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July 14, 2013

Mike Liut

By all standards, Mike Liut had a stellar career highlighted by his fantastic 1981 season.

Liut finished second in Hart Trophy balloting - a true rarity for a goaltender of any era - while leading his St. Louis Blues to the Smythe Division championship. The only player to get more votes that season was Wayne Gretzky.

Liut had an unbelievable season. His 33-14-13 record was among the best in the league, though he didn't have as much as help as some of the other goaltending leaders. Thus the NHL named him a First All Star. To make up for his Hart Trophy snub, Liut's true measure of success was in winning the Lester B. Pearson award. The trophy named after the great Canadian Prime Minister was given out annually to the player deemed to be the best that particular season, as voted on by the players themselves! You can't get a much higher honor than that.

In the absence of recently retired Ken Dryden, Liut had become arguably the best goalie in the game right out of nowhere. He was very similar to Dryden in many ways. He was an articulate man who took the American college route to the NHL while the practice was still fairly uncommon. He was a big octopus of a goalie, much like Dryden before him. And after leading the NHL in wins in his first year, Liut had established himself as one of, if not the best goalie in the National Hockey League with his incredible sophomore year. (note: Liut didn't win the Vezina trophy, as at that time the award was still given to the goalie with the best GAA, not necessarily the best goalie in the league.)

When it came time to select Team Canada for the 1981 Canada Cup, Liut was an obvious choice. Once Billy Smith went home with a broken finger, Liut was the man expected to lead the team between the pipes. Liut wasn't his midseason self in the September tournament. He played well, but wasn't as dominating as he was the previous year with St. Louis. He looked shaky at times, and rarely looked brilliant. Yet Canada had floated through the round robin tournament undefeated.

Despite his less than expected performance, head coach Scotty Bowman stuck with Liut over Don Edwards, who was Bowman's goalie with the Buffalo Sabres. Liut was given the green light to play in the final game of the 1981 tournament against the Russians.

The rest as they say is history. As fans at the Montreal Forum and around Canada and the world on television sets at home watched in disbelief, the Soviets lit up the red lamp behind Liut 8-1. Canada had played well in the first half of the game, but the Soviets, particularly Sergei Shepelev, were able to pounce often on Liut in the second half of the middle period. Then in the third period, with Canada seemingly deflated and surrendered, the Russians added 5 more goals to completely humble Liut and the Canadians.

Liut was never quite the same after that. He went on to an enjoyable long career in the NHL, with St. Louis and later Hartford and Washington. He was often the most valuable player on some weak teams, especially in Hartford. In fact he finished runner up in Vezina trophy voting in the summer of 1987.

Despite his fine 1986-87 season which saw him post 31 wins and a league leading 4 shutouts with the Whalers, Liut was overlooked for Team Canada for the 1987 Canada Cup, much like he was in 1984. For all the respect that Liut had earned in his long NHL career, it was as if he was never forgiven for the 1981 debacle

"That all goes back to the disastrous game in 1981" recalled Liut at the time. "That's a game I'm going to have to live with for the rest of my life. That's just the way it is."

In fairness to Liut, it wasn't his fault entirely. The defensemen and forwards in front of him were flat and later quit on him. And when Canada suffered its worst defeat in history, somebody needed to be named as the scapegoat. Why not the goalie who let in 8 goals?

Liut said he didn't take his omission from future Canada Cup invitations personally, though deep down you know he would have liked to have the chance to redeem himself.

"I'm disappointed in a way, but it really doesn't ruffle me." said Liut of the 1987 tournament where his chances of playing would have been slim regardless with Grant Fuhr and Ron Hextall invited to camp. "There's my family and rest and golf and another NHL season to prepare for. I really don't mind."

Liut also didn't like the Canada Cup format.

"We're all better at Christmas than we are in September. The guys who play in the Canada Cup pay a big price."

Liut then pointed admiration in the direction of the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers players who routinely showed up for international play.

"For 4 years the Islanders played into June, and then there was a Challenge Cup and Canada Cup and so on. Hey, that's hard on anybody. You get only one or two months off and you're at it again. A pace like that is bound to take its toll."

"I think the Edmonton players probably best understand what the Islanders had to go through because, now, they have to go through the same thing."

"Players have to pay a big price to represent their league and Canada and the United States" continued Liut, forgetting to mention the various European countries that had NHL representatives. "It's an honor, to be sure, but the players have to pay a big, big price."

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