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Position switch propelled Housley into Hall of Fame

by Mike G. Morreale takes a look at each of the seven individuals who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Nov. 9.

Phil Housley always was one of the more-skilled forwards on the ice growing up before his high school coach switched him to defense in a move that led Housley to the NHL and, ultimately, the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Housley garnered instant acclaim in his new position under coach Doug Woog. The teenager was one of the more dynamic offensive defensemen in the Minnesota scholastic hockey ranks in the early 1980s, was named all-state, and started getting attention from NHL scouts as a sophomore.

"I first saw him as an 11-year-old, and he was just so smooth and everything seemed to go in slow motion for him; he wouldn't jet by people, he'd move by people," Woog said. "I thought his chance of getting a scholarship and playing this game might be a reality, but it would be on defense because there was such a shortage of offensive defensemen at the time.

"I used to think the guy who was smart usually had that computer in their head and could see the whole ice and things develop before others. Phillip had that extra sense."

Housley never thought twice about making the switch from forward to defenseman. He considered it a huge honor to be playing varsity hockey at South St. Paul, a rarity for a freshman.

"I liked the ice time and the fact I was able to jump into play, lead a rush, and anticipate plays coming at me through the neutral zone," Housley said. "I learned to be an offensive threat."

Housley received scholarship offers from several schools, including the University of North Dakota, University of Wisconsin, and University of Colorado, but his heart was set on the University of Minnesota.

The St. Paul, Minn., native did get an offer from Minnesota, but he never played one minute of college hockey. After scoring 31 goals with 34 assists in 22 games in his final high school season, the Buffalo Sabres selected Housley with the No. 6 pick in the 1982 NHL Draft.

Scotty Bowman, who was Sabres coach at the time, tells the story of how Buffalo scout Rudy Migay knew of Housley and begged Bowman to fly out to watch the 18-year-old in action.

Bowman witnessed one rush and was immediately hooked. The fact the Sabres were seeking a defenseman made the decision to draft Housley much easier.

"I thought I was going fifth to the Washington Capitals, because those were the rumors, but they picked Scott Stevens," Housley said. "I was at the draft on my own since mom and dad couldn't afford it. It was a great experience in the Montreal Forum."

Four months after being drafted, Housley was playing in the NHL.

"I remember my agent telling me I might have to spend half the year in the minors before getting a shot with the big club, but I wasn't going to have any of that because I knew how aggressive the play was in the minors," Housley said. "I worked twice as hard in camp, was the second-leading scorer on the team in preseason (behind Gilbert Perreault), and made the team."

Woog said he'd been lying if he thought Housley would be playing for the Sabres right out of the high school.

"He wasn't physically strong but smart and smooth and a great team player," Woog said. "He played junior hockey [with the St. Paul Vulcans] two months after the high school season, and that helped, but I don't think anyone thought he could walk on and play at the NHL level."

Housley recalled how defensemen Mike Ramsey and Lindy Ruff, and forward Mike Foligno, took time to help him his first season. His road roommate, Larry Playfair, was his defense partner, and Housley finished third on the Sabres with 66 points (19 goals) in 77 games.

Housley played 21 NHL seasons, including eight with the Sabres, and appeared in seven NHL All-Star Games. He played for the Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues, Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Housley retired in January 2004 with 338 goals, 894 assists and 1,232 points in 1,495 regular-season games. He was the highest-scoring American-born player until Mike Modano passed him on Nov. 7, 2007. Modano ended his career with 1,374 points in 1,499 regular-season games and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year.

One of the greatest offensive defensemen in League history, Housley will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Nov. 9. The seven-member Class of 2015 includes two other longtime NHL defensemen, Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom.

"Offensively, I don't think there was a better American-born defenseman; maybe (2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee) Brian Leetch," former NHL player and 2013 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Chris Chelios said. "He could have been a rover with the way he played; he seemed to be on ball bearings all the time."

Former NHL player Danton Cole played with Housley for two seasons in Winnipeg (1990-92) and coached with him at the United States National Team Development Program.

"His feet were unbelievable," Cole said. "He could get from the boards to the middle of the ice faster than anyone I'd ever seen. The one thing I really appreciated about Phil, from his first season (1990-91) to the second in Winnipeg, was how much better he got even from the level he started. He really committed himself and got to be a lot better and was conscientious of his defensive role."

Housley represented the United States in 10 international competitions, including six World Championships, two Canada Cup tournaments, and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame in 2007. He coached the United States to a gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in Sochi, Russia.

Housley has been an assistant for the Nashville Predators the past two seasons.

"Whether you are a player or coach, you have aspirations to win a Stanley Cup whether an assistant or head coach, but I really like where I am right now," he said.

The only thing that eluded Housley as a player was winning the Stanley Cup.

"A lot of it has to do with timing; you watch a lot of the guys who win the Cup, and they have a run in the end, but that's one thing that avoided me," Housley said. "Now I'm trying to chase that dream through coaching."


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