February 16, 2023

The Kid Who Was Better Than Gretzky

The NHL is full of amazing young talent these days. Sometimes it's hard to remember that these amazing athletes are just kids.

These kids are some impressive in the way they handle the immense pressures they face. The media and fan exposure, especially in Canada, is unlike anything most of these kids have ever encountered. Then there is pressures from coaches and scouts and media and fans judging their every move, and therefore greatly impacting their lifelong hockey dreams.

Not often enough are the pressures of youth and junior hockey stars face brought to the forefront. Even midget level kids and below are often targets of on ice bullies, hazing teammates and unrelenting parents, sometimes their own. Teenagers are pressured into leaving their home, often move 100s of miles away, to pursue an unrealistic NHL dream or at least a US college scholarship. If they are really good, they have to deal with growing distractions from NHL scouts and agents, pressuring coaches and physical trainers, pesky media, and outside interests.

And all this before they graduate high school. Oh yeah, education, that all-too-often forgotten about demand.

When you think about it, it is amazing as many of these kids make it as far as they do. For many, the game ceases to be fun.

You have to wonder for every Wayne Gretzky who thrived in these conditions, how many other great hockey players quit early or burned out.

The answer is many. Take for example Bob Goodish.

Goodish was a superstar youngster who played against Gretzky from ages 8 through 16, from peewee hockey to the OHA. Goodish was a 6'0" 195 lb defenseman at age 14, a can't miss prospect that Gretzky will tell you was the best youth player he ever played against.

In an interview with Mike Brophy for the book Total Gretzky, Gretzky said this of Goodish:
"I can always remember my dad saying, 'Play like (Goodish) and you'll play in the NHL. He had everything; he had speed, he had hockey sense, he had size. In peewee he was probably a better player than me."
Now that is saying something. He later called Goodish the best minor hockey player he had ever seen, with Paul Reinhart a close second.

Goodish would join the OHA's London Knights, but would soon fizzle out. His undistinguished junior career got him no interest from the NHL draft, only a training camp tryout offer from the Colorado Rockies. He turned it down, heading off to university instead. He got a degree in business, and became a stock broker and mutual fund salesman.

In the same Brophy article, Goodish said:
"I was a victim of junior hockey. A lot of people took the fun out of the game for me, the way they treated people. The coaches, the managers, the owners, they're in it to make money. I understand that. The thing is, (we were) just kids."
There is no doubt in my mind that some kid, somewhere quit the game as a teenager because it no longer was fun for him. I have no idea who that player was, but his unfulfilled destiny was to become the greatest player in the history of hockey.

January 30, 2023

Bobby Hull Passes Away

 Long before he joined the NHL, Bobby Hull was labeled a sure-fire NHL player. And he didn't disappoint.

Although he didn't invent the slap shot, his uncanny accuracy and amazing power popularized the shot to this day. Goalies would cower when he wound up. Hull led the league in goal scoring in seven seasons. He scored an amazing 610 regular season goals, and over 300 more with the WHA's Jets. He was the first player to record more than 50 goals in one season (54); won the Art Ross Trophy three times, the Hart Trophy twice, the Lady Byng once, and the Lester Patrick Trophy once; Bobby also dominated all-star selections, being named to 10 first all-star teams, and 2 second teams. No wonder why Bobby is considered by many to be the best left winger in the history of the game.

Hull helped bring a Stanley Cup to Chicago, in 1961, as the Black Hawks beat the Detroit Red Wings four games to two. Hull, in his first Stanley Cup Finals, scored two goals in Game One, including the game-winner. The Black Hawks went to the finals twice more, losing in 1962 to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and in 1965 to the Montreal Canadiens.

Hull represents a link to another era, when pro sports weren't such big businesses, when the innocence of the sport fostered unabashed adoration of idols. Hull, the charismatic, goal-scoring goodwill ambassador who throughout the 1960's simply was the Chicago Blackhawks, takes us back to another day, when it was so much easier to be young at heart.

"We played just for the sheer enjoyment. We made a boyhood dream come true to play in the NHL," he said. "That's all we wanted to do, to stay there, play the game and enjoy it. Hopefully, the fans enjoyed it.

"We had to make our own fun," Hull recalled. "We stayed together. We went out after games together. On the road, we went out after games together. By the time game-time came around, we didn't have to get to know one another. We spent so much time together we were one unit."

His blonde good looks and sparkling charisma combined with his on ice speed and swagger earned him the nickname "The Golden Jet." Oddly enough, Hull would become a Jet when he signed with Winnipeg of the WHA. Hull became hockey's first millionaire, and the WHA gained instant credibility. The NHL was left shocked as one of their elite attractions walked away to play for another league. Ironically hockey's era of innocence which Hull still represents suffered a severe wake up call.

In Winnipeg he starred for years with Swedish stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. The NHL was furious with his WHA signing and tried legal action to block the move, and then punished Hull by leaving him off of the 1972 Summit Series Team Canada squad. And ironically, it was Winnipeg that opened up the wallets and started handing out big contracts in an effort to lure some of the games top players. Ironic because Winnipeg would lose the NHL version of the Jets in 1996 because they couldn't compete economically.

When the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979, Hull ended up with the Hartford Whalers, where he played one final season. In 1981 Hull, who scored 303 goals in the WHA, attended the New York Rangers training camp as a 42 year old. The Rangers also had Hedberg and Nilsson and were looking to recapture some WHA magic, but it was not meant to be.

Hull was hockey's faster skater (28.3 mph with puck, 29.7 without it) and had the hardest shot (once reportedly recorded at 118.3 mph, some 35 mph above the league average). He was hockey's ultimate hockey player, blending together the talents of his most famed predecessors - the speed of Howie Morenz, the goal scoring prowress of Maurice Richard, the strength and control of Gordie Howe - plus the looks and charisma of a movie star. Hull did more than any other player to popularize the game of hockey in the United States prior to Wayne Gretzky.

Stan Mikita, Hull's long time teammate once was quoted as saying "To say that Bobby is a great hockey player is to labor the point. He was all of that of course. But the thing I admired about him was the way he handled people. He always enjoyed signing autographs for fans and was a genuine nice guy."

Bobby Hull was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1983. One day Bobby's son Brett will join him in the Hall. Brett was Bobby's equivalent during the late 1980's and 1990s, though was overshadowed by Wayne Gretzky.

January 29, 2023

Featured Hockey Legend: Ryan Walter

Ryan Walter was a born leader.

Born in New Westminster, BC, Ryan, one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, played his minor hockey in Burnaby, British Columbia, before going on to play junior in Langley and Kamloops. However it wasn't until he moved to the WHL's Seattle Breakers that Ryan became noticed by NHL scouts. He scored 54 goals and 125 points and he captained Canada at the 1978 World Junior Hockey Championships.

His outstanding play in the WHL prompted the Washington Capitals to select him second overall in the 1978 Amateur Draft. A year later, he was named team captain, the youngest captain in NHL history at that time.

Walter described his style of hockey:

"I was a bit adaptable I think over 15 seasons In the beginning, I think it was I was pretty aggressive and a Rick Tocchet type of player that scored goals and had to sort of play a very rounded game. I played center and wing in those early years.

"Coming into Montreal, early in my time there, I was playing with Guy Lafleur and Doug Wickenheiser and so it was more of an offensive bent obviously. And then, about half way through my time there, I ended up being a bit more of a defensive specialist and that continued through Vancouver."

Walter was a deceptively strong person, with leg power and balance being the trademark of his skating. He was a tenacious checker who was able to drive through his checks. He also possessed a great understanding of the game, and was able to read the play and anticipate his check's moves ahead of time. His vision enabled him to position himself perfectly to break up plays. Never possessing the quick release needed to become a top shooter, Walter was an opportunistic scorer who scored 264 goals in 1003 NHL games.

Walter enjoyed his best NHL season with the Capitals in 1981-82 when he set career-highs in all offensive categories with 38 goals, 49 assists and 87 points. He would be named as the Caps MVP, top player and fan favorite. However playing in Washington was like playing on the moon - you didn't get noticed there no matter how good you are, at least in those days. Ryan was one of the NHL's best kept secrets.

The Montreal Canadiens knew about him however and on September 9th, 1982 traded for him in a blockbuster deal. The Habs sent a young Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin to Washington for Walter and Rick Green. While Walter and Green performed well for Montreal, the trade would be dubbed by many in the Montreal media as the worse trade the Habs ever made as Rod Langway went on to become a standout on defense, twice winning the Norris Trophy.

Ryan spent nine seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, and won his first and only Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1985-86. He helped the Canadiens reach the Cup Finals again in 1988-89.

When Walter left Montreal he finished out his career in his home province playing two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. Walter, a devote Christian, was named the Bud Light/NHL Man of the Year in 1991-92 when he was also the Canucks' nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy and an alternate captain for the Canucks.

When Ryan left the NHL after the 1992-93 season, he had seven 20-goal seasons over his career and finished his playing days with 264 goals, 382 assists and 646 points in 1,003 regular season games. He also had 16 goals and 51 points in 113 playoff contests.

Walter has been busy experiencing many new facets of life since retiring as a hockey player. A devout Christian, Walter has been a leading figure for World Vision, Athletes for Kids and Hockey Ministries International as well as many Christian hockey camps. He authored three books: Off the Bench and Into the Game: Eight Success Strategies from Professional SportSimply the Best: Insights and Strategies: From Great Hockey Coaches, and Leading Strategies for Winning Teams. He became a motivational speaker, a corporate leadership coach, and dabbled in broadcasting. He served as a technical advisor for the Kurt Russell's Hollywood blockbuster Miracle, making a cameo appearance as the referee. He also became an board game entrepreneur with his critically acclaimed Trade Deadline Hockey.

January 28, 2023

Featured Legend: Darius Kasparaitis

Talented, feisty on the ice and a free spirit away from it, Darius Kasparaitis was a highly competitive defenseman from Lithuania. A strong skater who mostly concentrated on the defensive side of the game, Kasparaitis had an infectious enthusiasm for the game.

Kasparaitis succeeded Ulf Samuelsson as the NHL's resident controversial hard hitting defenseman. He loved nothing more than to lay a booming hit and he preferred to target the other team's superstars. Just ask Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and Mark Messier, among many others.

When he was not seeking victims with his deadly hip checks or flying shoulders, he was known to use his stick liberally and yap constantly. Dirty? Sure. Tough? Definitely.

"I think they no like me," he said of his opponents. "First year, it's good. Second year, maybe people know me as good player, tough guy. When I come in N.H.L. I must sell my name: 'Kasparaitis, this guy is no easy player. This is hard player.' Be ready for me. Hockey is man game."

"It's my game, my style," he said. "Sometimes I hit guy in first period and guys want to hit me back all night and make me hurt. I must be always ready, careful."

Somehow Kasparaitis survived 14 NHL seasons with the Islanders, Penguins, Avalanche and Rangers. Going to battle 863 times in the regular season and another 83 games in the playoffs as the most hated man on the ice could not have been easy.

But Kasparaitis loved the role and every minute of every battle.

Kasparaitis was the first and only Lithuanian to play on the national team of the former Soviet Union.

Kasparaitis had left Lithuania at the age of 14 to play hockey for Moscow Dynamo. He had to overcome extreme homesickness to continue on to become the first Lithuanian to play in the National Hockey League.

"I come home for holidays, I tell my mom, 'I don't want to play hockey and live with Russian people,'" Kasparaitis recalled. "My mom cry and say: 'Go back. It's your job. Go back to Moscow.' I go back. Cry. I was 15 years old. Now, I very thankful to my mom."

He quickly became one of the top defensemen in the Soviet Union. Representing the national team and competing at the Olympics became his goal.

At the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in France, Kasparaitis represented the Unified Team, a team consisting of Russia and of former Soviet territories that were trying to figure out their political futures after the collapse of communism. The former Soviets ended up beating Canada for the gold medal.

But to play in those Olympics Kasparaitis had to sign away his eligibility to play any sport for a Lithuanian team.

“I had a choice to play in Olympics (for Russia) or represent Lithuania (not in the Olympics). I made a choice to play on the highest level.”

"You feel good when you win Olympic Games," he said. "You can be rich guy but you never buy Olympic championship. Big title, for all life. Have children, show children picture and medal. Gold medal. It's great."

The New York Islanders drafted Kasparaitis fifth overall in 1992. With the changing political world seeing Soviet stars allowed to freely pursue careers in the NHL, Kasparaitis immediately began focusing on his new goal.

"Win world junior championship, win Olympic Games, play in world championship," he said. "Then, drafted by New York Islanders. Come and see America. Play in NHL. Unbelievable! Hockey is a great life."

After a career being one of hockey's most punishing hitters, Kasparaitis retired and moved to Florida. In his playing days he was known as a big spender, blowing his high paychecks on clothes and cars and nights out. But he has settled down and started his own real estate development company.

January 27, 2023

Totally Random Hockey Player of the Day: Bones Raleigh

Here's the skinny on Don Raleigh: He was skinny.

Hence the nickname that he became best known by, "Bones" Raleigh.

At 5'11" and 145-150lbs, the slender center was never a physical player. But he was a skilled puck technician. Best known as an elusive playmaker, he was an underrated goal scorer with a knack for scoring big goals.

Born in Kenora, Ontario, Raleigh was raised and became a junior hockey star in the Winnipeg area. His knack for winning championships at the bantam, midget and junior hockey levels assured him entry into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.

Raleigh joined the Rangers for the 1943-44 season, a call up due to a roster depleted by World War II. At 17 he became the youngest full time player in team history. His season lasted only 15 games though, as he suffered a broken jaw in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The following season Raleigh returned to Canada and joined the Canadian Army. Based in Winnipeg, he also played hockey with several teams during his years of service, including with the University of Winnipeg where he also found time to study and with the senior Winnipeg Flyers who competed for the Allan Cup in 1947.

Upon the end of the War, Raleigh returned to Manhattan for the the 1947-48 season. The Rangers were a decent team back then, but goaltender Chuck Rayner made them a threat. In the 1950 playoffs Rayner and Raleigh led the Rangers within a whisker of the Stanley Cup championship! Playing against the Detroit Red Wings, it was Raleigh who scored back-to-back overtime game winning goals in games 4 and 5 to keep the Rangers alive. Raleigh had his chances to score another OT goal in game 6, but ultimately the Red Wings emerged from that game as the Stanley Cup champions.

The Rangers teams sunk back to mediocrity for much of the next couple of decades, but Raleigh emerged as the team's offensive heart until his departure in 1955. In fact, in 1951-52 Raleigh set a team record (since surpassed) with 42 assists, and led the team with 61 points, the 4th best total in the entire league.

Despite Raleigh's best efforts, the Rangers were spinning their wheels and ownership decided a change was needed. Fiery Phil Watson was brought in as coach in 1955-56, which all but ended Raleigh's days in New York. Watson wanted a team of big, physical grinders, and Raleigh simply did not fit in his game plan.

Raleigh returned to Western Canada, playing in Saskatoon and Brandon before leaving the game at the age of 32 in 1958. He returned to Winnipeg and got into the insurance business, owning his own insurance and consulting firm. He would later do some television analyst work with the WHA Winnipeg Jets upon their arrival in 1972.