated to today’s ECHL; a AA level of hockey. Going in, it was actually scary to see all of these goons. You think to yourself, ‘I just wanna go home’. I wasn’t the biggest guy, so I was an easy target. I honestly thought, ‘I swear to God, this is Charlestown! This is the Charlestown Chiefs from Slap-Shot!”. But Langevin stuck it out and stayed in Saginaw for the 1980-81 season. He would finish fourth overall in team scoring with 35-goals and 48-assists, and would become a champion in only his first season of professional hockey.

Winning the IHL’s Turner Cup championship was “Amazing!”, as Chris describes it. “I remember early on in that season I was a bit intimidated by the size of the players around me. We were playing a game and there was this huge guy who had the puck behind the net. I came around and absolutely smoked him behind the net; just smoked him. Well, he got up and ended up chasing me down the ice, so I knew I had to stand up for myself – if I didn’t at that point, it would’ve been over with most likely. So I turned around and dropped the gloves, and ended up proving myself to the league and to my teammates”.

As he had protected players in Chicoutimi, Chris Langevin found himself in the role of the protector once again. The top scorer in the IHL that season was Saginaw’s own Marcel Comeau; a shifty, but smaller centerman who at 6-foot only weighed 165lbs. Comeau led the league in points with 126 and in assists with 82 of them. It was Langevin’s job to protect Comeau now. “I was put on the first line with Marcel Comeau. He would feed me the puck, and I put together my best offensive numbers of my career at the pro level. I played the game bigger than what I was. Looking back that was wrong in some ways because it led to a lot of injuries, but it was what also got me to the NHL. I had always wanted to be a scorer, and at least in Saginaw I was able to do that too, but I also had a role to play. It also depends on the timing that you get with a team and what their needs are. I was never a goon; always played on the top lines. But I was sort of condemned because I was good at dropping the gloves. In the IHL, everyone was really out for themselves because we were all fighting for jobs. But after the CHL’s Houston Apollos folded we ended up getting some of their players like John Gibson and Scott Gruhl, and we became a really good hockey team. We held together, and ended up winning that championship”.

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Chris Langevin (row-2, third from right) and his Saginaw Gears teammates won the IHL’s Turner Cup during the 1980-81 season; Langevin’s first professional season. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

After the championship run in Saginaw, Chris ended up getting a first time opportunity to make an NHL club, and he ended up advancing at least to the next closest level. “After that season in Saginaw when we won the cup, I had an agent and I got invited to a tryout camp in Buffalo. I didn’t make the Sabres but I did receive a contract and signed with Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate the Rochester Americans. I went from making a yearly salary of $7,500 with Saginaw to making $20,000 with Rochester – I was elated!”. For Langevin’s first two seasons in Rochester he would play under the watchful eye of “Iron Mike” Keenan and would be reunited with former Chicoutimi teammates Gilles Hamel and Alan Haworth as well. Rochester’s hockey club during the early 1980s was incredibly talented to say the least, and could have rivaled numerous NHL clubs of that time too. It would not take long for Langevin and team to find success and demonstrate how solid of a hockey team they were.

“It was amazing. Even if I had not made it to the NHL, I was pretty happy where I was with Rochester. You did learn from older guys who were there like Yvon Lambert, Phil Myre; older guys like that who had been around and were trying to extend their careers. There were a lot of French-Canadian guys on our team. And we all wanted to win so badly and find success that we used to have fights in practice even. I’m not kidding you. There would be fights during practice between the French and the English-speaking players. Everyone was just so intense. We would have our practices in Lake Shore right along Lake Erie, and that rink would be so cold – like 20-below; you would just freeze. Guys would shoot pucks in there at other guys’ ankles. It wasn’t done to be malicious. We were all just competing with one another to get to the next level. The guys on the team from the west were bigger and stronger, while the Quebec guys were smaller and more talented. I was stuck in the middle, having to protect who I could”, Langevin recalls with laughter and mild incredulity over the situation.

As he had done with Guy Carbonneau and Marcel Comeau previously, Langevin now protected Rochester’s top scorer, Geordie Robertson. “He was the guy that I played with the most. I still think he is one of the highest scorers in Amerks’ history. I was his protector. Geordie had influence with the coaches as a seasoned veteran, and he certainly had a role with me playing with him. He’d go and antagonize other players, and then I’d jump in to do my job”. One of the greatest seasons in Amerks history, 1982-83, saw Robertson lead all Rochester players in scoring with 46-goals and 73-assists for 119-points; good enough for third overall in the league, while his protector Langevin led the team in penalty minutes with 255 and finished sixth overall in the league for that category. Speaking further on his teammates: “all of the French guys on the team were very close and incredibly talented. Guys like Gilles Hamel, Jean-Francois Sauve, Bob Mongrain, Jacques Cloutier. They all went on to solid careers in the NHL”.

And then there was Keenan. The 1984-85 Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL’s coach of the year, Mike Keenan would eventually win the Stanley Cup in 1994 with the New York Rangers and had three other Stanley Cup Finals appearances. But it was his extremely tough coaching style and the general attitude he had towards his players that earned him the nickname “Iron Mike”. Keenan was renowned for messing with the heads of his players and some of his tactics in doing so have been widely questioned. But what cannot be questioned is the results he achieved, and what would culminate into a Calder Cup championship for himself, Langevin and the Amerks for the 1982-83 season.

“Mike Keenan – playing for him was great. For me, it was absolutely great. He was very demanding, but I had zero issues playing for him. I personally don’t think he is given enough credit for his coaching abilities. He created drills in practices that no one knew what the hell he was trying to teach us. I think a big part of it was to keep players focused and on their toes. He was incredibly innovative; just very ahead of his time. Keenan was just so intense, and he would lose it with the most talented players. He really singled out players who were not playing up to their potential, or for a lack of effort. But he did so to make them better players and help them move onto the NHL, his primary mandate. I really have nothing but good things to say about him. I did find him a bit strange as he moved on throughout his time in the NHL. In my opinion, he was the best coach that I ever played for”.

Winning the Calder Cup with Rochester, his second championship in only three years of playing professionally, and eventually earning the captaincy in Rochester was proof enough that Langevin had found solid ground in his own game. “I always kept trying to get to the 20-goal mark. I always thought that I was capable of doing that, and it was a goal to do that in the NHL, to go along with 200-penalty minutes too. It was really something that I worked toward and felt that it was a reasonable objective”.

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Setting the example for others and protecting his teammates helped lead to Langevin’s captaincy with the Rochester Americans (Photo provided courtesy of Nathaniel Oliver).

The Buffalo Sabres took note of Langevin’s determination and almost reckless abandonment for himself in order to get the job done and win hockey games. Going through an “injury bug” of their own, Buffalo brought Langevin up on an emergency recall to join them. “I drove from Rochester to Buffalo, which is about an hour and 15 to an hour and 30-minute drive, and then immediately hopped onto a bus with the team to ride up for a game in Toronto. I’m not flying – I’m busing it! In my first NHL game!”, Langevin laughs heartily at this memory, realizing that he spent all this time riding buses in the minors, and then for his first NHL game he ends up riding a bus once more. “After the game in Toronto though, we would fly to Detroit and then to Boston as well”.

Langevin would remain with the Sabres for a 6-game stretch and would even score his first NHL goal. Dreams were indeed coming true. “I honestly feel that I played the best hockey of my career during those 6-games. I think the biggest thing that hurt me was that I wasn’t actually drafted by Buffalo. During those games the other players on the left side were Craig Ramsay, Paul Cyr and Dave Andreychuk, and I felt that I outplayed at least two of those guys. I was playing nearly 20-minutes a game too, on a line with Sean McKenna and Gilles Hamel. But I hadn’t been picked by the Sabres, and I only had one goal during that stretch, so I think it was easier for them to send me back down once the injured players returned. Drafted players have a longer leash and always seemed to get the second chances, which is perfectly understandable”.

The goal would come against the Boston Bruins and goaltender Pete Peeters during Langevin’s third of the six games. It was a beauty too. “We were losing to Boston 4-0 or something like that. Sean McKenna was skating behind the net. He threw it out front to me in the slot and I just blasted it right by Peeters; he didn’t even see it. And you want your first goal to be like that. Not a fluke or bouncing off a skate or stick. Just a clean shot right by the goalie. And on the very next shift I had an open net again and I just missed putting it in past Peters. Just think that if I could have put that one in too that game could have had a different outcome”.

But arguably the more quintessential moment for Chris during his callup, the one that really brought everything home for him and come full circle, was being up close and personal with the greatest Sabre of them all, Gilbert Perreault. “After getting the call for the game against Toronto, we flew to Detroit to play the Red Wings. And guess who I end up rooming with on the road? Gilbert Perreault! We’re in the same room together. I was just in awe. Really more like shock, actually. I sat down on my bed, and he just immediately starts talking with me. Just talking, talking and talking. I guess they could not find anybody who wanted to room with him because Gilbert really liked to talk and was not a fan of the ritual pregame nap. I usually liked to take a nap before a game, but I didn’t sleep before that one and it did not bother me at all. But Gilbert was just a true gentleman. Needless to say that song (Sabre Dance) came back into my head again, here I am chatting in the same room as Gilbert Perreault”.

After those six games Langevin was sent back down to Rochester. “It was really a big letdown when I got sent back down, but I understood the math behind it and what was going on behind the scenes. I knew that I was playing better than some of the other players at my position, but you are given more of a chance if you are a draft pick versus someone who isn’t, like me. But the one thing that I realized about myself was that I was getting better as a player as I was going forward. I had improved to the point that I knew I could play and skate in the NHL”.

1984-85 saw Chris have another solid season offensively and in penalty minutes with the Amerks. He set his career high in goals scored with Rochester, 19, and did so in just 63-games all the while putting up 212-penality minutes. But what would perhaps be more important for the future, Langevin’s coach for part of the season in Rochester was former Sabres great Jim Schoenfeld. The time spent with Schoenfeld would help to garner Langevin some insight into where his career was going. “I always felt that I could play for the Sabres on the left hand side. Jim Schoenfeld had coached me in Rochester during the ’84-’85 season before he got asked to suit up again as a player on defense in Buffalo because the Sabres had injuries on their blueline”.

Going into the 1985-86 campaign, “I knew that I was going to make the team that year”, Langevin recalls. “And once you get in, it’s hard to get out. I had been the captain for Schoenfeld in Rochester before he got called up to Buffalo to play. At the end of that season, I gave him a call because I knew he was going to be the coach in Buffalo (for the ’85-’86 season). I called him that summer and asked him, ‘will you give me a chance?’. He asked me back, ‘will you come into camp in the best shape of your life and play the exact same way as you did in Rochester?’. And I did exactly that – I worked out all summer really intensely and came into camp in the best shape of my life, and I stuck”. Unfairly, 16-games into the season Langevin blew-out his knee in a game against the Quebec Nordiques, and his career was over. Chris never played a professional hockey game after that.

“I earned every ounce of what I accomplished”, he tells me. And hell, he is exactly right. He did it all and fought for it all. Nothing was handed to him. “I had a good run. It was a really cool time, but I have no regrets. The two best days in my life were one, getting to stay in a room with Gilbert Perreault, and two, when Buffalo said to me that I should go ahead and find an apartment”. Other things would end that year too, as Jim Schoenfeld would be fired by the Sabres partway through that season as the team finished exactly at .500 and failed to make the playoffs. It would also be Gilbert Perreault’s final full season in the league, as he would retire after one more year of just 20-games. Scotty Bowman’s last full season with the Sabres would be that year too before he was let go early the following year, right around the time that Perreault officially retired.

Chris Langevin has gone onto work for Bauer hockey for 21-years. 70-percent of the equipment in the NHL today comes from Bauer. Chris has worked as a developer for them throughout that time, and has found great meaning in seeing some of his life’s work in action. His career though in hockey was shaped from everything he dreamed about from a very young age.

“I just dreamed of playing in the NHL. Hearing that Sabres song in my head, wearing my Montreal Canadiens socks and embarrassing myself as a kid on the ice. It was all that I ever wanted to do. It was my number one goal. You have to dream of something in order to accomplish something. Having courage, fortitude, a lot perseverance. With all of that, it is pretty hard to take away a dream. I had a dream, and I just never quit”.

Chris and I debate a bit back and forth as to what it means to be a hero. Perhaps I am mistaken when I tell him that someone like me thinks of him as a hero for having made it to the NHL like he did. Not having been drafted. Having to change his role from what he always wanted to be on the ice to what he was required to be. No matter how he did it, he made it. Chris disagrees with me. “Come on, we’re not heroes. Playing hockey is not what constitutes a hero”. I respond, “Okay, let me better explain myself. Maybe hero is the wrong word. But you have to realize though that what you did on the ice matters to people for whatever reason. We find some value or importance in what you accomplished”. He responds, “Okay, that’s a fair analysis. When I was captain for Rochester I used to do a lot of visits at hospitals for sick children and with charities and it seemed to make a difference for people. That to me is something that stands out”.

Exactly. And because you are one of those few people who had a dream and never stopped working for it, eventually accomplishing it – that sets an example in and of itself for anyone who takes the time to listen. So yes, people like me look up to people like you. It means something. And you earned every bit of it.

 

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“Sum of all that is you” ~ Mike Forbes, former Boston Bruin and Edmonton Oiler

“For the players that I coach at Grand Valley State University, I tell them, ‘How you act and how you treat the people around you sets the stage for how well you do on the ice’. You appreciate the challenges that you encounter in life, and you are able to overcome them. Wayne Gretzky once said to us, and I always tell it to the players that I coach, ‘We don’t become a team, until you start playing for the person beside you'”. Mike Forbes has worked with the Grand Valley State University Lakers since 2007, starting first as an associate coach but then taking over as head coach in 2009; a position he has held ever since. Under Forbes’ watch, the Lakers have attained a highly impressive record of 222-61-12 and have qualified for ten consecutive ACHA Division II National Championship Tournaments, winning the tournament in 2011; the tournament features the top sixteen Division II teams in the nation. But as I speak with the former Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers defenseman on a Wednesday night in late-September, I come to learn that Mike Forbes’ superb career as a collegiate coach has stemmed from the sum of all parts that are him; the accomplishments, the experiences, the decisions he has made (both wise and regrettable in retrospect) as a player, a business man, a student, a person – and Mike is kind enough to be sharing those aspects with me.

Born September 20th in 1957, Mike Forbes began skating at the age of three and started playing organized hockey at the age of five. “I started playing house league in Georgetown, Ontario at the age of five, coming up through the ranks, and eventually playing on the travel team. There were a good number of opportunities to play. My father helped maintain the two local rinks in Georgetown. We also had an open field in behind the house where we could skate too. I played Metro Junior A at the age of 15 with the Bramalea Blues, and then I ended up being drafted into the OHA by the Kingston Canadians”.

In the first ten years of Mike Forbes’ life, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup four times. While the Leafs of those championship teams were laden with a multitude of Hall of Fame players, there was no Hall of Famer on their roster, or in the league for that matter, as physically as imposing as defenseman Tim Horton. Widely known as one of the strongest individuals to ever play the game, Horton would play 24-seasons in the NHL, ended only by his untimely death in an automobile accident in 1974. Horton, a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee in 1977, was a member of each of the Leafs’ Stanley Cup winning teams during Forbes’ childhood. It would be a chance encounter with the “ironman” Horton that would forever inspire Mike; something he holds dearly to this day.

“Debbie Ferris was a girl in my homeroom class. I ended up reconnecting with her years later and we still keep in touch on Facebook. Well, her family were friends with the Hortons. And one summer when I was about six or seven, Tim was over at her house swimming in their backyard pool. I remember thinking that he looked just like Sgt. Rock (of DC Comics); just chiseled, with that squared-off jaw. Myself and some other friends had stopped over and Tim Horton came over to say ‘hello’ to us. I had never asked anyone for their autograph before, but I got straight on my bike, road home, got a pencil and some paper, and asked Tim for his autograph. That whole experience really inspired me as a young hockey player, and is still something that I cherish to this day”.

What Forbes did not realize until many years later is that his own family were very much closely tied to the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the grandeur of the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens arena. “My grandfather lived next door to Conn Smythe”, Forbes shares with me. Smythe of course was the principal owner of the Maple Leafs and the builder of Maple Leaf Gardens. “What I did not find out until more recently was that both my grandfather and my great-uncle were some of the original investors in Maple Leafs Gardens, thus helping Conn to build the arena. They, along with numerous other people, had purchased stock in the initial offering of Maple Leaf Gardens stock. My grandparents lived near Caledon, Ontario, which was the home of Smythe’s gravel pits; Conn made his fortune selling gravel for the development of metro Toronto. The shares were $6,500 in 1927; crazy money in those days. More than a year’s salary! But knowing that my family was a part of that, and has ties to history like that is something that I hold very dearly and am quite proud of”. Forbes’ father, a worker for Bell Canada, would also take young Mike to one or two Leaf games a year, and “Hockey Night in Canada” was religiously watched on Wednesday and Saturday nights in the Forbes household.

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Defenseman Mike Forbes would play 32-games for the 1977-78 Boston Bruins, registering 4-assists and 15-penalty minutes (Photo provided courtesy of Mike Forbes).

Selected by the Kingston Canadians in the Ontario Hockey Association draft, Mike Forbes would see very limited action with Kingston due to bouts with mononucleosis. “I didn’t have too bad of a first year with Kingston”, appearing in 64-games and tallying 10-assists on the backend, “but I ended up getting mono during my second year. I tried to come back too soon, and ended up having a relapse of it as well. Here I was about 185-190lbs., and then after I contracted mono I was down to 160”. The illness would limit Mike to only 48 of the 70-games played during Kingston’s 1975-76 season.

A change in scenery at that point would greatly be needed to get Forbes back to the level where he was capable of playing, and to afford him a fresh start. “Punch Scherer (General Manager for Kingston) made it known that he was going to try trading me, and had asked me if I was willing to go somewhere else. I felt at the time that a new atmosphere might be conducive and get me playing again after having missed so much time. And so he would end up trading me to the St. Catharines Fincups”.

Here is where the story has a bit of drama to it. “Bert Templeton was the coach of the Fincups and he was an extremely colorful guy, to say the least”, Mike tells me. “Well, when I was playing for the Bramalea Blues, Bert was coaching the Hamilton Red Wings. Our team consisted of mostly 17-year old players, but many of Hamilton’s players were 20-years old or thereabouts. A really nasty brawl broke out, including with some of the fans, and a number of kids ended up in the hospital. Afterward, the Ontario government held an investigation into the behavior of the coaches and players, specifically Bert Templeton, and there ended up being the ‘McMurtry Trials’ court case. Well, I ended up testifying against Bert Templeton in the court case, and so when I found out that I was going to be playing for him in St. Catharines, I was scared sh*tless. He ended up calling me into his office my first day with the team, and he is sitting at his desk as only Bert Templeton could, and he says to me, ‘Mike Forbes…’, and I said ‘Yes sir’. And Bert said, ‘Are you the same Mike Forbes who played for Bramalea?’, I said, ‘Yes sir, I am’. Then he asks me, ‘And you’re the same Mike Forbes who testified against me in court?’, and I said, ‘Yes sir, I am’. So then Bert said to me, ‘Well that took a lot of courage!'”. Scary and as heart-racing as that conversation might have been at first, it was clear that Mike Forbes had earned the respect of his new coach.

With Templeton leading the charge, the 1976-77 Fincups scrapped their way to a record of 50-11-5 for 105-points. They were an extremely talented team with a great deal of firepower and fisticuffs as well. Future NHLers Ric Seiling, Dale McCourt and Mike Keating would each surpass the 50-goal plateau, while ten players would hit triple digits in penalty-minutes. The performance would win them the Hamilton Spectator Cup as the first overall team in the OHA that season. Perhaps even more exciting, because the Fincups had won the Memorial Cup trophy as the top major junior team in Canada the year prior, they were automatically selected to represent their country at the 1977 World Junior Championships in Czechoslovakia, along with eight other additional players from the OHA. Forbes and team would take the silver medal at the tournament, losing only a single game and that to the Soviet Union (who took gold). Forbes’ Fincups teammate, Dale McCourt, would lead all players in tournament scoring with 10-goals and 8-assists in 7-games.

Needless to say that Forbes’ final season of major junior hockey was a most memorable one, and something that he cherishes. “We were the last major junior team to represent Canada as a club team in the World Juniors. We had started that season 33-0-1; didn’t lose a game. I want to say that at least 16-guys on our roster with the Fincups made it to the NHL”, he recalls. In addition to Forbes, McCourt, Seiling and Keating, the Fincups also had Al Secord, Jay Johnston, Willie Huber, Jody Gage, Al Jensen, Rick Wamsley, Steve Hazlett, Joe Contini, and Tim Coulis who all spent time in the NHL. “I think what happened though was that we just ran out of gas. We ended up losing to the London Knights in 7-games in the semis of the OHA playoffs. All the hype of the World Juniors and the success during the season, we were just worn out and ran out of gas”.

Separately, Mike recalls another amusing Bert Templeton moment from that season. “Bert liked to use me on the powerplay, but at some point he moved me up front to wing. Well, I really wasn’t able to do much offensively. So one day during practice he blows the whistle and stops everything, and says, “Forbes, do you know why you’re playing on the fourth-line?… Because I don’t have a fifth-line!!”; a classic delivery of a line by Templeton. “Bert demanded a lot of us”, Forbes recalls, “but he made all of us better”.

While Forbes would have doubts about his own performance in his major junior career, his solid play on the blueline would find him being selected in the third-round, 52nd overall in the 1977 NHL Amateur Draft by the Boston Bruins. Look at any Bruins media guide or roster listing from the mid-late 1970s, and it’s a glimpse into some of hockey’s greatest annals. Though Forbes would join them in the later stages of that era, the club was still very much “The Big, Bad Bruins”. Looking back he tells me, “I was really happy about going to one of the ‘Original Six’ teams. The Bruins were coming off of two recent Stanley Cup championships. I didn’t feel that I had put together a junior career that was good enough to go in one of the top-five rounds of the draft, and then I ended up going in the third-round; I was pretty shocked”.

While it was former chief Bruins scout Gary Darling who would originally take note of Forbes’ skill and tout him as a higher pick, his biggest advocate in Boston would be one of the most colorful and entertaining hockey personalities of all time. “I went to camp in Boston as a 19-year old pro without a contract, but Don Cherry’s belief in me ended up getting me signed with Boston shortly after camp started. I felt that I had a slow start to training camp. We played an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers; the same game that George Plimpton played in goal for his book, Open Net. I ended up getting into three fights that night against Dave Hoyda. Don was impressed with my play and my determination. I ended up scoring a goal, and I picked up the puck and skated it over to the trainer for a keepsake. Don says to me, ‘Kid, how do you feel?’. So I said, “Well Grapes, I feel good!’. So Don laughed and said, ‘Kid, you look like sh*t!'”, referring to the physical results of his three scraps with Hoyda.

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Mike Forbes helping to defend the Boston net while Ron Grahame stands in goal for the Bruins. (Photo provided courtesy of Mike Forbes).

Cherry would be in Forbes’ corner throughout his time with the Bruins. “I really needed to play in order to feel comfortable with my own game. When I wasn’t playing, some insecurities would come out. I was 19-years old playing as a pro and just was not ready for all that comes with that. I was used mainly as the sixth or seventh defenseman at a time when mostly five defensemen were used”. Cherry would help to alleviate for Forbes any sense of being unsure. “Harry Sinden (GM) wanted to send me down to the minors, and I really needed to go down to the minors, but Don really didn’t want me to go down; he believed in me and wanted me to play. I remember him saying to me once before a game against the NHL’s old Cleveland Barons, ‘Kid, Harry wants to send you down, but I am going to put you in the lineup tonight. Play as much as you can, and get into a fight if you can too’. After the game, Don went and was complimenting me to all of the reporters, and the next day the paper was talking about how strong of a game I had and how complimentary Don Cherry was of my performance. He made it so Harry Sinden couldn’t send me down. That always really meant a lot to me that Don would do that. At that time, it was not really done, and certainly not easy, for a coach to go to bat for one of his players and put his own neck on the line but that’s what Don did”. Listening to Forbes talk about Cherry, I can hear the sincere admiration that he still has for his former coach.

Forbes’ teammates in Boston certainly made him feel welcomed in “Beantown” too, especially the aged guard on the roster. “The Bruins were a really tight knit team. After practice it was common for us to go out for lunch or for beers at The Fours“, a popular bar in Boston. “All of the players were really welcoming. Johnny Bucyk had me over at his house for Thanksgiving and Christmas”. Playing in his final NHL season, Bruins captain Johnny Bucyk was 42-years old at the time and old enough to be Forbes’ father. “Gerry Cheevers had me go with him to the Santa Anita Race Track”. Recognized by his iconic mask, the Hall of Famer Cheevers has long pursued a passion for horse racing. “Wayne Cashman used to have all the rookies buy him his meals and his beer especially while we were on the road, but it was all in good fun”. Cashman’s style of play typified that of the “Big, Bad Bruins”.

And then there was Jean Ratelle, who I was most interested in learning Forbes’ memories of. The elegant Ratelle is a 1985 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, a two time recipient of the Lady Byng Trophy for his gentlemanly play, who also scored over 1200-points during his NHL career. “I already had a connection to Jean Ratelle as my mother had gone to the same school as him in Guelph, Ontario. After I had broken my ankle during my rookie year and was recovering at home in the off-season, Jean knocked on our door and stopped in to check on me. He wished me well in my recovery and offered any help that he could; I never forgot that and it really meant a lot to me”. Asked how he remembered Ratelle as a player Forbes says, “Everyone held him in very high regard. Jean dished the puck so well, and was a great playmaking centerman. A real gentleman of the game”.

Brad Park would be Forbes’ defense partner with the Bruins in most situations. In fact, Forbes vividly recalls his first NHL game; played against the Blackhawks at the old Chicago Stadium and being on the ice for the opening faceoff. “I was on defense with Brad Park. Up front we had Don Marcotte on the left side and Bobby Schmautz was on the right, with Jean Ratelle centering both of them. Gerry Cheevers was in net. The Blackhawks had John Marks on leftwing with Stan Mikita at center; I don’t quite remember who was on right. And on defense, they had Keith Magnuson and he was paired up with none other than Bobby Orr. And Tony Esposito was in goal”. One can only imagine the excitement and awe that Mike must have felt playing his first NHL game and to do so with such company alongside of him on both ends of the ice. “I remember Wayne Messmer belting out the National Anthem, and just how incredibly loud it was in the arena. As the puck was dropped Jean Ratelle wins the draw back to me. Stan Mikita is forechecking, and I tried to send a pass across to Brad Park. Well, I totally whiffed on the pass, unintentionally. Mikita, anticipating that I was going to complete the pass and he was going to snatch the puck for a breakaway, ends up skating right by me without the puck. I ended up dumping the puck in and when I got back to the bench some of the guys on the bench said, “Hey kid, nice move”. Totally serious; they were thinking that I did it on purpose!”

It would be the aforementioned broken ankle that would eventually lead to an even more limited role with the Bruins for Forbes and a shortening of his time with the team, as Boston would send him down to their minor league affiliate, the Rochester Americans of the AHL, in March of 1978. Forbes would suit up for 32-regular season games with the Amerks along with another 6 more in the playoffs, before Sinden would recall him to Boston as added insurance during their fabled Stanley Cup Finals series against the Montreal Canadiens. While Forbes would not see any playing time during the Finals, he at least got to be part of the experience and was included by Cherry and his Bruins’ teammates during practice and in the locker room. Unfortunately for Boston, they would lose to the Canadiens in six games.

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While with the Bruins, Mike Forbes befriended and played alongside four Hall of Fame inductees, including defense partner Brad Park, as well as Gerry Cheevers, Johnny Bucyk and Jean Ratelle (Photo provided courtesy of Mike Forbes).

Forbes would play the entire 1978-79 season down in Rochester, though he would get another insurance policy call-up from the Bruins in time for the playoffs without seeing any action. In 75-games with Rochester, Forbes would tally 4-goals and 20-assists. But in the playoffs with Boston, the Bruins would be undone yet again by the Montreal Canadiens, this time in the semi-finals, in the infamous Game-7 “too many men on the ice” call, which many consider the main reason that Don Cherry would lose his job as Bruins coach. Perhaps because he no longer had Cherry as an advocate, the Bruins would leave Forbes unprotected in the expansion draft when the NHL and WHA would merge during the summer of 1979.

The Edmonton Oilers would take Mike Forbes as their thirteenth selection in the expansion draft. Joining the team that would have the soon-to-be “Great One”, Wayne Gretzky, on their roster would be exciting to most, though Forbes was mostly stunned by the selection. “I was really surprised; surprised that anyone would even pick me up. I didn’t really feel that I had found myself in Rochester, and I hadn’t really gained any confidence at that point. I was not predisposed to Edmonton; I really felt that I needed to develop my game. But what made the transition easier was that the Oilers had picked up a some of my former Boston teammates like Bobby Schmautz and Ace Bailey, and so there were some familiar faces.

Forbes would spend the bulk of Edmonton’s inaugural NHL season with their CHL minor league affiliate the Houston Apollos, and it would be here that he would finally begin to feel a level of comfort with his own game. Paired on defense with 37-year old veteran Poul Popiel. Though Popiel was born in Denmark, he was raised in Georgetown just like Forbes. “Poul was my defense partner, and he really took me under his wing. Up to that point, I had no idea of the work, the discipline that were involved with being a professional hockey player. Poul really taught me the game from a professional standpoint”.  Paired with Popiel, Forbes would have a very solid season with Houston and would finish second only to Charlie Huddy in scoring by Apollos defenseman, notching 5-goals to go with 30-assists in only 55-games.

With Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Kevin Lowe starring in their first NHL season, Forbes would end up playing a pair of games during the Oilers first year. “Edmonton was going through a rash of injuries, and I ended up getting called up and joining the team on the road for a game against the Colorado Rockies. I was very nervous that game, very tentative. Glen Sather told me that they were planning on taking me with them to Los Angeles, and so my second game ended up being against the Kings. The Oilers really played a very free-flowing, offensive style and I felt that in L.A. I played a much better game. So they told me that they were going to bring me back to Edmonton with them. So we get to Edmonton at about 7:30AM, and it’s 50-degrees below outside. The only clothes I had were my suit and a few pairs of underwear and socks. So I went to a K-Mart or somewhere and bought some gloves, and a jacket and a toque. But after just three days, they sent me back down to Houston. I’ll tell you, that was the happiest I ever was to go down to the minors! And I also felt that I needed more time to develop and grow”.

The Oilers would have themselves a new affiliation in the CHL for the 1980-81 season, and Mike Forbes would end up playing one of his finest professional years with the newly christened Wichita Wind. Tallying 4-goals on top of 44-assits, Forbes would lead all Wind defensemen in scoring, and would finish as the fourth overall scorer on the team. “We were a really tight knit team. We had Mark’s brother Paul Messier, on top of Dave Semenko, Byron Baltimore, and Andy Moog. We had a lot of size and toughness. Tom Roulston led the team in scoring, and he pulled off nearly 70-goals that season (63-goals exactly in only 69-games). Ace Bailey was our coach, and it was just great playing for him. He had good relationships with the players, and had great character. The guys really loved playing for Ace. He really liked tough, hard-skating teams. Unfortunately we got beat out in seven games by Salt Lake (Golden Eagles) and they won the Turner Cup. The run we had gone on took everyone by surprise as we were the second last team to qualify for a playoff spot. But we ended up running into Rick Heinz who was the goalie for Salt Lake (Heinz would also play in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks), and he just stonewalled us. Anytime I run into Rick till this day, I always admonish him for having my two championships; this one in 1980-81, and then later one when I was in Muskegon”. Looking back on that season playing for Garnet “Ace” Bailey, who sadly lost his life in the September 11th attacks, Forbes looks back with a deep admiration for his former coach and friend. “When I coach even till this day, I talk about how well everyone got along with Ace. He was infectious in the locker room and infectious amongst my teammates”.

Forbes would play a total of three seasons with the Wichita Wind, including his finest professional season statistically in 1982-83 when he would rattle off 15-goals and 46-assists for 61-points in 75-games; once again, tops among all Wichita D-men. But Mike’s final taste of the NHL would come a season earlier during the 1981-82 campaign. The Oilers of that season would see Gretzky set the NHL record of 92-goals, while Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri would finish out the top-five in scoring behind “The Great One”. For Forbes though, appearing in 16-games with the Oilers that year would be “bittersweet”, as he describes it. “In 110-days with Edmonton, I only played in those 16-games. They would send me down to the minors on the weekends. Paul Coffey was my partner on defense. I was an average defenseman and a good puck-mover. But what the Oilers needed was a stay-at-home defenseman who could hang back and cover for any mistakes Paul might have made with the puck, though there weren’t many. It just wasn’t the right combination having us paired together. They ended up pairing him with Charlie Huddy, who was a much better defensive-defenseman, and it led him to playing nearly 20-years in the NHL”.

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Mike Forbes would play 18-games with the Edmonton Oilers, including a pair of games during their inaugural NHL season in 1979-80 (Photo provided courtesy of Mike Forbes).

One of the true bright spots for Forbes during the 16-game stint is that he would score the first and only NHL goal of his career, and it was indeed a beaut; perhaps especially in the history books. “The goal came against Vancouver. I was not a bad skating defenseman, but I wasn’t great. But one thing I can say is that I could really shoot the puck. It had good velocity, and I could shoot it hard. We were on the power-play, and I was the right-hand shot on the left-point, with Kurri playing on the other side. Gretzky moved in low, and got the puck out to the point to Kurri; he fed it across and I drove the shot 100mph off of Glen Hanlon’s collarbone”, Forbes recalls with some laughter. “Well, Gretzky got to the puck, and we setup the same play again. He fed the puck out to Kurri, Kurri fed it across and I one-timed it, except this time I totally whiffed on the puck. So it’s going along the ice about half the speed of the first shot and it ends up sliding in past Hanlon for the goal”. An interesting bit of trivia, Canadian sports author and journalist, as well as Forbes family friend, Frank Orr, did an interview with Mike and pointed out to him years later that Forbes is one of only three players in NHL history to have their lone NHL goal be assisted by both Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri.

While the Oilers would go on to win their first Stanley Cup during the 1983-84 season, professionally that year would be a tumultuous one for Forbes and he would end up being part of a hockey club that goes down in history as existing for one season. “I was offered a 3-year deal with Edmonton, but I really didn’t see any hope of playing with that team, considering the logjam of defensemen they had. I did have some interest from Toronto, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey. I didn’t accept Edmonton’s offer, but during the October waiver draft that season, Glen Sather decided to protect me. So I ended up not being with an NHL team. I ended up signing an minor league contract with the Montana Magic”, though laughing Forbes says, “but they had some disappearing ink on the checks come payday”.

Despite being more of an oddity, the Montana Magic were somewhat of an interesting hockey club. 33-year old former NHL sniper and Stanley Cup champion Reggie Leach put up 21-goals in his final (full) professional season. In only his second year playing pro, 22-year old Jock Callander would end up winning a Stanley Cup and playing 19-years as a professional. Other NHL veterans like Stan Weir, Jim McTaggart, Alain Lemieux, and goaltender Lindsay Middlebrook would help to fan out the Magic’s roster. “We were a better team than what our record showed”, Forbes recalls. “We just had a difficult time attracting fans to the games”.

In a very astute career decision, Mike Forbes would end up taking a year and a half off from playing hockey in order to complete a degree at Rocky Mountain College. The decision to get his degree, and acquaint himself with business and marketing opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for his career after hockey. After retirement, Forbes would become assistant general manager and co owner of the Muskegon Lumberjacks, following the team as they moved to Cleveland. But while in Muskegon, Forbes would be part of five Turner Cup Finals appearances, including two championships. Mike would also be rewarded for his top-notch efforts in Muskegon by earning a Stanley Cup ring in 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, as the Lumberjacks roster of players and management team would play a vital cog in the Penguins championship that season. Craig Patrick, the Penguins Vice President and General Manager, would graciously acknowledge Forbes’ active part in helping the parent-club Penguins win the Cup that year. Seven of Forbes’ Muskegon players would be imperative for the Penguins success and get their names inscribed on the Cup, including the son of Forbes former Montana Magic teammate Reggie Leach, his son Jamie. In 1993, Forbes would eventually become GM of the team who once stole a Turner Cup from him, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles. Following a season in Salt Lake, Mike would accept the position as commissioner of the Colonial Hockey League. Forbes pursuit of his own education made all of that possible.

But prior to his success on the business side of hockey, Mike Forbes would have one last hurrah as a professional player. “At 27-28 years old, it was hard to have taken a year, year-and-a-half off from hockey, and think I could come back and play”. But play he would. Before he joined Muskegon’s front office, Forbes signed a personnel services contract with the team which afforded him the opportunity to play with the team, and then eventually take a front office role. During the 1985-86 season, Mike would appear in 14-regular season games for the Lumberjacks, chipping in a goal and 7-assists. But then, he would provide a steadying veteran presence on the blueline for the playoffs, playing in 13 of Muskegon’s 14-playoff games, and helping lead the team to a Turner Cup championship; the first and only championship of Mike’s professional career as a player.

Forbes final pro season, 1986-87, would see a near repeat performance as a champion. This time playing in 67 of Muskegon’s 82-games, Forbes would help vault the Lumberjacks back into the Turner Cup Finals, though as stated earlier, they would fall at the hands of goaltender Rick Heinz and Salt Lake once more. To his credit though, Forbes would play in all 15-playoff games for the Lumberjacks and put up a very solid 1-goal and 10-assists during that run to the finals.

While making arrangements to conduct an interview with Mike Forbes, I tell him that I am really glad that he won the 1985-86 Turner Cup championship with Muskegon; that he at least got to raise a trophy over his head one time as a player. But during our conversation, Mike teaches me a very important lesson that he has learned – he tells me, “it’s not the championship, it is about the lifetime achievements. The things that I accomplished in my career. Going from a player on a personnel services contract, to work in the front office, to marketing, to assistant GM, and then VP of operations. It is my life’s work”. Mike Forbes should be incredibly proud of those achievements, for he has accomplished more than what many could ever hope for.

While I marvel that Forbes got to play alongside Gerry Cheevers, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Brad Park, and most special in my eyes, Jean Ratelle, I realize that those are just a few parts of Mike Forbes’ life, his career. I have only seen a portion of the sum by what he has so graciously shared with me. It may even be impossible to fully capture the entire sum. But I can definitely say this – the parts that Mike Forbes has shared with me have shown me enough of the sum of those parts for me to know that although he is very humble and downplays his career as a player, that if I could even assemble a quarter of similar parts in my own life, that I would be a very successful individual. It is perhaps no wonder that I admire Mike Forbes so.