He was all the things I knew were good in life – he skated like the wind, had a great brush cut and a pretty wife, and he wore the sweater of the Montreal Canadiens.
What’s better than that?
This was Ralph Backstrom, and I wanted to be just like him. I knew I wasn’t going to be another Rocket or Beliveau or Geoffrion, but I thought maybe I could be like Backstrom. And I wasn’t even on drugs when I thought this.
It meant getting a brush cut and trying to look like him when I watched him on TV taking faceoffs and darting up the ice with the puck. I could do that and I did. I got the brush cut.
Ralph came out of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, a little town in northern Ontario that churned out NHL players in abnormal fashion, having produced him and Ted Lindsay, Mike Walton, Dick Duff, Mickey and Dick Redmond, Wayne and Larry Hillman, the Plagers, and many others.
About 30 in all. That’s a lot of players.
Ralph was a phenom in Kirkland Lake minor hockey, and became captain and the best of the powerhouse Hull-Ottawa Canadiens juniors before he joined the big club. He had it all, I thought. I gotta practice more, I thought.
I admired the way Ralph Backstrom played, the way he skated and was so solid both as a playmaker and a checker. And I loved the way he and rival Dave Keon of the enemy Leafs went head to head on glorious nights when the Habs and Leafs were what life was all about for Canadian kids from coast to coast.
This guy isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and when he played he sometimes got into coach Toe Blake’s bad books. But he was a great hockey player. Underrated maybe, but absolutely great.
And I wanted to be just like him and I was. I had the brush cut.