THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONSOLATION
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Monday, April 25, 2022
THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONSOLATION
Hockey fans are a unique breed. For many, the hockey season is a series of 82 separate events with a post-mortem following each one. They look at every game as a success or a failure depending on the eventual outcome and they make judgements about players, coaches and management after pretty much every one of those contests.
Eventually, seasons pile on top of other seasons and each fan’s mental inventory contains so many memories and statistics and analyses that they can all blend into one another. Seasons come and seasons go and players come and players go, but there will always be individual performers and performances that stand out.
As we get older, the players we watched earlier in our lives always look the same. They never age. They skate the same and they always have that youthful flair. Until the day that we realize that they get older too, and, just as will always happen, they sadly are no longer with us. The 2021-22 hockey season had been a stark reminder of just that. In fact, the first four months of 2022 have been a very difficult time for many in the hockey world and the long-time fans of the game.
Over the course of the entire 2021-22 hockey year, more than two dozen former players have passed away. Each of these men had an effect on the people who knew them and the people who watched them over the many years. Some had an immense following and their passings left an indelible mark on a huge number of people. I write this piece today to talk about some of the players whose lives most left an impression with me, personally.
On January 20, 2022, former NHL defenseman Randy Boyd was out golfing with friends in Atlanta when he suffered a fatal heart attack. The Coniston, Ontario native was 59. Boyd had played parts of eight National Hockey League seasons and got to appear in 257 total games with Pittsburgh, Chicago, the Islanders and Vancouver. He had a gritty side and piled up 328 penalty minutes while in the league.
When his NHL days were done, Boyd went over to Austria and played there for two years. Then he came back to North America and played a couple more seasons in the minors before retiring. He settled in the Atlanta area after his hockey playing days were over. But looking back, Boyd really made his name and reputation when he played in the Ontario Hockey Association for Brian Kilrea and the Ottawa 67s.
Kilrea really liked the way Boyd played as a midget player (16 year old) and managed to draft him fifth overall in the 1979 OHA draft. Kilrea valued Boyd’s play and the person that he was.
“There was nothing selfish about Randy Boyd,” Kilrea told Don Campbell in an Ottawa Sun story in January of 2022.
“He didn’t care about getting points. He was all about the team. He did all the unselfish jobs. Nobody blocked shots any better than he did. He had just great timing. And he could kill penalties and play on the power play. And he had a heck of a shot. He was the best defenseman in the league at 18 and it would have been pretty hard not to give him the award again if he hadn’t gone (to the NHL).”
“Pittsburgh thought they needed him and you can’t deprive a kid of the opportunity, but...” Kilrea finished up by telling Campbell, “He was so down to earth. Such a good guy and a funny guy. He was such a good teammate.”
By the 1985-86 season, Kilrea had become the assistant coach to Al Arbour with the Islanders. At the beginning of that season, Chicago had placed Boyd on waivers. Arbour asked Kilrea if there was anyone on the waiver list that he knew anything about. He saw Boyd’s name and told Arbour that he could play. “At the end of the season,” Kilrea told Campbell, “the New York writers voted him our top defenseman."
The day after Boyd suffered his heart attack, former Islanders’ Hall-of-Fame left winger Clark Gillies passed away after a battle with cancer. He was 67. Gillies was a part of that tremendous Islanders’ dynasty that won four consecutive Stanley Cups from the 1979-80 season through the 1982-83 year. He was the guy who provided some of the sandpaper on that Trio Grande line with Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy.
Gillies grew up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and played his minor hockey there before getting to play with the Regina Pats in the Western Canadian Hockey League. He played there for three seasons and in 1973-74, his 46 goals and 112 points helped to lead the team to the Memorial Cup tournament and ultimately, the championship. That summer, he was chosen fourth overall by the Islanders in the NHL draft.
His two best seasons, personally, were 1977-78 and 1978-79, when he was named a first-team NHL All-Star in both years. He hit the 30-goal mark six times over seven campaigns from 1975-76 to 1981-82. But, of course, the greatest time for those Islanders' teams was the four-year run during which they won the Cup in each of those seasons from 1979-80 to 1982-83.
Butch Goring came over to the Island from Los Angeles to kick start that Islanders’ Cup streak. He talked to Richard Goldstein of the New York Times after Gillies’ passing. “He made life easier for everyone who played with him. Trottier and Bossy could do what they wanted to do because they had the big guy on the wing.”
Gillies had some pretty decent skills of his own but he was able to establish himself in the toughness category when, as a rookie, he won fights against Dave Schultz of the Flyers and Terry O’Reilly of the Bruins. Partway through the 1976-77 season, Gillies was given the captain’s ‘C’, but then, in the 1979-80 preseason, he ceded the role to Denis Potvin.
In a February, 1982 New York Times interview, Gillies was asked about the ‘tough-guy’ role that many assumed he had. “People want me to run around the ice hitting everything that moves, but that’s not me. If a teammate needs me, I’m there and the guys know it and the opposition knows it. I can fight if I have to, but I would rather just play hockey.” He certainly did that well enough as he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002.
But it was Gillies, the man, that people remembered most vividly. In talking with Newsday’s Andrew Gross, Gillies’ former teammate Bob Nystrom summed up the way everyone felt about the big guy from Moose Jaw. “The one thing that I need you to just say is that he’s one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met.”
Jean Potvin was best-known by many people as being the older brother of Denis, the Hall of Fame defenseman who was part of the Islanders’ dynasty years in the early 1980s. But Jean had carved out a pretty decent career of his own playing eleven NHL seasons. He played parts of eight years over two stints with the Islanders, including a run with the team when they won their first two Cups.
On the afternoon of March 15, 2022, Jean and his brother Denis were having a conversation on the phone and talking about a bunch of different things, the way they had for years. That night, Jean passed away. Denis talked with Ken Warren the next day, for an article on his big brother for Postmedia.
“He had been battling a long time, almost three years,” Denis told Warren. “He came down to Florida for a liver transplant. It was just one thing after another.” Jean was 72.
The Potvin brothers first made their names coming out of the Ottawa east end Overbrook neighbourhood when first Jean and then later, Denis, played together on the Ottawa 67s Junior ‘A’ team in the then-OHA. Jean was 17 and Denis was just 13 when they played together. Their father, Armand, told Jean that if anyone took any liberties with Denis, he was to step in and protect his little brother.
Bryan McSheffrey played on that 67s team. He told Warren what he saw with the two brothers. “Denis didn’t need any protection, but it was big brother-little brother.” McSheffrey would end up playing against Jean when the two men both ended up in the NHL. McSheffrey played with Vancouver and Buffalo and Jean started with Los Angeles before moving to Philadelphia and later the Islanders.
The 67s began their OHA existence in 1967 and by the spring of 1969, they were trying to make the league postseason for the first time. Jean had been one of the leaders on the club and they were playing a late season game against the Toronto Marlboros. An Ottawa win would put them into a playoff spot. Gord McCormick was a rookie on that 67s squad and he told Warren what took place in that game.
“The Toronto Marlies came to town and there were 10,000 people at the Civic Centre and they had that notorious goon Steve Durbano. He was running all over the place, and finally Jean said, ‘This is it, that’s enough’,” McCormick explained.
“They danced around for about 20 seconds and the crowd was going crazy. But what Durbano didn’t know is that Jean was a lefty. He smoked him and put him down. Once you get one in the nose, you’re lost. There was blood all over the ice. Jean, of course, did a victory lap with the crowd going nuts. We won that game and clinched a playoff spot.”
Jean played for five different NHL teams in his eleven seasons but his last two years in the league had to be memorable for him as he was a member of two of those Cup-winning clubs on The Island. Denis told Warren that Jean brought maturity to a young Isles’ team and he helped get them to the final series and then win it. “He was a strong member of the team during those Cups.”
Denis told Warren that he will always remember his brother for the person he was. “There wasn’t a mean bone in Jean’s body, but he was a competitor. It was an immediate party the minute he would walk into the room, and he was tough as nails,” Denis said. “Potsy will be remembered by so many people.”
“Nobody had more influence on my career,” Denis said. “He always included me. He was there when I started junior, there when I started pro. He was my pillar.”
Tom McCarthy had been a straight-up phenom when he was playing his minor hockey in the borough of North York in Toronto in the mid-1970s. He was so good that when it came time for the OHA draft of midget players, the smooth left winger was picked ahead of Wayne Gretzky. In his two seasons with the Oshawa Generals, he scored 116 goals and was selected tenth overall in the first round of the 1979 NHL draft.
Alas, he never reached the heights that were projected for him in nine seasons in ‘The Show’. Through seven seasons in Minnesota with the North Stars and parts of two more in Boston, he played a total of 460 games and garnered a total of 399 points. He did play a full season once, in 1982-83 and played in the All-Star Game that year as well.
McCarthy passed away on March 13, 2022 after suffering an aortic aneurysm in Mexico, where he lived. He lived a bit of a wild life which kind of began while he was playing in Minnesota. His career had been hindered by injuries and he also checked himself into rehab on one occasion as well.
By the time he was 27 years old, he was out of hockey. Steve Simmons wrote a piece in the Toronto Sun after McCarthy’s passing. He said that McCarthy was never a guy who liked morning skates. While in Minneapolis, he opened a popular seafood restaurant called Just For The Halibut, and enjoyed the life that came with being a hockey player.
After hockey, Simmons wrote that McCarthy “got in with the wrong crowd. He wound up hanging around, or being around, or serving dinner to those who worked in sales – selling drugs. Some of them became his friends. Some of them were his confidants.”
What ended up happening was that McCarthy ended up driving a truck full of marijuana from California to Minnesota. On the way, he was stopped and when the authorities saw what was in his truck, he was arrested. Because he was transporting the stuff across state lines, that constituted a capital offence and he was sentenced to hard time at the Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.
While there, McCarthy realized how much he loved hockey and he wanted to introduce the game to the prison population. The warden there was not thrilled about the idea of handing hockey sticks to inmates, many of whom were in there for serious crimes, who could use them as weapons against each other or on the correctional officers on site. McCarthy assured the warden that none of that would occur. The warden relented but added, “One problem and it’s gone”.
Simmons wrote that “Leavenworth was filled with Blacks and Hispanics, almost none of whom had ever held a hockey stick, let alone played the game before. The first week was about how to hold the stick. They progressed each week from stick handling to shooting tennis balls to eventually playing games in a gym. The weekly hockey games became the highlight of the week at Leavenworth.”
The experience helped McCarthy regain the love for hockey that he had lost in his last couple of years in the NHL. He also realized that he had to use his ability to teach and to coach to help other people. After he finished serving his time, he returned to Ontario and began coaching. He started with kids in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and moved up to different teams at the Junior level with some success. He even coached briefly in Romania.
The people who knew him, loved him. Former North Stars’ general manager, Lou Nanne spoke glowingly about McCarthy. “He had a great personality, everybody loved him because he was such an easy-going, fun-loving guy.” His former linemate, Neal Broten, echoed Nanne’s remarks. “He was the best guy. The kindest person you were going to find.”
According to Simmons, when he died, McCarthy had little money and he left behind medical bills and funeral costs. He also left behind a pretty amazing story.
Was there ever a purer goal scorer in NHL history than Mike Bossy? The man that everyone called “Boss” entered the NHL with guns a-blazing as he netted 53 goals in his rookie season and took home the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1977-78. He would go on to score at least 50 goals in each of his first nine seasons – the first player ever to accomplish that feat – on his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He had been a scoring sensation while playing for the Laval National of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In his four full seasons with Laval, he scored 308 goals in 259 games. His lowest goal total in a season was 70. That was in his first full season there in 1973-74. The knock on Bossy, though, among NHL executives was that they weren’t sure if his ‘all-offense’ style of play could be replicated in the much tougher checking of the NHL.
That sentiment, and the frugality of at least one NHL club, allowed Bossy to fall to the 15th slot in the 1977 NHL draft where the New York Islanders would select the star right winger. The Islanders were the one team that had coveted the Laval product right from the start. General manager Bill Torrey told confidants that the player he most wanted was Bossy.
Coach Al Arbour told Torrey that if he was available at 15, the team should take him. His attitude was that it was a lot easier to teach a player how to play a defensive game than it was to teach someone how to score goals. Years later, former Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman said basically the same thing.
The Habs had picked tenth in 1977 and their choice was either going to be Bossy or Mark Napier. Napier was already playing with the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association and was looking quite good. So the Canadiens took Napier. Bowman regretted that choice long afterward parroting Arbour’s remarks about teaching a kid to be able to play defense as opposed to teaching a kid how to score.
The Cleveland Barons were choosing fifth in 1977 and wanted a right winger and were looking at Laval’s Bossy as well. But when it came time for their selection, they placed a call to Pierre Lacroix, Bossy’s agent, and asked what it would take to sign his player. Remember that in 1977, there was no ceiling on what teams could pay their draft choices. Lacroix responded that it would require a $100,000 signing bonus and $100,000 per year for three years. The Barons balked at that price and chose Mike Crombeen instead.
Once the Islanders had secured their man, contract negotiations had to take place. Torrey had his figure in place but Bossy felt that offer was too low. He was quite confident in his ability and figured he deserved six figures each year, which was a sizeable amount at that time.
Bossy’s question to Torrey was “How much do you think a 50-goal scorer is worth?” Torrey laughed and said something like “Do you think you’re going to score 50 goals in the NHL?” Bossy figured he could and history would prove him to be correct.
My co-host on The Sports Lunatics Show, Shawn Lavigne, worked with Bossy when the two were on XM Radio together in the first decade of the 2000s. He knew the Hall-of-Famer as a guy who spoke directly and said what was on his mind. “The one thing I’ll say about Mike Bossy, he never lacked confidence. In anything. On or off the ice. He knew his worth. He knew his value,” Shawn said in one of our shows from April of 2022.
He continued, “For him to go into Bill Torrey’s office and say ‘I’m going to score 50 goals -- pay me like it!’ took a lot of cojones!”
Indeed, Bossy proved true to his word. Not only did he score 50 goals in each of his first nine seasons, in five of those years, he scored at least 60! He was a first team All-Star five times and a second-teamer three times. He played in seven All-Star Games. They didn’t have the Rocket Richard Trophy in those days, but if they did, he would have won it twice. He was proud to have won the Conn Smythe back in 1981-82.
Most of all, though, was the pride that Bossy and all of his Islander teammates took in winning four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1979-80 to 1982-83. They were the last team to accomplish that kind of a streak.
As I have said on our show in the past and as I have told numerous people individually, Auston Matthews has a tremendous release, perhaps the best in the modern game. But Bossy had that and he also had a little hitch or delay in his release that he would use at different times. That little delay would freeze a goalie for a fraction of a second and then allow Bossy to score easily.
In 752 career NHL games, Bossy scored 573 goals. Add to that his 553 assists and he amassed a total of 1,126 points. He also won three Lady Byng Trophies. In 1991, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Bossy passed away on April 15, 2022 from lung cancer.
The old Montreal Canadiens’ player and coach, Toe Blake, once said that there were only three players who have worn La Sainte Flannelle (the Habs’ jersey) that could lift people out of their seats – Howie Morenz, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and Guy Lafleur. That is pretty lofty company. But when you consider the outpouring of emotion and respect following the passing of ‘Le Demon Blond’ on April 22, 2022, it becomes easy to understand what Blake was talking about.
Guy Lafleur seemed born to play hockey. When he was a young boy, he was given a hockey stick as a gift and, for the rest of his days, he never let that go. As a kid, on a lot of mornings, he would sneak into the empty arena in his hometown of Thurso, Quebec and take shots on the vacant nets. When he was old enough, he and his team would travel to the Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament, and he proved himself to be one of the stars of the tourney.
Success followed Lafleur on every step of his hockey journey. He eventually found himself playing Junior hockey in Quebec City, the place that his hero, Jean Beliveau, launched his career. Lafleur was incredible while playing two seasons for the Remparts, potting a total of 233 goals in 118 games.
Meanwhile, in Montreal, the Canadiens’ general manager Sam Pollock had already hatched his plan to try to acquire the great Quebecois superstar. As NHL historian Liam Maguire told me and our Sports Lunatics Show listeners on our April 24, 2022 show, he and his assistant, Kenny Reardon, had things kind of figured out well ahead of time.
“When Lafleur started to separate himself, a little bit, from Marcel Dionne (in 1970), Sam sat down with Kenny Reardon and he said ‘We’ve got to see what we can do to get this guy’. So on my 11th birthday, May 22, 1970, it came across that the Montreal Canadiens had traded their first round pick that year and (Ernie) Hicke to the Seals for their first round pick the next year. That’s how he got the pick!”
“So we know the story from there. Hicke goes to the Seals and starts the season and now he’s free from playing on the fourth line in Montreal. All of a sudden, he’s scoring a ton, and the Seals aren’t in last place anymore. So Sammy goes ‘Holy cow! Worst case scenario, we still get Dionne, but I still want to try and get that pick. What can I do?’”
“Meanwhile, he had picked up Peter Mahovlich a year and a half earlier from Detroit, so he had Pete coming up as a centreman. And he realized he had Ralph Backstrom as a centre for the last thirteen years in the organization. Yeoman service, multiple Stanley Cups. Before there was even an expression of ‘a 200-foot player’, Ralph Backstrom was a 200-foot centreman."
"He trades Ralph Backstrom to the Los Angeles Kings. Ralph helps out. They move ahead of the Seals. Seals finish last. Habs get first pick. Queen Elizabeth Hotel, June 1971, Clarence Campbell announces the Canadiens have the first pick. Sam Pollock calls ‘Time’! He called a time-out!”
“Everybody in the hockey world knew he was taking Guy. He calls a time out. Then he says ‘From the Quebec Remparts, the Montreal Canadiens are very pleased to select Guy Lafleur.’”
Early on though, Lafleur was not the great player he would become. Pressure can be a toxic thing and in Montreal, that pressure builds quickly. The longer it took for Lafleur to get going, the more people were suggesting that the Habs should have taken Marcel Dionne in the draft. Maguire acknowledged that fact when we talked on the show as well. It wasn’t until Bowman moved Lafleur to the right side that he really hit his stride.
“The pressure, as he has alluded to many times in interviews, it was smothering. He had to deal with the whole thing with the number first (he had worn Jean Beliveau’s 4 with the Remparts) and then he settled on 10. I don’t think he had a great camp. He had an okay camp. There was no way he was starting anywhere but Montreal. If you watch the clips of those first couple of years, 29 goals, 28 goals, 21 goals. He was not ‘Guy’ – not the ‘Guy’ that he became.”
“If you watch those clips, he doesn’t even skate the same way. His shoulders are the thing that sticks out to me the most. He’s much more robotic. Don’t forget, he’s at centre. He played centre in Junior, so they played him at centre.”
“Take Guy out of centre and put him on the wing and it’s much more natural for him because Scotty still gave him the latitude to do what he wanted coming up the ice, so he wasn’t like a straight burner like Cournoyer or the Rocket in that sense. But it was a much more natural position for him to handle, deal and shoot the puck from.”
When Lafleur was moved over to the wing, the move coincided with him removing the old, massive Lange helmet that he used to wear at the beginning of his NHL career and it gave the appearance that he had been set free. His blonde locks began to flow. He became the great player that everyone knew and came to either love or fear depending on your affinity with the Montreal Canadiens.
Once the change was made and he removed the helmet and moved over to the wing, the world saw Lafleur become the best player on the planet for a six-year period. During the time from the fall of 1974 until the spring of 1980, he was the best player anywhere. He became the first ever to score 50 goals and manage 100 points in six consecutive years. He was a first-team All-Star five straight years.
He won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer three straight years. He won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player in 1977 and 1978. He won the Lester Pearson Trophy as the Most Valuable Player as voted on by the players for three years in a row. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best player in the postseason in the spring of 1977. As Liam told us all on that SL episode, he was the link between the era of Bobby Orr and the arrival of Wayne Gretzky.
Yes, there was the contract dispute between Lafleur and the Canadiens in the autumn of 1984 that led to his sudden retirement. That was a sad surprise. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988. But he wasn’t necessarily finished yet. There was more hockey in him.
When he came back to play for the New York Rangers in 1988, we were all surprised and wondering how he would do. He collected 18 goals and 45 points in 67 games. The following year, when he signed with the Quebec Nordiques, it felt strange. He played there for two seasons and he scored 24 goals in 98 games. No one cheered against Lafleur, but no Montreal fans wanted to see his Nordiques win.
Stories of Lafleur’s thoughtfulness abounded after his passing. Liam told a story on our show about ‘The Flower’ calling him to say that he was picking him up in a helicopter and they would be going to see a dying man in Shawville, Quebec whose last wish was to meet Guy Lafleur. He never advertised these little deeds. He learned from Jean Beliveau his role as an ambassador of the game.
Jamie Baker was a guy who played for the Ottawa Senators and the San Jose Sharks, but his first two seasons in the NHL were with Quebec as a teammate of Lafleur. As Christmas was approaching in his second year, Lafleur asked Baker what he was doing for the break. Baker replied that he would be heading to Ottawa.
Lafleur asked him how he would be getting there. Baker said that he would probably rent a car. Lafleur refused to allow Baker to rent a car. He insisted that Baker use one of his cars. He had someone drive one of his vehicles to the arena so Baker could get to and from Ottawa without having to incur any extra expense.
At the end of March of 2022, hockey lifer, athletic trainer and equipment manager Brian Patafie was on The Sports Lunatics Show with me and we talked about a whole bunch of things. Brian has been in the game for 44 years and he has stories! For a time when he was working for the Montreal Canadiens.
There was a night in the Forum when Robert Plant was putting on a concert. Patafie was walking in the hallways of the arena that morning and he was wearing his Canadiens apparel with the legendary ‘CH’ on the left chest of his shirt. He was approached by Phil Collins, who was touring with Plant. Collins wanted an autograph from Guy Lafleur.
“The other day, I made a post about my first year with the Montreal Canadiens. A couple of days before camp and I’m walking in the bowels of the arena and there’s a Robert Plant concert that night and Phil Collins approaches me – Phil ‘Freaking’ Collins, right! – with a pennant....you remember the old pennants, the Montreal Canadiens pennants.”
“And so, he asked me if I could possibly get ‘Mr. Lafleur’ to sign that sometime during the day because we were skating over in Verdun. You know, busing over dressed and back because of the Robert Plant concert that night. I said ‘Ya, but what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’m playing drums on this tour.’ I said, ‘Cool. Let me get that. I’ll be right back.’”
“So, I go over and tell Guy, and ‘Flower’ says to me ‘Oh, Pataf!’ Because I had built up a relationship with Lafleur the day I got there. I’m the low man on the totem pole, right? It’s well documented that ‘Flower’ used to smoke in the locker room and have a coffee. And he’s always having a smoke and a coffee. And one day, I came into the locker room and they’re all sitting there and I said “Hey ‘Flower’! Would you quit throwing your butts in the urinal.”
“And he goes ‘Oh, sorry, Pataf.’ I said ‘Geez, don’t you know how hard they are to light afterward?’ Well, these guys are sitting there. Bob Berry’s the coach, right, and Bob Berry goes ‘Where did we get this guy?’ And they’re just cracking up. So I had this thing with ‘Flower’. I made sure I’d get him his coffee, and that’s what you did back then. So, ‘Flower’ thought I was just playing a joke on him.”
“I said ‘No, really. Phil Collins wants your autograph.’ So, he says, ‘Show me!’ So 'Flower' pulls on a pair of workout shorts. Probably the only time he ever put his workout shorts and a t-shirt on. And we walk over and we find Phil and these two guys are like they had met their long time idols! So Phil goes ‘Come on in, you guys, sit down’ and there’s all this food, and he says ‘Help yourselves’. So I was there having lunch with Phil Collins and Guy Lafleur. Have I died and gone to heaven?”
Well, Brian, if there’s a heaven, they got an All-Star team in 2022.
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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 182 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.