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Alumni Corner: Mick Vukota

The franchise leader in PIMs reflects on his career on Long Island

by Sasha Kandrach KandrachSasha / NewYorkIslanders.com

During his 10 years with the New York Islanders, Mick Vukota racked up a franchise record the hard way. Vukota posted 1,879 penalty minutes (PIMS) with the Isles, over 300 more than second on the team's all-time list. Throughout his 12-year NHL career, the feisty right winger amassed 2,071 PIMs protecting his teammates - top 50 in league history. 

"It's not about pride, as much as it's being able to do what I did over 10 years for one team," Vukota said of the record. "I never wanted to play anywhere else. I never signed more than a three-year contract. Typically, the third year was an option, so I always re-signed before then. I didn't want to go anywhere else. They were loyal. They gave me my start. It's like you don't choose the dog, it chooses you. I'm loyal to Long Island and the organization that gave me a chance to fulfill my dream. I wanted to fight for the New York Islanders, I loved being that guy. That's what I took pride in; doing that job for that team."

Prior to arriving on Long Island, the Saskatoon, SK native had wrapped up his final season playing in juniors with the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. At the time, a 20-year-old Vukota was undrafted and there were two teams of interest in the chippy, 6-foot-1, 225-pound forward, the Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers.

"Bob Strumm, who was my General Manager with the Chiefs was acting as my agent at the time," Vukota recalled. "The Islanders and Philly had interest. If you looked at the roster of both teams, the Islanders had maybe one or two guys who could do what I do. Philly had six or eight. I figured I had a better shot at an NHL career with the Islanders."

Vukota signed with the Isles during March of 1987 and began his pro career in the American Hockey League with the Springfield Indians. The 21-year-old was enjoying the AHL; getting in a fight nearly every night and feeling confident about his game. But even so, when he received his first NHL call-up in January of 1988, he was in disbelief. 

"I was playing with Springfield and we'd just finished a game," Vukota said. "When I got off the bus, the trainer pulled my bag aside. I went to go grab it and [the trainer] was like, 'Coach wants to talk to you.' I remember thinking, 'Man, what did I do to get sent down? I just had two fights. I thought I did well, I scored the night before.' I went over to talk to Gord Lane. He looked at me and said, 'You're going up.' And I was like, 'What? I'm not ready for the NHL!' But I went up and made my debut against Hartford the next day."

Ahead of making his debut, the nerves set in as Vukota was placed on the starting line of the night alongside Brent Sutter and Greg Gilbert. Once the puck dropped, the unsteady feelings subsided. Nevertheless, Vukota had quite the 'welcome to the NHL' moment during his debut. 

"I was having an OK game," Vukota said. "We were leading 3-2. It was the start of the third period and our line went out. Dave 'Tiger' Williams, the NHL all-time penalty minute leader hops over the boards and lines up beside me and goes, 'You want to go, kid?' I was 21 and I'm thinking, 'Wait, until my buddies hear that my first NHL fight is going to be Dave 'Tiger' Williams. He's from Saskatchewan and I'm from Saskatchewan, he's the all-time [PIMs] leader.' So, the linesman goes to drop the puck and I threw my gloves and had a yard sale, and he just skated away from me. It wasn't good. I go to grab my gloves and stick and then, he scores to tie the game 3-3. He tied the game while I was picking up my gloves. I don't get to see another shift."

Vukota was sent down back to Springfield after the game, but on his way out he was told to keep putting in the work and he would receive another shot up top. Vukota followed accordingly and was recalled at the trade deadline. He remained up top for the remainder of the season and throughout the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with impressive company in Denis Potvin, Billy Smith and Bryan Trottier on the team. 

Seizing the opportunity, Vukota carved out a role for himself and became a mainstay on the team and eventually put the AHL behind him for good during the 1990-91 season. Being an everyday NHLer is its own thrill, but the highlight of the early 90s was the Islanders deep playoff run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993. 

"When we got to that 1992-93 season it just seemed to click," Vukota said. "It was effortless. Everybody respected each other. Everybody fit in. Part of it was this group of misfits that kind of fit. [Pat Flatley] was always Flats. He seldom talked about leading, he just did it. He was the hardest worker every night. That was his thing. We had this really cool group of young guys that weren't cocky, they were respectful. They listened to Al [Arbour], they wanted to be taught. We had a really nice chemistry of different personalities and different skill sets. It's surreal because you're in the moment."

Following a riveting, 4-2 series win over Washington, the Isles faced a hefty challenge with a second-round slate against the favored reigning Stanley Cup champions in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even without leading goal scorer in Pierre Turgeon, who was injured from Dale Hunter's late hit during the Washington series, the Isles and Pens fought back-and-forth forcing an ever-important Game 7. 

"Every sports paper and columnist guaranteed that we were going to get swept," Vukota said. "Pittsburgh was going for their third-straight cup. They had destroyed the league all season. They had Mario [Lemieux], Kevin Stevens, [Jaromir] Jagr. I think they took us a little for granted out of the gate because we didn't have [Turgeon] he was hurt. I think they thought we were going to roll over, but we went in and punched them in the mouth. I think they finally realized with five or seven minutes to go in Game 7 in Pittsburgh when we were up 3-1. They had two late goals and tied it up."

In the locker room, anger, frustration and shock was prevalent, but the Islanders hope hadn't deflated. With the series on the line to be determined by overtime, the Islanders completed the monumental upset as David Volek buried his second of the game on a two-on-rush to send the Islanders to the conference finals against Montreal. 

"We went back into the locker room and guys were smashing sticks," Vukota said. "We were five minutes away from knocking them off. Once the initial frustration and anger subsided, I said to the guys, 'Listen, if you said let me fast forward the series if you had said it's Game 7, overtime, next goal wins, we'd have been like 'Yeah, let's do it!' And that's exactly where we are. Next goal wins. Let's do it.' And we did."

While the Islanders entered Game 7 solely focused on their heavy task of facing Pittsburgh, they couldn't help but look a head a bit to their next potential stop which would be in Montreal. If they were to defy the odds and beat the Penguins, their flight would embark that very night to Montreal. If not, they'd return back to Long Island. 

"The best part was we packed for Montreal," Vukota said. "You had to. We were going right from Pittsburgh to Montreal. If you didn't believe, I would have found out. I was checking suit bags before we left. I would be like, 'Hey, that seems a little light, are you sure you packed enough dress shirts?' And a guy would be like, 'No, no I swear they're all in there.' We made sure because any nonbeliever was not coming. Everybody went [to Pittsburgh] and we all packed for Montreal."

Vukota spent another four seasons with the Isles and split his final year in the NHL during the 1997-98 season between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens. He played two more seasons in the International Hockey League with the Utah Grizzlies, including one under the tutelage of Butch Goring, before retiring. Throughout his career, he compiled 46 points (17G, 29A) to go along with his 2,071 penalty minutes. 

The 53-year-old now resides in Martha's Vineyard with his three of his four sons, where hockey is still a prevalent part of his life. His eldest son Alex, who attended Isles Mini Camp in 2017, plays hockey for the University of New England and will be a junior this fall. His youngest son, five-year-old Colton, has just begun lacing up the skates. 

"[Colton] just starting hockey," Vukota said. "So, I'm doing this whole trip again. The house-mite practice schedule, I did that 12 years ago with the other kids and now, I'm doing it with this one. It's fun to do go through it again. He loves it."

Vukota still returns to Long Island for the annual Alumni Weekend and reflects fondly on the place where he began his career, started his family and grew up into adulthood. 

"Long Island is home," Vukota said. "Every time I go back, I always say I'm going back home. My entire career I still felt like a little kid. Every day you're lacing up your skates, going out there with great guys and playing hockey for a living. Your job was to play hockey. I mean it really does not get any better than that?"

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