For Halloween many years ago, one of my friends dressed up as Ogie Oglethorpe of Slapshot fame. In the movie, wild-haired Oglethorpe is an enforcer for the fictional Syracuse Bulldogs and his rumored return from suspension scares members of the rival Charlestown Chiefs.
Since it is the season for frightful sights, I started thinking about the real-life players that strike (or struck) fear into the hearts of their opponents. With all due respect to those of Oglethorpe’s ilk, my list includes players that intimidated with their immense skill. The overall list is extensive, but here are two that immediately came to my mind.
Wayne Gretzky (and the ‘80s Oilers): I was a teenager living in Massachusetts when Gretzky and his teammates were the kings of the league. In those days, one’s viewing options were essentially limited to local television broadcasts. The Bruins didn’t play the Oilers frequently, so in the years that Gretzky was setting his scoring records, I didn’t get many chances to see him play. I religiously checked the hockey boxscores, though, riveted by how many points he accumulated each game. It was easy to cheer for him from afar and appreciate his three, four and five-point games. That sentiment changed, however, in 1988, when the Oilers faced the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins were heavy underdogs and, in getting swept, were thoroughly man-handled. As a fan, I recall how terrified I felt of the mighty Oilers, who could seemingly score at will. And terrified, in particular, of Number 99. When he had the puck, you always felt he was going to make a play that led to a goal. When he didn’t have the puck, you worried that he’d suddenly appear with a chance to score.
I didn’t know if opposing players shared that sentiment, until I started broadcasting pro hockey and met some of the men who had to face Gretzky in his prime. Former Toronto defenseman Bob McGill, who was an assistant coach in Hershey when I broadcast there, spoke often about how the Leafs’ players felt about a pending game against Edmonton. “You just didn’t want to get embarrassed,” he’d recall. Then he’d smile and say, “you knew they could put in eight goals on you in the first period!”
Peter Forsberg: From my pre-NHL days, he was my favorite player to watch. Part of that had to do with Hershey’s affiliation with Colorado when Forsberg was at the pinnacle of his career. The Avs were going deep into the playoffs every year – and by the mid-90s, all those games were readily available on cable TV. It was clear that the opposition had no answer for him. Watching him stickhandle around and/or through players actually made me laugh out loud in disbelief. He’d then get a great chance to score himself – or he’d set up a teammate. Unlike Gretzky, who masterfully avoided being hit, Forsberg seemed to welcome the contact. Usually, after a collision, the other player ended up laying on the ice and Forsberg kept on going with the puck still on his stick. Until injuries and the passage of time chipped away at his game, Forsberg was simply unstoppable. And giving him candy would’t make him stop, either!