For a lot of players in the alphabet soup of the low minor leagues -- the ECHL, CHL, IHL, SPHL, EPHL -- it's likely they'll never make the NHL. But there are always a few who overcome enormous odds and not only get to the NHL, but have long careers both as a player and in the front office, like Jack McIlhargey.
In 1972, McIlhargey was an undrafted player who started at the lowest level of professional hockey in those days -- the Eastern Hockey League, where he played for the Cherry Hill-based Jersey Devils. The old Eastern League was the predecessor of the North American Hockey League, which featured the Johnstown Jets. A couple years later, Ned Dowd would be a member of the Jets and his sister, Nancy, would write a screenplay about life in the low minor leagues. The movie became Slap Shot. If McIlhargey did a diary of his first season of pro hockey, he probably would have had a great movie, as well.
He lived Slap Shot.
"I was in it, (I knew) quite a few (of the players who would be used in the film), when I played. It was a great experience being in the Eastern Hockey League," said McIlhargey. "I was just 20 years old coming out of juniors and I played for the Jersey Devils and my roommate was John Brophy. Broph was a great guy and Broph was 40 years old and I was 20, and myself, John Brophy and Curt Brackenbury, the three of us had an apartment, and that was a great experience for me.
"Broph is a great man, he taught me a lot. He was a pro, he came to play every night and it was a great experience, and when I watched Slap Shot, we lived it. That is the way it was. It was a lot of fun playing back then and I don't think these young kids could go through what we went through now; they would have quit."
Eastern Hockey League rinks were not state-of-the-art facilities in 1972. In fact, the rinks barely had the necessities to house youth hockey, much less pro hockey.
"They had chicken wire (above the boards instead of glass), all the rinks back then had the chicken wire with the big metal bars down there," said McIlhargey. "Nobody wore helmets. You didn't want to hit them. No one had heard of the word concussion back then, it was a headache.
"It's gone now, it is a grocery store now," McIlhargey said of the Cherry Hill Arena. "But it was a bad rink. My whole career I skated uphill. But it was a bad rink, it was going uphill, downhill. It was a bad building. Great fans, but it was a bad building.”
Brophy, McIlhargey and Brackenbury were three of the toughest ever to play hockey. Brackenbury was relatively quiet in his only Jersey Devils season, racking up just 66 penalty minutes in 68 games. But he rang up some serious numbers starting the next season in the North American Hockey League with the Long Island Cougars, spending 194 minutes in the box in just 45 games. Brackenbury had 753 penalty minutes in just 265 World Hockey Association games with the aptly named Minnesota Fighting Saints and the Quebec Nordiques. He slowed when he entered the NHL with the Nordiques in 1979, and finished his 141-game NHL career with Quebec, Edmonton and St. Louis with 226 penalty minutes.
Brackenbury must have made an impression on Brophy. He was Brophy's assistant coach with the East Coast Hockey League's Hampton Roads Admirals championship team in 1990-91.
Brophy was an Eastern Hockey League legend. He was the toughest of the tough guys and spent literally a whole season in the penalty box when you take the 4,000 minutes he accumulated and break it down into games missed because of fights and other assorted infractions.
"Nobody bailed Broph out," said McIlhargey when watching Brophy involved in a battle. "He took care of himself."
Someone must have seen some potential in McIlhargey while he was with Jersey. In 72 games, he had 2 goals, 7 assists and 229 penalty minutes. He also played nine games with the American Hockey League's Richmond Robins, and was in the lineup for the playoffs.
McIlhargey said he was able to make it though his EHL rookie season by "having fun and just playing."
"I went to the Richmond Robins, which was the American Hockey League and was the Flyers' (farm team). It was a good league. It was a very good league, but the Eastern League was a good league, too. There were a lot of good players back then. The Eastern Hockey League fans were good. They expected a tough brand of hockey and you gave it to them."
-- Jack McIlhargey
McIlhargey made the jump to the NHL, but he thinks people are too judgmental looking at the old EHL as a place filled with legendary tough guys like Brophy, Don Perry, Kevin Morrison
, Blake Ball and others who became movie characters in Slap Shot.
"I went to the Richmond Robins, which was the American Hockey League and was the Flyers' (farm team)," he said. "It was a good league. It was a very good league, but the Eastern League was a good league, too. There were a lot of good players back then. The Eastern Hockey League fans were good. They expected a tough brand of hockey and you gave it to them."
McIlhargey played 16 games in the International Hockey League in 1973-74 and spent 52 minutes in the box before going back to Richmond that season. He played for Richmond in 1974-75 and led the American League with 316 penalty minutes, and also got to play in two games with the Flyers that season. The next season, he was a regular with Philadelphia under coach Fred Shero
McIlhargey was a defenseman whose job was to keep the front of the goal clean, and he did a good job in that role, as evidenced by being a plus-11 in 1975-76, his first full season in Philadelphia.
"Freddie was a great coach. He was a very smart man and a great guy for me to have as a coach when I was coming up," said McIlhargey. He said Brophy and Shero helped shape his post-NHL career into becoming an NHL assistant coach, as well as head coach of the IHL's Milwaukee Admirals and the AHL's Hamilton Canucks and Syracuse Crunch.
McIlhargey was traded by Philadelphia to Vancouver, along with defenseman Larry Goodenough
, on Jan. 21, 1977, in exchange for defenseman Bob Dailey. McIlhargey went back to the Flyers in a cash deal Jan. 2, 1980, and finished with Hartford after the Flyers sent him and Norm Barnes to the Whalers on Nov. 21, 1980 for a 1982 second-round pick. He ended his career with 11 goals, 36 assists and 1,102 penalty minutes in 393 games.
McIlhargey had the most unlikely of NHL careers. Undrafted players performing in the lowest rung of the professional level normally do not get into the NHL and enjoy solid careers. But McIlhargey did, and long after his playing days were over, he still enjoys the NHL life. He was an assistant coach in Vancouver under Harry Neale, Tom Watt, Bob McCammon and Pat Quinn
. He coached Vancouver's minor-league teams in Milwaukee, Hamilton and Syracuse, and between 1999 and 2006 he was an assistant and associate coach with Vancouver. Today, McIlhargey is not far from his first hockey home in Cherry Hill, a Philadelphia suburb. He returned to the Flyers in June 2007 as an assistant coach.
Not bad for someone who played his first year as a pro in a rink that sloped and was surrounded by chicken wire against some of the toughest customers in hockey history.