In the absence of the NHL, we’re going to see a lot of awfully strong AHL teams this season, aren't we? Before the old CBA expired last weekend, NHL clubs stuffed their minor-league line-ups with their eligible NHL players. As you all know, the Leafs have shipped everyone they could down to the Marlies except for Matt Frattin, I think it was. (And Frattin is not included only because of injury, if I’m not mistaken.)
One of the many outstanding posters here, DP, reminded me recently that there is an opportunity now to chat about the “old days” of hockey, which I like to do anyway. But DP suggested that I focus on the minor-leagues—especially since we will be seeing a lot some NHL-caliber players on display in the AHL this season. (The domino effect should extend to all levels of professional hockey, and impact junior hockey as well. The unfortunate aspect of this for some borderline players is that they will miss out on jobs at the lower professional levels because of this roll-over effect.)
DP mentioned the name Jean Beliveau as an example of someone who has a background in the "minor leagues", and that name certainly brought back a flood of memories for me.
Now, I think Beliveau signed with the Montreal Canadiens the year that I was born, in 1953 or thereabouts (I’d have to look it up to be sure) when he was maybe 22 years of age. But the fascinating thing about Beliveau was that while he was plenty good enough to play for the Habs much younger, after a brilliant junior career, he actually signed to play in the old American Hockey League with the Quebec Citadels or whatever they were called back then. (Actually, it was the Aces, I think…)
I’m no expert on Beliveau’s years with the AHL (having not quite been born yet!), but my dad was a huge Montreal fan in those days (his whole life, really). He followed the hockey scene about as closely as a human being could back then—until the day he died, really, in 1985.
I remember Dad him telling me that “Le Gros Bill” as we was sometimes called (don’t ask me why) actually made more money playing minor-league hockey in Quebec City than he would have with Montreal had he just signed a contract with the Habs right out of junior. I think he was maybe making more than $20,000 a year in Quebec City in the early 1950s, and of course endorsements and things like that added to his income.
I seem to recall reading, many years ago, that Beliveau felt he owed the people of Quebec City something after his junior days there. He had been a junior hockey hero in Quebec (maybe that’s where Citadelles come from in my memory bank, I think that may have been their junior team….) and felt a kinship with the fans. (As a complete aside, I believe Beliveau was offered a contract to play in the WHA with the new Quebec City franchise in the early ‘70s, but he stuck to his retirement vow after he left the Canadiens on a high- having won the Cup in his final game as captain in the spring of 1971.)
I think Beliveau (pictured at right in a classic Harold Barkley photo from the early 1960s) played a couple of years in the AHL with Quebec City, but he did eventually sign with the NHL team that owned his rights (Montreal). Then General Manager Frank Selke gave him a very nice contract for an NHL “rookie”, as the future NHL star had unusually strong leverage for a youngster in those pre-players union days. There was a huge celebration—and a sigh of relief—in Montreal when Beliveau finally signed.
Though it wasn’t always smooth-sailing (Montreal fans often criticized Beliveau for not producing more…he was a bit like our Frank Mahovlich in Toronto—in that he made things look so easy people that always wanted more…) Jean went on to a legendary career with Montreal, winning those five Cups in a row in the late 1950s, and five more in the ‘60s plus that final championship in 1970-’71.
There is a rather neat Toronto connection with Beliveau- he played for Punch Imlach in Quebec City. Imlach of course went on to fame as the General Manager and Coach of the Maple Leafs during what turned out to be their (hopefully not final) most recent glory years in the early and mid-1960s.
So we’re talking about very different circumstances, of course, but when I see that Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and others will be playing (perhaps all season?) in Toronto with the Marlies, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle will be in Oklahoma City, this just may be an opportunity for a lot of hockey fans to in AHL cities in Canada and thew United States to enjoy seeing some great young talent at non-NHL prices.
While a lot of us would much prefer to see Kadri ply his trade with the big club, more time with the Marlies may prepare him all the better for a larger role with the Leafs when that day comes. I've long said I wished Kadri had played all of 2010-'11 with the Marlies, and he did play with them a great deal last season. I'd rather a player be so "cooked" and ready that when he does come up to the Leafs, he never has to go back to the minors. Unfortunately, that's not the way the Leafs have handled Kadri so far. But now, they have no choice.
In any event, for those seeking a hockey “fix”, the AHL sounds like a nice opportunity right about now….