With the Los Angeles King now safely eliminated by the hands of the San Jose Sharks, and with no obviously imminent playoff disaster in sight, I feel that I can safely say who I am personally rooting for in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs – veteran Dainius Zubrus of the Sharks. I am a hockey traditionalist, and with less and less ties to the NHL’s game of the 1990s and prior, I always get a pang in my heart for seeing long time veterans getting their name on the Stanley Cup for the first time. Last year for me it was Chicago’s Kimmo Timonen. This year, it has got to be Zubrus.
It is almost difficult to fathom that the 37-year old Lithuanian has been a regular in the NHL since the 1996-97 season. How time does fly. Zubrus actually was a part of a run to the Stanley Cup Finals as an NHL rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers, who would fall in four games straight to the Detroit Red Wings. In the 1997 Finals, the 18-year old Zubrus would go pointless in the series, and would finish a minus-4.
I first became enamored with Dainius Zubrus when he briefly joined my hometown Buffalo Sabres, coming at the trade deadline during the 2006-07 season in exchange for seldom used Jiri Novotny and a 1st-round draft choice. Though I had seen Zubrus play many times prior, even in person from time to time, I had never paid him much mind until he wore Buffalo’s blue and gold. I could then see firsthand what he brought to his hockey club from night to night. Zubrus is a very large man, standing at 6-feet 5-inches and weighing 225-pounds. He is incredibly strong along the boards and in the corners. Zubrus ended up playing 19-regular season games with Buffalo that year, recording 4-goals and 4-assists to add to his point totals from earlier in the season with the Washington Capitals who had traded him to the Sabres; he finished the year with a very solid 24-goals and 36-assists for 60-points across 79-total games between Washington and Buffalo.
But where I was most amazed with Zubrus that season was how fierce he played during the Sabres’ playoff run that saw them make it all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals for the second year in a row. In 15-playoff games that season, Zubrus seemed to hit everything that moved, constantly throwing his imposing frame at the opposition, especially when fighting for the puck around the net. Despite knowing that Zubrus had immense size, I never had realized previously that he was the furthest thing from being a soft player. By no means did he fit the European stereotype that I immensely hate and am often infuriated by its implications. Zubrus is a prime example of how false that stereotype is. While he did not score a goal during Buffalo’s playoff run, he did put up 8-helpers for his team that postseason; third most on the Sabres behind Danny Briere and Tim Connolly. But he also played inspired, devil-may-care hockey, and that seemed to make an enormous difference for Buffalo’s push throughout the playoffs. I had greatly hoped that Buffalo would recognize how much of a positive difference having Zubrus on their roster would be and that they would decide to keep him in the offseason, but it was not to be. Dainius would end up signing with the New Jersey Devils that July, and would remain with them for 8-years.
Fifteen years after his rookie run, Zubrus would have a second shot at winning Lord Stanley’s Cup, this time with New Jersey. The 2011-12 Devils were led by the explosive firepower of sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as veterans Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, David Clarkson, Petr Sykora and Zubrus, all of whom hit double-digits in goals. 33-years old at the time, Dainius Zubrus appeared in all 82-regular season games that season for the Devils (17-goals, 27-assists, 44-points) and all 24-playoff games as well (3-goals, 7-assists, 10-points). Despite the strong push from New Jersey’s offense and their ageless goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, the Devils would lose in the Cup Finals to the Los Angeles Kings, falling 4-games to 2. In the 6-game Finals series, Zubrus would finish with 1-assist and as a minus-1. In 15-years, he would fall significantly short in both Stanley Cup Finals appearances.
After the 2014-15 season, his last in New Jersey, I had feared that Dainius Zubrus’ career was over. In July 2015, the Devils placed Zubrus on waivers, with the intent of terminating his contract. Then, after being invited to a late-October tryout with the St. Louis Blues, he would fail to earn himself a contract after the Blues decided to sign another veteran instead, Martin Havlat. Fortunately though, San Jose Sharks’ General Manager Doug Wilson, who is well-known to be a willing participant in giving veteran players the opportunity to extend their careers (i.e. Sandis Ozolinsh, Claude Lemieux), decided to offer Zubrus a tryout of his own on November 16th, 2015,and then signing him to contract a mere 8-days later.
In 50-games this current 2015-16 season with the Sharks, Zubrus has recorded 3-goals and 4-assists; the lowest point total of his 19 NHL seasons, although he would finish the season as a plus-4. And while he was also a healthy scratch for the five games of the Sharks’ opening round defeat over the Kings, I feel content in knowing that Zubrus played enough games during the regular season to qualify for having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup should the San Jose Sharks finally get the monkey off their back and win it all for the very first time.
And that’s what I want. For I believe that if a player like Dainius Zubrus devotes 19-years to playing in the greatest hockey league in the world (it would have been 20-years if it were not for the lockout), then he deserves to finally have him name placed on the Stanley Cup. It would be a storybook ending, both for Zubrus and for the Sharks. San Jose has three players – Zubrus, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau – who having been playing in the NHL since the 1990s. I suppose that I could have even highlighted Marleau or Thornton instead of Zubrus, but Marleau and Thornton have also won Olympic gold medals and neither really had to worry about not being on an NHL roster this season. Zubrus on the other hand was close to going three strikes and out since the summer after failing to gain a spot with either New Jersey or St. Louis previously. He instead had demonstrate his workhorse capabilities once more, despite having 37-year old legs, in order to garner a spot on the Sharks roster. And now, he has earned himself one more, possibly final, opportunity to win the Cup. So as these 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs continue, and with the first round underneath their belts, I finally feel comfortable announcing that I want the Sharks to win it all. For San Jose. For Marleau and Thornton. And for Dainius Zubrus.
A first round draft choice in the National Hockey League is an extremely rare title that belongs to only a select few. Of the billions of people who exist in the world, there are only a mere 1,172 individuals since the inception of the draft in 1963 that can lay claim to being a first rounder. One of them is former Boston Bruins’ and Toronto Maple Leafs’ player, Robert Cimetta. Selected 18th overall in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins, Cimetta experienced the fortune and the excitement of being drafted by an “Original Six” NHL team.
“It was definitely a dream come true”, Cimetta tells me. “An Original Six team… the history surrounding it… but it was just the beginning”. The actual beginning though for him was an entire 12-years earlier. Born in Toronto, Ontario on February 15th, 1970, Robert Cimetta started playing organized hockey at the tender age of six. “Growing up I lived a block away from the indoor and outdoor rink. I learned from the older kids that kept knocking me over” <laughs>. Little did he realize at the time that as his career progressed he would play his major junior hockey as well as a portion of his professional career in his hometown too.
Hailing from Toronto, Cimetta was definitely a Maple Leafs fan as a youngster, but his true hockey heroes with whom he would find inspiration were the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. Starting from the age of fourteen until he was already into his own second professional season, his idolized Oilers would win five Stanley Cup championships; the ironic part being that Edmonton defeated Cimetta’s Bruin teammates in the Cup Finals for their fifth championship during the 1989-90 season, though Cimetta himself would not see any playoff action. A handful of his Edmonton heroes, like Glenn Anderson, Andy Moog, Ken Linseman, Mike Krushelnyski, Dave Hannan, and Grant Fuhr, would all eventually become teammates of his as his NHL career went along.
Drafted into the Ontario Hockey League by his hometown Toronto Marlboros, Cimetta would have a remarkable major junior career. “I was drafted by Toronto. I debated whether I should wait to receive a scholarship to play at a college or university, but Harold Ballard (former Chief Executive of the Marlboros and former owner of the Maple Leafs) offered me a full ride to any Canadian university if I signed, so I committed to playing major junior with the Marlboros”. Cimetta would have three very productive seasons offensively with the Marlboros, increasing his point totals each year. Despite being limited to 50 out of 66 games, his third and final season was his most productive; Robert not only led Toronto in team scoring with 102-total points, but his 55-goals led the entire OHL. Arguably, it was this particular season that promoted Cimetta to being a heralded first round draft prospect consideration for any number of NHL teams, as well as a nod to the 1989 World Junior Championships for Team Canada.
The 1989 tournament was held in Anchorage, Alaska, and it would be dominated by the Soviet Union and their incomparable top line of Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, and Sergei Fedorov; widely considered by many to be the top forward line in the history of the World Juniors. Though Canada would finish fourth place in the standings and fail to medal, Cimetta was by no means a slouch in his contributions. While Americans Jeremy Roenick and Mike Modano were the leaders in tournament scoring with 16 and 15-points respectively, Robert Cimetta would lead the Canadians in team scoring, on a roster that included many longtime NHL players like Andrew Cassels, Eric Desjardins, Rod Brind’Amour, Sheldon Kennedy, and Mike Ricci, among others. In 7-games, Cimetta would score 7-goals and 4-assists; the 7-goals being three ahead of Fedorov, tied with Mogilny, and one shy Bure’s total for the tournament.
“I think around the age of fifteen you realize that the jump from major junior to the NHL is the next natural and attainable goal”, Cimetta surmises regarding his success during his teenage years. Being selected by an NHL team as historic as the Boston Bruins would in many ways be everything a hockey-crazed young man could have dreamed of, and it would not take him very long to find the opportunity to play for the organization. With the 1989 World Juniors wrapping up January 8th, Cimetta would play his first NHL game just weeks later on January 21st in a 6-5 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the Boston Garden. Beginning with the game against Buffalo, there would be a string of 5-games at the end of January where he would suit up for the Bruins, including a home-and-home series against Buffalo starting with that first game. Through those first five games, Cimetta would go pointless and was a minus-5; a bit of a rough start.
It can be exceptionally trying for an eighteen-year old to not find immediate success in a new environment, especially after having been so highly productive prior to becoming a professional. Growing pains of sorts. Fortunately though for Robert Cimetta, there would be a strong veteran presence on the Bruins’ roster to help see him along, particularly the team’s captain. “Ray Bourque. Just a great leader, and he led by example”, Cimetta recalled of the superstar Hall of Famer and Boston’s longest tenured player at the time. Having gotten through perhaps the toughest portion of the big jump to the NHL, it would be over 2-months later during a second run with the team that Cimetta would record his first two points in the league; a pair of goals that he netted on April Fools’ Day during a 5 -4 victory over the Quebec Nordiques. Cimetta would finish out the year with one more regular season game to bring his total to 7-games for his first season. He would also make a playoff appearance during Game-One of a 1st-round Adams’ Division battle between the Bruins and the Sabres that year; Cimetta would record 15-penalty minutes in the lone playoff game of his NHL career.
Cimetta’s time with the Bruins would be relatively short-lived. The following 1989-90 season would be his first full season in Boston and it would be his final one. Though he would play a handful of games with the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate the Maine Marines at the tail-end of the season, Cimetta would spend the bulk of the year with the parent club Bruins from October through March. He would play 47-games for the “B’s”, registering 8-goals and 9-assists for 17-points. And then that would be it. The chapter on Cimetta’s career as a Boston Bruin would come to a close.
The Fall of 1990 would see the Bruins trade the esteemed first-rounder to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for seldom used defender, Steve Bancroft, who would not even appear in an NHL game for Boston. The trip back home would be a bit of a comfort for Cimetta, and he would split his playing time fairly evenly between the Maple Leaf’s and their AHL affiliates. “Toronto was a good fit at the time for a trade”, he recalls. “They knew me pretty well from my time in junior. And playing in Maple Leaf Gardens itself was just a very special place”. While Cimetta would begin the 1990-91 season with Toronto’s Newmarket Saints of the AHL, he would eventually be called up to the Leafs in late-January and be able to contribute a pair of goals and 4-assists in 25-games. The following season was relatively the same but in reverse; he would begin the 1991-92 season with the Leafs, scoring 4-goals and 3-assists in 24-games, but would be sent down to Toronto’s new AHL affiliate, the St. John’s Maple Leafs in late-January. Cimetta’s final NHL game would come January 25th, 1992 during a 6-4 Toronto win over the Philadelphia Flyers; he would finish the game as a plus-2.
Robert Cimetta’s time in the NHL was unfortunately brief. I say “unfortunate”, because I believe that if he ended up with more opportunity to play with either the Bruins or Leafs, or even another club, he would have eventually made his mark in the league. Even Cimetta recognizes the challenges that he faced in order to make it in the greatest hockey league in the world. “I just could not stay healthy, unfortunately. I was feeling a lot of confidence as a player building up, but there were just too many injury setbacks”. He would play two more seasons of professional hockey in North America, before making a dramatic change in his career. More importantly, he would also find his scoring touch once more. The 1992-93 season would see Cimetta play 76-games for the Saint John’s Maple Leafs, finishing second overall in team scoring with 28-goals and 57-assists for 85-points. The following campaign, 1993-94, he would move onto the IHL (International Hockey League), where he finished first overall in team scoring for the Indianapolis Ice with 26-goals and 54-assists for 80-points.
Despite the success both in the AHL and the IHL, Cimetta would opt to play overseas to finish out his professional career. “Playing in Germany evolved during the lockout year (1994-95 season)”, he tells me. “I did really well over there, and I was given a very lucrative deal that was relative to being a fringe NHL player at the time”. Cimetta would be a solid player in seasons with both the Mannheim Eagles and the Berlin Capitals of the German Elite League. “There were great life experiences and we won a few championships while I was over there”, speaking of the back-to-back championships that Mannheim won while Cimetta was on the team during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Thoroughly enjoying his time playing in Germany, it would not last forever. After those seven years Cimetta would officially retire. “I had a few meniscus tears, and at the age of 30 I had to stop”.
Looking back on his career, the game taught Robert Cimetta some key concepts. “Hard work, drive, and dealing with adversity are what build character and yield success”, which is very well stated to me by a man who accomplished much at a young age, and at the highest of levels – professionally and internationally, even. Cimetta qualifies his statement though by adding, “but we need some luck in there too”. While I agree with him that we do need luck, I think Cimetta’s achievements were more so accomplished by his own hard work and determination. When I look upon his career, I feel that what Robert accomplished at the 1989 World Junior Championships is what is most remarkable. He carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders at that tournament and did so quite wonderfully. After all, it is “Canada’s game”, and expectations were very high. But to see that his production was on par with Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup champions like Fedorov, Bure, Mogilny, Roenick and Modano, I cannot help but think that if he only had more of the luck he had mentioned that his name in hockey may have reached the same level as theirs, and that he could have produced similar numbers and results across a storied NHL career of his own. But alas.
There have only been those 1,172 first-round draft choices in NHL history. Robert Cimetta is forever one of them. And that is not because of “luck”. Instead, that is because of Cimetta’s “hard work, drive, and his having dealt with adversity”. Cimetta is a man with character.
Consistency. If there is one attribute that can be applied to the play and the career of Steve Brule, it would be consistency. Seven times within his 17-year professional hockey career, Brule led his teams in scoring. Twelve times he finished top two on his respective teams. And he did so across the globe; the American Hockey League, the International Hockey League, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Brule has won a Stanley Cup, and he has won a Calder Cup. He consistently played with top-end talent, and played on forward lines alongside the likes of Patrik Elias, Claude Lemieux, Milan Hejduk, Peter Zezel, and Joe Sakic. It was Steve Brule’s consistency that led him to having a remarkable career in professional hockey, and what makes him a remarkable person and coach to young athletes these days.
While being born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the natural assumption would be that a young Brule would have been a Canadiens fan. “I was born in Montreal, but most of my family lived in Quebec City. At the time that I was a kid, there has a big rivalry between the Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques. I was a huge Nordiques fan, and my idol was Joe Sakic. My dad idolized him too”. Steve and I both give out some fond laughter, recalling those incredible Nordiques teams of the 1980s. Sakic, Michel Goulet, the Stastny brothers, Dale Hunter. It is easy to see why Steve would have loved the Nordiques. If I lived in the province of Quebec, they would have been my favorite of the two as well. “I have loved hockey since I was 5-years old”, Steve tells me. “I started skating when I was 5, and began playing organized hockey at 6-years”. Little would Brule realize that over a decade later he would be skating on the same forward line as “Burnaby Joe” (Sakic), his boyhood idol.
Brule would play his major junior hockey with the St. Jean Lynx of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey league. The season after he ended his major junior career, the Lynx would actually be moved to Rimouski and become the Oceanic; the major junior team of today’s NHL superstar and the face of Canada, Sidney Crosby. But while Brule played in St. Jean, his strong play and productivity demonstrated that he would be a highly touted prospect for the professional level. And with teammates including future NHLers Patrick Traverse, Jose Theodore, Georges Laraque, Eric Houde, and Jason Doig, Steve would not be the only one. “We had really good teams in St. Jean, but we never managed to do well in the playoffs. We would have pretty good regular seasons, but we always lost in the first round”. Throughout the course of our conversation, we touched upon a common plotline in Brule’s career; I mentioned it earlier when speaking of his idol Joe Sakic – there were key moments in Steve’s career that he could not have predicted when he was younger, but that would make sense, almost epiphanies of sorts, as they came to fruition in the years ahead. Thinking about those St. Jean teams and how he and some of his teammates would go onto NHL careers, Steve says, “When you are in the present, you don’t realize what you are a part of. Those 4 or 5 players going onto the NHL. When you think back on it, you see that we really did have some good teams, and you feel fortunate to have played with such talented players”.
In 136-games in his major junior career, Steve would finish with 74-goals and 111-assists for 185-points. Numbers that would normally be good enough for a player of that caliber to be selected in the earlier rounds of the NHL draft. “All the European players were being drafted into the league at that time. Scouting reports all showed that I was expected to go in the second or third round. As those rounds passed, I was kind of worried and a little disappointed. But as soon as you hear your name being called, you forget all of that. It is just an amazing moment!”. Brule would be selected in the sixth round of the 1993 entry draft by the New Jersey Devils, a team that was about to enter into a decade’s worth dominance and championship runs in the NHL.
The New Jersey Devils would win their first of so far three Stanley Cups during the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. This would also be Steve Brule’s first season of professional hockey, and he would begin his career with immediate success. Steve would be assigned to the Devils’ AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats, and after only being there for a brief while, helped lead them to a Calder Cup championship. When asked about that championship team, Steve recalls “it was amazing! It was right after junior, and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know much about the organization at that point. They needed a third-line centerman for the playoffs, and I got the call”. Steve would center a line with two of the most robust linemates a player could have hoped for; 6’1″, 210-pound, Reid Simpson and and 6’1″, 225-pound Matt Ruchty. Simpson and Ruchty were two tough hombres, as both wingers led the River Rats in penalty-minutes for that season; Ruchty with an astonishing 348 PIMs and Simpson with 268 of his own. Both men would create a lot of space for Brule on the ice. “After 2-weeks, I really felt a part of the team. Playing with two guys like that makes you feel really comfortable. They would go into the corners, go for the puck and feed you the pass”. As the River Rats would go on to win the Calder Cup championship, dispelling the Adirondack Red Wings (4-0) and the Providence Bruins (4-2) in the opening rounds, and then sweeping the Fredericton Canadiens (4-0) in the Calder Cup Finals, the line of Brule-Simpson-Ruchty was the most productive for Albany. Matt Ruchty would lead the River Rats in playoff scoring with 5-goals and 10-assists in 12-games, with Steve finishing just behind with 9-goals and 5-assists in 14-games, and Reid Simpson chipping in 1-goal and 8-assists in 14-games as well.
Winning the championship in 1995 would be the start of five more wonderful years in Albany for Steve Brule. “It was really the place that I enjoyed the most during my career. The best memories. New Jersey had a really tough lineup to crack, but we had some really good players in Albany together, with players like Patrik Elias, Sheldon Souray, and Peter Zezel who passed away a few years ago, just so many great players”. Once again, not knowing what the future would have in store for the players he mentions, Steve and I discuss the greatness of both Elias and Zezel. Though well passed his prime and having missed the most of this current 2015-16 NHL season due to injury, Patrik Elias will likely be in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday after winning two Stanley Cups and scoring over 400-goals and 1,000-points. Brule remembers the late Peter Zezel, a player who already had over 800-games of NHL experience by the time he came to Albany, with a sincere fondness. “He was a great mentor for all of the young kids. (The 1997-98 season) I played rightwing on a line with him, and he had 37-assists and I think 32 of them were off of passes that he fed to me. Just a great player, and an even better person”.
After a bit more than 5-years in Albany, Steve Brule would play his first NHL game and it would be played in the most dramatic of fashions. For it is certainly a rarity that a hockey player makes his NHL debut in the middle of the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals. On May 18th, 2000, with the Devils’ premier penalty-killer, John Madden, out of the lineup for Game-Three against the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello called upon Brule for this pivotal game. “I remember the game very well. Everybody waits their whole life to play their first game in the NHL. I played on a line with Claude Lemieux and Jay Pandolfo that game. I remember Lou Lamoriello coming to me before the game and saying to me, ‘You deserve to be here. You deserve to be a part of this for being so patient over 5-years’. The fact that a great hockey mind like Lou would take the time to come say that to me before the game spoke volumes of who he is as a person. He’s been so successful in hockey and so successful as a person”.
After eliminating the Flyers in the semi-finals, the Devils would move onto a hard-fought Stanley Cup Finals series against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Dallas Stars. With “The A-Line” of Elias, Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora playing at their very best, and the likes of NHL greats such as Lemieux, captain Scott Stevens, Alexander Mogilny, and Martin Brodeur, the Devils would defeat the Stars in six games and New Jersey would win their second Stanley Cup Championship in 5-years. As the Devils’ players paraded the Cup around Dallas ice, it was once more the quintessential Lamoriello who came and spoke to Steve as he celebrated with his teammates. “Lou came to me and said, ‘I really hope that you feel like you’re a part of this because you deserve it. And I am going to see that your name gets on the Stanley Cup’. Something like that is why Lou Lamoriello is so loved and respected by players. It is a huge reason why he is still so successful in the game today because he cares about his players”. I tell Steve that I agree with Mr. Lamoriello’s assessment; that Steve does deserve to relish in and be proud of the fact that he is a Stanley Cup champion, and that his named is forever engraved on hockey’s chalice.
“Timing is everything”, Brule says. “I have seen players that I was just as good as, but they had better timing and had more opportunity to play in the NHL than what I did. But I was in the right place at the right time in this instance, and my name is now on the Stanley Cup”. Time is also an interesting concept to contemplate, for while he spent more than five years playing for the Devils organization, winning championships for the club at both the NHL and AHL levels, the 2000-01 season would see Steve move on to another elite organization, the Detroit Red Wings. Brule would sign with the Red Wings during the summer of 2000 as a free agent. But once again timing would be everything, as the Red Wings were also heavily laden with greatness in their lineup and had completed two recent Stanley Cup championships of their own. Brule would find himself assigned to Detroit’s IHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. “It was a big transition for me after being with one team for over 5-years. Detroit had a lot of depth, and there was not much opportunity. It was a little bit rough in the beginning. I had never played in the IHL before, and it was a different style of hockey that took some getting used to. We ended up having a great season though. We had great coaching in Randy Carlyle and Scott Arniel, and there were a lot of veteran players on that team, like Ken Wregget and Philippe Boucher. It was also a great hockey community too to play in”. Brule would lead the Moose in scoring that season with 21-goals and 48-assists for 69-points, along with 3-goals and 10-assists in 13-playoff games.
Remaining with the Red Wings’ organization for a second season, 2001-02 would see Steve make a return to the AHL with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, an AHL affiliate shared jointly between the Red Wings and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. While in Cincinnati, Brule would have the opportunity to play for one of the best coaches in the game today, Mike Babcock. Under Babcock’s direction, Brule would play what he feels was one of his best all-around professional seasons. “It was maybe not my best season statistically, but I felt it was some of the best hockey that I ever played”. Brule would once again lead his team in scoring, registering 21-goals and 42-assists for 63-points in 77-games. In recalling his time playing for Babcock, Steve tells me, “Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches ever. You could tell even back then that he was something special. Just such a hard-working coach. He could give you a kick in the ass a bit too. During that season in Cincinnati, it was the first time in my career that I was ever a healthy scratch. But it worked, and I learned from it and got me to work harder. I ended up playing some of my best hockey”.
After his season in Cincinnati, Brule would leave the Red Wings’ organization and sign as a free agent in July 2002 with the Colorado Avalanche. It would be an opportunity like no other for Steve. For while it would enable him to make a return to NHL play, it was arguably more meaningful that it gave him the opportunity to achieve a boyhood dream by playing alongside his hockey hero, Joe Sakic. “Joe Sakic was my idol growing up. I had a great training camp, and a great preseason. I got to play on the top line with Sakic and Milan Hejduk”. The magnitude of this line combination floors me when Steve tells me this. “Not many players can say that they got to play with their idol. I remember in the preseason we combined on a tic-tac-toe play, with Sakic scoring from Hejduk and myself. I remember my dad calling me, and seeing in the newspaper it written out – a goal by Sakic from Hejduk and Brule, and just thinking how unbelievable that was. It was a dream come true for him too”.
Remaining with the Avalanche for the start of the regular season, Brule got to play in Colorado’s first two games of the season, a 1-1 tie versus the Dallas Stars and a 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. And while those would be the last two games of Steve Brule’s NHL career, the opportunity to play on a line with his hockey idol would be close to as a meaningful an occasion as winning the Stanley Cup. The Avalanche would send Steve down to their AHL affiliate the Hershey Bears for a conditioning assignment, and unfortunately it would bring about what he would view as the end of his chances to play in the NHL. “I blew out my wrist in my second game in Hershey, and I kind of knew at that point that the opportunity at an NHL career was over”.
Despite playing one more season, 2003-04 with Colorado’s Hershey Bears, even finishing second on the team in scoring with 58-points and first on the team in goals with 29, Steve Brule would embark on a hockey journey that would see him leave North America and play overseas for 7-years in three different countries. “It was a good decision for me in many ways. I played in Germany and Austria, but really found my place in Switzerland. I played there for 3 or 4 years, and we even won a championship in my last season. Going overseas was a good experience for me as a player, but was even better for me as a person. I got to learn different cultures and see how other people live”.
Steve would return to North America in 2011, and play a couple more years of semi-pro hockey in the Ligue Nord-Americaine de Hockey. “It was a nice transition for me towards retirement, instead of leaving the game all at once. There was a lot less pressure. Most of the guys who play in that league work regular jobs during the week, and then play games on weekends. I got to be more with my family”. Other former NHLers who played alongside Brule on his two LNAH teams include Sean McMorrow, Sebastien Charpentier, Martin Grenier, Denis Hamel, Bruno St. Jacques, Louis Robitaille, and Yannick Tremblay.
Following retirement, Steve took a few years to decide what he wanted to do for a career after professional hockey. I am glad to say that Steve is still very much involved in the game today, and is imparting his knowledge of the game and his unique experiences to a younger generation. “I work with another former NHL player, Joel Bouchard, at his hockey school, Academie de Hockey Joel Bouchard. We teach a lot of hockey during the school year, and then we have summer camps. I love working with the kids and teaching what I know. The kids really look up to you too”.
Considering that Steve Brule was such a continuously productive hockey player in nearly every professional league in North America and overseas, I have difficulty in reconciling that he never earned a full time position on an NHL roster. I ask him about this, and while he recognizes his ability to produce on an ongoing basis throughout his career, he is not dismayed like I am that he did not receive more of an opportunity in the NHL. “I was a really consistent player. I think that the toughest thing to do is be a consistent hockey player. I even tell the kids this. I wish that I could have played 20-25 games at least in the NHL on a regular basis, but I have no regrets. I feel grateful for everything that hockey has given to me. It is even more meaningful to me that I had the chance to retire from the game because I wanted to retire; not because I didn’t have a contract or opportunities to play. I retired when I was ready”.
Hockey has brought so much into Steve Brule’s life. Not just in terms of statistics, championships and other accolades as a player, but perhaps more importantly what the game has done for him as a person. “The thing I hold the most dearly is everything that hockey gave me as a person. My work ethic, how I treat and interact with other people. The discipline that you have to have as a professional athlete. Those are things that you carry with you for your entire life”.
We talked about consistency and we talked about timing. The timing that Steve Brule found himself within did not offer him much of an opportunity to play in the NHL on a consistent basis. But that is just one, more narrow-minded way of looking at things. What should be noticed instead is that Steve’s consistency as a hard-working, productive player brought about the timing in his life and his career that he deserved. The timing that was meant to be. The timing to win a Stanley Cup. The timing to win a Calder Cup. The timing to play alongside Joe Sakic, and to play 5-years in one city with great teammates, as well as the timing to have played in five different beautiful countries; Canada, USA, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The timing that enables him to work with children everyday.
For I think that Steve Brule’s career is proof that hard work pays off and creates opportunity. Not in the way that we often imagine it will. In fact, life seemingly never works out the way we envision it will while we are in the present. But when we look back on the timing of moments in our lives, we see that everything works out the in the way that it was meant to. Steve Brule is a prime example of that. A consistently consistent player whose name is forever enshrined on Lord Stanley’s Cup, and who played alongside his childhood hero.
One of the wackiest, wildest NHL games that I have ever seen was a January 6th, 1996 showdown between the Buffalo Sabres and the Montreal Canadiens at the venerable, old Montreal Forum. It was one of those games where neither team could get a decisive advantage in the game, and neither team played sound defensively. Three different goaltenders would play in the game, two different skaters – one for each team – would record hat tricks, while eight different players would have at least a two point night. And of those three goaltenders, Buffalo Sabres goaltender John Blue would get the “W” and finish the game with the best save percentage of the three goalies; a paltry .810 save percentage. Better than his 18-year old counterpart, Sabres’ backup for that evening Martin Biron, and his .667 – Biron only stopped 4-shots of the 6 total that he faced. Color commentator and Sabre alum Jim Lorentz would pose the idea, “maybe they should take this game out to the St. Lawrence River and play some pond hockey!”, referring to the lack of defense throughout the game.
When I ask John about this particular game, and how he may have helped a youngster like Biron work his way through a rough night like that one, he tells me, “that was a crazy game and I remember it vividly! Marty was a kid just out of juniors, and a great guy. I hope that I was able to impart some knowledge to some of the younger players. I didn’t say much; I just tried to work my ass off. I knew my role, I knew that I wasn’t an All-Star, so I just tried to be the hardest worker on the ice every day. I think if anything, they saw that I cared and never quit”.
John Blue would not quit in that game against the Canadiens, and despite allowing 2-goals on 5-shots in the first period, and being pulled in favor of Biron, only to be put back in when the teenage Biron would fare no better, John would end up backstopping Buffalo to a 7-6 win. The game would be tied 3-3 after the first period alone. Sabres’ forward Jason Dawe and Canadiens’ center Pierre Turgeon would each have a 3-goal night. Though he allowed 4-goals on 21-shots, Blue battled for that victory against the Habs. In fact, John would always impress as a battler between the pipes throughout his career.
While hailing from Huntington Beach, California, John Blue would become familiarized with the game of hockey after moving further north. “When I was five, my dad was transferred to Seattle, Washington, and we were both introduced to hockey there. I started playing hockey in Seattle, and we lived there for about 2-years before moving back to California”. Growing up in 1970s California, it was pretty far removed from normal hockey realms. Even though the state of California had been blessed with two NHL franchises since 1967, the California Golden Seals would move to Cleveland, Ohio in 1976, while the Los Angeles Kings would not have a strong following until many years later. “Living in California, we didn’t get a lot of hockey out here”, Blue would recall. “But I remember watching the Canadiens winning in the 1970s. I would pretend to be Guy Lafleur, Bernie Parent (Philadelphia Flyers), or Ken Dryden”.
John’s passion for the game would see him venture away from a region with a modest hockey presence, to a true “hockey hotbed” by enrolling at the University of Minnesota, where he would play for three years during the mid-1980s. While with the Golden Gophers, John would suit up alongside numerous future NHL players, including teammates Corey Millen, Paul Broten, Dave Snuggerud, and future Stanley Cup winners Tom Chorske and Frank Pietrangelo. Blue’s statistics at the U of M were superlative during his three year career, with an overall record of 64-wins, 25-losses and 1-tie, to go along with 7-shutouts and a 3.20 goals against average. Through consecutive 20-plus win seasons during his collegiate career, John would be recognized with a Second Team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association selection for the 1984-85 campaign, followed by a First Team selection, alongside future hockey legend Brett Hull, the following season in 1985-86.
Considering John’s great success at the University of Minnesota, I ask him if he ever felt that his performance in the game would have led him onto the NHL. Surprising to me was the fact that John personally felt he would not get much of a shot to garner NHL attention. “I was hoping I would get a shot, but the reality was that my unorthodox style was not a big attraction to NHL scouts. I had never had a goalie coach in my career up to that point. The first time I had actually worked with a coach was in college. It is really hard to unwind certain habits after all that time, but at the end of the day you just stop pucks – it doesn’t matter what it looks like”. Even with his own reservations about his style of play, John must have stopped enough pucks to be heralded enough that the Winnipeg Jets drafted him in the tenth round of the 1986 NHL draft as the 197th overall selection. And while his time as a member of the Jets organization would be very short lived (John would be traded to the Minnesota North Stars in March of 1988), he would find himself well on the way into the life of a professional hockey player.
The next five years would see John Blue living the life of a journeyman, as professional hockey would carry him through the ranks and throughout the stomping grounds of various professional hockey leagues in North America. Between 1987 through 1992, John would see stops in each of the top minor leagues, including stays with the Kalamazoo Wings, Phoenix Roadrunners, Albany Choppers and Peoria Rivermen of the International Hockey League (IHL), the Virginia Lancers and the Knoxville Cherokees of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), and the Maine Mariners and Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League (AHL). Though he would sign with them as a free agent late in the summer of 1991, it would not be until January of 1993 that Blue would finally reach the mountaintop of professional hockey by suiting up for the Boston Bruins, in what would be his first NHL appearance.
With the Bruins, John would be brought up from the AHL’s Providence Bruins as a replacement for longtime netminder, Rejean Lemelin, who had retired during the 1992-93 NHL season, and would serve as starting goaltender Andy Moog’s new backup relief. Moog, who had won three Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers and who had shared the Jennings Trophy during the 1989-90 season had never had any other permanent backup in Boston besides Lemelin since he came to the Bruins for the 1987-88 season. It would be a new experience for both netminders. “It was a really interesting time, because I had replaced a legend and a good friend of Andy’s in Reggie Lemelin. Andy didn’t say much, but he was a great teammate. I learned a lot watching him play”.
The tandem of Moog and Blue would only last for one NHL season, and a partial one at that. Perhaps the irony to John Blue’s NHL career is that during the lone season as Moog’s understudy, both Bruins goaltenders would falter in the first round of the 1992-93 Stanley Cup playoffs to the team that would end up being the final NHL team that John would suit up for in his career, the Buffalo Sabres. Despite the Bruins being favored to win the series, Boston would be grossly swept in four games by Buffalo, falling at the hands of superstars Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny, and the infamous “May Day”-goal scored by the Sabres’ Brad May. Andy Moog would allow 14-goals to Buffalo in only three games, including one in which he was pulled in favor of Blue, while John would fair a bit better by allowing 5-goals between one full game and the one partial game he played in the series.
After the first round flop in 1993, Andy Moog would be shipped to the Dallas Stars in exchange for a another veteran, Jon Casey. Once again, John Blue would serve as a backup, this time in behind Casey, for the 1993-94 season but it would not be a permanent arrangement. Despite playing in 18-games for Boston that season, John would be sent back down to Providence in January of 1994 to be replaced by veteran Vincent Riendeau, who would serve as Casey’s new backup goaltender. While Blue’s save percentage (0.885) and goals against average (2.99) would be decent numbers across the 18-games, his wins and losses record would be the only one of the three goaltenders that was a losing one, as Blue finished the season going 5-8-and-3. John’s days with the Boston Bruins would be coming to an end.
The lockout shortened 1994-95 season would John’s final go-round with the Bruins organization. It would also be a season that would see minimal opportunity for John to showcase his capabilities. The entire season would be spent with Providence in the AHL. Boston would decide to go with a younger, fresh out of college goalie in Blaine Lacher, who was 4-years John’s junior. Not seeing a single call up to the parent club Bruins, Blue would be one of seven goalies to play for Providence, and would only see action in 10-regular season games. And while John would go 6-3-o in those 10 games, it would be time to move on to a new club.
The 1995-96 Buffalo Sabres were a club that could not stay healthy in goal. And while future Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek would be coming off of two consecutive Vezina Trophy winning seasons, he would be limited to 59-games throughout 1995-96 because of injuries. Buffalo would end up utilizing a revolving door of goaltenders who were in and out of the lineup; five in total. With injuries sidelining Hasek and regular backup Andrei Trefilov, and only having youngsters like teenage Martin Biron to call upon from the wings, Buffalo would sign the veteran 29-year old John Blue on December 28th, 1995 to try and establish some relief for their goaltending woes.
In total, John Blue would play in 5-games for Buffalo’s “Blue and Gold”, posting a record 2-2-0, while seeing action through late-December and throughout January. John recalls his time with the Sabres quite fondly, especially getting to suit up alongside the legendary Dominik Hasek. “I have never seen a harder worker in my life! He hated to be scored on, and his passion was infectious”. Despite Hasek’s injuries, he would put up the staggering numbers in ’95-’96 that would come to define him with a 92.0% save-percentage and a strong 2.83 goals against average; numbers that were actually mediocre by Hasek-standards. “Playing with Dom was a special time. Or should I say, sitting on the bench watching Dom play!”, Blue recalls, laughing.
Though John would participate in only of handful of games as a Sabre, he would remain with the organization throughout the remainder of the season, including a stay with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, even appearing in a playoff game for the Amerks. “I really enjoyed my short time in Buffalo. I thought Ted (Nolan, Buffalo’s head coach) was a stand-up guy. My first meeting with (John) Muckler (Sabres’ general manager at the time) was one I will never forget. He said to me, “I didn’t sign you to win any games, but I sure as hell didn’t sign you to lose any games either! You’re not Dominik Hasek, so don’t try to be!”.
Despite the brief period of time in Buffalo, John had a few special moments in addition to the 7-6 Montreal game. While Sabres’ original and legendary goaltender Roger Crozier would sadly pass away early in January 1996, John would be assigned Crozier’s former number-#1 when he arrived in Buffalo before Crozier’s passing. I ask John what wearing the same number as the original “Artful Dodger” meant to him. “Other than I am sure he (Crozier) was highly offended, it was a true honor”. On a lighter note, John adds, “I still can’t figure out why they didn’t give me my old Boston number-39”, he laughs; “I guess Dom didn’t want to give it up!”.
John also was in the lineup, serving as backup to Andrei Trefilov, for the final game that the Buffalo Sabres ever played in Memorial Auditorium. April 14th, 1996 would see the Sabres close out “The Aud” in wonderful fashion, with a 4-1 win over the Hartford Whalers. With the rest of his teammates, John would participate in the closing ceremonies of the building after the game’s conclusion. “It was amazing being there as the banners came down. Although closing ‘the Aud’ was hard, there were so many great memories and such a great place to play. Just a couple years before with Boston, we lost the famous Game-4 ‘May Day’ game there. I feel blessed to have been able to play in those great arenas. The Montreal Forum, ‘the Aud’, the old Boston Garden, Maple Leaf Gardens, Le Colisée de Québec”.
Blue would retire from professional hockey after the 1996-97 season, following 33-games with the Austin Ice Bats of the Western Professional Hockey League (WPHL). Thinking back on his professional career, I ask him who the most difficult shooters were that he faced. “The obvious one is Mario Lemieux. But I always hated playing against Detroit, especially Steve Yzerman”.
Many fond memories for sure, and while hockey is a wonderful sport, John would also find that there is more to life. Though no longer involved with hockey, these days John is finding success following a different calling as the pastor for Pacific Pointe Church in Costa Mesa, California. “I have pastored two other churches here in the last 10-years and just started this new one about a month ago. The ministry thing came about when I ended up in Boston. I had worked hard for 20-years to make it, then when I was there, skating onto the ice at the Boston Garden for the first time, there was this real interesting feeling. It was like, ‘this is amazing, but there has to be more to life; this can’t be it?’. That started this journey of discovery. When I realized that hockey would be over some day, that my life would be over some day, I realized that there had to be more. What I discovered was Jesus, and what I realized was that I was created with purpose; yes, to play hockey, but that there was so much more. So, my days are filled ministering to others and helping others in this journey called life!”.
John, I cannot help but feel that your ministering has carried over to me in this instance, and is helping me in some way; assisting me to write this article, and pursue things that I feel a calling towards; hockey and my ability to write. Thank you, John! I appreciate what you brought to hockey, brought to Buffalo, and are bringing to others to this day.
“Virta with a bouncing puck, watched by Middleton. Ahead to Cyr. Back it goes to Virta. In front… Andreychuk… the rebound… DAVIS!… Mal DAVIS!! On the rebound, and Buffalo takes the lead 7 to 6! Holy mackerel!!”. The voice of legendary Buffalo Sabres broadcaster Rick Jeanneret bellowed over the play. The Boston Bruins had once been leading the game 6 to 1 in front of what would become an absolutely raucous crowd at Buffalo’s venerable Memorial Auditorium on February 25th, 1983. Number-25, Mal Davis, would cap off the greatest comeback in Buffalo Sabres history, scoring the game winner with just minutes remaining in the game to send the Buffalo faithful home happy.
Malcolm Sterling Davis was born October 10th, 1956 in Lockeport, Nova Scotia. But in the USA, they called him Mal. In Canada, he goes by Mac. In Nova Scotia, it’s either Mac or Malcom. In Finland, they call him Malli. “Sometimes people just shout a name that starts with ‘M’ and I answer them”, Davis tells me, laughing.
Though they would live in Lockeport for 2-years, there is a Davis family legend that the house overlooking Cranberry Island was so cold that some water leaked onto the floor once and 2-year old Mal was sliding on it from one side of the kitchen to the other. Davis’ father who was a teacher would move the family from Lockeport to Tidnish, Nova Scotia. And while Mal’s father would take different teaching jobs throughout his career, one thing was always consistent – wherever they lived Mr. Davis would build an ice rink for Mal and the local kids in the area to play on. Mal would start playing organized hockey at the age of 12 or 13, but with the importance of sports in the Davis family, Mal would play on the outdoor rinks his father built since the age of 3.
Like a large number of Canadian kids, Mal’s hero in his younger years was the great Gordie Howe. Mal was fortunate enough to meet Howe in 1963 at an Eaton’s store promotion, and received an autographed picture from Gordie that he still has to this day. That year, Howe would score 38-goals and 48-assists for 86-points in 70-games. Howe had already scored over 1,000-points in his NHL career by that point, and had been hockey’s premier player for well over a decade. Mal’s favorite hockey team was Howe’s Detroit Red Wings, and while Mr. Hockey would play 15 more years professionally, Davis’ favorite player would soon change in dramatic fashion.
Enter legendary Soviet player and Hockey Hall of Famer, Valeri Kharlamov. In 1972 during the epic Summit Series between the best hockey players that Canada and the Soviet Union had to offer, Kharlamov was absolutely brilliant on the ice. Kharlamov would score 3-goals and 4-assists throughout 7-games in the series. Team Canada defenseman Don Awrey recalled Kharlamov by saying, “he was so fast, so hard to defend against out there. I admired the way he used to come from behind and how he kept everyone on their toes. He was simply outstanding!”. It was easy to see why young Mal Davis would become enthralled with Kharlamov and the Russian style of hockey; Mal would even wear the number-17 in honor of Kharlamov, who wore the same number. “I loved the skill of the Russians; the passing and teamwork was a joy to watch. My family loved watching them play”.
On the advice his father, as a young man Mal Davis opted to play hockey at the university level instead of going the Major Junior route. After being recruited by a number of different universities, Mal chose St. Mary’s University in Halifax as the best option for him. “(My dad) said if you are good enough and work at your game in practice, you could play at the next level; it doesn’t matter as long as you have this attitude. You could get injured playing so many junior games, and getting an education while playing will give you more options after your playing days are done”. During Mal’s three years at the university, The St. Mary’s Huskies had a solid team that were routinely ranked in the top-10 programs throughout Canada. One of Mal’s seasons at St. Mary’s included an appearance in the national finals, where the Huskies unfortunately fell to the University of Alberta.
After playing three years at St. Mary’s, Mal wanted to garner some attention at the pro level and sought out an opportunity to go to a professional camp. Former Boston Bruin and coach for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey Association, Wayne Maxner, was able to get Mal a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings. Maxner would go on to actually coach Mal in the Red Wings organization within only a few years. For a young player who grew up following the Wings and cheering for Gordie Howe, it must have been a real life dream come true. Davis would be offered a pro contract right out of camp, and although it would be a challenging transition for him, he would be on the cusp of attaining regular success at the pro level.
“My first year of pro was tough (1978-79). First the rookie camp; then the main camp. I changed my position from center to rightwing, and had a good camp. (Detroit legend and Hockey Hall of Famer) Ted Lindsay offered me a contract and I signed. Paid off all my student loans, so life was good”. Mal would be assigned to Detroit’s CHL affiliate, the Kansas City Red Wings, and would just explode on the score sheets. Mal would lead Kansas City in scoring with 44-goals and 66-points; good enough for second overall in goal-scoring and seventh overall in points for the entire Central League. “Ted Nolan and I were rookies on this team. The CHL was a good skating league, but the first month of the season was tough. All teams tested each other, so there were a lot of fights and brawls… We had a good coach in Larry Wilson, and he told me what I needed to work on. Skating and shooting were my strong points, but my overall pro game needed work”. Mal had plenty of help adjusting and building his pro game, as Kansas City was laden with NHL veterans. 38-year old veteran and 5-time Stanley Cup champion Terry Harper, netminder Ron Low, J.P. LeBlanc, and Larry Wright were all teammates of Mal’s during that first year.
Mal’s immediate success in Kansas City would see a call up to the parent Red Wings in December 1978. Davis’ first NHL game would be at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium against none other than the Montreal Canadiens, who were in the middle of a four-year run of consecutive Stanley Cup championships. At this point in the junction, there was a sense that Mal’s great start in Kansas City would not immediately carry over into the NHL game. “I missed some chances to score but otherwise I realized that to get to the next level, it wasn’t going to be easy. I was sent back down after 5-games”. Mal would spend the remainder of the season in Kansas City.
The 1979-80 season would see Mal with Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings. Once again, Mal’s numbers were superb – 34-goals to lead the Wings in goal-scoring and good enough to tie for ninth overall in the AHL. Mal’s 65-points placed him second overall in scoring for Adirondack, and his 2-goals and 2-assists in 5-playoff games during the Red Wings’ first round exit at the hands of the New Brunswick Hawks would tie for the team lead in playoff scoring. While this sophomore season would be a fine one by any standards, it would be the 1980-81 season that to Mal would seem magical.
While Mal could not capitalize against the Habs during his first NHL game, he would not miss the opportunity during the second go-round when he would face them early into the 1980-81 season. “I scored my first NHL goal against Montreal at the Forum in November”. Mal had found an early roster spot in Detroit’s lineup, which would see him register 2-goals in 5-games with the “Winged Wheels” and be at a plus-5 during the season’s early games. Despite the early output, Mal’s stay in Detroit would not be for long. “That season was interesting. I was playing good in Detroit, but the team was not winning. I was told to find a place to stay (in Detroit) but the Red Wings management and coaches Ted Lindsay and Bobby Kromm were fired, and I was sent back to Adirondack. My first game back I broke my wrist against Maine and was 16 weeks in a cast”.
While to most the demotion to Adirondack and the upheaval in the organization, not to mention the broken wrist, would seem like a serious streak of bad luck for Mal, it would also appear that the proverbial cloud would have a silver lining once he returned to Adirondack. While Detroit was doing their restructuring, they moved a lot of their veteran players down to Adirondack. Veteran players that had won Stanley Cups and had played in nearly every situation imaginable. Veteran players that could still win. Mal rattled off the names of his new Adirondack teammates; “(Pete) Mahovlich, (George) Lyle, (Dennis) Polonich, (Bill) Hogaboam, (Tom) Bladon, (Greg) Joly, (Dan) Bolduc, (Dave) Hanson, (Wayne) Wood, along with myself, (Ted) Nolan, (Jody) Gage, and a great co-coaches in Tom Webster and J.P. LeBlanc. We had a contender”. Amongst that group, Mahovlich had already been a four-time Stanley Cup champion with Montreal, while Tom Bladon had won two Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers. These were NHL players, some of whom may have been on their last legs, but they still had their winning ways.
After eliminating the Binghamton Whalers and the Hershey Bears in 6-games each in the earlier rounds, Davis and the Red Wings would face the Maine Mariners in the Calder Cup Finals. “Maine had been dominating physically in the league that year but we had a tougher team with more skill. I had 6-goals in the final six games of the playoff run. Played on good line too with Ted Nolan and Bill Hogaboam”. The Calder Cup is the second oldest trophy awarded in professional hockey after the Stanley Cup, and by no means is it a simple task to attain. Especially when considering the Mariners were the number one team overall in the AHL’s Northern Conference, and possessed NHL caliber talent in the likes of Bruce Crowder, Thomas Eriksson, Blake Wesley, Lindsay Carson, and the late great Pelle Lindbergh in goal. Despite a 10-1 spanking by the Mariners at home in Game Four of the series, the Red Wings would clinch the Calder Cup within 6-games, outscoring Maine by 22-goals to 19. “Winning the Calder Cup in Adirondack was not easy, and the area celebrated for week or so with a parade . It is so hard to win a championship at any pro level; things have to fall in place. And for a team that barely made the playoffs it was a highlight of my career, so far”.
Mal’s career was about to blossom into further success, as he would soon leave the Red Wings organization and move onto the Buffalo Sabres. Mal had become a free agent after the 1980-81 Calder Cup winning season, and upon signing with the Sabres, would be assigned to their AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans for the 1981-82 season. That season’s edition of the Amerks was potent offensively, and under the guidance of legendary coach “Iron Mike” Keenan, Mal would finish sixth overall in team scoring with 65-points in 75-games, and fourth overall in goal-scoring for Rochester by finding the net 32-times.
This was only the beginning though, as the best years in Rochester were yet to come for Mal. The 1982-83 AHL season would see Mal win the Calder Cup for the second time in his career and first time with Rochester. Though after putting up stellar point totals during the regular season with 43-goals and 32-assists for 75-points in only 57-games, Mal would be called up to the Sabres for their own playoff run and would not be part of the Amerks run to the Calder Cup. In his return to the NHL that season, Mal would suit up for 24-regular season games in “the blue and gold”, and register 20-points (8-goals, 12-assists); his most productive time in the NHL until that point. And while the Sabres would lose in a heart breaking second round Game-Seven loss to the Boston Bruins in the NHL playoffs, Mal’s Rochester teammates with Keenan at the helm would take the Calder Cup in 16-games, including a 4-game sweep of the Mariners in the Finals. Meanwhile, Mal had appeared in 6 of Buffalo’s 10 playoff games and contributed a lone goal. Mal Davis may not have been on the Amerks bench when they won the championship that season, but his contributions during the regular season certainly helped place them in great standing for the playoffs.
Coinciding with his call-up to Buffalo, Mal had been the vital cog in the aforementioned greatest comeback in Buffalo Sabres history. After being down to Boston 6 to 1 already into the second period of the game, the Sabres mounted a most unlikely comeback against the Bruins. Mal and former Red Wings teammates Dale McCourt, Mike Foligno and Brent Peterson all contributed to the comeback, as well as the Sabres newly claimed youth movement in Dave Andreychuk, Paul Cyr and Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Housley. “I was on a line that night with Andreychuk and Cyr, and we were minus-3 after the second period. We scored early in the third and the momentum really swung our way. We tied it up (on a goal by Andreychuk), and late in the game I came in late on the play and slid the puck past Ray Bourque for the winner. That year I had two game winning goals versus the Bruins late in the game. (For the comeback game) the good thing was Scotty Bowman stayed with us and kept putting us out there. I didn’t feel I was one of Scotty’s favorites, but I do respect him for the fact he had me on the ice late in the game”.
Mal Davis would spend three more years in the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, playing primarily in Rochester but receiving call-ups to Buffalo each season. A lot of positive things happened during those three years, including arguably Mal’s finest professional season in 1983-84 when in 71-games for the Amerks he would score 55-goals and 48-assists to eclipse the 100-point plateau. Mal would also lead the way to a second in a row Calder Cup Finals appearance against Maine with 15-points in 15 of the Amerks 18 playoff games. Unfortunately, Mal and the Amerks would lose this time to the Mariners, 4-games to 1. But because of his season-long heroics, Mal would be the recipient of the Les Cunningham Award for that season, presented to the AHL’s Most Valuable Player.
In thinking back on this season in particular, and his career as a whole in both Rochester and Buffalo, Mal recalls his professional moments in Western New York quite fondly. “Some of my fondest memories are being named the captain of the Rochester Americans, being part of Calder Cup team in ’83 and then making the Finals in ’84. We had great coaches in Mike Keenan, Joe Crozier, and John Van Boxmeer. The fans in the upstate area were great to me on and off the ice. The MVP award was special, considering all the good players that went on to play in the NHL and the AHL. Those were great years to be a hockey player playing for that organization. A very classy bunch from the owners on down… I played around 89-games with Buffalo; not always a regular shift but I cherish those memories, and it’s great that it is easier to remember games when you only have 100 at the NHL level”.
After the 1985-86 season, Mal would make a dramatic change in his career and pursued the opportunity to play overseas in Finland for the Finnish Elite League. The Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans had a vast array of talented Finnish players, including stalwart defenseman Hannu Virta, as well as Kai Suikkanen, Heikki Leime and Timo Jutila. Having played with these players on an ongoing basis and forming friendships, it was easy to see why Mal might try an opportunity to play in the homeland of his friends and teammates. According to Mal, “Hannu Virta and Hiekki Leime were two Finns that I knew who were part of the Buffalo Organization. I had given my best shot at making the NHL on a regular basis. I felt that I needed a change, and maybe the bigger ice surface would make it easier for me to protect myself. My last year in between Buffalo and Rochester, I had a bad head/neck injury, and I felt that if I wanted to continue playing, that maybe playing less games and on a bigger surface might be the way to go”.
With continuing to put up stellar offensive numbers with his new team, TPS Turku, Mal found that the style of Finnish hockey was much more to his liking and truly suited to his style. In fact, it was so much closer to the style of play that Mal had seen exuded by his hero, Valeri Kharlamov, and those great Soviet-era hockey teams. In responding to my question about playing in Finland, Mal shared with me that “the hockey there was better than expected. It was more a puck possession game, and I felt it was a better brand of hockey; stressing teamwork within 5-man units. The ‘dump and chase’ hockey (found in North America ) didn’t work over there. I loved playing there, but I also saw a lot of North American players that played in the NHL that couldn’t adapt to the new style”.
Mal would have only brief difficulty in adapting, and would eventually average nearly a point per game. Across his five seasons in Finland, Mal would score 115-goals in only 184-points, and his assist totals would raise him up to 174-points for his Finnish career. “It was hard for me at first but I learned to be more patient when shooting and smarter using your speed. If they had counted rebound and second assists in Finland, I would have led the league in scoring (laughs). Most of the players I played with over there had a good skill set so I found it better for my style; I didn’t have to carry the team in scoring goals and assists, as with other countries in Europe. The Finns can play hockey and a lot of their game is based on the team concept”, Mal recalled. Davis was known amongst the Finns to have a hard snap and wrist shot, which only further empowered his capabilities on the ice.
With great surroundings culturally and geographically, as well as being able to play with some very talented teammates including Virta and Leime, as well as former Edmonton Oiler Steve Graves and future Buffalo Sabres draft choice goalie Markus Ketterer, Mal ended up feeling right at home. Finding a place for himself as a hockey player, Mal also looks back on his time in Finland as an experience that broadened his life as a whole. “TPS was a great organization to be a part of. I loved living in Turku; it was a special city, and most people there can speak some English. And the food was awesome! The friendships I made there will always be strong. I spent five years with TPS. We won 3 national championships together. It was a part of my life that I will never regret. I realize now that my decision to go to Europe was the best decision I have ever made; not only living in another country, but learning the cultures and seeing Europe. The city of Turku embraced me and made me feel loved. Above and beyond what I was expecting. Most of the teams in the Finnish Elite League would give an NHL team a good game. Life in Finland was awesome. And I didn’t just play hockey there; I was also teaching conversational English at the University of Turku and Abo Akademi University. Doing that (teaching English) made living there very enjoyable”.
Mal Davis’ final season of hockey would be the 1991-92 season which he would spend playing in Germany, for the Essen-West hockey club of the second-tiered German league. In 18-games, Mal would still put up some explosive numbers with 19-goals and 7-assists. Though he was still scoring, playing in Germany just was not the same for Mal as it was playing in Finland. “My last year in Essen was interesting. I missed my Finnish teammates and more was expected of me to carry the team. I always felt that I was only as good as my teammates around me. The talent wasn’t strong on that team (Essen). My career was coming to an end, and I found myself watching the clock, hoping the game would hurry up and get over. I realized it was time to retire”. Mal would liken his recognizing the time to retire to the old saying of, “my mind was writing checks that my body couldn’t cash”.
These days Mal Davis is still involved in hockey, but not as seriously. “I play a couple of times a week for exercise”. His non-hockey career finds him working as medical representative for Bayer, INC. Mal also enjoys the time that he can spend fishing and living on the ocean.
Thinking back on his career, when I ask Mal who his closest friends were out of his teammates, he has a difficult time answering; there were just so many for him. “This is a tough question, as I loved my teammates like brothers, both in North America and Europe”. He tries his best to rattle them off for me. “My favorite players I played with were Mike Ramsey (Buffalo), the late Warren Harper (Rochester), Jody Gage (Jody and Mal would spend time together in both the Detroit and Buffalo organizations, and their minor league affiliates), Gilbert Perreault (Buffalo), Claude Verret (Rochester/Buffalo), Harri Jaakola (TPS), Hannu Virta (Buffalo/Rochester/TPS), Heikki Leime (Rochester/TPS), Steve Graves (TPS) and Victor Tyumenev (TPS). My closest friends were Greg Sanford (St. Mary’s University), Mike Backman (St. Mary’s University and former New York Ranger), Ted Nolan (Adirondack), Jody Gage, Gates Orlando (Rochester/Buffalo), Geordie Robertson (Rochester)…” Mal is still close friends with both Ted Nolan and Jody Gage to this day.
In addition to the game winning goal versus Boston, Mal considers his other NHL “claim to fame” that for players who played at least 100 regular season games, no player has a better shooting percentage than he. Coming in at 25.0%, which equates to scoring a goal every four shots on net, Mal’s shooting percentage is better than the likes of Mike Bossy (21.18%), Mario Lemieux 18.99%, Jari Kurri (19.13%), Johnny Bucyk (19.09%), Peter Stastny (18.96%), and even “The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky (17.6%) – all of whom are some of the greatest goal scorers ever to play the game.
Mal Davis had an incredibly successful hockey career. In the AHL, the NHL, throughout Finland and other parts of Europe – no matter where he played, Mal brought a superb talent level to the teams he played for, and a very keen and unique mindset and skill set for the game. I felt highly inclined to interview him because I recalled him fondly from his days with the Buffalo Sabres; a childhood hero of sorts. And I do not think it is a coincidence that we both marvel at the sheer brilliance of the legendary Valeri Kharlamov. For while I am not old enough to have seen Kharlamov play live, I consider him the greatest hockey player whom I never had the privilege to see play during his actual career. DVDs of the Summit Series and the New Year’s Eve game against Montreal will have to do.
Taking my memories of Mal into consideration, it was perhaps most interesting to me to ask him what he has learned from his hockey career that he still carries with him to this day. Mal responds very scholarly, and as someone who has had a lot of wonderful experiences:
“It doesn’t matter where you come from; it is your passion for something that will determine if you will be successful. Stick to what you do best. I was a goal scorer from the start; I didn’t want to be anything else. It took me on a 15-year ride all over the world – just to play hockey. But most importantly for me was the compliments I got from former teammates; many said that I was a good team man. If I had become a defensive-forward, I may have had a short career . With regards to leadership and being a captain, leadership depends on simple human qualities. Confidence of your teammates. And this can only be gained by commanding their respect for your personal character, your sense of justice and common sense .The pride you take in being their leader will carry your team through difficult times . From my hockey career I learned that team concepts can apply to most aspects of work. I notice from time to time that most people do not understand the team concept because they have never been on a team. I always tell people, ‘at one time in my life, I had a dream job'”.
You did have a dream job, Mal – and you definitely made the most of it. Thank you.
I think few would ever have surmised that Jacques Mailhot would have made it to the NHL. He never played Major Junior hockey, having reached only the Junior B level with the Shawinigan Cataractes. As a youngster, Jacques began playing hockey at age 4 recreationally, and then in organized hockey at age five, of all things, as a goaltender. But this in and of itself was not an opportunity that came by easily, since Jacques came from a very large family. Having 1 brother and 6 sisters, 5 of whom were older, Jacques really did not have anyone to help in getting him started in hockey, and it was also financially difficult too. “I remember my mom working long hours as a seamstress for little money, making sure I had a place to play and some skates. The skates weren’t new, but they were mine. So I started playing defense, but my skating wasn’t strong enough, so they put me in as a goalie”.
Jacques would play goal until he got to the bantam level (ages 12/13), when the team he was playing for fell short of players one night. “So I volunteered to play up front. I scored a goal late in the game, and I remember my older sisters paying me $10-dollars for that. I was amazed and thought that this is where I should play, since my kid brother was already a very good goalie; no need to have two in the same house”.
Growing up in Shawinigan, Quebec, when I ask Jacques Mailhot which players were his hockey heroes while he was growing up, he states as a whole, “the Montreal Canadiens”. Having been born in 1961, Mailhot grew up watching “Les Habitants” when they were arguably at their very best. Guy Lafleur, Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, Steve Shutt; it was easy to see how a young boy from Quebec would idolize these Hall of Famers, these legends.
At 16-years of age, Jacques would make the local Junior B team with Shawinigan on the very last day of tryouts. Being one of the last selections to make the team was further proof that Jacques Mailhot was a longshot to have a pro career. “Five games in, we played an archrival, the Grand’Mere Selects and I got into a fight with a 19-year old named Michel Carrignan. And he kicked the sh*t out of me; bloodied my nose and my eyes were black and blue. I got home after the game embarrassed, and I did not want to play hockey ever again. I was told by my mom and dad that it was my choice, but that I would have to live with it for the rest of my life. So after getting better and learning a few things throughout the season, we (Mailhot and Carrignan) met again on the last game of the season, and it was a unanimous decision in my favor, sending me to a place where I had never got to before. So that’s where ‘The Mailman’ was born”, said Jacques, referring to his nickname that would follow him throughout his pro career, up through today.
In the early 1980s while in his late-teens and early-20s, Jacques’ renewed love for the game of hockey and his desire to play, despite being at a lower-tiered level, saw him play first at the triple-A level and then in the senior hockey leagues of Quebec with the Limoilou Titans, the Louiseville Jets, and the Joliette Cyclones. Jacques would eventually establish himself with the senior league team, the Rimouski Mariners. While Jacques would put up decent numbers offensively over his few seasons with the Mariners by scoring 22-goals and 51-points in 55-games, it was his pugilistic skills that would garner the attention of the professional leagues. For within those 55-games, Jacques Mailhot put up a staggering 426-penalty minutes. After the trials and errors of learning to scrap with Shawinigan in Junior B, Jacques found himself to be a very formidable player – plain and simple, Jacques Mailhot could now fight.
In 1987, in what would be his first year of professional hockey, Jacques would be invited to the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques training camp. The Nordiques took notice of the local scraper, and invited him so that they could have a closer look. “I fought (Richard) Zemlak one time, but also beat (Scott) Shaunessy three times solidly, and he was projected to be the new policeman for the Nordiques”. Jacques would initially be assigned to Quebec’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Fredericton Express. With Fredericton Jacques would tally 2-goals and 6-assists, but right after Christmas he would be shipped to the Baltimore Skipjacks along with teammate and future Boston Bruins Stanley Cup winning coach, Claude Julien. “After my third fight on the ice, I was told that I had a contract. I started the season in Frederiction, but (Ron) Lapointe was promoted to Quebec (to be head coach). “BJ” (Blair) MacDonald came in to replace Lapointe, and I was not his favorite player, so that’s when I would be shipped to Baltimore to work with a great coach, Gene Ubriaco, and I flourished under him”. Jacques would play 15-games with the Skipjacks, recording 2-goals and 167-penalty minutes, before he and Julien would then be sent back to Fredericton in time for a playoff push.
Although not a particular favorite of Coach MacDonald’s, Mailhot would nonetheless be part of the Express’ run to the Finals for the Calder Cup championship. Jacques would play in 8 of Fredericton’s 15 playoff games of the 1987-88 playoff campaign. Besides possessing toughness with players like Jacques and heavyweights Scott Shaunessy and Trevor Stienburg, the Express also had a slew of future NHL talents like Mike Hough, Ron Tugnutt, Jim Sandlak, Dave Lowry and others. Unfortunately, Mailhot and his Fredericton teammates would be swept in four straight games by the Hershey Bears in the Finals.
Taking into consideration that Jacques Mailhot had never played such high level hockey previously, the fact that his first professional season saw him record 10-points in 43-games and make it to the championship round would have to be considered a great success. Speculating that the best was yet to come, the Nordiques proceeded to offer Mailhot a 2-year contract beginning with the 1988-89 season. While he would play mostly for Quebec’s newly affiliated AHL team the Halifax Citadels, Jacques would also suit up for 5 NHL games that season with the Nordiques. “It was an amazing feeling to make it there, knowing that many didn’t believe that I would”, Jacques told me.
Mailhot’s first NHL game would be bittersweet, to say the least. While in some ways it may have been a child’s dream come true to play his first NHL game against the storied Montreal Canadiens, the team he grew up emulating as a hockey youngster, on December 15th, 1988, it would also be a game that brought some sadness for Jacques. “I was called up to Quebec December 12th, 1988 and played against Montreal three days later. It was also a sad memory for me, as it was the night that coach Ron Lapointe stepped down because of cancer and was replaced by Jean Perron”. Lapointe had been a very successful coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Major Junior version of the Shawinigan Cataractes, as well as at the AHL and NHL levels. Lapointe was someone whom Jacques held in high esteem, as did many others. In fact, the QMJHL now awards the “Ron Lapointe Trophy” each year to their Coach of the Year. Sadly, Lapointe would pass away at the age of 42 in March of 1992 after losing his 3-year battle with kidney cancer.
Throughout his 5-game call-up with the Nordiques, Jacques Mailhot would have some memorable scraps. Mailhot would officially have three NHL fights, facing off against Calgary’s enforcer Tim Hunter, Boston’s tough guy Lyndon Byers, as well as NHL legend and Hockey Hall of Famer, Cam Neely, also of the Bruins. Jacques does not recall his fight against Neely in a positive light, though. In fact, out of respect for Neely’s skill level, he really did not want to partake. “I was sent out by Jean Perron to fight him (Neely), and it was the first time a coach had ever done that to me. I did not want to fight him, but I had no choice. Neely was a great player and a class act. I had lots of respect for him, but I did it anyways. Then, I was ridiculed by the media for it and the coach never defended my actions”. Jacques was unfairly put into a predicament. Here he was trying to make a name for himself in the NHL, and the coach tells him to fight Cam Neely; it was a lose-lose situation.
Jacques final NHL game would be a 1-1 tie against the Buffalo Sabres on January 14th, 1989. And then that was it. Through his five game NHL stint, Jacques would not record any points, or even a shot on goal, but would amass a whopping 33-minutes in penalties.
After his lone NHL season with the Nordiques, Jacques would go on to play 11-more seasons of professional hockey. From 1990 to 2000, Jacques would play in 7 different professional leagues in a total of 15 different cities. Throughout his 13-seasons of professional hockey, Jacques would rack up 3,076-penalty minutes. What is almost unbelievable is that these penalty-minutes were accrued in a mere 516-games. That is an average of over 5-penalty minutes a game, or essentially, an amount equivalent to a fighting major in every game he played. When I ask Jacques of all the cities he played in, which were his favorites, he tells me playing in Quad City with the Mallards of the old Colonial Hockey League, and playing in Texas with the Western Professional Hockey League. While he played in both locations in the later stages of his professional career, Mailhot would arguably play some of his best hockey with both Quad City and the Central Texas Stampede, putting up two seasons of 14-goals, once with each team. “When I came to Texas, I got to play for former New York Islanders great, Bob Bourne, and I learned a lot from him. He even had me play in the IHL for Butch Goring at the tender age of 36. And the real reason why I love Texas so much is that is where I met my best friend that soon after became my wife!”.
When I think of all those fights and all those penalty minutes, it makes me wonder who were the toughest players that Jacques ever had to face. He rattles them off to me: “Neely, Tim Hunter, Ken Baumgartner, Martin Laitre, Sasha Lakovic, and Bruce Ramsay”. Each of them really tough customers, and I can see why Jacques lists them as the toughest he ever fought. The amount of penalty minutes Bruce Ramsay would accumulate from season to season would blow most other enforcers totals right out of the water.
These days Jacques is still involved in hockey, but mostly for fun. “I’m still playing in beer leagues in Texas with friends. I wish I could have had a chance to get more involved in coaching, but it was not in the cards”.
When I ask Jacques to sum up his career for me in a few words, I really like what he comes up with: “I wish I would have been better prepared to deal with everything; wish I had been more patient and learned to control my temper. But I have no regrets. I met some amazing people along the way, and I have stood up where many thought I would just fall”. I like how Jacques’ perseverance prevailed; that he came out on top, literally fighting to make it there when many others did not believe in him. Sure, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, but he harbors no regrets, as he said. More importantly, Jacques beat the odds. One could argue that there was nothing special enough about Jacques that would allow him to play in the best hockey league in the world. But Jacques Mailhot is living proof that if you fight hard enough for something (in Jacques’ case oftentimes literally), what others think matters very little. And in the end, Jacques Mailhot was an NHL hockey player, and that is his to be proud of for all time.
Garrett Burnett is a physically imposing person. At 6-feet 3-inches and weighing in at 235-pounds of chiseled muscle, to say that he packs a presence is an understatement. His eyes are steely and penetrating, and I am sure could be quite unnerving to opposing players on the ice. Garrett’s size and strength are unmistakable, but at the same time they are deceiving. For while his appearance may be intimidating, his heart and the way that he presents himself are endearing to say the least. In fact, Garrett Burnett is probably one of the most polite, humble persons whom I have ever engaged with. Garrett invested time in his responses to me; some of which were quite poignant. You can tell that he feels a genuine care and concern for those whom he interacts with. And I am certain that this same care and concern for others allowed him to be a formidable enforcer and protector of his teammates; the likes of which included Sergei Fedorov, Vaclav Pospal, Petr Sykora, and numerous other talented NHL players.
Born September 23rd, 1975 in Coquitlam, British Columbia, it would not take long for a Canadian kid like Garrett to fall in love with the game of hockey, but it would perhaps be for a different reason than most kids. “I began watching my father, Bob, play hockey in the Royal City Hockey League, and I wanted to be just like my father, and I instantly fell in love with hockey. Growing up in Canada, loving hockey was bound to happen, but I had a huge desire to be just like my dad”. Like most Canadian families, the Burnetts regularly found themselves watching CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” on Saturday nights and routinely following NHL games. As did so many other kids like him, Garrett dreamed of some day lacing up the skates in an NHL game himself. “… Just before my fifth birthday, my organized hockey career began at a local minor hockey association”. Garrett would play for local teams out of the Port Moody Minor Hockey Association, the Coquitlam Minor Hockey Association, and the Burnaby Winter Club.
Youth hockey would eventually lead Garrett to the highly esteemed Junior-A hockey as well as Major Junior hockey throughout Canada. Following his dream of playing in the NHL would lead him further away from home than he had ever been before, and this certainly was not the easiest adjustment for a young man. “I first left home when I was 17. I played for Junior-A teams in Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountain Leagues. I lived with billet families in the cities where I played, and that took some getting used to”. Thankfully for Garrett, he has a very supportive and loving family to this day, who backed him and encouraged him as he pursued his dream of playing in the NHL. And even though he was far away from home, Burnett was still able to see his family at Christmas time and during the off-seasons, not to mention the fact that numerous times his family would come to see Garrett play in person. “My family was very supportive in all of this. They came to see me play in several cities that I played in and against… They encouraged me to believe in myself, and to stay committed to all of the hard work and time that I was putting in. To see them proud and happy only encouraged me to work harder and reach further”.
Discussing with Garrett his path to the NHL, one cannot help but admire the work ethic that he demonstrated. Oftentimes, Garrett had to continue to believe in his goals well within the face of adversity. “I realized that I wanted to play professionally at a very early age”, Garrett would recall. “But along the way, from my childhood teams, to my Junior teams, and even at the pro level, I received harsh criticism from coaches, saying that I wasn’t talented enough. But that encouraged me to just get on the ice earlier, stay on the ice later, workout when I had spare time, and just use every single angle I could take to become a more talented hockey player. Even as I managed to make teams in lower levels I was not expected to make, I kept working harder to try to reach further for more success in making the higher levels”.
Burnett’s determination would lead him to playing in Major Junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League, initially for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and then later the Kitchener Rangers during the 1994-95 season. While going goalless during 36-regular season games, Garrett would still pick up 2-assists to go along with an immense 152-penalty minutes. Garrett would also see action in 3 postseason games for Kitchener, tallying 1-assist and 23 more penalty minutes during those games, but it would be for naught as the Rangers would fall 4-games to 1 against the Sudbury Wolves.
1994-95 would be Garrett’s lone season playing Major Junior, and he would move onto playing professionally in some of the lower tiered hockey leagues at this level. The 1995-96 season would begin what would end up being a journeyman’s career for Garrett, as over the next three seasons he would play in four different professional leagues and in nine different cities. Garrett would see stops in the old Colonial Hockey League (which would eventually become the United Hockey League), suiting up for the Utica Blizzard, as well as the Central Hockey League’s (CHL) Oklahoma City Blazers and Tulsa Oilers, the East Coast Hockey League’s (ECHL) Nashville Knights, Jacksonville Lizard Kings, Knoxville Cherokees, and Johnstown Jets, and even coming within one step of the NHL when he would see action with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Philadelphia Phantoms. It would seem inconceivable to most hockey experts that a player who would bounce around the minor leagues with as much regularity as Garrett would ever make it onto an NHL roster. But the opportunity to do so would not be so very far away.
In June of 1998, Garrett Burnett would sign his first contract with an NHL organization, the San Jose Sharks. And while it would be about five more years until he would make his NHL debut, being signed by an NHL franchise would not only be a momentous occasion for Garrett, but would also enable him to continue to put his hard work and commitment to action and to better himself as a hockey player. The Sharks would assign Garrett to their AHL minor league affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades, and it would be here that Garrett would play some of his best hockey to that point in his career and garner himself the reputation as one of the games most feared enforcers.
“My days with the Kentucky Thoroughblades were awesome! Those teams and players were amazing. And there would be a lot of future success enjoyed by several of my former teammates. I am so proud and happy for each and every one of them”. Garrett played for Kentucky for the 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons, and some of his teammates during those years included NHL regulars like Evgeni Nabokov, Eric Boulton, Dan Boyle, Filip Kuba, Shawn Burr, Scott Hannan, Alexander Korolyuk and Miikka Kiprusoff. “I am just so happy to see all of my former teammates enjoy the successes that they have enjoyed in their careers!”. Garrett himself would have a most impressive season during the 1999-00 season when in 58-games for the Thoroughblades he would score 3-goals and 3-assists, while registering an astounding 506-penalty minutes(!). Garrett looks back on those seasons in Kentucky with warm memories and great appreciation; much of which he extolls upon the coaching staff and the community. “I could definitely not forget to praise the amazing coaching we had with (assistant coach) Nick Fotiu and (head coach) Roy Sommer. The fans were also a huge part of my experience, and they were awesome!”.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that Burnett then was able to hone at least some of his pugilistic skill under the watchful eye of one of pro hockey’s all time scrappiest tough guys in Nick Fotiu. The assistant coach Fotiu was a veteran of 646-regular season NHL games and totaled 1,326-penalty minutes in his career, as well as two runs to the Stanley Cup Finals. While they shared in fun-loving, successful teams together in Kentucky, this would not be the last time that Garrett would receive a helping hand from Fotiu. Despite additional journeyman travels between 2000-2002 in the IHL (Cleveland Lumberjacks), AHL (Cincinnati Mighty Ducks who were coached by Stanley Cup-winning and current Toronto Maple Leafs head coach, Mike Babcock) and the UHL (New Haven Knights), Garrett would enjoy arguably his finest professional season with the Hartford Wolf Pack; once again Fotiu was Burnett’s assistant coach.
The 2002-03 Hartford Wolf Pack were an extremely talented and an extremely tough hockey club. “Hartford was an awesome team and experience. We did have a huge amount of toughness. I think Coach Nick Fotiu may have helped me land in the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate. That season brought some really good stats for me”. The Wolf Pack possessed top-notch scoring talent in the likes of Roman Lyashenko, Nils Ekman, Dixon Ward and John Tripp; all of whom eclipsed the 20-goal plateau. In addition to Garrett’s AHL league leading 346-penalty minutes, teammates Ward, Garth Murray, Jeff State, Billy Tibbetts, Tomas Kloucek, Gordie Dwyer, and Richard Scott all surpassed 100-penalty minutes. Coinciding with his immense lead in penalty minutes, Garrett also put up 6-goals and 1-assist, while appearing in 62-regular season games for the Wolf Pack; he would also appear in one of Hartford’s two playoff games against the Springfield Falcons, as they were swept in the opening round 2-games to none.
But it would be Babcock’s assurance in Cincinnati during 2001-02 that would eventually prove prophetic for Garrett. “It was advised to me at the end of the season by Coach Mike Babcock when I asked him what I had to do to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL, Babs said, ‘Burny, everybody knows you can fight, but if you can just put up some points…’. While with the Wolf Pack the next season, Garrett did put up those points. “As it turned out, Babcock stayed true to his advice, and gave me a contract in Anaheim, in the NHL, after I had that season in Hartford, where I actually increased my point scoring noticeably”. Garrett would sign with Babcock and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in late-July 2003, and would see his dream come true.
At 28-years of age, Garrett would make his NHL debut as a Mighty Duck for the first game of the regular season on October 8th, 2003 against the Dallas Stars. While Anaheim would lose the game 4-1, Garrett would have a superb first game, squaring-off against the Stars’ John Erskine and recording a shot on goal in addition to the fisticuffs. “My first NHL game was awesome! It still makes my heart beat fast and hard to even think about it! My parents, sister and grandfather flew into Dallas for the game. Because it was the first game of the NHL season, the USA Today had a picture of me on the front page of the sports section, and the title to the story said “The Boys are Back”. I just remember how extremely proud my family was for me, and it melts my heart just to remember their excitement, especially since my father recently passed away”.
Protecting the likes of Mighty Ducks’ teammates Sergei Fedorov, Petr Sykora, Vinny Prospal, Andy McDonald, Rob Niedermayer, Sandis Ozolinsh, Samuel Pahlsson and more, Garrett Burnett would suit up for 38-more games that season, tallying up 1-goal, 2-assists, and 184-penalty minutes. Garrett would score his first NHL goal March 16th, 2004 during a 3-2 win versus the Phoenix Coyotes against goaltender Brent Johnson. “I remember a lot about that goal. I was pushing through to the net, trying to cause a screen and traffic in front of the net. The puck was shot at the net, and I was fortunately able to touch and re-direct the puck, and it found an opening into the goal net”. Garrett would participate in 22 fights during his sole NHL season, including a season finale against the Calgary Flames in which Garrett would receive coincidental penalties for cross-checking, instigating, fighting, a misconduct penalty and a game misconduct while tangling with Marcus Nilsson, all for a total 29-penalty minutes.
This lone season with the Ducks would unfortunately be Garrett’s only NHL season. And while he would play professional for three more seasons, including a stop with the Dallas Stars organization as a free agent after the NHL lockout in 2004-05, horrible tragedy would sadly bring Garrett’s career to an end. In December of 2006, Garrett would be assaulted outside of a nightclub in North Delta, British Columbia. The vicious attack on Garrett would see him hospitalized, including being comatose for 20-days and being kept on life support. “Yes, that incident was terrible for me, but I can’t even imagine how traumatizing it was for my family. I was unable to skate or play hockey for 5-years, amongst other things, including basic motor skills that I was unable to perform. After a full commitment to bettering myself, which will never end until I die, I re-learned a lot of these things”. I can only imagine that Garrett’s perseverance and his never-quit attitude are what helped pull him out of such a horrible experience and to be able to recover as he did; that, and the sincere love and care of his family.
These days, Garrett spends a lot of his time with his wife and daughter, and making the most of every moment. “I would do anything for them”, Garrett proudly asserts to me. As he protected his teammates for so many years, Garrett is still very much a protector today. “I am committed to lending my compassion and presence to protect people through different kinds of hosting, security and bodyguard jobs”. Through my discussion with Garrett, I feel myself more at ease and my faith in humanity a little renewed. It makes you feel good, knowing that there is a giant-sized individual, both in physical size and in heart, like Garrett who endeavors to protect others. Almost like a superhero. Protecting teammates on the ice, and protecting his family and fellow man off of it.
It is reassuring to know that someone like Garrett Burnett is around. That presence, that reassuring nature, that awe-inspiring size and strength – Garrett is one of the good guys. A real life superman of sorts.
Bruce Hoffort never considered himself your typical “blue chip prospect” during his collegiate and professional hockey careers. How he feels in retrospect about his goaltending and his playing career goes back even to his days as a youth. “I really didn’t watch much hockey. I really wasn’t a ‘rink rat’, so to speak. I spent more time on my snowmobile”. And as I spend my afternoon chatting with Bruce Hoffort for an hour or so, I do notice that he is correct. Bruce is not your typical person or typical hockey player. Bruce realized that there was something different that had made him an NCAA Championship winning goaltender, and an aspiring talent for the Philadelphia Flyers. And the more that I listen to him recollect his playing career, it makes me wish that there were more people and more professional athletes like Bruce Hoffort in this world today.
Bruce Hoffort was born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada but after a little bit of moving around, spent his time growing up in North Battleford, another Saskatchewan city, beginning around the age of 4-years old. There are numerous hockey talents to have come out of North Battleford, including NHL talents of the 1970s and 1980s like Skip Krake, Dale Hoganson, Ron Delorme, Bernie Lukowich, and even legendary Hockey Hall of Fame inducted coach, Emile “The Cat” Francis. Hoffort recalled that “these were the names you heard growing up in North Battleford, and that you kind of looked up to”.
Unbeknownst at the time as to how his career would eventually play out, as a kid Hoffort would cheer for the Philadelphia Flyers and idolized their legendary goaltender, Bernie Parent. “When I was a kid and was playing really strong, my teammates and friends took to calling me ‘Bernie’ even. The only time that I ever received something back when I wrote to a hockey club (fan mail) was from the Flyers. They sent me a team photo probably from around the early to mid-1970s, and there was Bernie Parent in the photo too, and I believe the Stanley Cup was depicted as well. And I used to look at that photo endlessly”. In addition to the Flyers and Parent, Hoffort fondly recalls watching Hockey Night in Canada after Bingo, and watching the stellar goaltending of Ken Dryden, Mike Palmateer, and Richard Brodeur. Once the region started carrying more Edmonton Oilers games on television in the 1980s, Hoffort strongly admired the brilliance of the Oilers’ superb goaltending tandem of Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog.
While he had played goal a bit here and there in street hockey and recreationally at school, Bruce Hoffort had been a positional player as a defenseman in organized youth hockey. But around the time that he was playing in pee wee or travel leagues, about the age of 12 or so, he decided to give goaltending a try. “It was much easier than what parents have to do these days as far as handling equipment costs. Basically in North Battleford they had a big room filled with all sizes of goalie equipment. You picked out whatever fit you, and that was your goalie equipment that you played in”. From that point going forward, Hoffort was permanently a goaltender in organized hockey.
Heading into his teenage years, Bruce Hoffort would play his junior hockey in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, initially for North Battleford. But after not seeing much playing time in the nets, Hoffort would request a trade which saw him be shipped to the Melville Millionaires. The 1985-86 season, at 19-years of age, saw Hoffort appear in 40-games for the Millionaires, and string together a streak 15-18-2 record while pitching 2-shutouts. Hoffort’s junior career would include stops in Nipawin at the junior-B level and returns to North Battleford as well. Around this time, the Regina Pats had approached Bruce about adding him onto a protected list with the intent of signing him. Hoffort received advice around that time from friends, cautioning him that accepting the addition to Regina’s protected list would negate his ability to play collegiate hockey. It would come down to deciding what was the best road for Bruce to follow; college hockey or major junior hockey.
The decision would soon be made much easier for Bruce, as assistant coach of Lake Superior State University, Jeff Jackson, would begin scouting him quite seriously, and in turn would offer him a scholarship to play stateside with the Lakers. Jackson, who presently is the head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey program since 2005, would recognize the “battler” in Bruce. It was Jackson who would refer to Hoffort as a “junkyard dog”, often having to fight for the most out of difficult situations. The decision to attend school and play hockey at Lake Superior would pave the way for Bruce to play some of his best hockey, achieve great personal and team accolades, and eventually the opening of a door into the NHL.
Bruce Hoffort and the Lakers found immediate success in their first year together, the 1987-88 season. “Half of our team were freshmen, and it was a very talented team. By far, Mark Vermette was our best player. He scored 45-goals in 46-games. Vermette was very tough too. Scoring 45-goals on top of having over 150-penalty minutes”. Mark Vermette would eventually be drafted in the 7th-round of the 1986 entry draft by Quebec, and would suit up in 67-games for the Nordiques across four seasons. “Drew Famulak was my roommate”, Hoffort went onto say. “My best friend on the team was Doug Laprade out of Thunder Bay. Mike Greenlay was our backup goalie, and he’d end up playing a few games with the Edmonton Oilers”. Besides Hoffort, Vermette and Greenlay, four other Lakers would also go onto the NHL, including Dan Keczmer, Mark Astley, Rene Chapdelaine and future Stanley Cup champion Jim Dowd.
Hoffort would backstop the Lakers to a most memorable championship run which would see Lake Superior State defeat St. Lawrence 4-3 in overtime of the championship game, which was held in Lake Placid that April. The earlier rounds of the tournament saw the Lakers defeat Merrimack in a two-game, total goals format quarterfinal with a 4-3 loss and a 5-0 victory, as well as defeating the Maine Blackbears 6-3 in a single elimination game semi-final. “The program had never previously won anything significant. So it was great for that program and that community. And getting to play at Lake Placid was amazing, of course. After we won the tournament, we were the first hockey team since the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ team that was invited to the White House. We got to meet Ronald Reagan and take individual photos with him. You would be in a separate room, and the Secret Service would wave you in, and you’d be like, ‘wow, there’s Ronald Reagan!’. It was a truly amazing experience”.
Hoffort’s performance at the tournament and for the entire 1987-88 NCAA was simply spectacular. So much so that Bruce would receive the accolades of being named to the All-CCHA First Team, as well as the All-NCAA Tournament Team to go along with being awarded the Most Outstanding Player for the entire 1988 NCAA Tournament. Few players have been more celebrated with accolades than what Hoffort was that memorable 1988 season.
After the freshman year championship run, Bruce Hoffort’s sophomore year was even more remarkable statistically. Throughout 44-games in the 1988-89 season, Hoffort finished with a record of 27-wins and only 10-losses to go with 5-ties and a strong 2.71 goals against average. It was around this time that the thought of playing professional hockey really started to take shape for Bruce. “After my freshman year, I actually had an offer from the Quebec Nordiques to see if I was interested in turning pro. I began to think to myself, ‘Wow! Maybe I can play professionally. Maybe I can do something here’. I wanted to have a great second year and see if I could continue to go up”. After actually having and playing that very solid second year, things did in fact continue to go up for Bruce.
“A friend of Jeff Jackson’s was Bob Goodenow, who at the time, was working as a player agent and had a couple of players like Brett Hull. We had an informal meeting in Sault Ste. Marie, where Goodenow asked me if I wanted to go professional. It was at this meeting that I realized that I did. Bob started soliciting offers, and there were at least 10 teams that were interested”.
Eventually for Bruce, the choice of where he would sign professionally would come down to choosing between two teams; the Edmonton Oilers and the team of his childhood dreams, the Philadelphia Flyers. For Bruce, it was never about the money. Some hockey players are more concerned about playing where they are going to get the biggest salary and living the good life. That was never the case for Hoffort; he simply wanted to play in the NHL. “Glen Sather, whom I had met with just prior in Lloydminster, called me up one night and told me that he’d give me $50,000 less than whatever the Flyers offered me”. Listening to Bruce tell me this, I am banking on the fact that Sather thought the enticement would be more so the fact that the Oilers were perennial Stanley Cup champions, and still had the likes of Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Kevin Lowe on their roster. “What ended up being more important to me was being a bit further away from home, and not so much being under the microscope anymore. Plus, there was the tie of idolizing Bernie Parent, and that he was serving as a goalie coach in Philadelphia at the time”. It became no surprise then that Hoffort chose to sign with the Flyers.
Bruce Hoffort’s first professional hockey season was 1989-90. All appearances would be that Bruce would have a legitimate shot of making the Flyers roster right out of training camp that summer. “I had had a very good training camp. (Ron) Hextall was out at the time with a contract dispute. I had seen a lot of playing time in the pre-season. John Paddock (the assistant GM for the Philadelphia Flyers at the time) told me that he believed I would be there”, Hoffort recalled. Though he would not make the Flyers roster right off the bat, it really would not take Bruce that long to see his first taste of NHL play. “I think after only 6-games in Hershey, I got called up”. Hoffort would sit backup to Vezina-trophy winning and multiple All-Star selection Pete Peeters, while Hextall remained out with the contract dispute and the other veteran netminder, Ken Wregget, was out with an injury.
Over a quarter of a century later, I am amazed at how well Bruce is able to recall his first NHL game. Not even just down to the details of the game, but remembering the feelings and emotions that he felt at the time too. Hoffort’s first NHL game would be a November 5th, 1989 showdown against the New York Islanders in Philadelphia for a game that he was not even expected to play in. “Early in the 2nd-period, there was a goal mouth collision. Pete Peeters had gotten hurt, and looked as if he had hit his head the ice. Immediately as he was being attended to, I hopped over the boards and started stretching, getting ready to go in”. Hoffort was raring to go, and who could blame him? This was his chance. This was his opportunity. Suiting up in an NHL game and being able to show what he could do.
In asking him what memories stand out the most from this first NHL game, Bruce recalls a very unique, quirky situation about playing that first game at The Spectrum. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘if they don’t score, they can’t send me down’. I had played with Pat Jablonski’s twin brother, Jeff, at Lake Superior State. Pat was a goalie at the time for the St. Louis Blues, and Jeff had told me a story about him. Pat had played a game in Philly, where the shooter faked him out and pretended that he was going to dump the puck in. Anticipating the dump in, Pat left the crease too early to play the puck and the shooter just put the puck right into the open net. Remembering this, I wanted to make certain this didn’t happen to me. Wouldn’t you know it, the first play of the game for me, (the Islanders’) Gerald Diduck is skating in and looks like he’s ready to dump the puck in, then suddenly slaps it hard right on net! Diduck was figuring ‘here’s this rookie goalie, I’m going to mess with him’. I stopped it obviously, and survived getting embarrassed”. Bruce and I had a good laugh over this recollection of his first game.
Despite having been replaced by him after getting injured, Pete Peeters was very welcoming to the young Hoffort and was very instrumental in helping to develop him in his early career. Peeters made sure to spend time with Bruce, and show him a few veteran tricks of the trade, so to speak. “Pete was great right off the bat. He was engaging with everyone, and was involved on the ice. Pete wanted to know my opinion about things, and how I had been taught. Throughout his career, Pete Peeters was known as a great puckhandler. He taught me a few things about shaving my stick down, so that it was easier to hold for flipping the puck out”.
Despite posting a superb 3-0-1 record in just his first few games in the league, Hoffort was understandably dismayed when he was sent back down to Hershey once veteran Ken Wregget came back from injury. “Paul Holmgren had kept telling me, ‘ you keep winning, you keep playing'”. Despite being sent down, Hoffort would eventually be called back up later in the season and appeared in a string of three games in late-March, early-April. But things would not remain the same as they had been for his earlier success, and Hoffort would show signs of struggle.
Glenn “Chico” Resch had replaced Bernie Parent as goaltending coach for the Flyers, and would have a different approach to his goaltenders than what Parent exemplified. “Bernie Parent was a standup goaltender, and I was a standup goaltender, so it worked really well. Chico wanted me to adopt a butterfly style. But what he wanted me to do was to gradually develop into a butterfly style goalie, whereas I tried to do it immediately and replicate it right off the bat; that’s not what Chico had meant for me to do. I ended up getting into a slump”.
Unfortunately, Bruce’s slump would continue into his second professional season, and it would be a tumultuous one at best. Despite being with the Flyers for two months during the 1990-91 season, Hoffort played in only two games, and of those two games combined, played a mere total of 39-minutes of ice time. On paper, Hoffort registered a decent 1-0-1 record for those two games, but his other numbers were quite rough, having come away with .850 save percentage and 4.62 goals against average. Not the kind of numbers that could keep you in the NHL, but when he only logged 39-minutes of play over two months, Hoffort had not been given a fair shake. Even in Hershey with the Bears, Hoffort saw the bulk of the netminding duties being given to 20-year old rookie Dominic Roussel and veteran Marc D’Amour as Roussel’s backup. Not finding a solidified position in Hershey either and with no real opportunity in Philly, Hoffort would even be shuffled over to the IHL’s Kansas City Blades so that he could be utilized somewhere. Being in Kansas City would be not be all bad, as Hoffort would be able to learn firsthand from head coach, former NHL goaltender and Stanley Cup winner Doug Soetaert, as well as co-coach and four-time Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Ken Morrow.
Never quite finding his groove, Bruce Hoffort would bounce between three teams in three different leagues for the rest of the season. In fact, one weekend during the 1990-91 season saw Hoffort play a game with the Blades in Indianapolis on a Friday night, having to play in Portland on a Saturday with Hershey, and then serving as a backup to Ken Wregget on the Sunday for a game in Pittsburgh. It would not surprise me if Bruce Hoffort was the only player in hockey history to have suited up in three different professional leagues, for three different teams, all in three consecutive days. It was no wonder that Hoffort never was able to get into a rhythm that season.
Bruce Hoffort’s final professional season would be the 1991-92 season with the San Diego Gulls of the IHL. The Flyers organization basically told him, “hey, we are going to leave you alone in San Diego and give you a chance to find your game again. We won’t bounce you around like last year. You can be the top goalie in San Diego, and have the opportunity to get your game back”. Longtime NHL and minor league player, Tim Tookey, who had been a teammate of Bruce’s in Hershey warned his friend that it likely would not be so simple in San Diego. “Tim Tookey knew Rick Knickle (the other goalie in San Diego) from their days with the Los Angeles Kings, and knew that Knickle was a really good goalie. He knew that I would not simply get the job”.
Don Waddell, who was head coach at the time for the Gulls, made a familiar assurance to Hoffort that “if you win, you play”. Starting to find his former self again and the former ways that worked for him at Lake Superior State and in the first part of his season in Philadelphia, Bruce Hoffort knew that he had to fight for his position again and rekindle that “junkyard dog” mentality that Jeff Jackson had originally seen in him. And while Hoffort would indeed scrap wholeheartedly to get in for 26-games for the Gulls and go 11-9-4 in that stretch, a very scary injury would perhaps signify that his professional career was coming closer to an end. “Shortly before Sean Burke was brought in, I had a really nasty collision on the ice. They had to take me in an ambulance to the hospital, and I ended up having a really bad concussion. By the time I got back, Sean Burke was in goal, and that was it”. Sean Burke, a stellar goaltender in his own right and an NHL goaltender for many years afterward, would quickly assume the starting duties for the Gulls.
Hoffort did have an opportunity to play professional hockey one more season in 1992-93 with the Gulls once more. Hoffort had been bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers and was a free agent to play wherever he wanted. The thought at the time was, “hey, why not San Diego again. Take a chance to do some soul-searching”. The trouble being that former Buffalo Sabres player and head coach, Rick Dudley, had taken over the head coaching duties, and had decided to bring in an entire selection of former Sabres players, including Lindy Ruff, Scott Arniel, Bill Houlder, Dale DeGray, Don McSween, Tony McKegney, Mark Ferner, and goaltender Clint Malarchuk. Once Malarchuk arrived, the proverbial writing was on the wall for Hoffort. “I showed up one morning, and there were my equipment bags all packed and outside the locker room. I was like, ‘uh oh’. I went to Don Waddell’s office (Waddell had become President and General Manager of the Gulls by that point) and told me he could offer me an opportunity in the ECHL. Not wanting to go that low in the professional leagues, I decided to say ‘that’s it'”.
Having left the game and officially retired, Bruce Hoffort returned to Lake Superior State University as a volunteer goaltending coach. “It was great. I got to be there in 1994 with Blaine Lacher (who would go on to play for the Boston Bruins) and John Grahame who would win a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay”.
These days Bruce is no longer in hockey, but works as a successful businessman in the pulp and paper business overseeing paper conversion.
I mentioned at the beginning that I view Bruce Hoffort as being the kind of individual that we need more of in this world, and whom I wish other professional athletes were like. Throughout his story, Bruce was a “junkyard dog” type player, as bestowed upon him in college by Jeff Jackson. Thinking back on his career, Bruce recalls that he “always had to work very hard. Fighting for scraps like a junkyard dog. During those difficult seasons, I lost sight of where I came from. What made me a talented player was that I was always fighting, scraping, clawing to make the most out of difficult situations. You have to fight for things in life; nothing is just handed to you on a silver platter. In the NHL, you are kind of on your own in a sense. Now, in the business world, with a wife and kids in college, you have to fight for success. Nothing comes easy, and you have to continue to fight through challenges and battles”.
Bruce Hoffort gets what it seems that less and less people are getting these days. In a day in age where so much of life is about entitlement, Bruce understand that if you want something out of life, you have to work hard for it. Maybe he gets it because he lived it as a professional hockey player. Maybe it is what helped lead to him an NCAA Championship and to be able to play in the National Hockey League. It is comforting to know that there are people like Bruce Hoffort that still recognize these types of values; the types of values that you would want to pass onto the youth of today and the young professional athletes of today. I have the utmost respect for Bruce Hoffort, and I know that these ideals that he exudes and holds dear are what have made him so successful and respectable to this day.
Two things impress me the most when I think of my conversation with former Dallas Stars netminder, Mike Torchia. Firstly, how courteous, soft-spoken, and professional he is. Talking hockey with him is a sincere pleasure, and he automatically puts you at ease. Plain and simple – Torchia is a great guy. Secondly, it is how vividly he can recall his hockey career, starting from the time that he was just a young kid, all the way up through the four years of his junior career, his eleven years at the professional level, and into the present with his involvement in the game today. Mike Torchia is perhaps best remembered by NHL fans for his lone season with the Dallas Stars during the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. Personally, I became curious to know more about Mike’s hockey career leading up to that season in the NHL, and to find out what he has been doing since.
Mike Torchia was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Torchia began playing hockey at the age of 4-years old when he first started skating. Up until the age of 7-years old, Torchia had always been a positional player when one day while playing for a Selects hockey club, the team’s goaltender did not show up. Torchia’s coach asked of his players at the time if anyone was willing to suit up in net. Torchia had always been intrigued by the position, and figured that he would give it a go. With Torchia between the pipes, the team would end up winning the game 6-1. From that point forward, Mike Torchia became a goaltender permanently and never played a game as a position player again.
Growing up in Toronto, it was difficult for anyone to be a Leafs fan during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly when it came to cheering on the Leafs’ goaltenders. While Toronto certainly possessed considerable talent on their roster, a winning team never came to fruition for the Leafs. From a goaltender perspective, the Leafs best bet was arguably Mike Palmateer, but he would be traded away in the summer of 1980 to the Washington Capitals. From that point forward, the Toronto Maple Leafs became a revolving door for netminders, with the likes of Jiri Crha, Vincent Tremblay, Jim Rutherford, “Bunny” Larocque, Rick St. Croix, Ken Wregget and a handful of others all seeing time in the Toronto nets; most of whom were regularly averaging between 4.00-5.00 goals allowed average each season.
It would not be hard to understand then why Mike Torchia’s favorite team growing up was the Boston Bruins and the stellar goaltending of Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers, as well as perennial All-Star selection and Vezina Trophy winner Pete Peeters. As the mid-1980s approached, Torchia also came to admire another legendary goaltender, the Montreal Canadiens’ Patrick Roy. For Torchia, a young goalie himself growing up in Toronto, these were his hockey heroes.
Shortly after he had turned 16, Mike Torchia would be drafted by the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers. Torchia would be taken in the second-round of the 1988 OHL Priority Selection draft. The 20th selection overall, Torchia would be selected ahead of the likes of Adam Foote, Owen Nolan, Chris Simon, Jassen Cullimore, Kris Draper, and other longstanding future NHLers. For Torchia, being selected by the Rangers in 1988 would eventually bring many wonderful moments and opportunities to his life; both as a youth hockey player and continuing even to this day.
Mike’s success with Kitchener would be almost immediate. The first two seasons with the Rangers in particular, at the ages of 16 and 17, would be his best of the four years in juniors, at least from his team’s standpoint. The 1989-90 OHL season, his second in the league, would see Mike and the Rangers finish second overall in the Emms Division with a record of 38-21-7. Kitchener had immense firepower, and would lead the OHL in team scoring that season with 358-goals scored; a full 24-goals more than the next highest scoring team in the league. The leading scorer for the Rangers was Torchia’s future brother-in-law, Gilbert Dionne, who would lead the way with 48-goals and 57-assists for 105-points in just 64-games. Joey St. Aubin and Jason Firth would also eclipse the 100-point mark that season for Kitchener, while 28-goal and 39-goal seasons came from future NHLers Shayne Stevenson and Steven Rice respectively. Anchoring Kitchener’s defense that season were future NHL blueliners Chris LiPuma and Jason York. Considering this team’s output and the caliber of the players they possessed, it was no wonder that the Rangers went as far as they did for this particular season.
Mike Torchia was just as exceptional as his teammates for 1989-90. As the number one netminder for Kitchener, Mike would finish with an impressive 25-11-2 record in 40-games, while registering a 0.875 save percentage and a 3.58 goals against average to go with 1 shutout. Perhaps more importantly though, Torchia would be at his very best in the OHL playoffs that season, backstopping Kitchener all the way to a 7-game showdown in the Finals against Oshawa that would go the entire distance. Mike posted a playoff run of 11-wins with only 6-losses during the 17-game stretch, and held opposing shooters at bay with a solid 3.52 goals against average. Torchia was so strong in the Kitchener nets that the Rangers had ripped through the North Bay Centennials and the Niagara Falls Thunder each in a series where they won 4-games to 1. It would not be until the Finals against Oshawa where Torchia and his Kitchener teammates would lose more than one game in a series.
Despite the 4-3 Finals loss to Oshawa, Torchia and the Rangers earned a birth in that spring’s Memorial Cup tournament to determine the major junior hockey league champion of the Canadian Hockey League. Mike Torchia and his Kitchener teammates would come ever so close to winning the Cup. Despite beating Kamloops 8-7 in overtime and Laval 5-3 in the round robin of the tournament, as well as a 5-4 semi-final victory over Laval once more, the Rangers would lose a heartbreaker in the championship game, losing once more to Oshawa that would take two overtime periods to resolve. Regardless of these tight losses in the finals and at the Memorial Cup, Mike Torchia had garnered attention and respect across Canada and in junior hockey. Torchia would be named to the 1990 Memorial Cup All-Star Team and would be named the Hap Emms Trophy recipient as well, as the top goaltender in the Memorial Cup tournament for that season.
After four highly successful seasons with Kitchener, Mike Torchia would see a dream come true in 1991 when he was chosen by the Minnesota North Stars in the NHL entry draft. Mike described the moment to me as a “surreal experience”. Not in the least bit out of cockiness, Torchia knew that making it into the NHL was where he was supposed to be. “I said to myself, ‘this is what I wanted to do. This is what I am going to do”. Being selected in the fourth-round at seventy-fourth overall, it was indeed a very surreal feeling for Mike. “Here I am at the time, walking down after being selected and being greeted by Bobby Clarke, who was the general manager of the North Stars at the time, and who I had watched as a kid with those missing teeth, winning Stanley Cups. And then Bob Gainey (who was the North Stars head coach at the time), and you think of all that he accomplished in his career, and it was just very, very surreal for me”.
Initially Torchia would be encouraged by the North Stars to play somewhere that he could get a lot of training in, and so he joined the Canadian National Team during 1992-93. “There was a very strenuous training regiment that Hockey Canada used at the time. We would start as early as 6:30AM in the morning, and going all the way into the evening. We did not play in a lot of games, but there was a lot of practice”, Torchia recalled. For the period of time that he was with the national team, Torchia was living in Calgary with teammates and friends like Hank Lammens and Adrian Aucoin, both of whom were on the national team and who would find NHL success in their careers as well.
In addition to his brief play with the national team, Torchia spent his first few professional seasons with the Stars minor league affiliate the Kalamazoo Wings of the IHL. While seeing regular action with the Wings, the Minnesota North Stars would relocate down south to Dallas and became the Stars. It was during their second season after relocation, the lockout shortened 1994-95 season, that Mike Torchia would make first his NHL appearance. When asked about what his first NHL game was like, Mike laughed and said “I guess I have Bob Gainey to thank for it”. Explaining further, Torchia said “Darcy Wakaluk had gotten hurt and was out for 2-weeks. So they called me up from Kalamazoo and flew me to Detroit on Friday for a Saturday game against the Red Wings. Then they called Manny Fernandez up, and I got sent back down to Kalamazoo, while Manny got the start against the Red Wings. I guess they intended to split the games between Manny and I. The next day I got called up and we flew to Chicago. About 4-hours before the game, Bob Gainey looks at me and says ‘you’re starting'”, again Torchia laughs, “I didn’t even have time to get nervous!”.
The Chicago Blackhawks would be an incredibly tough test for Mike to face in his first NHL game, as they were truly talent-laden. Garnered with All-Stars such as Eddie Belfour, Chris Chelios, Gary Suter, Jeremy Roenick, Joe Murphy and Tony Amonte, the game would conceivably be a shooting gallery against Torchia, while also having to outduel a future Hall of Fame goaltender in Belfour at the opposite end of the rink. Torchia was up to the challenge, and was absolutely superb in net. The Stars would win the game 2-1, with Torchia stopping 29 of 30 shots for an 0.967 save percentage. “The one goal I let in was the one I likely should have stopped. Joe Murphy let go of a wrist-shot, but didn’t get anything on it and it just fluttered into the net”. Torchia also reminded me that this was the game where “(Derian) Hatcher put a big hit on Jeremy Roenick and ended up injuring his knee”. When I tell him I am impressed with how well he recalls the details of this first game, Torchia responded with “the first game is always really special. I remember it like it was yesterday”.
During that first season in Dallas, Torchia learned a great deal from the Stars top netminder and veteran winner of three Stanley Cup championships, Andy Moog. While Darcy Wakaluk “was very quiet and kept mostly to himself”, Moog offered the young Torchia some great tutelage. “Andy Moog was just brilliant to be around. He taught me about making saves with the middle of the body. Simplifying things in terms of positioning. So many little details that I still use to this day”. Perhaps this mentoring by Moog in his first season is what helped Torchia achieve a respectable record of 3-2-1 in his rookie season, with wins over Toronto and Winnipeg in addition to the win over the Blackhawks.
After a solid rookie season, the 1995-96 season would be a tumultuous one for Torchia. Being involved with a summer trade from Dallas to the Washinton Capitals organization, followed by a trade to Anaheim in March of ’96, Torchia would end up playing for five different teams all in one season. Between injuries and conditioning assignments, as well as battling it out for limited NHL spots in the Capitals and Ducks organizations, to go along with a temporary loan from one team to another, Torchia would bounce from the cities of Norfolk to Kalamazoo to Orlando to Portland to Baltimore. Going from four straight years of being in Kitchener, to three to four years in Kalamazoo, and then suddenly five cities in one year would prove very difficult.
Eventually things would settle for Torchia during the 1998-99 season when he took the opportunity to play in Italy. “Looking at my background and heritage. My parents were from there. My sister was actually born there. I had met my wife and were married two years prior. We did not have any kids at the time. It was a great opportunity to see my roots. It became more about the experience than the hockey”. When asked about the fact that there were numerous other NHL experienced or drafted players (i.e. Reggie Savage, Tony Iob, Trevor Gallant) on the same team as Torchia, “Asiago HC”, Mike remembered the fact that Italy was a very enjoyable place to play for everyone. “We had a blast! There was one English speaking channel the whole year, so you could only watch so much TV. We would play cards. The wives would spend time together. The city we were in was more of a tourist spot, ski resort area. It was a lot of fun being with friends”.
Torchia would continue to wrap up his professional career overseas, as after his time in Italy he would play from 2000 through 2003 in the British Ice Hockey League. “Of the 18 skaters on our team, 17 of us were Canadian. Dale Craigwell, Scott Metcalfe, Trevor Gallant, Scott Allison. We would end up winning what they call the ‘Grand Slam’; all three or four trophies that were available for clubs to win”. Mike would have stops with the Sheffield Steelers, the Manchester Storm and the Guildford Flames. Mike would be named an ISL Second Team All-Star after an extremely solid performance with Sheffield which saw the Steelers finish first overall and lose only 9 of 48-games.
These days Mike Torchia is still very busy and still very much involved with the Kitchener Rangers. “I do color commentary for their radio broadcasts, and had done so on television too. I was their goalie coach for a while as well”. Torchia’s son Nathan, a goaltender just like his father, is now ranked in the top two goaltenders for the upcoming OHL draft and is slated to go very high in the 2016 Priority Selection. In fact, the younger Torchia is one of the top goaltenders in the world for those in his age group. When I congratulate Mike on his son’s success, he humbly reminds me that “nope, it’s all his doing”.
The last question that I leave Mike with is this – when he thinks back on his career, what is the most important thing that he learned which he still carries with him to this day. “Enjoy every day. It doesn’t last forever, and the end is very tough. It’s not so much the games. It’s being in the locker room with your buddies before or after a game. Being able to go for a skate with your buddies. Make sure you enjoy every day, every moment of it”.
I wish Mike the best of luck in all of his future endeavors, and I am excited to see what his son is going to accomplish in the years ahead. I have a hunch that he must be a lot like his father – courteous, professional, soft-spoken, truly a great guy. Those qualities breed success no matter where you go in life, and Mike Torchia certainly possesses them.
In the game today, when hockey fans think of “OV” everyone immediately envisions the great number-8 of the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin. But long before Ovechkin lit up the rinks of the NHL, the “OV” nickname was applied to a trio of three star players for the San Jose Sharks who were combined together for one magical season. Two were wizard-like Soviet legends who had been linemates for over a decade together in Communist Russia; arguably they were the two best hockey players in the world who were not in the NHL for many, many years. The third was a Swede, nearly 10-years younger than the Russians, who found opportunity to be a top-line winger after coming to the Sharks via trade from the Detroit Red Wings. The last names of this trio all happened to end in the letters “ov”. Their style of play possessed an entirely high-speed, puck-on-a-string, weaving-in-and-out, European flavor to it. And for the 1993-94 NHL season, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Johan Garpenlov would combine to lead the San Jose Sharks on a playoff run for the ages, and still one of the most exciting sagas in San Jose Sharks’ history.
The San Jose Sharks were an NHL expansion team that first saw action during the 1991-92 season. Their first two years in the NHL were abysmal, going 17-58-5 in their inaugural season, followed by a second season in which they registered a mere 11-wins while going 11-71-2 in a bitterly long 84-game season. Yes, expansion had not been kind to the Sharks. And after two years with one of the worst records in NHL history, finding success in a third season would have been inconceivable to practically all hockey minds. The “OV-line” was about to show otherwise.
The first to arrive in San Jose was Johan Garpenlov, who came over via trade with the Detroit Red Wings in March of 1992 in exchange for original Shark, Bob McGill. Garpenlov had been a 5th-round 1986 draft pick of Detroit’s who had had a decent solo season with the Red Wings the year prior when he rattled off 18-goals and 22-assists; his only full season with Detroit. After the trade, Garpenlov found immediate success in San Jose, quickly becoming the team’s top winger. Garpenlov would finish up 1991-92 with 11-points (5-goals, 6-assists) in 12-games with the Sharks, and then followed up with a 66-point campaign (22-goals, 44-assists) in 1992-93, finishing second overall in Sharks team scoring. Garpenlov would merely need the right linemates to further accentuate his production. The Russians were coming.
Igor Larionov would be claimed off of waivers by the San Jose Sharks in October 1992 from the Vancouver Canucks, but would not arrive in San Jose until late in 1993 after choosing to play a season in Switzerland to avoid losing a portion of his salary to the governing sports body, Sovintersport, in his homeland, who had allowed their Soviet players like Larionov to finally play in the NHL. Sergei Makarov, the 1989-90 Calder Trophy winning Rookie of the Year, came to the Sharks in August 1993 in a trade with the Hartford Whalers as part of compensation that saw the Sharks trade their 1st-round 1993 draft choice to the Whalers which had landed them Chris Pronger. Once Makarov arrived in San Jose, it was easy for Larionov to join his former linemate with the Sharks and return to the NHL from Switzerland.
Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov are two of the greatest hockey players in the history of the game. They represent two-thirds of the famous Soviet “KLM-Line” that led the Soviet Union to what seemed like endless international championships. Before either player arrived in the NHL, Larionov and Makarov won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988, as well as numerous medals in the World Championships, including bronze in 1985, silver in 1987, and gold medals in 1982, 1983, 1986 and 1989.
Larionov was known as the “Russian-Gretzky”, and if you ever saw him play, it was easy to see why. Larionov would win three Stanley Cups during his NHL career, while having registered 204-goals and 230-assists for 434-points in only 457-games with the Soviet Union, to go along with his 169-goals and 475-assists for 644-points in 921-NHL games. Larionov would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008, and is currently a member of the Hall’s selection committee.
Sergei Makarov was the sniper of the two Soviet-born players, and did he ever put up numbers! In 519-games for the Soviet Union’s CSKA Moscow team and Traktor Chelyabinsk, Makarov scored 322-goals and 388-assists for an uncanny 710-points. During the 1980-81 season with CSKA Moscow, Makarov scored 42-goals in 49-games and added 37-assists for 79-points. Coming to the NHL as a 31-year old rookie, Makarov was named Rookie of the Year, which led to an age limit being added to the trophy. In addition to the international medals that Makarov won as a teammate with Larionov, Makarov also won Olympic silver in 1980, and World Championship gold in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1990, as well as another bronze in 1991. It is unfathomable to me that Sergei Makarov has not yet been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame himself.
Even though they were 35 and 32 years old respectively for the 1993-94 Sharks’ season, when you look at what Makarov and Larionov had accomplished all those years prior, it should be no wonder that they still had some magic left in their tanks. Combining both Russians with Garpenlov, the San Jose Sharks suddenly had one of the best first lines in the NHL. With the “OV-Line” lighting up the goal lamps, the Sharks jumped to a 59-point improvement from their horrendous 11-win 1992-93 season. And garnering a record of 33-35-16, the Sharks finished third in the Pacific Division behind the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, and earned their first playoff birth in only their third year of existence.
The “OV-Line’s” regular season numbers were certainly impressive. At 35-years of age, Sergei Makarov led the San Jose Sharks in team scoring with 30-goals and 38-assists for 68-points in 80-games. In only 60-games played, Larionov who would turn 33 in March of that season, finished fourth overall in team scoring with 56-points (18-goals, 38-assist), averaging nearly a point per game. Garpenlov would finish in sixth place by registering 18-goals and 35-assists for 53-points. While those are all pretty good scoring numbers, it would not be until the playoffs that the “OV-Line” would be at their finest.
The opening round of the 1993-94 playoffs would feature a match up between the 82-point Sharks and the 100-point Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings had the all-time greatest hockey coach, Scotty Bowman at their helm, and were fueled by the likes Sergei Fedorov (56-goals, 120-points), Ray Sheppard (52-goals, 93-points), Steve Yzerman (28-goals, 82-points in only 58-games) and Paul Coffey (63-assists, 77-points). Not to mention that the Red Wings had seven other players on their roster who hit double digits for goal scoring. The vast majority thought that the rocket-powered Red Wings would make short work of the upstart Sharks. The total opposite would happen.
The Sharks would take the Red Wings through the complete 7-game series. The “OV-Line” would combine for 21-points as a unit in 7-games. Larionov led the way with 10-points (2-goals, 8-assists), while Makarov blasted away 6-goals in the series to total all of his points for the opening round, and Garpenlov would tally 2-goals and 3-assists. The “OV-Line” put the Red Wings “to bed”, completely stunning Detroit who were poised to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup that season. No one would have surmised an outcome such as that. The Red Wings actually outscored the Sharks in the series, registering 27 markers while San Jose put up 21. The difference seeming to be the Sharks tenacity and relentless play, especially led by the worldly experienced Makarov and Larionov.
As they moved into the second round of the playoffs, the San Jose Sharks seemed unstoppable. Next they would scare the living daylights out of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And while the Leafs would win the series, it would take another 7-games to stifle the Sharks, and Toronto would escape amongst the narrowest of margins, needing a 3-2 overtime victory in Game Six to come from behind in the series, and then a hard fought 4-2 victory in Game Seven to finally be rid of San Jose; the Sharks having at one point been ahead in the series 3-games to 2. The “OV-Line” would continue to score in abundance in the second round against Toronto. Larionov would lead the way again with 8-points in 7-games (3-goals, 5-assists), while Garpenlov would tally another 5-points (2-goals, 3-assists) and Makarov would be kept to 4-points (2-goals, 2-assists). While Larionov and Garpenlov would score with some regularity, the difference in the series may have been the Maple Leafs shutting down the goal scoring of Sergei Makarov. Although Makarov registered 2-goals and 2-assists, all four of those points came in Game Five of the series, while the Leafs kept Sergei off the board for the other six games. Regardless of the second round loss, the San Jose Sharks did their damage against the Leafs. Meeting the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals, Toronto was gassed from their seven game battle with the Sharks and would fall to Vancouver in 5-games.
All in all, the “OV-Line” tallied an astounding 38-points as a line in 14-playoff games. Though they did not make it past the second round of the playoffs, Sergei Makarov still finished 10th place overall in playoff goal scoring for the 1994 playoffs, while Igor Larionov would finish tied for 7th place in playoff assists and 9th for points. In fact, through his first two rounds of the playoffs, Larionov would tally the same amount of points (18) as eventual playoff scoring leader and playoff MVP, Brian Leetch, would have through his own first two rounds.
Sadly, the “OV-Line” would be very short lived. Though San Jose’s playoff success would be repeated the following season in 1994-95, the line would be broken up permanently after a March 1995 trade saw Johan Garpenlov sent to the Florida Panthers. 1994-95 would be Sergei Makarov’s last season in San Jose, becoming an assistant coach for the Russian national team for 1995-96. Igor Larionov would have many more superb seasons in the NHL, playing until the age of 43 and winning Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
Though they played together for only one full season, the “OV-Line” should not be forgotten. They brought excitement, history and winning ways to a brand new franchise in a non-traditional hockey market. They were pure fun to watch; plain and simple. And they demonstrated one of those enjoyable rarities in sports; the aged underdogs rising up and defeating the heavily favored powerhouses. Makar-OV, Larion-OV, and Garpenl-OV – they were truly a line for the ages.