Looking back on my career, I was lucky enough to play with and against great players. As a Canadian, I always seemed to cheer for and follow the Canadians closer than the American or European-born players. That changed for me when I got a chance to play with Phil Housley.
We spent a lot of time together on planes, buses and restaurants during our time together in Chicago. I love to understand where a player got started in the sport. He was happy to tell me how it was to grow up playing hockey in the States, a sport that wasn’t and still isn’t super popular there.
He talked about what the Miracle on Ice meant to hockey players in the States. It pushed the game into a more main stream place. His NHL career started in 1982, shortly after that Miracle.
Coming straight out of high school, Housley went on to play nearly 1,500 games in the NHL and record over 1,200 points. Not too shabby no matter what country you are from!
As a team mate he always included all the guys in anything he was organizing. Trust me, not all players do that. Even though I was no longer a rookie at that point in my career, he would offer advice and offensive tips to improve my game. I always appreciated the time he took to do that.
Housley joined me on my show last week to look back at his career and his Christmas time role this year as coach of the USA world junior hockey team.
Q : You played nearly 1,500 games! What kind of success did you expect as a rookie?
I didn’t expect that kind of a career. Being a high school kid jumping to the NHL was huge! I was just trying to get comfortable, you aren’t predicting the future! I was living in the moment. Certainly after the years started to pile up I really dedicated myself in the summer to working out. This helped prevent injuries and prolong my career. I would never have predicted playing for twenty one years! When I was young I thought if I could just grow a mustache and play till I was 27 that would be great! That was my measurement of success. I was very fortunate to survive that long and I loved every minute of it!
Q : Do you think you were one of the first players to really start working a lot in the summers? I remember my first few years, there were many players that were not very impressive physically but I had always heard you were a guy that was in good shape. Then when we played together that was confirmed.
I think it started with the 1980 Olympic team. I remember watching videos of how they were training. They were emulating the Russians and their ways of working out. The Russian teams were always in great shape. The only way the Miracle on Ice team could hope to beat them was to be in incredible shape.
Before my first year, my agent said I would most likely have to play a half year in the minors. That really struck me. The image I had of the minors was of a league that was rough and tumble. I worked extra hard going into my rookie camp and it paid off. I was probably one of the top three fittest guys there. As you mentioned there weren’t a lot of players coming to camp in great shape back then.
Being in shape for camp was something that just stuck with me the rest of my career. You feel better and have more confidence. You feel stronger and are more prepared for the season. I went in with the attitude that I had to make the team every year. It is the right attitude to have going into a camp.
Q : You were an excellent power play QB. There is a young player for the Oilers in the AHL, Justin Schultz, that could be a good one as well. What advice do you have for young offensive defenceman going into the NHL?
You have to continue working on your skating and all the other fundamental skills of handling and shooting pucks. You have to continue to work on all of that. On the power play there is an innate ability or hockey sense or strategy on how to break down a penalty kill. You need to continue to learn and adapt to the times.
There have been a lot of changes since I have been in the league. There are different ways to break out and the strategies used in zone. If you can keep up and stay a step ahead of the play you will always be in a good position on the power play to shoot, handle or pass the puck. All those little things that take a long time to really perfect. You see all the European players continue to work on their game, even at the NHL level. Before or after practice, a guy must practice the special skills. That is what you have to do to reach a high level.
Q : Many prospects have made the mistake in thinking that once they get drafted or a played a year or two in the league they have made the NHL. But really that is when the real work starts isn’t it?
It definitely is true. You and I have been a part of a lot of NHL camps. You see the young guys come in and they are flying! They have a great camp but as the season wears on you can see they lose some zip in their play. These players need to continue to work on their games.
I don’t care if you are a mite or a NHL player you have to do the little things before and after practice. When a player does that, it seems like their games remain consistent. If a player is having problems with a certain skill like shooting pucks coming off the wall you have to work on it. You can never do enough of that to make all your skills come naturally in the game.
Q : Who is the player in today’s game you enjoy watching work the power play?
There are many guys! First guy that comes to mind is Sidney Crosby, I like watching him come off the half wall. He has that ability to find the open man with a pass but he is also a threat to score from there. I really enjoy the young defencemen from Ottawa, Erik Karlsson, who had an outstanding season last year. He is able to carry the mail and make plays inside the zone. He is a player with a bright future!
There are many guys who are at the top of their game right now like Malkin, Datsyuk and Zetterberg. The guy I really liked to watch was Nicklas Lidstrom. His ability to move on the blue line, get the middle of the ice and then have his head up while shooting the puck. He always seemed to get that puck through to create a second opportunity for another player with a tip or rebound. I really admired that about him.
Q : Who is the one player you played against that you thought had incredible talent?
Number one Wayne Gretzky, number two Mario Lemieux. They did it in different ways. Gretz had a great ability to process the game and filter it in his head way beyond anyone else. He just knew where other players were going to be.
Mario was also somewhat like that but he was more dangerous one-on-one. When he was really skating well he could protect the puck better than anybody. He could make moves in stride and that is what made him so dangerous. He could have maybe broken some of Wayne’s records. I think those guys were outstanding players!
Q : All players must retire and move on to another career. How are you enjoying the coaching ranks so far?
I am really enjoying it. When I was thinking of retiring in 2003, USA Hockey asked me to be a co-coach at the U18 development program that was taking place in Switzerland. Once I got behind the bench I fell in love with it. It is the closest place you can be to the ice without playing. You can feel the emotion and intensity. I fell in love with it at that point.
I was fortunate to take on a high school coaching job here in Minnesota where I live. Just like with playing, I continue to work on becoming a better coach. I am now the head coach of the USA World Junior program. I keep learning a lot from everyone I work with.
I love it because you are part of the game even though physically you can’t control it! It is still very rewarding for me.
Q : Now that you are the head coach of the USA World Junior team, how hard do you find it to pick the team?
You would like to have a couple scoring lines and a couple energy lines but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. We had a camp in early August where we evaluated forty-five players. I get a chance to watch a lot of these kids, because I am a high school coach, play at the college level but not so much at the major junior level in Canada. I can’t get to the west or east coast of Canada to those junior leagues.
We certainly have other scouts watching the players from those areas that are in the hunt. I will go by the reports I get and what I saw at the summer camp. The decisions will be made collectively by the coaches and management group of the team. We have a good handle on it. There have been some players not at the summer camp that have played themselves into consideration.
Q : What are your thoughts on Seth Jones? What will he bring to your team?
Seth has a physical presence when you look at him. He is 6’5 and can skate, shoot and pass. He has got a great first pass. I believe he is made for today’s game. He is able to move up with play, create offense from the back end. He plays in all situations. He has a bright future ahead. I am just glad he will be on our team, he is a specimen! He has a father that played in the NBA so he has good athletic genes. It is exciting to watch him play. He is a very special player.
Q : Other than Seth Jones, who are some players Canadian hockey fans should be watching out for?
The returning guys we should focus on first. Jacob Trouba, who still has a year of eligibility for the team next year had a big impact last year. Rocco Grimaldi is a guy that will be right in the hunt. JT Miller was on the team last year. He is playing on the farm team in New York. He is playing in a good league. Our goaltending situation will be solid. Chris Gibson is coming back from the team last year; he will most likely be our starter. It will be hard to pick this team.
Q : Sounds like there is a lot of reasons for Team USA to be optimistic at the tourney this Christmas. I will cheer for your team except when you play Canada! Does that sound fair?
We have those guys the third game of the tourney. Canada always has good World Junior teams, I am sure it will be the same this year. We will probably have our hands full. We will do the best we can!
Hall of Fame?
I have retired or current NHL’ers on my show quite often and there is a common comment they are make that is really starting to be obvious. Each one comments on how much work is required to reach the NHL level and then stay there. That is pretty incredible. Many people think these guys are the most talented hockey players and that is why they make it. They do have talent but so do thousands of others. It is their work ethic that separates them from everyone else. Good advice for a young amateur player to hear.
Now a question for you Oilers Nation….. Is Phil Housley a Hall of Famer? The numbers are impressive. What are your thoughts?