May 26, 2016

Luciano Borsato

Luciano Borsato was always a long shot to make it in the National Hockey League.

But play he did - over 200 games with the Winnipeg Jets in the 1990s.

Undersized but undeterred, Borsato was drafted right out of high school. The Winnipeg Jets selected him 135th overall in 1984, drawn by his combination of determination and skill.

The Jets allowed Borsato to develop with four full seasons at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. When he wasn't dominating the ECAC scoring lists, he was busy earning any Ivy League degree in marketing.

The office job would have to wait, however. Upon graduation Borsato tried his luck with the pro game.

For Borsato that actually meant heading to Europe with the Jets' blessing. While he played a handful of games in the American Hockey League, he actually played with Tampere of Finland mostly. He would finish 4th overall in league scoring

Upon his return, Borsato suffered a serious groin and hip injury that would cost him one-and-a half seasons with no games played at all. He returned to action with Winnipeg’s farm team, the Moncton Hawks, in December, 1990. After a solid season in Moncton (’90-91), he was called up to play his first NHL game for Winnipeg, in Calgary, in March 1991, where he recorded his first NHL point, an assist on a Danton Cole goal, assisted also by Randy Carlyle.

Borsato was a coach's favorite as he gave 100 percent effort on every shift. He willingly accepted his job as a role player and vowed never to be outworked. He became a tenacious checking specialist with modest offensive skills aside from a burst of well-timed raw speed.

In 203 NHL games, between 1991-1995, all with Winnipeg, Borsato recorded 35 goals, 55 assists for 90 points, including back-to-back 15 goal seasons. He also had the privilege of sharing a first row seat to Teemu Selanne’s amazing NHL Rookie Record of 76 goals in the 1992-93 season and still has an autographed stick as a cherished memory.

“I have fond memories of Winnipeg. Like most Canadian kids, playing in a Canadian NHL city was a dream for me. Winnipeggers loved the team and supported us enthusiastically — the playoff white-outs with over 16,000 fans showing their unity all dressed in white would send shivers down your spine,” Borsato said.

Soon after leaving Winnipeg in 1995 Borsato helped Tom Renney's Team Canada win the bronze medal at the 1995 World Championships. Wearing the Canadian national team jersey always ranked as one of Borsato's biggest accomplishments.

 He then returned to Europe where he would play seven seasons in Germany, three in Finland and one in Switzerland.

In retirement Borsato operated his own online marketing and advertising services firms. He is also an avid motorsport enthusiast.

May 24, 2016

Vincent Lecavalier

Jean Beliveau retired in 1971, his place in hockey history secure. He would forever go down as one of the greatest hockey players of all time.

Nine years later Vincent Lecavalier was born in L'ile Bizard, Quebec. And by the time Lecavalier was emerged in 1996 as the next great superstar out of Quebec, 25 years had passed since Jean Beliveau last skated.

Yet, in a rare circumstance, Lecavalier would forever be compared to the legendary Hall of Famer from another generation. He idolized him, too, even though he never saw him play. Hence why Lecavalier, like Beliveau before him, wore #4 much of his career.

The comparisons were striking. Lecavalier was Beliveau's on-ice reincarnation. His size, his presence, and his mannerisms were so similar movie makers asked Lecavalier to play the role of Beliveau in a Rocket Richard biopic - the closest Lecavalier ever came to fulfilling his destiny - as many believed - as the next great French superstar of the Montreal Canadiens.

Lecavalier was a natural hockey star. He was on skates since the age of two. His father ran a hockey school. His grandfather endless told him stories of his favorite player - Beliveau.

As a youth Lecavalier's parents paid him 25 cents for each goal and a whole dollar for each assist he scored. They wanted him to be a complete player.

They also wanted him to be down-to-earth and classy off the ice by having him work at a summer camp for handicapped children.

As a teenager Lecavalier escaped the already mounting pressure of Quebec and left his Montreal home to attend the famed Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchwan. Lecavalier was hoping for a college scholarship to a big US university at that point.

But he was convinced to return to Quebec and play junior hockey in Rimouski. He was an immediate star and brought credibility to a struggling franchise.

Lecavalier was the first pick overall in the 1998 NHL draft, undeniably the best prospect in hockey since Eric Lindros. But he would be saddled with the extra pressure of having to carry a new expansion franchise - the Tampa Bay Lightning - both on and off the ice.

Not that it was easy. Phil Esposito, a hockey legend in his own right and the infamously politically incorrect general manager of the Lightning, said the draft choice was so obvious "even Ray Charles would have picked him."

That was nothing. It is one thing to grow up in Canada and be compared to Jean Beliveau. But upon his arrival in Tampa, but how about being compared to basketball Michael Jordan? Lightning owner Art Williams, perhaps in a bid to sell tickets, proclaimed the 18 year old to be "the Michael Jordan of hockey."

"It was said by a guy who never saw a hockey game," Lecavalier said years later. "He's not even around any more, but I still have to talk about it. I get asked about it at least 10 times a year."

The Lightning, like most expansion teams, was not a very good team for the first years. That weighed heavily on young Lecavalier, who was billed as a savior. It did not help that as a 19 year old he was named as team captain - the youngest captain in NHL history at that time.

"A lot of people thought he'd take over the league at 20," teammate Brad Richards said, "but that doesn't happen. There's only two or three people in 50 years can do that. He was with a bad organization. He lost a lot of games and it was tough on him."

"Its all about expectations," said Lecavalier. "When you get called first in the draft, believe me everyone expects you to lead the League in scoring, win a Stanley Cup and make the Hall of Fame. "There is no room for mediocrity. You are expected to be a star. Nothing less than greatness is acceptable. You could be a candidate for a psychiatrist's couch if you aren't level-headed to begin with."

Things got both worse and better when coach John Tortorella took over as coach. The two instantly rubbed each other the wrong way. Tortorella tore the "C" off Lecavalier and gave it to veteran Dave Andreychuk. Trade rumours were commonplace until Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said neither player or coach were going anywhere.

Though Tortorella was famously tough on Lecavalier, somehow they coexisted and improved. Neither may have ever liked each other very much, but it resulted in them sharing a Stanley Cup victory in Tampa Bay in 2004. Lecavalier set up the Cup winning goal in game seven, and famously fought Jarome Iginla earlier in the game.

At that time Lecavalier was emerging as arguably the best player in the world. His talent was undeniable. With his size and creativity he was at times unstoppable. But he also learned about winning.

"John was able to get to Vinny," veteran teammate Tim Taylor said. "To teach him it's all about winning. Vinny's realized that. He's helping on faceoffs and is becoming a lot better two-way player. That's a lot to do with the coach."

Lecavalier took those lessons to even higher levels. He was dominant at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, scoring the championship winning goal for Team Canada. He was also named as the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

By 2006-07 Lecavalier had his best season, winning the Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL's leading goal scorer with 52 and setting a Lightning team record with 106 points. It also resulted in an 11 year, $85 million contract extension.

The problem was the Lightning team was really struggling, despite Lecavalier's brilliance. And as the team continued to flounder, soon Lecavalier's point totals also headed south. His contract became an albatross as he was not producing enough for the enormous salary cap space he was occupying.

After 14 years and 1037 games, the Vincent Lecavlier era ended in Tampa Bay. The Lightning bought out his contract in 2013.

Lecavalier joined the Philadelphia Flyers on a five-year, $22.5 million contract, but soon found coach Peter Laviolette and general manager Paul Holmgren were removed from their jobs. They had committed to Lecavalier, but the new regime did not. He viewed him as a liability on the ice and another albatross on the salary cap ledgers.

Things got so bad Lecavalier was a healthy scratch for much of the 2014-15 and almost the entire 2015-16 season in Philadelphia. The once proud superstar was now being paid to practice. He knew he was not going to play.

All he wanted was a chance.

That chance came in 2016 when he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. In order to make the salary cap numbers work, Lecavalier had to agree he would retire at the end of the season, voiding the final two seasons on his contract and leaving a lot of money on the table.

Lecavalier re-emerged under coach Darryl Sutter and with the west coast Kings. His rebirth was short but a great story. Everyone in hockey was happy to see him happy again, as he fit in nicely on the Kings third line.

Despite proving that he could still play, Lecavalier was true to his word and planned on giving up the game of hockey. While it did not end like he had hoped, he had no regrets.

Vincent Lecavalier played in 1212 NHL games, scoring 422 goals, 527 games and 949 points. He was a Stanley Cup champion, World Cup MVP, NHL All Star, Rocket Richard scoring champion and an Olympian.

Phil Sykes

Phil Sykes, nicknamed Psycho as a play on his last name, survived in the NHL for parts of 10 seasons. In that time he collected 456 games player, 79 goals, 85 assists for 164 points. He added 3 assists in 26 playoff games as well.

Sykes, born in northern British Columbia, Sykes played for the University of North Dakota where he was part of two NCAA championships - one in 1980 and one in 1982. Both years he was named to the All Tournament team, and in 1982, his Senior year, he was named as the NCAA Championship MVP.

University hockey was still being dismissed as a true development source by the NHL even as late as 1982, although it was becoming more and more accepted. As a result, Phil was never drafted by the National Hockey League. He instead shopped his services around and signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings on April 5, 1982.

Sykes spent the next two years apprenticing in the minors, being called up for just 10 games of major league duty. By 1984-85 he had earned a full time roster spot, scoring 17 goals and 32 points. The following year he improved to 20 goals and 44 assists, modest totals for that era. His -26 was indicative of how poor his team was at the time.

That proved to be the best year statistically for Sykes. For the next three years he would see his role reduced to a 4th liner. Injuries hampered his game played totals significantly , and by the 1988-89 season, Sykes found himself back in the minor leagues.

His demotion was not for a lack of effort. Phil was a hard worker with tremendous work ethic. He was a popular player in the dressing room and was a coachable player. He was willing to do the glamour-less roles such as penalty killing and defensive 4th liner. He was an average skater with a weak shot, but he had decent puck skills and good anticipation.

Sykes began the 1989-90 season back in the minor leagues with the AHL New Haven Nighthawks and worked hard, hoping that someone if not the Kings themselves would reward him for his work. That reward came in the form of an early Christmas present, as on December 1, 1989 he was traded to Winnipeg in exchange for inexperienced speedball Brad Jones.

Sykes finished the season with Winnipeg, and played two more years in Manitoba. He added a nice veteran presence to the Jets.

Sykes retired at the end of the 1991-92 season.

Great Moments In Hockey History: Gretzky Downs Leafs In Game Seven

May 29, 1993: With the city of Toronto ready to erupt in celebration of the Leafs' first trip to a Stanley Cup Final since 1967, and with the Leafs eternal rivals the Montreal Canadiens already waiting in the Final, Wayne Gretzky steals the show. Gretzky scores a goal in each period - the third standing up as the game-winner - to lead the Los Angeles Kings to a Game 7 victory in Maple Leaf Gardens and into the 1993 Final.

Of course, Leafs fans remember it slightly differently. They will tell you there probably never should have been a game 7, as Wayne Gretzky got away with a high stick penalty in game 6:

May 22, 2016

Pat Riggin

Pat Riggin followed in his father's footsteps to become a National Hockey League goaltender.

Riggin's father was Dennis Riggin, who stopped pucks for Detroit in the early 1960s. The Riggins joined Sam and Pete LoPresti and Ron and Ron Grahame Jr. as rare father/son NHL goaltending combos.

Pat Riggin could be frustrating goalie to watch. Some nights he was spectacular, other nights he was erratic. Such was the way with a lot of 1980s goalies, it seemed. 

Riggin was a reflex goaltender who tried to adjust his game to the accepted stand-up style of the day. He was theatrical with the big kick save or his quick glove, but it was a good strategy by his coaches to try to get him to adapt as he was one of the best skating goalies at the time. 

When he was hot he was excellent, as good as any goalie in the league if only for fleeting stretches. When he struggled he lost his angles and flopped around too much and left juicy rebounds with too much of the net exposed.

Riggin had a strong junior career with the London Knights. He also had a strong showing at the 1977 Memorial Cup when he was loaned to the Ottawa 67s. Like his father before him (in 1953-54) Pat won the Pinkney Trophy as the top junior goaltender in Ontario in 1977.

The NHL had a 20-year old draft back then, so many top junior stars jumped to the World Hockey Association in order to earn paychecks. Riggin started his career in the World Hockey Association as one of the youngsters on the Birmingham Baby Bulls.

The Atlanta Flames drafted Riggin 33rd overal in 1979. He moved with the franchise to Calgary, playing three full seasons with the Flames. He would never find the consistency at that young age to establish himself as a bonafide number one NHL goalie. The Flames also had too many goalies, with Dan Bouchard and Reggie Lemelin joining Riggin in the crowded crease.

The Flames traded Riggin to Washington in 1982. Riggin is best remembered as a Capitals netminder, playing three full seasons and sharing the Jennings trophy with back up Al Jensen in 1984. Riggin was named to the NHL's second All Star Team that year after setting several single season records for Washington goalies.

Most of those records were quickly bettered by the man Riggin would be traded for early in the 1985-86 season. Riggin was moved to Boston in exchange for goaltender Pete Peeters. Some believe the Capitals were forced to make the move after Riggin criticized American hockey players in general, alienating some of his teammates.The Capitals at the time had the most American players in the league, including key players like Rod Langway, Dave Christian and Bobby Carpenter.

While Peeters was strong upon his debut in Washington, Riggin briefly in Boston before another brief tenure with Pittsburgh.

Riggin retired after the 1987-88 season. In 350 career NHL game he posted a 153-120-52 record with 15 shutouts.

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson of New Hope, Minnesota played in 13 seasons in the National Hockey League, totalling 829 career games.

Johnson jumped directly to the National Hockey League after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Even though he earned a reputation for himself as a solid defender and the school's all time leader in penalty minutes, he was never drafted by a NHL team. The Pittsburgh Penguins would sign him as a free agent in 1985.

He immediately established himself as a solid defensive defenseman. He sacrificed his average-sized body effectively, be it to take out intruding forwards or to block shots. He had excellent strength and was not afraid to battle. He came to work every night and his enthusiasm was contagious.

Offensively Johnson was not much of a presence. He kept his point shots low and got them through traffic with regularity. It allowed him to gather some assists on deflections and rebound goals. But his long stick was best used defensively to take the puck away from attackers.

Johnson played with the Penguins until December of 1990. It was a bittersweet move for Johnson, who was traded home to Minnesota. But he had worked so hard to help the Penguins emerge as a Stanley Cup contender, and now he left just before they would win back to back Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992.

To make matters worse, he had a great view of Pittsburgh's first championship, as Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and company lit up the Minnesota North Stars to win the Cup in 1991.

After following the Stars franchise to Dallas Johnson was spent time in Washington and Phoenix. Through it all he remained a reliable, steady defender and a quiet leader. Coaches and teammates loved his contributions, even if the headline writers overlooked them.

Unfortunately Jim Johnson's career came to a sudden end thanks to a serious head injury suffered in a Coyotes game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In total the stay-at-home defenseman scored 29 goals, 166 assists and 195 point his career. He also represented the United States at four World Championships and the 1991 Canada Cup.

Johnson stepped behind the bench after hanging up his skates.

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