July 25, 2016

Hilliard Graves

His penalty minute totals never did reflect what a tough and agonizing player Hilliard Graves was to play against.

Graves was a pest. He was a masterful hip checker and often caught opponents by surprise. Sometimes he would get a little too low and dangerously take players out at the knees. Nothing infuriated the other team more.

Graves was a proud Atlantic Canadian. He was born in Saint John, New Brunswick but grew up in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He was discovered playing junior hockey with the Charlottetown Islanders on Prince Edward Island. He was a good skater who could bring some nice energy to the game but also had some creativity with the puck.

The California Golden Seals took a chance on him, signing him as an undrafted player in 1970. Against long odds and after two years of apprenticing in the minor leagues he became a full time NHLer in 1972-73.

What a rookie season he had! Graves would score 27 times (on only 128 shots) and add 25 assists for 52 points. That was good enough to place him third in Calder voting as the NHL's rookie of the year behind Steve Vickers and Bill Barber.

"He could skate like the wind and was one of the toughest little players' I've ever seen," remembered Reggie Leach.

The next season Graves' production really slipped, due in large part to development of asthma. It took the better part of the season before doctors could properly medicate the problem.

The Seals moved Graves on in 1974, trading him to Atlanta for John Stewart.

Playing out east meant the pesky Graves faced off against the Philadelphia Flyers - aka the Broad Street Bullies - a lot more. One of the players Graves ended up feuding against the most was none other than Dave "The Hammer" Schultz - the Flyers most legendary tough guy.

Despite being greatly undersized in the frequent altercations with "The Hammer," Graves held his own most nights and really earned the respect of the league.

In Graves nine year NHL career his teams made the Stanley Cup playoffs only once. And that was a quick exit out of the 1976 post season, as the Flames were swept in the best of three series.

"It was depressing, always being on a loser, because I considered myself a better-than-average hockey player, "  he said.

If it was any consolation, other NHL coaches agreed with him about his ability to play in the league. In 1976 NHL coaches voted him the best body-checker in the league.

"Larry Robinson and Denis Potvin were runnersup," he said. "That's a nice group to be in. I could really hip-check and the fans loved that, though I never got a whole lot of penalties."

Fans really appreciated it, too. He was always a fan favorite and a popular player everywhere he played.

Graves would play three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks in the late 1970s before making a brief appearance with the Winnipeg Jets in the 1979-80 season. He finished his pro career playing in the minor leagues back home in New Brunswick.

"Obviously you'd rather be in the NHL, but that was a nice way to wind my career down," he said.

After hanging up his skates he returned home to Dartmouth and managed Amca Food Brokers. He also notably raised racing horses and took up tennis.

In 556 NHL games Hilliard Graves scored 118 goals and 281 points while earning a surprisingly low 209 penalty minutes. He was one of the more underrated players of the 1970s.

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