August 24, 2015

Mike Pelyk

The year was 1966. Eighteen year old Bobby Orr, the most anticipated junior prospect in the history of the game, embarks upon his rookie season with the Boston Bruins. The young defenseman is about exceed even the wildest expectations and revolutionize the game.

Meanwhile, back in junior, the search for the next great young defenseman. That player was Mike Pelyk.

Pelyk was an wonderful skating defenseman, quick and nimble, effortless yet powerful. Unlike Orr he never offered much on the offensive side of the puck. He was much more of a classic defender, doling out stiff bodychecks that wowed the crowds. The strapping rearguard was a key member of the Toronto Marlies Memorial Cup championship team that season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted the homegrown talent 17th overall back in the 1964 NHL draft. He was a natural talent - be it on the ice or on the baseball diamond or on the track. Every sport, it seemed, came easy to him.

Hopes in Toronto were high, but, unlike his skating, Mike Pelyk's transition to the National Hockey League was not so smooth. For seven seasons he was a jack-of-all-trades defenseman for the Maple Leafs. He even took shifts as a forward, particularly to kill penalties. He was a serviceable but not spectacular role player.

By the mid-1970s the World Hockey Association emerged in competition with the NHL for hockey interest and for hockey player services. Incredible sums of money were being offered around. Pelyk would receive such an offer in 1974 - one million dollars over seven seasons to play for the WHA's Cincinnati Stingers.

It turned out to be a mistake Pelyk would always regret.

"I never wanted to leave Toronto. I tried like crazy to get a better deal than what they were offering. I said 'Look, this is too good a deal to pass up. So you know I gotta do what's right for myself.' But I didn't really want to leave."

Pelyk, a Leafs fan since childhood, added "If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have signed for whatever I could have signed for and tried to prove my worth in Toronto. But sometimes you make decisions, they aren't always the right ones."

That first season the Stingers never even hit the ice. So Pelyk was loaned out to the Vancouver Blazers for a season. He finally played for Cincinnati a year later, but his WHA experiment ended prematurely after just two seasons.

The Leafs reacquired Pelyk in 1976, but by this time a group of talented youngsters were emerging as new hopes in Toronto. The veteran Pelyk was reduced to a part time player who spent as much time in the minor leagues as he did with the Leafs.

Mike Pelyk retired in 1978 and became a real estate agent in the Toronto area soon after. He has also been very active with the NHL Alumni Association.

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