Hall of Fame forward Frank Mahovlich blazed a famous trail through the NHL from 1956-74, first for the Toronto Maple Leafs, then the Detroit Red Wings and finally the Montreal Canadiens. Along the way, the smooth-skating wing known as the Big M would be part of six Stanley Cup championships -- four with Toronto, two with Montreal.
The Big M's stunning leap to the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association in 1974 did not go unnoticed in then-Czechoslovakia, where brilliant center Vaclav Nedomansky was considering his own dramatic change of address.
Here, in a special testimonial for NHL.com, Mahovlich shares his thoughts on Big Ned, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. They will be teammates once more, the Big M having been enshrined in 1981.
I'm first going to tell you a story about my friend "Ned" that doesn't involve hockey. Back in 1976, '77, George Gross, the late Toronto Sun sports editor, would organize tennis tournaments about 150 miles north of Toronto near Parry Sound, Bobby Orr's hometown.
George, who himself had defected from Czechoslovakia in 1949, would invite Ned up to be part of the group. Ned was a great tennis player, and he was such a gentleman that no matter how bad a player you were, he'd make the match interesting. He'd never embarrass you, he played just as hard as he had to in order to win.
And here's a story about my friend Ned the hockey player: I can remember setting him up for a goal with the WHA's Toronto Toros. I had the goalie out of position, but it would be easier for him to score, so I gave it to him. Ned scored and skated over and thanked me, which never happens.
With the Detroit Red Wings, I set up Gordie Howe for his 700th career goal (in 1968) and Gordie never thanked me (laughs). Maybe he scored so often that it never occurred to him, so he just tapped me on the back. But Ned said, 'Frank, thank you very much!' for having passed him the puck.
I think we met for the first time at our 1974 Toros training camp in Oshawa, Ontario. Early on that year, the first season with the Toros for us both, Ned centered a line with myself and Tony Featherstone, coach Billy Harris having put us together.
By then he was in Canada just a few months after having defected, but even with very little knowledge of English, Ned made out quite well. He seemed to understand everything. We never had a problem communicating, and after all, hockey kind of has its own language. It's pretty well instinct. I knew where he was going to be and how he played, and that was it.
We had a training camp in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, the following September and Ned was incredibly popular there and in Finland, where we'd taken a side trip. I guess he'd had some great games there, playing internationally for Czechoslovakia.
We got along fine. So well, in fact, that quite often with the Toros, Ned and Richard Farda, his countryman who had come to Toronto with him in 1974, and I would go out together to Czech restaurants on the road. It was a bit of home for them. We scouted them together, asked the hotel manager and we'd find a place or two. There were a few in Toronto, too.
Toronto Toros captain Frank Mahovlich during the 1975-76 season.
It didn't matter how much we ate, Ned was always in great shape. European players those days generally were much better conditioned than North Americans because their dryland training went all summer long. And Ned adjusted well to the small North American rink after having played his entire career on the larger surface in Europe.
If the political climate had been different and had Ned been able to come to North America five or so years earlier, there's no telling how good he could have been. I think he'd have been even more dominant than he was. Still, scoring 122 NHL goals in his final six seasons, retiring when he was 38, was pretty darn good.
I remember his 1977 trade from the Birmingham Bulls, after the Toros had moved there, to the Red Wings for the loan of Steve Durbano and Dave Hanson, who played one of the Hanson brothers in the movie "Slap Shot." We lost a very good player but what (Bulls owner) John&
Bassett Jr. was doing was filling our team with tough guys. We had about six of them on that team. It really was like "Slap Shot."
Some guys around the WHA had tried to test Ned or run him, maybe because of where he was from. At the time he came over, there was a lot of goon hockey here. And I'll tell you, when they did try to mix it up with him, they were shocked to find how strong he was.
Ned was a terrific skater and an excellent playmaker, a guy who gravitated to the puck and made plays. I know that many of today's fans never had the chance to see him play, but I hope they realize that he was a great athlete and we really appreciated him being over here. He was a very important contributor to our team and to the game of hockey.
I'm delighted that Ned is going into the Hall of Fame this year. He gave me a call in June when he was elected, and that day I congratulated him on a well-deserved honor. He gave everything he had and he and his family made many personal sacrifices to succeed in North America. My wife, Marie, and I have his Nov. 18 induction circled on our calendar and we'll do everything we can to be there.
As good as he was on the ice, Ned is an even better person off it, a real gentleman. If I wanted fans to know just one thing about him as a teammate, it's that he played hockey the way it's supposed to be played.