April 10, 2006

Tom Lysiak

Tom Lysiak quietly was one of the most talented stars of hockey. He had an uncanny sense of anticipating the flow of the play and was used in every game situation. He played the power plays, he killed penalties and was often asked to play against the other teams' top center. Tom was a fine skater and created a lot of chances thanks to his mobility. A solid two-way player, his vision was complimented nicely by his creativity and soft hands.

Lysiak had an outstanding junior career playing for Medicine Hat Tigers in the Western Junior Hockey League. Tom played on a line together with future National Hockey League stars Stan Weir and Lanny McDonald. The trio terrorized the league. Lysiak led the league in assists and points for two consecutive seasons (1972 and 1973), racking up 143 and 154 points, including a WHL record 10-point night. He was also the leading scorer in the 1973 playoffs (27 assists and 39 points). During his three years with Medicine Hat Tom scored an amazing 327 points in 195 games.

Scouts had him pinned down among the top three picks in the 1973 draft. Montreal had the second pick in the amateur draft and wanted to pick Lysiak. The New York Islanders, who picked first, had already made clear that they would opt for the dominant defenseman Denis Potvin. But Lysiak didn't want to play in Montreal.

"They're prejudiced up there against players who aren't French, " Tom said back then.

When Montreal coach Scotty Bowman called Lysiak to ask him if he'd like to play in Montreal, Tom replied "No, not really."

Atlanta held the 5th overall pick in the draft and made it clear to Lysiak's agent Dick Sorkin that the Flames wanted the scoring sensation. Lysiak really wanted to go to Atlanta too, but it was highly unlikely that he would clear Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver and still be available to Atlanta.

"Sorkin told me to start telling everyone who'd listen that I didn't want to play in Canada," Tom said. "So whenever a newspaperman would interview me, I would tell them I wasn't going to play for any team in Canada. It wasn't an easy thing to do. Sometimes I had trouble thinking of bad things to say about the places."

When it became evident that Tom wanted to play in Atlanta, Montreal traded its No.2 choice to the Flames for " future considerations ".

When Tom entered Atlanta's training camp the Flames officials were enthusiastic to say the least.

"He plays like a veteran," crowed coach Bernie Geoffrion. "I haven't seen a rookie like him come into the league since Gilbert Perreault."

"As good as Marcel Dionne?" suggested assistant GM Johnny Wilson, who had coached a rookie Dionne in Detroit. " He's better than Dionne."

Lysiak got off to a flying start during his NHL rookie season and looked like he was going to run away with the Calder Trophy, but he eventually lost out to NY Islanders great Denis Potvin thanks to the Big Apple's better media attention. Visiting journalists were always impressed by Lysiak's savvy play though. They brought up comparisons like Gilbert Perreault, Phil Esposito and Jean Beliveau.

Lysiak showed few weaknesses. An occasional lazy streak maybe, but he scored regularly, passed well, stick handled brilliantly, played the point on power plays, showed a willingness to backcheck on defense, and even took on Philly's legendary tough guys Dave "The Hammer" Schultz and Don Saleski in a couple of fights. Lysiak finished his rookie season with 64 points, including a team record 45 assists.

The following season (1974-75) he avoided the so-called sophomore jinx and continued to produce points for Atlanta, Lysiak increased his point production to a club record 77 points, including 52 assists. Lysiak led his team in scoring for the third and fourth consecutive seasons in 1976 and 1977 as well, with 82 (31 goals and 51 assists) and 81 (30 goals and 51 assists) points. He played in the NHL All-Star game for three consecutive seasons (1975-77).

He played on a line dubbed the "Downtown Connecters" together with Willi Plett and Eric Vail, both Calder Trophy winners. In 1977-78 Lysiak became team captain and was Atlanta's top scorer for the fifth straight season.

The following season he was on his way to leading the team in scoring again, with 58 points in 52 games, before being part of one of the biggest trades in NHL history. The deal was an 8-player blockbuster deal, then a record in terms of players changing address. Lysiak joined the Chicago Blackhawks together with Pat Ribble, Greg Fox, Harold Phillipoff and Miles Zaharko in exchange for Ivan Boldirev, Phil Russell and Darcy Rota. The trade, perhaps initiated because of the strong play of Flames new center Guy Chouinard, stunned Flames fans and Lysiak alike. Lysiak, who had signed a 7 year contract to stay in Atlanta, was said to be devastated.

Lysiak finished the season In the Windy city, scoring 10 points in the last 14 games centering new linemates Tim Higgins and Ted Bulley. He missed 14 games with a nagging groin injury.

The trade to Chicago came as a shock to Atlanta's fans who had a hard time coping with the fact that their all-time point leader was gone.

Tom's steady point production continued as he scored 69 points in 1979-80 and 76 points in 1980-81, including a career high 55 assists. In 1981-82 he equaled his career best 82 points and scored a career high 32 goals. At this point Tom played on a line together with Darryl Sutter and Rich Preston.

Sutter was once quoted considering Lysiak as the best player he's ever played with, an interesting admission considering he played with guys like Denis Savard and Doug Wilson.

In 1982-83 Tom missed 19 games due to a knee injury but still managed to score 61 points in 61 games. The following season Tom only scored 47 points in 54 games. The reason why he only played 54 games was because Tom received a 20-game suspension, the longest ever in NHL history up to that point.

On the night before Halloween, 1983 Lysiak tripped linesman Ron Foyt during a 6-1 win over the Hartford Whalers at Chicago Stadium. Upset at constantly being waved out of the face-off circle on this night. Lysiak took the winger's position right behind Foyt, and once the puck was dropped he unthinkably landed a small chop on the back of the linesman's leg, upending the surprised Foyt. The official was not hurt in any way, but Lysiak's intentions were clear.

The 20 game suspension was an automatic penalty once called by the referee, in this case Dave Newell. The NHL granted referees this power after controversial incidents involving Paul Holmgren and Terry O'Reilly earlier in the decade.
Lysiak of course could not believe the suspension.

"Not only doesn't the punishment fit the crime, I don't have the right to give my side. There's no appeal. That's unconstitutional," Tom said at the time.

Lysiak and the NHLPA took the case into Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Court and won a 10-day restraining order blocking the suspension temporarily. The NHLPA argued that the punishment was too harsh, but ultimately the suspension was upheld and served.

Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but Lysiak was never the same player after the incident, although a broken foot and nagging back spasms did not help. Playing behind Denis Savard and Troy Murray, Lysiak adopted a more defensive role, thus hurting his once consistent offensive production. His 46 points in 1984-85 was a career low to that point, but he followed that with just 21 points in his last season as an active player in 1985-86.

Lysiak retired in the summer of 1986, and soon returned to southern charm of Georgia. He created his own landscaping business just outside of Atlanta where he also a horse farm.

1 comment:

Judy, Beth and Jan said...

Tom Lysiak, Greg Fox, Pat Ribble old party guys at Timmothy-John's. The BEST years of our life.
We still believe!
Judy, Beth and Jan

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