Oh how the aging process sneaks up on you…
When I went back to St. Lawrence University a couple of weekends ago to celebrate the amazing career of my college hockey coach, Joe Marsh, I was reminded that I am getting older. Let’s say reminiscing with old teammates and friends about college stories isn’t quite as enticing now that I have a daughter who is a freshman in college.
I was reminded again this past week of this aging dilemma that we apparently can’t control. The NHL inducted four new players into the prestigious Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF). Of the four players, I played on the same team as two of them and played against the other two.
Joe Sakic was the quiet assassin, quiet leader and quiet champion after winning two Stanley Cups. He is now quietly forever enshrined in hockey history as a member of the HHOF.
Sakic is also one of the reasons I decided at my first NHL training camp with the Quebec Nordiques that if I was ever going to play in the NHL I better be a good defensive player. Joe’s backhand was harder and more accurate than my slapshot, and his on ice vision and hockey sense was off the charts.
The best saucer pass I have ever seen was courtesy of Joe. We were playing in Vancouver and Garth Butcher had done something to really irk Sakic, which didn’t happen often. For some reason, I am assuming a short change, I was on the ice with Joe. These things happen occasionally when a 4th liner stays on a little longer and catches a rare moment on a shift with a 1st liner.
We were in the offensive zone and Saks had the puck near the boards. He saucers a pass over Butcher’s head and it lands flat, right on my stick, as I was standing in the slot. I didn’t expect the pass would get to me and once it was on my tape I did what any 4th liner would do, panicked and missed the net with my shot. But to this day, it’s still the most incredible saucer pass I have ever seen, and it happened in a game not a practice.
Mats and I were roommates on the road when I played for the Nordiques and the big Swede was a funny, competitive, great guy. It’s not often you combine size, strength, speed and skill and that’s exactly what Mats had.
I have two favorite Sundin stories. The first is after I left Quebec and played for Ottawa. Both teams were in the same division so we faced each other a lot and my job was to shut down players like Sundin. Instead of trash talking or going after Mats, I used to joke around with him on faceoffs.
Ever hear the saying, ‘let sleeping giants sleep’? Well that was my game plan. There used to be this joke he liked about “Timbuktu” and I would start to recite it at a faceoff circle and he would finish it. We would laugh, and I would win the faceoff which means Mats doesn’t have the puck.
Eventually Andre Savard, one of the Quebec coaches, said to Mats, “What is Bakes saying to you on the faceoffs?” He let Mats know I was intentionally trying to get him off his game. Soon after, Mats didn’t joke around with me – and started winning a lot more faceoffs.
Fast forward a couple of years and I am playing for the Sharks and Mats for the Leafs. We are no longer friendly on the ice (his choice, not mine). In one game at HP Pavilion I was skating along the offensive blueline towards the boards to keep the puck in (right by the away bench). Mats lined me up and hit me so hard (it was clean), I went down and was injured. I got up slowly and as I ever so gingerly went past their bench to ours I could hear the cat calls from their players “That’s it Baker, take the rest of the night off”.
The Sharks strength coach at the time put his arm under my shoulder to help me stand up because I had the wind knocked out of me so badly, but then I screamed in pain because I had also separated my shoulder. So the strength coach dragged me into the dressing room where I collapsed on the floor until I got my wind back. Funny moment now, not then!
A few months later a chance meeting happened in St. Louis. Our team stayed over after a game and the Leafs had arrived early for their game against the Blues. I ran into Mats in a restaurant and when he saw me he said in his Swedish accent, “Hey Bakes, how’s the shoulder? What did you miss two to three weeks? That’s a very funny thing isn’t it! Hahahahahahaha.”
Yeah, Mats had a good laugh and I’m thinking, man I miss the Timbuktu days.
I first saw Oates play in college when his RPI team played at St. Lawrence University while I was on a recruiting trip. He was awesome, a man against boys out there. That didn’t change in the NHL because his hockey sense and hands, particularly his passing, were amazing.
Oates, by the way, also liked to talk it up at faceoffs. He would ‘buddy-buddy’ you with questions in trying to get you off the game. It was hard to be mad at him but make no mistake, he was always one step ahead of you.
Speaking of one step ahead of you, the Russian Rocket was as fast as they come. Today’s game is faster than when I played because there isn’t nearly as much obstruction and the 3rd and 4th liners are all good skaters today, but I still don’t think anyone in today’s game is faster than Bure.
You did one of two things when you were on the ice against Bure: stopped him before he got going or retreated to the slot area in the defensive zone and tried to force a perimeter shot. Once Bure had a step on you, you were playing to stop a rebound opportunity if he didn’t score on the initial shot.
This year’s HHOF inductees brought back some great memories. Congrats to you all on your amazing careers and well deserved induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
I also want to say congrats to Rick Jeanneret and Roy MacGregor who received the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for excellence in hockey journalism.
Jeanneret has been broadcasting Buffalo Sabres games on radio and television since 1971 and his voice and calls are legendary – he sure makes the game fun to watch.
MacGregor is an amazing storyteller and writer and was following the Ottawa Senators when I played there. He is professional, honest and a great guy and I am proud to say I travelled and worked with him for one year and am friends with him, especially considering there weren’t a lot of positives in Year One of the Senators, who finished with only 11 wins all year.
Congrats to all six award winners – well deserved!