January 27, 2008

Northwest BC Hockey Players

Here's an article I wrote for Hawkair, a local airline here in Northern BC.

Boys and girls across the northwest are lacing up their skates and taping up their sticks with dreams of one day winning a Stanley Cup or an Olympic gold medal themselves. While that dream will likely never become a reality for most kids, it is far from impossible. Even for kids right here in the northwest.

In fact, 16 northwest players have made it to the NHL.

Smither’s Dan Hamhuis has become the most recent local kid to achieve the dream. Now in his second full NHL season, Hamhuis is the highest drafted northwest player ever, being selected the 12th overall in the 2001 NHL draft following a spectacular junior career with the WHL Prince George Cougars. He apprenticed a year in the minor leagues before joining a surprisingly exciting Nashville Predators team in 2003.

Smithers has developed some great NHL players over the years. The legendary Watson brothers, Joe and Jim, starred on the Philadelphia Flyers teams of the 1970s. Both were members of the 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup championship teams along with legends like Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent and Reggie Leach.

One of the more interesting characters in hockey history also came out of Smithers. Ron Flockhart played a style of hockey that was dubbed “Flockey Hockey” – an all offense, no defense approach to the game. It got him into over 450 NHL games with six different teams.

Nearby Telkwa is the hometown of goalie Mike Wall who has played a handful of games with the Anaheim Ducks. He continues to ply his trade in the minor leagues, hoping for more big league opportunities.

Smithers and Hazelton combined to produce the only northwest player to ever play for the Vancouver Canucks. Ron Homenuke played his only NHL game in a Canucks uniform way back in the 1972-73 season. Though he was born in Hazelton he spent most of his youth in Smithers.

Hazelton did produce home grown Alan Kerr, an industrious winger who played in 391 NHL contests, mostly with the New York Islanders. Hazelton was also the birthplace of Brandon Smith, who has surfaced in the NHL for 33 games thus far in his mostly minor league career. In 2002-03 season he did play 3 games for the Islanders.

Terrace has also developed some NHL talent. Most notable is goaltender Wade Flaherty, who somehow managed to keep popping up in the league. Over the years Flaherty has seen as many minor league cities as he has pucks, but he has managed to enjoy some time in the NHL, too. Flaherty has played in 121 games, but has spent more time sitting on the bench as an NHL back up netminder. Flaherty was hoping to achieve a childhood dream by joining the Vancouver Canucks organization in the 2004-05 season. However a season long labour dispute followed by complicated waiver rules conspired to keep “Flats” toiling outside of the NHL.

Jeff Sharples also played over 100 games in the NHL. All of his games came with Steve Yzerman’s Detroit Red Wings in 1988 and 1989. Sharples enjoyed a lengthy minor league career, most notably with Las Vegas and Utah of the old IHL. The 1997-98 Utah team featured both Sharples and Flaherty. It was the first time the two had played together since they were kids in Terrace.

Dale Kushner played in parts of three NHL campaigns, including 63 contests in 1990-91 with the Philadelphia Flyers. Rudy Poeschek wasn’t born in Terrace, but spent a good part of his youth here. He earned his 364 NHL games the hard way – as an enforcer.

Kitimat’s most famous hockey export was similarly born elsewhere. The record books show goaltender Mark Fitzpatrick was born in Toronto but he was raised in Kitimat. Fitzpatrick was a member of the same back-to-back Memorial Cup champion Medicine Hat junior teams as Trevor Linden, and was a high draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings. Fitzpatrick made the Kings team his first year. Coincidentally it was Wayne Gretzky’s first year in L.A. as well. Fitzpatrick was quickly traded for veteran goalie Kelly Hrudey. Fitzpatrick would enjoy several seasons with the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers before bouncing around the league. For all his successes, Fitzpatrick was never able to become the dominant goalie he was projected to be.

The Philadelphia Flyers must have a scout in the northwest, as a 5th player from the area has played with the Broad Street Bullies. Don Nachbaur, who was born in Kitimat, enjoyed 223 NHL games with the Flyers, Hartford Whalers and ever so briefly with Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers.

More recently Kitimat's Rod Pelley has seen time shuttling between the minor leagues and the New Jersey Devils. One gets the impression that Pelley will one day make a solid NHL role player if he gets the chance.

The northwest’s most interesting NHL story comes out of Kitimat. For three seasons Bill Riley called Kitimat home. A junior star out of Nova Scotia, Riley gave up on his NHL dream when his junior days were over. He moved to Kitimat in 1971 where he worked as a welder. In his down time he played for the Kitimat Eagles of an old BC senior hockey league similar to today’s Kitimat Ice Demons. Riley led the entire league in scoring all three years, including an amazing 76 goal, 118 point season consisting of just 40 games in 1973-74. The NHL’s Washington Capitals took note, and signed Riley to a contract in 1974. He would end up playing 125 games with the Caps, plus 14 more with the Winnipeg Jets before returning to Atlantic Canada to play and coach both professional and senior hockey. An interesting side note – Riley was just the third player of African descent in NHL history.

On the coast Prince Rupert does not have any homegrown talent to rave about, unless you count NHL superstar Rod Brind'Amour, who spent a couple of years in Rupert as a grade schooler. He was quite the hockey player even back then.

Quite a few other northwest players have gone on to the WHL, QMJHL, CIAU or US college, and even the minor leagues and European leagues.

It just goes to show that even here in the great northwest, big league hockey dreams can come true.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article Joe. Kevin Epp is a Prince Rupert kid who had a 4 year NCAA Div 1 career at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. Although he didn't play in the NHL, he's now the agent for Scott & Rob Niedermayer. Not bad for another Northern BC kid.

Also, Ryan Stewart of Houston was a 1st Round draft choice of the Winnipeg Jets in the mid 1980's. I'm not sure how many games he played in the NHL.

Lastly, Link "The Missing Link" Gaetz was from Vanderhoof and he became famous after the Minnesota North Stars drafted him in the 2nd round to protect their first round pick, Mike Modano, in 1988.