Doug Wickenheiser was going to be the next big centreman for the Montreal Canadiens. Sort of like Jean Beliveau in a way, but of course that was an unfair expectation. There was only one Beliveau.
But Wickenheiser was going to be a beauty, that’s for sure. In his three years with the WHL Regina Pats, the big guy had tallied 37 goals, then 32, and finally, in his final year, a whopping 89 goals and 81 assists. The Montreal Canadiens were rubbing their hands with glee.
The Habs could’ve gone with the slick Quebecois fan favourite Denis Savard, but he was small, and the sight of 6’1″, 196 pound Wickenheiser erased any other ideas from the Habs brass. It was going to be Wickenheiser, they said. And thoughts of a new Jean Beliveau swirled around their heads.
But for some reason, Wickenheiser struggled in Montreal. Not only wasn’t he the new Jean Beliveau, but he was also just another struggling player, totalling just 7, 12, 25, and then 5 goals in his four years in Montreal before being dealt to the St. Louis Blues. Fans longed for Denis Savard and couldn’t believe the massive mistake made by the Canadiens brass, especially head scout Ron Caron, who was promptly fired for this poor choice of a draft pick.
In the meantime, Savard, picked third by the Chicago Blackhawks, (flashy defenceman Dave Babych went second) lit it up nightly, and in his brilliant ten years in Chicago, averaged 31 goals a year, including three years where he popped 47, 40, and 44 goals. It was no contest. Everyon agreed Montreal should have chosen Savard, a fire-wagon sparkplug from Pointe-Gatineau, Quebec.
Wickenheiser moved on to St. Louis, and never lit it up there either. It was obvious he was one of many players who were big stars in junior, but found the NHL a completely different story. The player everyone thought was going to make it big eventually bounced around after leaving the Blues, from Vancouver to the Canadian National team to the minors, Europe, and a ten other stops in between. It was just another story in along list of hockey player stories. Most have short careers in too many different cities. The stars are the ones we hear about, the ones who are good enough and fortunate enough to have more than a half-dozen years or so in the bigs.
In retirement, everything was going great. Wickenheiser had opened a nursery and frozen custard business in St. Louis, and his wife Dianne was expecting. But then, only eight days from Dianne delivering twins, a cyst on Wickenheiser’s wrist proved to be cancerous. There was talk of amputation. But the tumor was successfully removed and he was able to hold his new twin girls.
For three years, all was well for Doug Wickenheiser. All he had to was wait out that magic five-year period to be proclaimed cancer-free. It wasn’t to be. Doctors found he had a rare form of lung cancer, but Wickenheiser, showing true greatness, and kept his head held high. “I know I’ve got it,” he said. “I know I’ve got to deal with it. It’s part of life. People get sick. People get disease. I really just try to stay positive and pray everything goes well. I think it’s really harder on my wife.”
“I don’t think they (the twins) really know what’s wrong,” he said. “But they have their own prayer every night. They say, “Baby Jesus, please help Daddy’s boo-boo get better.”
Doug Wickenheiser passed away on January 12, 1999. He was only 37.
An arena in his home town of Regina bears his name.