NHL.com caught up with CBC broadcaster Craig Simpson at the Maple Leafs' skate Saturday morning at the Air Canada Centre. Tracking down Simpson, who is also the color commentator on EA Sports NHL, was one of our goals because he played left wing on the Edmonton Oilers' great line with Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson.
It seems unusual to call a team's second line "one of the greatest in NHL history," but the Oilers had Wayne Gretzky centering Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen on the first line. Messier and Anderson had played together on the second line and gone through several left wingers, including Hunter, Kent Nilsson, Ken Linseman, Kevin McClelland and Jaroslav Pouzar. Messier played left wing in his first couple NHL seasons.
Anderson will be inducted Monday into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Messier was admitted last year. Back in the day, Simpson was 20-years-old when he was traded 21 games into the 1987-88 season from the Pittsburgh Penguins with Dave Hannan, Moe Mantha and Chris Joseph to the Oilers for Paul Coffey, Dave Hunter and Wayne Van Dorp.
"Before I got there in 1987, when Kent Nilsson came to the team, all of a sudden they had a dynamic line. They called Kent 'the magic man' for a reason and he had the ability to move the puck with those two. For me, it was my third year in the league, coming off a good 26-goal season. I knew I had to have a big year. I got off to a good start in Pittsburgh. When I got traded to Edmonton, I was thrilled to go to the best team in the league and play with such great players."
Simpson had played 2 years with Michigan State and 2 years with the Penguins, who had made him the No. 2 pick in the 1985 Entry Draft, behind Wendel Clark. Simpson had 26 goals and 25 assists the previous season and was off to a 13-goal, 26-point start.
Simpson proved to be the guy the Oilers were looking for. A decade before, Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman had scrapped the traditional hockey thinking of three-man lines. Bowman liked to pair two compatible players and often used the vacant spot as a motivational tool among others. Play good, play with Messier. Play bad, drop down the depth chart.
"Coaches then liked to find a pair of guys who worked well together," Simpson said. "In Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri had such chemistry and magic together that you could throw someone there with them. Esa Tikkanen later became a mainstay on that wing. Looking down the line, 'Andy' and Messier, their games were so well suited for each other. They were both such great skaters and puck controllers. It was a similar situation in that they were trying to make a fit on that left side.
What made the line of Anderson, Messier and Simpson successful was they were very big, fast, strong and skilled and they let you know that they loved running right over you. It was unbridled aggression combined with skill and it was hard to stop. The trio combined for 118 goals and 145 assists and went on to win the Stanley Cup. They would win together again in 1990.
"I wondered where I would get an opportunity, but Glen Sather, from Day 1, said he brought me there to win a Stanley Cup. He expected me to play at a high level and that I would play with Messier and Anderson. Then, he said, 'Any questions?' I said, 'Yeah, that's OK.' And from that point, that was the line."
"It was a wonderful opportunity for me but also learning how to fit in with a playing style that connected with them. For me, it was play well in my own end down low, get them the puck, follow it up ice and go to the net. Right from the beginning, we clicked as a line. I was the anchor, the slow guy who would come from behind. John Muckler had a rule for me, if someone was ahead of me, I was to give them the puck. He said he didn't want me skating the puck through the neutral zone.
"You know what? It suited me well and it worked well. They were creative players and great guys and it was a thrill to play with them."
Simpson was a kid and Messier and Anderson were three-time Stanley Cup winners when he was introduced. They made sure he knew right away that this was a hockey dressing room, that is, expect no mercy when it came to teasing. Anderson called Simpson "slow foot," although the big winger could build up a tremendous head of steam.
"Part of being a line and part of being a team, you have to be able to take the teasing and I've never been on a team that was successful that didn't have that kind of jabs at each other and kept the mood light," Simpson said. "At the end of the day, you really cared for each, but like a brother, you teased him when you could."
"After that conversation with 'Slats,' I went over to Mark Messier and asked him how he wanted me to play, thinking I'd get a really complicated answer. He just looked at me and told me that when we were in our end, take care of your points and do your job there. Other than that, just go play hockey and that set the context that while we played a position, in reality, we played everywhere.
"That created a lot of great chances. With Messier being such a great passer, forehand and backhand, I knew they were going to find me."
Anderson testimonials -- Two other fine players from that era weighed in on Anderson's Hockey Hall of Fame worthiness, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, a defenseman with Minnesota and Toronto, and Joe Nieuwendyk, special assistant to Maple Leafs General Manager Cliff Fletcher. Nieuwendyk played in many ferocious Battles of Alberta against the Oilers when he was with the Calgary Flames. They were the two strongest teams in the NHL at the time, with Edmonton winning Stanley Cups in 1984-85, 1987-88 and 1990. Calgary won the 1989 Stanley Cup after losing in the 1986 Final.
"I had a few years in Calgary, playing against Glenn Anderson when he was with Edmonton, before his trade to Toronto," Nieuwendyk said. "I'll never forget the rivalry between Calgary and Edmonton. I don't think there's ever been one quite like that. We were always trying to get up to their speed. Glenn was such an important part of that team. Everyone talked about Messier, Kurri and Gretzky, but Glenn was the guy that was the silent killer. He did it to us a number of times in Calgary with timely goals.
"He was a difficult player to play against. We spent so much of game-time planning for Kurri, Coffey, Gretzky and Messier, but he was the guy who killed us on many nights. He put up big numbers and I remember him as a big-game player with a gritty edge to his game. He was a big factor. Those 17 game-winning goals in Stanley Cup Playoffs is a terrific number."
Remembering Igor -- Ron Wilson also has fond memories of playing against Igor Larionov long before the Soviet star joined the NHL. Wilson played 7 seasons in the Swiss League while Larionov was centering the Soviet Union's top line between Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov. They were backed up by defensemen Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov.
Wilson was asked if he knew about Larionov's abilities before he joined the NHL in 1989.
"If you didn't, you weren't following hockey," Wilson said. "I first saw him in World Championships. I played in the World Championship when I was 19 in 1975 and I don't think Igor was on that team then. Later on, in 1981 and 1983 that 'Black Line' of Igor, Krutov, Makarov, Kasatonov and Fetisov was together. I played against them when I was in Switzerland in either 1984 or 1985. We played them in Moscow and lost, I think it was 10-1, but we played them at home and lost 7-5. For a Swiss team with two imports, that was a great game against what was probably the best team in the world.
"Puck Possession? You just chased the puck all night. It was a conditioning night, I'd say. It was a like a bag skate, without the puck. We just chased them around. They were phenomenal players. It's too bad that those guys didn't get a chance to play in the NHL when they were really in their prime. Igor was still a great player, and same thing with Fetisov. Makarov had a couple of good years, but Krutov really never did much. Kasatonov was a pretty servicable (NHL) defenseman but those guys, in general, were on their downside.
"Not Igor. He kept himself clean and in great shape when he came over here. He was more of a North American thinker. I believe Fetisov was too, from everything I've ever heard from Igor. That was some phenomenal team that we had to play against over there."