November 09, 2020

Howie Meeker

To a whole generation of fans, Howie Meeker was the squeaky voiced announcer on television who highlighted replays with his revolutionary telestrator. Almost as famous as the telestrator and magic pen were his "Howie-isms" such as "Golly Gee Whiz" and the often used adjective "Cotton Pickin.' " "Pass the Cotton Pickin' Puck!" he'd often exclaim.

His unique, lengthy and numerous contributions to the hockey broadcasting industry landed Meeker in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998 in a special broadcasting category.

With Meeker's tremendous success on radio and television (as well as in print for that matter), it is easy to forget that once upon a time Meeker was a pretty good hockey player in his own right. Later he became a coach. And his entire NHL playing and coaching career took place in the Queen city of Toronto.

Like a lot of Canadian boys, Howie grew up with the dream of some day playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But even though he had been recruited by Hap Day for the Leafs while playing junior hockey, Meeker decided other things were more important than playing hockey, and he volunteered his services in the Canadian Armed Forces and he went overseas to do battle in the second World War. Meeker was even seriously injured during the war when a hand grenade blew up between his legs.

Three years after Meeker recovered from the hand grenade incident, he began re-pursuing his dream, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Howie spent one season playing senior hockey with the Stratford Indians before the Leafs gave Howie his chance. And Howie didn't disappoint.

Meeker's passion for the frozen game was as obvious when he strapped on a pair of skates as it was when he put on a broadcaster's headset. The excitable Meeker made an exciting debut. Meeker centered the "Tricky Trio" line (also dubbed "Kid Line 2") with Teeder Kennedy and Vic Lynn.

He made his NHL debut with the Leafs in 1946-47. Howie notched 27 goals and 45 points in his first NHL campaign, good enough to earn him the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top rookie performer. Meeker outshined everyone on the night of January 8, 1947 when he scored 5 goals in a game against Paul Bibeault and the Chicago Black Hawks. Even though these first year feats were incredible, for Howie they were not the best part of his dream season. His best memory had to have been helping the Leafs win the Stanley Cup in just his first year!

Winning Stanley Cups became the norm for Meeker. He was part of the dynasty years in Toronto, tasting champagne from the famous mug in each of his first three seasons, and in 4 of his first 5 seasons. However the rest of his playing career was not always as sweet.

Meeker missed the majority of his third season, 1948-49, with a collarbone injury suffered 2 days after Christmas. The injury would haunt Meeker for the rest of his days, and limited his effectiveness.

In just 346 games , Meeker scored 83 goals and 185 points. He played in 3 All Star games. To make matters even more interesting, during his playing career Meeker served for 2 years as a Conservative Member of Parliament in Ottawa.

While his promising playing career was cut short, Meeker never left the game of hockey. He spent two years coaching with the American Hockey League Pittsburgh Hornets before he got the opportunity to replace King Clancy as the Maple Leafs head coach in 1956-57. However a losing record prevented him from returning as head coach.

Meeker headed out to Newfoundland, where he coach and occasionally played in the St. John's senior hockey circuit. It's also where he got his break into broadcasting. Meeker would go on to enjoy a 30 year career with Hockey Night in Canada and later with The Sports Network.

"I'm the last guy in the world to think I'd be a successful broadcaster. I've got a terrible voice, all these other guys have got syrupy smooth voices. They've got fantastic memories and mine is long-term great, short-term not worth a lot."

Hockey has a lot of great characters who can tell a lot of great stories, but few if any are better at telling stories than Howie Meeker.

October 30, 2020

HHOF Class of 2022?


The Hockey Hall of Fame has said that the class of 2020 will be properly honoured in 2021. In order to do that, there will be no class of 2021. Everything will be pushed back to 2022.

The class of 2020 includes Jarome Iginla, Kevin Lowe, Marian Hossa, Doug Wilson, Kim St. Pierre, and Ken Holland.

The 2021 class featured a comparatively weak first year eligible group of Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Henrik Zetterberg. Caroline Ouellette would have been a lock on the women's side.

Canucks fans were certainly looking forward to the Sedins' inclusion. It's not a matter of if, but of when. A first year induction would have been a fantastic honour.

Of course, they could still very much be inducted in their first year of eligibility. It's just that their first year will now be 2022 instead of 2021. And they could have another Vancouver Canucks star join them.

Roberto Luongo was going to headline the list of first year eligible players in 2022. It will be a great nod to the three superstars of the Canucks most successful era to have all three being inducted at the same time.

A 2022 class of Luongo, Sedins and Zetterberg is the most likely scenario in my mind. Patrick Sharp, Rick Nash, Cam Ward, Dion Phaneuf, Niklas Kronwall and Chris Kunitz are long shots at best.

There is always the usual suspects on the holdover list, guys like Alex Mogilny, Daniel Alfredsson, Jeremy Roenick and, oh hey this would more nice symmetry, Markus Naslund. There could be room for some of them too as the Hockey Hall of Fame has plenty of time to decide if they will increase the allowable amount of inductees for 2022 given the missed class of 2021.

October 29, 2020

Hockey Trade Rumors From The Past: Wayne Gretzky, Cam Neely and Patrick Roy

 The 2020 hockey book season is in full swing, even if the 2020-21 NHL season is not. I guess if we are forced to isolate during a global virus pandemic and can't watch hockey, reading about it is the next best thing.

I have been fully enjoying two books in particular - Brian Burke's autobiography Burke's Law and Serge Savard's authorized biography Forever Canadien.

Both authors were once powerful general managers on the hockey scene, and privy to more inside information than anyone. And, of course, they spill a few beans for us.

Each drops bombshell trade details on trades involving the Vancouver Canucks that never happened. While the two key superstars at the center of the trade details did eventually get moved, apparently the Canucks either had or they offered alternatives to the massive trade.

Let's start with Burke. 

Now if you may remember, there was a guy named Wayne Gretzky who was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings back in 1988, forever re-shaping hockey history in countless ways. Just to refresh your memory, the Oilers trade Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Kings in exchange for $15 million (US), three first round picks, the just-drafted-in-first-round Martin Gelinas and Jimmy Carson.

Now the Kings were headhunting Gretzky and most teams were not even in on the bidding war. But the one franchise that somehow was was the lowly Vancouver Canucks. This isn't exactly new information, as it has been long accepted that they were somehow involved. Arthur Griffiths confirmed this some time ago, even talking about how they would make Gretzky part owner. But the precise details of the proposed trade haven't come out until now with Burke's new book.

Brian Burke had just arrived in Vancouver a year earlier, apprenticing under the great Pat Quinn. Burke tells us the details though he does not really get into too many details about how the talks came to be. We are left to assume that the trade talks were directly between owners Peter Pocklington and the Griffiths family, just like it was Pocklington and Bruce McNall doing all the talking involving LA. After all, ask any Edmonton Oilers fan and they will confirm that the Gretzky trade was not so much a trade but a sale.

Burke tells us the Vancouver was for Wayne Gretzky only. History tells us that once things came to close Gretzky insisted his buddy McSorley was to come with him, but I don't think Vancouver ever truly got that close to closing the deal.

Vancouver's deal featured $25 million, but he does not specify if that is in US or Canadian funds. I'd actually assume it is in Canadian currency, as it was still common practice back then for Canadian teams to use the newly minted Loonie until the early 1990s, including for player payrolls. With a little bit of Google searching we can learn that $25m was a significant increase over the LA offer even with the exchange rate. $15m US in August 1988 was approximately worth $18.5m in Canadian funds.

Burke also tells us Vancouver committed three first round picks as well. LA ultimately staggered their surrendered picks to the 1989, 1991 and 1993 drafts. There is no mention of such a breakdown in the Vancouver offer.

Burke also said that - like the LA offer - there were two young emerging stars included in the deal. Where LA offered Gelinas and Carson, Vancouver had Greg Adams and Kirk McLean in place. Both Adams and McLean went on to become key parts of Vancouver's success in the 1990s, but how Vancouver had a nearly accepted offer on Wayne Gretzky that did not include the recent 2nd overall draft pick by an Albertan kid named Trevor Linden, I will never know. And the inclusion of McLean was interesting given that even though he went on to a fantastic career he was still largely unproven at that point, and the Oilers had goalies named Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford.

Burke says the deal for Gretzky fell through because the money just did not make any sense. When Quinn and Burke arrived a year earlier, they inherited a team that was losing upwards of $30m annually. And the Griffiths family didn't have the deepest pockets in hockey, not like Bruce McNall, at that time anyway.

In some bizarre parallel universe Wayne Gretzky lined up with Petri Skriko and Tony Tanti and a young Trevor Linden and Vancouver took the NHL by storm. But in reality, the deal probably wasn't ever as close as the Kings' deal that reshaped the hockey landscape to this very day.

Speaking of bizarre parallel universes, can you imagine the ultimate Boston Bruin Cam Neely in a Montreal Canadiens uniform?

In his new book Forever Canadien, Serge Savard regretted not pulling the trigger on a trade with the Canucks back in the mid 1980s.

The Canucks infamously grew inpatient with a young Neely and were shopping him around the league. At one point, according to Savard, he could have closed a deal for Neely and it would only have cost him left winger Mike McPhee.

McPhee, said to be a favorite of Canucks coach Tom Watt, was a fantastic support player in Montreal. He was a really solid pro and a great teammate, the perfect third line kind of a player. But Neely went on to become one of the all time greats.

Savard lamented not making the deal, saying he was just a young general manager at the time and afraid to pull the trigger on a deal which had a risk with the still unproven Neely.

The Canucks of course infamously traded Neely and the third overall draft pick in 1987 to Montreal's arch rivals in Boston in exchange for Barry Pederson. At least Pederson had a high scoring background at the NHL level but was never the same after major shoulder surgery to remove a benign tumor. He was still a point a game player in Vancouver, but not the superstar he was emerging to be alongside Rick Middleton in Boston in the early 1980s.

Speaking for Serge Savard and trades, he also let the cat out of the bag on another trade he was working on, but he never got to complete because he got fired by the Habs. Oddly enough, the trade would still happen later on.

Savard tells us he was shopping Patrick Roy well before the infamous Roy snapping and demanding a trade. Before that incident, no one could have thought the Canadiens would have traded their superstar goaltender. But Savard tells us he was closing in on a deal with, of course, the Colorado Avalanche. Savard felt Roy's personality was just too big for the dressing room, and the team would be better off moving him.  Roy's old agent Pierre Lacroix was now the general manager in Colorado and pushing hard to get his old pal, and, according to Savard, offered Owen Nolan and Stephane Fiset.

Savard was abruptly fired after 4 games in October 1995, and the deal died. But once Roy snapped at Ronald Corey and Mario Tremblay and demanded to be traded, Lacroix and the Avalanche were quick to pick up the telephone. 

The actual deal saw Colorado trade Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko to Montreal for Roy AND team captain Mike Keane, who also became a real key player in Colorado. Savard said he would never, ever have traded Keane.

Ah yes, the good ol' days. Lets finish this post off by watching Mike McPhee and Cam Neely get into a disagreement about something, if Gord Kluzak would get out of the way anyway.

October 28, 2020

Those Were The Days: Wayne Gretzky

When 17 year old Wayne Gretzky arrived in Edmonton, he had promised his dad he would stay in school until he was 18.

Only problem was the youngster was already playing professional hockey and his schedule was dictated by practice and travel time. And back in 1978 there was no such thing as online classes or distance education. And student athletes didn't have the same opportunities to take classes in their off-seasons like most do nowadays.

So when he was not ripping up the World Hockey Association (remember Gretzky debuted in Edmonton in the WHA a year before the team merged with the NHL), at practice or travelling from city to city, Gretzky was trying to go to Ross Sheppard High School.

Not surprisingly, Gretzky did not graduate. He turned 18 before the school year ended, and he stopped going to the school he barely was able to attend anyway. 

Ross Sheppard High School probably made it easier for star student athletes to graduate while pursuing athletics in the years since. Figure skaters Jamie Sale and Susan Humphreys, CFLer Hugh O'Neill, NHLer Paul Comrie, and Olympians Jessica Gregg (speed skating), Annamay Pierse (swimming) and Angela Whyte (track and field) all graduated from the school. 

It was a much simpler time back then. 

Gretzky became roommates with rookie Kevin Lowe the next season - the Oilers first in the NHL. The two lived at the Lord Nelson complex and 5125 Riverbend Road. It was probably pretty nice back then, though nowadays it's looking a little dated. 

Of course, Edmonton being Edmonton, one thing that never changes is the cold winters. One of the great features Gretzky and Lowe enjoyed about living there was a nearby outdoor rink that was flooded. Can you imagine being one of the local kids playing hockey out there for hours, and then Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe showed up asking if they could play?  It just doesn't happen anymore, but back then Gretz and Lowe did it all the time.

Another thing that doesn't happen anymore - riding your bike to work if you are a NHLer. NHLers all have fancy cars nowadays. And Gretzky probably had a nice ride back then too. But when the weather was a little nicer come spring time, Gretzky often rode his bike to the rink. 

Those were the days....

October 25, 2020

Calgary Canucks

There have been more than a few passing references to the "Calgary Canucks" these days. 

It seems the NHL's Calgary Flames off-season game plan is to fill roster holes by raiding the unrestricted free agents of their arch rival Vancouver Canucks.

Of course that is highlighted by stealing MVP goaltender Jacob Markstrom. The Flames handed Markstrom an exorbitant contract of $36 million over the next six years. They will likely regret that contract one day. But for the next two or three years he will give them excellent goaltending.

The Flames also took long time Vancouver defenseman Chris Tanev. Tanev has long been an underrated defensive stalwart, along the lines of a Kevin Lowe or Brad McCrimmon. They over paid for him, especially given his long injury history, but when Tanev is on the ice he will be a coach's dream.

They also took Louis Domingue, the Canucks third goalie on the depth charts. He will simply be a minor league fill in to be called up when necessary.

And now the Flames have taken a wise gamble on winger Josh Leivo. Leivo is an analytics darling who was on the verge of a breakout season last year before badly breaking his knee cap. There were probably more than a few teams willing to lowball Leivo with a show-me-what-you-got contract for one year. If he's healthy he will certainly be a nice depth piece.

Now, back to all those Calgary Canucks comments. Did you know there actually is a long standing hockey team in Calgary called the Canucks?

The Alberta Junior Hockey League's Calgary franchise is named the Canucks, and has been since 1971. Only the Spruce Grove Saints have been in this league longer, mind you they originated as the Edmonton Movers/Mets until 1974.

The list of notable players who graduated from the Calgary Canucks includes goaltenders Mike Vernon, Ben Scrivens, Corey Hirsch and Aaron Dell, as well as skaters Dany Heatley, Dana Murzyn, Ken Sutton and Craig Adams.

That list of goaltending alumni bodes well for Jacob Markstrom. But Flames fans had better hope their "Calgary Canucks" have better luck at the NHL level than the junior team has had as of late. They have only won 18 games in the last two seasons combined. They are coached and managed by another former Vancouver Canucks player, Brad Moran who played three games for the Canucks in 2006-07.

Traditionally the Canucks are one of the strongest franchises in AJHL history. They won nine championships and hold the AJHL records for most wins and regular season championships. They set a record with 34 consecutive playoff appears. They graduated a total of 40 NHL players and secured close to 300 scholarships to universities all across North America.

October 15, 2020

That Was Fun, But What's Next?

The rushed off-season following the Stanley Cup playoffs bubble promised to be the most fascinating period of business in NHL history since the lost lockout season of 2004-05. There is certainly a lot to unpack in virtually every market. It has been hard to keep up. 

But now that all the trades and all the signings are quietening down, and while the hope and renewal has been cathartic, reality is now starting to set in. And the reality is maybe all this was for not? 

Can the NHL have a season in 2020-21? With all the complications of the global pandemic and closed international borders, is it possible to play? Likely not without major changes, which while that can be exciting in itself makes for the new normal to be anything but normal.

Reality is somehow the NHL will have some sort of a season, somehow. But the next two seasons will definitely not be business as usual. The business is fine long term, but there will be very real hurt over the next couple of campaigns. Players, management, owners and franchises will all take a big hit. 

The lack of player development in this time span is what I find fascinating. There are so many great young players right now, but what happens if there is no junior or college or minor pro leagues to play in? You can only train in the gym and work with skills coaches one on one on the ice for so long. These players need games to play. The ripple effect of this lack of development will reach for years, as kids in peewee hockey in many regions aren't getting on the ice either.

What I will be watching for going forward is how teams are investing in player development. Because the teams that do that the best will have a big head start when things do return to normal in a couple of years.

September 28, 2020

Tampa Bay Lightning Are 2020 Stanley Cup Champions

Congratulations go out to the Tampa Bay Lightning for winning the 2020 Stanley Cup championship. It was arguably the most difficult championship in the storied history of the trophy. The Lightning truly endured and are worthy champions.

Congratulations goes out to the NHL who pulled off this miraculous set up to get the season completed. They gave us an exemplary Stanley Cup tournament full of integrity. And let's not forget to thank all the support staff within the bubble, from the hotel staff to the arena staff to all the coordinators. This could not have happened without them.

Perhaps everyone else is already focused on what's next, even though no one really knows what is next. It will be a fascinating off-season, and we have no firm idea when we will see hockey again.

Stay safe everyone.