Two things impress me the most when I think of my conversation with former Dallas Stars netminder, Mike Torchia. Firstly, how courteous, soft-spoken, and professional he is. Talking hockey with him is a sincere pleasure, and he automatically puts you at ease. Plain and simple – Torchia is a great guy. Secondly, it is how vividly he can recall his hockey career, starting from the time that he was just a young kid, all the way up through the four years of his junior career, his eleven years at the professional level, and into the present with his involvement in the game today. Mike Torchia is perhaps best remembered by NHL fans for his lone season with the Dallas Stars during the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. Personally, I became curious to know more about Mike’s hockey career leading up to that season in the NHL, and to find out what he has been doing since.
Mike Torchia was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Torchia began playing hockey at the age of 4-years old when he first started skating. Up until the age of 7-years old, Torchia had always been a positional player when one day while playing for a Selects hockey club, the team’s goaltender did not show up. Torchia’s coach asked of his players at the time if anyone was willing to suit up in net. Torchia had always been intrigued by the position, and figured that he would give it a go. With Torchia between the pipes, the team would end up winning the game 6-1. From that point forward, Mike Torchia became a goaltender permanently and never played a game as a position player again.
Growing up in Toronto, it was difficult for anyone to be a Leafs fan during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly when it came to cheering on the Leafs’ goaltenders. While Toronto certainly possessed considerable talent on their roster, a winning team never came to fruition for the Leafs. From a goaltender perspective, the Leafs best bet was arguably Mike Palmateer, but he would be traded away in the summer of 1980 to the Washington Capitals. From that point forward, the Toronto Maple Leafs became a revolving door for netminders, with the likes of Jiri Crha, Vincent Tremblay, Jim Rutherford, “Bunny” Larocque, Rick St. Croix, Ken Wregget and a handful of others all seeing time in the Toronto nets; most of whom were regularly averaging between 4.00-5.00 goals allowed average each season.
It would not be hard to understand then why Mike Torchia’s favorite team growing up was the Boston Bruins and the stellar goaltending of Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers, as well as perennial All-Star selection and Vezina Trophy winner Pete Peeters. As the mid-1980s approached, Torchia also came to admire another legendary goaltender, the Montreal Canadiens’ Patrick Roy. For Torchia, a young goalie himself growing up in Toronto, these were his hockey heroes.
Shortly after he had turned 16, Mike Torchia would be drafted by the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers. Torchia would be taken in the second-round of the 1988 OHL Priority Selection draft. The 20th selection overall, Torchia would be selected ahead of the likes of Adam Foote, Owen Nolan, Chris Simon, Jassen Cullimore, Kris Draper, and other longstanding future NHLers. For Torchia, being selected by the Rangers in 1988 would eventually bring many wonderful moments and opportunities to his life; both as a youth hockey player and continuing even to this day.
Mike’s success with Kitchener would be almost immediate. The first two seasons with the Rangers in particular, at the ages of 16 and 17, would be his best of the four years in juniors, at least from his team’s standpoint. The 1989-90 OHL season, his second in the league, would see Mike and the Rangers finish second overall in the Emms Division with a record of 38-21-7. Kitchener had immense firepower, and would lead the OHL in team scoring that season with 358-goals scored; a full 24-goals more than the next highest scoring team in the league. The leading scorer for the Rangers was Torchia’s future brother-in-law, Gilbert Dionne, who would lead the way with 48-goals and 57-assists for 105-points in just 64-games. Joey St. Aubin and Jason Firth would also eclipse the 100-point mark that season for Kitchener, while 28-goal and 39-goal seasons came from future NHLers Shayne Stevenson and Steven Rice respectively. Anchoring Kitchener’s defense that season were future NHL blueliners Chris LiPuma and Jason York. Considering this team’s output and the caliber of the players they possessed, it was no wonder that the Rangers went as far as they did for this particular season.
Mike Torchia was just as exceptional as his teammates for 1989-90. As the number one netminder for Kitchener, Mike would finish with an impressive 25-11-2 record in 40-games, while registering a 0.875 save percentage and a 3.58 goals against average to go with 1 shutout. Perhaps more importantly though, Torchia would be at his very best in the OHL playoffs that season, backstopping Kitchener all the way to a 7-game showdown in the Finals against Oshawa that would go the entire distance. Mike posted a playoff run of 11-wins with only 6-losses during the 17-game stretch, and held opposing shooters at bay with a solid 3.52 goals against average. Torchia was so strong in the Kitchener nets that the Rangers had ripped through the North Bay Centennials and the Niagara Falls Thunder each in a series where they won 4-games to 1. It would not be until the Finals against Oshawa where Torchia and his Kitchener teammates would lose more than one game in a series.
Despite the 4-3 Finals loss to Oshawa, Torchia and the Rangers earned a birth in that spring’s Memorial Cup tournament to determine the major junior hockey league champion of the Canadian Hockey League. Mike Torchia and his Kitchener teammates would come ever so close to winning the Cup. Despite beating Kamloops 8-7 in overtime and Laval 5-3 in the round robin of the tournament, as well as a 5-4 semi-final victory over Laval once more, the Rangers would lose a heartbreaker in the championship game, losing once more to Oshawa that would take two overtime periods to resolve. Regardless of these tight losses in the finals and at the Memorial Cup, Mike Torchia had garnered attention and respect across Canada and in junior hockey. Torchia would be named to the 1990 Memorial Cup All-Star Team and would be named the Hap Emms Trophy recipient as well, as the top goaltender in the Memorial Cup tournament for that season.
After four highly successful seasons with Kitchener, Mike Torchia would see a dream come true in 1991 when he was chosen by the Minnesota North Stars in the NHL entry draft. Mike described the moment to me as a “surreal experience”. Not in the least bit out of cockiness, Torchia knew that making it into the NHL was where he was supposed to be. “I said to myself, ‘this is what I wanted to do. This is what I am going to do”. Being selected in the fourth-round at seventy-fourth overall, it was indeed a very surreal feeling for Mike. “Here I am at the time, walking down after being selected and being greeted by Bobby Clarke, who was the general manager of the North Stars at the time, and who I had watched as a kid with those missing teeth, winning Stanley Cups. And then Bob Gainey (who was the North Stars head coach at the time), and you think of all that he accomplished in his career, and it was just very, very surreal for me”.
Initially Torchia would be encouraged by the North Stars to play somewhere that he could get a lot of training in, and so he joined the Canadian National Team during 1992-93. “There was a very strenuous training regiment that Hockey Canada used at the time. We would start as early as 6:30AM in the morning, and going all the way into the evening. We did not play in a lot of games, but there was a lot of practice”, Torchia recalled. For the period of time that he was with the national team, Torchia was living in Calgary with teammates and friends like Hank Lammens and Adrian Aucoin, both of whom were on the national team and who would find NHL success in their careers as well.
In addition to his brief play with the national team, Torchia spent his first few professional seasons with the Stars minor league affiliate the Kalamazoo Wings of the IHL. While seeing regular action with the Wings, the Minnesota North Stars would relocate down south to Dallas and became the Stars. It was during their second season after relocation, the lockout shortened 1994-95 season, that Mike Torchia would make first his NHL appearance. When asked about what his first NHL game was like, Mike laughed and said “I guess I have Bob Gainey to thank for it”. Explaining further, Torchia said “Darcy Wakaluk had gotten hurt and was out for 2-weeks. So they called me up from Kalamazoo and flew me to Detroit on Friday for a Saturday game against the Red Wings. Then they called Manny Fernandez up, and I got sent back down to Kalamazoo, while Manny got the start against the Red Wings. I guess they intended to split the games between Manny and I. The next day I got called up and we flew to Chicago. About 4-hours before the game, Bob Gainey looks at me and says ‘you’re starting'”, again Torchia laughs, “I didn’t even have time to get nervous!”.
The Chicago Blackhawks would be an incredibly tough test for Mike to face in his first NHL game, as they were truly talent-laden. Garnered with All-Stars such as Eddie Belfour, Chris Chelios, Gary Suter, Jeremy Roenick, Joe Murphy and Tony Amonte, the game would conceivably be a shooting gallery against Torchia, while also having to outduel a future Hall of Fame goaltender in Belfour at the opposite end of the rink. Torchia was up to the challenge, and was absolutely superb in net. The Stars would win the game 2-1, with Torchia stopping 29 of 30 shots for an 0.967 save percentage. “The one goal I let in was the one I likely should have stopped. Joe Murphy let go of a wrist-shot, but didn’t get anything on it and it just fluttered into the net”. Torchia also reminded me that this was the game where “(Derian) Hatcher put a big hit on Jeremy Roenick and ended up injuring his knee”. When I tell him I am impressed with how well he recalls the details of this first game, Torchia responded with “the first game is always really special. I remember it like it was yesterday”.
During that first season in Dallas, Torchia learned a great deal from the Stars top netminder and veteran winner of three Stanley Cup championships, Andy Moog. While Darcy Wakaluk “was very quiet and kept mostly to himself”, Moog offered the young Torchia some great tutelage. “Andy Moog was just brilliant to be around. He taught me about making saves with the middle of the body. Simplifying things in terms of positioning. So many little details that I still use to this day”. Perhaps this mentoring by Moog in his first season is what helped Torchia achieve a respectable record of 3-2-1 in his rookie season, with wins over Toronto and Winnipeg in addition to the win over the Blackhawks.
After a solid rookie season, the 1995-96 season would be a tumultuous one for Torchia. Being involved with a summer trade from Dallas to the Washinton Capitals organization, followed by a trade to Anaheim in March of ’96, Torchia would end up playing for five different teams all in one season. Between injuries and conditioning assignments, as well as battling it out for limited NHL spots in the Capitals and Ducks organizations, to go along with a temporary loan from one team to another, Torchia would bounce from the cities of Norfolk to Kalamazoo to Orlando to Portland to Baltimore. Going from four straight years of being in Kitchener, to three to four years in Kalamazoo, and then suddenly five cities in one year would prove very difficult.
Eventually things would settle for Torchia during the 1998-99 season when he took the opportunity to play in Italy. “Looking at my background and heritage. My parents were from there. My sister was actually born there. I had met my wife and were married two years prior. We did not have any kids at the time. It was a great opportunity to see my roots. It became more about the experience than the hockey”. When asked about the fact that there were numerous other NHL experienced or drafted players (i.e. Reggie Savage, Tony Iob, Trevor Gallant) on the same team as Torchia, “Asiago HC”, Mike remembered the fact that Italy was a very enjoyable place to play for everyone. “We had a blast! There was one English speaking channel the whole year, so you could only watch so much TV. We would play cards. The wives would spend time together. The city we were in was more of a tourist spot, ski resort area. It was a lot of fun being with friends”.
Torchia would continue to wrap up his professional career overseas, as after his time in Italy he would play from 2000 through 2003 in the British Ice Hockey League. “Of the 18 skaters on our team, 17 of us were Canadian. Dale Craigwell, Scott Metcalfe, Trevor Gallant, Scott Allison. We would end up winning what they call the ‘Grand Slam’; all three or four trophies that were available for clubs to win”. Mike would have stops with the Sheffield Steelers, the Manchester Storm and the Guildford Flames. Mike would be named an ISL Second Team All-Star after an extremely solid performance with Sheffield which saw the Steelers finish first overall and lose only 9 of 48-games.
These days Mike Torchia is still very busy and still very much involved with the Kitchener Rangers. “I do color commentary for their radio broadcasts, and had done so on television too. I was their goalie coach for a while as well”. Torchia’s son Nathan, a goaltender just like his father, is now ranked in the top two goaltenders for the upcoming OHL draft and is slated to go very high in the 2016 Priority Selection. In fact, the younger Torchia is one of the top goaltenders in the world for those in his age group. When I congratulate Mike on his son’s success, he humbly reminds me that “nope, it’s all his doing”.
The last question that I leave Mike with is this – when he thinks back on his career, what is the most important thing that he learned which he still carries with him to this day. “Enjoy every day. It doesn’t last forever, and the end is very tough. It’s not so much the games. It’s being in the locker room with your buddies before or after a game. Being able to go for a skate with your buddies. Make sure you enjoy every day, every moment of it”.
I wish Mike the best of luck in all of his future endeavors, and I am excited to see what his son is going to accomplish in the years ahead. I have a hunch that he must be a lot like his father – courteous, professional, soft-spoken, truly a great guy. Those qualities breed success no matter where you go in life, and Mike Torchia certainly possesses them.