September 18, 2019

Mario Lemieux Grew Up Idolizing Guy Lafleur

The photo above, rediscovered by Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette, piqued my interest about Mario Lemieux's heroes growing up. It also made me realize I've never seen another photo with Lemieux and Lafleur together.

We all have hockey heroes, and while Guy Lafleur is an obvious fit for Mario, we haven't really heard about it like we have with Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, for example. I want to learn more about their relationship.

When I want to check up on Mario Lemieux's background, the first place I usually turn is Lawrence Martin's 1993 biography "Mario."

Martin was a political correspondent in Moscow and Washington for the Globe and Mail. He also had a serious interest in hockey, most famously writing The Red Machine, a definitive history of Soviet hockey. His Mario biography is nearly as good.

On page 30 he references the photo above, though he incorrectly suggests the Lafleur celebration was for his 500th goal rather than his 1000th point. He also has the date wrong.

"Mario's appearances (at the Montreal Forum) included one with his idol in the 1970s, Guy Lafleur. He was at the Forum sitting right behind the Canadiens' bench when the Flower scored his 500th goal. Pierrette Lemieux treasured a picture showing Lafleur in celebration and her son in the background reacting to the goal. In her home, which would become a shrine to her boy's story, it took a proud place."

By the way, for another great story from the book read this passage about Pierrette Lemieux, Mario's crazy hockey mom.

Unfortunately the rest of the book never really touches on Mario's hero worship of Lafleur other than to say as Mario advanced in his teenage years he began to idolize Wayne Gretzky more and more. Which makes sense. Lafleur's production and success was waning, and Gretzky was at the top of his game.

The book goes into good detail about Lemieux chasing and breaking many of Guy Lafleur's Quebec junior records. It also touches briefly on Lafleur's NHL comeback and how he and Mario campaigned for it to happen in Pittsburgh. However Pittsburgh's GM Tony Esposito didn't think it was such a good idea, obviously. Lafleur signed with the Rangers, but it was clear at that point the two had long been good friends.

My search for some comments by Lemieux on his hero, Guy Lafleur, continues. Lemieux is an intensely private person so digging for such info on him is harder than many. For example - have you ever seen another photo of Mario and Guy Lafleur together?

September 17, 2019

Trading Places: Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur

Guy Lafleur was destined to be a superstar in Montreal.

In junior hockey with the Quebec Aces (later renamed Remparts), Lafleur emerged as one of the greatest prospects of all time. And Les Canadiens went great lengths to ensure he would be theirs.

Lafleur was not eligible for the NHL draft until 1971, but Montreal wanted him badly. In May 1970 they made their first move to secure the 1st overall pick in '71. They traded Ernie Hicke and their own 1st rounder to lowly Oakland.

As the 1970-71 season progressed, the Habs gamble was working well as the Seals toiled and threatened to finish dead last, giving Montreal the top pick. To make sure the equally terrible Los Angeles Kings did not fall beneath the Seals in the standings, the Habs basically gave away Ralph Backstrom during the season to prop up the Kings and make them good enough to finish strong.

Mission accomplished. The Seals finished last. The Habs drafted first, landing Guy Lafleur essentially for the price of Hicke and an aging Backstrom. Pure brilliance.

While there was no doubting Montreal had wanted to pick "The Flower" all along, another Francophone player was the obvious #2 choice in the 1971 draft - Marcel Dionne. Dionne may be best remembered as an LA King, but it was the Detroit Red Wings that drafted him in '71. He would play in the Motor City for four years before an unceremonious departure to California.

In hindsight, some might argue Dionne may have been the better player, and should have been chosen 1st overall by Montreal. He found near-instant success in the NHL, unlike Lafleur. He had a longer career, and he dwarfed Lafleur's career stats. And he did it all with very little supporting cast. Mind you, he never had any luck whatsoever in the playoffs.

There has always been some feeling of sympathy for Dionne. He was an amazing scorer with great drive and passion for playing hockey. But he always played on terrible teams. Many wonder how his career, and for that matter Lafleur's career, would have been drastically different had Dionne been selected by Montreal, and Lafleur had to toil with the weak Red Wings. Would Dionne's stature in the world of hockey been that much greater?

"All through my career it's like people feel sorry for me," Dionne told Ted Mahovlich in the book Triple Crown: The Marcel Dionne Story. "They tell me it was too bad, that Montreal should have drafted me. Well, I played eighteen years in the NHL. What do you want me to do about it? If I had scored 200 goals and won ten Stanley Cups, would that make me a happier person? Or you score 700 goals and have no Stanley Cups? The reality is that we can't all play for the Montreal Canadiens."

In 2008 a more confident Dionne told RDS that he could have scored 1000 goals if he had played for Montreal.

"In Montreal, I don't know what would have happened. There's a big difference between playing in Montreal and Los Angeles. Considering the strong teams, loaded with talent the Canadiens had, and that they had a style of play that I adored, with speed and quick puck movement, it's not exaggerating to say I'd have scored a 1000 instead of 731, of course, if they had room for me."

There would have been no guarantees for Dionne in Montreal. He would have been brought along slowly, like Lafleur was. Dionne's instant success in the NHL would likely not have happened in Montreal. Especially considering the pecking order would have had Dionne, a center, playing behind Jacques Lemaire, Peter Mahovlich and Henri Richard in his rookie year.

Moreover, the atmosphere in Montreal may have eaten Dionne up early in his career.

"For sure I might have been fully appreciated in Quebec, and Canada even. Here, we know our hockey. The advantage of playing in Los Angeles was that the pressure was less, maybe even non-existant. I had peace of mind. My career was intimate and private. I liked it like that. There's no way I'd have gotten that in Montreal."

Had Dionne jumped instantly into the fire that is Montreal he may have fizzled. Dionne cracked under similar pressure while playing in his hometown of Drummondville. With all the attention on him he nearly quit the game. Instead he found his way to St. Catherines to play with the Black Hawks with relatively no pressure at all. It was a trend that would follow Dionne through out his career - he played extremely well, putting up huge numbers while never facing the same pressures Lafleur did in Montreal, or others did in other NHL cities.

Had Dionne joined the Canadiens later in his career, after he was an established NHL star, a more mature Dionne likely would have been okay in the environment. In fact, that may have nearly happened.

Legendary reporter Dick Irvin often tells a story of Scotty Bowman asking him of all people about a possible trade with the Red Wings back when Dionne was forcing his way out of Detroit. The proposed trade on the table - Marcel Dionne for Ken Dryden, straight up.

Obviously the Habs never went for it. Sticking with Dryden, who had his own history of contract problems, proved to be a smart move, as he led the Habs to four consecutive Stanley Cups to end the decade. Even with all the spectacular offense a line of Marcel Dionne centering Guy Lafleur would have created, there was no guarantees the Habs would win with Bunny Laraque, Michel Plasse or Wayne Thomas in nets.

If you believe the reports, that was the second time Montreal and Detroit had an offer on the table for a trade involving Dionne. The first, which was revealed only in hindsight, was back at the draft table in 1971. Montreal had offered three roster players - veteran defensemen Terry Harper and J. C. Tremblay and goalie Rogie Vachon - for Detroit's 2nd overall pick, guaranteeing Dionne.

It would be an interesting exercise to travel to a parallel universe where Dionne was drafted by Montreal and Lafleur went to Detroit. I would probably concede that in many ways Dionne turned out to be better than Lafleur. But The Flower had a certain mystique Dionne could never have. He was a special player destined for a special place in Montreal's hockey history.

September 14, 2019

How Roger Doucet Wrote The Soviet National Anthem

Hockey fans of a certain vintage will remember Roger Doucet. the legendary Montreal anthem singer in the 1970s. With his unmistakable voice, he was as recognizable at Canadiens games (and CFL Alouette and MLB Expos games, too) as any of the players.

But did you know he wrote lyrics for the Soviet national anthem - perhaps the most stirring anthem ever - too?

In the summer of 1976 Doucet was asked to sing the national anthems at the new Canada Cup tournament. He was familiar with the American and of course Canadian anthems, but needed to learn the songs of the four European countries.

He contacted the Department of External Affairs and they easily got him the lyrics for Sweden, Finland and Czechoslovakia, but there was a problem with the Soviet Union anthem - there were no words!

It seems the original words in The Hymn Of The Soviet Union were quietly dropped after 1956 because of all the references to dictator Josef Stalin. Doucet was advised to "hum the anthem very loudly."

That didn't sit too well with the proud singer. Somehow he unearthed a copy of the Stalinist lyrics. Since he could not speak nor read Russian, he handed it to the Russian department at the University of Montreal, and asked them to "fix them up."

Before the Soviet Union-Czechslovakia game at the Canada Cup, Doucet showed Soviet team officials the rewritten lyrics. They had no objections, and Doucet sang the all new Hymn of the Soviet Union. With the game being broadcasted back home, the Russian fans must have been shocked to hear the new anthem.

In 1977 the Soviet Parliament adopted the new lyrics.

September 13, 2019

"The Foundation of Hockey Isn't Really Hockey At All. It's Shinny."

That is the quote from the great Lester Patrick in MacLean's magazine way back on March 15th, 1950. Here's the full quote:

"There is only one way a boy can be sure to learn to play hockey - on the pond, on the creek, on a flooded lot. The foundation of hockey isn't really hockey at all. It's shinny, a wild melee of kids batting a puck around, with no rules, no organization, nothing but individual effort to grab and hold the puck."

It's so true. Today's game features many young superstars who are so well taught and trained that they are able to step right into the heavily systematic NHL. But all those players pine for days of their youth playing informal games on the frozen lake or in the driveway. Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Mitch Marner are just a few of the many who will share Patrick's thoughts. In that way, as much as the game has changed since Patrick's day (let alone Gretzky's), some things never change.

For those who don't know, Lester Patrick is one of the most important figures in hockey history. There was a time he was branded as an iconoclast. History looks back at him as a fundamental innovator. But he was as instrumental as anyone when it came to changing the game.

Lester and his brother Frank were both great players and Stanley Cup champions dating back to the days before there was a National Hockey League. And then they formed a western based professional option to challenge the mighty eastern based NHA which later essentially became the NHL. The Pacific Coast Hockey Association was born in 1911

Those rich Eastern owners must have been hopping mad at the Patricks. At one time they paid them to bring Stanley Cup victories, and now they headed up the only competition. We're not just talking about competition for the Stanley Cup, but for player services.

The Westerners were genius innovators. In fact, the PCHA game resembles the modern game of hockey more so than the Eastern game before its arrival. It was a far more exciting game. It was good for hockey, but it was also good for business. So good that the Easterners merged many of the tactics. 

Among the PCHA innovations that quickly were adopted:
  • Blue lines with three zones
  • Forward pass
  • Recording of assists
  • Numbers on sweaters
  • Artificial ice
  • Playoffs
  • Delayed penalty calls
  • Penalty shots
  • Defensemen rushing the puck
(Note the last one. Every Bobby Orr fan will have you believe Orr was the first defender to ever rush the puck. There were many before him.)

I would argue that the Patricks are the most important influencers of hockey in the history of the game, with only the Soviet teachings of Anatoli Tarasov as a true challenger for this title.

I have to wonder if we will ever see someone influence so much change in the game again. The game has changed so incredibly much in the past 20 years, though that is more through evolution than any one person's impact. I suppose you could argue that this is all still part of Tarasov's reach.

Perhaps it will not be a person but a thing that changes everything. That thing would be technology. We've already seen the impact of analytics and instant feed back health data tracking. 

Or maybe it will be the arrival of the next great player? And that great player will not be the best center or winger or defenseman. He will be the player who excels both as a forward and a defenseman, revolutionizing the game so that all players become truly interchangeable. 

I am certain Lester Patrick would approve of that ,

A Hockey Researcher's Dream Come True

Ask any hockey researcher what his or her hockey researching dream is, and they will likely tell you they want digital access to The Hockey News 72 years of archive history.

Now it is about to happen.

In the recently released The Hockey News Yearbook, new magazine owner W. Graeme Roustan announce the archives - complete from the first issue in 1947 to the current edition - will be available for the Gold Members subscription package. That's $50 a year - a very reasonable price.

Jason Kay and Tim Beever believe the project will be up and running before Christmas 2019. I am going to need some time off during the holidays to go through more than 100,000 pages of hockey history!

It's also great that Roustan owns The Hockey News. He is a businessman but also a true hockey fan who will see that the magazine remains not only alive but relevant under his stewardship. These are tough times for the print media industry, but excellent times for hockey fans.

September 09, 2019

The Kid Who Was Better Than Gretzky

The World Juniors are always great entertainment for hockey fans. At least here in Canada the Christmas-time tourney is the most anticipated event on the hockey schedule outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

These kids are some impressive in the way they handle the immense pressures they face. The media and fan exposure, especially when the tournament is held in Canada, is unlike anything most of these kids have ever encountered. Then there is pressures from coaches and national federations. And, oh yeah! NHL and other scouts are 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.

August 26, 2019

My New Hockey Book: 50 Years of Vancouver Canucks Hockey

You probably think I haven't been writing too much again this summer.

Think again.

True, the website has remained pretty quiet. But thanks for sticking with me as I've worked to rediscover my passion for writing. It has resulted in a new book project: 50 Years of Vancouver Canucks Hockey. -- -- --

I'm an unapologetic Canucks fan, as a few of you have noted. And I had to reach down into the fan inside of me to rediscover my passion. And it has resulted in not just a history of the franchise as they celebrate 50 years in the NHL. No, this is a book that tells the history of the franchise through this fan's eyes, and more importantly this fan's oft-broken heart.

Through the ups and downs and more downs, it has not been easy being a Canucks fan. But loyal I remain. I look at those ups and downs and more downs and tell the story through the lens of a hardened fan.

The book will be available as an ebook and as a print-on-demand paperback book in October through Amazon. It's something I just want out there. It doesn't have to be a success. By just putting it out there I have succeeded.