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.

Highlighting an unsung hero: Jiri Hrdina

*Note: This is an article I wrote in November 2011 for my old blog, “Hockey Thoughts”. After watching 43-year old Czech hero and hockey legend, Jaromir Jagr, score his seven-hundred and thirty-sixth career regular season goal last night (1/5/16 against Buffalo), I felt inspired to re-post this entry on my new blog to share thoughts on a forgotten Czech and former teammate of Jagr’s, Jiri Hrdina.

Jiri Hrdina

Season after season goes by in the National Hockey League. As a decade or two passes, players that were once household names, at least casually, are often long forgotten when their playing days end and new favorites quickly take their place in the daily conversations of the hometown fans. Though most of these players are not within the Hall of Fame, may never have been on an All-Star team, nor do they hold any league or team records, their accomplishments during their careers may in fact hail them as unsung heroes. Players who made a difference with the way that they played hockey, but have been overshadowed by the game’s truly great players. Still, as unsung as they may be, they did make a difference.

Case in point is former Calgary Flame and Pittsburgh Penguin, Jiri Hrdina. During a time when only a handful of Czech-born players skated the NHL arenas of North-America, and certainly no Soviet-born players as of yet, Jiri Hrdina made his NHL debut at the age of 29 as one of the very few players in Western-hemisphere hockey to hail from the Eastern-bloc. This was still a short time before the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Petr Nedved and a larger influx of players from Czechoslovakia (later to be separate countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia) would make their country a breeding ground for highly talented hockey superstars who would run rampant in the NHL on an ongoing basis. Jiri Hrdina would join the NHL and the Calgary Flames during the 1987-88 season.

Born in one of the World’s most beautiful and most remarkable cities, Prague in the former Czechoslovakia, Hrdina’s successes in the NHL in a relatively short career are remarkable in and of themselves. After debuting with the Flames for a mere nine games in ’87-’88, in which he scored 2-goals and added 5-assists for 7-points (along with 1-playoff game that year as well), Hrdina would only play in four full NHL seasons from 1988 through 1992. In three of those four seasons though, Hrdina would win Stanley Cup Championships. There is likely no other player in NHL history with a better percentage of championships compared to the number of seasons played. Yet there is little to no mention of Hrdina’s noteworthy accomplishment amongst hockey circles these days.

Hrdina was a very solid two-way player throughout his career. As a versatile centerman, Hrdina excelled in his own end of the ice and also contributed offensively against the opposition. Coming to the NHL at 29, Hrdina’s best years were likely spent while still playing in his homeland and playing on the international stage. While with Team Czechoslovakia in 1984, Hrdina helped lead his team to a Silver Medal at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. Likewise, Hrdina medaled with Team Czechoslovakia on five separate occasions at the World Championships of hockey, winning gold in 1985, a silver in 1982 and 1983, and bronze medals in 1987 and 1990. By the time Hrdina made the jump to North-America he was already a very well accomplished and decorated hockey player.

Hrdina playing with Calgary Flames
Alumni during the Heritage Classic.

With his track record of Stanley Cup championships, Hrdina’s success with winning obviously continued throughout his career in the NHL. Hrdina’s finest season came during the Calgary Flames’ championship season of 1988-89. This would be Hrdina’s first full season in the NHL and he registered 22-goals, 32-assists for 54-points in 70-regular season games; a fine performance for a first full season in the league. Though Hrdina was certainly instrumental in bringing the Stanley Cup to Calgary, his contributions are much in the backdrop when considering that Hockey Hall of Fame players Lanny McDonald, Doug Gilmour, Al MacInnis, Joe Mullen and Joe Nieuwendyk were members in the forefront of that championship team, along with all-star players Theoren Fleury, Brad McCrimmon, Gary Roberts, Gary Suter, Mike Vernon, Hakan Loob and Rob Ramage. With so many big names and so much talent on one hockey club, it is not really surprising that Hrdina’s contributions to that championship team were overlooked.

The 1989-90 NHL season would be the one season in which Hrdina did not win a Stanley Cup in his NHL career. Statistically, it would be his second-best season though, notching 12-goals and 30-points in 64-regular season games. While this Calgary Flames team was mostly comprised of the same players and staff from their championship team of the season prior, they would fail to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, losing in 6-games in the first-round of the playoffs to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.

The next and final two seasons of Hrdina’s career would bring him two more Stanley Cup championships, though this time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In December 1990, Hrdina would be traded from Calgary to Pittsburgh for tough-guy defenseman Jim Kyte. Considering Hrdina’s skill and winning experience the deal was rather lopsided in more ways than one. In Pittsburgh Hrdina would find himself on the third or fourth line used mostly in a limited role, for like the Flames, the Penguins were laden with a vast array of talent including one of hockey’s greatest players ever Mario Lemieux, along with an additional mix of Hall-of-Famers, future Hall-of-Famers, and other all-star players like Jaromir Jagr, Kevin Stevens, Tom Barrasso, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy and former Calgary teammate Joe Mullen.

Jiri Hrdina with the Pittsburgh Penguins –
brought in to tutor fellow countryman and
18-year old Jaromir Jagr.
Again, it is not any real wonder that Hrdina would be forgotten amongst a group of this calibre. However, at least one person would not forget Hrdina’s impact on the team, as fellow Czech and upcoming superstar Jaromir Jagr would greatly benefit from his fellow countryman’s guidance and tutelage during his rookie season in the NHL. At the time, Jagr was only 18-years old, and Hrdina, having lived in and played in North-America for a few seasons longer and being over 10-years Jagr’s senior, would prove to be quite instrumental for adjusting the young Czech superstar to the NHL-brand of hockey, life in North-America and adopting the English language. Hrdina and Jagr would be nicknamed the “Czechmates”and suffice it to say that at least some of Jagr’s outstanding success in hockey both globally and in the NHL can be attributed to Hrdina and the mentoring he provided during their two seasons in Pittsburgh together. The Penguins would go on to defeat the Minnesota North Stars in six-games of the Stanley Cup Finals that first season in Pittsburgh. Hrdina saw limited action in the Finals, only appearing in Game-3, but he played in 14 of Pittsburgh’s 24-playoff games that season, record 2-goals and 2-assists in that stretch. Jagr would play in all 24-playoff games, registering 3-goals and 10-assists.

The 1991-92 season would be Jiri Hrdina’s last in the NHL and would also see the Penguins repeat as Stanley Cup champions, this time defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in four straight games. Hrdina would get his name enscribed on the Stanley Cup for the third and final time. He would also appear in all 21-games of the Penguins playoff run that season, picking up 2-assists along the way. Meanwhile, his “student” Jagr would become the youngest player in NHL history to score a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals at 20-years old, finishing the playoffs with 24-points in the 21-playoff games, and well on his way to super-stardom in the NHL. Hrdina would retire in 1992 after this last championship.

These days Hrdina busies himself as an amateur scout with the Dallas Stars. Though his playing days may be behind him, there are few players more celebrated as a champion than Jiri Hrdina. And while he was greatly “unsung” as a player perhaps mainly due to the fact that he was buried by a long list of some of the greatest players to ever play the game, who happened to be his teammates at the time, attention must be paid to the fact that he became a champion so frequently across such a short period of time. For his achievements and perennial championships, Jiri Hrdina should not be forgotten.