A few words with: Mike Torchia, former Dallas Stars goaltender

Mike Torchia tended goal for six games for the Dallas Stars during the 1994-95 NHL season, compiling a winning record of 3-2-1

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.

With the Kitchener Rangers, Mike Torchia would finish his junior hockey regular season career with a record of 89-68-16 in 182-games across four seasons.

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!”.

Mike Torchia Blackhawks
Mike Torchia would stop 29 of 30 shots in an April 2, 1995 debut and 2-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

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.

Torchia Manchester
Mike Torchia suiting up for the Manchester Storm of the British Ice Hockey Superleague during the 2002-03 season.

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.


Coming up short: Brian Propp…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Remembering Gilles Meloche

The teams he tended goal for were oftentimes the NHL’s basement dwellers. He still sits currently fourth-place all-time for most losses by a goaltender. Two of the teams he played for (albeit the same franchise in two different cities) do not even exist anymore. But his quick reflections and ability to keep a very poor team in the game on any given night enabled Gilles Meloche to carve out a 17-year NHL career. A career which saw him play in a total of 788 regular season games in five different cities across North America.

The very first time that I bought a pack of hockey cards was in the summer of 1988. I rode my bicycle up to the local drugstore which has since closed down twenty years ago. It was the 1988-89 edition of Topps hockey cards; the one that included Brett Hull’s rookie card and Wayne Gretzky’s first as a Los Angeles King. In the first pack I bought, I received my first ever goalie card – Gilles Meloche. Though this would be the last series to ever release a card of Meloche, he instantly became my favorite goaltender.

Gilles Meloche’s 1988-89 Topps hockey card; the last series to include Meloche and the very first card of an NHL goaltender I ever bought.

Meloche became a mild obsession for me. Into my teenage years and up into adulthood, I had to collect each of his hockey cards. From his 1972 rookie card with the California Golden Seals, into his time with the Cleveland Barons and the Minnesota North Stars. Once when I was 15, I waited in the pouring rain for a sports memorabilia store to open and then waited an additional hour inside while one of the store employees searched through boxes of cards for Meloche’s 1983 O-Pee-Chee card with the North Stars.

Here is an old pizza commercial that Meloche starred in during the early-1980s with the North Stars.

My favorite Gilles Meloche hockey card would have to be his 1975-76 Topps card depicting him with the California Golden Seals. I love the colors of the Seals’ uniforms from that time; teal and gold. I also like the youthful exuberance on Meloche’s face in the card’s photo; he was just about to enter into the prime of his career at that point, and had already been backstopping a woeful Seals team for a few seasons by that time.

Meloche also had arguably the coolest goaltending mask of all netminders, when he suited up the Cleveland Barons (the former California Golden Seals) who had re-located to Cleveland. While a black “B” backed by blood-red and an almost menacing top-hat above the face, Meloche exuded baron in his adornment.

Gilles Meloche and his mask with the Cleveland Barons.

As I collected his cards and learned more about his career, it began to bother me that Meloche wasn’t a “winner”. He perennially played on bad teams that went nowhere. But still, how could you play 17-years in the National Hockey League without being considered a great success? This troubled me. I began to fantasize and imagine what it might have been like if Meloche was the goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens or the Philadelphia Flyers during the 1970s, instead of the Seals and Cleveland Barons. Gilles would have won numerous Stanley Cup championships, and his stats for goals against and save percentage would have likely been out of this world. But this was all a very big “what if?”, and truly did not matter because it never happened.

meloche seals
My favorite hockey card of Gilles Meloche; the 1975-76 Topps release with a poised Gilles donning the teal and gold of the California Golden Seals.

I found solace in the fact that Gilles Meloche at least made it to the Stanley Cup Finals one time in his career. That was something that I could look upon as a positive achievement in his career. It was during the 1980-81 NHL season when the North Stars goaltending tandem of Meloche and teenage rookie Don Beaupre backstopped Minnesota to a Stanley Cup Finals showdown against the New York Islanders, who were into their second season of a four-year string of Stanley Cup championships.

Perhaps for the first time in his career, Gilles was surrounded by a nice array of talent and did not need to shoulder it all alone. Another rookie, Dino Ciccarelli, exploded for 14-goals in 19-playoff games during Minnesota’s run at a championship. Other assets to the North Stars that season were all-star Bobby Smith, along with Steve Payne, Craig Hartsburg, Al MacAdam, USA Lake Placid Olympic gold medalist Neal Broten.

In the Stanley Cup Finals though, against a powerhouse Islanders offense, Gilles would be in net for two of the five games against New York, suffering losses each time and allowing a staggering 12-goals in the two contests for a 6.00 goals against average. Still, it was a chance for Gilles to play on hockey’s biggest stage. This was truly a momentous occasion in a way, as the playoffs would not come often for Gilles. In 17-seasons, Gilles only saw playoff action in 6 of them…

Having a spot in my heart for Gilles Meloche since my childhood, I always held out hope that someday, somehow he would have his “place in the sun”. Meloche retired from active play in 1988 as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Upon retiring, Gilles would remain with the Penguins as a scout for the team, and, eventually would find the success he so greatly deserved in the game of hockey. Doing his part toward bringing a championship to Pittsburgh, Meloche would get his name on hockey’s “holy grail”, the Stanley Cup, three different times as part of Penguins championship teams; in 1991, 1992 and 2009. So in the end, my wish for my favorite goalie came true; he became a winner and has him name inscribed for all time.