There have been some famous athletes named “Rocky” over the years- most notably boxers Rocky Marciano and Rocky Graziano. Boxing fans will know that Marciano retired as the undisputed -and undefeated- heavyweight champion many years ago.
Running back Rocky Bleier came out of Notre Dame and overcame serious injuries incurred while in Vietnam to resume his professional career with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 1970s, earning four Super Bowl championships along the way.
Perhaps the most famous of all was the film hero, who Sylvester Stallone took to the box office on a half dozen different occasions.
As a Leaf fan, there was one Rocky that I’ve always felt should have had a longer and more productive career than he ended up having: Maple Leaf winger Rocky Saganiuk.
When Punch Imlach returned to the Leaf organization in the summer of 1979, replacing the well-regarded Jim Gregory (who had himself replaced Imlach 10 years earlier), he was, it appeared from a distance, intent on totally changing the culture around the Leaf dressing room.
He wanted, it seemed, to break the stranglehold Darryl Sittler had on that room, and proceeded to move pieces until he had essentially dismantled a team that had been at least somewhat of a contender. Roger Neilson was already gone as coach, and once Imlach traded away Lanny McDonald part-way through that infamous 1979-’80 season, the Leafs of the late ‘70s, as Leaf fans knew and loved them them, were dead.
That said, the new Imlach “era” did bring opportunities for some players who had been drafted earlier during Gregory’s regime.
One such player was a young winger, Saganiuk, who had been drafted in 1977, 29th overall. (That would make Saganiuk a first-rounder in today’s 30-team NHL.)
I really liked the way Saganiuk played when he came up from the minors. He was a short guy (out of Western Canada) but he had some size, played at a fast pace, was a quick skater and created havoc all over the ice. While he didn’t have the toughness of a Brian Spencer, who was a Leaf too briefly in the early 1970s, Saganiuk played similarly, with heart and a lot of zip.
In fact, in Saganiuk’s first full season, that awful 1979-’80 year, he had a strong offensive season, scoring 24 goals in 75 games and was a minus 5, which was not bad playing for a team that was terribly unhappy and in the process of being dismantled.
Somewhere along the way, however, things changed for Saganiuk. The team under Imlach continued to struggle. Saganiuk took McDonald’s old number, which might not have helped, as Lanny was a very popular Leaf. The Leafs went through about 5 coaches, it seemed, by the end of the 1980-’81 season, and Saganiuk, instead of being applauded for being a “tazmanian devil” type of player like the Islanders’ John Tonelli was, was instead being criticized for not playing a more conventional, up and down style.
Unfortunately, he was not the kind of player who thrived under a checking, stay-with-your-man system. I remember chatting with him one time after a game in the dressing room during the 1979-‘80, and he seemed like a young guy just thrilled to be with the Leafs. It was, as it was and is for most young Canadian kids, a dream come true for him to be with the Leafs.
They had some other talented young guys, like John Anderson and Joel Quennville (both head coaches now in the NHL), but as the team fell backwards, I’m guessing Saganiuk’s confidence was shaken as coaches – and his ice time- went south.
His offensive numbers dipped, and by the 1983-’84 season, he was off to Pittsburgh. It’s stunning to me that he played his last NHL game that season, at the age of 27.
I seem to recall that Rocky had some injury issues that shortened his career, but what I remember most is this: he was a young guy with skill who played the game with energy and enthusiasm - and it was knocked out of him by coaches who apparently wanted everybody playing the same way.