|Current Finn great Saku Koivu, grew up idolizing Finnish born NHL Hall of Famer Jari Kurri. WATCH: Saku Koivu highlights|
But there is a player who elicits the same reactions from Koivu – Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, a star with the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty teams of the 1980s and the first Finnish player to make it big in the NHL.
“I think you ask any Finnish player and (Kurri) was the biggest – and still is the biggest – that ever played the game for us,” Koivu said. “We all watched when he played in Edmonton. He is, absolutely, my Stanley Cup hero.”
Sometimes the hero worship falls along nationalistic lines.
“Sergei Fedorov was my hero,” says Russian Alexander Radulov, the Nashville Predators’ young scorer. “Most of the time, I was trying to be like him.”
Sometimes, regional allegiances produce the affinity.
Pittsburgh defenseman Ryan Whitney grew up loving his hometown Boston Bruins. He looked upon the players wearing the black-and-gold sweaters as idols. He patented his game after their exploits. And when good things happened to them, he vicariously went along for the ride.
“Obviously, Ray Bourque was a kind of a hero in Boston to all little kids playing hockey,” said Whitney, still smiling at the memory of Bourque winning a Cup late in his career after a trade to Colorado. “As I got older, I was a huge Steve Yzerman fan. He was always a guy you wanted to be like and have a career like. Those two guys are guys that come into my head as guys you look up to and you hope you can kind of match what they have done and win Stanley Cups.”
Calgary Flame Jarome Iginla had a similar experience on the prairies of Western Canada. He loved the Edmonton Oilers with all his heart, and the Oiler who wore No. 11 could do no wrong in his eyes.
“After the Oilers traded (Wayne) Gretzky, it was a tough time in Edmonton for young hockey fans such as myself,” Iginla said of Hall of Famer Mark Messier. “It was pretty impressive how he helped lead that team in the playoffs, you know, the run he had and the team, the way they went on winning after Gretzky was gone. I did not think that was possible.”
Positional allegiance also can play a role in defining heroes.
Jared Boll, a rough-and-tumble winger with the Columbus Blue Jackets, identified with hard-nosed forwards from an early age.
“I loved watching the ‘Grind Line’ from Detroit with (Darren) McCarty, (Kris) Draper and (Kirk) Maltby,” he said. “It was just the way they played and the way they competed during the playoffs, especially a guy like McCarty. I always loved watching those guys growing up. I kind of followed the same way and that’s the way I kind of play.”
Other times, players look to other positions for their heroes and their inspiration.
Chris Pronger is one of the biggest, meanest defensemen the game ever has known. Yet he grew up idolizing Mike Bossy, a fancy scorer who was the backbone of the Islanders’ dynasty.
“I loved watching Mike Bossy,” Pronger says. “He was my favorite player when I was growing up. I just loved watching him go down the wing and take that slapper – quick release, great shot, always had a knack for being open in the right spots on the ice. You are able to learn a lot from watching players like that. Becoming a defenseman, you are able to learn a lot from watching that in learning where not to let people stand.”
I loved watching Mike Bossy. He was my favorite player when I was growing up. I just loved watching him go down the wing and take that slapper – quick release, great shot, always had a knack for being open in the right spots on the ice. You are able to learn a lot from watching players like that. Becoming a defenseman, you are able to learn a lot from watching that in learning where not to let people stand. - Chris ProngerOften, though, personal heroes are not superstars, but rather a player who might otherwise be labeled a journeyman, except from those who have grown to be admirers. Then, their exploits remain indelibly.
“My first memory of watching the playoffs would be Kevin McClelland scoring the goal that won the game in the Islanders–Oilers series, 1-0,” says Shane Doan, the Phoenix Coyotes’ captain. “That was the first good memory. I cried the year before when the Islanders won.”
Patrick O’Sullivan, a young player with the Los Angeles Kings, fell in love with Edmonton goalie Andy Moog for an even more arbitrary reason.
“In the 1990 Final between Edmonton and Boston, I remember I was fascinated with Andy Moog and his name,” he said. “I kept telling my mom I wanted to be Andy Moog.”
That is the beauty of the Stanley Cup stage. It provides the plot lines and the scenarios that allow any player, no matter how obscure, to become a hero to a new generation of heroes-to-be.
“It’s the emergence of players that have been fourth- or fifth-liners that have played a role, the role players on a team, but they always come through (in the playoffs),” says Aaron Ward, a Boston defenseman who has won three Cups of his own. “There is always a story about a player who scores the big goal or really starts picking up his game.”