There are lots of things I haven’t missed since getting out of the sports writing game as a full-time profession many years ago – deadlines and too much travel come to mind. That said, there’s a lot of things I do miss, namely the many terrific and truly remarkable people I was fortunate enough to meet along the way while spending 25 years or so hanging around ice rinks and dressing rooms as a reporter.
I thought of three such people this week when they made headlines for being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I’m talking about Clare Drake, Mark Recchi and Teemu Selanne, all of whom I’ve brushed shoulders with and known to varying degrees over the years while toting a notepad. So, without any advanced stats handy to offer you, I’m going to take a stroll down memory lane and give my take on each of them.
Drake had given way to Bill Moores as head coach of the Alberta Golden Bears by the time I arrived in Edmonton in December of 1989. I got to know about Drake mostly second hand – from coaches like Moores and Ken Hitchcock. I was always amazed by the respect and reverence that they, accomplished coaches in their own right, had for Drake when speaking about him. Drake coached the Golden Bears to six CIAU hockey titles and 17 Canada West titles, but all those banners hanging from the rafters were only part of the story.
In the years when I covered university sports, I’d sit with Moores in his office overlooking the ice in the arena named after Drake and he’d talk about him as a teacher of the game, a strategist who was years and years ahead of his time in terms of game-planning and practice. Much the same with Hitchcock, be it at an alumni golf tournament back in Kamloops or just shooting the breeze at a rink somewhere. The other thing, not that it’s a pre-requisite for being a great coach, was how gracious Drake was whenever I bumped into him around the rink.
THE FINNISH FLASH
Selanne’s career as a player speaks for itself, and it was no surprise to anybody that he was inducted on the first ballot this week. Selanne, voted NHL rookie of the year for 1992-93 after scoring 76 goals, was a special player, that rare blend of speed and skill, from the moment he broke in with the Winnipeg Jets. Anybody who ever watched him play knows that. Selanne’s scoring totals aside — 684 goals and 1,457 points in 1,451 games — he also lays claim to one of the best goal celebrations ever. Epic.
The thing about Selanne that sticks with me, though, is how he was never too tired, too important or otherwise occupied at any point in his career to sit around and talk about hockey — or fast cars or just life in general. Selanne, as any scribe who has spent time with him will tell you, was one of the most generous, engaging athletes you’d ever hope to meet. Pre-game, post-game, it didn’t matter. Local writer, out of town guy, it didn’t matter. I never once met anybody who had a bad word to say about Selanne. I never once heard Selanne slag anybody else.
I first met Recchi when he as 17 years old and playing for the New Westminster Bruins of the WHL. Later, he joined the Kamloops Blazers in 1986 when I was working at the Kamloops Daily News. I’ve got to admit, Recchi was always one guy I hoped would make it. That’s in part because he was such an underdog because of his size and partially because he was a wonderful person away from the rink. He worked his backside off to get to the NHL and never stopped. His mom and dad, Ruth and Mel, who was the advertising manager at the Daily News, raised him right.
Recchi, of course, exceeded every expectation after being drafted in the fourth round in 1988 – the fourth friggin’ round after putting up 154 points in his draft year – during a career that saw him win Stanley Cup rings with three different teams. Too small, my eye. Recchi never framed it that way, although he was quietly one of the most motivated players I ever met. More than that, Recchi is the same guy today in his mid-40s, after all the money, all the accolades, as he was when he was 17. Not one big league bone in his body. He was a terrific player. He is a better man.
Hokey as is might sound, I’ve never believed the old axiom that “nice guys finish last.” Sometimes they do, I suppose, but I’d like to think there’s way too much proof that just isn’t true in the bigger picture. I got a reminder of that this week when Drake, Selanne and Recchi were inducted. I’ve got to admit to doing a little fist-pump over them getting the HHOF call on the same day, now that I’m not stapled to the press box anymore.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- I like the signings of Kris Russell, Eric Gryba and Zack Kassian. While I’d have preferred three years instead of four for Russell, the contract is structured so the final year isn’t an anchor. Despite all the debate about the signing, I’ll go with GM Peter Chiarelli’s assessment of the player and what he brings to the table over those who are complaining the loudest about it. Every. Damn. Day.
- What I like most about the Kassian signing, aside from that it’s a reasonable AAV for three years, is it’s an indication the big winger has his life straightened out after a battle with the bottle that threatened his career. I’ve seen too many people lose that battle and lose everything that mattered to them. While sobriety is an ongoing life choice, Kassian is making the most of the opportunity he got here. Good for him.
- One last thing, I wonder if Todd Nelson ends up getting the head coaching job in Arizona. He did some good things while cleaning up the mess made by Dallas Eakins with the Oilers and just hoisted the 2017 Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Nelson deserves a shot somewhere.
NATION NIGHT AT THE BALLPARK
On Thursday night (June 29th), we’re hosting our first Nation Night at the Ballpark as the Edmonton Prospects take on the Weyburn Beavers. As you’d expect, we’ll have some prizes to give away and stickers for the kids (big or small) so clear your calendar and plan to be at RE/MAX Field on Thursday night. Tickets are available here.