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Sunday Long Read

2017 was Centennial year to remember in NHL

Looking back at celebration filled with hockey legends, historic events, lifetime's worth of memories

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Glenn Hall was looking around the Toronto hotel ballroom last New Year's Eve, the NHL's year-long Centennial celebration quietly underway with an elegant dinner hosted by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, and the man known as Mr. Goalie was softly taking inventory of four men.

"It's such a thrill to be in this room with so many of my friends," Hall said at the same languid pace he lives his life, speaking of fellow legends John Bucyk, Alex Delvecchio and Red Kelly, three former teammates, and Dave Keon.

Then, with the almost whispered, eyes-twinkling mischief for which Hall is known by his family and friends: "And it's amazing that I'm the only one who hasn't changed. The rest of them have gone downhill quite severely."

The following day, Hall, his four friends and the names of 28 other hockey icons would be introduced before the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium as the first group of the 100 Greatest NHL Players.


[RELATED: NHL Centennial coverage]


These 33 had starred primarily in the first 50 years of the NHL, between 1917 and 1967. Sixty-seven more legends, who played most of their careers from 1967 and 2017, would be introduced at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles as part of the 2017 Honda All-Star Game Weekend on Jan. 27.

Video: Bettman welcomes members of the 100 Greatest Players

I joined as a columnist in February 2016 with a particular focus on the League's 2017 Centennial year, having for decades covered the rich history of the Montreal Canadiens as a newspaper journalist.

When I began with the League, dozens of NHL Centennial events had been in the planning stages for months; some of the grander endeavors -- outdoor games, celebration galas, documentary films, the updating and upgrading of a century of statistics, and more -- had been in the works for years.

For a writer with a love of hockey history, a profound respect for the traditions and legends of the game and with virtually unlimited access to these gentlemen and to the NHL's roster of Centennial-year events, 2017 was an embarrassment of riches.

You know it's going to be a good year when you have 15 bylined stories published on the NHL's website on New Year's Day -- 13 feature-length profiles of some of the greatest men to ever play the game, and stories from behind the scenes of the New Year's Eve dinner and the Centennial Classic game itself.

Work throughout the year would involve feature and profile writing, flashbacks to historic moments in League history, covering numerous Centennial events and contributing on and off camera to two landmark NHL documentary films and video profiles of players.

Video: Elmer Lach was rugged center for famed 'Punch' line

Looking back over the past 12 months, I can't rank the importance or preference of my assignments. Early in the process, it occurred to me that the most important story I would write in this Centennial year would always be the next one.

I was always respectful of being in a privileged place, behind closed doors, or sipping an ale or sharing a ride with legends who, in many cases, I had idolized as a young fan. The stories began coming at me in waves on New Year's Eve. 


NHL Centennial Dinner: New Year's Eve, Toronto

I hadn't yet picked up my nametag for the reception when a woman took me by the arm and proceeded to tell me about her late grandfather.

This was Françoise Vezina Gagnon, and if she didn't have much to tell me about NHL goaltending pioneer Georges Vezina's hockey career, she shed much light on his life away from the rink.

"Later," she said, "I will show you the photos."

I would have dinner with Hall, his son Pat, and Pat's wife, Debbie. The three have welcomed me like family on my semi-regular visits to Glenn's rural home outside of Edmonton, and this seemed less like a fancy hotel ballroom dinner than another supper with friends.

The pleasure of New Year's Eve was much more than speaking with Hall, Bucyk, Delvecchio, Kelly and Keon, which was a celebration in itself. It was seeing family members of the players no longer with us meeting for the first time and embracing like they were long-lost friends.

It was corralling Michel Plante and Jerry Sawchuk, sons of late goaltending icons Jacques Plante and Terry Sawchuk, and gathering them around the Stanley Cup for a photo with Glenn and Pat Hall.

It was listening to the stories of Maurice Richard Jr.; Mark and Marty Howe; Bobby Geoffrion, who inherited the volume and blustery baritone of his father, Bernie.

It was having a talk with Jerry Sawchuk, listening to him speak emotionally about the father he lost much too early, listening to Jerry think aloud about the matching tribute tattoos that he and his son, Jon, were considering. In August, I would write a feature about that ink, the backs of father and son needled with likenesses of Terry's iconic mask.

At dinner, Glenn Hall playfully remembered the telephone call he had taken a few months earlier at his home in Stony Plain, Alberta, from Commissioner Bettman to tell him that he was among the League's 100 greatest players.

Plenty of unsolicited unknown number calls come to Hall at all hours of the day and night, and most times he lifts the receiver just long enough to hang up.

"I answered this one and before the caller could speak, I gave him hell," Hall said. "I said, 'You damn telemarketers, why are you calling me at 7 in the morning?' I was about to hang up when Mr. Bettman identified himself.

"Well, I apologized -- a little bit," he added with a grin. "But I still wondered whether it was one of my friends pulling a fast one."

An hour earlier, Red Kelly had a story of his own for the Commissioner.

"I've had two NHL presidents call me at home my whole life," the eight-time Stanley Cup winner told his dinner host. "Clarence Campbell, and now you."

"I assume," Commissioner Bettman replied with a chuckle, "that you were in trouble when Clarence called you."

Kelly nodded, to the laughter of everyone.

Guests were starting to drift into the night before 10 p.m., two hours before the clock struck 2017, when Françoise took me by the arm again. With her son, Robert, we headed to the elevator and up to her hotel room, where she spread a few dozen family photos on the bed.

Among them was an image of Georges Vezina and his wife, Marie-Stella Morin, taken on their wedding day of June 3, 1908. Another: the couple's two sons, Jean-Jules and Marcel Stanley.

Marcel Stanley, she explained, was born March 31, 1916, given the middle name Stanley because he had arrived the night before his father's goaltending had helped the Canadiens win their first Stanley Cup championship, defeating the Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association.

It was nearly 11 o'clock when Françoise pressed these pictures into my hand, having heard me tell her son that I would love to digitally archive these remarkable images. The two-cheek kiss is a tradition with Quebecers, and so it was that she bid me good night.

A half-hour later, I was downstairs in the lobby bar, once more with Glenn Hall, and Pat and Debbie. After a long day of travel and an emotional evening with old pals, if "Mr. Goalie" was going to greet the New Year, it wasn't going to be with a glass of champagne. It would be with a frosty beer shared with the warmth of family and a friend.

2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic: New Year's Day, Toronto

The Toronto Maple Leafs would score four straight third-period goals but, after blowing a three-goal lead, would need overtime to defeat the Detroit Red Wings 5-4 before 40,148 fans at Exhibition Stadium.

The action on the ice, as compelling as it was, remained a bit of a mystery to those in the Loge Suite four stories above the rink. The suite was packed with Hall of Famers, their children and grandchildren and friends, all of whom were picking up where they left off at New Year's Eve dinner.

Thirty-three names, the first on the list of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, were introduced before the opening face-off to a great ovation.

In the suite, through the afternoon, cell numbers and email addresses were exchanged; this group was fully intent on keeping in touch after going their separate ways.

The half-dozen legends on hand would hold court before the game with reporters, stories they've told a thousand times still sounding fresh. And it was something to see when Centennial ambassador Wayne Gretzky waited patiently to have his photo taken with Maple Leafs goalie great Johnny Bower?


2017 Honda All-Star Weekend: Los Angeles, Jan. 26-30

If the New Year's Eve dinner in Toronto was a quiet curtain-raiser to the Centennial year, the televised gala on Jan. 27 to introduce the 67 remaining icons on the list of 100 as part of Honda All-Star Game Weekend was a spectacular event worthy of Tinseltown.

The names of 67 men, completing the 100 Greatest NHL Players, were the centerpiece of a gala that assembled hockey star power the likes of which had never been seen before.

Video: The NHL100: Greatest Players of All-Time

On the short walk from my hotel to Microsoft Theater for the gala, I came alongside Commissioner Bettman for a few strides.

"And we're paying you for this?" he said to me, laughing, knowing that on this perfect late afternoon Los Angeles day it was raining stories. "You should be paying us."

My boss probably had a point, not even a month into what would be the greatest year in my writing life.

I sat backstage, thunderstruck, as literally dozens of legends walked into a room off the stage before their introductions. You don't soon forget seeing Bobby Orr shedding a tear during a video salute to his late friend Gordie Howe.

It was nearly time for Patrick Roy to go out on stage when I asked him to sit for a quick portrait. The famously intense goalie's eyes might have burned a hole through the mirror into which he looked for all of five seconds, the makeup lights giving him a glow.

At one point backstage, I looked over to see Orr sitting with fellow Bruins icon Bucyk, his hand on Bucyk's shoulder for a good long time. The bond and friendship between two Boston legends was clear, without a word needing to be spoken.

From the story I wrote the next day:

"There is no way to properly describe seeing the black curtain open and a half dozen or more superstars walk inside. Ten minutes later, it would open again and in would come the next group, legend after legend, everyone wearing identical blazers with an NHL Centennial logo on the breast pocket.

"As they arrived chronologically by decade, you had a spine-tingling appreciation for the history of the League, of the otherworldly players who, in many ways, shaped hockey both for their own era and for the future of the game. Their stories flowed like a stream, and in 90 minutes you would hear a great deal of the NHL's second half-century discussed in short anecdotes, jokes and tales that took some time to unfold, no one minding that the truth at times took a beating." 

Two days later at the Centennial Fan Arena, parked outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, NHL Communications Senior Manager Jasmine Ghafour and I gave Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban a guided tour of the fabulous mobile museum that would visit every NHL city in 2017. Jasmine directed Subban to the virtual Stanley Cup, interactive in that a touch of a finger would move the bands to reveal more teams.

"You don't touch it until you win it," Subban said, stepping away, a virtual Stanley Cup every bit as untouchable as the real thing.

From the sublime to the near ridiculous in Los Angeles: I rode an elevator down from Staples Center suites during the All-Star Game with Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden and Stinger, the Columbus Blue Jackets' bug-eyed mascot.

Dryden, with a healthy sense of humor lurking inside his scholarly shell, had an animated, almost surreal one-sided conversation with Stinger on the ride. Among other things, Dryden mentioned that he was friends with Carlton The Bear, the Maple Leafs mascot, to which Stinger, fully in mute character, nodded wordlessly. I took hundreds of photos during the Centennial season, but the one of Dryden with Stinger leaving the elevator was, well, special.

Scotty, Larry, Jon, Phil and Tony: Tampa, Feb. 20-23

It was a whirlwind four days in Tampa, but what a yield of feature stories this trip produced.

I attended a Tampa Bay Lightning game at Amalie Arena with Scotty Bowman, in the press box, and another with Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, in the stands, to report on watching the action through their eyes. Let's just say that a fan or a reporter doesn't pick up the textures, strategies and nuances that Bowman and Robinson do.

On the day between the two games, I sat with Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who happily related a mid-1980s story about his favorite hockey card of his favorite player -- a battered 1974 Topps-series Bobby Orr All-Star. Cooper mustered the courage to have Orr autograph the card in the stands at a Vancouver Canucks game while the future coach was in college, "or maybe not even."

Not only did Cooper tell the story, he dug through his memorabilia at home that night and brought the card (protected in a small gold-rimmed frame) to the rink the next day for a photo.

And then there was one grand morning in a Tampa hotel restaurant with Phil and Tony Esposito, the brothers playing off one another to discuss their childhood in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Tony had even dug into his photo album to bring a circa 1946 gem of himself and Phil on their bikes, looking like the terrors of the neighborhood.

We talked about their paths to the NHL, their huge roles in the historic 1972 Summit Series pitting Canada against the Soviet Union, their Hall of Fame enshrinements, finally working together in the Lightning front office and a great deal more.

"Tony O" brought his iconic mask in a shopping bag for some show-and-tell, which unexpectedly would spin into another story a few months later. It turned out that David Britt, the hockey hobbyist and garage-league goalie who made that mask in the fall of 1969, lives almost around the corner from me in the suburbs of Montreal.

During a visit to Britt's home to get his side of the mask story, I called Esposito and tossed the phone to my host so that two men could speak for the first time in nearly a half-century, since the face-molding was done in a Montreal Forum training room.

I've come to know Tony well during the year, spending wonderful hours with him at and away from rinks. Fostering friendships with legends like him, his contemporaries and the men who played long before them, and in many cases their wonderful wives, has been a fantastic fringe benefit to my work.

Talking NHL history with Scotty Bowman: Mostly early morning, all year long

My relationship with Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history and quite the hockey historian, has flourished this year. At times, I've thought I should just install a hotline between our desks.

An early bird my whole life, I'm on Twitter before 6 a.m. some days, tweeting vintage photos from my files tied to a timely event or just because of the fabulous quality of an image.

"You're what Twitter would have been in the 1950s," a veteran colleague joked to me of my black-and-white photos, and I took it as the compliment he said he intended it to be.

More than once this year, my phone would buzz not long after a tweet, Bowman texting me to share a story from his encyclopedic memory about a player from the 1940s who was softly focused in the background of a photo.

On occasion, I'd take a call later that day from retired broadcast giant Dick Irvin Jr., who would tell me that Bowman had emailed him a photo that might be of interest to me. Of course, the photo was the one I'd tweeted that morning, forwarded to Dick by Scotty.


Welcome home, Stanley: Ottawa, March 15-19

The Stanley Cup's 125th anniversary homecoming brought Hall of Famers Mike Bossy, Paul Coffey, Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Bernie Parent and Bryan Trottier to Ottawa's Rideau Hall, the residence of Canada's governor general. That trip included a variety of events and featured the ceremonial ground-breaking -- in fact, a face-off between Keon and Mahovlich on the Sparks Street pedestrian mall -- for a planned monument to celebrate Lord Stanley of Preston's sterling gift to Canada.

At Rideau Hall, fans were lined up outside the door to see the Stanley Cups, plural, Governor General David Johnston and the NHL superstars who were in the house. Many also purchased a newly minted Canadian quarter-dollar coin, on which the Cup was featured.

Stunning in its simple beauty as it stood in Rideau Hall's Tent Room was the original trophy, a silver bowl commissioned in London in 1892 by Lord Stanley, Canada's sixth governor general, designed and produced for 10 guineas, roughly $50. This priceless trophy, in effect a native of Ottawa given the governor general's residence there, sits in the vault of the former downtown Toronto bank that is the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Standing beside it, among the beaming players and dozens of excited minor-hockey players, was its taller, more familiar cousin, the multi-banded, generously engraved, beautifully imperfect Stanley Cup, the most cherished trophy in professional sports.

I was reminded on this day, as I was throughout the year, that wherever you see the familiar Stanley Cup - and, even more magically, the original sterling bowl -- you will not see an unhappy face in the room.

Two days later I walked with Mahovlich the few hundred yards from the Fairmont Château Laurier Hotel to the monument ceremony, ambling past Canada's Senate on Wellington Street. It was in this Red Chamber that the stately "Big M" had served as an influential senator between 1998 and his retirement in 2013, and now he was telling one story after another about his hockey and political careers while strolling in a classic wool coat, red scarf and stylish Austrian hat.

My silky, knot-tight friendship with Dave Keon: All year long

I'd had a leisurely breakfast of wide-ranging discussion with Dave Keon in October 2016 for a feature story when he was immortalized with a statue on Legends Row at Air Canada Centre. It was a remarkable time for the sparkplug center, his No. 14 jersey retired by the Maple Leafs, the four-time Stanley Cup champion having just been voted the franchise's top player of all time.

Dave and I have spent much more time together this Centennial year at NHL functions in Toronto, Los Angeles, Ottawa and Montreal, seeking each other out. One thing we have in common is our affection for freestyle bow ties, and on New Year's Eve, and most every time we've met since, Dave and I have compared our bows -- how we knot them, where we shop for them. Generally, we've left his wife, Jane, shaking her head at us.

During the Stanley Cup's Ottawa homecoming event in March, I took a photo of Dave wearing his St. Patrick's Day-themed bow tie in the Fairmont Château Laurier, beside photographer Yousef Karsh's iconic 1941 portrait of glowering bow-tied Winston Churchill.

But our relationship found a new place in Montreal on Nov. 18 when I stopped Dave before he was introduced to the Bell Centre crowd for a ceremonial face-off so I could straighten his tie, which had been knocked askew by the Maple Leafs jersey he'd pulled over his head.

"Bow-tie guys," I said with a smile to Jane as I adjusted her husband's knot, "take care of each other."

It's an unlikely bond. On May 2, 1967, on the eve of my 10th birthday, Keon's Maple Leafs beat my Canadiens in Game 6 to win the Stanley Cup. When I asked him at dinner on New Year's Eve almost a half-century later how he felt having destroyed a 10-year-old's birthday, he studied me for a moment, grinned and said, "Pretty good, actually."

The champ and his dad: Stanley Cup Final, Nashville, June 11

With most stories I wrote this year, I'd find a historical angle or connection almost by reflex. And with my reference library of hundreds of books, videos on computer, DVD and VHS cassette (!), a database archived on external drives and another stored between my ears, that wasn't hard to do.

Having arrived at the NHL with a thick book of contacts assembled through decades in newspaper journalism, it was a delight to pick up the phone this year to call one Hall of Famer after another. We would talk for a specific story, or sometimes to shoot the breeze for no reason at all, simply because we hadn't touched base for some time and I wanted to connect again.

How can you love hockey and not get goosebumps phoning these legends, no matter how familiar or friendly you've become?

But I also wrote about the modern game in this Centennial year -- columns on games and the players in the news, covering regular-season action, the Stanley Cup Final and the NHL Awards.

In a hallway outside the Pittsburgh Penguins' dressing room about an hour after they'd won the Stanley Cup for the second straight season, I spotted captain Sidney Crosby. He was still half in uniform under a Stanley Cup Champs cap, standing in a doorway with his dad Troy; his mom, Trina, was in the background.

Sidney and Troy Crosby were holding the precious trophy, looking at each other smiling, almost speechless in the moment. I said not a word, but when they turned in my direction, I was ready for the photo.


Frank Mahovlich, From clay to bronze: Woodstock, Illinois, June 19

Frank Mahovlich didn't need his wool overcoat and stylish Austrian hat the next time we saw one another.

It was a week after the Stanley Cup Final, and my trip to the NHL Awards in Las Vegas was well worth a day's detour. With the "Big M," Maple Leafs favorite Wendel Clark and four people from their marketing and communications team, we flew from Toronto to Chicago, then drove to the Woodstock, Illinois, studio of sculptor Erik Blome to check on the progress of Mahovlich and Clark's Legends Row statues.

Alongside those of Red Kelly and Charlie Conacher, the statues of Mahovlich and Clark would be unveiled in Maple Leaf Square outside Air Canada Centre in October.

On this day in Woodstock, the clay statues of the "Big M" and Clark, aka "Captain Crunch," were in good shape, each man asking Blome for a nip here, a tuck there. Kelly's statue was still a wire skeleton, a clay-stained Maple Leafs jersey tossed over one arm of it. Of all the photos I took this year, that one is one of my favorites.


Bernie, Gini and Ted: NHL Awards, Las Vegas, June 19-22

It was first in Los Angeles in January, and then at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, that I really got to know Philadelphia Flyers goaltending legend Bernie Parent and his wife, Gini.

Sometimes, you just click with people, and that's how it was with the three of us. In Las Vegas, we'd meet daily for breakfast, congratulating ourselves when without GPS we got to the restaurant in our sprawling casino. Bernie and Gini tease each other mercilessly, and believe me, Gini gives "Frenchy" every bit as good as she gets.

Bernie and Gini very quickly have become two of my favorite people in hockey.

And how do you describe being invited by Red Wings superstar Ted Lindsay to his Las Vegas hotel suite for a chat, then arriving to find the most ferocious man of his era sitting in a white bathrobe awaiting his room-service breakfast of granola and tea? All along I had thought that Terrible Ted ate broken glass and nails.

"This is a great place to stay, nobody bothers you," Lindsay joked, having declined my offer to buy him breakfast in the casino. "And I'm not a gambler to begin with. I've worked too hard for my money, I can't afford to waste it."

That evening, dressed to the nines, dwarfed onstage at T-Mobile Arena by Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier, Lindsay would present the coveted award that bears his name. I found Lindsay later and together we walked to a room backstage where he'd be photographed with 2017 Lindsay Award recipient Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, who had been voted by NHLPA members as the NHL's most valuable player.


Monuments in steel and flesh: NHL Alumni Gala, Toronto, Oct. 23


Stanley Cup Monument unveiling; Ottawa, Oct. 28

As a member of the 1989 Stanley Cup-champion Calgary Flames, Lanny McDonald joyfully pressed hockey's ultimate trophy overhead on the ice at the Montreal Forum.

On a pedestrian mall in downtown Ottawa, the freezing temperatures of a ceremonial face-off taken in March by Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich were now replaced by a cold, steady rain. And as the moisture beaded in McDonald's iconic moustache, the chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame was in great spirits, posing with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly in front of the hulking Stanley Cup monument that had just been unveiled behind them.

"I don't think I could lift this one over my head," McDonald said with a laugh. "But it is so fitting. This monument fits not only the occasion but it speaks volumes about the game, all its curves. You could bring a school field trip here and the kids can learn so much about the history of the game … all the teams that have won during the past 125 years, and where it all started."

Five nights earlier, I was in a crowd of more than 100 former NHL players at the annual, star-studded NHL Alumni Gala. So many stories, many greatly embellished which made them even more enjoyable.

And then I turned a corner to see Lindsay, 92, and Toronto goalie great Johnny Bower, about to turn 93, bump into each other like Lindsay would have crashed Bower's goal crease a half-century ago. Immediately they began reliving past glories, telling tales that you couldn't invent.


Hockey Hall of Fame inductions, Toronto, Nov. 10-14


NHL Founders Weekend: Montreal, Nov. 16-18


Blackhawks legends embraced: Chicago, Dec. 3-5

The Hockey Hall of Fame induction weekend is always a grand ceremony, so many from the world of hockey congregating to welcome the new class to the sport's shrine.

A wonderfully memorable part of this year's event for me was standing behind the Air Canada Centre benches during the Nov. 12 Haggar Hockey Hall of Fame Legends Classic. What an afternoon it was, looking over the shoulders of Team Kurri coaches Bryan Trottier and Rod Langway for the first period, then Team Messier's McDonald for the second.

The quotes were sensational. The ones that I could use, anyway.

"Igor told me, 'Show me what you've got,'" a winded Glenn Anderson of Team Messier joked of Team Kurri's fleet-footed Igor Larionov after a hard shift, "and I said to him, 'That's ALL I've got.'"

Earlier, referee Kerry Fraser had climbed onto Team Kurri's bench and laid down the law to Trottier.

"One more word out of you and you're gone!" Fraser told Trottier, to which the coach immediately pointed at me and said, "It was him."

Behind the other bench, McDonald was a laugh riot; he would berate his players, who responded by dissolving into laughter.

Hall of Fame weekend was followed by three remarkable days in my native Montreal, a variety of events staged to celebrate the Nov. 26, 1917, founding of the NHL.

Amid all the historic events, fans probably most enjoyed flocking to and mingling with Yvan Cournoyer, Keon, Mahovlich, Ray Bourque, Denis Savard and Rod Gilbert, all master storytellers.

More NHL history threaded its way through my autumn work, up to and including two days in early December in Chicago to profile Blackhawks ambassadors Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard.

The trip would produce one of my broadest features of the year, a sweeping look at how the Blackhawks brought four of their greatest players back into the fold. And it gave me a chest cold so gripping that I was a miserable scratch for the 2017 Scotiabank NHL100 Classic in Ottawa, a 3-0 bone-chilling outdoor-game victory on Dec. 16 for the Ottawa Senators against the Canadiens.


Heartache amidst joy: Remembering some of those we lost

The icons of the NHL were everywhere I turned throughout the year. I was delighted to cross paths regularly in Montreal with old friends Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur, as well as other legends of the game in airports, hotels, limousines, buses, arenas and coffee shops.

When we weren't sitting to talk, these men took my calls, without exception. That wasn't always easy because not every conversation was about a career highlight.

Through the emotional eyes of Lindsay, there was an early January appreciation of Milt Schmidt, 98, the iconic Boston Bruins leader who was too ill to attend the New Year's Eve dinner and Jan. 1 Centennial Classic. Schmidt died on Jan. 4.

Video: Bruins legends share memories of Milt Schmidt

There would be tributes written during the year about Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, unsung Maple Leafs star Tod Sloan, Senators general manager Bryan Murray and Blackhawks cornerstone defenseman Pierre Pilote.

With the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2002, general manager Murray gave Mike Babcock his first NHL coaching job. Murray means so much to Babcock that the Maple Leafs coach called me from Russia, where he was on a scouting trip, to share his memories.

Babcock would be on the phone again on Dec. 26, as would Glenn Hall, Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich, to share thoughts about Bower, who died of pneumonia at age 93.

"Johnny was a spectacular, spectacular man, that's what jumps out at you right away," Babcock said. "Even at his age, he lived large. He had an infectious personality and he made people feel great. It was fun to have him around. …

"No question about it, when he walked by you, introduced himself, or you just saw him, you were impressed by him, by the gentleness and the kindness of him. … We're proud to be able to call him a Leaf and he gives us a great role model, someone to aspire to be like."

And on a sizzling hot late July afternoon, I attended and reported on the suburban Montreal funeral of Don Johns, who had played 153 NHL games between 1960-67. One of those games, on Jan. 5, 1966, was for the Canadiens.

In the back row of the church to pay his respects, having driven to the service on a day off, was Rejean Houle, a five-time Stanley Cup winner with the Canadiens and the team's long-time alumni director. A Canadiens jersey was displayed at the side of the altar beside a floral arrangement from the team, Johns as fiercely proud of his one game for Montreal as 11-time Stanley Cup champion Henri Richard would be of his team-leading 1,256.

In June, on the road for the Stanley Cup Final, I spoke at length with Marty Howe on the first anniversary of the death of his father, Gordie. I had covered Mr. Hockey's funeral in June 2016, a story for which no words could suitably convey its weight and emotion. A year later, Marty would sometimes slip into the present tense talking about his father.

"You're upset, you cry when it happens, and that's mostly just because you're going to miss him," he told me this past June. "But you look back and you think about all the things you've done together and for me there was nothing negative that ever happened. …

"He is just a kind, gentle person off the ice. He just treats everybody like he's known you forever and after five minutes, you think you have known him forever. That's his gift. He's never stopped doing that his entire life."


Full Circle: A year, and a century, made magical by people

The NHL's Centennial year has celebrated dozens of milestone events, fantastic, even historic achievements, the greatest of the great and the few-games players who wore, and wear, the "NHL player" label as the badge of honor that they should.

There is a common denominator, of course: the people, the men and women who have seen the NHL from its cradle to its 100th birthday, and now beyond.

Among them would be Red Kelly, 10 years the junior of the NHL and the winner of eight Stanley Cup championships -- four with the Red Wings as a defenseman, four more with the Maple Leafs as a center.

On New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, Kelly wore a small diamond Maple Leafs pinkie ring on his right hand, a massive Red Wings rock on his left ring finger.

"When you grew up, hockey was what you admired," Kelly said when we sat to speak, admitting surprise that fan mail from around the world continues to find him. "It's what you listened to, putting yourself in the sweater of the players you didn't see but only heard over the radio. Then, eventually, you saw them on TV and oh, the ability that some of those players had.

"To think that you would become one of them, be able to make it and be on one of those teams, and then win eight Stanley Cups… that was fantastic, what more could you ask? To end your career and say, 'Holy man, I've been part of it.'"

That night, Mark Howe made a beeline for Kelly to chat with his late father's dear friend. And then, wearing a red No. 9 pin in his lapel, he spoke with sharp insight about those who have been, and are today, the bedrock of the NHL.

"If Dad were here, he'd just love seeing old faces," said one of Mr. Hockey's three sons. "Gordie respected the honors and awards that he got, but he was all about people. What he'd enjoy most would be the NHL having put this function together so he could see some old friends and teammates."

He paused, and then he laughed.

"And maybe even some of the old enemies he had on the other side of the rink."

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