Maria Serova ~ 16-year old Atlant Voskresensk forward.

Voskresensk Russia has been home to numerous heralded hockey stars, perhaps most notably Stanley Cup champions Vyacheslav Kozlov, Valeri Kamensky, and my personal favorite Igor Larionov. Numerous Soviet hockey greats hailed from  Voskresensk too. Brothers Vladimir and Aleksandr Golikov, along with IIHF Hall of Famer and hockey legend Alexander Ragulin, all forged renowned careers; each played for the Soviet powerhouse teams that once dominated the hockey world.

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16-year old Maria Serova plays for Russia’s U18 national women’s team. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

But playing in Voskresensk these days there is a 16-year old whose best hockey is yet to come. She plays for the women’s junior club, Voskresensk Atlant; which is actually one of a handful of teams that she presently plays for. Meet Maria Serova. Already training with the U18 national team, this young lady is a shoo in for Russia’s squad that looks to improve upon their 2017 bronze medal finish that took place less than two months ago in January. And as the national program gears up toward the next go-round, Maria works hard toward becoming the best hockey player that she can be. She is also busy being a normal 16-year old girl.

“I have a turtle, a dog and fish”, she says with a smile, telling me about her pets. But along with loving her animals, Maria Serova loves hockey. “I began playing hockey when I was seven years old. I am from Balashikha (another city like Voskresensk that is located in Moscow Oblast, which comprises the area surrounding the city of Moscow itself and houses a population of over seven-million). There are a lot of opportunities to play hockey in my city. We have ice rinks, gyms, and artificial ice all for training”.

I guess that I am really glad that Serova has these opportunities. In my estimations the Russians are doing women’s hockey right, so to speak. Seeing the growing success of their Women’s Hockey League (WHL) which has been anglicized from Женской хоккейной лиги, it is apparent that Russia already has the next generation of women’s players waiting at the threshold of the country’s professional league.  Serova is one of them. “I want to play with Dynamo St. Petersburg of the WHL”, one of the league’s top teams. Asked about what she would say to other young girls to encourage them to follow suit in women’s hockey, Serova says “I would say to them ‘Follow your dreams. Work hard. Listen to your coach. And don’t give up!'”. Having interviewed other Russian women’s players and with a few more interviews coming in the near future, these sentiments of Serova’s are widely distributed amongst all girls and women who play the game in Russia.

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Maria Serova is a forward for Atlant Voskresensk. The city of Voskresensk is one of Russia’s “hockey hotbeds”. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

Serova tells me about the other teams she plays for besides Atlant. “I play for ‘Olimpiets Balashika’ which is a men’s hockey team. I also play for the Moscow regional team (Moskovskaya Oblast) in the Russian Championship league, and I now play for the U18 national team for Russia too. And once I even played on the adult team and got to play alongside great players like Olga Sosina and Anna Prugova”. In her time with Olimpiets Balashika, Serova has racked up 13-goals and 12-assists in 72-games.

As a youngster Serova’s father used to take her to the KHL’s Balashika MVD’s hockey games. Prior to the team merging with Dynamo Moscow after the 2009-2010 season Balashika MVD played in the league from 2008 until 2010, and included a large number of North American-born players like Jame Pollock, Matt Ellison and stellar netminder Michael Garnett, in addition to numerous native Russian players. “My father and I would go to all of the games, and that is when I fell in love with the sport”.

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Practice makes perfect! Maria Serova works hard and respects her coaches immensely. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

Currently though, Serova’s inspiration comes from one of the NHL’s most talented forwards. “My favorite player is Nicklas Bäckström. I remember when he played for Dynamo Moscow along with Alexander Ovechkin. Now of course they both play for the Washington Capitals, who are also my favorite hockey team”. It is perhaps little wonder why Serova admires Bäckström in particular. By far one of the craftiest players, the Swedish center is superb at dishing out passes and oftentimes seems to be a “jack of all trades” when handling the puck. So much so that Bäckström has six-times reached 50-assists in a season, and is presently only a handful away from doing it for a seventh time. Serova tells me, “I play forward too because I love it, and I get to play in all different positions”.

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Maria Serova is an exciting member for the next generation of Russian women’s hockey. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

I am impressed that a 16-year old has played in as many games and for as many teams as Serova has in such a short period of time. And within those games there would have had to have been some memorable moments that Maria recalls fondly. The one moment she shares with me though must also be the coolest, if not the fiercest. “The most special moment in my hockey career so far was winning at the select competition in Sweden. I was playing for the Spartak Moscow hockey team at the time. We only had ten girls on our team, and we defeated the Swedish team in the finals to win the championship. When we won, we all screamed together ‘This is Sparta!'”. A team of just ten girls defeating all comers. Guts, determination and fortitude from Serova and her other nine teammates.

What is perhaps most exciting about Maria Serova is that she is right on the cusp of where female hockey players want to be in Russia. In a year from now, Serova will have completed her first U18 World Championship. In a year from now, she will be playing hockey professionally in the WHL. To make that leap to playing professionally and internationally, Serova knows that she must keep things in perspective but she most assuredly has the right mindset. “You have to be focused on the game and your hockey training. I am fortunate to have played on many different teams for both boys and girls, and I learned that you always have to be a part of the team and taking that seriously”.

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Maria Serova celebrating a goal with Moskovskaya Oblast. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

I would like to re-interview Maria Serova in a year from now. I hope that she will oblige me, as I think much will have changed in her life and her hockey career in a most exciting fashion. Because pretty soon Maria will be the next Sosina, or the next Prugova, or Belyakova. The hockey world is at her fingertips and is hers for the taking. I want to see her take that puck and go with it. Look to see her become a mainstay for both the national team and the WHL; it is just around the corner. Serova is the model example of grooming players properly for the future of women’s hockey. I will state it again – Russia is doing it right.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“The Story of Jonah” -former Washington Capitals defenseman, Jay Johnston

“During my time in Hershey, one of my teammates was a guy named Mike Haworth”, Jay Johnston is telling me. Johnston and Haworth were both defensemen for the Hershey Bears at the very end of the 1970s and into the early-1980s. “Mike was a helicopter pilot, and sadly he died in a helicopter crash (August 14th, 2008). In the locker room in Hershey, he gave me the nickname ‘Jonah’. He always called me ‘Jonah'”. Even to this day, Jay Johnston’s Hershey teammates still call him by the same nickname when they get together. “For years, I never knew where he got the name from. Well, if you have ever read the Spider-Man comics,  the editor-in-chief for the daily newspaper is named J. Jonah Jameson”. I laugh when Johnston tells me this, as I know the Spider-Man comics quite well and I can see where he is going with this. “Look up J. Jonah Jameson online, and you’ll see that there is a striking resemblance between the two of us”. Indeed, there is.

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Jay Johnston would suit up for 8-NHL games with the Washington Capitals between the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons, including a fight in his very first NHL game against Calgary’s Willi Plett.

The thought of making it to the NHL someday never crossed the mind of Jay Johnston, let alone playing hockey professionally, no matter what league it would be in. In fact, compared to most Canadian kids, Johnston started playing the game very late in life. “I actually didn’t start playing until I was 10-years old”. Born February 25th, 1958, Jay Johnston grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, and though hockey would take him to numerous other cities throughout his career, as we talk this evening he is residing in Hamilton once more, and has been for quite sometime. “The employees for Westinghouse were organizing hockey and lacrosse teams for their youngsters. My uncle worked for Westinghouse, and got me into lacrosse the first year. The following year he asked me if I wanted to play hockey, so I figured I would give that a try”. As a youngster, Johnston’s favorite hockey team was the Detroit Red Wings, and the legendary “Mr. Hockey”, Gordie Howe, was his favorite player.

Despite the late start to playing, Johnston would play his Junior-A hockey with the Hamilton Mountain A’s before he was drafted by the Hamilton Fincups to play his Major-Junior hockey in the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League. The oddity being that although the Fincups were originally from Hamilton, during Johnston’s first year with the team they had to relocate for a season and were briefly the St. Catharines Fincups; the move necessitated by the fact that the ice making equipment for the old Barton Street Arena (also known as the Hamilton Forum) stopped working and was considered irreparable, with the arena eventually being demolished in 1977. For Johnston’s second year with the Fincups though, the team returned to Hamilton by utilizing the Mountain Arena.

No matter where they played, the Fincups were both incredibly talented and very tough. During Johnston’s two years of Major-Junior, the team was laden with future NHL talent in the likes of Dale McCourt, Ric Seiling, Al Secord, Rick Wamsley, Willie Huber, Randy Ladouceur, Gaston Gingras, and Al Jensen, while Johnston was one of ten teammates his first season, and six teammates his second season, that hit triple digits for penalty minutes. The 1976-77 season saw the Fincups achieve an outstanding record of 50-11-5, thus solidifying for them the Hamilton Spectator Trophy awarded to the team in the OHL that finishes with the top regular season record.

Even while he was a part of these great teams and superb successes, it was not until the second half of Johnston’s final season of Major-Junior where he had the notion that making it to the NHL was even possible. “I had expected just to go onto University; I wasn’t even thinking of the NHL. But (defenseman) Willie Huber ended up getting hurt my second season, and that opened up a regular spot for me to play. Up until that point, I hadn’t played a lot, but when I started playing more regularly I figured that I had a shot”.

And at least in the minds of the Washington Capitals, Jay Johnston had more than just a shot.  “Well, for starters, I never expected to be drafted. But then I started hearing that I was going to go in the eighth-round of the draft”. Whatever scouting report touted Jay to go as late as an eighth-rounder ended up being quite false, as Washington would end up selecting him in the third-round of 1978 NHL Amateur Draft, the 45th-player overall. The selection likely prompted by the Capitals recognizing Johnston’s hard work and determination on the ice, as well as his natural sense of commitment to whatever was best for the team. When I ask him his thoughts about going to the Capitals, a team that had perennially been an NHL bottom-feeder since their inaugural 1974-75 season, Jay clearly tells me that he “really didn’t care who” drafted him; he was going to give it his all no matter where he ended up.

Jay Johnston’s first season of professional hockey was with the Capitals’ IHL (International Hockey League) affiliate, the Port Huron Flags. When I ask Jay what that first season of pro hockey was like, he responds with a question of his own, “have you ever seen the movie Slap-Shot?”. When I chuckle and affirm for him that of course I had, he elaborates. “Well, I had seen the movie too, and I thought it was complete B.S., but when I got to the IHL that was exactly what it was like”. In that first season with Port Huron, Johnston put up a staggering 409-penalty minutes, and even that total only ranked him third overall in the league for PIMs. “Fighting wasn’t something new to me. The Fincups were known as a rough team, but when I got to the IHL it was just at a higher level. The main reason why I got those 409-penalty minutes was that there was maybe just one other guy on the team who would fight, and so we did the bulk of the fighting and the numbers added up”.

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A March 8th, 1980 roster lineup for the Hershey Bears from a game against the Syracuse Firebirds. Circled in red is #7 Jay Johnston. Also visible are colorful NHL veterans Ray McKay, Gary Inness, Bob Girard, and the late Brian “Spinner” Spencer.

After a lone season with Port Huron, Johnston would spend the next five years of professional hockey splitting time between the Capitals and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears. That first season though with Hershey, 1979-80, and only Johnston’s second pro season, would bring about a rarity in sports that is hardly ever seen. I have heard great players such as Mark Messier attest to the fact that when teams win championships, a brotherhood of sorts is formed. If I recall correctly, I remember him using the line “we will walk together for the rest of our lives”. With all due respect to “The Messiah”, while his words ring true, I do not know if they hold the same degree of true companionship and closeness that is shared by the 1979-80 Calder Cup Champion Hershey Bears.

“To this day, we get together every five years. We have a reunion, and ninety-five percent of the team gets together. A handful have died, but as many of us that can make it, do”. To hear the sense of camaraderie in Johnston’s voice and affection that he feels for that particular team gives me goosebumps. The ’79-’80 Bears were arguably the truest definition of the word “Team”. That may sound quite cliché, but look closely at that team and what they accomplished when the odds were very much stacked against them. The Bears sported a losing record that year of 35-39-6. Not a single player on their team finished in the AHL’s top-ten for point scoring that season. While Nova Scotia’s Norm Dube led the way with 101-points, Hershey’s top point getter was Claude Noel with a modest 62. A quarter of the team, if not more, were 30-years old or older, and were deemed as castoffs. Guys like 6’4″ 33-year old defenseman Ray McKay who had seen his fullest NHL season with the defunct California Golden Seals, as well as other members of the over-30 gang like Bob Girard, goaltender Gary Inness, defenseman Roger Lemelin, and in his final season of professional hockey, the ever colorful Brian “Spinner” Spencer. “At that time Washington was not a good team”, Johnston tells me, “and they were really trying to clear out the veteran players from their roster. That’s why there were so many down in Hershey”. But even the younger guys on Hershey’s roster were almost entirely unproven, like rookies Greg Theberge and Harvie Pocza. Or players that did not have much in the way of credentials when they were selected in the fourteenth-round of the NHL draft like Wes Jarvis.

But what the 1979-80 Hershey Bears lacked in talent, they made up for in teamwork times a thousand. “That was the most special team that I ever played on”, Johnston states, letting his mind travel back to that time. “When we had success, it was never one individual. Look at the team we faced in the Calder Cup Finals, the New Brunswick Hawks. They had all this talent. At least twenty of those guys went on to solid careers in the NHL”. Looking at the Hawks roster, Jay is spot-on. The Hawks had Ron Wilson, Darryl Sutter, Murray Bannerman, Bruce Boudreau, Paul Gardner, just to name a few; all had substantial NHL playing careers, mostly in the years proceeding that Finals series. And yet, it was a ragamuffin Hershey Bears roster that defeated them in the six-game Final and won the championship. One for the ages, and a closeness that may supersede many Stanley Cup winning teams.

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Jay Johnston with his son Taylor, posing with the Calder Cup Trophy during the 30-year reunion of the 1979-80 Hershey Bears championship winning team (Photo provided courtesy of Jay Johnston).

Perhaps stemming from that successful championship season the year prior, Jay Johnston would see his first taste of an NHL game in the following 1980-81 season. “I was getting ready to play a game with Hershey against the Adirondack Red Wings when I was told that I got called up by the Caps. The first person that I called was my dad to let him know. I had to join the team in Calgary, and would play my first game against the Calgary Flames. It was before the Saddledome had been built, so the Flames were playing in the old Stampede Corral stadium, which only sat about seven or eight-thousand. Even still, as I was skating around during the warmup, I thought to myself ‘Here I am; I made it to the NHL’. I even got into a fight in my first game”. Jay tells me that he squared off with Flames’ longtime tough-guy Willi Plett, an eventual veteran of over 2,500-PIMs. When I ask him how the fight went, Jay dryly says to me, “Well, I’m still breathing, aren’t I?”. I cannot help but laugh raucously at his point being made.

Jay Johnston only suited up for a total of 8 NHL games, but the point is that he made it. Many never even get a sniff of NHL playing time. I ask him to share more with me about his time with the Capitals and what his best memories are. “Obviously the first game sticks out in my mind. But another thing that was really special was that we went to Sweden for training camp the one year, and the Caps played the New York Rangers there for exhibition. (Hockey legend) Bobby Hull was trying to make a comeback with the Rangers, so I actually got to play against him in the game. Afterward, there was a reception at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, and Bobby came up and talked to me for a while.  So that was pretty special that he would take the time to do that”. When I ask Jay to talk about his defense partners while playing for the Capitals, although he was not paired with anyone in particular, he was usually teamed up with veteran Pierre Bouchard; a five time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens. Yes, his time in the NHL was brief, but definitely some special moments experienced while Johnston was there.

From 1984 until 1987, Jay Johnston would play the final three years of his professional career back in the IHL, this time with the Fort Wayne Komets, though this time around the IHL experience would be a bit different; a better brand of hockey. “The Central Hockey League had disbanded in 1984, and so the IHL really took over as one of the top minor leagues. In fact, many NHL teams had their number one farm teams in the IHL. So it was a much higher level of hockey than before”. Partway through his third season with the Komets, Jay knew it was time to step down. “I had hurt my knee in Muskegon, and most of that year with Fort Wayne I was playing with my knee hurting me nonstop. It took a while to figure out what was going on, but eventually they found that blood clots were causing the pain in my knee. I found out that I have a blood disorder that causes me to be susceptible to blood clots. The prior summers, I had spent a lot of time trying to recover from injuries as it was. And then they had me on blood thinners to help deal with the blood clots. I was told that as long as I was on blood thinners, there was no way that I could keep playing professionally. So I knew it was time”.

Though he could look at having to retire due to health concerns with bitter sentiments, Jay Johnston actually looks more positively on the experiences of his career without regrets. “I knew that I would not be making it back to the NHL. To be honest though, in Hershey and Fort Wayne, I got to play with two of the best hockey teams that anyone could have hoped for. Both teams had strong followings. They regularly had attendance between eight or nine-thousand. And both teams had a lot of longevity as franchises”. The 1980 Calder Cup winning Bears certainly being the pinnacle of Johnston’s time with either of the two franchises.

After retiring, Johnston dabbled a bit in coaching. A short time after he finished playing, the company that his former wife worked with transferred her to Hartford, Connecticut, and Johnston took up coaching a high school team for four years, Windsor High. “It was kind of funny. The local newspaper did an article on me coaching the team. Well, a former teammate of mine from Hershey, Tommy Rowe (also a former Washington Capital and Hartford Whaler) saw the article and looked me up. He asked me to come play for the Hartford Whalers Old Timers. I said to him, ‘Tommy, I can’t play for the Whalers Old Timers; I never played for the Whalers!’, to which he said, ‘C’mon, sure you can’. So I ended playing for the Whalers Old Timers, and guess who my defense partner is in my first game? Gordie Howe!”. Very cool to see Johnston’s life come full circle at that point by meeting his boyhood hockey hero and being paired up with him on defense.

In 1990, Johnston was contacted by Hamilton’s OHL team at the time, the Hamilton Dukes, for yet another coaching opportunity. “The gentleman who owned the Fincups also owned the Dukes. He offered me the position, and I ended up coming in to finish the end of the 1989-90 season, and then coach the entire 1990-91 season”. Unfortunately for Johnston, the Dukes were a team that struggled heavily and possessed a minimal amount of talent. During his lone full season coaching the Dukes, the only player on the team who would see any substantial time in the NHL was tough-guy Alek Stojanov. As stress and the pressure to be successful mounted, Johnston and the Dukes would merely compile a record of 17-43-6, and that would be it; Johnston was released by the team for the following season.

Jay Johnston Dukes
Though winning was hard to come by, Jay Johnston did serve as head coach of the OHL’s Hamilton Dukes in the early-1990s.

These days Jay Johnston has not been involved with hockey for quite sometime. Though he coached his son’s team for a few years, he has since left coaching and the game, and has been enjoying retirement. Even still, it is the life-lessons that hockey taught him that he still carries with him to this day. “It taught me how to work with others. I never cared if I received any attention or not; it was always the team that came first as far as I was concerned. As long as the team did well, that was all that mattered to me”.

Wrapping up our conversation, Jay and I again touch upon how the rare bond of the ’79-’80 championship Hershey Bears has stood the test of time. “Even when we get together now, everybody still calls me ‘Jonah’. Claude Noel was my best friend on the team, and still one of my best friends to this day. Everyone still calls him ‘Christmas’. I look at Ray McKay, and think ‘gosh, when we played together, he was over 12-years older than me; he’s got to be in his 70s now’. I had never even known until recently that he had played in the NHL prior to that team in Hershey. All these years have gone by, and we still get together, and it’s like no time has gone by at all”. And that is the testament to Johnston and his Hershey teammates; that is what makes them such a special brotherhood, as opposed to most championship teams in any sport. Because they put the team first and foremost when they were on the ice together and in the locker room, when they see each other today they are able to pick up right where they left off. Most sports teams, when they come upon an anniversary of a championship team, have to have their public relations groups put together an event with pomp and circumstance, and have to seek out the players to attend, making arrangements to get them all there, with the players sometimes accepting begrudgingly. Not so the case with Johnston and his Bears teammates.

Despite their ages now. Even though some of them have now passed on. They come from all across Canada and the United States to get together every five years. To recollect and share in what they accomplished over 35-years ago. Just as meaningful to Jay Johnston and his Hershey teammates today, as it was so long ago. And true to his character, when Jay Johnston talks to me about his career, he’s not the one to bring up his 8-games in the NHL, nor his 409-penalty minute season, nor even his status as a third round draft choice. Jay, more than anything else, wants to talk about the team and what they accomplished. And that’s what is most remarkable about Jay Johnston – he is a teammate in every sense of the word.

 

Bondra for HHOF

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Washington Capitals great, Peter Bondra, should be more than just a consideration for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

It boggles my mind that Slovakian sniper Peter Bondra is rarely, if ever, mentioned for candidacy for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Each year leading up to the induction ceremony, the list of potential candidates for induction is brought out. Maybe I am just not looking closely enough but Bondra never seems to show up on that list, of what usually seems to be mostly North-American born hockey players. Perhaps the biggest argument against Bondra’s induction is that he never won the Stanley Cup. Not to be immature, but – big deal.

Bernie Federko, Gilbert Perreault, Marcel Dionne, Borje Salming, Phil Housley, Mats Sundin, Adam Oates, Pavel Bure, Mark Howe, Mike Gartner, Rod Langway, Dino Ciccarelli, Cam Neely, Pat LaFontaine,  Dale Hawerchuk, Peter Stastny, and Michel Goulet are all contemporaries (for the most part; they are all relatively close at least in terms of time period) of Bondra’s who are in the Hockey Hall of Fame but never won a Stanley Cup. Some of those players put up less impressive numbers than Bondra even, and are still in the HHOF.

Numbers. That magical word that seems to run rampant through sports right now with all of the analytics that exist today. So let’s talk Bondra’s numbers.

Peter Bondra put the puck in the net a total of 503-times during his regular season career. 500 has long been one of those magic numbers in the NHL game that are aligned with Hall of Fame candidacy. On January 10th, 2016 another incredible Washington Capitals sniper, Alex Ovechkin, became the 43rd player in NHL history to hit the 500-plateau. Bondra, who as a Capital himself tallied 472-regular season goals, was the 37th player in NHL history to hit that mark on December 22nd, 2006. In a 10-year time span, only 5 other players would make that number between Ovechkin and Bondra. It would seem then that total regular season goal scoring alone should be enough of an accomplishment to solidify Bondra.

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With the Chicago Blackhawks, Bondra would score his 500th NHL regular season goal.

Still not impressed? Then let’s look at how prolific a scorer Bondra was. The 1990s were arguably the last of the high scoring days of NHL hockey, when there were still regular 50-plus goal scorers each season. Peter Bondra, who was a two-time 50-goal scorer himself was one of the most productive of that time period. If you look at the seasons of 1990-91 up through 1998-99 and goal scoring productivity, you will see what I mean.

Adding up Bondra’s season-to-season tallies during that time frame, he found the back of the net a total of 316-times. Though not by very much, that puts Peter Bondra in fifth place out of most productive goal scorers during that same time frame; the most productive being “The Golden Brett”, Brett Hull with a huge number of 440-goals during that span. The ageless Jaromir Jagr, who scored 345-goals during that same time frame would be second place, while the only other players to out-snipe Bondra would be Brendan Shanahan with 335-goals and Luc Robitaille who notched 321. The others to follow, in order, would be Alexander Mogilny at 314, Teemu Selanne and Joe Sakic each at 313, Steve Yzerman at 301, Mats Sundin has 296, Dave Andreychuk with 290, Mike Modano at 282, Sergei Fedorov at 274, Mario Lemieux with 268, and Pavel Bure with 267. Hopefully I did not forget to include anybody in my tallying, but regardless, those numbers put Peter Bondra in great company.

Lastly, there are numerous other accolades that Bondra accomplished during his storied career that are worth noting. A gold medal at the World Hockey Championships with Team Slovakia in 2002, and a bronze in 2003; five NHL All-Star Game appearances (1993, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999); the NHL goal-scoring leader in 1995 and 1998; and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998.

When looking at Bondra’s career as a whole, he should seem an obvious choice for induction into the HHOF. And if not an inductee, at the very least he should be one of those names in the mix each year that makes it difficult to vote who makes it in or not.