“Good athletes; good people” ~Todd Simon, former Buffalo Sabres forward

I clearly remember him scoring his first NHL goal. In fact, I am 99-percent sure that I still have a copy of it from back when we used to “tape” hockey games onto VHS. The Buffalo Sabres were in the opening round of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs, squaring off against the New Jersey Devils. The Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey’s Meadowlands housed Game One, and it would not take long for Sabres’ rookie Todd Simon to open the scoring in the series.

“It was late in the first period, and I think we had a 4-on-3 power play. I remember Coach (John) Muckler putting me out on the ice, and telling me that if I win the faceoff, go immediately to the front of the Devils’ net”. It behooved Simon to follow the instructions of his five-time Stanley Cup champion coach. “Dale Hawerchuk got the puck back at the point, and he flung a wrist shot towards the net. I deflected the shot past Martin Brodeur, but ended up getting smoked by Scott Stevens”, Simon laughs. “So I didn’t actually get to see the goal; just my teammates celebrating and swarming me after”.

The 1994 series between the Sabres and Devils would be a rough and tumble one, and Todd Simon would end up being involved in multiple scrums on the ice involving New Jersey’s fabled “Crash Line” of Bobby Holik, Mike Peluso and Randy McKay. And while Simon and the Sabres would take them the distance of seven games, the Devils would clinch the series on Meadowlands’ ice in Game Seven. The opening goal of the series scored by Simon would be the lone NHL goal of his career. But – it would be one of many that he would score as a professional hockey player.

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Todd Simon would play 15-regular season games with the Buffalo Sabres plus 5 more in the playoffs (Photo provided courtesy of Todd Simon).

Speaking to Todd Simon the evening before the first of December, I tell him that what I find very noteworthy about his pro career was that he produced offensively at every level, and in multiple countries across five professional leagues. If you add up the numbers of his entire pro career, Simon scored 1,079-points in only 966-regular season games. But where it all started for him was as a 9-year old in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “I began playing organized hockey with the Toronto Young Nats in Triple-A. Historically, a lot of great players came out of that program”. Including “The Great One” himself Wayne Gretzky, as well as Hall of Famers Eric Lindros, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy. “I stayed on there until I played Midget at 16 or 17, and then I was eventually drafted into the OHL (Ontario Hockey League)”.

Growing up in Toronto, Todd Simon was naturally a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. “I used to love watching all the Leafs game on TV growing up, and then of course going to the games at Maple Leaf Gardens. As a kid in the 70s I idolized Darryl Sittler. And then of course when the Edmonton Oilers came on board in the 1980s my hockey hero was Wayne Gretzky”. Eventually during Simon’s pro career things would come full circle and he would have the opportunity to face off against his idol Gretzky. Though upon being drafted into the OHL he was not as familiar with his new hockey club.

Wrapping up his time in Midget with the Don Mills Flyers, Simon was drafted 73rd overall in the 1989 Ontario Hockey League draft by the Niagara Falls Thunder. “I really didn’t know much about the team I was going to at the time. But it was my dream to get drafted into the OHL and to be able to continue my hockey career”. An interesting side note to Simon’s being drafted in the 1989 OHL draft is that he was selected four rounds ahead of future longtime NHLer Bill Guerin, one of the Devils’ players whom he became accustomed to facing during his playoff run with the Sabres in 1994.

In what would become his forte for many years of hockey to come, Todd Simon absolutely exploded as a scorer during his two full seasons in junior with the Thunder. Playing in all but one regular season game for the Thunder between the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons, Simon would put up numbers of 125 (51-goals, 74-assists) and 146 (53-goals, 93-assists) point totals. Those numbers easily placed him in the top ten in the OHL for goals, assists and points during those two years. Simon led the entire OHL in points during his final season of major junior, thus capturing the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the league’s top scorer that season. And while Niagara Falls would lose in the semifinals during the ’91-’92 playoffs, Todd would average a goal per game during the playoffs for the Thunder; 17-goals in 17-games along with a whopping 24-assists to give him 41-points. “Having success for 2-years in major junior was dream come true”, Simon says. “I had two good seasons, and it was more opportunity to play the game that I love”.

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Todd Simon found a role with the 1993-94 Buffalo Sabres particularly during an opening round playoff matchup against the New Jersey Devils (Photo provided courtesy of Nathaniel Oliver’s personal hockey memorabilia collection).

Simon’s accolades would lead towards another dream coming true when he was selected by the Buffalo Sabres during the 1992 NHL entry draft. It is shocking to me that given the numbers that Todd Simon produced in major junior that he was not taken as a higher selection, as Buffalo chose him in the 9th-round of the draft and the 203rd player overall. Regardless of where he was slotted, he had made it to the NHL. “It was a very special moment for myself and for my family. With Buffalo being so close to Toronto and to Niagara Falls, I knew a lot about their organization. Being so close to home, family could come and watch me play. It was great!”, Simon recalls.

Upon being selected by the Sabres, Simon would receive a 3-year entry level contract and he was assigned to Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate the Rochester Americans. With the Amerks, Simon’s scoring prowess continued even though it was his first season playing professionally and he was all of 20-years old. With 27-goals and 66-assists, Todd would finish second overall in scoring for the Amerks behind only Peter Ciavaglia and ahead of AHL legend Jody Gage. The Amerks firepower amounted to 348-goals as a team during the 1992-93 season, and they would vault themselves into the Calder Cup Finals during Simon’s rookie year. “We were a young team. There were 6 or 7 of us rookies. A few guys came in together from the OHL. We had a good mixture of guys, and definitely getting to play with a legend like Jody Gage was inspirational for younger players like myself. Jody was a great influence for me; just a great veteran who was really good for the young guys on the team. We also had Dan Frawley, and he really taught all of us how to be pros too”.

The fact that Simon would lead the Amerks in scoring with 33-goals and 52-assists in only 55-games during his second year of pro brought about the opportunity for him to make his NHL debut. Late January of 1994, Simon would get a one game call up by Buffalo for a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It was a neutral site game against the Lightning in Orlando. I was actually quite nervous. Almost shell-shocked. You look around the locker room and there’s Dale Hawerchuk, Alexander Mogilny, and Dominik Hasek”. Unfortunately for Simon and the Sabres, they would be shutout by Tampa Bay 4-0.

Simon would be sent back down to Rochester until the Sabres brought him back up for the final month of the regular season stemming from a March 12th showdown with the Los Angeles Kings up through an April 14th game against the Washington Capitals. For Simon though, the March 12th affair with the Kings would be yet another dream come true. “It was pretty exciting getting to play in L.A. against Gretzky”, he says. Whether he was invigorated by playing against an idol, Simon was awesome during his game against the Kings. In a 5-3 Buffalo victory, Simon would register his only NHL regular season point by tallying an assist and put four shots on Kings’ goalie Kelly Hrudey.

In total Todd Simon would finish his time in the NHL with 1-assist in 15-regular season games and 1-goal in 5-playoff games. Though his time in the NHL was brief there would be many great years to come. After a third and final season with the Sabres organization in which he once again led the Amerks in scoring with 90-points in 69-games, Simon would make the jump to the International Hockey League (IHL) when he signed on with the Las Vegas Thunder. “My rookie contract with Buffalo was over after 3-years, and I ended up getting a pretty good offer to go play with Las Vegas that I took. We actually had a pretty good team. We had a very solid defense with guys like Greg Hawgood and Ruslan Salei. Curtis Joseph was a holdout for playing with Edmonton so he was our goaltender”.

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Todd Simon during his time with the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder (Photo source: Best Sports Photos).

Despite registering a very solid 26-goals and 48-assists for 74-points in 52-games with the Thunder, Simon would end up being traded to the Detroit Vipers. Though it was a change of scenery for sure, Simon would continue his explosive scoring for the Vipers. “Even though it was definitely a big climate change to go from Las Vegas to Detroit, the Vipers were the best organization in the IHL. My time there would finish with a championship too in 1997”. Continuing his scoring ways with 21-goals and 51-assists – placing him second overall on the Vipers for the 1996-97 season – Simon would be surrounded by some familiar faces and some immense talent. “We had Sergei Samsonov who was 16-years old at the time. We had Jeff Reese in goal. We had a lot of veteran talent too like Brad Shaw, Yvon Corriveau, Stan Drulia, and Jimmy Carson. Guys who were well-established and had spent a lot of time in the NHL”. Simon was also accompanied by former Buffalo and Rochester teammates Wayne Presley and Peter Ciavaglia. This high scoring, veteran laden collection of players culminated into a Turner Cup championship after defeating the Long Beach Ice Dogs 4-games to 2 in the Finals.

Leaving as a champion, Todd Simon would venture forth from Detroit after 1996-97 and move onto his longest stay in the IHL when he signed with the Cincinnati Cyclones. “I loved playing in Cincinnati. It wasn’t really a place that I had been to before, but it was a great team with a great coach (Ron Smith). In Cincinnati it was a lot more laid back compared to Detroit. I played with Gilbert Dionne. We clicked right away, and had a lot of success together”. The younger brother of Hockey Hall of Famer Marcel, Gilbert Dionne was already a Stanley Cup champion, having won it with Montreal in 1993, before he came to the Cyclones. Combined with Simon, the two were a scoring machine together for 3-years in Cincinnati. In 466-games together with the Cyclones, Simon and Dionne combined for 529-points as Cincinnati’s top tandem.

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Todd Simon continued his superb offensive numbers through three seasons with the Cincinnati Cyclones (Photo credit: Saed Hindash)

The IHL began to encounter some struggles in the late-1990s and the league would eventually fold in 2001, quite unfortunately. Recognizing the impending issues with the league, Todd Simon pursued opportunities to play elsewhere and ended up heading overseas to Germany. “I knew that the ‘I’ was having some problems and might fold. I thought it would be good to go overseas to play, as I didn’t feel there was a chance to make it back into the NHL as a 29-year old. And actually a lot of the guys whom I had played with in the IHL ended up going over to play in Germany too around the same time”.

Simon would play in Germany for 7-years, and became most endeared with the city of Wolfsburg where he spent of the majority of his time and the final four years of his time in the country. “Wolfsburg was phenomenal”, Todd recalls. “They had a great soccer club, nice parks, nice schools for my kids. And they had some really great hockey fans too that loved their team. It was a full crowd every night. They’d be singing and waving flags. They really knew their hockey too. You’re heroes to them when you’re winning, but if you’re losing they let you know about it”, he ends with a laugh. All the while, Simon’s scoring prowess never slowed up during his time in Germany; in 339-games he tallied 338-points.

The final season of Todd Simon’s career, 2007-08, would be played in Milan of the Serie A league in Italy; the top ice hockey league in the country. “Wolfsburg had changed a lot. They brought in a new GM, a new coach, and they really wanted to weed out all the import players. I wanted to try something different. Milan was interested, and I ended up taking my family there for a year. It wasn’t the best experience playing there, and after that I called it a career”.

Upon retiring, Todd Simon started his own business with hockey development of young players and began the Todd Simon Hockey program. Simon brings his program to the Niagara Region of Ontario and does a remarkable job in fostering and teaching youngsters. It offers a year-round set of instructions designed to highlight and improve every aspect of a hockey player’s development. Better yet, work with the players is done individually, in small groups and through team instruction, thus reaching out to all types of learning for the kids who partake. Todd does not stop there either. “In addition to Todd Simon Hockey, I also coach two teams – a novice team and an atom team”, he says, “I show the kids how it is important to be good people as well as good athletes”.

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Todd Simon would play his final season of professional hockey in Milan, Italy in the Serie-A league during the 2007-08 season (Photo credit: Carola).

Though the Todd Simon Hockey program is by far an elite means of educating and developing young players through Todd’s own expertise and experience, it does not mean that Todd hasn’t been met with some resistance. Minor hockey in the Niagara Region is somewhat monopolized, and a school like Todd’s is viewed in some circles as “competition”. Todd Simon has received dissuading emails from Niagara hockey representatives stating that he is not sanctioned to be at games or to coach at certain tournaments, as Todd Simon Hockey is not  part of their organization. It is disappointing to see that this would be the case and that the local hockey administration would not be more willing to utilize someone of Todd’s credentials to their advantage. Even more so, it is detrimental to the young athletes who are hindered from capitalizing upon Todd’s talents and knowledge of the game.

But it isn’t as if Todd Simon hasn’t dealt with resistance before. He has actually dealt with it throughout his entire career and has always well-surpassed any challenges. “What I have learned is to never give up and to never listen to everything that you hear. I was never a World Junior, I was never a high draft pick, I was never supposed to make it as a professional hockey player. But I didn’t listen to any of that. I controlled what I could; I used it as motivation. Stick it to those who said that I couldn’t make it”.

Todd scored over 1,000-points professionally. He won championships, was drafted into the NHL and scored a goal. Simon obtained scoring titles, including one of the most coveted in that of the OHL. 16-years as a professional hockey player. And now, he is bettering young kids both as players and as people. Todd Simon most assuredly made it.

If you would like to learn more about Todd Simon Hockey please check out Todd’s website at http://www.toddsimonhockey.com . For those looking to help their young hockey players as the holiday season approaches, please consider signing them up for Todd’s hockey clinic January 2nd, 3rd and 4th of 2017. Registration for the clinic can be found on Todd’s website.

 

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“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.

 

The Consistent One, Steve Brulé

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Steve Brule as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. Here he would play with his boyhood idol, Joe Sakic.

Consistency. If there is one attribute that can be applied to the play and the career of Steve Brule, it would be consistency. Seven times within his 17-year professional hockey career, Brule led his teams in scoring. Twelve times he finished top two on his respective teams. And he did so across the globe; the American Hockey League, the International Hockey League, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Brule has won a Stanley Cup, and he has won a Calder Cup. He consistently played with top-end talent, and played on forward lines alongside the likes of Patrik Elias, Claude Lemieux, Milan Hejduk, Peter Zezel, and Joe Sakic. It was Steve Brule’s consistency that led him to having a remarkable career in professional hockey, and what makes him a remarkable person and coach to young athletes these days.

While being born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the natural assumption would be that a young Brule would have been a Canadiens fan. “I was born in Montreal, but most of my family lived in Quebec City. At the time that I was a kid, there has a big rivalry between the Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques. I was a huge Nordiques fan, and my idol was Joe Sakic. My dad idolized him too”. Steve and I both give out some fond laughter, recalling those incredible Nordiques teams of the 1980s. Sakic, Michel Goulet, the Stastny brothers, Dale Hunter. It is easy to see why Steve would have loved the Nordiques. If I lived in the province of Quebec, they would have been my favorite of the two as well. “I have loved hockey since I was 5-years old”, Steve tells me. “I started skating when I was 5, and began playing organized hockey at 6-years”. Little would Brule realize that over a decade later he would be skating on the same forward line as “Burnaby Joe” (Sakic), his boyhood idol.

Brule would play his major junior hockey with the St. Jean Lynx of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey league. The season after he ended his major junior career, the Lynx would actually be moved to Rimouski and become the Oceanic; the major junior team of today’s NHL superstar and the face of Canada, Sidney Crosby. But while Brule played in St. Jean, his strong play and productivity demonstrated that he would be a highly touted prospect for the professional level. And with teammates including future NHLers Patrick Traverse, Jose Theodore, Georges Laraque, Eric Houde, and Jason Doig, Steve would not be the only one. “We had really good teams in St. Jean, but we never managed to do well in the playoffs. We would have pretty good regular seasons, but we always lost in the first round”. Throughout the course of our conversation, we touched upon a common plotline in Brule’s career; I mentioned it earlier when speaking of his idol Joe Sakic – there were key moments in Steve’s career that he could not have predicted when he was younger, but that would make sense, almost epiphanies of sorts, as they came to fruition in the years ahead. Thinking about those St. Jean teams and how he and some of his teammates would go onto NHL careers, Steve says, “When you are in the present, you don’t realize what you are a part of. Those 4 or 5 players going onto the NHL. When you think back on it, you see that we really did have some good teams, and you feel fortunate to have played with such talented players”.

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Steve Brule would play major junior hockey with the St. Lean Lynx of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before the team would relocate to Rimouski and become the Oceanic.

In 136-games in his major junior career, Steve would finish with 74-goals and 111-assists for 185-points. Numbers that would normally be good enough for a player of that caliber to be selected in the earlier rounds of the NHL draft. “All the European players were being drafted into the league at that time. Scouting reports all showed that I was expected to go in the second or third round. As those rounds passed, I was kind of worried and a little disappointed. But as soon as you hear your name being called, you forget all of that. It is just an amazing moment!”. Brule would be selected in the sixth round of the 1993 entry draft by the New Jersey Devils, a team that was about to enter into a decade’s worth dominance and championship runs in the NHL.

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Steve Brule would play over 5-years with the AHL’s Albany River Rats, the affiliate of the New Jersey Devils.

The New Jersey Devils would win their first of so far three Stanley Cups during the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. This would also be Steve Brule’s first season of professional hockey, and he would begin his career with immediate success. Steve would be assigned to the Devils’ AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats, and after only being there for a brief while, helped lead them to a Calder Cup championship. When asked about that championship team, Steve recalls “it was amazing! It was right after junior, and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know much about the organization at that point. They needed a third-line centerman for the playoffs, and I got the call”. Steve would center a line with two of the most robust linemates a player could have hoped for; 6’1″, 210-pound, Reid Simpson and and 6’1″, 225-pound Matt Ruchty. Simpson and Ruchty were two tough hombres, as both wingers led the River Rats in penalty-minutes for that season; Ruchty with an astonishing 348 PIMs and Simpson with 268 of his own. Both men would create a lot of space for Brule on the ice. “After 2-weeks, I really felt a part of the team. Playing with two guys like that makes you feel really comfortable. They would go into the corners, go for the puck and feed you the pass”. As the River Rats would go on to win the Calder Cup championship, dispelling the Adirondack Red Wings (4-0) and the Providence Bruins (4-2) in the opening rounds, and then sweeping the Fredericton Canadiens (4-0) in the Calder Cup Finals, the line of Brule-Simpson-Ruchty was the most productive for Albany. Matt Ruchty would lead the River Rats in playoff scoring with 5-goals and 10-assists in 12-games, with Steve finishing just behind with 9-goals and 5-assists in 14-games, and Reid Simpson chipping in 1-goal and 8-assists in 14-games as well.

Winning the championship in 1995 would be the start of five more wonderful years in Albany for Steve Brule. “It was really the place that I enjoyed the most during my career. The best memories. New Jersey had a really tough lineup to crack, but we had some really good players in Albany together, with players like Patrik Elias, Sheldon Souray, and Peter Zezel who passed away a few years ago, just so many great players”. Once again, not knowing what the future would have in store for the players he mentions, Steve and I discuss the greatness of both Elias and Zezel. Though well passed his prime and having missed the most of this current 2015-16 NHL season due to injury, Patrik Elias will likely be in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday after winning two Stanley Cups and scoring over 400-goals and 1,000-points. Brule remembers the late Peter Zezel, a player who already had over 800-games of NHL experience by the time he came to Albany, with a sincere fondness. “He was a great mentor for all of the young kids. (The 1997-98 season) I played rightwing on a line with him, and he had 37-assists and I think 32 of them were off of passes that he fed to me. Just a great player, and an even better person”.

After a bit more than 5-years in Albany, Steve Brule would play his first NHL game and it would be played in the most dramatic of fashions. For it is certainly a rarity that a hockey player makes his NHL debut in the middle of the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals. On May 18th, 2000, with the Devils’ premier penalty-killer, John Madden, out of the lineup for Game-Three against the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello called upon Brule for this pivotal game. “I remember the game very well. Everybody waits their whole life to play their first game in the NHL. I played on a line with Claude Lemieux and Jay Pandolfo that game. I remember Lou Lamoriello coming to me before the game and saying to me, ‘You deserve to be here. You deserve to be a part of this for being so patient over 5-years’. The fact that a great hockey mind like Lou would take the time to come say that to me before the game spoke volumes of who he is as a person. He’s been so successful in hockey and so successful as a person”.

After eliminating the Flyers in the semi-finals, the Devils would move onto a hard-fought Stanley Cup Finals series against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Dallas Stars. With “The A-Line” of Elias, Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora playing at their very best, and the likes of NHL greats such as Lemieux, captain Scott Stevens, Alexander Mogilny, and Martin Brodeur, the Devils would defeat the Stars in six games and New Jersey would win their second Stanley Cup Championship in 5-years. As the Devils’ players paraded the Cup around Dallas ice, it was once more the quintessential Lamoriello who came and spoke to Steve as he celebrated with his teammates. “Lou came to me and said, ‘I really hope that you feel like you’re a part of this because you deserve it. And I am going to see that your name gets on the Stanley Cup’. Something like that is why Lou Lamoriello is so loved and respected by players. It is a huge reason why he is still so successful in the game today because he cares about his players”. I tell Steve that I agree with Mr. Lamoriello’s assessment; that Steve does deserve to relish in and be proud of the fact that he is a Stanley Cup champion, and that his named is forever engraved on hockey’s chalice.

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Steve Brule’s name forever enshrined on Lord Stanley’s Cup.

“Timing is everything”, Brule says. “I have seen players that I was just as good as, but they had better timing and had more opportunity to play in the NHL than what I did. But I was in the right place at the right time in this instance, and my name is now on the Stanley Cup”. Time is also an interesting concept to contemplate, for while he spent more than five years playing for the Devils organization, winning championships for the club at both the NHL and AHL levels, the 2000-01 season would see  Steve move on to another elite organization, the Detroit Red Wings. Brule would sign with the Red Wings during the summer of 2000 as a free agent. But once again timing would be everything, as the Red Wings were also heavily laden with greatness in their lineup and had completed two recent Stanley Cup championships of their own. Brule would find himself assigned to Detroit’s IHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. “It was a big transition for me after being with one team for over 5-years. Detroit had a lot of depth, and there was not much opportunity. It was a little bit rough in the beginning. I had never played in the IHL before, and it was a different style of hockey that took some getting used to. We ended up having a great season though. We had great coaching in Randy Carlyle and Scott Arniel, and there were a lot of veteran players on that team, like Ken Wregget and Philippe Boucher. It was also a great hockey community too to play in”. Brule would lead the Moose in scoring that season with 21-goals and 48-assists for 69-points, along with 3-goals and 10-assists in 13-playoff games.

Remaining with the Red Wings’ organization for a second season, 2001-02 would see Steve make a return to the AHL with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, an AHL affiliate shared jointly between the Red Wings and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. While in Cincinnati, Brule would have the opportunity to play for one of the best coaches in the game today, Mike Babcock. Under Babcock’s direction, Brule would play what he feels was one of his best all-around professional seasons. “It was maybe not my best season statistically, but I felt it was some of the best hockey that I ever played”. Brule would once again lead his team in scoring, registering 21-goals and 42-assists for 63-points in 77-games. In recalling his time playing for Babcock, Steve tells me, “Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches ever. You could tell even back then that he was something special. Just such a hard-working coach. He could give you a kick in the ass a bit too. During that season in Cincinnati, it was the first time in my career that I was ever a healthy scratch. But it worked, and I learned from it and got me to work harder. I ended up playing some of my best hockey”.

After his season in Cincinnati, Brule would leave the Red Wings’ organization and sign as a free agent in July 2002 with the Colorado Avalanche. It would be an opportunity like no other for Steve. For while it would enable him to make a return to NHL play, it was arguably more meaningful that it gave him the opportunity to achieve a boyhood dream by playing alongside his hockey hero, Joe Sakic. “Joe Sakic was my idol growing up. I had a great training camp, and a great preseason. I got to play on the top line with Sakic and Milan Hejduk”. The magnitude of this line combination floors me when Steve tells me this. “Not many players can say that they got to play with their idol. I remember in the preseason we combined on a tic-tac-toe play, with Sakic scoring from Hejduk and myself. I remember my dad calling me, and seeing in the newspaper it written out – a goal by Sakic from Hejduk and Brule, and just thinking how unbelievable that was. It was a dream come true for him too”.

Remaining with the Avalanche for the start of the regular season, Brule got to play in Colorado’s first two games of the season, a 1-1 tie versus the Dallas Stars and a 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. And while those would be the last two games of Steve Brule’s NHL career, the opportunity to play on a line with his hockey idol would be close to as a meaningful an occasion as winning the Stanley Cup. The Avalanche would send Steve down to their AHL affiliate the Hershey Bears for a conditioning assignment, and unfortunately it would bring about what he would view as the end of his chances to play in the NHL. “I blew out my wrist in my second game in Hershey, and I kind of knew at that point that the opportunity at an NHL career was over”.

Despite playing one more season, 2003-04 with Colorado’s Hershey Bears, even finishing second on the team in scoring with 58-points and first on the team in goals with 29, Steve Brule would embark on a hockey journey that would see him leave North America and play overseas for 7-years in three different countries. “It was a good decision for me in many ways. I played in Germany and Austria, but really found my place in Switzerland. I played there for 3 or 4 years, and we even won a championship in my last season. Going overseas was a good experience for me as a player, but was even better for me as a person. I got to learn different cultures and see how other people live”.

Steve would return to North America in 2011, and play a couple more years of semi-pro hockey in the Ligue Nord-Americaine de Hockey. “It was a nice transition for me towards retirement, instead of leaving the game all at once. There was a lot less pressure. Most of the guys who play in that league work regular jobs during the week, and then play games on weekends. I got to be more with my family”. Other former NHLers who played alongside Brule on his two LNAH teams include Sean McMorrow, Sebastien Charpentier, Martin Grenier, Denis Hamel, Bruno St. Jacques, Louis Robitaille, and Yannick Tremblay.

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In the later stages of his career to ease the transition into retirement, Steve Brule played semi-pro hockey with the Marquis of the the Ligue Nord-Americaine de Hockey.

Following retirement, Steve took a few years to decide what he wanted to do for a career after professional hockey. I am glad to say that Steve is still very much involved in the game today, and is imparting his knowledge of the game and his unique experiences to a younger generation. “I work with another former NHL player, Joel Bouchard, at his hockey school, Academie de Hockey Joel Bouchard. We teach a lot of hockey during the school year, and then we have summer camps. I love working with the kids and teaching what I know. The kids really look up to you too”.

Considering that Steve Brule was such a continuously productive hockey player in nearly every professional league in North America and overseas, I have difficulty in reconciling that he never earned a full time position on an NHL roster. I ask him about this, and while he recognizes his ability to produce on an ongoing basis throughout his career, he is not dismayed like I am that he did not receive more of an opportunity in the NHL. “I was a really consistent player. I think that the toughest thing to do is be a consistent hockey player. I even tell the kids this. I wish that I could have played 20-25 games at least in the NHL on a regular basis, but I have no regrets. I feel grateful for everything that hockey has given to me. It is even more meaningful to me that I had the chance to retire from the game because I wanted to retire; not because I didn’t have a contract or opportunities to play. I retired when I was ready”.

Hockey has brought so much into Steve Brule’s life. Not just in terms of statistics, championships and other accolades as a player, but perhaps more importantly what the game has done for him as a person. “The thing I hold the most dearly is everything that hockey gave me as a person. My work ethic, how I treat and interact with other people. The discipline that you have to have as a professional athlete. Those are things that you carry with you for your entire life”.

We talked about consistency and we talked about timing. The timing that Steve Brule found himself within did not offer him much of an opportunity to play in the NHL on a consistent basis. But that is just one, more narrow-minded way of looking at things. What should be noticed instead is that Steve’s consistency as a hard-working, productive player brought about the timing in his life and his career that he deserved. The timing that was meant to be. The timing to win a Stanley Cup. The timing to win a Calder Cup. The timing to play alongside Joe Sakic, and to play 5-years in one city with great teammates, as well as the timing to have played in five different beautiful countries; Canada, USA, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The timing that enables him to work with children everyday.

For I think that Steve Brule’s career is proof that hard work pays off and creates opportunity. Not in the way that we often imagine it will. In fact, life seemingly never works out the way we envision it will while we are in the present. But when we look back on the timing of moments in our lives, we see that everything works out the in the way that it was meant to. Steve Brule is a prime example of that. A consistently consistent player whose name is forever enshrined on Lord Stanley’s Cup, and who played alongside his childhood hero.

Scoring goals at all levels: a story about Mal Davis

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In 89-games with the Buffalo Sabres across 4-seasons, Mal Davis, who wore both #25 and #29 while with the Sabres, would record 29-goals and 22-assists for 51-points.

“Virta with a bouncing puck, watched by Middleton. Ahead to Cyr. Back it goes to Virta. In front… Andreychuk… the rebound… DAVIS!… Mal DAVIS!! On the rebound, and Buffalo takes the lead 7 to 6! Holy mackerel!!”. The voice of legendary Buffalo Sabres broadcaster Rick Jeanneret bellowed over the play. The Boston Bruins had once been leading the game 6 to 1 in front of what would become an absolutely raucous crowd at Buffalo’s venerable Memorial Auditorium on February 25th, 1983. Number-25, Mal Davis, would cap off the greatest comeback in Buffalo Sabres history, scoring the game winner with just minutes remaining in the game to send the Buffalo faithful home happy.

Malcolm Sterling Davis was born October 10th, 1956 in Lockeport, Nova Scotia. But in the USA, they called him Mal. In Canada, he goes by Mac. In Nova Scotia, it’s either Mac or Malcom. In Finland, they call him Malli. “Sometimes people just shout a name that starts with ‘M’ and I answer them”, Davis tells me, laughing.

Though they would live in Lockeport for 2-years, there is a Davis family legend that the house overlooking Cranberry Island was so cold that some water leaked onto the floor once and 2-year old Mal was sliding on it from one side of the kitchen to the other. Davis’ father who was a teacher would move the family from Lockeport to Tidnish, Nova Scotia. And while Mal’s father would take different teaching jobs throughout his career, one thing was always consistent – wherever they lived Mr. Davis would build an ice rink for Mal and the local kids in the area to play on. Mal would start playing organized hockey at the age of 12 or 13, but with the importance of sports in the Davis family, Mal would play on the outdoor rinks his father built since the age of 3.

Like a large number of Canadian kids, Mal’s hero in his younger years was the great Gordie Howe. Mal was fortunate enough to meet Howe in 1963 at an Eaton’s store promotion, and received an autographed picture from Gordie that he still has to this day. That year, Howe would score 38-goals and 48-assists for 86-points in 70-games. Howe had already scored over 1,000-points in his NHL career by that point, and had been hockey’s premier player for well over a decade. Mal’s favorite hockey team was Howe’s Detroit Red Wings, and while Mr. Hockey would play 15 more years professionally, Davis’ favorite player would soon change in dramatic fashion.

Enter legendary Soviet player and Hockey Hall of Famer, Valeri Kharlamov. In 1972 during the epic Summit Series between the best hockey players that Canada and the Soviet Union had to offer, Kharlamov was absolutely brilliant on the ice. Kharlamov would score 3-goals and 4-assists throughout 7-games in the series. Team Canada defenseman Don Awrey recalled Kharlamov by saying, “he was so fast, so hard to defend against out there. I admired the way he used to come from behind and how he kept everyone on their toes. He was simply outstanding!”. It was easy to see why young Mal Davis would become enthralled with Kharlamov and the Russian style of hockey; Mal would even wear the number-17 in honor of Kharlamov, who wore the same number. “I loved the skill of the Russians; the passing and teamwork was a joy to watch. My family loved watching them play”.

On the advice his father, as a young man Mal Davis opted to play hockey at the university level instead of going the Major Junior route. After being recruited by a number of different universities, Mal chose St. Mary’s University in Halifax as the best option for him. “(My dad) said if you are good enough and work at your game in practice, you could play at the next level; it doesn’t matter as long as you have this attitude. You could get injured playing so many junior games, and getting an education while playing will give you more options after your playing days are done”. During Mal’s three years at the university, The St. Mary’s Huskies had a solid team that were routinely ranked in the top-10 programs throughout Canada. One of Mal’s seasons at St. Mary’s included an appearance in the national finals, where the Huskies unfortunately fell to the University of Alberta.

After playing three years at St. Mary’s, Mal wanted to garner some attention at the pro level and sought out an opportunity to go to a professional camp. Former Boston Bruin and coach for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey Association, Wayne Maxner, was able to get Mal a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings. Maxner would go on to actually coach Mal in the Red Wings organization within only a few years. For a young player who grew up following the Wings and cheering for Gordie Howe, it must have been a real life dream come true. Davis would be offered a pro contract right out of camp, and although it would be a challenging transition for him, he would be on the cusp of attaining regular success at the pro level.

“My first year of pro was tough (1978-79). First the rookie camp; then the main camp. I changed my position from center to rightwing, and had a good camp. (Detroit legend and Hockey Hall of Famer) Ted Lindsay offered me a contract and I signed. Paid off all my student loans, so life was good”. Mal would be assigned to Detroit’s CHL affiliate, the Kansas City Red Wings, and would just explode on the score sheets. Mal would lead Kansas City in scoring with 44-goals and 66-points; good enough for second overall in goal-scoring and seventh overall in points for the entire Central League. “Ted Nolan and I were rookies on this team. The CHL was a good skating league, but the first month of the season was tough. All teams tested each other, so there were a lot of fights and brawls… We had a good coach in Larry Wilson, and he told me what I needed to work on. Skating and shooting were my strong points, but my overall pro game needed work”. Mal had plenty of help adjusting and building his pro game, as Kansas City was laden with NHL veterans. 38-year old veteran and 5-time Stanley Cup champion Terry Harper, netminder Ron Low, J.P. LeBlanc, and Larry Wright were all teammates of Mal’s during that first year.

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Davis, seen here with the Rochester Americans, would wear #17 in honor of his hockey hero, the late Valeri Kharlamov.

Mal’s immediate success in Kansas City would see a call up to the parent Red Wings in December 1978. Davis’ first NHL game would be at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium against none other than the Montreal Canadiens, who were in the middle of a four-year run of consecutive Stanley Cup championships. At this point in the junction, there was a sense that Mal’s great start in Kansas City would not immediately carry over into the NHL game. “I missed some chances to score but otherwise I realized that to get to the next level, it wasn’t going to be easy. I was sent back down after 5-games”. Mal would spend the remainder of the season in Kansas City.

The 1979-80 season would see Mal with Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings. Once again, Mal’s numbers were superb – 34-goals to lead the Wings in goal-scoring and good enough to tie for ninth overall in the AHL. Mal’s 65-points placed him second overall in scoring for Adirondack, and his 2-goals and 2-assists in 5-playoff games during the Red Wings’ first round exit at the hands of the New Brunswick Hawks would tie for the team lead in playoff scoring. While this sophomore season would be a fine one by any standards, it would be the 1980-81 season that to Mal would seem magical.

While Mal could not capitalize against the Habs during his first NHL game, he would not miss the opportunity during the second go-round when he would face them early into the 1980-81 season. “I scored my first NHL goal against Montreal at the Forum in November”. Mal had found an early roster spot in Detroit’s lineup, which would see him register 2-goals in 5-games with the “Winged Wheels” and be at a plus-5 during the season’s early games. Despite the early output, Mal’s stay in Detroit would not be for long. “That season was interesting. I was playing good in Detroit, but the team was not winning. I was told to find a place to stay (in Detroit) but the Red Wings management and coaches Ted Lindsay and Bobby Kromm were fired, and I was sent back to Adirondack. My first game back I broke my wrist against Maine and was 16 weeks in a cast”.

While to most the demotion to Adirondack and the upheaval in the organization, not to mention the broken wrist, would seem like a serious streak of bad luck for Mal, it would also appear that the proverbial cloud would have a silver lining once he returned to Adirondack. While Detroit was doing their restructuring, they moved a lot of their veteran players down to Adirondack. Veteran players that had won Stanley Cups and had played in nearly every situation imaginable. Veteran players that could still win. Mal rattled off the names of his new Adirondack teammates; “(Pete) Mahovlich, (George) Lyle, (Dennis) Polonich, (Bill) Hogaboam, (Tom) Bladon, (Greg) Joly, (Dan) Bolduc, (Dave) Hanson, (Wayne) Wood, along with myself, (Ted) Nolan, (Jody) Gage, and a great co-coaches in Tom Webster and J.P. LeBlanc. We had a contender”. Amongst that group, Mahovlich had already been a four-time Stanley Cup champion with Montreal, while Tom Bladon had won two Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers. These were NHL players, some of whom may have been on their last legs, but they still had their winning ways.

After eliminating the Binghamton Whalers and the Hershey Bears in 6-games each in the earlier rounds, Davis and the Red Wings would face the Maine Mariners in the Calder Cup Finals. “Maine had been dominating physically in the league that year but we had a tougher team with more skill. I had 6-goals in the final six games of the playoff run. Played on good line too with Ted Nolan and Bill Hogaboam”. The Calder Cup is the second oldest trophy awarded in professional hockey after the Stanley Cup, and by no means is it a simple task to attain. Especially when considering the Mariners were the number one team overall in the AHL’s Northern Conference, and possessed NHL caliber talent in the likes of Bruce Crowder, Thomas Eriksson, Blake Wesley, Lindsay Carson, and the late great Pelle Lindbergh in goal. Despite a 10-1 spanking by the Mariners at home in Game Four of the series, the Red Wings would clinch the Calder Cup within 6-games, outscoring Maine by 22-goals to 19. “Winning the Calder Cup in Adirondack was not easy, and the area celebrated for week or so with a parade . It is so hard to win a championship at any pro level; things have to fall in place. And for a team that barely made the playoffs it was a highlight of my career, so far”.

Mal’s career was about to blossom into further success, as he would soon leave the Red Wings organization and move onto the Buffalo Sabres. Mal had become a free agent after the 1980-81 Calder Cup winning season, and upon signing with the Sabres, would be assigned to their AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans for the 1981-82 season. That season’s edition of the Amerks was potent offensively, and under the guidance of legendary coach “Iron Mike” Keenan, Mal would finish sixth overall in team scoring with 65-points in 75-games, and fourth overall in goal-scoring for Rochester by finding the net 32-times.

This was only the beginning though, as the best years in Rochester were yet to come for Mal. The 1982-83 AHL season would see Mal win the Calder Cup for the second time in his career and first time with Rochester. Though after putting up stellar point totals during the regular season with 43-goals and 32-assists for 75-points in only 57-games, Mal would be called up to the Sabres for their own playoff run and would not be part of the Amerks run to the Calder Cup. In his return to the NHL that season, Mal would suit up for 24-regular season games in “the blue and gold”, and register 20-points (8-goals, 12-assists); his most productive time in the NHL until that point. And while the Sabres would lose in a heart breaking second round Game-Seven loss to the Boston Bruins in the NHL playoffs, Mal’s Rochester teammates with Keenan at the helm would take the Calder Cup in 16-games, including a 4-game sweep of the Mariners in the Finals. Meanwhile, Mal had appeared in 6 of Buffalo’s 10 playoff games and contributed a lone goal. Mal Davis may not have been on the Amerks bench when they won the championship that season, but his contributions during the regular season certainly helped place them in great standing for the playoffs.

Coinciding with his call-up to Buffalo, Mal had been the vital cog in the aforementioned greatest comeback in Buffalo Sabres history. After being down to Boston 6 to 1 already into the second period of the game, the Sabres mounted a most unlikely comeback against the Bruins. Mal and former Red Wings teammates Dale McCourt, Mike Foligno and Brent Peterson all contributed to the comeback, as well as the Sabres newly claimed youth movement in Dave Andreychuk, Paul Cyr and Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Housley.  “I was on a line that night with Andreychuk and Cyr, and we were minus-3 after the second period. We scored early in the third and the momentum really swung our way. We tied it up (on a goal by Andreychuk), and late in the game I came in late on the play and slid the puck past Ray Bourque for the winner. That year I had two game winning goals versus the Bruins late in the game. (For the comeback game) the good thing was Scotty Bowman stayed with us and kept putting us out there. I didn’t feel I was one of Scotty’s favorites, but I do respect him for the fact he had me on the ice late in the game”.

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During the 1982-83 season, Mal Davis would score the game winning goal in the greatest comeback in Buffalo Sabres history, a 7-6 win over the Boston Bruins.

Mal Davis would spend three more years in the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, playing primarily in Rochester but receiving call-ups to Buffalo each season. A lot of positive things happened during those three years, including arguably Mal’s finest professional season in 1983-84 when in 71-games for the Amerks he would score 55-goals and 48-assists to eclipse the 100-point plateau. Mal would also lead the way to a second in a row Calder Cup Finals appearance against Maine with 15-points in 15 of the Amerks 18 playoff games. Unfortunately, Mal and the Amerks would lose this time to the Mariners, 4-games to 1. But because of his season-long heroics, Mal would be the recipient of the Les Cunningham Award for that season, presented to the AHL’s Most Valuable Player.

In thinking back on this season in particular, and his career as a whole in both Rochester and Buffalo, Mal recalls his professional moments in Western New York quite fondly. “Some of my fondest memories are being named the captain of the Rochester Americans, being part of Calder Cup team in ’83 and then making the Finals in ’84. We had great coaches in Mike Keenan, Joe Crozier, and John Van Boxmeer. The fans in the upstate area were great to me on and off the ice. The MVP award was special, considering all the good players that went on to play in the NHL and the AHL. Those were great years to be a hockey player playing for that organization. A very classy bunch from the owners on down… I played around 89-games with Buffalo; not always a regular shift but I cherish those memories, and it’s great that it is easier to remember games when you only have 100 at the NHL level”.

After the 1985-86 season, Mal would make a dramatic change in his career and pursued the opportunity to play overseas in Finland for the Finnish Elite League. The Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans had a vast array of talented Finnish players, including stalwart defenseman Hannu Virta, as well as Kai Suikkanen, Heikki Leime and Timo Jutila. Having played with these players on an ongoing basis and forming friendships, it was easy to see why Mal might try an opportunity to play in the homeland of his friends and teammates. According to Mal, “Hannu Virta and Hiekki Leime were two Finns that I knew who were part of the Buffalo Organization. I had given my best shot at making the NHL on a regular basis. I felt that I needed a change, and maybe the bigger ice surface would make it easier for me to protect myself. My last year in between Buffalo and Rochester, I had a bad head/neck injury, and I felt that if I wanted to continue playing, that maybe playing less games and on a bigger surface might be the way to go”.

With continuing to put up stellar offensive numbers with his new team, TPS Turku, Mal found that the style of Finnish hockey was much more to his liking and truly suited to his style. In fact, it was so much closer to the style of play that Mal had seen exuded by his hero, Valeri Kharlamov, and those great Soviet-era hockey teams. In responding to my question about playing in Finland, Mal shared with me that “the hockey there was better than expected. It was more a puck possession game, and I felt it was a better brand of hockey; stressing teamwork within 5-man units. The ‘dump and chase’ hockey (found in North America ) didn’t work over there. I loved playing there, but I also saw a lot of North American players that played in the NHL that couldn’t adapt to the new style”.

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Playing in Finland with TPS Turku would be a brand of hockey that Mal Davis excelled at and truly enjoyed; a similar style to the hockey hero from his youth, Valeri Kharlamov.

Mal would have only brief difficulty in adapting, and would eventually average nearly a point per game. Across his five seasons in Finland, Mal would score 115-goals in only 184-points, and his assist totals would raise him up to 174-points for his Finnish career. “It was hard for me at first but I learned to be more patient when shooting and smarter using your speed. If they had counted rebound and second assists in Finland, I would have led the league in scoring (laughs). Most of the players I played with over there had a good skill set so I found it better for my style; I didn’t have to carry the team in scoring goals and assists, as with other countries in Europe. The Finns can play hockey and a lot of their game is based on the team concept”, Mal recalled. Davis was known amongst the Finns to have a hard snap and wrist shot, which only further empowered his capabilities on the ice.

With great surroundings culturally and geographically, as well as being able to play with some very talented teammates including Virta and Leime, as well as former Edmonton Oiler Steve Graves and future Buffalo Sabres draft choice goalie Markus Ketterer, Mal ended up feeling right at home. Finding a place for himself as a hockey player, Mal also looks back on his time in Finland as an experience that broadened his life as a whole. “TPS was a great organization to be a part of. I loved living in Turku; it was a special city, and most people there can speak some English. And the food was awesome! The friendships I made there will always be strong. I spent five years with TPS. We won 3 national championships together. It was a part of my life that I will never regret. I realize now that my decision to go to Europe was the best decision I have ever made; not only living in another country, but learning the cultures and seeing Europe. The city of Turku embraced me and made me feel loved. Above and beyond what I was expecting. Most of the teams in the Finnish Elite League would give an NHL team a good game.  Life in Finland was awesome. And I didn’t just play hockey there; I was also teaching conversational English at the University of Turku and Abo Akademi University. Doing that (teaching English) made living there very enjoyable”.

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In his 5-seasons with TPS Turku, Mal Davis would be a member of three championship teams in the Finnish Elite League.

Mal Davis’ final season of hockey would be the 1991-92 season which he would spend playing in Germany, for the Essen-West hockey club of the second-tiered German league. In 18-games, Mal would still put up some explosive numbers with 19-goals and 7-assists. Though he was still scoring, playing in Germany just was not the same for Mal as it was playing in Finland. “My last year in Essen was interesting. I missed my Finnish teammates and more was expected of me to carry the team. I always felt that I was only as good as my teammates around me. The talent wasn’t strong on that team (Essen). My career was coming to an end, and I found myself watching the clock, hoping the game would hurry up and get over. I realized it was time to retire”. Mal would liken his recognizing the time to retire to the old saying of, “my mind was writing checks that my body couldn’t cash”.

These days Mal Davis is still involved in hockey, but not as seriously. “I play a couple of times a week for exercise”. His non-hockey career finds him working as medical representative for Bayer, INC. Mal also enjoys the time that he can spend fishing and living on the ocean.

Thinking back on his career, when I ask Mal who his closest friends were out of his teammates, he has a difficult time answering; there were just so many for him. “This is a tough question, as I loved my teammates like brothers, both in North America and Europe”. He tries his best to rattle them off for me. “My favorite players I played with were Mike Ramsey (Buffalo), the late Warren Harper (Rochester), Jody Gage (Jody and Mal would spend time together in both the Detroit and Buffalo organizations, and their minor league affiliates), Gilbert Perreault (Buffalo), Claude Verret (Rochester/Buffalo), Harri Jaakola (TPS), Hannu Virta (Buffalo/Rochester/TPS), Heikki Leime (Rochester/TPS), Steve Graves (TPS) and Victor Tyumenev (TPS). My closest friends were Greg Sanford (St. Mary’s University), Mike Backman (St. Mary’s University and former New York Ranger), Ted Nolan (Adirondack), Jody Gage, Gates Orlando (Rochester/Buffalo), Geordie Robertson (Rochester)…” Mal is still close friends with both Ted Nolan and Jody Gage to this day.

In addition to the game winning goal versus Boston, Mal considers his other NHL “claim to fame” that for players who played at least 100 regular season games, no player has a better shooting percentage than he. Coming in at 25.0%, which equates to scoring a goal every four shots on net, Mal’s shooting percentage is better than the likes of Mike Bossy (21.18%), Mario Lemieux 18.99%, Jari Kurri (19.13%), Johnny Bucyk (19.09%), Peter Stastny (18.96%), and even “The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky (17.6%) – all of whom are some of the greatest goal scorers ever to play the game.

Mal Davis had an incredibly successful hockey career. In the AHL, the NHL, throughout Finland and other parts of Europe – no matter where he played, Mal brought a superb talent level to the teams he played for, and a very keen and unique mindset and skill set for the game. I felt highly inclined to interview him because I recalled him fondly from his days with the Buffalo Sabres; a childhood hero of sorts. And I do not think it is a coincidence that we both marvel at the sheer brilliance of the legendary Valeri Kharlamov. For while I am not old enough to have seen Kharlamov play live, I consider him the greatest hockey player whom I never had the privilege to see play during his actual career. DVDs of the Summit Series and the New Year’s Eve game against Montreal will have to do.

Taking my memories of Mal into consideration, it was perhaps most interesting to me to ask him what he has learned from his hockey career that he still carries with him to this day. Mal responds very scholarly, and as someone who has had a lot of wonderful experiences:

“It doesn’t matter where you come from; it is your passion for something that will determine if you will be successful. Stick to what you do best. I was a goal scorer from the start; I didn’t want to be anything else. It took me on a 15-year ride all over the world – just to play hockey. But most importantly for me was the compliments I got from former teammates; many said that I was a good team man. If I had become a defensive-forward, I may have had a short career . With regards to leadership and being a captain, leadership depends on simple human qualities. Confidence of your teammates. And this can only be gained by commanding their respect for your personal character, your sense of justice and common sense .The pride you take in being their leader will carry your team through difficult times . From my hockey career I learned that team concepts can apply to most aspects of work. I notice from time to time that most people do not understand the team concept because they have never been on a team. I always tell people, ‘at one time in my life, I had a dream job'”.

You did have a dream job, Mal – and you definitely made the most of it. Thank you.

Québécois: how “The Mailman”, Jacques Mailhot, made it to the NHL

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Former Quebec Nordiques Jacques Mailhot would play 5 games in the NHL, accumulating 33 penalty minutes during the 1988-89 NHL season.

I think few would ever have surmised that Jacques Mailhot would have made it to the NHL. He never played Major Junior hockey, having reached only the Junior B level with the Shawinigan Cataractes. As a youngster, Jacques began playing hockey at age 4 recreationally, and then in organized hockey at age five, of all things, as a goaltender. But this in and of itself was not an opportunity that came by easily, since Jacques came from a very large family. Having 1 brother and 6 sisters, 5 of whom were older, Jacques really did not have anyone to help in getting him started in hockey, and it was also financially difficult too. “I remember my mom working long hours as a seamstress for little money, making sure I had a place to play and some skates. The skates weren’t new, but they were mine. So I started playing defense, but my skating wasn’t strong enough, so they put me in as a goalie”.

Jacques would play goal until he got to the bantam level (ages 12/13), when the team he was playing for fell short of players one night. “So I volunteered to play up front. I scored a goal late in the game, and I remember my older sisters paying me $10-dollars for that. I was amazed and thought that this is where I should play, since my kid brother was already a very good goalie; no need to have two in the same house”.

Growing up in Shawinigan, Quebec, when I ask Jacques Mailhot which players were his hockey heroes while he was growing up, he states as a whole, “the Montreal Canadiens”. Having been born in 1961, Mailhot grew up watching “Les Habitants” when they were arguably at their very best. Guy Lafleur, Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, Steve Shutt; it was easy to see how a young boy from Quebec would idolize these Hall of Famers, these legends.

At 16-years of age, Jacques would make the local Junior B team with Shawinigan on the very last day of tryouts. Being one of the last selections to make the team was further proof that Jacques Mailhot was a longshot to have a pro career. “Five games in, we played an archrival, the Grand’Mere Selects and I got into a fight with a 19-year old named Michel Carrignan. And he kicked the sh*t out of me; bloodied my nose and my eyes were black and blue. I got home after the game embarrassed, and I did not want to play hockey ever again. I was told by my mom and dad that it was my choice, but that I would have to live with it for the rest of my life. So after getting better and learning a few things throughout the season, we (Mailhot and Carrignan) met again on the last game of the season, and it was a unanimous decision in my favor, sending me to a place where I had never got to before. So that’s where ‘The Mailman’ was born”, said Jacques, referring to his nickname that would follow him throughout his pro career, up through today.

In the early 1980s while in his late-teens and early-20s, Jacques’ renewed love for the game of hockey and his desire to play, despite being at a lower-tiered level, saw him play first at the triple-A level and then in the senior hockey leagues of Quebec with the Limoilou Titans, the Louiseville Jets, and the Joliette Cyclones. Jacques would eventually establish himself with the senior league team, the Rimouski Mariners. While Jacques would put up decent numbers offensively over his few seasons with the Mariners by scoring 22-goals and 51-points in 55-games, it was his pugilistic skills that would garner the attention of the professional leagues. For within those 55-games, Jacques Mailhot put up a staggering 426-penalty minutes. After the trials and errors of learning to scrap with Shawinigan in Junior B, Jacques found himself to be a very formidable player – plain and simple, Jacques Mailhot could now fight.

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Jacques Mailhot demonstrating his pugilistic skills on the ice.

In 1987, in what would be his first year of professional hockey, Jacques would be invited to the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques training camp. The Nordiques took notice of the local scraper, and invited him so that they could have a closer look. “I fought (Richard) Zemlak one time, but also beat (Scott) Shaunessy three times solidly, and he was projected to be the new policeman for the Nordiques”. Jacques would initially be assigned to Quebec’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Fredericton Express. With Fredericton Jacques would tally 2-goals and 6-assists, but right after Christmas he would be shipped to the Baltimore Skipjacks along with teammate and future Boston Bruins Stanley Cup winning coach, Claude Julien. “After my third fight on the ice, I was told that I had a contract. I started the season in Frederiction, but (Ron) Lapointe was promoted to Quebec (to be head coach). “BJ” (Blair) MacDonald came in to replace Lapointe, and I was not his favorite player, so that’s when I would be shipped to Baltimore to work with a great coach, Gene Ubriaco, and I flourished under him”. Jacques would play 15-games with the Skipjacks, recording 2-goals and 167-penalty minutes, before he and Julien would then be sent back to Fredericton in time for a playoff push.

Although not a particular favorite of Coach MacDonald’s, Mailhot would nonetheless be part of the Express’ run to the Finals for the Calder Cup championship. Jacques would play in 8 of Fredericton’s 15 playoff games of the 1987-88 playoff campaign. Besides possessing toughness with players like Jacques and heavyweights Scott Shaunessy and Trevor Stienburg, the Express also had a slew of future NHL talents like Mike Hough, Ron Tugnutt, Jim Sandlak, Dave Lowry and others. Unfortunately, Mailhot and his Fredericton teammates would be swept in four straight games by the Hershey Bears in the Finals.

Taking into consideration that Jacques Mailhot had never played such high level hockey previously, the fact that his first professional season saw him record 10-points in 43-games and make it to the championship round would have to be considered a great success. Speculating that the best was yet to come, the Nordiques proceeded to offer Mailhot a 2-year contract beginning with the 1988-89 season. While he would play mostly for Quebec’s newly affiliated AHL team the Halifax Citadels, Jacques would also suit up for 5 NHL games that season with the Nordiques. “It was an amazing feeling to make it there, knowing that many didn’t believe that I would”, Jacques told me.

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Jacques Mailhot battling it out with Lyndon Byers of the Boston Bruins.

Mailhot’s first NHL game would be bittersweet, to say the least. While in some ways it may have been a child’s dream come true to play his first NHL game against the storied Montreal Canadiens, the team he grew up emulating as a hockey youngster, on December 15th, 1988, it would also be a game that brought some sadness for Jacques. “I was called up to Quebec December 12th, 1988 and played against Montreal three days later. It was also a sad memory for me, as it was the night that coach Ron Lapointe stepped down because of cancer and was replaced by Jean Perron”. Lapointe had been a very successful coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Major Junior version of the Shawinigan Cataractes, as well as at the AHL and NHL levels. Lapointe was someone whom Jacques held in high esteem, as did many others. In fact, the QMJHL now awards the “Ron Lapointe Trophy” each year to their Coach of the Year. Sadly, Lapointe would pass away at the age of 42 in March of 1992 after losing his 3-year battle with kidney cancer.

Throughout his 5-game call-up with the Nordiques, Jacques Mailhot would have some memorable scraps. Mailhot would officially have three NHL fights, facing off against Calgary’s enforcer Tim Hunter, Boston’s tough guy Lyndon Byers, as well as NHL legend and Hockey Hall of Famer, Cam Neely, also of the Bruins. Jacques does not recall his fight against Neely in a positive light, though. In fact, out of respect for Neely’s skill level, he really did not want to partake. “I was sent out by Jean Perron to fight him (Neely), and it was the first time a coach had ever done that to me. I did not want to fight him, but I had no choice. Neely was a great player and a class act. I had lots of respect for him, but I did it anyways. Then, I was ridiculed by the media for it and the coach never defended my actions”. Jacques was unfairly put into a predicament. Here he was trying to make a name for himself in the NHL, and the coach tells him to fight Cam Neely; it was a lose-lose situation.

Jacques final NHL game would be a 1-1 tie against the Buffalo Sabres on January 14th, 1989. And then that was it. Through his five game NHL stint, Jacques would not record any points, or even a shot on goal, but would amass a whopping 33-minutes in penalties.

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Jacques Mailhot, seen here with the Quebec Nordiques’ AHL affiliate, the Halifax Citadels

After his lone NHL season with the Nordiques, Jacques would go on to play 11-more seasons of professional hockey. From 1990 to 2000, Jacques would play in 7 different professional leagues in a total of 15 different cities. Throughout his 13-seasons of professional hockey, Jacques would rack up 3,076-penalty minutes. What is almost unbelievable is that these penalty-minutes were accrued in a mere 516-games. That is an average of over 5-penalty minutes a game, or essentially, an amount equivalent to a fighting major in every game he played. When I ask Jacques of all the cities he played in, which were his favorites, he tells me playing in Quad City with the Mallards of the old Colonial Hockey League, and playing in Texas with the Western Professional Hockey League. While he played in both locations in the later stages of his professional career, Mailhot would arguably play some of his best hockey with both Quad City and the Central Texas Stampede, putting up two seasons of 14-goals, once with each team. “When I came to Texas, I got to play for former New York Islanders great, Bob Bourne, and I learned a lot from him. He even had me play in the IHL for Butch Goring at the tender age of 36. And the real reason why I love Texas so much is that is where I met my best friend that soon after became my wife!”.

When I think of all those fights and all those penalty minutes, it makes me wonder who were the toughest players that Jacques ever had to face. He rattles them off to me: “Neely, Tim Hunter, Ken Baumgartner, Martin Laitre, Sasha Lakovic, and Bruce Ramsay”. Each of them really tough customers, and I can see why Jacques lists them as the toughest he ever fought. The amount of penalty minutes Bruce Ramsay would accumulate from season to season would blow most other enforcers totals right out of the water.

These days Jacques is still involved in hockey, but mostly for fun. “I’m still playing in beer leagues in Texas with friends. I wish I could have had a chance to get more involved in coaching, but it was not in the cards”.

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During the later seasons of Jacques’ career, while with the Central Texas Stampede of the Western Professional Hockey League.

When I ask Jacques to sum up his career for me in a few words, I really like what he comes up with: “I wish I would have been better prepared to deal with everything; wish I had been more patient and learned to control my temper. But I have no regrets. I met some amazing people along the way, and I have stood up where many thought I would just fall”. I like how Jacques’ perseverance prevailed; that he came out on top, literally fighting to make it there when many others did not believe in him. Sure, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, but he harbors no regrets, as he said. More importantly, Jacques beat the odds. One could argue that there was nothing special enough about Jacques that would allow him to play in the best hockey league in the world. But Jacques Mailhot is living proof that if you fight hard enough for something (in Jacques’ case oftentimes literally), what others think matters very little. And in the end, Jacques Mailhot was an NHL hockey player, and that is his to be proud of for all time.

 

 

 

 

A protector: Garrett Burnett, former Mighty Duck

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An imposing presence, Garrett Burnett would have 22 fights across 39 regular season games in his lone NHL season.

Garrett Burnett is a physically imposing person. At 6-feet 3-inches and weighing in at 235-pounds of chiseled muscle, to say that he packs a presence is an understatement. His eyes are steely and penetrating, and I am sure could be quite unnerving to opposing players on the ice. Garrett’s size and strength are unmistakable, but at the same time they are deceiving. For while his appearance may be intimidating, his heart and the way that he presents himself are endearing to say the least. In fact, Garrett Burnett is probably one of the most polite, humble persons whom I have ever engaged with. Garrett invested time in his responses to me; some of which were quite poignant. You can tell that he feels a genuine care and concern for those whom he interacts with. And I am certain that this same care and concern for others allowed him to be a formidable enforcer and protector of his teammates; the likes of which included Sergei Fedorov, Vaclav Pospal, Petr Sykora, and numerous other talented NHL players.

Born September 23rd, 1975 in Coquitlam, British Columbia, it would not take long for a Canadian kid like Garrett to fall in love with the game of hockey, but it would perhaps be for a different reason than most kids. “I began watching my father, Bob, play hockey in the Royal City Hockey League, and I wanted to be just like my father, and I instantly fell in love with hockey. Growing up in Canada, loving hockey was bound to happen, but I had a huge desire to be just like my dad”. Like most Canadian families, the Burnetts regularly found themselves watching CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” on Saturday nights and routinely following NHL games. As did so many other kids like him, Garrett dreamed of some day lacing up the skates in an NHL game himself. “… Just before my fifth birthday, my organized hockey career began at a local minor hockey association”. Garrett would play for local teams out of the Port Moody Minor Hockey Association, the Coquitlam Minor Hockey Association, and the Burnaby Winter Club.

Youth hockey would eventually lead Garrett to the highly esteemed Junior-A hockey as well as Major Junior hockey throughout Canada. Following his dream of playing in the NHL would lead him further away from home than he had ever been before, and this certainly was not the easiest adjustment for a young man. “I first left home when I was 17. I played for Junior-A teams in Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountain Leagues. I lived with billet families in the cities where I played, and that took some getting used to”. Thankfully for Garrett, he has a very supportive and loving family to this day, who backed him and encouraged him as he pursued his dream of playing in the NHL. And even though he was far away from home, Burnett was still able to see his family at Christmas time and during the off-seasons, not to mention the fact that numerous times his family would come to see Garrett play in person. “My family was very supportive in all of this. They came to see me play in several cities that I played in and against… They encouraged me to believe in myself, and to stay committed to all of the hard work and time that I was putting in. To see them proud and happy only encouraged me to work harder and reach further”.

Discussing with Garrett his path to the NHL, one cannot help but admire the work ethic that he demonstrated. Oftentimes, Garrett had to continue to believe in his goals well within the face of adversity. “I realized that I wanted to play professionally at a very early age”, Garrett would recall. “But along the way, from my childhood teams, to my Junior teams, and even at the pro level, I received harsh criticism from coaches, saying that I wasn’t talented enough. But that encouraged me to just get on the ice earlier, stay on the ice later, workout when I had spare time, and just use every single angle I could take to become a more talented hockey player. Even as I managed to make teams in lower levels I was not expected to make, I kept working harder to try to reach further for more success in making the higher levels”.

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During his lone NHL season, Garrett Burnett would square-off twice against Dallas Stars’ tough guy John Erskine, including in Burnett’s very first NHL game.

Burnett’s determination would lead him to playing in Major Junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League, initially for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and then later the Kitchener Rangers during the 1994-95 season. While going goalless during 36-regular season games, Garrett would still pick up 2-assists to go along with an immense 152-penalty minutes. Garrett would also see action in 3 postseason games for Kitchener, tallying 1-assist and 23 more penalty minutes during those games, but it would be for naught as the Rangers would fall 4-games to 1 against the Sudbury Wolves.

1994-95 would be Garrett’s lone season playing Major Junior, and he would move onto playing professionally in some of the lower tiered hockey leagues at this level. The 1995-96 season would begin what would end up being a journeyman’s career for Garrett, as over the next three seasons he would play in four different professional leagues and in nine different cities. Garrett would see stops in the old Colonial Hockey League (which would eventually become the United Hockey League), suiting up for the Utica Blizzard, as well as the Central Hockey League’s (CHL) Oklahoma City Blazers and Tulsa Oilers, the East Coast Hockey League’s (ECHL) Nashville Knights, Jacksonville Lizard Kings, Knoxville Cherokees, and Johnstown Jets, and even coming within one step of the NHL when he would see action with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Philadelphia Phantoms. It would seem inconceivable to most hockey experts that a player who would bounce around the minor leagues with as much regularity as Garrett would ever make it onto an NHL roster. But the opportunity to do so would not be so very far away.

In June of 1998, Garrett Burnett would sign his first contract with an NHL organization, the San Jose Sharks. And while it would be about five more years until he would make his NHL debut, being signed by an NHL franchise would not only be a momentous occasion for Garrett, but would also enable him to continue to put his hard work and commitment to action and to better himself as a hockey player. The Sharks would assign Garrett to their AHL minor league affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades, and it would be here that Garrett would play some of his best hockey to that point in his career and garner himself the reputation as one of the games most feared enforcers.

“My days with the Kentucky Thoroughblades were awesome! Those teams and players were amazing. And there would be a lot of future success enjoyed by several of my former teammates. I am so proud and happy for each and every one of them”. Garrett played for Kentucky for the 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons, and some of his teammates during those years included NHL regulars like Evgeni Nabokov, Eric Boulton, Dan Boyle, Filip Kuba, Shawn Burr, Scott Hannan, Alexander Korolyuk and Miikka Kiprusoff. “I am just so happy to see all of my former teammates enjoy the successes that they have enjoyed in their careers!”. Garrett himself would have a most impressive season during the 1999-00 season when in 58-games for the Thoroughblades he would score 3-goals and 3-assists, while registering an astounding 506-penalty minutes(!). Garrett looks back on those seasons in Kentucky with warm memories and great appreciation; much of which he extolls upon the coaching staff and the community. “I could definitely not forget to praise the amazing coaching we had with (assistant coach) Nick Fotiu and (head coach) Roy Sommer. The fans were also a huge part of my experience, and they were awesome!”.

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During the 1999-00 season, Garrett would accumulate an astounding 506-penalty minutes in 58-games for the AHL’s Kentucky Thoroughblades.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that Burnett then was able to hone at least some of his pugilistic skill under the watchful eye of one of pro hockey’s all time scrappiest tough guys in Nick Fotiu. The assistant coach Fotiu was a veteran of 646-regular season NHL games and totaled 1,326-penalty minutes in his career, as well as two runs to the Stanley Cup Finals. While they shared in fun-loving, successful teams together in Kentucky, this would not be the last time that Garrett would receive a helping hand from Fotiu. Despite additional journeyman travels between 2000-2002 in the IHL (Cleveland Lumberjacks), AHL (Cincinnati Mighty Ducks who were coached by Stanley Cup-winning and current Toronto Maple Leafs head coach, Mike Babcock) and the UHL (New Haven Knights), Garrett would enjoy arguably his finest professional season with the Hartford Wolf Pack; once again Fotiu was Burnett’s assistant coach.

The 2002-03 Hartford Wolf Pack were an extremely talented and an extremely tough hockey club. “Hartford was an awesome team and experience. We did have a huge amount of toughness. I think Coach Nick Fotiu may have helped me land in the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate. That season brought some really good stats for me”. The Wolf Pack possessed top-notch scoring talent in the likes of Roman Lyashenko, Nils Ekman, Dixon Ward and John Tripp; all of whom eclipsed the 20-goal plateau. In addition to Garrett’s AHL league leading 346-penalty minutes, teammates Ward, Garth Murray, Jeff State, Billy Tibbetts, Tomas Kloucek, Gordie Dwyer, and Richard Scott all surpassed 100-penalty minutes. Coinciding with his immense lead in penalty minutes, Garrett also put up 6-goals and 1-assist, while appearing in 62-regular season games for the Wolf Pack; he would also appear in one of Hartford’s two playoff games against the Springfield Falcons, as they were swept in the opening round 2-games to none.

But it would be Babcock’s assurance in Cincinnati during 2001-02 that would eventually prove prophetic for Garrett. “It was advised to me at the end of the season by Coach Mike Babcock when I asked him what I had to do to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL, Babs said, ‘Burny, everybody knows you can fight, but if you can just put up some points…’. While with the Wolf Pack the next season, Garrett did put up those points. “As it turned out, Babcock stayed true to his advice, and gave me a contract in Anaheim, in the NHL, after I had that season in Hartford, where I actually increased my point scoring noticeably”. Garrett would sign with Babcock and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in late-July 2003, and would see his dream come true.

At 28-years of age, Garrett would make his NHL debut as a Mighty Duck for the first game of the regular season on October 8th, 2003 against the Dallas Stars. While Anaheim would lose the game 4-1, Garrett would have a superb first game, squaring-off against the Stars’ John Erskine and recording a shot on goal in addition to the fisticuffs. “My first NHL game was awesome! It still makes my heart beat fast and hard to even think about it! My parents, sister and grandfather flew into Dallas for the game. Because it was the first game of the NHL season, the USA Today had a picture of me on the front page of the sports section, and the title to the story said “The Boys are Back”. I just remember how extremely proud my family was for me, and it melts my heart just to remember their excitement, especially since my father recently passed away”.

Protecting the likes of Mighty Ducks’ teammates Sergei Fedorov, Petr Sykora, Vinny Prospal, Andy McDonald, Rob Niedermayer, Sandis Ozolinsh, Samuel Pahlsson and more, Garrett Burnett would suit up for 38-more games that season, tallying up 1-goal, 2-assists, and 184-penalty minutes. Garrett would score his first NHL goal March 16th, 2004 during a 3-2 win versus the Phoenix Coyotes against goaltender Brent Johnson. “I remember a lot about that goal. I was pushing through to the net, trying to cause a screen and traffic in front of the net. The puck was shot at the net, and I was fortunately able to touch and re-direct the puck, and it found an opening into the goal net”. Garrett would participate in 22 fights during his sole NHL season, including a season finale against the Calgary Flames in which Garrett would receive coincidental penalties for cross-checking, instigating, fighting, a misconduct penalty and a game misconduct while tangling with Marcus Nilsson, all for a total 29-penalty minutes.

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Future Stanley Cup winning coach and current Toronto Maple Leafs coach, Mike Babcock, would follow through on his assurance that Garrett Burnett would receive an NHL contract if he produced more on the scoreboard. Burnett would sign with Babcock’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003.

This lone season with the Ducks would unfortunately be Garrett’s only NHL season. And while he would play professional for three more seasons, including a stop with the Dallas Stars organization as a free agent after the NHL lockout in 2004-05, horrible tragedy would sadly bring Garrett’s career to an end. In December of 2006, Garrett would be assaulted outside of a nightclub in North Delta, British Columbia. The vicious attack on Garrett would see him hospitalized, including being comatose for 20-days and being kept on life support. “Yes, that incident was terrible for me, but I can’t even imagine how traumatizing it was for my family. I was unable to skate or play hockey for 5-years, amongst other things, including basic motor skills that I was unable to perform. After a full commitment to bettering myself, which will never end until I die, I re-learned a lot of these things”. I can only imagine that Garrett’s perseverance and his never-quit attitude are what helped pull him out of such a horrible experience and to be able to recover as he did; that, and the sincere love and care of his family.

These days, Garrett spends a lot of his time with his wife and daughter, and making the most of every moment. “I would do anything for them”, Garrett proudly asserts to me. As he protected his teammates for so many years, Garrett is still very much a protector today. “I am committed to lending my compassion and presence to protect people through different kinds of hosting, security and bodyguard jobs”. Through my discussion with Garrett, I feel myself more at ease and my faith in humanity a little renewed. It makes you feel good, knowing that there is a giant-sized individual, both in physical size and in heart, like Garrett who endeavors to protect others. Almost like a superhero. Protecting teammates on the ice, and protecting his family and fellow man off of it.

It is reassuring to know that someone like Garrett Burnett is around. That presence, that reassuring nature, that awe-inspiring size and strength – Garrett is one of the good guys. A real life superman of sorts.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Val James

val james
First U.S.-born black player to play in the NHL, Val James shown here with the AHL Rochester Americans.

I had first heard of Val James in 1997 when I read Ross Brewitt’s book Sabres: 26 Seasons in Memorial Auditorium. There is an excerpt in the book where current Sabre at the time Randy Burridge was being interviewed about his memories of the old Aud. Burridge grew up in Fort Erie, Ontario which is just over the Peace Bridge from Buffalo. In fact, many former Buffalo Sabres during the 1970s and 80s lived in Fort Erie and made the commute over the bridge. In his memories of attending Sabres games as a youth in the early 80s, Burridge recalled memorable battles between the Sabres and the Boston Bruins, and after initially drawing a blank on the player’s name, was able to recall Sabres behemoth Val James being involved in those rough and tumble games in particular, especially during Buffalo’s 3-1 playoff series loss to the Bruins in 1982; Val James played in 3 of the 4 games against Boston.

In 1982, I was all of 2-years old so I had no recollection of Val James. But after reading Burridge’s memories of this imposing Sabres player I became quite interested in knowing more about him. During college with the Internet at my fingertips I did a Google search on James and was surprised to see that Val James is African-American, and was also in fact the very first U.S.-born black player in the National Hockey League. My interest piqued even more so, and my mind was blown as to why there was little to no information about the NHL’s first U.S.-born black player.

Years proceeded to go by. Somewhere during my mid-20s I purchased a DVD collection of Buffalo Sabres hockey fights throughout the team’s history. Most of the videos are on YouTube today, and you occasionally see Sabres fans sharing them on Facebook. I felt like I hit the jackpot when I found that included in the compilation was a rare gem of Val James squaring off with Bruin legend Terry O’Reilly. Finally getting a chance to see James in action, I also stumbled across Val’s scrap with another Bruin, Keith Crowder, while digging for more fight videos of James online. From watching these old videos of Val, you could easily see the power and strength that he possessed, and the wherewithal of being on the ice to protect his teammates. The footage also made you wonder how James didn’t last longer in the NHL, especially when he obviously was imposing and could hold his own with the game’s toughest.

Some great footage of Val James on the Sabres bench getting some work done on his face after taking a high-stick around the eye during the 1982 playoffs against the Boston Bruins:

Almost exactly a year ago, coinciding with Black History Month, Val James’ autobiography was released, Black Ice: The Val James Story. What a privilege to read this book! It wasn’t just video footage or vague recollections of him; this was Val’s own story, in his own words, and I was finally able to learn about his life. I have read a multitude of hockey biographies and autobiographies, but I have to say that Val James’ is one of the best!

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Val’s autobiography, “Black Ice: The Val James Story”

In particular, I enjoyed reading Val’s memories of his 1982-83 American Hockey League season with the Rochester Americans; the farm team of the Buffalo Sabres. The Amerks won the Calder Cup trophy that season under the direction of coaching legend “Iron Mike” Keenan. Val’s teammates on that team including 4-time Stanley Cup champion Yvon Lambert, journeyman netminder Phil Myre, longtime NHLer Randy Cunneyworth, and other former NHL players Jim Wiemer, Gary McAdam, J.F. Sauve, and goaltenders Paul Harrison and Jacques Cloutier.

If you have not read Black Ice as of yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. Especially those of you who are like me and have always wanted to know more about the somewhat legendary Val James. I am also glad to see that since Val’s release of the book that he is actively involved and visible in Buffalo and Rochester with both the Sabres and Amerks alumni. You hear nothing but good things about Val and how he is such a nice person; beloved by fans, teammates, and the communities that he was a part of.