|(Photo Credit: Denis Brodeur)
A storied 21-year career for Phil Housley culminated with his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night, an honor bestowed upon only nine other players to have worn a Buffalo Sabres sweater.
Housley played for eight different teams, but the foundation for his candidacy was laid down in Western New York. Before becoming the second leading United States-born scorer in League history, he arrived as a baby-faced defenseman at the ripe age of 18 after Buffalo selected him with the sixth pick in the 1982 draft.
“They took a chance on a high-school kid that probably weighed 165 pounds soaking wet and gave me an opportunity,” Housley said when thanking the Sabres during his induction speech.
“The game has given so much to me and my family. I accept this great, great honor on behalf of my family and friends and I know I’ll cherish this day for the rest of my life.”
Housley became a staple in the Sabres’ record books in the eight years that followed his being drafted, and it didn’t take long. He made the rare transition from high school player to NHL defenseman look seamless. His 47 assists as an 18-year-old set a Sabres rookie record that still stands today.
“He was all about hockey,” Sabres equipment manager Rip Simonick, who has been with the team since its inception in 1970, said. “We had a really, really young team and he just fit in.”
Simonick recalls how Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, who drafted and coached Housley early in his career, may have had a hand in the defenseman’s record-setting season.
“He was a guy that could get a lot of points,” Simonick said. “He played defense most of the time, but there was a couple records – you know Scotty knows all about the records. He let Phil play center for maybe 20 games and he ended up getting more goals than any other rookie defenseman and more points.”
Well, the records didn’t stop there. In his sophomore campaign of 1983-84, Housley scored a career-high 31 goals that still stands as the most in a single-season by a Sabres defenseman. Not impressive enough? He holds the next five spots in that category too.
In fact, Housley holds every single-season and career scoring record for Sabres defensemen. His 61 assists and 81 points in the 1989-90 season are both records for a defenseman, as are his career marks in Buffalo of 178 goals and 380 helpers for 558 points.
Housley asserted himself as quickly off of the ice as he did on it.
“Best story is our first exhibition game at St. Catharines, we’re getting on the bus and here comes Phil Housley and his present-day wife,” Simonick recalled. “Scotty Bowman and Jimmy Roberts were the coaches at the time and said, ‘Where is she going?’
“He goes, ‘She goes to every one of my games.’ Literally, they put it on Mike Ramsey and said, ‘Hey, get your Minnesota boy and get his girlfriend off.’ Guess what – she went to the game in St. Catharines and he played great. Good guy, good coach, good person; I was glad to have him on the team.”
Thirty-three years and four children later, Housley thanked his wife Karin – who he called his “high-school sweetheart” – on stage during his induction.
“She’s been the back bone of our family, she’s had to put up with me for over 30 years and I know that’s hard and I don’t know why she does it,” he said. “She’s always been there for me in good times and bad and she has as much to do with the day more than anyone.”
Housley was traded after the 1989-90 season in a deal with the Winnipeg Jets that saw the Sabres acquire Dale Hawerchuk and a 1990 first-round pick that would be used to select forward Brad May. After three years in Winnipeg, Housley went on to play for St. Louis, Calgary, New Jersey, Washington, Chicago and Toronto.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, who made his playing debut for the Los Angeles Kings in the 1995-96 season, said Housley’s above-average skating garnered extra attention from opponents.
“I remember skating legs and the young face, really,” Bylsma said. “You feared playing against this guy because you could not catch him and he was that virtually every night he played; you couldn’t catch this guy even if you tried.”
Now, the former defenseman is climbing his way up the coaching ranks. Housley is in his third season as an assistant coach for the Nashville Predators and has been mentioned as a candidate for head coaching jobs in recent years.
Current Sabres defenseman Cody Franson spent part of last season playing under Housley in Nashville and said that the attributes that made him great on the ice have translated to the bench.
“Having him as a coach, you can tell that he’s a guy who’s played a long time,” Franson said. “He’s a guy that’s played a certain way … he expects you to make plays, he expects you to see what’s coming and be able to make that play whether it be a tight play or an easy play.
“He expects high-level execution and I think that’s the way he played. I really enjoyed having him as a coach.”
While the game might not come as easy for most defensemen as it did for Housley, Franson said that the defenseman-turned-coach will do whatever it takes to help his players improve.
“I know that all those guys in Nashville enjoy working with him,” he said. “He’s a guy that’s easy to be around, he’s there to listen to you if you ask for help … even at this level you can never improve enough and he’s one of those guys that’s there to listen to you and be able to try and help you out and coach you through things.”
Before the end of his speech, Housley – a man who achieved so much at a young age – was sure to offer his own advice for kids with athletic aspirations.
“I guess if there’s one message I want to deliver, it’s why are kids focusing on one sport?” he asked. “I remember playing football, baseball and hockey when I was in high school and looking forward to the change of sports and seasons. I got the chance to meet and create new friends. Just enjoy being a kid, have fun and enjoy playing different sports and build your athleticism.”
From just having fun as a kid to playing pro hockey as a teenager and now to the Hall of Fame, just look at how far that outlook took him.