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The Verdict: Remembering Tom Lysiak

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

Tom Lysiak, a popular and productive member of the Blackhawks during the 1980s, died on Monday, May 30. He was 63.

Lysiak’s passing after a battle with leukemia was confirmed by his daughter, Jessie, who is married to Justin Braun, a defenseman with the San Jose Sharks. Lysiak’s death occurred only hours before the Sharks were to begin the Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh against the Penguins Monday night.

Lysiak, a multi-dimensional center, was the second-overall draft pick of the Atlanta Flames in 1973 behind Denis Potvin, who became an icon with the New York Islanders. Lysiak, a native of High Prairie, Alberta, immediately became a favorite of new fans in the Southeast after Atlanta was granted a National Hockey League expansion franchise in 1972.

Lysiak was runner-up to Potvin for the 1974 Calder Trophy as best rookie. Not by coincidence, two of Lysiak’s frequent linemates subsequently won the Calder Trophy—Eric Vail in 1975 and Willi Plett in 1977.

Lysiak represented the Flames in three straight NHL All-Star Games, served as their captain and endeared himself to the region and his teammates with a rugged two-way style complemented by a fun-loving, easy-going personality.

Late in the 1978-79 season, the Blackhawks were struggling and General Manager Bob Pulford pulled of a massive deal with the Flames. Just before the trade deadline, the Blackhawks acquired Lysiak, Harold Phillipoff, Pat Ribble, Greg Fox and Miles Zaharko in exchange for Ivan Boldirev, Phil Russell and Darcy Rota.

The eight-player transaction, which still stands as one of the most freighted in NHL history, elicited chilly reactions in both cities. Lysiak was the face of the Flames franchise. Boldirev, Russell and Rota were staples in Chicago.

Lysiak, who loved Atlanta and settled on a farm there after retirement, was crushed by the move. His mood did not improve when, upon debuting for the Blackhawks in the Stadium, he noted three bedsheets hanging from the second balcony with tombstones bearing huge black numbers 12, 5 and 18—those worn by Boldirev, Russell and Rota.

But with his talent and drive, Lysiak soon won over Chicago fans. On a roster containing young stars like Denis Savard and Doug Wilson, the latter volunteered that Lysiak was a leader by example and probably the most impactful player on the team. Goalie Tony Esposito, not one to dispense gratuitous praise, opined: “If Lysiak isn’t a hockey player, then I’ve never seen one…He’s unselfish, he puts out for the team, and he’s the same guy on the road as he is at home.”

During the 1980-81 season, Lysiak registered a career-high 55 assists and led the Blackhawks in scoring with 76 points. A year later, he posted a career-high 32 goals and tied his Atlanta-best resume with 82 points, third on the team behind only Savard’s 119 and Wilson’s 85.

Lysiak frequently drew the assignment of playing against opponents’ top lines. He was strong on his skates, excellent on special units, a competitor of the highest order, a man of faith. In the locker room or on the bus, he was everybody’s buddy, and anybody was fair game for his barbs and pranks.

Lysiak, bedeviled by injuries, retired after the 1985-86 season at the relatively young age of 33. He left the NHL without much fanfare, as was his style, and headed to his farm. Lysiak played 919 regular-season games, registering 292 goals and 551 assists. In 76 playoff games, he had 25 goals and 38 assists. In 2012, Lysiak was inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

“You go through your life in the game, and there are special teammates,” Savard said Monday. “Tommy was one of them. Like Steve Larmer. Just one of those really special people. Tommy was a complete player who could do anything.

“But he was such a great guy off the ice. Always laughing, always loose. And he always made sure guys were together. We’d go for a few beers or for lunch that turned into dinner; Tommy wanted everybody there. And everybody wanted to be around Tommy. His wife, Melinda, wonderful.

“I know he was diagnosed with cancer a couple years ago. He went through a lot, bone marrow transplants, many different treatments. I just called a friend of his in Atlanta a week or so ago. I told him I wanted to talk to Tommy. His friend said, ‘Tommy is sleeping a lot.’ I didn’t like the sound of that. Now Tommy is gone. Awful. Terrible.”

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