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20 Maple Leaf and across the NHL nods to individual players and coaches…

It was probably the recent passing of all-time Bruins great Milt Schmidt that triggered this, but I’ve been reflecting a bit about current NHLers who have left a significant mark on the game—in the sense that they have had a distinguished career, or have done something out of the ordinary as players or coaches. I'll get to that in a minute; first a few words about Schmidt, the legendary Hall-of-Famer.

I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I learned a great deal about him from my father. While Dad was a passionate Montreal fan, he had great admiration for Schmidt as a player. Early in life I heard stories about some of the great lines in hockey, and Schmidt was at the heart of one of the most storied ones, the famous “Kraut Line”. (I believe Scmidt’s wingers were Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer.)

They may well all have been Kitchener (Ontario) boys and they were all great players in their time, which was from the late 1930s into the 1950s, though Bauer retired earlier than his linemates.

Schmidt lived to be almost 99, which is remarkable in itself. During his near 20-year NHL career (and he missed three seasons in his early prime because of World War II), he helped Boston win two Stanley Cups, and was a big part of their championships in 1970 and 1972 because of his work as the team's General Manager through the mid-part of the 1960s. He signed a young Bobby Orr, built the then Junior A farm system with other promising prospects like Derek Sanderson and rebuilt what had been a struggling roster. That included one of the biggest trades in hockey history, the one that didn't seem quite that important at the time, as the soon-to-be record-breaking Phil Esposito went from Chicago to the Bruins.

There may have been better players in Boston, like Orr, but by all accounts Schmidt was Mr. Bruin—a rugged, skilled player and a thoughtful, genuine, well-regarded individual.  Though I never saw him play, for me, Schmidt brings back memories of the best that hockey can be, in every sense.


A quick note on the Leafs before the rest of the post: not many young players have the kind of instincts and  on-ice vision Mitch Marner demonstrates. Vision seems to be the one of those things a player is born with.  In addition to slick hands, Marner's vision was on display on Toronto's opening goal Saturday night, from one end of the rink to the other, which resulted in Bozak's power-play goal.


In no particular order, these are some of the names that come come to mind when it comes to individuals who have had, or soon may, have a real impact on the sport:

  1. While the Leafs have so many impressive kids (and speaking of kids, if I was a “kid” again as I was in the early 1960s and was drawn to small, skilled players like Dickie Duff and Dave Keon, I can see why someone like Marner might well be my favourite Leaf now) I look at Leo Komarov as a classic Maple Leaf. While he has only played about 200 NHL games in a Leaf jersey, it feels like he has been here for a longer period of time.  He just seems like the kind of guy Leaf founder Conn Smythe would have loved. It would be good to see him be part of the club as they turn the corner.
  2. I’ve never been a John Tortorella guy, but I know he has been an excellent NHL coach and successful through most of his career. Leading a club to the kind of winning streak the Blue Jackets just experienced is impressive in any era, but certainly is now given the salary cap and relative parity in the league.
  3. Shane Doan has really had a tremendous career, eh?  He’s still plugging away and contributing after 20 plus season, 400 goals, etc. But it’s more than numbers.  Here’s a guy who has, in this era of free agency, has played his entire career with one (Winnipeg/Phoenix) franchise.  He’s been a part of Team Canada a gazillion teams, and is recognized as a leader. Just a fine player.
  4. I know it’s been discussed a lot this season, but Jaromir Jagr is a phenomenon. I remember when our kids were really young and just beginning to follow hockey. Jagr was all of 19 and I would tell them to watch this guy because he had astounding skills. I’m not sure I thought he would be “better” than teammate Mario Lemieux, but it was clear he was brilliant.  So fast, smart, shifty and strong on the puck back then.  While there were some mid-career hiccups (at the end of his time in Pittsburgh; the years in Washington felt like lost seasons a bit) he has had a truly unique career.  Maybe his time in the KHL a few years ago actually rejuvenated him. Whatever, he’s still producing at what, 45?
  5. It would be nice if Morgan Rielly played his entire career wit the Leafs. It seems like he is the kind of player who will be appreciated here by fans for years to come. And, with the even younger impact players already easing his load, he won’t have to carry the team. He’s 22, has a maturity about him  and has already played close to 300 NHL games.
  6. Back to coaches for a moment:  I think Claude Julien has been an outstanding leader for the Bruins.  “Only” one Stanley Cup, yes, but he and the Bruins came achingly close a second time and they have been consistently tough to play against for years. Just a level-headed individual who did a nice job with New Jersey and Montreal before really taking off in Boston. He may not stay in Boston forever—almost no coach stays in one place in the NHL, even the best ones—but I think he has been really good there. He has done a very good job of integrating new players into an ever-changing lineup, while still keeping the Bruins highly competitive as Zdeno Chara ages.
  7. Joel Quenneville is far from overlooked nowadays, I realize, but his accomplishments behind the bench in Chicago are certainly worth recognizing.  As coach, he brought a level of expectation and accountability to the organization, and has managed to work with cornerstone superstars and keep them focused and motivated (though I’m not sure Toews needs much external motivation, or some of the other guys either) while working with a revolving door of critically important third and fourth-line role players over the past few seasons.
  8. Have you noticed former longtime Leaf James Reimer has played quite well of late down in Florida? Of course Roberto Luongo is the guy in goal there, but after playing very little with San Jose last season and a kind of unsettled start with the Panthers this year, Reimer has started to play like he can. He and the Panthers weren't at their best against the Bruins Saturday night, but he's been good of late. His “numbers” aren’t staggering but have been on the rise. Andersen is the man here now, and deservedly so (despite a bit of an off-night himself against the Habs), but it’s nice to see a Leaf a lot of us liked do well elsewhere.
  9. Speaking of Luongo, while I’ve never been a Luongo fan, he’s had a great career. He certainly was a major influence on Florida’s success a year ago, and has been the backbone of a Panthers team that has been rebuilding with a fair number of impressive kids. An entertaining guy, he has fought back from tough times, and also played so well for Canada. He’s had a great career.
  10. It’s good to see so many “kids” (Matthews here in Toronto, McDavid in Edmonton, Panarin in Chicago, Tasarenko with the Blues and others…it’s a long list) doing so well but it’s also nice to see Crosby being Crosby still.  When he was hurt a few years ago, we all wondered what the future held. Here’s to hoping he will play his entire career as Penguin. He’s a generational player, now a well-earned two-time Stanley Cup champion. He’s closing in on a thousand regular-season points in his NHL career, (and he’s only 29) though we all know he’s a lot more than numbers.  As best we can tell, he seems to (like the aforementioned Milt Schmidt) represent the best of what hockey is and can be on and off the ice.
  11. Alexander Steen is another name that pops to mind. We remember his promising time with the Leafs, and the somewhat baffling decision to send him away in a trade at a young age. All these years later, he remains, through various pretty serious injuries, a great pro in St. Louis, though he is seemingly not having his best year so far in 2016-‘17.
  12. I think we have to acknowledge what the Montreal Canadiens have done (so far) this season. After a great start last season, they fell back and could not overcome the season-ending injury to Carey Price. Now, they seem to be fighting through whatever comes their way again.  Though I always roosted against the Habs when they were hate-inspiringly good in the late 1950s ands throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, I still miss the days when their roster was made up of a lot of great players from Quebec and the Haps were truly "The Flying Frenchmen".  It made for such a heated old-time rivalry.  The rivalry with the current Leafs will be all the better if both teams are really good again.
  13. I’d like to see Bruce Boudreau have success in Minnesota.  He did such a good job in both Washington and Anaheim. Those teams came so close to big-time success and just couldn’t catch the kind of breaks you need to get to the Cup finals.  I remember him as a junior Marlie back in the early ‘70s. He had real offensive talent and I always hoped he would have a good career after he was drafted by the Leafs in the mid ‘70s.  He had to work for years to build a reputation as a coach in the minors, and I’d still like him to do well.
  14. It’s much the same with Randy Carlyle.  I remember Carlyle as a struggling young Maple Leaf defenseman in the mid-later 1970s.  I think it was during the second half of the 1977-’78 NHL season (after a trip to the minors, I believe) when he began to emerge as a really solid two-way player, including in the playoffs.  (I was able to see the Leafs in person a lot in those days at Maple Leaf Gardens.) But just as he was blossoming, he was traded to Pittsburgh, where he had some excellent seasons on some middlish teams and actually won a Norris Trophy. He went on to play, and play very well, for a decade with the Winnipeg Jets.  I know he was not widely liked as the coach of the Leafs, but I quietly hope his team in Anaheim (where he won a Cup a decade ago with the Ducks) continues to thrive under his stewardship.
  15. Marian Gaborik may be on the downside of his stellar NHL career, but he’s another guy who has accomplished a lot despite a ton of injury issues over the years. I sometimes wonder what his numbers would look like if he had been healthier more often. He was a big time sniper, and he helped the Kings win one of their Stanley Cups a couple of years ago.  Not sure that he will be a Hall-of-Famer (despite almost 400 goals in only 950 games) but he has had a long and solid career. Along with Kovalchuk, he was one of the most exciting players to watch early in his career, despite playing in a very defensive-minded system under Lemaire in Minnesota.
  16. Columbus forward Brandon Dubinsky has not been a player I‘ve paid a lot of attention to over the years. But he continues to quietly do a good job. At 30, he seems to be one of those players who is likely under-rated or unnoticed by casual fans, but is obviously very important to his teammates and coaching staff.
  17. The Sedin twins continue to put up points with the only team they have ever played for in Vancouver. They deserve recognition for their excellent NHL careers, for sure. I do wonder what their legacy will be, if they finish out their careers on Vancouver teams that aren’t quite strong enough to contend for a championship.
  18. The Red Wings have lost Lidstrom and Datsyuk over the past couple of seasons, and my guess is Henrik Zetterberg may be calling it a day before too long. But talk about a marvelous career.  He is the last “superstar” link to those great Red Wing teams that were a threat to win the Cup pretty much every season for the last 15 years. But every organization sees their great runs eventually come to an end, and Detroit is no different as they fight to stay competitive in a now much improved Eastern Conference. Zetterberg is still a great player and was never an individual who was just about his stats.  Though the team around him is different now, he remains a classy figure, respected across the league. I hope he retires a Red Wing, as did Lidstrom and Datsyuk.
  19. John Tavares is only 26, and it feels as though he has been in the league for a long time.  While I really like the idea of a guy staying with one team (in this day and age, it’ unlikely) it's hard not to sometimes contemplate what he might accomplish individually and team wise in a different environment.
  20. It’s hard to believe Joe Thornton is already in the midst of what is likely the latter stages of his fine NHL career.  Like a lot of you, I remember when he was just breaking in as an 18 year-old in Boston, and the much-debated deal that sent him to San Jose.  He and the Sharks came so close to a championship last spring, after years of early playoff heartbreak.  He’s only got two goals this season, but continues to be a fine playmaker, which has always been one of his calling cards.  Great player, deserving of a championship, for sure.

There are other players (Radem Vrbata and Scott Hartnell spring to mind) and coaches (e.g. Darryl Sutter) who have had tremendous careers over many years, of course, but those are some of the names that sprung to mind for me today. By all means share your thoughts on players or coaches who have stood out for you over time…


  1. Hi Michael. I very much enjoyed your thoughts about various hockey players that in your mind had left an imprint on the game of hockey in the NHL.

    I've always been an avid Leaf fan but I want to mention a player outside of my favourite team in this exercise that has left an impression on me for many years.

    His name is Jean Ratelle and I've always admired the way this guy played hockey. He started with the New York Rangers in '63 and played there until 1975. He was a real class act. I always remember him having back problems and I believe if he didn't, he might have been even greater.

    He was a great stick handler, passer and could put alot of points on the board. Like Mitch Marner, Jean Ratelle had that inherent vision on ice and fancy stick work.

    He played on the famous 'GAG' line with Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert. As a kid, I loved Rod Gilbert too. (When I played road hockey, if my my snap shot was going well, I would often pretend I was Rod Gilberrrrrt!!!)

    But going back to Jean Ratelle, he was so good that in '75, Boston traded Phil Esposito (and Carol Vadnais) for him and Brad Park. Brad Park was a great defenseman who still had a lot of 'gas left in the tank' for the Bruins. Jean Ratelle became an instant leader for the Bruins.

    Jean Ratelle had moxy and played with a lot of class in his NHL career. Even a winner of the 'Lady Byng Memorial' trophy for most gentlemanly player. As much as I'm biased towards my Leaf players, an old Leaf fan like myself can appreciate praising a NHL player outside the organization like Jean Ratelle.

    1. I'm glad you brought up Ratelle, drgreg. You're so right- he was a marvellous player exactly in the ways you describe. Very competitive but a gentleman, in the mold of a Jean Beliveau. The Rangers could well have won a Cup in '72, were it not for Bobby Orr who carried the Bruins.

      I too remember the Hadfield/Ratelle/Gilbert line (I've always thought their teammate Eddie Giacomin was one of the best all-around goalies I've ever seen) and the fact that Ratelle (along with Park) was excellent with the Bruins in the mid and later 1970s after that huge trade.

      Thanks for posting, drgreg. Sharing old memories is one of my favourite things here at VLM.

  2. I really enjoyed the depth of this article. No matter how much the game of hockey is refined, there is always room for the rare player who causes the game to evolve in different ways. It's easy to look at the star players like Orr and Gretzky, whose impact on the game is immeasurable. If we look a litle closer, there have been countless players who have changed the game in their own way. All opinions are of course our own, and can be argued, but nonetheless, here is my short list, confined to those who played during my lifetime:

    Bob Gainey - I don't know if there has ever been a player before or since who truly embraced his role within a team, deferring the flash and statistical numbers to others, while quietly playing an extremely valuable role on one of the most dominant teams in NHL history.

    Mike Bossy - The best pure sniper the NHL had seen at the time, he is still among the best in history at pure goal scoring.

    Cam Neely - The power forward began to gain prominence in the 80s, and none defined that title more.

    Ron Hextall - Handled the puck in ways no one had ever seen before from a goaltender. It is now a prerequisite for a goalie to be able to corral and move the puck past rushing forecheckers.

    Zdeno Chara - Deemed too tall and clumsy at first, and it certainly took him a number of years to round his physical skills in to form. Once he did so, he became impossible to get around.

    Esa Tikkanen - No, I don't like him either. But he took the agitator role to new heights. Every team has one of these guys nowadays, someone who can simply chirp and grate on nerves and throw you off your game.

    1. I very much concur with the thoughts in your opening comments, Pete. And you mention players who absolutely stood out and impacted the sport.

      I'm with you fully on Gainey. Probably one of the finest all-around players I've ever seen. I watched him in person as a Junior player, and you described him perfectly with the Habs. For a time in the mid and late '70s, I'm not sure there was a better overall player in the game, despite his lack of scoring prowess.

      Bossy was as you described, the ultimate hockey finisher. He would have been a scorer in any era. He had a gift.

      After being traded from Vancouver, Neely became a player every NHL team would have wanted. And playing in tiny Boston Gardens in those days was perfect for him (as it was for Terry O'Reilly years before, though Neely was also a big time goal scorer, as well as a physically imposing forward).

      Chara blossomed a bit late as you said, but he has been so so good for years. I think he has to be a Hall-of-Famer.

      And you are on the money with Tikkanen as well. Not just a pest, but the supreme agitator who could play the game, too.

      Thanks for bringing those names up, Pete.

  3. Nice change of pace in this write up Michael. Maybe in the future we can pick certain "types of player" to discuss similar to what Pete did above. Except maybe a type of player per article/discussion as in who were the best Bob Gainey types throughout the NHL history etc.

    1. Let me think on that Pep- I don't post as often as I once did, but I like that idea!

  4. I was just thinking about the last game between the Leafs and Monteal. When Zach Hyman tried to cut towards the Canadien's net and ran into Carey Price, I had a little 'deja vu'.

    Seeing good ol' Zach grinding away on Mathew's line, cycling and hitting any opposing defenseman in sight. Fighting, falling, and getting up again. Digging and getting a glove 'face wash' again and again. Zach always seeming to have a smirk on his face afterwards.

    It reminds me of an old grinder of my past. Wayne 'Pie Face' Cashman of the Boston Bruins. I don't know why they called Wayne 'Pie Face' but somehow, the nickname seemed appropriate.

    Wayne Cashman and his other grinder winger, Ken Hodge, were linemates of Phil Esposito of the 'Big Bad Bruins' and the 'Espo-Cashman-Hodge' line use to physically devastate the other NHL defensemen with their talent of getting goals scored.

    I don't think Cashman had such a great shot or high playmaking skill. But what a grinder he was. Never afraid of getting into the corners in pursuit of the puck to feed Phil Esposito in the 'slot' again and again.

    And Wayne Cashman scored 20 or more goals for many seasons. As much as 30 goals in one year, I believe. He seemed to have a knack of getting goals in opportune occasions when Phil Esposito would sometimes hit the goalie and there would be a juicy rebound.

    There seems to be some debate (in Leafland) as to why Zach Hyman is playing with Auston Matthews. Shouldn't a higher skilled player be there instead? Hasn't there been a history of talented Leaf players like Sundin and Kessel that always needed a more talented player to help increase these stars' potential?

    But to this question I am reminded of Phil Esposito (high scoring center from Boston Bruins) from the 70's. He (like Matthew) also liked to shoot the puck. But Phil needed Cashman and Hodge to get him the puck, not have some winger compete with him to shoot the puck.

    I think in time, Zach can become a regular 20 goal scorer if he remains on Mathews line and develops his skill of 'garbage goals' with all his mucking around the crease.

    But I believe Austin is served best when someone like Zach can dig the puck out of the corners in order to feed him the puck more often. Especially when the playoffs become more of a reality for other NHL teams and the style of hockey play becomes a little more tight and the possession of the puck becomes more difficult to achieve.

    1. Very interesting about Cashman, drgreg. He and Johnny McKenzie were two of the Bruins I hated the most in those days- likely because I wished they were with the Leafs. They were different players (McKenzie could really skate) but both were rugged and very aggressive (sometimes dirty)...perfect for Boston Gardens.

      With regard to Matthews/Hyman, my guess is Matthews will no doubt have different line mates in the short and mid-term, until Babcock determines what the best fit will be.

  5. With many friends from Alberta and then living in Calgary for a decade starting in '97, I was always quite aware of Jarome Iginla. He seems like a real 'throwback' player who would thrive in any era and contribute to any team. Not only has he been supremely skilled, he is also 'tough as nails' - yet also seems to be one of the most genuinely friendly players on the circuit.

    As it turns out, my niece went to school with him and she maintained contact when their business continued to create the opportunity to see him on occasion. By all accounts he is a really good guy (beyond 'public perception').

    I can't help but hope for him to find himself with one more shot on a contender by the trade deadline. Even though he has had cup success, I can't imagine him NOT being able to ramp up for a role (like Lanny McDonald with Calgary) one more time - he is a contributor with heart to the core and I always wished he could have been a Leaf!!

    Really enjoyed this idea for an article, Michael (not to mention the fine comments above :)

    1. Always good to connect here, InTimeFor62. Iginla could well have been one of the many deserving names included in my article- and probably should have been! So I'm particularly appreciative that you brought him up. Such a fine player for so many years, including with Team Canada.

      Your reference to McDonald is apt- as we both know, Lanny had to wait until his final season to raise the Cup. A former Leaf great, and a proud westerner and Flame, as well.

  6. I agree with InTimeFor62 about Iginla. A wonderful talent and one of the last great franchise captains of his generation whose still playing.