Category Archives: Wayne Gretzky

Orr and Gretzky Could’ve Been……..

Bob Davidson may have been Chief Scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and no doubt was responsible for guiding many great players to the Leafs, particularly in the 1960s when Toronto was winning four Stanley Cups, but he made the odd big error in judgement in his scouting career, and I mean big.

One 1972 Davidson faux pas is well-documented. It occurred when he and John McClellan travelled to Russia prior to the 1972 Summit Series to scout the Soviet squad, and came back with the report that the Soviets weren’t great shooters and their weakest spot was in goal. Of course, the squad turned out to be a powerhouse and the goalie’s name happened to be Vladislav Tretiak, who wasn’t a weak spot by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he stood on his head in that historical series and continued to stand on his head for the next decade or so.

The other big Davidson boo boo happened much earlier than 1972 and if he’d followed up on a simple letter, the course of Leafs, Bruins, and NHL history as a whole would have been drastically altered.

In 1960, a minor hockey organizer in Parry Sound wrote to Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach about a 12-year old player named Bobby Orr and how good the little guy was, but Imlach thought little or nothing about it and simply passed the message on to Davidson. But Davidson, without checking the kid out, decided that young Bobby was indeed too young and maybe in a few more years they’d have a look again and see how he was progressing at that time.

The Orr family was disappointed. Bobby’s father Doug and grandpa Robert were both big Leafs fans and loved the idea of Bobby eventually playing in Toronto, but it wasn’t to be because Imlach and Davidson couldn’t be bothered.

Shortly after the Leafs passed on the kid, Boston brass saw the young fellow play in a tournament in Gananogue, Ontario, began making trip after trip to Parry Sound to wine and dine the Orr clan, and the rest goes without saying.

And while we’re talking about the Leafs, Wayne Gretzky almost played in Toronto following his brief St. Louis stint in 1995-96.

Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher was on the verge of having the deal sealed. Gretzky wanted badly to play in Toronto, it was his dream to finish his career there, and he was ready to sign for around two or three million. He’d even passed on an eight million dollar offer from Vancouver because he was so eager to play for the Leafs. Gretzky told Fletcher he’d do whatever it took to get it done, but Fletcher’s bosses decided they wanted to cut back on payroll and use any extra money for the building of the Air Canada Centre.

So Gretzky signed with the Rangers instead.

(The Gretzky and Orr information comes from the Damien Cox/Gord Stellick book – ’67 The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire. The wording in this post is mine).

Gary Lupul

Powell River, separated from Vancouver by two ferry rides and 120 long and winding kms, boasts a junior team, the Kings, who play in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), and at one time had one of the best senior squads in all of Canada, the Regals, a team that captured three Allan Cups between 1997 and 2006.

It’s serious hockey played in these parts. But on a Saturday night in 2010, the most important hockey game of the year was also a fun night, a great night, and a bittersweet night.

Because on that night, the town, players and fans honoured Gary Lupul.

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Gary Lupul was my friend, as I’ve mentioned here before. We used to have great all-night talks when both of lives weren’t exactly stable. He oozed personality and humour. A truly unique, one-of-a-kind guy.

Gary began as a huge star in the Western Hockey League with the Victoria Cougars and went on to play 293 games with the Vancouver Canucks, scoring 70 goals and 145 points. He played against Gretzky, Lemieux, Cheevers and Lafleur, and although slightly small, was a tough cookie who stood up to everyone.

But he had troubles off the ice. Drugs and alcohol ended up shortening his career and although he regretted it, he also probably knew he couldn’t change. He was a fun-loving fellow who drove his coaches crazy but was loved by his teammates, who always speak of him now with a smile on their faces.

Happily, at a time when he really needed some kind of a break, he became a scout for the Canucks and was able to stay in the sport he loved. He would phone me sometimes when he was on frozen roads that took him throughout Ontario from rink to rink – Kitchener one night, Huntsville or Ottawa or Cornwall the next, even my old hometown Orillia, and he would tell me about the snowstorms and young players he’d just seen, and you knew he was in his element.

More than ten years ago, on July 17, 2007, while watching television, Gary suffered a heart attack and died, and we mourned and still mourn. He was a great, kind, funny, generous guy who could relate to a street person as easily as he could to a millionaire. He’d been through some hard times, and he kept a special place in his heart for the down-and-out.

On that Saturday in 2010, the Vancouver Canucks alumni came to Powell River to take on the Regals alumni made up of players who had been part of those Allan Cups teams, and it was a fine game.

But it wasn’t really about the game on this night.

It was about Gary, our friend.

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Lafleur Rose To The Occasion

Did he ever rise to the occasion. Six straight seasons of 50 or more goals, including 60 in 1977-78. And back in his two junior years with the Quebec Remparts, he racked up 103 and 130 markers respectively. He was hockey’s marquee attraction, both in junior and the bigs. He was  Wayne Gretzky before Wayne Gretzky (with apologies to Bossy, Dionne, Perreault  et al).

Remember about 15 years ago when Lafleur was a spokesman for Viagra? Just an excellent choice. He was tremendous at getting it up (over a sprawling goaltender), rarely fired blanks (560 regular season goals and 7983 assists in 1127 games), and always played hard.

He was a guy who walked softly but carried a big stick (sometimes Koho, sometimes Louisville, or Sher-Wood, or Chimo), and we would see him wind up for the big shot or use his great wrist action as he terrorized opposing goalies and who often put the game to bed almost single-handedly.

Sometimes Lafleur would sulk because he couldn’t get a raise (he once threatened to sit out a game in Toronto during a money dispute), he felt he wasn’t loved and was getting the shaft, and would say that nobody was going to screw him. He threatened to not perform, basically telling his team, “Not tonight, I’ve got a headache.”

But in the end, Le Démon Blond, despite all the ins and outs, would come through magnificently. And being a hard-core smoker throughout most of his career, you can be sure he enjoyed a nice smoke after an evening of using his stick.

Flower was a hard man to keep down, that’s for sure.

He was an excellent choice for Viagra.

Houses Of The Holy

Presenting the boyhood homes of four of the greatest players of all time.

All four photos were taken by yours truly. Not that I’m bragging or anything.

Below, the house in Bordeaux, Quebec, just north of Montreal, where Onesime and Alice Richard moved to from the Gaspe area when Onesime took a job in the big city as a CPR machinist. This is where son Maurice grew up with brother Henri and six other siblings.

When Maurice was older his dad got him a job in his machine shop for $20 a week.

rockets-house

Bobby Orr’s place in Parry Sound, across the street from the Seguin River where young Bobby learned to play the game better than anyone else, except for maybe the fourth player on this page.

This house is only a couple of hundred feet from Parry Sound’s main drag, but I’m guessing he didn’t hang out there looking for trouble, like I did in my home town.

orrs-house

Wayne Gretzky’s pad on Varadi Avenue in Brantford. A fine house on a nice tree-lined street. Bicycles and a little hockey net sit in the driveway, probably for various grandkids visiting Walter.

gretzky

And finally, Elmer Ave. in Orillia, where the smallish yet shifty Dennis Kane grew up. This is a guy who, while playing for Byers Bulldozers midget all-stars, had his shot clocked at an incredible 29 mph. And aside from seven or eight others, was the fastest skater on the team.

It’s a shame that scouts were either drunk or weren’t paying attention when Kane was playing.  It’s a shame that he was too smalI with shitty muscles. It’s a shame his shot sucked. It’s a shame that the wild and crazy 1960s came along and he got sidetracked. It’s a shame that he had a hard time focusing and would sometimes sing Beatles songs under his breath while carrying the puck down the wing.

There are several other fine excuses as well.

denniss-house

R.I.P. Gordie

Howe and Rocket

When I was a kid in the schoolyard, the conversation with my buddies would go something like this:

Rocket’s better.
Nope, Howe’s better.
No way. Rocket’s better.
Howe’s better.
Take off, hoser.
No you take off.
Shut up and your mother wears army boots. (Or words to that effect).

That’s what it was. Always the same thing. Rocket and Howe. Two completely different players, but Howe was the enemy and Rocket was my hero, so I won. And I’ve  known now for years that Howe was the better all-round player, but I didn’t then and I wouldn’t have admitted it even if I did.

In the 1990s I had breakfast with the legendary goalie Glenn Hall, who was in Powell River for the Allan Cup. Glenn was a teammate of Gordie’s in the 1950s with Detroit, and played against him while with Chicago and St. Louis.

Glenn had also faced the Rocket and Orr during his Hall of Fame career, and because he lived near Edmonton and still involved in hockey in various ways, was as familiar with Wayne Gretzky as practically anyone.

I asked who he thought was the greatest ever and he didn’t hesitate. Howe, he answered, because he could do it all, and the others couldn’t.

I didn’t tell Glenn his mother wore army boots.

But Howe could do it all. His wrist shot was something to behold, his passes pinpoint, his deft scoring touch like few others, his unequaled on-ice intelligence, the unparalleled respect he rightfully earned from other players.

And tough? You want tough?

My friend and former co-worker Gilles Gratton was a backup goalie during the 1974 WHA Canada-Russia Summit Series, and he told me about the time Gordie’s son Mark was leveled by a Soviet defenceman in dastardly fashion, so much so that an unsteady Mark initially skated to the wrong bench and had to be steered to the right one by Soviet players.

Not long after, Gordie just happened to skate by the player who nailed Mark, and the guy just happened to end up with a broken arm and was gone for the series.

You didn’t mess with Gordie or his kin.

Players in the NHL, WHA, or Russia didn’t go in the corners with Gordie. They timidly poked their sticks at the puck and then got the hell out of there before one of those famous elbows crushed their faces.

He did it all, legally or not. There was absolutely no one like him.

Several years ago Howe came to Powell River for an autograph signing and the prices charged for his signature were incredibly outlandish. Way higher than normal, maybe because Powell River is fairly isolated.

I was astonished at these abnormal prices and I wrote a column about it for the local newspaper in which I wasn’t very nice, coming down hard on him and the grocery store where the signing was held.

I regret that I did that. Extraordinary prices or not (and they were), this was a fine and friendly fellow, a legendary man, possibly the greatest hockey player to ever play the game,  and he was there trying to make a buck. What an asshole I can be sometimes.

Now he’s gone and it’s a sad day for me and you and millions of others. I can almost hear angels in heaven’s schoolyard: “Rocket’s better”. “No, Howe’s better.” “Take off, hoser”.

Gordie & Rocket

Not As Much Fun In ’80-81

The late 1970s were fine years for Habs fans of course, as the Canadiens chalked up four straight Stanley Cup wins and all was well in this crazy, mixed up world.

Even after the run finished, the 1979-80 campaign saw the boys finish first in the Norris Division with 107 points, but cracks and unrest had begun to show.

Unhappy coach Scotty Bowman had left town for Buffalo after the 1978-79 season , where he assumed the role of coach and general manager after being denied GM duties in Montreal.

And as Bowman bolted, aging stars Jacques Lemaire, Ken Dryden, and Yvon Cournoyer retired.

In 1980-81, any semblance of a powerhouse team was gone and it was very sad. We were used to much better.

Difficult to stomach was the gang being swept in ’80-81 by the upstart Edmonton Oilers, with a skinny kid named Wayne Gretzky emerging as a freak of nature in the Oiler’s lineup.

Shortly after the disappointing sweep, Montreal coach Claude Ruel resigned and was replaced by the unsuccessful Bob Berry (14 different coaches have followed since).

Berry, between his three years as coach of the L.A. Kings and almost three in Montreal, would never get his teams past the first round of the playoffs, and 63 games into year three, Jacques Lemaire took over the helm.

It just wasn’t a rosy time for all concerned.

These were the days that saw a New York Islanders dynasty rise, with Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Brian Trottier, Billy Smith and company winning their own four straight.

By then, the idea of the Habs winning four in a row as they once had was only laughable. It had become painfully obvious that the dynasty wasn’t just on life support, it was officially over.

The Flower’s greatest years were behind him, his 50-goal seasons would come no more. Goaltending was shaky, and Patrick Roy was still several years away.

Steve Shutt was the team’s leading point-getter in the 1980-81 season, recording 35 goals and 38 assists for 73 points. Mark Napier was next with 71 points, while Lafleur was third with 70 points.

The goaltending duties were shared by four guys that season – Richard Sevigny, Michel Larocque, Denis Herron, and Rick Wamsley.

Doug Wickenheiser, the Habs first-overall pick, chosen over fan favourite Denis Savard, suited up in this 1980-81 season and turned out to be not quite the player the organization and fans thought they were getting.

The much maligned (and initially much heralded) centreman recorded just 7 goals and 8 assists, and often found himself a healthy scratch.

Wickenheiser had been a huge star in junior with the Regina Pats and his big body at centre ice had folks wondering if they might have a new Jean Beliveau on their hands. But he never managed to become a major impact player (115 points in 202 games in Montreal), and was finally dealt to St. Louis.

And to add salt to everyone’s wounds, including Wickenheiser’s, the shifty and bilingual Quebecer from Pointe Gatineau, Denis Savard, had become the toast of the town in Chicago.

Rough times after those glorious late-1970s, and it would be five more years after ’80-81 before the Canadiens would become champs once again.

At that time, a handful of years in Montreal without Lord Stanley was unacceptable.

Now of course, it’s a bit more than a handful.

Orr Town

I dislike the Boston Bruins as much as anyone. Can’t stand them. Hate the uniform. When I see someone on the street wearing a Bruins sweater or jacket I say to myself, yep, there’s the friggin’ enemy.

I’m a Habs fan, so these are natural feelings. I have no control over this.

But disliking the Bruins has never stopped me from feeling that Bobby Orr is the greatest to ever lace ’em up. Better than Gretzky. Better than Howe and Lemieux and Beliveau. And yes, better than my lifelong idol, the Rocket.

Any of this can be debated. I just don’t have the energy.

Orr was magnificent, the Norris Trophy was his for eight straight seasons, but his career lasted just nine full seasons because of those wretched knees. It’s one of the hockey’s true tragedies.

Below, some photos I took in Orr’s hometown Parry Sound while driving from Powell River to Montreal to start my job at Classic Auctions back in 2013. Parry Sound is about 60 miles northwest of Orillia, where I grew up.

Below:

-A sign on the highway, of course.
-The house Orr grew up in. The Seguin River, where he honed his skills, is just across the street.
-The name of his street, Great North Rd. (He lived just three houses around the corner from the main drag).
-Orr’s Deli, owned by his dad’s brother. A couple of his nieces work there.
-A big wooden sign in the deli. Too bad about the uniform.
-And outside the Orr Hall of Fame, which was closed.

Orr sign

Orr's house

Orr street

deli

Inside deli

Orr hall of fame

Pat’s Time

I worked in Hull, Quebec at the E.B. Eddy paper mill in the mid to late-1970s when Pat Burns was a local cop there.

I never met him. I just thought it was a good opening paragraph.

I’ll bet as a cop, Burns was a beauty. Tough as nails. No nonsense.  We saw how ferocious he was as a coach. Smart-ass punks would have stood no chance.

The ex-cop has now been chosen as part of the 2014 Hall of Fame gang, along with Dominik Hasek, Mike Modano, Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg, and referee Bill McCreary.

Who knows why Burns wasn’t picked five or ten years ago? Maybe he’d ruffled some feathers before he passed away in 2010 from cancer.

This was a tough hombre who wouldn’t have stood for any guff from legends in their own minds who run various branches of hockey, including members of the HOF selection committee.

The bottom line is, he was a strong and successful coach who deserved to be placed in the Hall. There are plenty in there who are debatable choices, but not Pat Burns.

It was Wayne Gretzky, who owned the Hull Olympiques from 1985 to 1992, who convinced Pat to quit the beat and coach the Quebec Junior team full time. It worked out beautifully.

Of course it did. Because everything Gretzky touched back then seemed to turn to gold.

As a coach, when Pat Burns wasn’t raging, he seemed as likeable as can be in interviews, and by many accounts was popular and personable to everyone he wasn’t collaring or coaching or happened to be near when he was in a foul mood.

He admitted it was tough in Montreal with the pressure from media and fans, he didn’t always handle things in a cool and calm manner, and I’m sure at times, reporters would tread lightly after a tough loss. Would you want a pissed off Pat Burns glaring at you?

He was behind the Habs bench for just four years, his learning years as an NHL coach from 1988 to 1992, and was awarded the Jack Adams Award in 1989 for top coach in the league after taking the boys to the Cup finals before falling to the Terry Crisp-coached Calgary Flames.

(I wrote a letter to my sister in Calgary before that ’89 series had started, giving my prediction along with a little made-up series review which I titled “Pat Burns Terry to a Crisp”)

Next stop was Toronto, where he led the Buds from 1992 to ’96, and where he’d win the Adams in 1993. And from there it was four years with the Bruins (1997 to 2001),  where he’d earn a third Jack Adams Award, this one in 1998.

It sucked to see Pat Burns running the bench in Toronto and Boston. It always sucks to see a beloved Hab in those enemy uniforms.

Following Boston it was the New Jersey Devils in 2002-03 for Burns where he’d win the Stanley Cup, and then one final year after that with the Devils before being diagnosed with colon cancer.

A great career, successful almost everywhere he coached. And on Monday, November 17, 2014, eleven years after his final line change, we’ll see Pat inducted.

Late, but better late than never.