“Every Step”: A Conversation with Lorne Stamler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stamler mixing it up in front of the Chicago net with defenseman Mike O’Connell and goaltending great Tony Esposito (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

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

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

 

About Time: a Stanley Cup for Dainius Zubrus

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After 19-seasons in the NHL, San Jose’s Dainius Zubrus truly deserves to have his name on the Stanley Cup (Photo Credit: AP Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez).

With the Los Angeles King now safely eliminated by the hands of the San Jose Sharks, and with no obviously imminent playoff disaster in sight, I feel that I can safely say who I am personally rooting for in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs – veteran Dainius Zubrus of the Sharks. I am a hockey traditionalist, and with less and less ties to the NHL’s game of the 1990s and prior, I always get a pang in my heart for seeing long time veterans getting their name on the Stanley Cup for the first time. Last year for me it was Chicago’s Kimmo Timonen. This year, it has got to be Zubrus.

It is almost difficult to fathom that the 37-year old Lithuanian has been a regular in the NHL since the 1996-97 season. How time does fly. Zubrus actually was a part of a run to the Stanley Cup Finals as an NHL rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers, who would fall in four games straight to the Detroit Red Wings. In the 1997 Finals, the 18-year old Zubrus would go pointless in the series, and would finish a minus-4.

I first became enamored with Dainius Zubrus when he briefly joined my hometown Buffalo Sabres, coming at the trade deadline during the 2006-07 season in exchange for seldom used Jiri Novotny and a 1st-round draft choice. Though I had seen Zubrus play many times prior, even in person from time to time, I had never paid him much mind until he wore Buffalo’s blue and gold. I could then see firsthand what he brought to his hockey club from night to night. Zubrus is a very large man, standing at 6-feet 5-inches and weighing 225-pounds. He is incredibly strong along the boards and in the corners. Zubrus ended up playing 19-regular season games with Buffalo that year, recording 4-goals and 4-assists to add to his point totals from earlier in the season with the Washington Capitals who had traded him to the Sabres; he finished the year with a very solid 24-goals and 36-assists for 60-points across 79-total games between Washington and Buffalo.

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Dainius Zubrus swatting for a loose puck against Vancouver. (Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/GettyImages).

But where I was most amazed with Zubrus that season was how fierce he played during the Sabres’ playoff run that saw them make it all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals for the second year in a row. In 15-playoff games that season, Zubrus seemed to hit everything that moved, constantly throwing his imposing frame at the opposition, especially when fighting for the puck around the net. Despite knowing that Zubrus had immense size, I never had realized previously that he was the furthest thing from being a soft player. By no means did he fit the European stereotype that I immensely hate and am often infuriated by its implications. Zubrus is a prime example of how false that stereotype is. While he did not score a goal during Buffalo’s playoff run, he did put up 8-helpers for his team that postseason; third most on the Sabres behind Danny Briere and Tim Connolly. But he also played inspired, devil-may-care hockey, and that seemed to make an enormous difference for Buffalo’s push throughout the playoffs. I had greatly hoped that Buffalo would recognize how much of a positive difference having Zubrus on their roster would be and that they would decide to keep him in the offseason, but it was not to be. Dainius would end up signing with the New Jersey Devils that July, and would remain with them for 8-years.

Fifteen years after his rookie run, Zubrus would have a second shot at winning Lord Stanley’s Cup, this time with New Jersey. The 2011-12 Devils were led by the explosive firepower of sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as veterans Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, David Clarkson, Petr Sykora and Zubrus, all of whom hit double-digits in goals. 33-years old at the time, Dainius Zubrus appeared in all 82-regular season games that season for the Devils (17-goals, 27-assists, 44-points) and all 24-playoff games as well (3-goals, 7-assists, 10-points). Despite the strong push from New Jersey’s offense and their ageless goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, the Devils would lose in the Cup Finals to the Los Angeles Kings, falling 4-games to 2. In the 6-game Finals series, Zubrus would finish with 1-assist and as a minus-1. In 15-years, he would fall significantly short in both Stanley Cup Finals appearances.

After the 2014-15 season, his last in New Jersey, I had feared that Dainius Zubrus’ career was over. In July 2015, the Devils placed Zubrus on waivers, with the intent of terminating his contract. Then, after being invited to a late-October tryout with the St. Louis Blues, he would fail to earn himself a contract after the Blues decided to sign another veteran instead, Martin Havlat. Fortunately though, San Jose Sharks’ General Manager Doug Wilson, who is well-known to be a willing participant in giving veteran players the opportunity to extend their careers (i.e. Sandis Ozolinsh, Claude Lemieux), decided to offer Zubrus a tryout of his own on November 16th, 2015,and then signing him to contract a mere 8-days later.

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After being released of opportunities to play with New Jersey and St. Louis since this past summer, an opportunity to win the Cup with San Jose is maybe Zubrus’ final chance to do so (Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports).

In 50-games this current 2015-16 season with the Sharks, Zubrus has recorded 3-goals and 4-assists; the lowest point total of his 19 NHL seasons, although he would finish the season as a plus-4. And while he was also a healthy scratch for the five games of the Sharks’ opening round defeat over the Kings, I feel content in knowing that Zubrus played enough games during the regular season to qualify for having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup should the San Jose Sharks finally get the monkey off their back and win it all for the very first time.

And that’s what I want. For I believe that if a player like Dainius Zubrus devotes 19-years to playing in the greatest hockey league in the world (it would have been 20-years if it were not for the lockout), then he deserves to finally have him name placed on the Stanley Cup. It would be a storybook ending, both for Zubrus and for the Sharks. San Jose has three players – Zubrus, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau – who having been playing in the NHL since the 1990s. I suppose that I could have even highlighted Marleau or Thornton instead of Zubrus, but Marleau and Thornton have also won Olympic gold medals and neither really had to worry about not being on an NHL roster this season. Zubrus on the other hand was close to going three strikes and out since the summer after failing to gain a spot with either New Jersey or St. Louis previously. He instead had demonstrate his workhorse capabilities once more, despite having 37-year old legs, in order to garner a spot on the Sharks roster. And now, he has earned himself one more, possibly final, opportunity to win the Cup. So as these 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs continue, and with the first round underneath their belts, I finally feel comfortable announcing that I want the Sharks to win it all. For San Jose. For Marleau and Thornton. And for Dainius Zubrus.

“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.

 

“Until the very end”: Refika Yilmaz, Team Turkey

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Refika Yilmaz, 25-year old captain for Turkey’s women’s national ice hockey team. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

I can clearly picture her in my mind’s eye; a young girl, in-line skating in the orange haze of the Turkish sun. Alongside boys, firing balls and pucks from morning to night. Needing to move, needing to be active, and loving to skate. Her country, Turkey, is a most beautiful one; welcoming to foreigners with its delicious food, kindhearted people, and historic atmosphere. I know firsthand, having spent 2-weeks there myself in the Autumn of 2006. But it would hardly seem to be a place where you would come across a young athletic girl who was totally enthused with the game of hockey. In a land of Mediterranean sun and what seems to be eons worth of history, what is routinely called “Canada’s game” would not come to mind. Contrary to that thought though, I meet the inspiring captain of the Turkish national women’s ice hockey team, Refika Yilmaz.

While she is 25-years old now, Yilmaz started playing in-line hockey with boys at the age of 12. Born in the capital city of Ankara, Turkey,  she has been highly active from her youth to this very day. “My childhood was full of sports”, she tells me. “I would never stay in one place for a long time without moving. After school, I was always going to play football (soccer), or doing cycling, or in-line skating, or playing in-line hockey. I’m still the same now”. I tell Yilmaz that I am both amazed and proud of her when she informs me that she currently runs 8 to 14-kilometers everyday as part of a normal workout routine, but mostly for her own enjoyment. “I love running, and I want to attend some long distance races. In May, I will be doing a race in Izmir called ‘Wings for Life'”. I do not even know how Yilmaz finds the time, as she is currently preparing to move to Munich, Germany, so that she can complete courses for earnining her Masters degree at Cologne University.

From the start of our interaction though, I still cannot shake the question over how a young girl in Turkey could come across the game of ice hockey. Yilmaz elaborates for me on how it came about. “Actually, I was playing in-line hockey with boys at the time. A player from the ice hockey league saw me, and wanted me to come play ice hockey because I was the only girl who was there playing with the boys. During these years, they were looking at starting a women’s ice hockey league and were trying to gain interest and find players. So I started playing ice hockey”. Playing space would be extremely limited for Yilmaz and her new found sport, and she and her mates really had to make the most out of what was to be had. “In Ankara there were not many opportunities to play ice hockey. There is actually just one Olympic size rink, and all of the hockey teams were having to go there so that they could practice; even as much as two or three teams at the same time. We would divide the rink itself into two or three parts, depending on how many teams there were, and then doing 40 to 45-minute practices as much as two or three times a week. Unfortunately, this rink has since been closed and there are no other rinks of this size in Ankara; just small ones to do smaller practices. Most teams cannot even do practices now in Ankara. I really hope that an ice rink will open up soon and teams will be able to start doing practices again”, Yilmaz pines. Relaying this to me, I am even more amazed that the opportunity for her to play ever came about; certainly not under the easiest of circumstances.

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Team captain, Refika Yilmaz, shaking hands with the opposing captain. (Photo provided courtesy of Rafika Yilmaz).

Wanting to get a better understanding of how thoroughly she is acquainted with the game, I ask Yilmaz to tell me about her hockey heroes. We find common ground quite quickly when the answer ends up being the legendary Jaromir Jagr.”I love him as a player because he has such great skill! I am sure that he is going to continue to play like a ‘young player’ until the end. Jagr has a great sense of humor too. When he is on the ice, I can’t stop watching him without smiling”. Even though Yilmaz is now a veteran, even at 25-years of age, she still has stars in her eyes over her hockey hero. “I really hope that I’ll have an opportunity to meet him!”. When considering her own longevity, he inspires her even more so. “I want to play for the national team as long as I can. I think that I will continue to play until the very end, just like Jaromir Jagr”.

For Refika Yilmaz, the magnitude of playing for her country is so much bigger than what it means in her own heart, even as the team’s captain. “Representing my country is the biggest honor of my life. Because I am representing my family, all of my friends, all the people whom I have never met, all of the people that live throughout the country, from border to border. When I step onto the ice wearing the national team jersey, I know that I am note there are ‘Refika’; I am on the ice as Turkey”.

Being team captain provides Refika with additional responsibilities that she does not shy away from. The responsibility to be that additional support her teammates need, and recognizing the struggles that can occur individually. “We are athletes. And in my opinion, athletes are emotional human beings, and many different environmental situations can affect an athlete; sometimes we can’t play as we do every time. When I see that one of us is not in a good mood, I try to talk with her one on one, face to face first. If that doesn’t work, we work to help each other and the sisterhood goes on”.

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Refika Yilmaz at the 2016 Women’s Division II-B World Championships in Spain. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

There is definitely a mental aspect to every game, and the mindset of Yilmaz and her teammates has to be understood. It is all about your point of view and approach to the games mentally. “Before games, we know that we will just play for 20-minutes multiplied by three times that we give everything for this game. I remind my team about that. We made many sacrifices to come to this level. Sometimes we didn’t go to school, didn’t see our families, didn’t see our friends – there was no social life. Just hockey. But within those three sets of 20-minutes, that is the time that we get our reward for all of those sacrifices”.

Sacrifices such as these are what led Yilmaz and her Turkish teammates to finish in first place for the 2015 Division II-B qualification, thus securing a spot and promotion to the 2016 Women’s World Division II-B Championships which were held in Spain from February 29th through March 6th, 2016. But it was through the qualifier games in Hong Kong in February 2015 that saw Yilmaz’s leadership skills come through while she was at her very best on the ice. Going 3-and-0 in the qualification games, Turkey’s women defeated Bulgaria, South Africa and Hong Kong. In the 3-games, Yilmaz recorded 5-assists and a was a plus-7.

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Team Turkey at the 2016 Women’s Division II-B World Championships in Spain. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

Unfortunately for Yilmaz and Team Turkey, the tournament this past March in Spain would not go as well. Turkey would lose all five tournament games, suffering a very lopsided goal differential of minus-32; having only registered 8-tournament goals as a team. But the important thing to realize is that Yilmaz and her teammates had made it into newfound territory for Team Turkey – the women’s national team had never made it this far before in international play. They learned from this experience and know what to expect going forward. And like newfound territory, it can be revisited, worked upon and improved upon. Refika Yilmaz knows that she and her teammates gave it their all and that they will continue to do so. “I just tried to do my best for my team and for my country. I am so proud of my team. From beginning to end. And I will be proud of us for my whole life long. The first place in the qualification championship was our first experience with this, and the best thing that we have done to this point. We were believing in each other. We love each other as a person first, then as teammates. Like sisters. Before and after games, we were talking about our mistakes and each game we tried to correct them”.

Yilmaz has some wise words, and has a strong understanding of how to guide a team that is still very much in its infancy in international competition. After all though, she has been doing it for quite sometime. “When I was 16-years old, I heard that the Federation would be choosing its first women’s national hockey team, and that we would have tryouts and elimination for roster spots on the team. You can’t believe how much I was doing at practices to be a good player and to be part of our first national team! Wanting to represent my country and wear my national team jersey. I was doing practices with boys and girls, it didn’t even matter, from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. I was attending any practices that I could find. It was my biggest passion, and I was playing with the same passion that I am with now. I just really wanted it and I got it. At 16, I was the youngest player on the national team”. Laughing, Yilmaz ponders, “Maybe I’m old now?… No, I’m still young”.

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Refika Yilmaz controlling the puck, fending off an attacker. (Photo provided courtesy of Refika Yilmaz).

Yilmaz’s enthusiasm for women’s ice hockey in her country is both obvious and contagious. I get caught up in her strong sense of pride for her country and for her teammates, and I really want to see this program foster throughout Turkey. Maybe especially because I have been there before, and caught a glimpse of the national pride that individuals like Refika Yilmaz imbue. I ask her about how the sport can be grown amongst a younger generation of Turkish girls. “There are many projects that could be run to go about this. First, we need ice rinks. I heard that there are to be some ice rinks built in Ankara, or at least around Turkey. I really hope that we see them soon. But for young girls, we don’t necessarily have to have an Olympic-sized rink. If it is too much, we can have many smaller sized rinks for beginners, or near elementary schools, or schools that wish to bring students to the rink to learn fundamental skating skills. Secondly, the Turkish Ice Hockey Federation can arrange meetings between the public and ice hockey players. Each player of a team can go to a university or a school, and can give a presentation about ice hockey. After some theoretical and practical knowledge, I think many people will have an interest in ice hockey, because ice hockey is one of the most impressive sports in the world”.

I believe that Yilmaz is definitely onto something here. The sport can be grown by spreading knowledge and information. I would be willing to bet that most Turkish people know very little about ice hockey, and likely have never seen it played. But if you can assign a spokesperson, ideally Refika Yilmaz herself, who is knowledgeable and passionate about the sport, but is also very articulate and engaging, possessing a strong belief in the building blocks for growing the sport she loves, I think that the way her plan is envisioned, it is already bound to work. Seeing how much pride Refika and her teammates have in their hockey team and in their country, I WANT this program to grow. For them. And for hockey.

Refika, keep doing your thing! Keep growing ice hockey in Turkey. It’ll work. For many years to come.

 

 

The Fighting Dane: Debbie Andersen

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16-year old ball of fire for Team Denmark, Debbie Andersen taking the face-off draw. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

These days, the game of hockey stretches to all corners of the earth, and particularly throughout the European Union. While its Scandinavian brethren Sweden and Finland have long been hockey hotbeds, the game has also been embedding its roots into the country of Denmark. This current 2015-16 NHL season has seen seven Danish players crack NHL lineups, including regulars like Anaheim goaltender Frederik Andersen, Colorado’s Mikkel Boedker, the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen and Montreal’s Lars Eller. Possessing a strong interest in the women’s game, it makes me wonder as to whether women’s hockey has much of a presence in Denmark as well. I end up meeting a 16-year old ball of fire for Denmark’s national U-18 team, forward Debbie Andersen.

“My favorite hockey player is Sidney Crosby”, Debbie tells me. I am sure that even the NHL would be impressed to know that an aspiring 16-year old female hockey player in Denmark calls the face of their game her favorite NHL player. “My favorite team is the New York Rangers”, she says; even better. But Debbie has her own personal heroes too that fall a bit closer to home. “There is also a player on my team who never gives up, and I really look up to him; I want to be better than him someday; his name is Joah (Aalling)”. Debbie and Joah play for Denmark’s Aarhus IK hockey club. Speaking more about Joah, it is obvious that Debbie knows that in order to succeed in hockey and to remain at a successful level, she needs to work on her game constantly. “He is a player who wants hockey more than anyone else that I’ve ever met. He makes me want to fight even harder, and that is what makes a ‘favorite’ player in my eyes”, she expounds. “He trains six times a week and shoots pucks daily, and I’ve started to do that also. I get inspiration from him that I have not really gotten from anyone else other than my coaches”.

Located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, Debbie lives in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, which is also where her hockey club is from. The second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus’ own hockey club is not far from where she lives at all. “There are not many hockey clubs in Denmark, and most are pretty far away from where I live, but in Aarhus it only takes me five minutes to get to training. But if I play or train in another place, it usually takes me one or two hours to get there by car”.

Debbie began playing hockey at eleven years old, and has played as a forward right from the get-go. “Forward is my favorite position, because I’m a fighter *she laughs*, and I want to be the one who makes the goals and assists; I’ve always wanted to play forward for that particular reason”. I suppose that in a family where she is the only girl with three brothers, two of whom are hockey players as well, Debbie would indeed be a bit of a scrapper both on the ice and at home. Though Debbie does credit one of her brothers for starting her interest in playing. “My brother saw a hockey movie at school, came home and said, ‘Mom, I want to play hockey too; it looks like fun!’. I went with my brother and my mom down to the hockey hall to register him and me too, and since then I’ve never left the ice!”.

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Debbie Andersen being mobbed by her teammates after a Denmark goal. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

Her fighting spirit is what Debbie believes is the most important part of her game, and something that she would extend to other players wishing to learn the game as well. “I think that the most important thing for a hockey player is fighting!”, though she does not mean fisticuffs or brawling; more so, approaching the game with tenacity and ferociousness. “Fight for every puck. Fight against every opposing player. And never give up on that. Be there for your teammates and support them, just like you would want to be supported”. I love this spirit that Andersen embodies. She is that type of player that fits the old adage; you love having her on your team, but would hate playing against her. Andersen is a disturber to the opposition, battling in corners and creating scoring chances both for herself and for her teammates.

This “junkyard dog” style of play and her “never give up”-attitude are what garnered Debbie’s nomination for the Danish U-18 national team that competed in January 2016 at the IIHF Women’s World U-18 Division-I Championships that were held in Miskolc, Hungary. Denmark had actually earned entrance into the tournament by finishing first in the 2015 Division-I Qualification which took place in Poland. For Debbie Andersen, being selected to play for her country was the most meaningful experience of her young life thus far, though it took her strong sense of diligence and commitment to attain it. “All girls who were playing hockey in Jutland were invited to a training camp run by the national team coaches. After several trials with the team, they decided to bring me along for a tryout with the entire national team. They have not kept me off the team since, and I have just continued to fight and work hard to keep my spot on the roster”. There is that fighting spirit again from her. I like the fact that Debbie humbly acknowledges that there are no guarantees, and that if she wants to continue to represent her country and play the game she loves, that she cannot slow her pace; she has to continue being committed.

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Debbie standing tall on the Team Denmark bench during the 2016 Division-I U-18 Women’s World Championships in Hungary (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

But for at least 2016’s version of Denmark’s U-18 team, the hard work was all worth it and something that she will be able to revel in forever. “My favorite memory was when the team and I put our equipment on for the first time and our jerseys. You are just so happy to know that you are one of just a handful of girls who is going to fight for your country. After that, the next biggest memory was the first goal we scored as a team in the tournament”. Denmark’s first goal would come in their third game of the tournament, scored by Andersen’s teammate Michelle Almquist, during a 3-1 loss to Germany. “They were both memories that I will never forget”, Andersen tells me. “It was just so big for me, that even now I will sometimes feel a tear running out of my eye. I was just so proud!”. And while Denmark would not muster a win during their five games in the tournament, being able to represent her country is something that will forever belong to Debbie as she continues throughout her hockey career.

And Debbie already has goals for the years ahead. “I really want to play college hockey. I really just want to get to the highest level that a girl can. And then after that, I really want to coach a team of my own someday”. I love knowing that she has these goals, and we then discuss what it will take to get more girls in Denmark interested in hockey; how do we grow the sport from here. To me it seems that Debbie has thought the process out, and has a strong sense of what it will take to promote hockey interest among young Danish girls. “There really aren’t that many girls in Denmark who are interested in hockey”, she says, a little disappointed. “But I think that if girls started to play some hockey in school, and then at home too with their friends, they’ll see that it’s a lot of fun and they’ll want to play too. Make them feel the fun of playing hockey – just like I did”. And she is right. Give them the opportunity to see how much fun this sport is. I recall being a seven year old in Buffalo, whacking a ball around with my hockey stick in our frozen backyard… there is just nothing else like it, and a youngster can easily fall in love with the game.

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The diminutive fireplug for Aarhus IK , Debbie Andersen, fighting for puck possession against a much larger opponent. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

There is no slowing Debbie Andersen down. This young lady is a Tasmanian devil of sorts, at least on the ice and with her dreams for growing women’s hockey in her home country. “I really hope that girls’ hockey can become much more popular”, she almost pleads to me. “Girls’ hockey is just as important as men’s hockey. Yes, we are girls, but we want to play just as much as the men do… at least me!”. I like this kid; she has got superb leadership qualities and some bite to her. I think that if you put Debbie Andersen at the helm of women’s hockey in Denmark, made her a spokesperson of sorts, that she could definitely rally young girls and get them interested in the game. She leads by example, and as this young lady gets a little older and begins playing for the national women’s team, she may very well have inspired a large grouping of young girls to fall in love with the game as well. Go Debbie!

 

 

Stellar goaltending: Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa

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Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa backstopped Team Finland to three bronze medals at the IIHF Women’s World Championships throughout her career.

The first time that I ever saw Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa tending goal was during the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics… and she was simply superb! At just 22-years of age at the time, Hassinen-Sullanmaa and then 16-year old Noora Räty were Team Finland’s exciting young tandem in the nets who backstopped the Finns to a solid fourth-place finish at the Torino Games. I marveled at how well Hassinen-Sullanmaa defended Finland’s net at such a young age, and how she fearlessly faced, even at times stonewalled, powerhouse hockey clubs like Team Canada and Team USA. Facing hall of fame caliber shooters in the likes of Danielle Goyette, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Angela Ruggiero, Hassinen-Sullanmaa held her own in a seemingly insurmountable situation for the Finns. Former US Olympic gold and silver medalist, AJ Mleczko, stated at the time, “Maija Hassinen is a fantastic goalie. She’s young. She’s got a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of youth”. It was that youthful enthusiasm imbued by Maija that caused me to immediately recognize that she was a stellar goaltender.

I first got in contact with Maija in 2008, and have remained in touch with her since that time. Knowing that she recently retired from active play over the summer 2015, I wanted to chat with Maija a bit and reflect upon her remarkable career, both internationally and in her native Finland, and to find out what she is doing these days.

As is the case with most top level hockey players, Hassinen-Sullanmaa began playing organized hockey at a very young age. “I was 6 or 7 when I started playing on a team”, Maija recalls. “I played first with boys as a defender, and after only a few years I started playing as a goalie on a girls team. But always when we were playing just for fun with my friends, I was the goalie. And that’s really where it all started”. To be precise, “where it started” was Maija’s hometown of Hämeenlinna, Finland, which is located in the southern part of her homeland; a town of about 68,000 inhabitants. “Hockey has always been a part of my life”, Maija said.  “I used to go watch the local men’s team play in the Finnish national league since I was a little kid. There were quite a lot of opportunities to play on teams always, and we played a lot outside with friends as well”.

I enjoy hearing Maija recall her memories of playing hockey outside as a kid. For isn’t that where hockey always seems to be rooted? No matter if I am considering my own childhood playing on the streets of Buffalo, New York USA, or talking to a Québecois winger hailing from Montreal, or an Ontario-born netminder out of the suburbs of Toronto, or even a stalwart defender from the heart of Russia, or a Finnish born goalie like Hassinen-Sullanmaa, that is the one common thread – hockey as a kid outdoors is magical. And growing up in Finland for Maija it was no different. I like knowing that this common ground exists among those who love the game of hockey, regardless of the countries we are born in.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa would find it a great honor to represent her country at both the Olympics and the World Championships.

Maija had her heroes as well. As a young female goalie who was born in the 1980s, it is likely no surprise that one of those heroes was the first woman to play in the NHL (albeit a preseason game), Canadian goaltender Manon Rhéaume, who also represented her country on the international stage, and had a taste of the NHL with preseason appearances in net for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Rheaume won gold medals for the IIHF Women’s World Championships in 1992 and 1994, as well as an Olympic silver medal in 1998 at the Nagano Games. Maija also idolized another former Canadian goaltender, Andrew Verner, who backstopped her hometown Hämeenlinna HPK in the mid-1990s. Verner being a former draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers, and a standout in the Ontario Hockey League with the Peterborough Petes. Like Verner, Maija would also end up playing for the Hämeenlinna HPK women’s team as she grew up and progressed as a goaltender.

Recalling her stellar performance at the 2006 Torino Olympics, I came to ask Maija how the opportunity to play for the Finnish national team came about. “During the 2004-05 season (at the time she was playing for Finnish team Ilves Tampere), I was called for the first time to attend the camp for national team. And then the next season I was included on the team for the first time in Torino”. But while my recollections of Hassinen-Sullanmaa from the Torino Games are certainly memorable for me, they completely pale in comparison to what it would mean for her to play for her country, and especially what it would mean for her future in her personal life. “Well, it was amazing of course. It’s such an honor to play in the Olympics and represent your country. It was great to be able to play a lot, but a big disappointment to finish fourth. But a big thing for me from the Torino Olympics is that I met my husband there at the games”.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa would play 7-years for her hometown hockey club, Hämeenlinna HPK.

Despite facing powerhouse shooters from both Canada and the United States at Torino, Hassinen-Sullanmaa still put together very respectable numbers for the tournament. In four games, Maija would put up a .875 save-percentage to go along with a 3.38 goals against average and a total of 77-saves at Torino. When looking at these numbers, one needs to consider the attacking strength of both USA and Canada, and the disparity in scoring for teams like Finland when compared to either of those two dominant teams. The fact that Maija’s numbers were as sound as they were after having faced both of those teams is very remarkable. But though her individual performance was very solid, Hassinen-Sullanmaa and Team Finland would fall to the United States 4-0 in the bronze medal game of the tournament, and settle for the fourth place finish.

Though Torino would not turn out as she would have hoped, Maija would eventually find success in playing for her country, including a bronze medal she attained in front of her own hometown. For the games of the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships, Maija would backstop Finland to bronze medal victories in 2008 in China, 2009 in Finland and 2011 in Switzerland. “It’s been great to be a part of Team Finland for any event, and of course, especially for the ones where we won a bronze medal. The 2009 championships were a special occasion for me as they were held in Hämeenlinna, my hometown”.

Between the Torino Olympics and four World Championship tournaments, Maija would appear in 9-games for her country, compiling a 0.828 save-percentage within those four tournaments, as well as a 3.12 goals-against average. “I am proud of every time that I’ve had the chance to represent Finland, especially in the Olympics”.

Separate from the international stage, Hassinen-Sullanmaa would play 12-years in the top women’s hockey league in Finland, SM-sarja, of which the final 7-years saw her playing for her hometown club, Hämeenlinna HPK. Perhaps her most memorable season would come during 2010-2011 when Maija backstopped HPK to the national title. Maija was absolutely phenomenal that season, appearing in 15-regular season games and putting up astounding numbers with her 1.44 goals against average and .948 save-percentage that season. Maija’s incredible play continued through the playoffs on HPK‘s championship run, as she would appear in 6 more games with a slightly better 1.42 goals against and a .929 save-percentage.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa celebrating a Hämeenlinna HPK victory.

For those 12-years that she competed in the Finnish national league, Hassinen-Sullanmaa’s career numbers will make you do a double-take. Only once during her career did she put up a regular season save-percentage below a .915-percent, and that came during her very first season. On four different occasions her season ending tallies for save-percentage were above .940. Likewise, in the playoffs only twice did she ever fall below a .900 save-percentage for a season, and again, one of those was during her very first national league season. Those numbers speak volumes as to Maija’s success and longevity playing a high level of hockey for over a decade.

During the summer of 2015, Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa would officially retire from playing hockey and move into coaching with Hämeenlinna HPK. When I ask her why she opted to retire when she is still relatively young and was still putting up great numbers, Maija tells me that “I felt that it was time for me to stop and let the younger players have a shot… I’ve been working as an assistant coach for the HPK women’s team, and I am mainly responsible for physical training for the players and helping goalies”. It is nice to see how Maija has moved into a different role where she is still very much involved in the game, and able to impart knowledge and experience into a younger generation of players. “For the younger players, I try to tell them that you’ll have to work hard, but to keep enjoying the game and keep playing”.

Lastly, I ask Maija to tell me how she thinks her teammates from throughout her lengthy career would recall her as a player and as a teammate.”I think they remember me as someone who was really focused, hard-working and competitive”. I would have to agree with Maija’s assessment completely, for I see those same qualities when I look at her playing career as well. And while I know that there is always a time to move on and say goodbye, it makes you a little melancholy in knowing that you will not see a player you admired grace the ice with her presence forever. And as the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Championships get ready to get underway in Kamloops in only a few days, it makes me nostalgic. Team Finland will be playing among the top four teams that comprise Group-A; Canada, the United States and Russia. I pause and wonder how Finland would fare, and how would Hassinen-Sullanmaa fare, if she were to suit up for one more championship tournament with the best women in hockey today.

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Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa, now an assistant coach with Hämeenlinna HPK.

But alas, it is not meant to be and she has moved onto other things. I am glad that Maija found great success in hockey, as well as having found her husband. I am glad that she helps train and sculpt young female players today, and I am glad that she is doing so in her hometown where she played for so many years. It is nice knowing that even though she no longer dons the pads, a catching glove, a blocker and a mask, she is still donning a sense of “focus”, “hard-work”, and “competitive” nature. Great job, Maija! And thank you for the all that you have done for the game and for your country.

 

 

The Consistent One, Steve Brulé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Scoring goals at all levels: a story about Mal Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jacques Mailhot demonstrating his pugilistic skills on the ice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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