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Housley recalls outstanding NHL career

by John McGourty
Hey, Phil Housley, you've just been honored with the Lester Patrick Trophy for meritorious contributions to American hockey. What are you going to do now?

"I'm going to DisneyWorld," Housley might have said.

That's where we caught up with Housley this week, treating his daughter, Avery, 11, to the traditional family birthday present each Housley child receives for their 10th birthday. Therein lies a story worth celebrating.

Avery Housley was involved in a near-fatal car crash four years ago. If she hadn't been riding in the front seat when her babysitter's car was rear-ended, she might not have survived, Phil Housley said. Still, she's had her medical battles. That's why the trip that her two older sisters and brother enjoyed was delayed a year.

Normally, a parent wouldn't want to interrupt such an important family event, but Housley welcomed the call. After several hours of going from one ride to another, one exhibit to another, Housley was wilted. Avery has her energy and strength back and Housley couldn't keep up.

They never said that when he was playing, either as a standout defenseman at South St. Paul High School or in the National Hockey League. Housley was an effortless and clever skater, a great puckhandler and an outstanding shooter who retired after 21 seasons as the all-time leading American scorer in NHL history.

Housley played for the Buffalo Sabres, Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues, Calgary Flames (twice), New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. He never won the Stanley Cup, but played in the 1998 Final for Washington when they lost to the Detroit Red Wings. He retired with 338 goals, 894 assists, 1,232 points and 822 penalty minutes in 1,495 NHL games.

Housley was notable at the start of his career as the first NHL player to go directly from an American high school to the NHL. He is thrilled that the Lester Patrick Luncheon is being held in St. Paul this year because Housley is as much about Minnesota as he is a retired professional hockey player. He's in his fifth year as coach of Stillwater High School and says this will be his team's best year yet.

He was also thrilled to hear that fellow Lester Patrick Trophy winner Bob Naegele Jr., the former owner of the Minnesota Wild, used to take his son to the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament to watch Housley play. We talked with Housley about the Lester Patrick Award and his long and storied career. Growing up in Minnesota, you were able to take part in the fabled Minnesota State Hockey Tournament. Is it everything it's cracked up to be?

Housley: "You can play 21 years in the NHL and remember all the great times, but unless you know how big the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament is, it's hard to understand that I still remember trying to get into the tournament three years in a row and we lost to Henry Sibley. It was one tournament in those days. Now, it's split into two divisions, but that failure still haunts me to this day.

"When my mom passed away in 2000, the World Championships were in St. Petersburg, Russia. Lou knew I was really down and said come play and be our captain. My dad was lonely at such a pivotal time in his life and Lou said bring your dad too. The people from USA Hockey are incredible like that."
-- Phil Housley

"We had a great tradition at South St. Paul in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and did quite well. So many great players, like Doug Woog and Terry Abrams, that preceded me. I could go on with the list of hometown players I idolized, but being able to be in the state tournament myself as a sophomore is something I'll never forget. We were a bunch of kids who grew up together and were able to do things that meant a lot to us and I'll have those memories forever. We'll all have them because to this day a lot of those guys are still my best friends. My favorite memory is going to the state tournament twice with my older brother Larry on the team." Team goals always supersede individual ones for athletes, but what does holding the record for most points by a U.S.-born player mean to you?

"I'd be lying if I said the American points record wasn't important. When I look back at all the hard work I did to put myself in that position and all the great players and the great bunch of guys that put me in that position, I appreciate it. I enjoyed that time as the leader, knowing that it would be broken by Mike Modano or Jeremy Roenick. It was great to be considered one of the top players, but records are made to be broken and I couldn't have been happier last year for Mike when he did it. Mike is a classy guy and a good friend of mine. I think it's great he can carry that tradition with him." Scotty Bowman put you at forward a few times to spark Buffalo's offense early in your career, but you played the overwhelming percentage of your games on the blue line. Among NHL defensemen, you rank fourth all-time in points, behind Raymond Bourque, Paul Coffey and Al MacInnis. What's it like to be mentioned in the same class as those players?

Housley: "When I look at that group, I realize they are all Hall of Famers so it's a great honor to be surrounded by those players, who were my peers. I have great respect for them. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, playing against them or with them in NHL All-Star Games. It's always great whenever we can catch up with each other at events. I played against Bourque a lot when he was with Boston and I was in Buffalo. But when we got to the All-Star Games, we became friends. Now, we have fun." You represented the United States at the 1982 World Juniors and World Championships before playing in the NHL. You played on six American World Championship teams, in the 1985 and 1988 Canada Cups, the 1996 World Cup and the 2002 Winter Olympics, winning a silver medal. What was it like being able to represent your country?

Housley: "I have a great friend in Lou Vairo, the coach of the 1982 World Junior team. He had a lot of great things to say about me after all the years I played for the national team, but Lou gave me a few years off when my kids were young. When my mom passed away in 2000, the World Championships were in St. Petersburg, Russia. Lou knew I was really down and said come play and be our captain. My dad was lonely at such a pivotal time in his life and Lou said bring your dad too. The people from USA Hockey are incredible like that.

"You want to represent your country and do well. Playing in the World Championships can work two ways. If you had a sour season, you could rejuvenate there. If you had a great season, it was a chance to keep it going.

"I was aware that the Europeans always go when they are called so I always wanted to represent USA Hockey. For the people that helped me in my career, I had to give back. Just having that opportunity, my passion for the game always brought me back. In today's world, I hear some guys have excuses. There were times that if anyone had an excuse, it was me but I remembered what they did for me and I went and the experience was always awesome.

"Getting silver at Salt Lake City, on home ice, was great and I was aware, watching our teams before and after that year, how hard it was to win any medal. We had a tough game against Russia in the semifinal and Canada had an easy game against Belarus, but we were right there until the end. My favorite international game was probably in 2000. We beat the Russians, 3-0, in St. Petersburg and they had all their stars. We had a good team, but not as star-studded as Russia. I remember Lou behind the bench ducking because they were throwing things at us and had to escort us from the arena.
"Winning the 1996 World Cup was a great experience. I have great memories of Brett Hull's tip on Brian Leetch's shot and Tony Amonte's great goal"
-- Phil Housley
"Winning the 1996 World Cup was a great experience. I have great memories of Brett Hull's tip on Brian Leetch's shot and Tony Amonte's great goal," Housley said. "We had a great group that played together from about 1991 on and a lot of them are going into the Hockey Hall of Fame."
All that's in the past. Tell us about being the head coach of the Stillwater Ponys.

Housley: "Once again, it goes back to Lou Vairo," Housley said. "When I retired in 2003, Lou called and said they had to make a coaching change on the Under-18 team going to the Four Nations Tournament. I went with Lou and we worked with the future stars of Team USA. I enjoyed coaching because it's the closest you can get without playing. I felt the emotions and the ups and downs. From then on, I was hooked and it's a good way to stay close to the game.

"But the coach has no control over what happens on the ice. That's a challenge for me. I applied for the Stillwater job in 2004 and I'm going into my fifth year. I really enjoy it, which isn't to say I wouldn't like to go to the highest level, if possible. Maybe I can repeat my historic leap from Minnesota high schools to the NHL." But hasn't Darrell Salmi, who coached the girls' team to the state title last year, already eclipsed you behind the bench?

Housley: (Laughing) "I know, I made him my assistant coach this year. I'm smart enough to take a winner and put him on my team. I have a whole staff of good coaches who are great guys. Stillwater has won a lot of football championships, but we've never won the boys' state hockey title. We're in a great place now and going in a great direction with great people in our association. We've got a new training facility opening in November that some of us invested in. We're not looking for profit. We want to push Stillwater to the next level. The stars are aligning and it's time to execute.

"The public schools lose players to the private schools that aren't restricted in where they draw their players from. But Stillwater ranks in the top 1 percent of schools nationwide academically, so there's no reason to go elsewhere. An awful lot of good hockey players have come out of our Suburban East league and our record, historically, reflects the great competition that we've faced. But the next three years here are going to be pivotal. We've got good players coming up and it's up to me and the coaching staff." This group of Lester Patrick winners includes three Minnesota high school hockey stars -- yourself, Brian Burke from Edina and Bob Naegele Jr. from Minnetonka, joining Detroit Red Wings star Ted Lindsay. What's it like being a part of that group?

Housley: "It's a tremendous honor, No. 1. To join the list of recipients before me, to join the people I'm being honored with by the NHL and USA Hockey, I think it's great. I thank USA Hockey because they made a great impact on my career and my life. Before I was drafted, they let me try out for the national team while still in high school. I made that team and went to Germany to play against the best players in the world, including the old Red Army team. I played against Bobby Clarke and Wayne Gretzky and all the great European players. I was able to measure myself and see that I could play at that level. I got drafted in June, made the decision to go to Buffalo and the rest is history."
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