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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“Adversity builds character”: Robert Cimetta, former Boston Bruin/Toronto Maple Leaf

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First round draft choice Robert Cimetta was just 18-years old when he debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1989. (Photo credit: National Hockey League).

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.

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Robert Cimetta was a member of Team Canada’s 1989 World Junior hockey team in Anchorage, Alaska and led the team in scoring. (Photo Credit: Hockey 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.

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While in Boston, Robert Cimetta further learned the game from veterans like Hall of Fame great, Ray Bourque.

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.

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Cimetta playing for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

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”.

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Unfortunately, injuries would take their toll on Cimetta’s hockey career. (Photo credit: Tony Bock).

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.

 

A few words with: John Blue, former Bruins/Sabres goaltender

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John Blue, #1, would appear as an NHL goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins throughout 46-regular season games.

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”.

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John Blue would spend the bulk of his NHL career as a Boston Bruin, backing up veterans Andy Moog and Jon Casey.

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!”.

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John Blue would be assigned jersey number-#1 throughout his brief career in Buffalo; the same number once worn by legendary Sabres goaltender, Roger Crozier.

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.

 

Andy Moog: not to be overlooked

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A 3-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers, Andy Moog is too often overlooked for his accomplishments on the ice.

In front of him during his 18 NHL seasons was a long list of Hall of Fame caliber teammates. Gretzky. Messier. Fuhr. Kurri. Bourque. Recchi. Neely. Modano. Nieuwendyk. So many other names, that the 1990 Jennings Trophy and 3-time Stanley Cup winning goalie, Andy Moog, often gets overlooked. Closing in on twenty years since his last NHL game, Moog’s accomplishments to the game of hockey are nearly forgotten. This is a shame in my eyes. Not only because Moog was always one of my favorite goaltenders, but also because I believe his achievements are noteworthy. The argument could even be made that what Moog did on the ice should make him a consideration for Hall of Fame candidacy.

I will focus on a couple of key numbers. First, and perhaps the most remarkable – Andy Moog was the second fastest goaltender in NHL history to record 300-wins. It took Moog only until his 543rd game to reach this feat. The only goaltender that did it faster was the great Jacques Plante. But what makes this achievement so much more significant is the fact that Moog never played more than 62-games in a season, and only 5-times did he play at least 50-games in a season during his 18-year run. Plante, on the other hand, had 9-seasons of at least 50-games played, including the 1961-62 season when he suited up for all 70 of Montreal’s games (Plante also played in 69 of 70 games of the 1959-60 NHL season).

Take a look at a few particular contemporaries of Moog’s that are also members of the 300-win club. Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph, Eddie Belfour. All five goaltenders played during the same era as Moog, have at least 300-wins and in some cases well over 400-wins (Brodeur leading the pack with an astonishing 691), and all had at least one season where they played in 70 or more games. Moog still reached 300 career wins faster than any of them. Of these same contemporaries, only Brodeur and Hasek have better career win percentages than Moog; Andy having won 52.17% of his career regular season games. No matter how you splice it, to recognize that Moog was able to hit this milestone faster than anyone else except for one other goaltender, and in less games, has to count for something.

The other number that I would like to pinpoint about Andy Moog is career appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not only did Moog win three Stanley Cups during the Edmonton Oilers dynasty years (Moog was a member of Edmonton’s championship teams in 1984, 1985 and 1987), but he also played in the Finals on three other occasions. In fact, between 1983 through 1990, only two years did a team make it to the Stanley Cup Finals that did not have Andy Moog as one of their goaltenders. Only former teammate Grant Fuhr equaled that task of six Finals appearances during the same time period. Fuhr and Moog being teammates for the first four Finals series together in Edmonton (1983, 1984, 1985, 1987), and then adversaries for the later two (1988 and 1990). Moog tended goal for a total of 15 Stanley Cup Finals games, and although his record in those games played is not ideal (3-wins, 10-losses), Moog still has his name inscribed on the Cup three times as a player.

How quickly he surmounted 300 career wins and the number of appearances in the Finals are what I find to be most impressive about Moog’s NHL career. But most certainly, there are other numbers of Andy’s that can be looked at and appreciated. Fast approaching twenty years since his last NHL game, Moog still sits at 15th place for all-time career wins with 372. That is more wins than Hockey Hall of Fame enshrined goalies Gump Worsley, Harry Lumley, Billy Smith, Bernie Parent or Ken Dryden.

Playing during a time period when goal scoring was at its most prolific, Moog still possesses a solid career save percentage. In 713 regular season games, Moog finished his career with a .892 save-percentage. You have to take into consideration that this number was attained throughout seasons when opposing players like Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux were scoring over 80-goals a season, and Bernie Nicholls, Teemu Selanne, and Alexander Mogilny were surpassing the 70-goal plateau (obviously I did not count Moog’s teammates during a portion of this era, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri who put up astronomical numbers themselves).

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In between the pipes for the Boston Bruins, Andy Moog would win the Jennings Trophy with Rejean Lemelin for fewest goals allowed during the regular season.

Andy Moog was also an NHL All-Star in 1985 and 1986 when both he and Grant Fuhr were selected together as goaltending teammates, as well as selections in 1991 and 1997. In an era before NHL players were allowed to play in the Winter Olympics, Andy Moog shared the goaltending duties for Team Canada during the 1988 Calgary Olympics and helped lead Canada to a fourth-place finish, after he decided to leave the NHL briefly in 1987 to play for the Canadian national team. These are just a couple other achievements of Moog’s that I feel are worth noting.

This is what often happens when you play on great teams. Superb players like Andy Moog fall into the backdrop. In Edmonton, there were just too many great names during those dynasty teams and everybody remembers Grant Fuhr as the cornerstone in goal. Moog gets forgotten. Especially because Fuhr became the frontrunner in net for the Oilers, and at best for Andy, he and Fuhr were a tandem; it was never really the case that Moog was the number one guy while the Oilers were winning Cups; it was either Fuhr or the duties were shared.

In Boston, Moog’s heroics were kept out of the limelight by the accolades achieved by Bruin superstars Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, not to mention the fact that once again the goaltender duties were shared concurrently with Rejean Lemelin, although this time Moog had the edge towards being number one. Then in Dallas and in Montreal, Moog was certainly the number one goalie, but it was achieved during the final leg of his long career. Moog put up very solid numbers with both the Stars and the Canadiens, but I think arguably his best years in the game had already been played by that point.

Yes, this is what happens when you play on great teams. I think Ken Dryden experienced it in Montreal playing behind Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey and all those great Habs players. I think that Chris Osgood can also relate from his time with the Detroit Red Wings teams of the late-90s and 2000s. Most people do not even know that Osgood is in eleventh place on the all time wins list by a goaltender and that he reached the 400-mark.

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In his final NHL season, Andy Moog suited up for the Montreal Canadiens.

I hope that in writing this I can at least draw some attention back to Andy Moog and what he accomplished during his NHL career. Do not overlook him. I remember seeing Andy in net in Buffalo at the old Aud on November 15th, 1995 when he was with the Dallas Stars. The Sabres won the game 2-1 (it was also the same night that “The French Connection’s” jerseys were retired in unison), but Moog turned in a decent 17-save performance for a 0.895 save-percentage that evening. Sitting in the stands with my father, I felt fortunate that I was getting to see Andy Moog play in person. I hope that anyone else who got to witness him play, whether as a fan, teammate, rival, coach, or official, feels at least a little privileged to have seen Moog play. Or at the very least, is able to recognize that they were witnessing a player who was better than most. Not to be overlooked.

Coming up short: Brian Propp…

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In a 15-year NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Minnesota North Stars, and Hartford Whalers, Brian Propp made it to the Stanley Cup Finals five times only to come up short on each occasion.

What do you say for those players who came so close to a Stanley Cup championship, only to have lost? Even harder, what can you say for those players who came so close, only to lost three, four, even five times?! Few would know better what it feels like to lose in the Stanley Cup Finals than 15-year NHL veteran and 1,000-point scorer Brian Propp. After all, Brian Propp made it to the championship round FIVE times in his career, and each time came up short.

The 14th-overall pick in the 1979 NHL draft, Brian Propp made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in his rookie season as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. Propp played in all 80-regular season games for the Flyers that year, as well as all 19-playoff games. As a rookie, Propp finished third overall in team scoring with 75-points (34-goals, 41-assists) during the regular season, and tallied another 15 (5-goals, 10-assists) during Philly’s run to the Finals. The Flyers were laden with high-energy youngsters like Propp that season, but would fall to the New York Islanders in six games in the Stanley Cup Finals; it would be the first of four consecutive championships for New York.

Certainly not a bad set of circumstances at the time for Propp. Making it to the Finals in only his rookie season, most youngsters might take the experience for granted and think that achieving a Stanley Cup championship might be easier than expected and happen with some regularity. But for Brian Propp it would not be the case. Propp would make it all the way to the Finals round two more times as a Philadelphia Flyer; once again in 1985 when they would be backstopped by the late Swedish goaltending phenom Pelle Lindbergh, and then in a 1987 seven-game heart breaker in which their own goaltender, Ron Hextall, would win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, despite being the losing netminder. Both Finals losses coming at the hands of the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers dynasty.

I suppose in some ways for Propp it may have felt like three-strikes and out. Propp would move on from the Philadelphia Flyers via a mid-season trade with the Boston Bruins in March of 1990 for a 2nd-round draft pick. In less than a season with his new team, Propp would find “immediate” success once again, as the Bruins, backstopped by the eventual Jennings Trophy winning goaltending tandem of Andy Moog and Rejean Lemelin, and the eventual Norris Trophy winning defenseman Ray Bourque, would make it to the Stanley Cup Finals; a fourth time for Brian Propp. In 20-playoff games, Propp would chip in 4-goals and 9-assists. For a fourth time though, it was all for naught – Boston would be knocked off in 5-games by the Edmonton Oilers who would win their fifth Stanley Cup. The 5-game series was extremely lopsided with Propp’s Bruins mustering a mere 8-goals in the series while Edmonton exploded for 20. Propp himself would go pointless in the series.

Propp’s fifth and final shot at a Stanley Cup ring would be right around the corner. The following season, his first as a member of the Minnesota North Stars, Propp finished third in team scoring during the regular season by tallying 26-goals and 47-assists in 79-games. Of the 16-teams that qualified for the playoffs in the 1990-91 season, the North Stars finished 15th and went on a Cindrella-esque run. Averaging a point per game during the playoffs (23-games, 8-goals, 15-assists, 23-points), Propp was one of the driving forces behind Minnesota’s improbable run. And despite a strong level of experience from other veterans like Bobby Smith, Neal Broten, Stew Gavin, and Curt Giles, the North Stars would prove no match for Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins who would claim the Stanley Cup in Minnesota during Game Six.

Brian Propp certainly played his heart out to win the Stanley Cup; he just came up short. If you add up the totals of the five Finals series that Propp played in you can certainly appreciate the effort, at the very least. Propp played in a total of 29 Stanley Cup Finals games, and recording 10-goals and 12-assists for 22-points. His best effort would be the 1987 Finals series, when Brian led the Philadelphia Flyers in scoring for the Finals with 9-points (4-goals, 5-assists) in 7-games.

In one’s own heart and mind, how can it be resolved to come so close on five separate occasions only to come up short? If I was in Brian Propp’s shoes I may have a difficult time reconciling this with myself. But Propp also had a very successful NHL career. In over 1,000 regular season games, he averaged nearly a point per game; 1,004-points in 1,016-games. Propp played in the NHL All-Star Game in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1990. Propp also holds the NHL records for most career playoff power play goals, most career playoff assists, and most career playoff points all by a left-winger. Those are all noteworthy accomplishments in a lengthy career.

While he never got to raise the Stanley Cup, nor was his name ever inscribed for permanent display, it would be tough to say that Brian Propp did not have a superb career. I think of the Buffalo Bills losing four straight Super Bowls in a row. At the time, it is heartbreaking if not downright embarrassing. But as the years pass and more time to reflect has gone by, to make it to a championship series five times is remarkable for any athlete, in any sport, win or lose. Brian Propp, you were one of the elite competitors of your sport.