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July 28, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Alex Motter

Versatile Alex Motter played both defense and center, though mostly up front as a pro. He was noted for his relentless backchecking defensively, and his ability to crash the slot for scoring chances offensively. Not that Alex Motter ever scored a lot of goals. But his coaches and fans appreciated his effort level.

The Melville, Saskatchewan native first came to fame with the Regina Pats, helping them to the Memorial Cup final in 1933. The Pats came up short against the Newmarket Redmen from Ontario, losing both games 2-1 The rivalry over-boiled in the final game when the game ended in a controversial triple overtime (dubbed "a thrilling struggle") which led to four Pats players (not including Motter) to be suspended for roughing up the referee.

Motter would spend one more year is Saskatchewan, playing senior hockey with the Prince Albert Mintos before turning pro in the Boston Bruins organization. He was used sparingly by the Bruins, mostly as a farmhand for four seasons. He did get in a total of 26 games wearing black and gold, scoring one goal and five points.

Just days before Christmas 1937 the Bruins would trade Motter to Detroit in exchange for Clarence Drouillard. By 1939 he became a regular on the Red Wings roster. Over six seasons with Detroit he scored 38 goals and 98 points in 230 games.

His days in Detroit ended on a high note as the Wings hoisted the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1943, defeating Motter's old team, the Boston Bruins.

Motter's NHL career came to an end thanks to military duty. He would return to the pro ranks upon his discharge in 1946. He would play three more seasons all in the AHL.

July 27, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Frank Mahovlich

Frank Mahovlich is one of a very select few who would star with Canada's two most cherished sports franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. He also starred with the Detroit Red Wings.

Starting his career in Toronto, The Big M is arguably Toronto's most cherished hockey hero, yet also one of its most criticized.

The Leafs enjoyed their greatest success with Mahovlich leading the way. He helped them to 4 Stanley Cup championships in the 1960s. Mahovlich was a big man with a long powerful stride that powered himself through the opposing team's defense. Add to that his uncanny stickhandling and an overpowering shot, and Mahovlich was pretty much a perfect hockey player.

In his book Maple Leaf Legends, author Mike Leonetti describes Mahovlich:

"Mahovlich moved like a thoroughbred, with a strong, fluid style that made it look as if he was galloping through the opposition. In full flight, he was an imposing figure. An explosive skater, Mahovlich could spot the right moment to turn it on and burst in on goal. He had a great move where he would take the puck off the wing, cut into the middle of the ice and try to bust through two defencemen for a chance on goal. He didn't always get through but when he did he scored some memorable goals. His style of offence caused teammate Dave Keon to remark: Nobody scores goals better than Frank."

Despite the team's great success and Mahovlich's status as one of the greatest of his day, many believed we never got to see the best of The Big M. Most of his best years were spent in Toronto under boss Punch Imlach. Imlach, who could never pronounce Frank's last name, tried to reign in Mahovlich. He and Mahovlich never got along. Imlach was an old stubborn hockey man who was determined to break Mahovlich, who just shrugged off Imlach's antics, although he secretly hurt for years. Therefore, many believed as good as Mahovlich was, he could have been better under a different coach.

Mahovlich tried to become the player his coach wanted him to become as well, focusing on defense more and more instead of going on the attack at all times. This lead to many fans turning against their hero. They had seen how good he could be, why was he holding back so much?

A talented and diverse athlete (he turned down an offer from the Boston Red Sox organization to play pro baseball), Mahovlich entered the league in 1958. That year he won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, beating out another hotshot left winger named Bobby Hull.

Frank played parts of 12 seasons in Toronto. He was a constant 30 goal threat, topping out at 48 in 1960-61 when he played on a line with Red Kelly and Bob Nevin. In that year he actually reached 48 goals with 14 games remaining. Poised to break Rocket Richard's record of 50 goals, Mahovlich inexplicably went into a scoring slump. When talk around the league should have been about the 23 year old's magnificent season, it was all about his year end slump.

Mahovlich and the Leafs would win the Stanley Cup for three consecutive seasons starting in 1962, and capture a 4th title in the much ballyhooed 1967 season. During this time Mahovlich averaged over 30 goals a year, but there was much criticism of him from coach Imlach and a loud number of the fans who bought into Imlach's campaign. It seemed nothing Mahovlich could do was good enough. Things got so bad that the Big M was actually hospitalized with acute tension and depression, and later would leave the game after suffering a nervous breakdown. Described as a shy and sensitive person, the hockey prodigy paid a high price for hockey stardom.

Mahovlich was dealt to Detroit in 1968 in one of hockey's biggest blockbuster deals. Garry Unger and Pete Stemkowski went with The Big M to Detroit in exchange for Paul Henderson, Norm Ullman and Floyd Smith. In Detroit he was teamed with Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio on a line that would leave goalies sleepless the night before facing the Wings. Relieved from the pressures of Toronto, Frank enjoyed his best season as a Wing. In 1968-69 he scored 49 goals!

Frank's tenure in Detroit was fairly short-lived as in 1971 he was moved to the Montreal Canadiens and helped them to two Stanley Cup Championships thus giving him 6 rings of his own. He also cherished the opportunity to play with his little brother, Peter. Frank averaged 37 goals a season in 3 full seasons in Montreal. Mahovlich was absolutely dominant in the two Stanley Cup seasons he spent in Montreal, leading the team in scoring in the 1971 playoffs and finishing 2nd in the 1973 campaign.

After 3 years with Montreal he jumped to the World Hockey Association with, somewhat surprisingly, the Toronto Toros and later the Birmingham Bulls. In all he spent 4 seasons in the WHA before retiring in 1978.

His effortless style made some fans wonder if he could have been better. 533 goals and 1103 points, 9 NHL All Star teams and 6 Stanley Cup rings tells you just how good he was.

One of the classiest people you'll ever meet, nowadays "The Big M" is known as Senator Frank Mahovlich. In 1998 he was appointed to the Canadian senate by Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

July 26, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Dennis Maruk

Dennis Maruk turned out alright for a guy who was supposed to be too small to play professional hockey. He played in 888 National Hockey League games, accumulating an impressive 356 goals and 522 assists for 878 points. Included in those totals are back-to-back seasons of 50 and 60 goals respectively, and a 136 point season!

So how does a 5'8" center thrive in the National Hockey League?

"I remember as a 19-year-old being worried when I went to pro camp, so I asked Dave Hutchison what it was going to take for me to make it," Maruk said. "He told me that I could score goals and make plays, but that I had to stay aggressive -- always be aggressive. I always remembered that and it helped me stay in the NHL."

Dennis was an aggressive player, almost chippy at times. But he was a clean player too, only picking up more than 100 PIM in a season just once. Ironically that was Maruk's best year. Maruk scored 60 goals and 136 points in 1981-82, and had 128 PIM.

Dennis was drafted by the California Golden Seals in 1975 after a spectacular career with the OHA's London Knights. In his final year of junior he scored 66 goals and 145 points in 65 games.

Dennis stepped right into the NHL the next year, and did not disappoint. Right from that first season he showed he had what it took to play in the National Hockey League, despite his lack of size. He scored 30 goals and 32 assists in a full 80 game schedule.

The Seals franchise relocated to Cleveland where Dennis played the next two years. He scored 28 goals and 78 points in 1976-77 and 36 goals and 71 points in 1977-78.

The Cleveland Barons entered the NHL's graveyard after 1978 and Maruk became a member of the Minnesota North Stars. But not for long. After only 2 games in a North Stars jersey, Dennis was traded to Washington in exchange for a first round pick. Minnesota used the pick to select highly regarded Tom McCarthy. Maruk went on to become a superstar.

Maruk elevated his play to 90 points in 76 games in his first season with the Caps. However his second season was forgettable. He was on pace for another 80-plus point year but injuries shortened his season to just 27 games.

Maruk came back with vengeance in 1980-81 and showed the North Stars how wrong they were to give up on him, and showed the Caps how right they were for picking him up. Maruk played in all 80 games and scored 50 goals and 97 points!

Maruk dwarfed his own numbers in 1981-82 when he turned in one of the best single season performances in National Hockey League history. He scored 60 goals and 136 points in 80 games, still team records.

Maruk failed to reproduce his incredible season a year later, and slipped back to a point a game level of production, scoring 81 points in 80 games. However for the first time in his stay in Washington, the Capitals made the Stanley Cup playoffs. Despite his incredible efforts in the past, Maruk finally got his first taste of post season action. It was short lived as the Caps lasted only 4 games.

The North Stars tried to correct past wrongs in the summer of 1983 when they traded their 2nd round pick to Washington in exchange for Maruk. The Caps felt that despite being only 28, Maruk's best days were behind him, as experienced in his 55 point decline from the year before.

Maruk's arrival meant a glut at center ice in Minnesota. Bobby Smith and Neal Broten were already there which meant that Dennis would be a third line center. The Stars ended up trading Smith to Montreal during the season but Dennis never did find his scoring niche in Minnesota.

Maruk played parts of the next 6 years in Minnesota, scoring 60 points in each of his first two years and 58 in his third. He slipped to 46 in year 4 before a severe knee injury all but ended his career. He played in only 28 more games over the next two season before his shattered knee forced him to retire in 1989.

Ten years after his retirement from hockey, the name Dennis Maruk once again appeared on professional hockey box scores. Maruk, who was living in Lake Charles, Louisiana, suited up for eight games this season with Lake Charles Pirates in the Western Professional Hockey League, a very low minor league made up of teams from Texas and Louisiana. However Maruk's story was not about an old player making a silly comeback. Maruk reasoned he was just "filling in because the team had some injuries and were short a few players." Maruk picked up two assists.

Maruk and his wife Kim opened an antiques store in Louisiana. Dennis also keeps busy with the developing hockey programs down there.

Dennis Maruk quietly was one of the most electrifying athletes in hockey during his hey-day, yet in many ways he slipped away without anyone noticing. Why is that?

"I never played for teams that were very good, or that got a lot of coverage. Those teams never seemed to be in contention. Even the Washington teams (that) I had 50 and 60 goals for, (they) weren't very good teams. One thing I did do -- played the game at 100 per cent all the time."

Maruk will likely never join the Hockey Hall of Fame, but three of his sticks reside there. They included an all-star game stick and the sticks he used to score goal 351 and his 60th in 1982.

July 25, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Valeri Zelepukin

Valeri Zelepukin was a classic Soviet winger. While he was not the fastest skater on the ice, he had tremendous acceleration to get a quick start on anybody. He also had great balance and agility, allowing him to over come any physical disadvantage. Yet he was a surprisingly gritty player, making him a nice two-way fit in New Jersey.

The left winger had a hard and accurate shot which he was never shy to unleash. His most famous goal had to have been in the 1994 playoffs when he scored with just 7.7 seconds remaining in game 7 against the New York Rangers. The goal forced overtime, but ultimately the Devils would lose that spring. Zelepukin and his teammates managed to overcome heartbreak and celebrate their own Stanley Cup championship in 1995.

Zelepukin actually missed most of that season with a scary eye injury after being hit with a puck in practice. He was never the same player after that. While he remained a solid two way player, his offense dried up. Only now and again would we see glimpses of the dynamic offensive player he promised to be.

Prior to the eye injury some even compared him to the great Peter Stastny. Here's what Stastny, who centered Zelepukin early in his career with New Jersey, had to say about Valeri:

"He creates intricate little plays with the puck, and he creates extra time for people," Stastny said. "You can see he does things that most players have difficulty doing."

Interestingly, Claude Lemieux also played on that line. It made for an interesting mix, according to Stastny. 

"I guarantee you that you will see no more full blasts when more and more Europeans like Valery come into the league," Stastny said. "I think that we have some elements on the Devils now to finally make the most of our talent by moving the puck into the offensive zone rather than blasting it around the boards and taking the chance of giving it away."

Before coming to the NHL Zelepukin played in Russia for seven seasons, first with Khimik Voskresensk from 1984-1987, with CSKA Moscow in 1987-1989, and then again with Khimik Voskresensk from 1989-1991. Zelepukin tallied 36 goals in his seven seasons in Russia.

Zelepukin's first games in North America was as part of the Central Army team that played various NHL Teams in 1989. This lead the Devils to select Zelepukin in the 13th round (221st overall) at the 1990 entry draft. Zelepukin made his NHL debut on December 19, 1991.

Zelepukin played seven seasons with the Devils, winning a Stanley Cup in 1995.

Zelepukin was traded to the Edmonton Oilers along with Bill Guerin for Jason Arnott and former Blackhawk Bryan Muir on January 4, 1998. Zelepukin finished the season in Edmonton before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Daniel Leroux on October 5, 1998. Zelepukin played the next two seasons in Philadelphia before signing with the Blackhawks.

Soon enough Zelepukin was demoted to Chicago's farm team, never to be heard from again in NHL circles. He did return to Russia to play in the KHL for four seasons. He retired from hockey in 2006.

In 595 regular season games Valeri Zelepukin scored 117 goals and 177 assists for 294 points. He added 13 goals and 13 assists in 85 playoff games, winning the Stanley Cup in 1995. He was also a part of the Russian Olympic team that won silver in 1998.

July 24, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Tapio Levo

When the Colorado Rockies spent a lot of time and money to bring Tapio Levo to the NHL, many NHL scouts predicted he could be one of the very best European imports in league history. 

At 26 he was a veteran of European hockey. With his slick mobility and incredible puck skills, many felt that Levo would be as good as Finnish legend and Calgary Flames all star. Pekka Rautakallio. The Rockies even brought in Veli Pekka Ketola and Jukka Porvari to make him feel at home. 

On the ice Levo felt at home. He had an impressive 9 goals and 22 points in just 34 games in his rookie season. Unfortunately he suffered a broken arm early in the season, keeping him out of half of the season. 

The Rockies moved from Colorado to New Jersey the following year. And Levo moved with them. He managed to stay healthy in 1982-83 and scored 7 goals and 47 points in 73 games with the horrendous Devils team. 

Like many Finnish players of the early 1980s, Levo's stay in North America was short. Once his contract expired he bolted back to Europe and escaped the New Jersey swamp lands. He continued to play in his hometown with Assat Pori (winning the national championship in 1978) until the end of the decade.

Internationally Tapio skated for Finland in five world championships, the 1976 and 1981 Canada Cup and, as team captain, the 1980 Olympics.

July 23, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Steve Yzerman

Heroic. Unselfish. Intelligent. Leader. Complete. These are just a few of the adjectives used to describe Hockeytown's Steve Yzerman.

Once he was scoring machine that used to single-handedly destroy the opposition with mind-boggling individual efforts night after night. Later he became forever remembered as the grizzled veteran captain that puts the team ahead of himself and accepts responsibility for all situations on the ice. 

Steve Yzerman is a winner.

Stevie Y came out of junior hockey straight into the Detroit Red Wings camp in 1983. The Nepean, Ontario native was an outstanding center with legendary junior coach Dick Todd and his Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, from 1981 to 1983. He had 91 points in 56 games in his second year with the Petes, but his numbers were far from what a future NHL phenom would have had because Peterborough skated four lines, each having equal playing time.

Jim Devellano, the Wings GM at the time, had originally set his sights on Michigan native Pat LaFontaine for the 1983 draft, but his plans were foiled when LaFontaine was taken 3rd by the Islanders. With some disappointment, the Red Wings were left with the small Yzerman with the 4th overall pick. (Brian Lawton and Sylvain Turgeon went 1 & 2, respectively.)

Any notion of disappointment or concern about his size quickly disappeared. Yzerman arrived at training camp in 1983, "he immediately was our best player," said Devellano, who opened camp already deciding Yzerman would return to Peterborough. Instead Yzerman jumpstarted the Motor City, immediately giving the Wings hopes that finally they had found the player that would lead them back to respectability. In his rookie season, Yzerman scored 39 goals and 87 points and announced to the hockey world the Y-man had cometh.

Steve's great play would continue, but it was in the spring of 1987 when Yzerman first began is catapult to superstardom. That year he led the Wings deep into the playoffs, scoring 18 points in 16 games. He followed that up the next season by registering his first 50 goal and 100 point campaigns, and he did that in only 64 games.

The following season saw his point totals explode to the level that only Gretzky and Lemieux dared to enter. In 80 games Stevie Y scored 65 times while assisting on 90 others for 155 points! All three of those stats are Red Wing team records. For his efforts, Yzerman was voted by the players as the best player in the league that season, winning the Lester B. Pearson Trophy.

Proving that the previous season was no strange fluke, Yzerman duplicated his scoring feats by registering 62 twine-twisters with 65 assists for 127 points.

Despite the incredible offensive output by the Cranbrook, BC-born superstar, Yzerman never once made either the First or Second All Star Team. Nor did he win an Art Ross as the scoring leader. That's what happens when Gretzky and Lemieux were also around in their primes. No one, not even Stevie Y, could obtain their status or touch their trophies. Once you include the great Mark Messier as well, players as great as Steve Yzerman were unthinkably left off of Team Canada's national teams at Canada Cups.

Back in Detroit, despite being the one-man highlight film, the Red Wings had little playoff success to speak of.

This one man show of offensive fireworks would continue until the 1993-94 season when something happened in Yzerman's career. He sacrificed his own scoring exploits to become one of the best two way players in the history of the game. 

While this transformation coincided with the arrival of Scotty Bowman, who gets much of the credit for the reworked masterpiece, it was Yzerman who deserves full credit. Dating back to his junior days he was always a solid two way player. Now he opted to focus his gifts equally all over the ice as opposed to just on offense. Stevie Wonder would turn from a rather one-dimensional offensive machine into one of the greatest two way players in the history of the sport. 

Yzerman became perhaps the most complete player of the 1990s, continuing his offensive production, though at a lower rate, while dominating his defensive zone with vigor. In the process, Yzerman became a leader. He knew that becoming a more complete player was what was necessary for him to succeed and the Wings to win. His example spurred great things in Hockeytown.

Soon after this transformation, the Wings have began a mini-dynasty. Three Stanley Cups in five years, including back-to-back championships.

In 1995, Yzerman led Detroit to its first Stanley Cup finals series, the first for the team since the 1960s, but they were swept by the New Jersey Devils. In 1996, Detroit finished with an NHL record 62 regular season wins but they lost in the Conference finals to the eventual champions Colorado Avalanche.

In 1997, Yzerman led Detroit to its first Stanley Cup in 42 years by sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers in 4 straight games. The following year Detroit repeated the feat, taking four in a row from the Washington Capitals. Yzerman's leadership and 24 points earned him the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. In an act of class, Yzerman handed the Cup first to the paralyzed Vladimir Konstantinov, a Red Wing defenseman who had been injured severely in a car accident just six days after the Cup victory in 1997.

Playoff frustrations would haunt the Red Wings in the following years, but they would regain the silver chalice in 2002. That year Yzerman turned in one of the most amazing seasons by any player in NHL history. Due to a hobbling knee injury, Yzerman, almost literally playing on one leg, led Canada to its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years before leading the Wings to their 3rd Stanley Cup championship in five years.

Steve Yzerman is no longer the high scoring one-man show of the Detroit Red Wings. Instead he is one of the game's most complete players ever. He is one the greatest leaders the ice has ever known. And most importantly, he is the captain of the 3 Stanley Cup Championships. 

One of the NHL's true all time greats, Steve Yzerman is what hockey is all about.

The 41-year-old Yzerman is a Detroit sports icon, the longest-serving captain in NHL history (19 seasons). He and Gordie Howe are widely regarded as the greatest players in franchise history. Yzerman ranks seventh on the NHL's career list in goals (692) and assists (1,063) and sixth in points (1,755).

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