"From the day I put on my skates, I knew I wanted to play in the NHL," said Gene Ubriaco, a man who may be better known in hockey circles as a coach.
But, indeed, he did play in the NHL, too. 177 career games, to be exact. That followed nearly a decade of surviving in the minor leagues. Surviving being the key word. Early in his career he took a slap shot to his helmetless head resulting in a scary skull fracture.
"I never gave up the dream of playing in the NHL," he said. "I wanted it so badly. Had I not made it, I would have been distraught."
Ubriaco grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, home of the Esposito brothers, Phil and Tony. But Ubriaco grew up idolizing the legendary Gordie Howe. Not that Ubriaco played they same way. At 5 foot 8 and 160 pounds he thrived on the ice as a speedster and finesse player.
"I was a scorer," Ubriaco told Brad Kurtzberg in his book Shorthanded: The Untold Story of the Seals. "Back checking, well, I did my share, but I was not known for it. I went hard to the net despite being a smaller guy. I feel good about what I did."
After graduating from Toronto's St. Mikes junior system in 1958, Ubriaco found himself stuck in the minor leagues during last decade of the Original Six. With only six franchises and about 120 jobs in the NHL, a lot of very good players never got their chance to play in the NHL until the league doubled in size with expansion in 1967.
Ubriaco would emerge as a 18-20 goal threat in two seasons with the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins. He would also play parts of two seasons in Oakland and half a season in Chicago before retiring in 1970.
Ubriaco would go on to become a long time coach in the minor leagues. But, thanks to general manager Tony Esposito, he returned to the NHL and to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1988 for 106 games.
"I had one good season in Pittsburgh. Mario (Lemieux) only had 199 points." he quipped.
Ubriaco would also coach Team Italy at the 1992 Winter Olympics before returning to the minor leagues as a coach and manager.
Coached several years in Baltimore for the Skipjacks when they were a Penguins affiliate. Also played for the Hershey Bears in the AHL.
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