If an NHL player or coach is lucky, they develop a strong relationship with a team and become an indelible part of that franchise's history. By his own admission, Bob Pulford
is a very lucky man.
In a career spanning four decades, the executive, coach and player has played an important role in the history of not one, but three NHL franchises: the Toronto Maple Leafs
, Los Angeles Kings
and Chicago Blackhawks
. But it is his overall contribution to hockey in the United States that has earned him the 2011 Lester Patrick
Trophy, which he will receive in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday .
"This is a great honor and I'm extremely proud," Pulford, 75, told NHL.com.
Pulford, born in Newton Robinson, Ontario, earned his place in hockey history long before moving stateside. He scored the overtime winner for Toronto in Game 3 of the 1967 Stanley Cup Final, leading the Maple Leafs to what remains their most recent championship. Prior to that, he spearheaded the foundation of the NHL Players' Association, along with Ted Lindsay
"There was a player-owner council [before the NHLPA]. I represented the players on that council for a number of years. It was a frustrating thing at that time. I was the only player involved in it," said Pulford. "We paid two-thirds of the pension at that time ourselves. There were no waivers. They could send you to the minors if you did something wrong. If you didn't like what they were offering you as a salary, you either took it or left it."
Already established in Canada as a player and union head, Pulford's career took a fascinating turn in 1970, when he was traded to Los Angeles after 14 seasons and four Cups in Toronto. After ending his Hall-of-Fame playing career two seasons later in 1972, Pulford remained in Los Angeles to take a post behind the Kings' bench. In five seasons, he was instrumental in building hockey's first warm-weather franchise into a competitive club.
"The team did very well in Los Angeles. Some of my proudest moments were there. We outdrew the Lakers in those years in Los Angeles," said Pulford. "[In] Toronto, you couldn't go anywhere without being recognized. In Los Angeles, you weren't known on the street. I found that very refreshing."
Chicago plucked Pulford from Southern California in 1977 and never let go. In three decades with the Blackhawks serving as general manager and senior vice president, Pulford enjoyed four separate stints behind the Chicago bench, the most recent coming in the 1999-2000 season. In his time at the helm of the Blackhawks, Pulford witnessed firsthand the growth and development of hockey in the United States.
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"It's developed by leaps and bounds. All you've got to do is look at the NHL draft and the number of Americans in the first round. It's very close to the number of Canadians," said Pulford. "The level of hockey here in the states has come a long way."
But Pulford has never been simply a Canadian transplant. On the contrary, he coached the USA team that almost knocked off his home country in the 1976 Canada Cup. While there weren't any superstars on that USA roster, there were a number of players who would go on to serve as NHL general managers, including Lou Nanne
, Craig Patrick
and Mike Milbury
. The evolution of all those players into front-office forces may be more than coincidence. The first player Pulford drafted in Chicago, Doug Wilson, currently serves as the general manager of the San Jose Sharks
. These are just some of the GMs and executives who at some point crossed paths with Pulford.
"I'm very proud of that and proud of them. They've all done very well," said Pulford. "I think maybe my coaching or whatever it was influenced them to continue on in the industry. I don't know why. But I'm proud that they did and I'm proud of them and the jobs that they've done."
The 2011 Lester Patrick
co-recipient hasn't just encountered NHL executives on the job. His son-in-law, Dean Lombardi, serves as the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings
, the team he helped incubate all those years ago. But while Pulford has helped where he can in the careers of countless general managers, he's made a point not to bring that work home with him.
"We don't talk about [hockey]," Pulford said of his relationship with Lombardi. "We talk about fishing. He doesn't think I'm a very good fisherman. He says I'm a good boat driver."