September 03, 2015

Connie Brown

Connie Brown was a tiny but speedy pivot out of Vankleek Hill - the Gingerbread Capital of Ontario. It's a small agricultural town positioned between the hockey-mad metropolises of Ottawa and Montreal, as the crow flies. Only a couple of thousand of people live in there nowadays, but hockey has always been the community gathering point. Every year teams - featuriung former pros and junior and college players even - travel from all over Eastern Canada and Northeastern USA to compete in a popular 4-on-4 tourney called the Pond Rocket Cup.

For a town so small, quite a few local players went on to junior and college. Two even made it to the big leagues. Joe Matte in the 1920s and Connie Brown in the 1940s.

Brown was a playmaking wizard and an offensive dynamo. He stood just five-foot-seven and weighed only 165 pounds, but he was a slippery waterbug with his characteristic hop in his skating stride who was always a step ahead of the defender chasing him.

As an amateur he was often leading his team in scoring, including with the Ottawa Rideaus when they challenged for the Memorial Cup junior championship in 1935 and the Cornwall Royals when they won the Allan Cup senior hockey national championship in 1938.

It was soon after the Allan Cup that Brown signed with the Detroit Red Wings organization. Despite putting up some decent point totals in stretches with the Red Wings, Brown was mostly an AHL farmhand.

Stan Fischler tells a great story about Brown while playing for the Red Wings in the book Detroit Red Wings: Greatest Moments and Players:

His days as a farmhand appeared to be changing by the 1942-43 season. He got into 23 games with the Wings that season, scoring 5 goals and 21 points, solid numbers by any means.

But his imminent NHL arrival was interrupt by - like so many young hockey players back then - World War II obligations. He was summoned back to the Ottawa area to work in a supporting role for Canadian troops.

He never returned to professional hockey. He starred at the senior hockey level, playing in Ottawa, Quebec and Nova Scotia. He later coached in Ottawa too.

Connie Brown passed away in 1966, just 49 years old.

Bryce Salvador

New Jersey Devils captain Bryce Salvador announced his retirement this week.

The 39 year old missed much of the last two NHL seasons with a debilitating back injury and previously suffered from serious concussion problems.

"I could just see that the body wasn't responding as it used to and it was just getting more and more difficult to stay healthy. And the position that I was in, being the captain, this last season it was really tough to be the team leader and not be present. So I just kind of realized that even though I can play, I feel I can play and come back, I just didn't know if I'd be able to make it a full season. Knowing that, I just kind of really said, 'Does it make sense to put myself in that situation when the mind is still there and I feel good, but maybe the body is telling me it's time?'"

Salvador played 13 seasons in the NHL with the Blues and the Devils. He played 786 NHL games, scoring 24 goals and 86 assists. No, offense was not his forte. He was a stay-at-home defender who excelled at blocking shots and deflecting passes.

He was actually a sixth round pick (138th overall) of the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 1994. He had a strong junior career with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, finishing in 1997 as the Western Hockey League Champions. But he never signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Instead Salvador signed with the St. Louis Blues organization in the summer of 1997. The Blues were likely looking for depth on the farm team, and that is exactly where the defensive defenseman played for the first three seasons of his career.

But Salvador worked tirelessly at improving his game and made the Blues as a full time player from 2001 through 2008. He was then traded to New Jersey where he continued on for seven more years.

Back injuries aside, Salvador's toughest season had to be the 2010-11 season which he missed entirely due to concussion problems.

Salvador shared the experience in a must-read feature at The Players' Tribune

The slap shot hit me in the face with 53 seconds left in the game. I could actually feel the force of the puck go all the way through my head and then out my right ear. My teammates on the New Jersey Devils immediately rushed over to where I was slumped on the ice. I looked up, bleeding badly from my face, and saw all these blurry red jerseys standing over me. Their mouths were moving, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. All I heard was a high-pitched ringing.

When I got home that night to my wife and kids, my ears were still ringing. I could barely hear what my wife was saying. Two days later, we played the Rangers. I played 20 minutes and had an assist."

But, in true Salvador fashion, he turned that negative experience into a positive.

"When I missed the whole season, as funny as it might sound, that's kind of a little bit when I just saw what retirement was about," Salvador said. "So ever since I missed that season I realized it was going to end, and I think going through that year off and then playing every game I played after missing that year I looked at it as just being fortunate."

He also used the concussion as motivation to return to the ice. He want to play until his children were old enough to understand that their dad played in the National Hockey League.

"I achieved my goal of coming back so that my boys would be able to remember me as an NHL player, and now I am content to step away on my own terms," Salvador wrote in The Players' Tribune. "Here I am, 786 regular season and 74 playoff games later, retiring as a captain. No matter what anybody says, they can’t take this away from me."

He did return and helped the Devils reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, before eventually bowing to the Los Angeles Kings.

Salvador announced he will continue representing the Devils in retirement as he works with youth hockey programs in New Jersey.

"I want to pass on the lessons of perseverance, sacrifice, and determination that I was fortunate enough to have learned while playing hockey. If I believe in one thing in life, it’s that hockey is a force for good. It can change kids’ lives and give them an outlet so that no matter what’s going on with them personally, they can get on the ice for a few hours and forget about everything but that little black piece of rubber."

September 02, 2015

Pat McReavy

Pat McReavy was born in Owen Sound, Ontario on January 16th, 1918. He grew up excelling at all sports, including baseball, lacrosse and even horseshoes. But it was hockey that he loved most.

The game would take him all over the world.

McReavy was a Memorial Cup star with the Copper Cliff Redmen, posting an amazing 15 goals and 36 points in 12 playoff games, falling just one win short, dropping the championship game 2-1 to the Winnipeg Monarchs.

McReavy took a chance by heading north to Copper Cliff. He was playing with the famed St. Michaels Majors school, the private Roman Catholic school that his brothers also attended. Two of his brothers became priests, but Pat left school and accepted a job in the Nickel Belt.

His path to the Memorial Cup actually went through his old teammates at St. Mikes. It was McReavy, playing on a line with Red Hamill and Ron Heximer, who led the northerns past the kids from the big city.

“Pat McReavy, a centre-ice wizard, impressed Toronto observers as the best junior they’d seen all winter,” wrote the Canadian Press.

McReavy also impressed was Art Ross, manager of the Boston Bruins. He signed McReavy to a contract in 1937, but there was some worldly adventure in store for McReavy before he headed to the National Hockey League.

McReavy, along with three Copper Cliff junior teammates, joined the Sudbury Wolves for the 1937-38 season, including the Wolves undefeated exhibition tour through Europe en route to the World Championships in Prague. The team played in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Britain and other cities in Czechoslovakia before winning the World title. McReavy scored the game winning goal.

Another newspaper report raved about McReavy.

“Very fast and shifty with an abundance of hockey brain . . . Has a hard shot and is very accurate when in on the nets. The humourist of the club. One of the cleanest players in amateur hockey.”

McReavy joined the Boston Bruins in the 1938-39 season, though he would apprentice in the minor leagues for most of his three seasons there. But by the spring of 1941 McReavy helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup. After playing in just seven games in the regular season, he played in all 11 playoff games, scoring two goals and four points. His name was inscribed on the Stanley Cup, although they spelled it wrong as Pat McCeavy!

“He wasn’t particularly fast, but he was very brainy,” Bruins great Milt Schmidt remembered. “He was a very good playmaker. Defensively, well, of course we all were just so-so defensively. But he was a good playmaker. Offensively, he was a very good hockey player.”

McReavy would play only one game with the Bruins in the next season before he was traded to Detroit. The move was good for McReavy as he played what proved to be his only full NHL season in Detroit. He was just a depth player for the Red Wings, but almost won another Stanley Cup. The Wings lost game seven of the Stanley Cup final to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

World War II obligations ended his NHL career. For the next three seasons he was stationed at several bases in Quebec. He continued to play hockey, enough so that he could attempt to return to the NHL upon his discharge in 1944. He played two more seasons in the AHL before retiring as a pro.

But McReavy's hockey days were far from over. He returned home to Owen Sound in 1947 and played senior amateur hockey until 1952. He led the Owen Sound Mercurys to the Allan Cup national championship in 1951. The Mercurys would return as champions in 1954, this time with McReavy behind the bench.

McReavy was also well known in town for working at the Dominion Motors Ford dealership.

Pat McReavy passed away in 2001. He was 83 years old.

August 31, 2015

Church Russell

Church Russell was a Memorial Cup star, leading the Winnipeg Rangers to the national junior championship in 1943. He was a good goal scorer and a very clean player - only twice in his entire junior and professional career did he reach double digits for an entire season's penalty minute total.

His pro career was put on hold by World War II service, followed by a slow start in the minor leagues.

In 1945-46 Russell really found his way as he starred with the New York Rovers on "The Atomic Line" with Cal Gardner and Rene Trudell. They wowed sold out Madison Square Gardens crowds. Gardner, who went on to become a very good NHLer, led the way with 41 goals and 73 points in 40 games. Russell was right there behind him, with a team best 43 assists and 70 total points in 38 games.

With the Rangers struggling to make the playoff, manager Frank Boucher called up the entire Rovers top line for nearly 20 games. However The Atomic Line didn't do so well, especially Russell who had just five assists in 17 games.

In 1946-47 Russell redeemed himself with a 20 goal season, which tied him for second most on the Rangers team. But in 1947-48 he got off to a horrible starting, going goalless in  19 games before the Rangers demoted him to the minor leagues, replaced initially by George "Wingy" Johnston. Russell would return briefly when an automobile accident sidelined four Rangers players including Buddy O'Connor.

Russell left with 20 career goals and 36 points in 90 total NHL games.

In the book We Are The Rangers, Cal Gardner gives his insight as to why Church Russell did not last long in the National Hockey League.

"What happened was that Russell - who looked so good as a Rover - just couldn't cut it in the NHL and it had a lot to do with the fact that the game was rougher up there and Church got a bit 'puck-shy.' Or, as they like say when a player doesn't want to get hurt, 'Russell started to throw a little snow.' He was a good guy and a good hockey player but he got a little scared of the body contact and that cut his Rangers' career short."

Gerry James

Gerry James was a fantastic junior player out of Winnipeg. He helped the Toronto Marlies win the Memorial Cup championship in 1955. He then stepped right out of junior to play three seasons as a depth winger with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And he did all of this after establishing himself a star player in the Canadian Football League.

Gerry James was the Canadian version of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders in his day. He is actually better known for playing in the Canadian Football League. with his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1952 to 1963, and the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1964. He helped the Blue Bombers reach the Grey Cup Final on six occasions (1953, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962), and establish a dynasty with four championships in five seasons (1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962).

He actually started playing in the CFL at the age of seventeen - one of the youngest player in league history. In 1954 he became the very first recipient of the Most Outstanding Canadian award. He also held the single-season record for most rushing touchdowns (43) for almost half a century. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1981

A leg injury in a football match forced James to miss the entire 1958-59 NHL season, though he returned with the Leafs in 1959-60 for what proved to be his final season. By doing so he helped the Leafs reach the Stanley Cup final. Though Toronto would not win, James became the first and only athlete to compete for both the Grey Cup and the Stanley Cup in the same season.

 He would continue to play and coach senior hockey off and on throughout the 1960s. He would also coach in Switzerland with HC Davos and returned to Canada to become a legendary junior coach in Saskatchewan.

Gord Lane

Gordie Lane was not the biggest defenseman around, but he sure played as if he was.

Lane was an aggressive defensive defenseman who made quite the name for himself in junior with his hometown Brandon Wheat Kings, as well as in one season with the New Westminster Bruins.

The Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him 134th overall in the 1973 Entry Draft, but he signed with the club. Instead, he became a minor-league brawler in the IHL with the Fort Wayne Comets and the Dayton Gems - not an enviable job in the 1970s. It was even less-enviable when the Fort Wayne fans took a disliking to him and created a "We Hate Gordie Lane" fan club. On top of it all, Lane had to deal with a stuttering speech impediment.

In 1976, he signed as a free agent with the lowly Washington Capitals. Amazingly he went from minor league nobody into a NHL regular, albeit on a very weak Capitals team. Over the next four seasons he introduced himself to every forward in the league with his hard hitting, abrasive play. He was not a true heavyweight but he was a no non-sense, hard hitting player.

Perhaps it was because the Capitals were so bad at this time but not too many people noticed that he was developing into more than a bruiser. If he stayed within his limitations he could provide solid minutes at the NHL level.

Bill Torrey, Al Arbour and the New York Islanders recognized this and traded Mike Kaszycki for him prior to Christmas 1979. Talk about a great early Christmas gift - Lane went from a bottom feeder to the exciting Islanders just in time to help them win four consecutive Stanley Cup championships. He transitioned into a solid depth defenseman and leader.

Forming an effective tandem with Ken Morrow in the early days allowed the Islanders to trade defenseman Dave Lewis and forward Billy Harris to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Butch Goring - the final piece of the championship puzzle in New York.

Lane played 540 games in the NHL, putting up 113 points in 10 seasons, while also serving 1,228 minutes in penalties.

The highlight of his career was, of course, winning that first Stanley Cup.

"For me, it’s stepping on the ice for the sixth game of the (Philadelphia) Flyers series, our first Stanley Cup," Lane said. "You could not hear anything because it was just so noisy. Nowadays you go into a building and they have the decibel meters to try and get the crowd going. They didn’t need that then."

Lane offered some insight into the keys to the Islanders' dynasty success.

"We had four guys who were the real core," he said. "We had Denis Potvin, (Mike) Bossy, (Bryan) Trottier and in nets, Billy Smith. He was maybe not the most talented goaltender of his era but nobody battled harder. The rest of us just did our jobs."

Lane was an interesting person off the ice, too. While playing attended Howard Community College and the University of Maryland's University College, piecing together an accounting degree. He worked in the off-seasons with Canadian National railroad and started a commercial honey form with his brother. Somehow he'd always find time to fish and hunt every summer, too.

After trying his hand at coaching at the junior and minor pro level, Lane settled in Columbia, Maryland and studied architecture at Montgomery College. He later founded Lane Building Services. He reconnected with the Washington Capitals and has served as the president of the alumni association and overseas their charitable endeavors.

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