May 06, 2006

Harold Snepsts

While he played in short stops with the Minnesota North Stars, Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues, the mustachioed and helmetless Harold Snepsts will forever be remembered as the robust though anything but graceful blue liner with the Vancouver Canucks for a combined 12 NHL seasons.

Harold was a hugely popular player on the west coast, perhaps the most popular ever. He was a cult hero in the old Pacific Coliseum, where fans would boisterously chant "Haaar-Old! .... Haaar-Old!....Haaar-Old!" over and over. Even in the later years of his career when he would revisit Vancouver as a member of another club, the fans would cheer for their hero.

Snepsts making the NHL was an odd-defying feat. Edmonton Journal writer Mark Spector might have put it best when he wrote "Harold Snepsts was the ultimate diamond in the rough. Light on the diamond, heavy on the . . . well, you get the picture."

Harold had no real finesse skill to speak of. He was a down right terrible skater. He seemingly ran on the ice instead of gliding in strong strides. He had little speed and even less mobility. This made him prone to being beaten one-on-one by a fleet footed enemy. Harold also was an adventure with the puck. Over time he learned to almost avoid handling the puck. If he did have to play it he'd most likely just fire it out of the zone. However because he often played with his back to the play, he was often intercepted.

What Snepsts could do though was extremely valuable. He intimidated the opposition. You would think twice before traveling to the slot in front of the Canucks net, as Harold would punish you with enjoyment. He loved to hit and did so with great aggression and authority. In his younger years he was a willing and good fighter, though. Essentially he was on the ice to add size and aggression, and to keep the other team honest.

One of the reasons why Harold lasted over 1000 games in the National Hockey League was because he was as popular with his teammates as he was with the fans. He had a legendary sense of humour and was a great leader. The great character he showed every day of his career was an immeasurable contribution that far outweighed any amount of goals or bodychecks he collected.

Harold was born and raised in Edmonton. His long road to the NHL began as a simple desire to play indoors during the cold, unforgiving Edmonton winters. As an 11 year old, Snepsts, who like many top bantam players of that day desired to play for the local Maple Leafs Athletic Club.

"I was playing for Beverly Heights (a local club team) and that was the elite - to make it to the Maple Leafs and the indoor rink," said Snepsts. And while he had to scrape and claw his way just to stay on the team.

"After I turned 12 I barely made every team I played on," said Snepsts.

Snepsts graduated from the MLAC to the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League.

"Initially, you were just happy to play Bantam AA. Then as you started playing there, you realized that a good portion of the guys that made the Oil Kings were from the Maple Leafs."

But it wasn't that easy for Snepsts, who was nearly cut from the Leafs juvenile team.

"Harold Snepsts was the worst skater on the team, but he could run like crazy on the ice," said coach Jim Stewart

"It was a fine line between being cut from that team and not making the Oil Kings, to not making professional hockey at all," Snepsts said.

Yet Snepsts persevered and did stick, and did graduate to the Oil Kings.

"He was tough, he had the size and he loved to practice but I still thought he was a long term project. When I look back on my NHL and junior career and all the players played with and against, I would have to say Harold fell into the category of the guy you thought was never going to make it." said junior and NHL teammate Darcy Rota.

But he did. He was brought in for his toughness, and he supplied it amply. In one legendary fight, Snepsts tangled with Clark Gillies, a future NHL power forward. "We fought, we stopped, then we fought again. We both ended up with black eyes," remembers Snepsts fondly. .

Snepsts was a NHL prospect because of his size and toughness, but even he knew he was a long shot.

"All I wanted was to get drafted anywhere and get a tryout." he said. His wish was granted when he became the third-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in the 1974 entry draft.

After his initial training camp with the Canucks he was sent to the minor leagues, though by midseason was recalled permanently to the NHL. He would be a standout in his own style of defense in Vancouver, and twice represented the Canucks in the mid-season all star game, including in 1977 when the game was held in Vancouver. The crowd went wild when they introduced the local folk hero.

"Dirty Harry's" career highlight came in 1982 when the Canucks made an unexpected run at the Stanley Cup. Harold was incredible that spring, but unfortunately is remembered for a mistake that perhaps cost the Canucks a win in game one of the Stanley Cup finals. In overtime, Harold fired a loose puck straight up the middle, in a desperate attempt to clear the puck. Except the puck landed right on the stick of the great Mike Bossy. Bossy, perhaps the best pure goal scorer ever seen in the NHL, quickly put the puck behind Richard Brodeur to clinch game one. The feisty Canucks deserved to win that game, and while it is unlikely that it would have made a difference in the series with the dynastic Islanders, it was too bad they lost as they seemed to lose some momentum as well..

He played 10 seasons with the Canucks before being traded to Minnesota for Al MacAdam in 1984. The Canucks thought Snepsts was dispensable because of age, injuries, and because promising youngsters like Rick Lanz, Michel Petit, Garth Butcher and J.J. Daigneault were in the system.

It is interesting to review the comments of general manager Harry Neale on the day he made the deal. Said Neale: "I think we may have done Harold a favor. If we had let compassion come into our decision and kept him it might not have been best for either party. He is going to a good team that wants him. We haven't exactly sent him to hell . . . It wasn't going to be long before one of the young defencemen nudged him out of here anyway . . . He will get a new lease on life with a new team."

He stayed only one season in Minnesota and had to wait to get to Detroit to become reborn. He signed as a free agent with the Red Wings in 1985, and became a cult hero in Motown as well.

"I learned an awful lot in Detroit what a veteran should do to help turn a club around," he says. "We had about six old guys and it is unbelievable what you can do to help the young players. There is a lot of pressure on them to succeed right away and sometimes they didn't know where to turn. You just have to tell them their time will come. Talk to them in the dressing room and on the road and give them some confidence."

After 3 years in Detroit, he was released of his contract and seemed destined to retire. However he did desire to return to Vancouver, and publicly said he will only play with the Canucks. The Canucks were interested as well, as new general manager Pat Quinn had been critical of the lack of leadership and experience in Vancouver in the previous couple of years.

Snepsts signed and played almost two full years in Vancouver. He was instrumental in teaching one of the brightest youngsters in Canucks history. He was the road trip roommate of 18 year old phenom Trevor Linden. Linden would go on to become one of the best players in Canucks history, and is even better known as one of the nicest guys off the ice. Both accomplishments have a little Snepsts magic in them.

Snepsts, along with Rich Sutter, were unexpectedly traded at the the 1990 trading deadline to the St. Louis Blues. The Canucks were looking for a youth movement and sent the two veterans to St. Louis. Harold enjoyed his end of his season in St. Louis so much that he decided to return for one more year for the 1990-91 season. He had two goals left - to play in 1000 NHL games and to drink from the Stanley Cup.

While his thirst was never quenched, he did become the 70th player to appear in 1000 NHL games. That's an amazing fact for a player who based on his skill level likely never should have played in any.

There was a party for Snepsts on the night of his 1000th game. Snepsts, who scored the game winning goal against Detroit in his 999th game (just his 4th goal since 1984!), said "With this body, I'm just trying to get to 1,001." Ironically, Snepsts hurt his hip in game 1001 and never finished the game.

He ended his career with 1,033 games, 38 goals and 195 assists. He also had 2,009 penalty minutes, the equivalent of 33.5 games in the penalty box.

"I'm done," Snepsts said "All I have left to do now is remember all the great players I played with and all the friends I met. Thankfully, I played that long."

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