“Professional in all aspects”: Mark Hartigan, former Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Atlanta Thrashers, Detroit Red Wings forward

If you look at Mark Hartigan’s accomplishments as a hockey player at St. Cloud State University, you will find that in nearly every instance they are second to none. Hartigan holds the Huskies’ school records for career goals, goals scored in a period, goals scored in a single season, assists in a single season, shorthanded tallies in a season, and most total points in a season. Hartigan holds the distinctions of being a 2000-01 Third Team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association selection, and bettered that with a First Team All-WCHA selection the following season. Perhaps most noteworthy, Mark Hartigan was a Hobey Baker Award Finalist during the 2001-02 season; the trophy awarded to the top NCAA player in men’s ice hockey.

Taking all of that into account and recognizing the preponderance of those accolades, it would seem that there would be many on-ice moments that would stand out for Hartigan in his mind’s eye. But trophies, goals and selections are not what Hartigan deems as most meaningful from his time playing at St. Cloud State. “Honestly, all the friendships that I created are what stand out the most”, he says. “Lifelong friendships. I believe university is a part of many young people’s lives, and it ends up being a memory that you consistently look back on more than any other life moments with great passion and joy. Certainly an era that I still look back on and talk about”. To have Hartigan sum it up concisely: “Definitely the best time of my schooling and/or my hockey life”.

Hartigan’s “hockey life” has taken him all over the globe. He’s played in the NHL and KHL, and maintained himself as an elite scorer for many years in the American Hockey League. Hartigan even has two Stanley Cup rings that he earned during his time in the NHL. And yet despite a very impressive hockey résumé, Mark Hartigan still seems a bit surprised that I had wished to interview him. “I guess I should ask, how did you hear about me?”. I tell him simply that I remember him quite vividly during his time in the NHL, especially his years with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization. Being that Coumbus’ minor league affiliate for many year’s was the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, and that I am born and raised in Buffalo, the close proximity gave me the opportunity to become acquainted with Mark as a hockey player. To sum it up concisely for Mark, I said: “Basically, if I ran a hockey club, you would be a player I would want on my team”. Fair enough.

Starting to play organized hockey when he was about five years old, Hartigan was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, but calls Fort St. John, British Columbia his hometown. “We moved away from Lethbridge when I was about 7-months old. We lived in approximately 12 different places before I was in grade-3. But I consider Fort St. John my hometown, and where I played all of my minor hockey”. Fort St. John is the oldest European-established settlement in present-day British Columbia, and provided much opportunity for Hartgian to learn his craft outside. “I learned a lot of my skills from the outdoor rinks growing up. I loved being on the outdoor ice. Many hours in the cold”. Likely many youthful hours spent emulating his hockey heroes; the Edmonton Oilers’ version of “Rogers and Hammerstein” – Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, who were his two favorites.

hartigan-1
Mark Hartigan would be part of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization for 4-seasons (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

As Hartigan’s skills developed he ended up playing Junior-A hockey with the Weyburn Red Wings, earning arguably his first noteworthy accolades by being both the top scorer and named as the MVP of the 1997 Royal Bank Cup; the national championship for Canadian Junior-A Hockey. For whatever reason though Hartigan was not sought after by a major junior team.Instead, opportunity would present itself to play hockey collegiately. Hartigan tells me, “I was never recruited to play major junior. Growing up in Fort St. John, it was a small town and I never even knew of the opportunity of being able to play NCAA. Luckily though my hockey abilities improved every year, and the NCAA found me. I had multiple schools recruiting me, but I had an extreme comfort level with SCSU and felt that it was a great fit for me”.

St. Cloud State University saw Mark Hartigan attain all of the aforementioned honors, and he proved that he definitely had the merit and the hockey sense to move onto the professional level. “Luckily I had the option of being able to choose to sign an NHL contract with multiple teams. I again went with my gut-feeling and comfort level when choosing the best possible team for me”. Hartigan opted to sign with the fledgling Atlanta Thrashers franchise, who were in their third year of existence when Mark joined their team for the 2001-02 NHL season. The Thrashers featured a pair of superstar rookies that same year, in Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley; both would be strong incentives for any player to enlist with this particular franchise. “I felt Atlanta had a bunch of good, young forwards that I would be able to fit in well with”, Hartigan remembers.

Hartigan would sign his first NHL contract on March 27th, 2002; shortly after completing school and late in the NHL season. He would quickly be inserted into the Atlanta lineup only 6-days later, and would have the opportunity to show what he was capable of when the Thrashers squared off against the Calgary Flames on April 2nd. The game itself would be incredibly exciting, but would also have a moment that Hartigan laughingly would like to forget. “My first NHL game was very exciting, like I assume it is for all hockey players. Not only was it my first NHL game, but it was being played in one of the closest cities to my hometown, where all of my family could make it to the game. The whole day was a blur and it went by extremely fast. But the game itself went fairly well. A little fun fact though; for my very first penalty in the NHL, I gave a guy a penalty shot. The penalty shot was awarded to Scott Nichol of the Flames, and of course he ends up scoring”, Hartigan chuckles. But how exciting to play his first NHL game and to have his entire family be able to attend!

On a more serious note though, Hartigan would suffer a severe injury in his second NHL game, April 3rd against the Colorado Avalanche, that would end his season with the Thrashers, and pose difficulty heading into his second year and first full professional season. “In my second game I tore two tendons in my hamstring, and they had to be surgically repaired. This injury really did make it difficult to start my professional hockey career. I couldn’t train properly as I had to rehab throughout the summer. So I went into training camp (for the 2002-03 season) already a few steps behind everyone else to start my first full NHL season”.

The injury challenges that hindered his training camp with the Thrashers led to Hartigan initially being assigned to Atlanta’s AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves; a veteran laden team with numerous players Mark’s senior, including longtime NHLers Rob Brown, Steve Maltais, and Dallas Eakins. “When I came into the league I wasn’t your prototypical rookie, as I was a little bit older. And to be honest, the only one I knew out of those older players was Rob Brown. When coming into an older team like that, it’s always a bit more difficult to find your spot and role on a team but after a couple of months I fell in nicely into a top-six forward role on the team, which made for a successful season”. Hartigan would finish fifth overall for Wolves’ team scoring with 15-goals and 31-assists in 55-games, plus a goal and a pair of helpers in 9-playoff games.

That same 2002-03 season, Hartigan would get into the lineup for 23-games with the parent club Thrashers which further proved that he was an NHL caliber player. However, a tumultuous relationship with a newly hired Atlanta coach posed difficulties for Mark to earn a permanent NHL roster spot. Original Thrashers head coach Curt Fraser was fired by Atlanta during the early portion of the season, and after a brief time of Don Waddell serving as the team’s interim, the Thrashers named Bob Hartley, a former Stanley Cup winning coach with the Avalanche, as their new man at the helm. “Unfortunately for me Atlanta hired Hartley. He made it abundantly clear he did not want me on his team because I had played college hockey instead of major junior, and he was looking to make an example out of me any time that the opportunity presented itself”.

And while the hiring of Hartley would signify the beginning of the end for Hartigan’s time in Atlanta, he would still have a shining moment to call his own that same year when he would score his first NHL goal during a December 1st showdown with the Washington Capitals; a 5-4 Thrashers win and the goal coming against Capitals’ goaltending great, Olaf Kolzig. Hartigan recalls, “It was a long and trying road getting up to the game when I scored my first goal. I had been snakebitten coming into the season with the ability to not score any goals up to that point, even in the AHL. If you watch the video of my first goal, you will see my extreme excitement of not only scoring my first NHL goal but of also getting that monkey off of my back. It was a tremendous feeling”. I am fortunate enough to have seen the video of Mark Hartigan’s first NHL goal and he is exactly right; he is grinning from ear to ear and you can see a look of sheer levity and joy.

hartigan-riga
Mark Hartigan would have two solid seasons with Dynamo Riga in the KHL; a unique opportunity to play and live in Latvia (Photo credit: Agris Krusts).

Recognizing that the relationship with Hartley would not be improving and that he would be Atlanta’s coach for the long haul, Mark Hartigan looked elsewhere to continue his NHL career. He would find a place for himself with another relatively new NHL franchise, the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was with Columbus that I would first become familiarized with Hartigan’s play. Signing with the Blue Jackets in July of 2003 Hartigan recalls about the decision, “it was a good opportunity for me and it gave me a chance to prove myself with the organization like many players. After leaving Atlanta I felt that I was on a downhill slide out of the NHL, especially after my run-ins with Bob Hartley and how I was his example boy. I was unsure of how the league looked at me and my skills”.

Hartigan would spend four years with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization splitting time between the team and becoming one of the top players in the history of their AHL affiliate at the time, the Syracuse Crunch. He would lead the Crunch in goals for the 2004-05 season, and then would lead them in goals and points the following year. In fact, the 2005-06 season with the Crunch would be particularly noteworthy because not only did Hartigan score 34-goals and 75-points, but he did so in a mere 49-games. Such a solid performance that year was enough to vault him into 33-games with the Blue Jackets that same season.

Putting into perspective his time with Columbus and Syracuse, Hartigan tells me, “I had a great career in Syracuse. I believe that I still hold their team record for most career goals as a Crunch player. It would have been nice to have been a mainstay in Columbus but they had a lot of pressure to win, so young depth players such as myself were not high on their priority list. They believed that they needed young drafted superstars and highly touted free agents to get them into the playoffs, which does make sense but unfortunately it didn’t work. They got stuck with a few big contracts of players who were underperforming, which made it fairly frustrating for a bunch of us in the minors watching what was happening”.

Piggybacking off of what Hartigan says, the Blue Jackets did bolster their lineup those years by having the likes of a young pure goal scorer in Rick Nash, a shifty, though oftentimes criticized, Nikolai Zherdev, and perhaps an underrated netminder in Marc Denis. However, they hindered themselves by signing or trading for beleaguered veterans like Sergei Fedorov (as great a player as he truly was), Andrew Cassels, Jan Hrdina and Adam Foote, who were all once highly coveted players but by the time they were brought to Columbus were well past their prime. “This is fairly common with many organizations”, he says. “Unfortunately in the world of business, players’ contracts dictate whether you are on the big team or the affiliate team, rather than the decision being made by how the player is playing”.

hartigan-2
It would be with the Columbus Blue Jackets that Mark Hartigan would spend the majority of his NHL career (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

In January 2007, Hartigan and teammate Joe Motzko (along with a fourth round draft selection) would be shipped from Columbus to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Zenon Konopka, Curtis Glencross and a seventh round pick. Finishing his time with the Blue Jackets, Hartigan had appeared in 48-games with the team and registered 11-goals and 8-assists for 19-points. Thinking back on his time, he says “My best memory of playing with the Columbus Blue Jackets was when I got called up for the last 15 or so games of the year (2005-06) and I ended up scoring 9-goals in 10-games along with a few assists to end the season. But especially in Syracuse, I truly enjoyed the fans and my relationship with the Syracuse community”.

The Anaheim Ducks of ’06-’07 would become Stanley Cup champions for the first time in the franchise’s history. Having been traded to the team that year, Mark Hartigan got to be part of that experience even though his time with the Ducks was relatively brief. And while it is in his nature to have wanted to have been a larger cog in the team becoming  champions, winning the Cup would be extremely special to Mark on a very personal level. Spending most of his time with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate Portland Pirates, in which he would average a point per game (25-points in 25-games), Hartigan would appear in 6-regular season games for the Ducks plus one more during their fateful playoff run to the Cup.

“Getting traded to Anaheim was great as it was a fresh start for myself. I did request a trade with Columbus approximately a month and a half before I got traded. My reasoning was that I felt that there was nothing else I had left to prove with their organization if they were not going to have me with the Blue Jackets. I believed that I had proved myself over and over again in Syracuse. From the time that I arrived in the Anaheim organization up to my day with the Stanley Cup in August, I had many life-changing events occur. First off, during the second round of the playoffs (late-April/early-May) against the Vancouver Canucks my mom passed away from brain cancer, then in June we won the Stanley Cup, and in July I had my first child. The ring and the experience was great but of course it is a little bittersweet. Like all hockey players that are competitive, I would have liked to have had a bigger role in winning the Cup. It was definitely a rollercoaster ride to say the least”. I cannot even imagine the series of emotions that Hartigan experienced in such a short period of time. Highs and lows, and then highs again. It is perhaps too much to ask from one person in a small span like that, but Hartigan was able to come out on top.

That same summer, as if the aforementioned items were not enough, Hartigan signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings in July. Rattle off some of the names from that Red Wings roster. Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg. Kris Draper. Dominik Hasek. Nicklas Lidstrom. Tomas Holmstrom. Kirk Maltby. Chris Chelios. Darren McCarty. Many of them Hall of Famers. And except for Zetterberg, all of them perennial Stanley Cup champions. An opportunity of a lifetime to join a team that encapsulated so much talent and history. Hartigan explains the experience, “I was very excited going into that year with the Red Wings. They were an ‘Original Six’ team, which is very cool. I was going to a team with lots of veterans and veteran experience, so it was very easy for me to fit in both in the American League and the NHL”.

Scoring 3-goals and an assist in 23-games with the Red Wings that year, Hartigan would have another incredibly strong season in the AHL and their minor league affiliate the Grand Rapids Griffins. Even though he played in only 48-games for the Griffins, he still finished fourth overall in team scoring with 42-points (23-goals, 19-assists). “I never questioned my ability at that point in my career. I knew that I was a good player, but I also knew there were things that I needed to work on. You can always improve. I really liked the Detroit organization as they made it clear what everybody’s role was and what was expected of everyone. They gave you the truth, and if it did not work for that player then you were not a good fit for the team. It was always about the team. I learned a lot that year, especially how to be a true professional in all aspects of life”.

The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were the top team in the NHL that season and finished the year with 115-points. And garnered with the plethora of players who were previously mentioned, the Red Wings were well on their way to earning another Stanley Cup title. And for Mark Hartigan, who would play in 4-playoff games with the team and record an assist, it would be a second Cup ring in back-to-back years. And while I know that he still would have liked a larger role in this second run too, both rings are forever his and are something to be admired and cherished.

hartigan-red-wings-cup-raised
Raising the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings; his second Cup championship (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

The championship season with Detroit would be Hartigan’s final year in the NHL. He would opt to play in a far different atmosphere after that, albeit with still an elite brand of hockey. July would continue to be a month of change for Mark, as he signed with Riga Dynamo of the KHL; a team housed in the capital city of Latvia. Former Columbus and Syracuse teammates Duvie Westcott and Martin Prusek also played for Riga. An exciting opportunity in a new and beautiful country! Hartigan explains how the decision to jump to the KHL came about: “After my year in Detroit, I knew that if I was not a full-time NHL player by that point, there was no sense sticking around any longer. I would be lying if I said it was not for the opportunity to be able to make more money playing hockey. You get to a certain point in your hockey career knowing you may only have a few years left, and then the reality of having to get a real job or start a new career is quite frightening. So having the option to make more money, to try and set the family up as best as I could financially, and still play really good hockey – it was a no-brainer; my family and I decided to sign in the KHL. It was also very exciting thinking of being able to play in a different country that I had never been to before”.

Even more so, after testing his skill in the NCAA, AHL and NHL, it was an opportunity to try out his talents in another elite league; one he knew about, but had not previously had the opportunity to experience. “I had always heard about the Russian Super League and how skilled it was, so it was intriguing and exciting to think of the possibilities of playing in that league, which of course is now the KHL. I believe that the biggest difference between the KHL game and the North American game is the coaching styles and their expectations of each individual player. Of course, the ice size is a lot bigger in the KHL too, and that makes it quite a bit different. I am not saying that it is not a job over here in North America, but over there they make sure you feel like it is a job all year long”.

Two separate seasons in Riga saw Hartigan score 36-goals, 25-assists, and 61-points in 100-games, while a season between the two was spent with CSKA Moscow in which he tallied 8-goals and 14-assists for 22-points in 48-games. “I have to say that my time in Riga, Latvia was really great. It’s a beautiful city and country. Truly passionate fans too”. I am particularly impressed with Hartigan’s first season with Riga. He finished third overall in team scoring with 37-points in 55-games, and was second overall in goals for Riga with 22. But on top of that, Hartigan put up a whopping 115-penalty minutes; the highest season-long penalty minute total of his career in a relatively small amount of games, and for a player who was always very productive offensively. Thinking of all of his totals that season, Hartigan certainly made his mark in the KHL too.

There would be one more season of professional hockey for Mark Hartigan’s career. The 2011-12 season he would split between playing in Switzerland with the top Swiss-A league and in Sweden with the Swedish Elite League; again, both highly respected and challenging leagues. Even though Mark was able to produce in both leagues, he already knew that it would be his final year of pro hockey.

“My last year I signed in Rapperswil, Switzerland initially. The story behind it is fairly simple. About the third or fourth game into the season I had hurt my knee which put me out 4-5 weeks. The team was able to bring in another foreign player to take my spot while I was out”, Hartigan says. Most European leagues have stipulations as to how many foreign players are allowed on their roster, while most of the team is comprised of players native to that particular country. “When I came back from injury I played approximately 10-games but could never really find my game, which was really frustrating”.

Hartigan then went and played with Linköping in Sweden. “The opportunity presented itself to be able to sign a new contract with Linköping in the Swedish Elite League, so I took the opportunity of a fresh start. Transferring to Sweden seemed best for myself and for the Swiss team at that point too. It was a good mutual agreement. I pretty much knew that was going to by my last year halfway through that season, as hockey as that point was not fun for me”.

Those moments in life where something that should be enjoyable but for some reason ceases to be, at least in the way that it once was before. Like Hartigan, people come to the realization that perhaps it is time to move onto the next chapter in their lives when it is hard to get up for something that had been a pleasure previously. “I was always a guy that loved being on the ice; first one to the rink and the last one to leave. That year I found myself being the last one to the rink in the morning, and then the first one to leave. I was mentally and physically worn out. It actually wasn’t until last winter (2015-16) that I started watching and enjoying hockey again. I wanted nothing to do with it for a few years”. In the split season, Hartigan played 15-games with Rapperswil and 23-games with Linköping tallying 13-points between the two leagues.

hartigan-stanley-cup-rings
Mark Hartigan’s two Stanley Cup rings; 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks and 2008 with the Detroit Red Wings (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

Calling it a career on hockey, Hartigan has since moved onto a new career in real estate and has found some great success in that too. Mark also still stays involved with hockey for younger ones as well. “I now live in Fort McMurray, Alberta where my older brother and sister live, and where I grew up part-time as my dad lived there while my mom lived in Fort St. John. My brother is the broker/owner for Coldwell Banker Fort McMurray. I got my real estate license and joined his office. It was a good fit for me and my family. My first year in real estate I was named Coldwell Banker “Rookie of the Year” for all of Canada. I occasionally go out and run practices for the Fort McMurray Junior-A Oil Barons, and I also coach my daughter’s novice hockey team (7-8 year olds).

I like to see how Mark has maintained his hockey roots still, and at the same time he has entered into a new venture where, like his hockey career, he has continued to perform at a high level and be recognized for his talents. Learning this about him makes me feel good to see his successes. “Friendships, professionalism, experience, World Travel, and opportunities” – that is what he tells me hockey has given him. It is nice to see how has capitalized upon all of these personal gains in his life. It is certainly something to be proud of.

When I recall Mark Hartigan’s time with the Syracuse Crunch, I specifically recall his net presence. I felt he was always very solid around the opposing team’s net, and was able to get a quick shot away or be in the perfect position for a scoring chance recognizing how a play was about to develop. After all, he put the puck into the back of the net 224-times during his professional career. A player also does not earn back-to-back Stanley Cup rings by happenstance. There was a reason that Anaheim and Detroit sought Mark’s services for their respective Cup runs. An intangible or two that perhaps coaches in Atlanta just could not see. Regardless, they wanted him on their team. And as I said in the beginning, if I ran a hockey club, I would want Mark Hartigan on my team as well. He would bring professionalism and experience that are uniquely his own.

hartigan-family
The Hartigan family (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).
Advertisements

“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.

todd-simon-1-a
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”.

todd-simon-card
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”.

todd-simon-las-vegas-thunder
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.

todd-simon-cyclones-photo-cred-saed-hindash
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”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

 

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

chris-langevin-1
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”.

chris-langevin
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”.

80-81-saginaw-gears
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”.

langevin-amerks
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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

mike-forbes-1
Defenseman Mike Forbes would play 32-games for the 1977-78 Boston Bruins, registering 4-assists and 15-penalty minutes (Photo provided courtesy of Mike Forbes).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mike-forbes-2
Mike Forbes helping to defend the Boston net while Ron Grahame stands in goal for the Bruins. (Photo provided courtesy of Mike Forbes).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“The hockey gods on his side” – Greg Theberge, former Washington Capitals defenseman

The hockey pedigree within his makeup is almost unfathomable. When a player can trace his hockey roots as far back as the “Roaring-20s” to a grandfather who played two decades in the National Hockey League, who also won three Stanley Cup championships, and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and then to have made it to the NHL himself, well, it would appear that the “hockey gods” have blessed this individual and signified him as someone special. Talking with Greg Theberge for over two hours (long enough that one of our phones’ battery died), I can attest to the fact that he is truly someone special. A warm voice, memory like an elephant, a great analyzer of the game down to its minutest detail, and genuinely kindhearted – that’s Greg Theberge, a former defenseman for the Washington Capitals and the grandson of Boston Bruins’ legend Dit Clapper. As if icing on the cake to that hockey pedigree, Greg married the older sister of former Colorado Rockies’ right winger/center Bob Attwell; Greg’s wife Rhonda. Rhonda’s father, Greg’s father-in-law, is Ron Attwell, who played for the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues. And if that were not enough, Rhonda’s two uncles are also former NHLers, Bill McCreary Sr. and the late Keith McCreary. Hockey is within the very essence of their family. And Greg Theberge is providing me with the privilege of knowing about his life and his career firsthand.

“I started playing organized hockey at the age of five, playing in a house league. We played against teams from Belleville, Oshawa, and Toronto. Being from Peterborough there was plenty of opportunity to play, especially on outdoor rinks. We’d play on a small lake in the center of town, or on frozen baseball diamonds where they’d set up end boards of sorts. So, I started playing at the tender age of five”, Theberge tells me. Born September 3rd, 1959 in Peterborough, Ontario, Greg’s love for the game of hockey began at a very early age, and was greatly fueled by his grandfather, the great Dit Clapper.

greganddit
To the left, a teenage Greg Theberge alongside his Hall of Fame grandfather, Dit Clapper. To the right, the 3-time Stanley Cup champion Dit Clapper of the Boston Bruins during his playing days (Photos provided courtesy of Greg Theberge).

To put it into perspective as to how great a player Clapper was, you have to first accept the fact that the word “great” gets thrown around too often, and perhaps is attributed to athletes who may not embody the word to its utmost. Let it be known that Dit Clapper embodied greatness to its fullest extent, and then some. Clapper played twenty years in the National Hockey League, from 1927 until 1947 – the very first player in NHL history to play two decades in the league, and still one of only nine players to have such longevity. He has won more Stanley Cups than any other player in Boston Bruins history, helping to lead the team to the championship in 1929, 1939 and 1941. In Clapper’s third NHL season, he scored an incredible 41-goals in 44-games. He was a First Team All-Star selection in 1939, 1940, and 1941, and then a Second Team All-Star in 1931, 1935 and in 1944; the 1944 selection was as a defenseman even, though Clapper spent most of his career playing rightwing. This greatness of Clapper’s led to a most-deserved Hockey Hall of Fame induction in 1947.

Clapper’s career was more than enough to inspire any lover of the game, but imagine having him as your grandfather. I ask Greg to put it into perspective for me. “I was just a young boy, but to me he was just this soft spoken, gentle giant. He was always well-dressed; nice dress pants, a collared shirt, a fedora. Never had a hair out of place on his head. Just a very well manicured man. Dit is the reason why I started playing hockey”. Clapper was a very handsome man (do a Google image search), and at 6-feet, 2-inches and nearly 200lbs., a size that would have made him a formidable player in the present day NHL, he was larger than life in the NHL of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

The meticulous way that Clapper carried himself on the ice and how strongly he practiced the fundamentals of the game were imparted into Greg. “He really encouraged strong puck-handling skills. Dit was always a great playmaker himself. He always had very sharp skates and the toes nicely shellacked. I made sure that I always had very sharp skates with the toes shellacked just like he once did”. Clapper’s guidance of his grandson’s development was even instilled with regards to recognizing the fun and the love of the game in its purest sense, as Greg shares with me a very interesting story from his childhood.  “I was playing in a house league in the Civic Arena in Peterborough. You know, kids will try to emulate what they see on TV. And I remember I was 10-years old and I went after this other player, thinking that I’m going to have my first hockey fight. We started punching, and I ended up on the bottom getting beaten up. Low and behold, Dit comes out onto the ice, grabs both of us and escorts us over to the penalty-box. He’s sitting in there with both of us, saying ‘You guys are too young to be doing that kind of stuff. You need to stick to playing hockey’, although he had a few more choice words for me. But nobody said anything about it or even questioned him. Not the referee. Not anyone in the stands. They understood and respected him, and what he was trying to teach us about the game”.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that throughout his childhood, despite living in Ontario, Greg Theberge was a huge Boston Bruins fan thanks to his grandfather. “Only the true Bruins fans know and remember that Boston has won the Stanley Cup six times – 1929, 1939, 1941, 1970, 1972 and 2011. I remember Dit used to have visitors over – former players and Bruins greats like Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Red Sullivan. I would be upstairs, and I remember the cigar smoke billowing up the stairs and the big belly laughs”. How wonderful, yet almost surreal, it must have been to have grown up with a grandfather who was a Stanley Cup champion and an NHL All-Star, and to have his legendary teammates regularly around as family guests. A collection of real-life hockey gods gathered in the family room. Is it any wonder that Greg Theberge would seek to follow in their footsteps?

His family relocating to Toronto when he was 13-years of age would be “a blessing in disguise”, as Greg put it to me. “You go from Peterborough, and here you are playing hockey in Toronto. Back then it was called the Metro Toronto Hockey League, but now it’s called the GTHL, or Greater Toronto Hockey League. The level of talent and the competition increased dramatically. And although that would be a challenge, it would be how and where I really developed my hockey skills”.

Greg was then playing for the Toronto Wexford Raiders, a Metro Junior A hockey team. It would not be long before his recently developed skill was found and sought after by none other than a future Hall of Fame coach, the late Roger Neilson, who was then coach of the Peterborough Petes; a major junior team of the Ontario Hockey League. “I remember Roger coming to see me when I was 16-years old, and him saying to me, ‘We have the first pick in the second round of the draft, and we are planning on taking you. How would you feel about that?’. I was ecstatic, and especially because I still had a lot of family and friends in Peterborough. And after Roger made that declaration, that was exactly the way that it played out. The funny thing is, I actually ended up being the Petes’ first overall draft choice that year. Roger Neilson had wanted to draft Paul Reinhart in the first round of that year’s draft, and Paul kept telling him ‘Don’t draft me, don’t draft me. I’m not going to play for you, so don’t draft me’. Like a lot of teenage kids at that time, I’m sure Paul was going through the anxiety of dealing with having to be far away from home and being homesick. Sure enough, Roger drafts him in the first round and his agent threatened to take it to court so that Reinhart and his family’s wishes would be respected (Reinhart refused to play for any other major junior team beside the Kitchener Rangers). Peterborough ended up trading him, and for compensation they received two first round draft picks who ended up being Bill Gardner, who would play in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks, and then another defenseman, Larry Murphy. So with Reinhart refusing to play for Peterborough, I ended up being their top overall pick in the 1976 draft”.

calder-cup
Parading the Calder Cup around the ice with his ’79-’80 Hershey Bears teammates, Greg Theberge is next to the elbow of team captain Bob Bilodeau. Teammate Jay Johnston is just in behind of Greg. (Photo provided courtesy of Greg Theberge).

The success that Greg Theberge would have with Peterborough would be most profound. But at least for that first season of major junior, there would be some transitioning. Greg’s first year on the Petes’ blueline saw him produce 10-goals and 22-assists for 32-points in 65-games. Thinking back on that first season, Theberge recognizes that he still had some maturing to do that first season, despite decent offensive numbers. “I really felt that that first year in Peterborough I underachieved. Physically, I was mature. But I wasn’t ready or mature enough mentally for that scenario”. It would be a change in coaches that would allow Theberge to flourish with the Petes.

“Gary Young was the coach my first year in Peterborough. At some point he had moved me to leftwing, and I really wasn’t comfortable there. Gary Young ended up getting fired after that first year, and they hired our 24-year old assistant coach Gary Green as the new head coach. Well, Gary Green calls me that same summer going into my second year, and he tells me that he’s moving me back to defense and that he’s giving me the greenlight to carry the puck and be my creative, offensive-style self”. Green’s move to switch Greg back to defense paid off in every way, and allowed Greg to build himself into the player that he was destined to become. Sometimes to allow an individual to blossom, the one overseeing them needs to back their hands away and allow that player move and work freely; like an artist without any confines or restrictions. Full props to Gary Green for recognizing the best decision was to allow Greg to be himself and create with the puck.

“My second year with the Petes, we won the Ontario Hockey League championship”, thus capturing the J. Ross Robertson Cup. “We beat the Hamilton Fincups in the final, and they had a very tough, physical team. My future teammate in Hershey Jay Johnston, along with Al Secord and Al Jensen. Hamilton was a very solid team”. Winning the OHL came from a very solid year by Theberge on the backend, in which he would register 13-goals and 54-assists for 67-points in 65-regular games season; the top scoring defenseman for the Petes and the fourth leading Peterborough scorer overall. In the OHL’s playoffs, Theberge continued his outstanding production with another 3-goals and 12-assists in 19-games as the Petes won the Cup.

Having a top notch roster that included the likes of future Stanley Cup champions Keith Acton and Steve Larmer, and with Theberge leading the rush, the Petes were vaulted into the May 1978 Memorial Cup competition in a round-robin format, held at the Sudbury Arena in Sudbury, Ontario. Despite Theberge’s continued brilliance with 3-goals in 5-tournament games, as well as the fact that Peterborough finished with the best record in the round-robin with 3-win and 1-loss, the Petes would lose in the championship final to the New Westminster Bruins, whom they had twice beaten in the round-robin. Though disappointing to say the least, Theberge recognizes that the lessons from this loss better prepared he and his teammates to eventually become champions. “That loss ended up really doing wonders for the core group of players on our team for the following year”.

Greg’s final season with Peterborough would end up being one that has stood the test of time and has never been duplicated in Petes history. “What you have to understand is that we didn’t have superstars on our team. Rather, we had good players – but our good players played the best together”. The Petes would give a repeat performance of capturing the J. Ross Robertson Cup for the 1978-79 OHL season. And once again Greg would lead all defensemen in team scoring for the Petes, recording 20-goals and 60-assists for a remarkable 80-points in 63-games; good enough for being the fifth overall scorer for Peterborough. Numbers and a performance that would not go overlooked by the OHL, as Theberge would be the recipient of Max Kaminsky Trophy that year as the Best Defenseman in the OHL. “I really felt that was an overachievement for me, and not to toot my own horn, but I was really proud of myself and my performance as a defenseman. I would also end up setting the Petes’ record for the fastest three goals scored team history. I scored a hat-trick in 1-minutes and 38-seconds against Jim Ralph of the Ottawa 67s”.

As 1978-79 continued, the best was yet to come for Greg Theberge and Peterborough. After winning the OHL championship, greatly fueled by Greg’s 17-point playoff performance with 8-goals and 9-assists in 19-games, and finishing the regular season with a superb record of 46-19-3, the Petes would once again find themselves in the Memorial Cup championship. Though this time around the outcome would be much different, and much more enjoyable. The Petes, the Trois-Rivieres Draveurs and Brandon Wheat Kings would all meet in another round-robin sequence. It would be a dead-heat as each team finished with records of 2-and-2. Based on goal differential, the Petes would be heralded in the championship game once more, going up against the late Brad McCrimmon’s Wheat Kings. The “hockey gods” are funny sometimes, as they like to occasionally throw some irony into the mix that is not fully realized until much time has passed. I say this, as it would be Greg’s teammate and future brother-in-law Bob Attwell who would cap of the Memorial Cup championship with an overtime goal against Brandon, with the final score being 2-1. Though Greg had been dating Rhonda since the age of 17, who could have foreseen that the teammate who sealed the Memorial Cup for Theberge and Peterborough would eventually become his brother-in-law? Oh, those “hockey gods” sometimes!

“I have to answer you honestly”, Greg tells me, “or else, it’s not from the heart”. I am asking him to explain to me what it felt like to be drafted into the NHL by the Washington Capitals in 1979. A slight amount of disappointment can be heard in his voice, as Theberge recalls being drafted 109th overall in the 6th-round. “I had such a great resume. But at this time the NHL and the WHA were merging. So the NHL knew they had to allow access to the 18-year olds, whom the WHA had been drafting already. So now you suddenly have all the good 18-year old prospects, all of the 19-year old prospects, plus there was an influx of WHA players now being added onto NHL rosters, and there was an expansion draft for the four teams entering into the league (Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques), so there was this abundance of players”. The volume of players easily being why Theberge would go much later in the draft than what was warranted.

gregtheberge
Known throughout his career as an offensive-defenseman with a very solid shot, Greg Theberge. (Photo provided courtesy of Greg Theberge).

I also ask Greg about when did he come to the realization that a career in professional hockey was possible and imminent, and how did he feel about going to the Capitals, a perennial basement-dweller of the NHL. “I first knew that playing professionally was a good possibility, even a likelihood, when Roger Neilson came to see me when I was 16-years old. In 1976, I had some NCAA offers and scholarship opportunities from Brown University and Colgate. But Mark Napier, who was a few years older than me but had also played with Wexford, was drafted as a teenager into the WHA by the Toronto Toros. I saw that, and felt that at 16 I was starting to find my identity as an offensive-defenseman. So when Roger came to see me I knew that it was a real possibility”. As for going to the Caps, “I really didn’t know much about Washington at the time. But Gary Green (the same coach from Peterborough) ended up signing with the Caps organization. So now my coach goes to the pros the same year that I do. I knew that it was good for me that I went to Washington because Gary Green would be there too, and he would be in my corner”.

One of the gentlemen responsible for bringing Greg Theberge to the Washington Capitals was former NHL goaltending great Roger Crozier. “The Artful Dodger”, or as Theberge and his teammates called him in Washington, “The Crow”, would join the Capitals front office staff after retiring from playing in 1977, and would eventually work his way up to general manager, though it would be on an interim basis. “Roger had a lot of pressure on him in Washington”, Greg recalls. “But he had a lot of hockey knowledge and experience. He won a Memorial Cup as the goaltender for the St. Catharines Teepees in 1960, he won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year in his first NHL season, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs the following year, and he played in two Stanley Cup Finals, one with Detroit and one with Buffalo. But I sensed that he was under a lot of pressure in Washington, trying to change things from a country club atmosphere to a playoff contender”.

Theberge has some amusing but meaningful memories about Roger Crozier. “He really liked my shot. I remember him telling me that he liked how I kept it nice and low, and that it would generate a lot of rebounds. Well, we played this exhibition game in Johnstown one time, and I keep firing shots up high. I remember Roger was really disappointed, and came down from upstairs to yell at me, ‘Theberge, what the heck is that? You are shooting like garbage! That’s not why we brought you here!'”, Theberge laughs, recalling “The Crow’s” frustration with him. “Another time I was playing in Washington in 1981, and I had a grade-2 medial-collateral strain. Back then, you didn’t have personal mail slots so you used to have to walk upstairs to get your paycheck. So I’m hobbling up the stairs to get my paycheck, and Roger pokes his head out of his office and says, ‘Hey Theberge, you know what happens to guys who get injured? They get sent down to the minors!'”, another guttural laugh from Theberge, as Crozier would follow through on his word and ship Greg back down to Washington’s minor league affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Theberge though would realize that Crozier was more so teaching him a lesson in the business of the game, “He really did want me back in the lineup”.

Greg Theberge’s first season of professional hockey was with the Capitals minor league affiliate, the colorful 1979-80 Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. I use the word “ragtag” to describe this particular team, and Greg seconds my choice of wording. Ragtag though they may have been, the ’79-’80 Bears were a one of kind hockey club that would eventually become Calder Cup champions that year, despite posting a losing regular season record of 35-39-6. While Theberge’s former Peterborough coach Gary Green would initially be at the coaching helm for Hershey, he would be promoted to the parent club Capitals. This in turn would cause Theberge’s teammate and former Boston Bruins and Caps player Doug Gibson to step into the role of player-coach for the Bears. Once again, a little bit of irony as Gibson had played for both Theberge’s beloved Bruins and his newfound team the Capitals. Theberge was already familiar with Gibson, as Doug’s sister had been Greg’s Sunday school teacher. “I couldn’t believe it as a 20-year old kid. Here’s Gibson playing, skating a full-shift. And then he’s coming to the bench and telling everyone whose line is up next. So while everyone is sitting after each shift getting a chance to catch their breath, he’s standing the whole time behind us coaching instead of taking a rest. I had never seen anything like it. Then we would get a power-play, and Doug would say, ‘okay guys, my line is up’, and back out onto the ice he’d go to play the power-play. It was just unbelievable!”.

The 1979-80 Bears were an example of “the inmates running the asylum”, as Greg puts it – but in a very good way. “Our team showed so much team unity. The older core of veterans showed terrific leadership. Guys like Claude Noel, Gary Inness, Ronny Lalonde, Tony Cassolato, Ray ‘Spider’ McKay – they were all very instrumental in the room. Those guys taught us to be professionals. How to dress. How to prepare. The little things. Jim McTaggart was one of our tough guys; him and Jay Johnston. (Brian) ‘Spinner’ Spencer did a really good job for us. We had Lou Franceschetti. And let’s not forget the fans. Hershey has always been a great sports community. If you have never been to the Hersheypark Arena, you need to go. It was basically like being in a gladiator bowl. It was just so loud!”. Theberge and this particular Bears team assembles every five years to commemorate their Calder Cup championship. In my time in hockey, I have never come across a truer “band of brothers” than the ’79-’80 Hershey Bears, and Greg Theberge certainly confirms those sentiments among he and his former teammates.

theberge-and-spinner
Ever-colorful, the late Brian “Spinner” Spencer alongside Greg Theberge during a game with the 1979-80 Hershey Bears. (Photo provided courtesy of Greg Theberge).

Attaining the Calder Cup that year would stand for all time, but the 1979-80 season would have some additional momentous occasions that Greg would never forget; his first NHL game, as well as his first NHL point. Both are heavily ingrained in his memory, and could even be considered some added flavoring by the “hockey gods” once more. “We (the Bears) were in Springfield for a game right before Thanksgiving weekend, and Doug Gibson woke me up and said, ‘Hey Bergie, you’re going up!’. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Up? Up where?’, and he tells me ‘You’re going up to the Caps!’. So I hop on a plane in Springfield and I fly out to Chicago. A limo picks me up from the airport to take me to the Marriot. I had about 2-hours to get a meal in me and get some rest, before I would head over to Chicago Stadium”.

The old Chicago Stadium is one of a mere handful of arenas that stood as some of the greatest annals of hockey history; definitely making the top five at least. And this fabled stadium is where Greg Theberge would play his first NHL game. “You’d have to walk down two flights of stairs just to get to the locker rooms. I remember skating out on the ice and thinking myself, “This is the same arena where my grandfather had played. This is where Dit Clapper played. And there are the Blackhawks. I am out there playing against Stan Mikita, Cliff Koroll, and Tony Esposito. The other thing was, nobody told me how loud the goal horn was in the Stadium. You’re sitting on the bench, and they scored, and you would just get blasted by the goal horn; it would reverberate through the bench. It was just so frickin’ loud!”. Greg would come awfully close to scoring his first NHL goal that game too, nearly getting one by the Hall of Famer, Tony Esposito. “I had skated in the with puck, and used their defenseman as a screen. I put the puck on net up high on Tony and it just clanked off the post. It was a good enough opportunity that it was even mentioned in the newspaper the next day; ‘The young Theberge had a solid chance on Tony Esposito that went off the post'”.

Though he would not score in that first game in Chicago, Theberge would record his first NHL point during his 12-game stint with the Capitals that season. And,  it would come against a player who had actually played against his grandfather. The Hartford Whalers, playing their inaugural NHL season that year, were greatly led by the 51/52-year old “Mr. Hockey”, Gordie Howe, in what would be his final NHL season. Howe played in all 80-regular season games for the Whalers that season, scoring 15-goals and 26-assists, as well as all 3-playoff games too where he totaled a goal and an assist. “Gordie’s first year in the NHL was 1946-47, and that was Dit’s twentieth. A reporter had asked Gordie that first year about his expectations of playing in the NHL, and Gordie responded that ‘All I hope to achieve is to play as long as Mr. Clapper'”. The fact that Theberge’s first point came against Howe’s Whalers certainly holds great meaning for him. “I think Dit would have been really pleased to know that”. Perhaps some minor intervention by those “hockey gods” once more.

thebergevsleafs
The Maple Leafs doing their best to try and hold up Washington’s Greg Theberge on the rush (Photo provided courtesy of Greg Theberge).

Theberge’s second professional season, 1980-81, would see him play the entire year with the Hershey Bears except for a one game appearance with the parent club Capitals. While the Bears would not repeat as back-to-back Calder Cup champions, Theberge truly found his groove as he would establish himself as one of the most elite defenseman in the AHL. Putting up 12-goals and 53-assists on the Bears backend, Theberge would lead all defensemen for Hershey in scoring and would finish fourth overall on the team in points.

Future NHL head coach and general manager, Bryan Murray was now at the helm in Hershey, and would lead the Bears to a 47-24-9 record. “I felt that I had finally found my identity within the organization and with that team. And that was all because of Bryan Murray. He was very instrumental in developing me into an all-star defenseman. Bryan challenged me, and I challenged him right back. Prior to that season, I had showed up at camp injured. I had been working out with some of the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos players lifting weights, and I had badly strained my back. I had sandbagged the coaches and didn’t let them know I was injured during training camp. But I just wasn’t myself out there. I could not skate at all like I was capable of. So I finally caved in and went and told Bryan Murray. I knocked on his door and told him that I had not been completely honest, and that I had hurt my back; that who he was seeing out there wasn’t me. So Bryan says, ‘I wondered what the heck was going on – cause you looked absolutely brutal!’. But he took me down the trainers, and they worked at getting me fixed up and get the nerve in my back to stop burning”.

Coming forward to his coach about his injury and getting the treatment that he needed, Theberge was rekindled and Bryan Murray gave him the support that he needed to become an elite defenseman. “Bryan always really liked the way that I was able to skate. His push is what led me to becoming an all star that year, and I broke the Hershey record for points by a defenseman. Bryan told me, ‘A great skater like you needs to skate every day. Because when you miss a day, it’s noticeable”.

The excitement but also the oddity of Theberge’s one game up with the Capitals during the 1980-81 season is that he would score his first NHL goal; a perfect one NHL game, one NHL goal for that season. “I had gotten called up for one game and it was against Pittsburgh. Michael Plasse was in goal for the Penguins. Pat Price, who was kind of a big, hulking, lethargic defenseman for the Pens tried clearing the zone by firing the puck around the boards. I went and held the blueline, and I was able to stop the puck by firing off a one-timer on net. It hit the far right post and it went in. The guys couldn’t believe it though that I got sent back down to Hershey after the game. They were like, ‘Wait, you scored? Why are you getting sent back down?’. But it was for the best, as the Capitals wanted to see me continue to develop”. It would not take very long for Theberge to make a return with Washington and a more permanent return, at that.

Greg would spend the entire 1981-82 season with the Washington Capitals; no stops in Hershey at all. Strong play, determination, and his ever present excellent skating and puck-handling skills demonstrated to the Capitals that Greg was a true NHLer. Asking him what it felt like to have made it full time with Washington, he says, “It felt great! I felt that I genuinely deserved it too. I had benchmarked myself in different skill sets by comparing myself with other NHL defensemen. My shot was better than average compared to most defenseman. And I really thought I had NHL skating skills. Prior to the season’s start there was a European tournament in Sweden and Finland that the Capitals, the Rangers and the North Stars went to, and that’s really where I got my big break. The Capitals at the time were not doing very well. We were playing a game way up north in Oulu, Finland, and I had scored a game-winner in overtime on a big point shot. (Capitals general manager) Max McNab decided to keep me with the team”. Here is where the “hockey gods” threw an unusual but amusing curve into Theberge’s story. “So the Capitals keep me, and our tough-guy Jim McTaggart is the one who gets sent home back to the US to play in Hershey”. McTaggart himself would get a shocking discovery when he got to the airport. “Jim called me after he got home, and said to me, ‘You’re frickin’ lucky you scored that goal Bergie – YOUR name was the one on the ticket!’. The Capitals had been planning to send me back, but after I scored that OT game-winner they sent McTaggart back instead – the ticket had been readied for me initially!”. Both Greg and I burst out laughing at how the “hockey gods” seemed to have his back one more time. Though I am sure Greg must have felt a little bad for Jim McTaggart, as do I, as he tells me the story, the outcome of it instantly makes it an epic tale!

Remaining with the team that year, Theberge proved that the Capitals made the right decision in keeping him. In 57-games, Greg would score 5-goals and 32-assists – this put him in the top ten in team scoring for Washington, and would place him second overall in points amongst Capitals defensemen behind Darren Veitch. Who knows – if Greg had played in all 80-regular season games for the team that season, he arguably could have finished as the team’s top scorer for defensemen. Point being though, he had locked up a permanent roster spot, and as far as the Capitals were concerned, the best was yet to come for the core of their players and their organization.

thebergevsblues
Greg Theberge defending against #11 Brian Sutter of the St. Louis Blues. (Photo provided courtesy of Greg Theberge)

Part of NHL expansion in 1974, the Washington Capitals went eight seasons without making the playoffs. Two vital occurrences happened for the 1982-83 season that would turn that drought around. First, June of 1982 saw the Capitals select in the draft an 18-year old who would become one of the greatest defenseman and competitors the game has ever seen, Scott Stevens. According to Theberge, “Scotty was the best 18-year old that I have ever seen play. He liked to play a very hard game. At that point as a rookie, he had a lot of maturation to do. Scotty had a real temper, and Bryan Murray (Theberge’s former Hershey coach had since taken over as the Capitals head coach) was hard on Scotty. But he was hard on him to make him a better professional. Scotty could easily get taken off of his game. Bryan would caution him and warn him, ‘Hold your temper, pick your battles; we need you on the ice'”. You hear players refer to Scott Stevens as a “Great White shark” sometimes, and he has delivered some of the most devastating bodychecks in hockey history, and at key times like the Stanley Cup Finals. Greg describes his own memory of the three-time Stanley Cup champion’s and Hockey Hall of Famer’s hitting prowess: “I remember playing a game against Hartford and Pierre Larouche is skating in with the puck. Scott is backing up with him, completely telegraphing the hit. Scotty gets down in almost a three-point stance like a football player, steps up and just explodes into Pierre. I mean, just destroys him”.

The second key occurrence for the Capitals took place in September of 1982 when one of the most underrated trades in NHL history would go down. The Capitals would receive three previous Stanley Cup winners in Doug Jarvis, Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, along with prospect Craig Laughlin from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Ryan Walter and Rick Green. “David Poile made that trade and it was the beginning of a new identity for the Capitals”, Theberge recalls. “That trade benefitted both teams”. While Ryan Walter and Rick Green would help lead Montreal to the 1986 Stanley Cup championship a few years down the road, the Capitals immediately reaped the benefits of adding four integral pieces for their organization. Doug Jarvis was hockey’s “iron man”; while he would win four Stanley Cups in a row with the Montreal Canadiens in the late 1970s, he also never missed a single game in his entire NHL career – setting the record at 964 consecutive games. Langway, who would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002, would win the Norris Trophy with Washington as the NHL’s Best Defenseman during that first 1982-83 season with the Caps and the next season too. Langway would be the face of the Washington Capitals for 11-years. Engblom won three Stanley Cups with Montreal, and was a solid puck-moving defenseman like Theberge. And Craig Laughlin was no slouch either, becoming a perennial 20-plus goal scorer for Washington.

Those two major, and necessary, changes to the team’s core of players got the Capitals into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Though they would lose to the Islanders in four games in the opening round, the tide had turned and Washington was now a winning hockey club. They would eventually become one of the league’s top teams throughout the 1980s. Greg Theberge was very much an integral piece himself for that 1982-83 playoff bound team. While he suited up for 12-games in Hershey, Greg would play the fullest NHL season of his career that year as he played in 70 of the Capitals 80-games and in all 4-playoff games. His 8-goals and 28-assists would again slate him as the second highest scorer amongst Capitals defensemen and place him twelfth overall on the team.

Another one of Greg’s teammates during the 1982-83 season is a player whom I have always admired and was eager to ask him about; Czechoslovakian great centerman, Milan Novy. Playing as a rookie at the age of thirty, Novy would play only one season in the NHL; scoring 18-goals and 30-assists in 73-games with the Capitals – sixth overall in team scoring. Prior to helping Washington make the playoffs for the first time, Novy had already been an Olympic silver medalist, and a two-time gold medalist, four-time silver medalist, and one-time bronze medalist for the World Championships for hockey. Novy would even score a goal and 2-assists in his first NHL game. Theberge recalls his teammate fondly, “Milan was a pretty good guy, and he was always a really good family man. He was pretty quiet, and I remember how everyone raved about his international play and success. He also wanted to wear the number “6”, which was funny because I can’t think of any other center or forward who wanted to wear “6””, Theberge chuckles. “I really think that the language barrier held back Milan’s game. Milan always wanted to learn, but he would have trouble trying to express himself. That, and the unfair stigma towards European players at the time. Milan was considered somewhat of a faceoff specialist, and I remember in one of his first games, we were playing the Islanders and he is facing off against Bryan Trottier. Milan wins the faceoff, but after the draw Trottier gets his stick up and cuts Milan right above the eye. A big gash, and blood is dripping out. Milan goes to the bench and gets stitched up. He goes back out later in the game for another faceoff against Trottier, and is kind of just staring at him, like ‘what the heck did I ever do to you?’. But that was Trottier trying to put him in his place, I guess”. Regardless of what Trottier may have felt about Milan Novy, Greg Theberge recalls his teammate quite fondly and Novy’s lone NHL season should be considered a successful one.

image1
Theberge moving the puck out of the zone with Washington; something he did very well throughout his career. (Photo provided courtesy of Greg Theberge).

Additional changes would come for Theberge after that first playoff appearance for the Capitals, and they were not necessarily positive ones for Greg. That being said though, I cannot sense any regrets coming from Greg as he talks to me about the 1983-84 season. “Huge changes; huge moves. I felt at that time my shelf life with Bryan Murray had expired”. Despite having played in 70-regular season games for the Capitals the season prior, Theberge would only see himself play in 13 of them for ’83-’84, while spending the bulk of the season back in Hershey. It would be an additional trade that the Capitals would make for another future Stanley Cup champion and Hockey Hall of Famer which would be the proverbial “writing on the wall” for Greg. “The Caps had traded away Brian Engblom to the Los Angeles Kings and brought in Larry Murphy. The funny thing was, Larry and I had been teammates in Peterborough. I had come in and broke Dave Shand’s record with the Petes for points by a defenseman. And then Larry came into Peterborough and he broke my record. The guys in Peterborough used to call me ‘Thebber’. So when Larry came in, he knew that he was taking my spot as the offensive-defenseman on the team. He said to me, ‘I’m really sorry “Thebber”; I don’t have any control over this’. And that was okay; that is just the business side of hockey”.

Not finding a place for himself with the Capitals organization, Greg Theberge decided to play overseas after the 1983-84 season. He would play two years in Switzerland and another two years in Germany. “I had been disappointed in where my career was at that point, but had kind of rejuvenated it while over in Europe. I had had surgery on my knee in Switzerland after having surgery on it already in Hershey. I ended up winning a Spengler Cup with HC Davos in Switzerland, playing with Ronnie Wilson. We also had Dale McCourt and my buddy from Washington Milan Novy. I had two pretty successful seasons in Switzerland. I had moved on to playing in Germany with Augsburg after that. But at 27-28 playing there, I ended up suffering a really bad knee injury in Germany. I had also hurt my foot and my back. That was when I decided to hang them up, there in Germany”.

Theberge would be offered another interesting opportunity to see if he wanted one last go playing in North America; this time from another legendary coach, Mike Keenan. “I had been roommates with Mike Keenan with the Canadian National Team. Mike had always had a long-standing feud with Bryan Murray. At this point, Keenan was the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Hershey Bears were now their minor league affiliate; Murray was still coaching in Washington and their two teams were division rivals. Mike always liked the way that I skated, and he offered me a position as a player-coach with Hershey. I told him though that I had to turn him down; my body was pretty banged up as it was, and I just couldn’t take that level of play anymore”.

image2
Greg Theberge peppering a shot on net during a game with the Washington Capitals. (Photo provided courtesy of Greg Theberge).

Having retired, Greg Theberge still is very much involved in hockey these days. He plays in beer leagues a few times a week recreationally at the North Bay Arena in Ontario and in Sundridge, Ontario. He is also the color-commentator for the OHL’s North Bay Battalion. Even when Greg laces them up today, he still honors his grandfather by donning a number-5 “Clapper” sweater in the beer league games, leaving the younger fans to wonder “Who is Clapper? I thought your last name was Theberge” when they see him on the ice.

You get a strong sense of gratitude from Greg Theberge. Check off the names of whom he has hockey ties to – Roger Neilson, Bryan Murray, Mike Keenan, Scott Stevens, Rod Langway, Larry Murphy, Gordie Howe, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Mike Gartner – all Hall of Famers or soon to be. And Greg played for, with, and/or against them all. Those three defensemen especially – Stevens, Langway, and Murphy. Between the three of them, they have combined for eight Stanley Cup championships, 4,244-games played in the National Hockey League, and 2,453-points. He speaks to me about each of them. “Larry Murphy had thunder thighs. Just these big, huge, strong legs, and he was even stronger with the puck. He used to use this big KOHO stick with a medium-closed curve, and he let me try it one time. Murphy was just so incredible with the puck. Scott Stevens is just my favorite all-around defenseman. He had great endurance, great offense. He was fast and physical. Scotty had the heart of a lion, and regularly made some big time challenges; he often won those challenges too. And Rod Langway was a stud. He was so good at playing a strong game. He really led the charge for our hockey club and set the example for the Capitals. After any loss, he would come into the locker room, ask the trainer for a pair of scissors, and snip his skate laces. Every time. And he’d say, ‘those ones were losers; better get a different pair'”. I can barely fathom the concept that Greg Theberge played regularly with those men.

And then there’s Dit. Sadly, Dit Clapper passed away in January 1978, and never saw that Greg skated in the National Hockey League.  What would he have thought of the fact that his grandson had made it to the NHL? “I have thought about that a lot, and I think he would have been really excited”, Greg says. “For he was the one who really steered me in the right direction, down the road to playing pro hockey. Dit saw me as a young boy, and I think he sort of saw himself watching me play as a kid. Dit was way ahead of his time when he played. He used to do a tuck-and-drag move with the puck using a flat stick! I mean, c’mon. But I think he would have been really, really proud”.

There is no doubt in my mind that Dit Clapper would have been “really, really proud” of his grandson. More proud than what words could express. I have only just recently met Greg Theberge, and I am proud for just even knowing the man. He tells me at the end of our conversation that he would like my address so that he could send me something. The next day, he messages me and among other things, informs me that he just dropped a package off for me at the post office and that I should receive it in a couple of days. Greg really did not need to do this, and I tell him so. He responds to me, “Nate, there have been so many people that have been graciously kind to me throughout my life; I’m just paying it back”.

So yes, Greg. Your grandfather is very, very proud of you. Those “hockey gods” we kept talking about are very, very proud of you too. For they are very proud of you for what you have accomplished on the ice. But I know that they are all even more proud of you (especially Dit) for who you have become as a person off of it, and for how graciously you played the game and lived your life through it. The “hockey gods” are definitely on your side, but you earned every ounce of their admiration.

 

 

“Be Gracious in Defeat” ~ Warren Holmes, former Los Angeles Kings center

“I don’t remember a time that I was not playing hockey”, Warren Holmes tells me. Our Wednesday evening conversation is rich with laughter and warm memories from his hockey, his life. Over an hour into talking with him, I am not wanting our discussion to end. But let’s start from the beginning. “Beeton, Ontario is about 40-miles north of Toronto, and I was the fifth professional hockey player to come out of my hometown”; not bad for a town of only 500-700 people in the early-1970s. “There was Wayne Carleton; he was the first. Won a Stanley Cup with Boston. He’s the other Bruin you see in that iconic photo of Bobby Orr, even if it’s only his leg in the picture. John Gould; he was a 30-goal scorer with the Vancouver Canucks, and he played in Buffalo and Atlanta too. Larry Gould is John’s brother, and he got into a few games with the Canucks as well. And then Jimmy Rutherford; he’s the General Manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but played as a goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings, Penguins, Maple Leafs, and the Kings too. Jimmy and I also ended up being teammates together with the New Haven Nighthawks in the twilight of his career. And then I was the fifth”.

Warren Holmes is jovial and gracious, and is the kind of gentleman who would always give you a firm handshake and look you in the eye when you meet him. “We all lived within a mile to a mile-and-a-half radius of each other. I was fortunate in that I had the only swimming pool in the whole town, so in the winter time I could learn to skate on the frozen pool. I probably started skating at a year-and-a-half. Our town also had one of the first indoor ice rinks north of Toronto”. Throughout Warren Holmes’ hockey career, he was always capable of playing at a level higher than where he was assigned to or what his age afforded him. It also helped matters that he had the size, standing at 6-feet, 2-inches and weighing around the 200-lbs. mark. “At one time, I was playing on a Pee-Wee, a Bantam and a Midget team. Now, part of that was from necessity because I was from such a small town and the teams needed the bodies. But I was good enough to play on each of those teams, even if I was younger than some of the other older players. So I would play on one team for a game at 7:00 o’clock. Go into the next locker room, change my sweater, and then play a game for the next team. Then I’d go back to the first locker room to change again because the town only had four locker rooms <laughs>”.

Growing up in Ontario in the 1960s, Warren Holmes saw some of the greatest players who ever played the game. Though he lives in Texas now and has not lived in Ontario for over 40-years, he still has Maple Leafs blood flowing through him strongly. “Even though I played for the Kings, if it came down to it that the Leafs and the Kings were in the Stanley Cup Finals, I would have to want the Leafs to win”. That being said, Holmes’ hockey hero is one of the most underrated players throughout the history of the game. “Plain and simple, my all-time hero is Red Kelly”. Leonard “Red” Kelly won eight Stanley Cups during his 20-year NHL career; the most of any hockey player who did not play for the Montreal Canadiens. It is interesting to me that Holmes has such an affinity for Kelly, a player whom many of today’s hockey fans are not familiar with, but it makes sense when considering the type of player Red Kelly was and what he did for the game. The 1989 Hall of Fame inducted Kelly would win four of his eight Cups with the Maple Leafs of Holmes’ childhood, and a factor that Warren points out to me is even more noteworthy. “You have to remember”, he says, “it is more likely that as a player is aging that he would transition from center to defense. Red Kelly did the opposite; the later stage of his career he went from being a defenseman to playing center”, arguably the most arduous position for a positional player. Kelly would play the last six-and-a-half years of his career with the Leafs as a centerman, between the ages of 32 and 39. “The local Rotary Club used to bring in the Leafs players to speak at our hockey banquets, and it was just a thrill to meet Red Kelly there”.

Warren Holmes 3
Center Warren Holmes would play 45-games in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings. He would score 8-goals and 18-assists for 26-points during that time. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

A secondary hero of Holmes’ would be more of a contemporary of his, as opposed to Kelly, who had retired when Warren was still a boy. “In the late-60s, for three years I went to Phil Esposito’s hockey school up in Sault Ste. Marie. Now I don’t know if he remembers it like I do, maybe he does, but Phil really took me under his wing there and bonded with me. The last year that I went was right around the time of the Summit Series (1972)”, referring to Esposito’s brilliant performance for Team Canada against the Soviets in the best of eight series; “Espo” would lead all scorers throughout the legendary hockey series and iconic occasion in Canadian history with 7-goals and 6-assists in 8-games.

At the age of 15, Warren Holmes would leave his hometown Beeton and would end up playing junior-B hockey with the Toronto Young Nationals. Holmes tells me, “without a doubt, that was the most talented team that I ever played on. Guys like Dave Shand, Dwight Foster, Barry Scully, Rob Palmer would all have great careers. It was the best team that I played on in terms of pure talent. The Young Nats would actually set the record for the most players drafted into the OHA for major junior”. Holmes strings me along a little bit with what he says next. “Yeah, there was another guy who would end up playing for the Young Nats a few years later from Brantford…. I want to say his name was… Gretzky”. Holmes actually got me on that one and I tell him so, as I had not known that “The Great One” had been a product of the Young Nationals. “Yeah, I like to tell people that it was really Dave Shand and I who paved the way for Wayne Gretzky to play for the Young Nats”, he chuckles. As Holmes recalls, it would not be long after his own time playing for the Young Nats that he would find himself drafted into the OHA by the Ottawa 67’s. “Tony McKegney was drafted before me, and then I think Trevor Johansen was drafted right after me”.

While playing his major junior years in Ottawa, Warren Holmes suffered a number of injuries that would limit his opportunities to play with the team. Among his injuries, Holmes would suffer repeated shoulder dislocations that would eventually require surgery. The injuries hampering him enough that during his sophomore campaign, Holmes would put up a mere 3-goals in 28-games for Ottawa. On top of that, Holmes would have a rather contentious relationship with head coach for Ottawa, Brian Kilrea; a man who is a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and widely known for his 35-year association with the 67’s. As an interesting, even ironic side note, Kilrea scored the very first goal in Los Angeles Kings’ history; the same team with whom Warren would spend all of his time with in the NHL.

Warren Holmes 2
Warren was an extremely versatile player during his career, killing penalties regularly and helping to man the point on L.A.’s power-play unit in the early 1980s (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

“I was on the team that got Brian Kilrea his first win in the OHA as coach with the 67’s. But to be brutally honest, I did not like him and he did not like me. But what I can say about Brian Kilrea is that he taught us to be professional hockey players. He also taught us a lot of different skills in practice too. Kilrea was a great passer of the puck when he played, and he worked a lot with us on our passing. The way he coached us prepared us to be professional hockey players. If it were not for Brian Kilrea, we would not have had our successes in pro hockey”. So while he and Brian Kilrea had a mutual dislike for one another, Warren still acknowledges the many skillsets and the intangibles that he garnered from his former coach; all of which would be applied throughout his career.

Though his playing time was limited due to injuries, when Holmes was healthy he was flanked by two incredibly talented hockey players, one of whom was an eventual Stanley Cup champion and scorer of over 1,000-points in the NHL. “When I was healthy, Bobby Smith would be on my leftwing, and Timmy Higgins was on the right. Kilrea would double-shift Bobby by having him center the fourth-line”. Smith would win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year with Minnesota in 1979 and a Stanley Cup title with Montreal in 1986, while Tim Higgins would become a veteran of over 700-NHL games across 11-seasons. With star defenseman Doug Wilson patrolling the blue-line and this trio up front, the 67’s would win the 1977 J. Ross Robertson Cup as the winner of the OHA playoff championship that season. This being done despite the fact that Holmes had briefly distanced himself from the team, demanding a trade. “I had left the team for about 6-weeks, and demanded a trade. I had later heard, and I don’t know how true it is, that Brian Kilrea had asked an exorbitant price in return for trading me and no deal could be completed. I mean, how could you ask much in the way of compensation when you had a player who only scored 3-goals the year prior? You couldn’t. Eventually Kilrea talked me into coming back to the team”. Holmes was absolutely on fire during the 67’s playoff run that championship season, on a tear with 11-goals and 10-assists for 21-points in 19-playoff games.

Winning the ’77 J. Ross Robertson Cup vaulted the 67’s into the Memorial Cup tournament where they would face both the Sherbrooke Castors and the New Westminster Bruins. The tournament, which featured the first time that a double round-robin format was used, saw Holmes and Ottawa lose their first game to the Bruins 7-6, followed by three wins in a row; 6-1 over the Castors, 4-3 in overtime against the Bruins once more, and then 5-2 victory over the Castors after that. Holmes maintained his scoring prowess during the tournament, tallying 3-goals and 2-assists to have 5-points in 5-games. Unfortunately, the 67’s would lose to New Westminster in the Cup Final, 6-5. Holmes recalls, “we had brought in (goaltender) Pat Riggin from the London Knights specifically for the Memorial Cup. Brad Maxwell scored against Riggin on an end-over-end shot that he just fluttered to the net. I guess that’s why they always tell you to put the puck on net. It ended up going five-hole on Riggin, and that ended up being the game-winner for New Westminster”.

The 1977 amateur draft saw both rival professional leagues, the NHL and the World Hockey Association (WHA) draft Warren Holmes; the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings drafting him in the fifth-round, number-85 overall and the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets selecting him in the eighth-round, the 72nd-overall player. But according to Warren, the WHA was not really a route that he seriously considered. “Nothing was ever really up (with the Jets)”, he tells me. “At most, in the Fall of ’77 they had stated that they were going to having their training camp over in Europe, and that they were only taking 23-players or so, and I was not one of the players included in that mix. No, the Kings were really the only team that wanted me at the time”.

Though the Kings may have been the only team wanting to enlist Warren’s services, it was still somewhat of an odd setup or situation for him to become a part of. “What you have to understand is that the Kings of late-70s and early-80s were not a team that presented a lot of opportunity, unless you were uber-talented like Marcel Dionne. They were not developing their team through draft picks and growing it the proper way. They were kind of their own worst enemy. In fact, they traded many of their assets away and were not fostering homegrown talent. With the exception of probably Dave Taylor (drafted in the 15th-round of the 1975 draft)”, Warren recalls. The Kings did not even invest in a full fledged farm team system at the time either; electing instead to share minor league affiliations with other NHL clubs. And without the commitment to develop their own talent pool, there was little of a farm system to work with. In fact, the Kings of that time period had built a penchant for trading away their high draft selections time and time again in exchange for players that had once been talented but were now in the twilight of their careers. “That’s why you saw guys like Glenn Goldup, Rick Martin, Dave Schultz, Brian Glennie coming in for very brief stops”, Holmes tells me. The one instance in which the Kings would strike gold was when they had signed winger Charlie Simmer as a free agent in August of Holmes’ draft year (1977). With Dionne, Taylor, and Simmer together, the Kings would have their famed “Triple Crown Line”. Most of the remaining assets of the team were disparate.

Warren Holmes 1
Holmes’ size and strength made him a very formidable center during his years with the Kings and throughout his professional career. Notice Kings’ defenseman Jerry “King Kong” Korab in the background. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

When Warren Holmes entered into the fold, he actually was not yet under contract with the Kings himself, despite having been drafted by them. Holmes would play his first year of professional hockey with the IHL’s Saginaw Gears, one of the minor league teams that L.A. shared an affiliation with. “Wren Blair (formerly the first head coach in Minnesota North Stars history) was a part-owner of Saginaw. He was the one who helped get me a 3-year contract with the Kings. After all of those injuries in junior, it was the first time that I was playing healthy. And I was playing on a good team”.

Holmes would score the most goals in a single season for his professional career that year (notching 48 of them), and his second highest seasonal points total as well (81). “Back in those days minor league teams really only carried fourteen skaters and two goalies”, he says. “You’d skate three lines and have five-D. That’s the reason why I scored so much because I had so much ice time”. It was also during his time in Saginaw that Warren Holmes and Gears head coach Don Perry forged a longstanding relationship that would carry on for years between multiple teams and multiple leagues, including the NHL. “If you ask Don to this day, he’ll agree that of all the players he coached, I was the one who played for him the most. Maybe not in exact number of games, but for the amount of years on teams that he coached”. Perhaps fostered by Perry’s leadership at the helm, Holmes found in Saginaw a team and a place where he belonged. “We were a team of friends. Guys like Dennis Desrosiers, Dave Westner; I’m still friends with those guys to this day, forty years later. It’s the most comfortable that I felt with one team”. Warren’s 48-goals were good enough for second spot overall in the IHL that season.

The next few years, between 1978 until 1982, Warren would repeatedly find himself on the move between cities and leagues; some of it not clearly depicted in the seasonal stats from that time. Warren explains to me that for 1978-79, “I started the season in training camp with Los Angeles. Finished training camp and they sent me to Springfield for 2-weeks”. The Springfield Falcons being the Kings’ AHL minor league affiliate. “Then I went back to Saginaw. I guess I got it in my head that because I had so much success my first year that I didn’t need to work as hard my second. Well, I was wrong. So Don Perry, despite the relationship that I had with him and would end up having with him, shipped me to Milwaukee (Admirals) in exchange for Scott Gruhl, and to basically teach me a lesson. But then Saginaw brought me back again at the trade deadline and would have me for the playoffs”. The following season though, with Holmes back in the fold in Saginaw, he, Gruhl, and Dave Westner formed a very dangerous forward line for the Gears.

The 1979-80 season would begin nearly exactly the same as the one prior. Holmes would start out the year at the Kings training camp in L.A., be sent to their new AHL affiliate for that season, the Binghamton Dusters, where he would play all of two games, and then again he would be sent to Saginaw in the IHL. Easy to see why Warren’s comfort level in Saginaw was growing. In terms of points ’79-’80 would be his most productive, finishing the year with a career-high total of 92 (37-goals, 55-assists). Warren would finish second overall for the Gears in team scoring, while linemate Scott Gruhl led the way with 93-points of his own (53-goals, 40-assists), and the third part of their line, Dave Westner, was sixth with 20-goals and 41-assists. Though the Gears would sweep Milwaukee 4-games to none in the opening round in the playoffs, they would be eliminated themselves in the next round as they fell to the Fort Wayne Komets 4-games to 1. Holmes would finish the playoffs with 5-goals and 3-assists in 7-playoff games.

And then finally, a championship! Perhaps as they say, “the third time is the charm”. The 1980-81 season would be the third time that Warren would begin the year with the Kings training camp, before being sent to the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League (CHL). Houston was an old team that featured a wide array of veteran NHL players, including Rick Hampton, J.P. Kelly, Alex Tidey, John Smrke, Brad Selwood, and Barry Gibbs. Unfortunately for the aged guard, the Apollos organization proved unstable and the team would fold in January. But after this took place, once more Warren Holmes found himself in the familiar confines of Saginaw. “After the Apollos folded, me, Don Waddell, John Gibson, and Claude Larochelle were sent to Saginaw to finish the season and gear up for the playoffs”. Going into the playoffs, the Gears also had leadership from veteran defenseman Larry Goodenough who added some invaluable previous championship experience, having already won the Stanley Cup with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1975.

Whether it was the sudden influx of new players, having the guidance of trusted coach Don Perry, the bell-weathered goaltending of Bob Froese and Ted Tucker, or whatever intangible it may have been, the 1980-81 Saginaw Gears were awesome come that season’s playoffs. “When we won the Turner Cup that year, we did so in just 13 games. We only lost one game that year, and that was against Fort Wayne in double-OT. We had so many veterans like Larry Goodenough, Gord Brooks, and John Gibson. I don’t want to say that it was easy for us, but we had really good chemistry”. That championship team still holds a special place in Warren Holmes’ heart, as it does for all of his teammates from that year.

1979-80 Saginaw Gears
Some of Holmes’ best years in hockey were spent with the Saginaw Gears of the IHL. Here is a team photo of the 1979-80 Gears squad. Warren is in the second-row, second in from the left. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

As if some icing on the cake, after winning the Turner Cup in 1981 Holmes would receive his first bit of NHL action the following season, 1981-82. The ever present Don Perry would be called upon to coach the New Haven Nighthawks that year. Warren Holmes had been assigned to play for the Nighthawks already that year, and was enjoying a solid season which would eventually see him finish fourth overall in scoring on the team. But when the current Kings coach Parker MacDonald was relieved of his duties halfway through the season, Perry would be given the reins of the parent club. It would not be long until he would tap Holmes upon the shoulder to join him. “I remember Nighthawks owner George Maguire had called us into his office. He told me, Scott Gruhl and Al Sims, who had played a bunch of years with the Boston Bruins and the Hartford Whalers, that we were going to Pittsburgh and that we had been called up. George said, ‘You guys are going to Pittsburgh; grab 3 sticks and a toothbrush, and get on the plane. And you’ll be back here Sunday afternoon'”. Basically a one night stand of sorts, as New Haven would need them for a Sunday matinee game of their own that weekend. The details of Warren Holmes’ first NHL game in Pittsburgh against the Penguins are next to impossible to forget. The three call-ups would have their presence felt all throughout the game. Holmes tells me, “The game was a 3-3 tie. I had 2-assists and was a plus-3. Gruhl had 2-assists and was a plus-3. And Al Sims was a plus-3 too. I was named as either the First or Second Star of the game”. Not bad at all for a first NHL game.

The best was yet to come as the next year (1982-83) Warren would get his fullest amount of time in the NHL, practically splitting the season in half between New Haven and with the Kings. “I went to training camp with New Haven that year and stayed there until about mid-November. Bernie Nicholls hurt his knee, and so I got called up to L.A. and stayed there until about January. Because I had been considered an emergency recall, they had to send me back down to New Haven to avoid losing me on waivers. So I would be down in New Haven for about a month to 5-weeks before they called me back up again to finish out the season with the Kings”

Recognizing what he offered the team and where he fit in, the versatility of Warren Holmes was greatly appreciated by his Los Angeles teammates. “I killed penalties. And I would play the point on the power-play with the ‘Triple Crown Line’. I remember Marcel Dionne always asking about when I would be up with the team. I wasn’t stupid”, Holmes laughs, “a guy scores 700-goals in the NHL, I knew who to get the puck to. So I would be on the point for the power-play with the ‘Triple Crown Line’ with me and Larry Murphy on the back end”. Playing in these keys situations, especially with such great talents around him was very much reflected in Warren’s stats with the Kings that year. In 39-regular season games, he would score 8-goals and 16-assists for 24-points. “I don’t want this to sound like me tooting my own horn, but I remember Don Perry saying to me that I was the only player that he ever coached who played better in each league that he went up”.

Warren Holmes 4
Though his time with them may have been brief, Warren Holmes was a fixture on the 1982-83 Los Angeles Kings. Holmes is shown here in the center of the second row, along with his Kings’ teammates. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

Further elaborating on his time with the Kings as a whole, Warren goes on to say, “we were a fairly tight team with one another. Terry Ruskowski was my roommate on the road. A lot of the guys were married at the time, but we would still get together and hang out. To this day, I still stay in touch with Mark Hardy and Bernie Nicholls on Facebook. Pete Demers was our trainer and I stay in touch with him too. Dave Lewis was our captain, and occasionally we’ll say ‘hi’ to each other”. Besides thoughts on his teammates, Warren has a very interesting take on what playing hockey in the NHL was like, at least for him. “Now let me explain this fully so that it’s not taken the wrong way”, he says. “For me, the NHL was the easiest league that I played in. I am not talking about the speed of the game or anything like that, because it is the fastest league in the world and you have to make adjustments to that if you are going to play in it. But, it was the only league that I played in where everyone knew their position and how to play it. They were in the right places most, if not all the time, and knew where to be. Everyone knew what to do, which wasn’t the case in other leagues. Playing in the NHL, there was less chaos. That is what I meant by saying it was the easiest”.

I present to Warren a totally oddball question. During the 1982-83 season, Holmes played on three different teams with the first ever Soviet-born and trained player in the NHL, Victor Nechayev. More of a trivia question of sorts than anything else, Nechayev played with the Saginaw Gears, New Haven Nighthawks, and the Los Angeles Kings that season too, and also became the first Soviet player to score a goal in the NHL. When I ask Warren to tell me his memories of Nechayev, he has a one word response – “Screwdriver!”, referring to Nechayev’s love of the vodka and orange juice mixed drink. “It would be about 95-percent vodka and just the tiniest bit of orange juice when he’d make them. Oftentimes it just looked like cloudy water; that’s how little orange juice was in it”. Now I had previously heard that the reason why the Soviet Union had allowed Nechayev to defect to North America, and not players like Larionov, Fetisov, Makarov, and Tretiak, was because he was not really a good hockey player and had played mostly in the lower-tiered Soviet leagues. Holmes has similar sentiments about his former teammate and confirms that he was not a good player, and that the story of his being allowed defection would make sense. Holmes also recalled a Christmas party that the owner of the Nighthawks had hosted at his home in which a drunken Nechayev went into the backyard and jumped in the family’s frozen pool. Needless to say, Nechayev would not find himself on the team much longer after that.

One last note about Holmes’ 1982-83 campaign is that he would score his first NHL goal that season too. “I wish I could tell you that it was a real pretty one, but it wasn’t. We were playing Detroit, and we had a two-on-one break with Charlie Simmer and myself. Charlie had passed the puck to me, and I tried to put it back across. It ended up hitting the stick of the defenseman and then bounced up over the pads of Greg Stefan. I remember standing at center ice in L.A. after I scored the goal, waiting for the face-off, and just shaking uncontrollably. Because I knew the next day that my dad would be listening to the rundown of the NHL scores from the night before and would hear my name being called that I had scored”. Whether the goal could be deemed as pretty or not is inconsequential. What matters is that it is still a very memorable and meaningful one for Warren.

1983-84 would see Holmes play the majority of the year in New Haven, putting up 26-goals and 31-assists. He would also see three more games with the Kings, but nothing particularly noteworthy at that point in time. Holmes goes on to explain, “This is going to sound like sour grapes, but that last season in New Haven I had been screwed over by Management. At the end of the season, I was pretty much just sitting on the bench. Coach Nick Beverley eventually came to me afterward and apologized to me for not handling the situation better, saying that he had made a mistake”. At that point, the thought of retirement crept into Warren’s mind. “The L.A. Kings didn’t offer me a contract after that. I went and played for the Flint Generals (under coach and former teammate Dennis Desrosiers). Then they moved the team back to Saginaw in 1985-86, and I had some injuries once more. I was really playing for nothing in Flint. And my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I think I pretty much knew after that last season in New Haven”.

Today’s game is a lot different from when Warren Holmes played. “Players these days have a nutritionist and a masseuse. I never lifted weights when I was playing. Maybe for a few weeks at the end of the off-season, but not otherwise. I remember being in the fitness room at the Forum in L.A., and we still had guys on the team who smoked cigarettes and we used this area as a smoking room. Me, J.P. Kelly, Mario Lessard, Jerry Korab, We would sit on the Nautilus machine and smoke. I look at the players these days and see how committed they are to training. All I can say is, is that money is a very powerful motivator. A very powerful motivator. But you really can’t compare, and it’s not fair to compare, today’s game with when we played. It’s like comparing apples and oranges”.

With taking those thoughts into consideration, Warren proceeds to tell me that there are two things in particular that he deems as being the most important things he learned as a hockey player. Firstly, he says “I learned the importance of working with others. You need to surround yourself with talented, good people around you. You need to recognize that you are a piece of something, and you need to identify where you fit. People wonder sometimes why Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Adam Oates all couldn’t fit together in Detroit. Well, each is a centerman, and each player would have needed to fit. So you have to understand where you fit, and then also be able to fit”.

And then secondly, “You need to be accepting of defeat. If somebody beats you, well, take your hat off to them. There is nothing wrong with being upset if you beat yourself by making a dumb mistake. But if somebody beats you outright, then you need to be accepting of it. Be gracious in defeat. For 99% of the players during my generation, no matter what happened during the game, you go out afterward and have a beer together. See a guy, and ask him how he’s doing. If you were beaten, you need to be gracious in your defeat”.

When it comes to Warren Holmes though, even especially during our conversation this evening, I can say that he is gracious in far more than just defeat. Warren is gracious as he shares his stories with me. As he put it to me this way, “Thank you Nate for making an old man feel appreciated”. Hoisting the Turner Cup with the Gears. Or as he manned the point on the power-play for the “Triple Crown Line”. As he speaks of his relationships with two opposite ends of the spectrum in Brian Kilrea and Don Perry. Fighting to win the Memorial Cup for Ottawa. Going about everyday life. Warren Holmes did (and does) all of the above, graciously.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

10891573_1545493482385099_243322265368736997_n
Ted Tucker tended net for the 1968-69 Montreal Jr. Canadiens; the team believed to be the greatest junior hockey team ever assembled. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

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

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

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

toledo goaldiggers 274
Ted Tucker pictured here during his time with the IHL’s Toledo Goaldiggers – some of his best hockey memories came during his years with this particular team. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10898142_10205803438073957_7665047607892450760_n
An early rare team photo of Ted Tucker with the Clinton Comets in the front row with his goaltender pads. Tucker would win a championship with the Comets during his first pro season (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

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

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

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

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

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

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

tedtucker1copy
Ted Tucker would play 5-games for the 1973-74 Golden Seals, registering 1-win, 1-loss and 1-tie. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker)

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

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

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

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

toledo goaldiggers 093
Ted Tucker would suit up between the pipes of the IHL’s Toledo Goaldiggers through parts of 4 seasons. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

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

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

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

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

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

TED  LAST GAME ALUMNI 2015
Picture here at a Toledo alumni game, following his retirement n 1981, Ted Tucker continued to play hockey recreationally until the age of 66. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

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

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

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

191961_1896091887578_6861115_o (2)
As a kid, Ted Tucker grew up admiring the Detroit Red Wings even though his own rights belonged to the Montreal Canadiens – contemporary Marcel Dionne is pictured in the background photo. (Photo provided courtesy of Ted Tucker).

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

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

Jay Johnston 1
Jay Johnston would suit up for 8-NHL games with the Washington Capitals between the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons, including a fight in his very first NHL game against Calgary’s Willi Plett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

115475514
Never one to shy away from physical play, Freddy Meyer skates past Boston’s Tom Fitzgerald who has been upended (Photo credit: Hunter Martin, NHL Images/Getty).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1781
Freddy helping to coach youngsters in his “Dream Big HockeyStars” program. (Photo provided courtesy of Freddy Meyer)

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

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

 

 

“Every Step”: A Conversation with Lorne Stamler

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

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

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

1306504156920
Lorne Stamler would see many of his childhood dreams come true, one of those being playing for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20160809_223041
Stamler would score his first NHL goal November 28th, 1976 against the Colorado Rockies and goaltender Michel Plasse (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler)

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

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

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

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

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

3597_517263004988378_105101909_n
Lorne Stamler would see NHL action with three different teams; the Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

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

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

$T2eC16RHJGkFFm5-i2EBBSGlLLq)-Q~~60_3
Stamler mixing it up in front of the Chicago net with defenseman Mike O’Connell and goaltending great Tony Esposito (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

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

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