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December 05, 2016

Garry Unger

It may be hard to believe nowadays, but there was a time when the Detroit Red Wings were the weakest of the weak in hockey. Head back to the late 1960s and especially the 1970s. They were ridiculously outpaced by their Original Six counterparts. Even most NHL expansion teams and even some of the WHA teams were stronger than the Red Wings.

The Red Wings made some real bonehead moves back then. Most notably they alienated a young Marcel Dionne and later let him get away. Another young star they chased out of town was Garry Unger, all because of his hair.

In 1971 the Wings had an old school coach named Ned Harkness. In some ways he was the epitome of the later day Mike Keenan, a strict authoritarian who would make unreasonable demands, but without Keenan's success.

Harkness and Unger clashed almost immediately. Unger, who scored 42 goals as a sophomore in 1969-70, had a somewhat misplaced reputation as a playboy. He was good looking with rosy cheeks, and he wore colorful clothes. His signature had to be his shoulder length blonde hair. He was known to use a hair dryer as much as a hockey blade torch. And hey it must have worked, as he was dating Miss America in 1970.

It may have been the 70s, but Harkness would have none of this. He ordered all of his players to get crew-cuts. Unger refused, and on February 6th, 1971 he, Tim Ecclestone and Wayne Connelly were traded to St. Louis in exchange for expansion scoring star Red Berenson. It turned out to be a terrible trade for the Wings.

Berenson had a couple of solid seasons in Detroit, but he was near the end. Connelly and Ecclestone would go on to become solid NHL players, while Unger erupted in St. Louis. In each of his 8 seasons as Mr. Blue he scored at least 30 goals. Year-in and year-out he would lead the Blues in most offensive categories.

Of course Unger also became known as Mr. Ironman. Unger never missed a game until December 22, 1979, then playing with the Atlanta Flames. He participated in 914 consecutive NHL games, breaking Andy Hebenton's record of 630 games in the process. The ironman record has since been upped to 964 games by Doug Jarvis.

Unger said :...back then it was difficult for me to complain about a sore ankle or leg when I knew that in two weeks it was going to fine, yet my sister was never going to be able to walk again.” His sister suffered from polio, but despite that she “could be so peaceful and happy with her life despite the fact that she couldn’t walk.”

Unger also tamed his playboy image while in St. Louis, too. Unger moved into the guest house of the Blue's owner's ranch some 40 miles from downtown St. Louis. Unger loved the horses and the outdoors. Instead of partying in the city for a night on the town, he spent more of his free time dirt biking, mountain climbing and water skiing.

Unger always remained a free spirit. One off-season he decided to drive cross-country in a convertible with the top down. Even when he hit heavy rains he would keep the rag top collapsed, claiming "it gave me a sense of accomplishment."

Unger accomplished a lot in life, thanks to hockey. But he was never the most likely candidate to become a hockey star. His father, a member of the Canadian Army, build a rink in the backyard of the family home in Edmonton. Garry was given a pair of skates, but they were girl's figure skates. Undaunted, Garry painted them back and taught himself to skate.

Much of Garry's formal hockey development occurred in Calgary, where his father was transferred. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed Unger to a C-form in the days before the creation of a entry draft. He would move to southern Ontario and play with the London Nationals.

Garry barely had a chance to play for the Leafs. He got into just 15 NHL games with the Leafs before he was included in the big Frank Mahovlich trade to Detroit. Unger, Mahovlich and Pete Stemkowski headed to the Motor City in exchange for a package including Carl Brewer, Norm Ullman, and Paul Henderson.

Garry Unger moved to Detroit where his famous battle over his hair would be waged. Towards the end of his career he came to realize that perhaps success came too early in Detroit, and that the best thing that ever happened to him was the trade to St. Louis where he would escape the limelight somewhat and mature as a person and a player.

Late in his career Unger would be able pass these lessons on to budding NHL superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey. Unger finished his career with parts of three seasons in his hometown of Edmonton.

Unger retired from the NHL in 1983. He played in 1105 games, scored 413 goals, 391 assists and 804 total points.

He would briefly come out of retirement and play in Great Britain later in the 1980s. His playboy lifestyle well behind him, he became quite religious while spending much of his post-playing days riding buses and coaching the low minor leagues.

Tony Granato

It is not often that a player goes on to a 774 NHL game career plus several notable USA national team appearances, including the Olympics, and then becomes a NHL head coach, and is not the most famous of his hockey playing siblings.

But such is the case for Tony Granato. But while his brothers Don and Kevin played the game, too, they all played in the shadow of their sister - Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato.

While Cammi went on to become one of the greatest skaters in women's hockey history, Tony was a pretty NHL player in his own right.

A veteran of 13 NHL seasons with the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, Tony Granato was a feisty forward who battled for every inch of ice. The scrappy and short-tempered winger always played bigger than his five-foot-ten, 185 pound frame, making him a fan favorite.

Aside from his trademark determination, the key to Granato's game was his skating. Had speed and agility to spare. He also had a good nose for the net, 248 career goals including seasons of 36, 30, 39 and 37 goals.

The Granato family grew up near Chicago, and hockey was always their game.

"I was always a big Chicago Blackhawks fan when I was growing up," said Granato, who started skating when he was four. "I loved watching Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita play. From the first time I saw the game, I was hooked."

But it was the New York Rangers who drafted him 120th overall in 1982. He had relocated to New York to attend Northwood Prep and ready for what would prove to be a very successful college career at the University of Wisconsin. The Rangers had to wait.

From 1983-88, Granato become one of the great Badgers players of all time. But he also found a love of playing with the American national team. Twice he played for USA at the World Junior Championships and then he played in three consecutive World Championships - all before he played a single pro game.

The confident Granato bypassed the opportunity to join the Rangers in 1987. Instead he opted to continue skating as an amateur, committing to the United States national team for the entire season in a bid to make the 1988 Olympic team.

"Playing for your country is the ultimate honour," said Granato. "Any time you have the chance to put on that sweater, it's the greatest feeling."

Granato made the Olympic team and had a strong showing with a goal and seven assists in six games. After competing at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Granato turned pro with the Raangers farm team in Colorado. He seamlessly scored 27 points in 22 games.

Granato made a spectacular NHL debut in 1988-89, scoring 36 goals and 63 points in 78 NHL games. He earned All Rookie Team status. Had it not been for fellow Ranger rookie Brian Leetch, Granato may have very well NHL Rookie of the Year that season.

Though he quickly established himself as a fan favorite in New York, Granato was dealt to Los Angeles during his second NHL season. The Kings offered star scorer Bernie Nicholls in exchange for Granato and Tomas Sandstrom.

The switch to the west coast turned out to be a great move for Granato, who topped 30 goals three more times and enjoyed a pivotal role in LA's first Stanley Cup appearance in 1993.

And of course he got to play with Wayne Gretzky.

"I had the pleasure of playing with Wayne Gretzky, someone who I admire for so many reasons," said Granato. "You learned so much from just watching how he prepares for the game."

Granato would spend a total of six seasons with Los Angeles, prior to signing with their California rival, the San Jose Sharks, in September of 1996. It was during his time with the Sharks that Granato suffered a serious head injury, one that required the removal of an abnormal collection of blood in the left temporal lobe of the brain.

Yet again Granato overcame his obstacles, making a triumphant return. For his efforts he was the obvious winner of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 1997.

Granato continued to play until 2001. His offense was replaced by his leadership and veteran presence but he always remained a valuable asset and mentor to the younger players.

That made Granato an obvious choice to become a coach. He would be both an assistant and head coach with Colorado as well as an assistant in Detroit and Pittsburgh.

In 2016 Granato returned to the University of Wisconsin to become the head coach of his alma mater.

True to form, Granato made a triumphant return to the game and in 1997, was rewarded with the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. He continued to provide strong leadership and veteran savvy until he hung up his skates in 2001.

December 03, 2016

Bill Cowley

Bill Cowley was very much an early day Wayne Gretzky. He is considered to be the greatest playmaker in hockey while he graced the ice surfaces of the NHL.

Born in Bristol, Quebec in 1912, Cowley played his junior and senior hockey in Ottawa. He wasn't discovered by NHL scouts until he was 21 when he went on tour with the Ottawa Shamrocks in Europe in 1933. The Shamrocks, who went 33-0-2 in the tour, were led by the 5'10" 165lb center who dazzled on-lookers with his dizzying play. Praise wasn't the only thing Cowley got while in Paris that year. He soon would have a pro contract too. He returned to Canada where he relocated to and played senior hockey in Halifax, easily leading the league in all major statistical categories.

Cowley entered the NHL in the 1934-35 with the St. Louis Eagles. Cowley spent the season learning the ropes of the NHL. The Eagles however would only last the one season. Their players were dispersed around the league in a special draft. Boston eagerly picked up the slick stick-handler.

Cowley quickly developed into a superstar in Boston. He became an all star by 1938. By 1939 he led all playoff scorers in scoring as the Bruins won the Stanley Cup Championship. By 1940-41 Cowley was the best player in the league. He earned the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP while winning the scoring title and leading the Bruins to another Stanley Cup. He also set a new league record for assists in one season with 45.

Cowley's greatness was hampered by serious injuries. He missed much of he 1941-42 season with a broken jaw (broken in 5 places). He rebounded to capture his second Hart Trophy in 1942-43 (equaling his own season assist record) but had a fine 1943-44 season cut short by a separated shoulder. The injury cost him a shot at destroying the NHL single season scoring record. He was at 71 points with 6 weeks left. The old record was 73 points (held by Cooney Weiland). Cowley would rebound the next year but had a broken wrist in 1946. He retired at the end of the 1947 season.

At the time of his retirement, Cowley was arguably the greatest player the NHL had seen. He retired with 548 career points, enough for him to claim the title as the NHL's all time leading scorer until 1952. His 353 career assists were also all time highs.

Cowley never really got the notoriety such a fine player should have received. Despite his breathtaking play he was somewhat overlooked by playing for the Bruins at the time he did. In fact, on many nights Cowley was centering the second line as the famous Kraut Line of Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart remained Boston's key to success for much of Cowley's tenure. Cowley, who teamed often with hard-nosed Ray Getliffe and speedy Charlie Sands before centering sharp-shooter Roy Conacher and "Sudden Death" Mel Hill, would not be overlooked for very long though. Cowley was enshrined in Hockey's Hall of Fame in 1968.

December 02, 2016

Sergei Fedorov

Sergei Fedorov became a man larger than life. 

He was one of the flashiest and best hockey players of his day, paid millions and millions of dollars. He was known outside of the game for fast cars, nice clothes and his relationship with tennis sex symbol Anna Kournikova (and Tara Reid and Danielle Meers, for that matter).

There was a time when Sergei lived a much simpler life. The Russian was born in Pskov, just outside of what we now call St. Petersburg, but he grew up in Apatiti, a town literally north of the Arctic Circle. He learned to skate on the frozen rivers, and before he was a teenager was playing in the local adult hockey league, with his father Viktor as the center.

Word of Sergei's incredible hockey ability traveled fast, even from the Arctic. By the age of 13 his family agreed to let him move to Minsk, in what is now known as Belarus, to attend a special sports school to hone his hockey skills. It would not be long before he was relocated again, this time to Moscow to train with the Red Army and the famed Russian national team.

The national team and father Viktor pushed Sergei because they all knew he was a true hockey prodigy, somebody who very possibly would one day be considered the greatest hockey player from Russia ever. Remember, this was still in the days of communist Soviet Union where a star player like Sergei was essentially developed to be part of the superiority propaganda machine of the Kremlin. It was very important that Sergei and others become the best hockey players possible.

Here's the full Sergei Fedorov biography

November 30, 2016

Trophy Renaming Alternative

Every so often the topic of renaming the NHL trophies after more modern historical figures comes up. The Hart Trophy to become the Wayne Gretzky Trophy? The Norris Trophy to become the Bobby Orr Trophy?

I vehemently opposed the idea in a well received article where I asked "so what will we rename the Stanley Cup?" Because that would be insanely sacrilegious. And so, too, is renaming the NHL awards.

So here's my alternative proposal. Instead of having three nominees, have an Eastern and Western winner. Those two players would each win a new trophy, named after hockey legends. The two players would also be the nominees for the league-wide award, which would continue to be the trophies we have always used.

There are several benefits to this:

  • All new trophies, honoring the game's greatest names, from Gretzky to Orr, from Beliveau to Plante.
  • A great way to honor more players in today's game.
  • The historical trophies continue to be at the forefront of the game. There is no disrespecting the game's history. Renaming trophies is a terrible idea. You wouldn't rename the Stanley Cup, would you?
  • Eliminating regional biases. Eastern voters could vote on Eastern players, and Western voters on Western players. The league wide awards could then be decided upon by a smaller committee of media or by NHL general managers.
  • Create more rivalries between the West and the East.
So how about a few suggestions as to how you think the proposed Western and Eastern NHL awards should named. My suggestions are below. Tell me your suggestions in the comments section, by email or on Twitter @HockeyLegends

Most Valuable Player
NHL - Hart Memorial Trophy
West - Wayne Gretzky Trophy
East - Mario Lemieux Trophy

NHL Leading Scorer
NHL - Art Ross Trophy
West - Gordie Howe Trophy
East - Jean Beliveau Trophy

NHL Leading Goal Scorer
NHL - Rocket Richard Trophy
West - Bobby Hull Trophy
East - Phil Esposito Trophy

Best Player as voted by NHLPA peers

NHL - Ted Lindsay Trophy 
West - Steve Yzerman Trophy
East - Stan Mikita Trophy

Best Defenseman

NHL - Norris Trophy
West - Doug Harvey Trophy
East - Bobby Orr Trophy

Best Goaltender
NHL - Vezina Trophy
West - Terry Sawchuk Trophy
East - Jacques Plante Trophy

Best Defensive Forward
NHL - Selke Trophy
West - Dave Keon Trophy
East - Bob Gainey Trophy

Best Rookie
NHL - Calder Trophy
West - Teemu Selanne Trophy
East - Mike Bossy Trophy

Best Coach
NHL - Jack Adams Award
West - Scotty Bowman Award
East - Al Arbour Award

Most Gentlemanly Player

NHL - Lady Byng Trophy
West - Frank Nighbor Trophy
East - Frank Boucher Trophy

Playoff MVP
NHL - Conn Smythe Trophy
West - Teeder Kennedy Trophy
East - Patrick Roy Trophy

November 29, 2016

Frank Mahovlich

Frank Mahovlich is one of a very select few who would star with Canada's two most cherished sports franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. He also starred with the Detroit Red Wings.

Starting his career in Toronto, The Big M is arguably Toronto's most cherished hockey hero, yet also one of its most criticized.

The Leafs enjoyed their greatest success with Mahovlich leading the way. He helped them to 4 Stanley Cup championships in the 1960s. Mahovlich was a big man with a long powerful stride that powered himself through the opposing team's defense. Add to that his uncanny stickhandling and an overpowering shot, and Mahovlich was pretty much a perfect hockey player.

In his book Maple Leaf Legends, author Mike Leonetti describes Mahovlich:

"Mahovlich moved like a thoroughbred, with a strong, fluid style that made it look as if he was galloping through the opposition. In full flight, he was an imposing figure. An explosive skater, Mahovlich could spot the right moment to turn it on and burst in on goal. He had a great move where he would take the puck off the wing, cut into the middle of the ice and try to bust through two defencemen for a chance on goal. He didn't always get through but when he did he scored some memorable goals. His style of offence caused teammate Dave Keon to remark: Nobody scores goals better than Frank."

Despite the team's great success and Mahovlich's status as one of the greatest of his day, many believed we never got to see the best of The Big M. Most of his best years were spent in Toronto under boss Punch Imlach. Imlach, who could never pronounce Frank's last name, tried to reign in Mahovlich. He and Mahovlich never got along. Imlach was an old stubborn hockey man who was determined to break Mahovlich, who just shrugged off Imlach's antics, although he secretly hurt for years. Therefore, many believed as good as Mahovlich was, he could have been better under a different coach.

Here is the full Frank Mahovlich biography

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