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Alumni game brings Polo full circle

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

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DETROIT – The shortest drafted player to ever don a Red Wings’ sweater, Dennis Polonich wasn’t going to allow his vertically challenged stature prevent him from fighting his way to a pro career.

“Being a little guy wanting to prove people wrong all of the time, it’s just the way I grew up,” said the 5-foot-6 Polonich. “I was very tenacious with very unbelievable will-power, and tremendous attitude and character. It was all of the traits.”

But that wasn’t the only driving force for Polonich, who was an eight-round draft pick in 1973.

“I was afraid to lose,” he said. “I was afraid to get cut, I was afraid to return home, so I was going to do whatever it took.”

Three decades after he had fans on their feet and cheering his name at Olympia Stadium, Polonich, who lives in Calgary, will return to his NHL home in December to participate in the Alumni Showdown during the SiriusXM Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica Park on New Year’s Eve.

Besides Polonich, the Wings announced Thursday the addition of defenseman Aaron Ward and forwards Red Berenson and Jimmy Carson to the rosters that will take on former Toronto Maple Leafs in an alumni doubleheader.

The Leafs also revealed that a trio agitators – Tie Domi, Tiger Williams and Brad May – have committed to their Dec. 31 roster. Williams and May also spent some of their careers with the Red Wings.

“It’s such an honor when I see some of the names that are going to participate,” Polonich said. “And then I start thinking about all of the players that have gone through there, and for myself, a guy who is all of 5-foot-6 from small town Saskatchewan it’s kind of the final chapter for me.

“When I look back at the whole thing, everything that I have is through hockey, it’s through the Red Wings, it’s through the NHL.”

In an era when fighting was commonplace in the NHL and glamorized by fans and Hollywood movie-makers, Polonich – who often was five or more inches shorter than opposing pugilists – never backed down from a scrap on the ice.

Polonich finished among the league’s top six players in penalty minutes for four straight seasons (1975-79), and with his 1976-77 total of 274 minutes was second most in the league. He took on all of the league’s heavyweights, participating in 110 career NHL bouts, and against many of the top combatants, like Tiger Williams, Dave Schultz and Keith Magnuson. But it was in a game in 1978, at the Olympia that defines Polonich’s career.

“I just went through a battery of tests trying to determine where the headaches are still coming from on occasion,” said Polonich, who suffered numerous concussions throughout his career. But none more documented than the night that Colorado Rockies forward Wilf Paiement retaliated against the Wings’ center with a stick-swinging incident that caused severe facial injuries.

The league levied a 15-game suspension and $500 fine on Paiement, but the incident also provoked a lawsuit that brought Polonich an $850,000 judgment that was settled 30 years ago this week.

With concussions and players’ safety being more of a hot-button issue today than it was during the 70s and 80s, Polonich still battles health problems that remain from his playing career. He experiences headaches on occasion and has breathing problems caused by a deviated septum resulting from the Paiement incident.

“Obviously as you get older you worry about dementia and so forth,” Polonich said, “and when you see the affects that it had on both Bob Probert’s brain and (Derek) Bougard and some of the other players, yes, I have concern because obviously I played throughout my career with many concussions, many.

“I had many scraps both on and off the ice. We never had the medical attention back then that they do now. And there’s breathing impairment and stuff, but I’m healthy.”

But at the height of his NHL career, Polonich was living the good life. He received free meals from all of the finest restaurants in metro Detroit, fancy automobiles from a local Cadillac dealership, and fans chanting his name.

“They were lean years, certainly, but that didn’t bother me,” he said. “I was living the dream, I was captain for awhile and I had the Olympia chanting my name, ‘Go, Polo, go!’ I was so caught up in the moment, and now at this age, to reflect on all of that is overwhelming.

“The city worshiped their athletes whether you were a baseball player, or basketball player, or football player, or certainly hockey player; they loved their athletes. It was a blue-collar town and I was a blue-collar player. It was just amazing.”

The ovations from the Wings’ faithful for Polonich were loud from the start, even though they were first misdirected during a 1974 exhibition game against St. Louis in Lansing, Mich. He entered the lineup in place of star center Marcel Dionne, who fell ill earlier in the day. Polonich was instructed to drive to Lansing from Kalamazooin time to get into the lineup.

“When I got to Lansing the equipment staff had only packed 20 jerseys, so obviously I had to wear Marcel’s No. 12,” Polonich said. “When I stepped onto the ice people thought I was Marcel because I shot right and I was the same stature. I skated around the ice and gracious smiled and waved back at a few fans and proceeded to play.”

But it wasn’t long before Polonich engaged in his first pro fight when a ruckus erupted in the second period.

“I left the bench because they had the Plager brothers and John Wensink and (Bob) Battleship Kelly and I wasn’t naïve, I wanted to make a mark because that was my first exhibition game,” Polonich said. “So I jumped on the ice and knocked Howie Heggedal out and the crowd went crazy. They thought Marcel had turned into a little fighter.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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