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October 20, 2016

"The OK One, Not Even The Good One"

Wayne Gretzky gets the line of the day today.

The 55 year old says this weekend's Heritage Classic alumni game between the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets is likely his last game.

"I'll play the outdoor game, that probably could be one of my last games," Gretzky said. "I don't skate a lot or get out there. I only have a couple of more of those games in me, I can guarantee you that."

Then Gretzky revealed how little he skates these days.

"I have a bag of equipment, and I skate once a year and when I put mine back in the garage, I say, 'That was a lot of fun, I need to do that again,' and I don't get it out for another year," he said.

"I'm just not as good as I used to be, I'm the really the OK One now, not even Good One."

Gretzky will always The Great One to us.

Gretzky added, "“I told my son ‘You know the ice at the old arena was much faster.’ My son said ‘Dad, I think it’s you, not the ice.’"

In related news, Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun tells us Gretzky's finger prints are all over the Heritage Classic.

October 18, 2016

Wayne Gretzky's New Book: 99 Stories Of The Game

Wayne Gretzky's new book 99 Stories of the Game, written with Kirstie McLellan Day, is now out and is already on the best sellers lists. It likely will remain there throughout the Christmas shopping season.

And rightfully so, this book is fantastic. (Full disclosure: I worked on this book as a research consultant).

"Greatness is not captured in statistics. It's captured in stories," says Gretzky. It's so true. The fancy stats guys might disagree, but I think Mr. Gretzky knows more about hockey than all of them combined.

"Behind every big play, there's a guy who grew up dreaming of making that big play. He's got a story, and he was inspired by someone else's," Gretzky introduces his readers to his book.

I absolutely love those lines. Gretzky tells the story of the NHL's history, but not through the same old dry facts and figures like most books do, but through the stories he's either heard and collected since he was kid to the first hand experience he's had in rewriting that NHL history.

He shares his memories of the NHL's all time greats, like Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux. But he tells you from his vantage point, perhaps as a kid growing up, or as a teammate or opponent on the bench.

He talks about the game's greatest moments, as he sees it. He covers all 99 seasons in NHL history. The best insights, of course, come in the games he participated. The big Stanley Cup games, or the Canada Cups or the Olympics. In the 1987 Canada Cup, for example, he compares Soviet and Canadian historical coaching theories,

Gretzky also fills the book with some neat stories of his own, such as the time during the 1987 Canada Cup when he invited Igor Larionov over to Walter Gretzky's house and how he had to sneak him into the memorabilia filled basement to sneak Igor a beer without his three KGB accompaniments noticing.

Gretzky's unique vantage point makes this book intriguing. But what really makes this book work is McLellan Day's gift of finding her subject's voice. She's the best in the business at this. We've all heard a million sound clips of Wayne Gretzky over the years, and we kind of know what to expect how he will hold himself in conversation. While reading this book I could completely "hear" Gretzky speaking. McLellan Day is unparalleled in hockey literature in this regard.

Be sure to check out Gretzky's new book 99 Stories of the Game today. It will likely be the top hockey book of 2016.

October 17, 2016

Bobby Orr

"He's the perfect hockey player."

Those are the words of Boston coach/GM Harry Sinden, who had the best look at Orr on a nightly basis and insists Orr is the best player ever because he blended extraordinary talent and a brand of toughness that no one else has ever possessed.

"(Gordie) Howe could do everything, but not at top speed. (Bobby) Hull went at top speed but couldn't do everything. The physical aspect is absent from (Wayne) Gretzky's game. Orr would do everything, and do it at top speed."

To make matters even more interesting, Orr was the sport's most dominant player, arguably its perfect player, and he did from the blue line. By doing so Orr revolutionized the game of hockey. His slick passing and playmaking and his end to end rushes were unheard of by a defenseman. Only the very very best forwards would try a solo effort. Orr did it seemingly effortlessly, and so convincingly, therefore forever changing the hockey landscape.

Perhaps the great writer Jack Falla sums it up best:

“Orr had broken scoring records by such huge margins and played with such creativity and abandon as to alter a half century of tactical hockey orthodoxy about the proper role of a defenseman.”

Before Bobby Orr defensemen were counted on primarily for defensive purposes. They would rarely join a rush, never mind lead one. They stayed in front of the net and helped clear the puck out of the defensive zone. Their main job offensively was to get the puck out of their end and create a quick transition game. The best players would almost always be forwards.

But the kid from Parry Sound, Ontario played like a forward, while still delivering sound defense. His display of end to end rushes and his mastery on the point of the power play changed the way offense was generated, and how defenses would cover them. He was simply the most skilled player the NHL has ever seen, even more so than Wayne Gretzky or even Mario Lemieux, both of whom benefit from the game revolutionized by Orr.

Orr won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1967. He would finished second in scoring among defenseman with 13 goals and 41 points, astounding numbers in those days. Harry Howell won the Norris Trophy that year, but was quoted after being named the winner - "I might as well enjoy it (Norris Trophy) now, because I expect it's going to belong to Bobby Orr from now on." He would be proven correct.

By 1969 Orr set an NHL record for defensemen scoring with 64 points including 21 goals. The following season he would nearly double that point total to 120 points based on 33 goals and 87 assists, becoming the first defenseman to score 100 points in a season, and the first (and only) to lead the league in scoring! In three years Orr obliterated scoring records not only for defensemen, but for all players.

The 1970-71 season was Orr's best statistically, as he piled in an amazing 139 points based on 37 goals and 102 assists. No player had ever scored 100 assists in one season before, and only two have since (Gretzky and Lemieux). Remember, this was all before Wayne Gretzky's offensive rewriting of the record books. These numbers were even more mind-boggling than Gretzky's considering Orr was a defenseman, and the era he played in.

1974-75 would rival the 1970-71 season as Orr was on a mission to become the first defenseman to score 50 goals. He came up just short, finishing with 46, but added 89 helpers for 135 points. No defenseman has ever scored 50 goals since, although Paul Coffey bettered Orr's total by 2.

All this time Orr was bothered by knee surgeries. However he managed to play a full schedule for the most part. During his prime he played 75-80 games, with the 1972-73 season being the lone exception. He played in only 63 that year, yet still managed 101 points.

He would end up winning the Norris Trophy as best defenseman for 8 consecutive years. In 1970 he became the first player in history to win down four individual trophies in one season. He won the Norris, Art Ross (Top scorer), Hart (MVP) and Conn Smythe (MVP in playoffs). He ended up with 3 Harts and 2 Smythe Trophies, as well as two Stanley Cup rings.

Speaking of Stanley Cups, Orr may have scored the most famous playoff goal in hockey history. Orr's overtime goal that won the final game of the playoffs and brought the Cup back to Beantown for the first time in 29 years. Just 40 seconds into overtime of game four, Orr took a centering pass from Derek Sanderson right in the slot and shot it past a sprawling St. Louis Blues goaltender, Glenn Hall. As soon as the puck hit the back of the net, Blues defenseman Noel Picard would hook Orr's skate with his stick, sending Orr flying through the air. The picture of Orr celebrating the winning goal in mid-flight will forever be etched in the minds of hockey fans all around the world.

Orr finished his career with 270 goals and 915 points in 657 games, absolutely mind boggling numbers for a defenseman. He remains as the only defenseman to lead the NHL in scoring. He held 12 individual records at the time of his retirement. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979. Perhaps the greatest accolade given to Orr was the by the fans. The Boston Globe once conducted a poll of New Englanders to determine who was the greatest athlete in Boston history. It was not Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell or Larry Bird. The winner was Number Four, Bobby Orr.

Often overlooked is Orr's physical attributes. He was a ferocious body checker and an astute shot blocker. People would often tell Bobby not to sacrifice his body, because his knees couldn't handle the punishment, and he was good enough to play without that abuse. Bobby would simply reply "It's the only way I know how to play."

Orr's brilliant career was shortened by bad knees. Had he been able to continue for a few more years, maybe there would be no question as to who is the greatest of all time.

In January 1998, The Hockey News named Orr the second greatest player of all time, behind only Wayne Gretzky. He would finish just 13 polling points out of first, and 13 points ahead of third place Gordie Howe. I think that proves the three stars from different eras are on a level all on their own.

Howe dominated the way hockey was always played, up and down the wing, bash and crash and physically intimidate. Gretzky would dominate the all offense era of fast skating and high scoring. Some how the game had changed between the Howe and Gretzky eras. Bobby Orr was largely instrumental in the revolutionization of hockey. One can only imagine how much more he would have altered the game had he been fortunate enough to stay healthy.

Shoebox Memories: Ron Hextall

As much as I cheered on Wayne Gretzky's Oilers in the playoffs back in the 1980s, an intriguing anti-hero emerged in 1987 and instantly became another hero of mine - Ron Hextall.

He was certainly a different hero for me, my first "bad guy" I really enjoyed. Maybe I was getting rebellious as I entered my teenage years, but until then everything was back and white, good and bad. I had never cheered for a bad guy before.

Hexy was bad. Slashing at Kent Nilsson. Later he would attack Chris Chelios and brawl with Felix Potvin.

Hextall, at least in those first few years, was fascinating to watch. You never knew when his temper would erupt like a volcano. But I do not think it was all the antics that really attracted me to Hextall's game. Above all of that, he was spectacular goalie to watch, and then there was his revolutionary puck handling, which led to his historic goal scoring.

Here's more on the career of Ron Hextall or watch this tribute YouTube video (set to bad music) below.

Czech Victory in 1969 Surpasses 1972 Dramatics

Jaroslav Holik

Here's a blast from the past from the GHL Archives:

When Canada defeated the United States in the gold medal game in the 2002 Olympics, Canadians from coast to coast to coast and all around the world celebrated. It was the greatest international hockey victory since the 1972 Summit Series.

But to Canadians, there is no more significant victory in hockey than the 1972 Summit Series. Never mind the fact that it should be one of our worse moments - narrowly escaping a series everyone overconfidently predicted we should have won handily - the series became much more than a hockey victory.

The players described it as war. Time has built up the myth that at stake wasn't the unofficial hockey championship of the world, but our free world values vs. the communist regime. But for 28 days in September '72, especially on Sept. 28, 1972, there was an element of truth in that myth, and when we won the nation erupted and celebrated joyously.

The win had such a profound effect on Canadians. More than any other moment in Canadian history, this event overwhelmed a nation with pride and unity. Anyone with any knowledge of Canada knows that is hard to do in a nation that is so diverse. The event transcended it's realm, and changed us forever.

It will be hard to ever duplicate such an effect on ice ever again. It was a time of us-against-them, not just in hockey, but in everything else. That era is gone, hopefully forever.

Every once in a while, the sports world sees an event where the result transcends not only the tangible victory, but the world itself. The result can mean so much to a large audience - often including non-sports fans. Probably the best example would be when African-American track and field star Jesse Owens set world records in the 1936 Olympics. Those Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. It was supposed to be a display of Aryan greatness as racist leader Adolph Hitler watched from the stands. Owens overcame the political and racial hot-seat to put Hitler in his place. Even the German fans cheered on Owens.

Every country can come up with their own example of a sporting event that had bigger implications than just result of a game. For many nations in the world it is probably a soccer victory, or maybe an Olympic triumph.

Someone once asked me if there are any other hockey events that rival the 1972 series effect on such a large group of people. The answer I came up with was yes, there was a few hockey events that rivalled it, and one that even surpassed it.

In 1969, not only was the effect matched, but it was bettered, perhaps significantly. The Czechoslovakia national team defeated the Soviets in front of 8000 Swedish fans at the World Championships. A year earlier the Soviet Union rolled their tanks and armies into Prague and crushed a reform movement. Czechoslovakia leader Alexander Dubcek, an earlier version of Mikhail Gorbachev, was trying to introduce reforms that would create "socialism with a human face." The Russians put a quick and authoritative end to that.

The meeting on the ice in the 1969 World Championships was much more than just a hockey game. It was politically charged. The Czechoslovakian players were determined to regain Czechoslovakian pride in their own little way.

The Czechoslovakians, who were famous for playing very conservative hockey, came out with an effort that stretched the meaning of the word intensity. The atmosphere was so tense that it was revealed later that Anatoli Tarasov suffered a mild heart attack during the game.

The game started with a shocking act of defiance by the Czechoslovakian players. The Czechoslovakians’ jersey always displayed the Czechoslovakian emblem of a crest with a lion. A red star above the lion pledged allegiance to the USSR. The players covered up the red star with hockey tape despite great fears of repercussions.

The players played with an unmatchable level of desire. There was no denying their victory. Their hatred was real, very real. Their composure was commendable, but the emotion was incredible. The Soviet players were bewildered. They didn't understand why these players hated them so. One Czechoslovakian player, Josef Golonka, displayed his emotion by converting his hockey stick into a pretend rifle.

The game itself was a scoreless affair for the longest time. The great Jan Suchy scored on a two-man powerplay to open the scoring. From that point on goalie Vladimir Dzurilla was the star of the show. He would keep all the Soviet shooters at bay as he recorded the first shutout in World Championship play by any nation against the Russians since 1955. Josef Cerny scored a spectacular goal to put an exclamation point on the 2-0 victory.

But the victory on the ice wasn't important as the victory in the hearts of Czechoslovakians. The Czechoslovakian players cried uncontrollably. The Swedish crowd knew of the political ramifications, and joined in the celebrations by chanting "Dubcek! Dubcek!" Once the news of the game reached Prague, thousands of proud Czechoslovakians spilled out into the streets. They weren't concerned about possible repercussions either.

Russian winger Yevgeny Zimin remembered the game in Lawrence Martin's book The Red Machine:

"We saw this joy. It was so overwhelming. The whole stadium stood up. The applause was incredible. We realized what was going on. But we didn't view the Czechoslovakian players as our enemies. We didn't have any influence on the decisions of the Kremlin. But, in our hearts and our minds, we did not agree with the policy of the occupation of Czechoslovakian and the use of tanks against the people of that country. We didn't have anything against the Czechoslovakian players."

He also added "The integrity of the Czechoslovakian players and their pride was on the line. They decided that, if they couldn't beat us with tanks, then they could beat us on the ice rinks. You must understand that even before that year practically every game between us and the Czechoslovakians was played at a very high emotional level. But what happened in Stockholm, I must say, nobody expected."

While Canadians spilled out into the streets in 1972 and in 2002, nothing could match the emotion of this game.

Just a few short days later, the hysteria was repeated as the Czechoslovakians again met the Soviets in a match. This time the Czechoslovakians won 4-3, thanks in part to weak goaltending by Russian goal keeper Viktor Zinger.

Ultimately the Czechoslovakians exhausted their passion before they could claim the World title. Needing only a tie in the final game to clinch the gold, the Czechoslovakians lost 1-0. The Soviets, Swedes and Czechoslovakians all tied for 1st but the goals for/goals against ratio gave the title to the Soviets.

Very few sporting events could reach the level of Jesse Owens or the Czechoslovakia national team. Compared to those two, the 1972 Summit Series doesn't quite match up.

October 15, 2016

Dave Keon: The Greatest Maple Leaf

Dave Keon, known as one of the greatest two-way centres in the history of the game, was an amazing athlete who spent 22 seasons in professional hockey. He appeared in an impressive total of 1,725 regular season and playoff games in both the WHA and the NHL, and in all that time he picked up only 151 penalty minutes!

Keon attended the famed St. Michael's College in Toronto prior to turning professional. When he arrived he was a scoring sensation who paid little attention to defense, but that changed by the time he graduated from the Maple Leafs training camp. Keon, under the guidance of Father David Bauer and Bob Goldham, transformed himself into the epitome of a perfect hockey player. He combined skating and stick handling gifts with superior hockey sense in all zones of the rink, both offensively and defensively. He became so good that he was the pre-eminent checking center while remaining a top offensive force.

At 5'9" and 165 pounds Keon was hardly a big man, which often made his task of shutting down the opposition's top scorer that much tougher. But Keon was tough in his own way. He was strong though slight, and mastered the art of angling opponents out of harm's way. While no one questioned Keon's heart or toughness, he always preferred to play within the rules. He won the Lady Byng as the NHL's most gentlemanly player in both 1962 and 1963. In fact he averaged only 6 minutes in penalties in each of his NHL seasons.

Keon hit the Garden ice in 1960 without spending a minute in the minors - a rare feat in those days as boss Punch Imlach was usually dead set against using unpracticed players on his veteran laden team. All eyes were focused on the speedy youngster to see if he could handle the rough stuff. By season's end he had 20 goals, a considerable sum in those days, and was named the Calder Trophy winner as the best rookie in the league that year.

Keon was a sparkplug who ignited the Maple Leafs. The following season saw Keon scored 61 points and was named to the Second All Star team in just his second year. More importantly, he began proving himself where all of the game's greats are made or broken - in the Stanley Cup playoffs Keon helped the Leafs capture their first Stanley Cup championship in 11 seasons.

The Leafs would three-peat as Stanley Cup Champions. In 1963 Keon's 7 goals and 12 points paced the Leafs. In 1964, Keon repeated a team leading 7 goals, including all three of the team's goals in the final game in the semi-final against Montreal. He then turned his attention to shutting down the Detroit Red Wings.

In a surprise championship, the Leafs captured their 4th Cup of the decade in 1967. Keon's relentless checking and premier faceoff abilities were first and foremost, and he was rewarded with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the league's most valuable playoff performer.

Shortly after the 1967 championship, the Leafs headed into transition. The team aged into decline, and a new man rose to power in Toronto in 1971 - Harold Ballard.

Ballard's clashes with players, coaches, media - pretty much everybody and anybody - are as legendary as they are infamous. Perhaps no player's battle with Ballard went as deep and long lasting as Keon's.

Keon was named as captain in 1969, but when Ballard arrived he didn't support Keon as the captain of his hockey team. Keon undoubtedly had an abrasive personality, but was extremely popular with the fans, and was understood by his teammates. As their public battles continued, the Leafs fortunes under Keon's captaincy went downward. Keon himself continued to excel, but he didn't have the supporting cast to help him.

Ballard could have traded away Keon (one common rumor had the New York Islanders very interested) but he refused by asking for the moon and the stars in return. Ballard wanted Keon right out of the NHL and when his contract was up in 1975 he left Keon with little choice but to sign with the World Hockey Association - something Keon remained bitter about years after Ballard's death.

Keon brought his intelligent game to the WHA where he played for Minnesota, Indianapolis and New England over the next four seasons before making his triumphant return to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers, who merged with the NHL once the WHA collapsed.

Keon continued to play until his retirement at the conclusion of the 1981-82 season.

Keon never forgot or forgave Harold Ballard for the way he was treated. Keon felt disrespected and unappreciated in the often public and sometimes deeply personal verbal assault Ballard waged. Keon refused to take part in any Maple Leaf functions for years after his retirement, despite his status as one of the most popular Leaf players of all time among fans.

Once Ballard passed on, the new Maple Leaf regime and particularly Cliff Fletcher looked to repair old wounds with many former players, including Keon. Although the relationship has never been fully repaired with the stubborn Keon, there has been a modest thaw in the cold war.

Perhaps all has been forgiven by 2016. As part of the Leafs centennial celebrations, Keon was named as the greatest player in Toronto Maple Leafs history.

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