Monday, September 3, 2012

NHL Stars That Never Were

One of the most fun questions we can pose about pretty much any subject is "what if"? Yes, it can also be one the most torturous, but hey, this is fiveorama and we're all about fun here, this will be one of the fun times.

Of course in the world of hockey, there are tons of "what ifs" that make for some interesting hypothesizing. Some of the more popular ones are "What if Eric Lindros hadn't been such a bitch and decided to play for the team that actually drafted him, the Quebec Nordiqes, instead of flat out refusing and forcing one of the biggest and most significant trades in NHL history?" "What if Bobby's knees had held up?" "What if Canada had LOST the 1972 Summit Series?" and, my personal favourite: "What if Kerry Fraser had actually called Gretzky for highsticking Gilmour in May of 1993?" Oh, that one still bounces around in my head on at least a monthly basis.

But I said we'd be sticking to actually fun examples, not horribly painful ones. Now I'll admit that these aren't 100% fun because for a few of them, there definitely is a degree of tragedy present. But from strictly a hockey standpoint at least, they are fun to think about (I promise). Also I'll be limiting my choices to players that never played a single game in the NHL. So guys like the great Soviet star from Latvia, Helmut Balderis, who made his NHL debut at the age of 37 (with the Minnesota North Stars) after a distinguished career oversees, won't count. Players such as Michel Briere and Luc Bourdon managed to play briefly in the league before their untimely deaths so they're out as well.

So here are some players who, for various reasons never got to play in hockey's greatest league but whom I really believe would have been stars there if they had.

5. George Pelawa RW
Yup. He was friggin' huge
Players drafted while playing American high school hockey are incredibly rare. After all, putting up dominating stats in a league that is far inferior to Canadian major junior, pro leagues in Europe or American university is rarely seen as that impressive. But there have been exceptions, perhaps most notably goaltender Tom Barrasso who was not only picked extremely high at fifth overall but jumped straight into the NHL and won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. And Brian Lawton too of course.

But back to George. A huge physical specimen at 6'3, 245 pounds as an eighteen year old, he effortlessly broke highschool scoring records and was named Minnesota Mr. Hockey as the most outstanding highschool player in the state. Several past and present NHLers have held the title. Pelawa so impressed scouts with his blend of size and skill that the Calgary Flames made him their first pick in the 1986 draft, taking him at sixteenth overall.

He was committed to play the 86/87 season with the University of North Dakota. But shortly after moving into his dorm there in late August 1986, he was hit by a car and killed.

It's impossible to say for sure whether or not Pelawa would have lived up to his lofty draft position or even made the NHL but I imagine he would have. If he could have played in the league anytime from his drafting until about 1992 or so, he would have been the biggest player in the league's history up to that point (there had been taller players but none so heavy)

Maybe he could have been Eric Lindros before Lindros (except he was winger rather than a centre, and like most wingers, more of a goalscorer than playmaker) -  a power forward of such size and strength that he'd been almost impossible for defenders to contain down low. Maybe he would have scored piles of goals the way Tim Kerr had - by being an immovable object in front of the net and banging in rebounds and tipping point shots. Only he was even bigger and far more physical in his playing style than Kerr ever was. I see his best years being seasons with more than forty goals and two hundred penalty minutes - a unique stat line for a unique kind of player.

We'll never know.

4. Alexei Cherapanov RW
He never got to play wearing that jersey
Another young man who died way before his time, Cherapanov was the latest in a long line of Russians with dizzying offensive skills. We can be a little more sure of his potential as an NHLer than of Pelawa's because he lived long enough to play pro hockey. In fact it was while playing hockey, in the KHL with Omsk Avangard - the team he'd played with as a seventeen year old when he was drafted by the New York Rangers at seventeenth overall in 2007, that he met his end. Late in a game on October 13, 2008, after completing a shift with teammate Jaromir Jagr (something of an NHL star, if you'll recall), the nineteen year old suddenly collapsed on the bench. He was briefly revived twice before dying two hours later in hospital. His death led to an extensive investigation and several people within the league were suspended indefinitely.

But as to what kind of NHL talent Cherapanov could have been, I would say pure goalscorer. This was the kid who broke Pavel Bure's record for goals by a seventeen year old in the Russian pro league. He also had more points than any of Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk did in their seventeen year old seasons in that league. Those are only three of the biggest stars to play in the NHL within the past fifteen years or so. Ovechkin and Kovalchuk both have multiple fifty goal seasons and Malkin, who has one, has led the league in scoring twice, finishing atop the heap again this year. So it's certainly reasonable to imagine that Cherapanov could have been just as good.

Although at 6'1, 183, he wasn't as physically imposing as any of those three. And like Bure, Ovechkin and Kovalchuk, he was more of a scorer than playmaker, collecting more goals than assists in his brief professional career. He was on just under a point a game pace as a nineteen year old.

And unlike other players on this list, I did actually see Cherapanov play. He was front and centre at the 2007 and 2008 World Junior Championships for Russia. He scored five goals in six games leading his team to the silver medal in 2007. He was selected to the tournament all star team and named top forward overall. In 2008, the Russians took bronze and Cherapanov had six points in six games.

Actually, he was seen by many as the most talented player in the entire 2007 draft class (which included number one pick and current NHL star, Patrick Kane by the way) and was only taken so late in the first round because many teams were unsure of his desire to actually play in the NHL. But the Rangers decided they couldn't pass him up.

The following year his World Junior teammate Nikita Filatov was the next Russian hotshot projected to be a star and taken in the first round. So far things haven't really worked out that way as he couldn't consistently stay in the Blue Jackets's lineup, bouncing between them and the AHL and playing the entire 09/10 season back in Russia. They eventually gave up on him and traded him to Ottawa where he couldn't seem to make an impact either and is currently back in the KHL, putting up modest stats.

I mention Filatov because I'm well aware that Cherapanov could have been a flop in the NHL too - you  can never tell with any young player and gifted Russians are very often enigmatic. Still, I don't think Filatov is of the same pedigree as Cherapanov and firmly believe that if he had lived, would have eventually made his way to the NHL and established himself there as a star.

3. Sven Tumba C
Was there anything this man could not do?
A legend of Swedish hockey, Sven Tumba had a chance to become the first European star in the NHL (I don't count the Slovakian-born, Canadian-raised Stan Mikita), but it wasn't to be. Consequently, most North American hockey fans have never even heard of him. But as I said, over in Europe, particularly his home country, this guy was a big deal. You're about to learn why.

Born with the extremely common Swedish last name Johansson, he would eventually legally change it to Tumba - the name of the small town he'd grown up in -  and by all accounts, he earned it. He played sixteen years - from 1950 through 1966 - with the Tre Konor, Sweden's national team, and established himself as their best player, eventually becoming captain. He won seven medals at the World Championships (three gold, a silver and three bronze), two Olympic medals (bronze in 1952 and silver in 1964) and retired having scored the most goals ever for Team Sweden with 186 in 245 games. Within the Swedish League he led his team to eight national championships. Yeah, the guy was a winner.

And it doesn't stop there. He was multi-sport athlete, playing soccer at the professional and international levels and was a pro golfer too. In fact, he's responsible for introducing golf to the Soviet Union. Oh, and he was also a Swedish water-skiing champion. Besides that he also hosted his own radio show called The Tumba Hour and founded multiple charitable organizations as well as inventing the Scandinavian Open and running his own hockey school. And who was it that actually invented the hockey helmet? It was SVEN FUCKING TUMBA.

So he was a great player on the international amateur scene, but was he good enough to have played in hockey's greatest league? Hell yeah. Tumba was actually the first European to ever attend an NHL training camp when he tried out for the Bruins in the late fifties. They offered him a $50 000 contract (quite a bit back then) to start with the Quebec Aces, who were the Bruins's farm team at the time, but he ultimately turned it down because playing pro in North America would have made him ineligible to play for his beloved Swedish national team.

But an interesting fact I dug up is that while he was there (1957) he did play a handful of games with the Aces who at the time had a twenty-one year old Willie O'Ree on the roster. If the name doesn't ring a bell, O'Ree was the first black player to ever play in the NHL, having played two games as callup for the Bruins that season and then forty-three games with them in the 60/61 season. I think that's pretty interesting and it's weird that I've never read about it anywhere.

Although he was a centre, Tumba was more of a goalscorer than playmaker and a signature move of his was taking the puck off the boards in the offensive zone and deftly cutting into the middle to unleash a wicked wrist shot. Actually, one thing he took home with him from his experience in North America was the slapshot - something that really wasn't being used over in Europe at that time. Reportedly he was so good at it that some folks called for it to be banned because I guess they thought it wasn't fair to the poor goalies. Well, we all know that eventually the slapshot did catch on across the sea and it seems only fitting that it was Sven Tumba who'd shown them the way.

Tumba passed away last year and the nation of Sweden mourned the loss of a hero, who many still feel was the greatest of their country to ever play the game. Considering some of the Swedish stars we're all aware of who play or have played in the NHL, that's high praise indeed. I really feel that in the late fifties and early sixties he could have been a star player for the Bruins, maybe even helping them to not completely suck as they did back then. We can dream.

2. Valeri Kharlamov LW
Our first taste of dazzling Russian skill
One of the rare players elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame never to have played in the NHL, there is really no doubt he would have been a star there. Other entries on this list can certainly be disagreed with but not this one. Kharlamov is pretty much a slam dunk.

I could have made all my picks Russian players who played and retired before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Hell, I could have made this list entirely out of Russians who played in the 1972 Summit Series that made Kharlamov so famous. But better to have some variety so I opted to just pick one. It was a no-brainer to go with #17 as he's probably the most electrifying non-NHL talent ever to be seen by North American fans.

He made an immediate impact too. In the infamous first game of that series in Montreal, wherein a team of NHL stars were shellacked by a team of Russian "amateurs" by a score of 7-3, no Soviet player stood out more than Kharlamov. He was just twenty-four years old but he amazed with his skills, scoring two goals and was named the game's best player.

Throughout the series many Soviet players distinguished themselves, proving that they were certainly good enough to play in the world's best league. It's a story every Canadian should know by heart but if you don't then I urge you to at least look it up online and to find the games to watch sometime too. It's a huge part of hockey history.

So there were a lot of revelations during that series but the one I'm focusing on here is that Kharlamov impressed everyone involved with Team Canada and they would speak glowingly of his ability and tenacity (he was the most penalized Russian player in the series). I've seen the games myself and although he was a smaller player (5'8, around 170 pounds) he was in no way hampered against Canada's physical play (well, until Bobby Clarke broke his ankle with a slash). There is no doubt in my mind that every single player on that Soviet team was at least good enough to be an NHL regular and that a handful of them would have been absolute stars. Kharlamov is the cream of that crop and I envision him as an NHLer with multiple fifty-goal, hundred point seasons during his heyday in the seventies.

Like many of his teammates, his international stats are spectacular and he always acquitted himself well at the Olympics (three appearances) and World Championships (eleven appearances). Tragically, his career and life were cut short when he died in a car accident at the age of thirty-three in 1981.

To this day, many Russian players with offensive flair wear his number 17 the way Canadians wear numbers 9 and 19. It truly is a shame that politics kept him from hockey's greatest stage (recall that in his day the Olympics did not involve professional players) because he truly was one of the all-time greats.

1. Tony Hand LW RW
He coulda been a Cape Breton Oiler!
Hand takes the top spot not because he is the player whom I'm most sure would have been an NHL star but because I find him to be the most interesting. Of all the NHL careers that never were that I've read of, none make me ask "what if?" more than Tony Hand's story.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he established himself as a phenom early on, playing for the Murrayfield Racers at the age of fourteen. Now I know what you're doing to say - so what? He was a phenom playing hockey over in freaking Scotland?! What the hell does that prove? Well, to that I say: read on. First of all, the Racers may have been a Scottish team but they weren't a junior team - Hand found himself playing against grown men from his mid-teens on. And the players weren't all Scottish - there was even a smattering of displaced Canadians. Granted, these were Canadians who obviously weren't good enough to play in most of the respected pro leagues but still.

He became a regular member of the roster for the 83/84 season at the age of sixteen and led his team with 52 goals and 95 points in just thirty games. In the next two seasons he would rack up over seventy goals and 164 points each time, in just over thirty games. Inferior league or not, the kid was averaging over five points a game playing against players in their twenties and thirties. In early 1986, he was the winner of the Young Player of the Year award and the prize was to attend the Calgary Flames training camp that summer.

At the start of that summer, a curious thing happened. News of his scoring exploits had somehow reached NHL scouts and he was drafted with the final pick -  that's 252nd overall - of the 86 draft by the Edmonton Oilers. So it was their training camp he found himself attending. He acquitted himself well there, lasting the entire two weeks without being cut. He impressed Oilers coach Glen Sather with his skills and vision. In fact, it was his opinion that the teenager possessed more on-ice intelligence than any of the other players there, with the exception of Wayne Gretzky, the Great One himself. Remember, not only was this an NHL team but the mighty Edmonton Oilers, one of the best teams ever assembled - just think about some of the players on that roster. Sather said that Hand was "a real prospect".

He would play in three games of Canadian major-junior with the WHL's Victoria Cougars, scoring four goals and eight points. But homesickness, coupled with the exhaustion from being such a target of the media, caused him to return home. That season with his home club, he exploded for 105 goals and 111 assists for 216 points - his first of four two hundred point seasons. He helped Canadian teammate Rick Fera score an astonishing 133 goals to lead the league in scoring. Fera had played Canadian major junior a few years prior with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. His teammates included future NHLers Rick Tocchet and Jeff Beaukeboom.

Another interesting fact about that season is that while Hand was third in league scoring with his linemate Fera taking the first spot, second belonged to a thirty-eight year old Gary Unger - veteran of over a thousand NHL games with nine thirty-goal seasons to his credit. I think this helps us gauge the level of talent Hand had - Unger may have been past his prime but he was still a genuine NHL player and an above average one at that, as his stats attest - he was still good enough to rack up a league-leading 143 assists along with 95 goals in the Scottish league. And Hand - still just nineteen at the time - was right up there with him.

The following summer he would return to Canada to train with the Cougars and he was offered a contract to play for Edmonton's farm team in Nova Scotia - but he turned it down, figuring he could make more money back home. Years later, he would reflect that perhaps he'd made a mistake and that he should have renegotiated the offer and given playing pro hockey in North America a real try. Sather -  a man who certainly knew something about hockey talent - believed he really could have progressed playing against better competition and I have to agree.

So for the next two decades Hand would continue to play for teams in Scotland, putting up astronomical stats well into his thirties. In his final season with the Racers, 93/94,  he would have his best statistical season with 72 goals and 150 assists for 222 points in only forty-four games.

In 2001 he became a player-coach - a role he continues to play to this day in his forties. I urge you to look him up to get all the details of his incredible career.

But it's the career that might have been that I think about the most. Could he have made it to the NHL? Could he have flourished there? Considering his skills and intelligence, I have to believe he could. He was modest 5'10, 185 pounds - roughly the size of a player like Dale Hawerchuck - but he played a fairly physical brand of hockey. Certainly playing in any league in North America would have been an adjustment but he seemed to have no problem with the OHL, even if it was only a very brief stint.

The NHL still awaits its first Scottish born and raised superstar. Maybe someday.


xxJMTxx said...

poor kid..too young to die...-#2

orc145626 said...

this list is amazing. AWESOME JOB BRO!