Saturday, July 16, 2016

Best Hockey Players to Play for Las Vegas

With the announcement that the NHL's thirty-first team, which will be added for the 17/18 season, is based in none other than Las Vegas, Nevada, I've decided to celebrate some of Sin City's hockey history with this list. From 1993 through 99, the now defunct IHL included the Las Vegas Thunder, a short-lived team to be sure, but one that had quite a lot of interesting players, including many NHL fans are familiar with. For six seasons the Thunder were a mixed bag but always entertaining. They were arguably the first team to prove that professional hockey in the desert could indeed work.

From the outspoken and frequent Off The Record guest, enforcer Lyndon Byers (31 games and 176 penalty minutes in 93/94) to high scoring minor league defenceman ace (and former Cape Breton Oiler) Greg Hawgood (a 20 goal, 85 point season in 95/96) to diminutive NHL scorer Daniel Briere (a single game during the team's 97/98 season), the Thunder boasted lots of noteworthy and interesting talent. Brent Gretzky represented Vegas at one time (96/97) and so did longtime Detroit Red Wings goalie Manny Legace, several years before reaching the NHL (97/98) and sharing the net with former Red Wings goalie, Tim Cheveldae. And how about Manon Rheaume? Remember her? The female goaltender who once played an exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning? Well, she played two actual-for-serious regular season games for the Thunder in 1994.

But enough with the honourable mentions/shoutouts (and honestly, there could be more; for more on the team's history follow this link); let's get to the best.

5. Petr Nedved, LW (1997-99)/Curtis Joseph, G (95/96)
He doesn't want anyone to know he played there, I guess
In terms of sheer talent and career, Nedved would rank higher if he hadn't been limited to just 16 games spread over the 97/98 and 98/99 seasons. After leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins due to a contract dispute following the conclusion of the 96/97 NHL season, Nedved returned to his native Czech Republic to play for Sparta Praha. But he would return to North America towards the end of the season, still unhappy with his NHL contract but still technically Pittsburgh property, to join the Thunder for three games. He acquitted himself very well, scoring 3 goals and 6 points but he didn't suit up for their playoff series. All summer his contract status with the Penguins went unresolved so he began the next season in Las Vegas, racking up 18 points in 13 games before being traded from the Penguins to the New York Rangers for Alex Kovalev.

The second overall pick of the 1990 NHL draft and a veteran of 982 NHL games, Nedved is easily one of the higher profile players to play for the Thunder.

The same rules apply to Joseph - heck, he could even be number one on this list if he'd played more games but as he started just 15, I've decided to have him share this slot with Nedved. And just like Nedved, it was a contract dispute that landed Joseph, certainly an NHL star in his own right, in Las Vegas. He played like one too, going 12, 2 and 1 with a sparkling .929 save percentage and miniscule 1.99 goals against average before returning to the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. Cujo was definitely the most talented and accomplished man to ever guard the net in Las Vegas.

4. Sergei Zholtok, C (1995-97)
Zholtok is one of several one-time Las Vegas Thunder players to meet a premature and tragic end. During the NHL lockout year of 2004/05, he was playing in his native Latvia for Riga 2000 in the Latvian National  Hockey Championship and the Open Belarus Hockey Championship when he left a game with five minutes remaining, collapsing in the dressing room and dying. He had a pre-existing cardiac arrhythmia and ultimately died of heart failure. He was thirty-one years old.

But back when his professional career was in its early stages, the Boston Bruins draft pick (55th in 1992) would move from the AHL with Providence (the Bruins's AHL farm team) in the 94/95 season to the IHL to play for the Thunder. He played every game of the 95/96 season with them and established himself as a star in the league, scoring 51 goals and 101 points and adding 20 points in 15 playoff games.

He would begin the 96/97 season again in Las Vegas, scoring 13 goals and 27 points in 19 games before returning to the NHL (he'd played sparingly for the Bruins a few years before) as an Ottawa Senator. He would go on to be an NHL regular, also playing for the Canadiens, Oilers, Wild and Predators until his untimely death. He's probably the greatest hockey player to ever come out of Latvia besides Sandis Ozolinsh.

His 95/96 season in Las Vegas is one of the greatest offensive seasons in the team's history - only one other player had a 50 goal season for them and only two others managed 100 points in one, including his teammate Patrice Lefebvre.

3. Radek Bonk, C (1993-95)
In its day (1945-2001), the IHL was an interesting league. It coexisted alongside the AHL, providing the same function (farm system for NHL teams) and containing players of basically the same skill level. I'm not sure when the rule was implemented but at least during the period that the Las Vegas Thunder was in operation, players under eighteen years of age were eligible to play. Nowadays in the AHL, no underage players are permitted and even eighteen and nineteen year olds are extraordinarily rare due to the current rules. It's led to the awkward problem of North American players who have proven ridiculously dominant in the CHL (Canada's three major junior leagues) but may not be quite ready to play in the best professional league in the world (um, the NHL) having no choice but to return to junior even though it's unlikely to help their development.

Anyway, I mentioned all that because this entry, Radek Bonk (one of the best names in sports, right?), was one of the IHL's such players - a seventeen year old foreign import who was talented and physically mature enough to play pro, but, as the NHL draft is for eighteen year olds, couldn't yet play on the biggest stage. He signed with the Thunder for their inaugural season and was an instant sensation. He finished third on the team in scoring with 87 points, including 42 goals. He even wore the flashy #76 (worn by the likes of P.K. Subban in the NHL these days) for them; a far cry from his #14 with the Sens.

But the statistic I find most interesting about that year was his penalty minute total - 208 - that's in the range of an extremely physical player and in Bonk's case, a power forward who scores. That stat line is akin to players like Brendan Shanahan, Gary Roberts and Rick Tocchet. But here's the thing - if you knew Bonk from his days in the NHL, you'd remember him as a fairly mild mannered player. Even though he was 6'3 and around 215 pounds, in the NHL at least, he wasn't particularly physical at all and his PIM totals reflect that. His career high in the league is 66 - a very average amount.

Not having seen him play for the Thunder and since I can't really find much info on his season there, I can only theorize that Bonk's status as a hotshot seventeen year old who was also quite big caused his IHL opponents to take it upon themselves to challenge him physically. You don't put up over 200 penalty minutes without fighting. I can't recall him EVER fighting in the NHL but it must've happened at least a couple times.

So Bonk's awesome season led directly to him being drafted third overall by the Senators in the 94 draft. He likely would've jumped straight to the NHL the next year but a lockout delayed the 94/95 season and he played his first 37 games back in Vegas. We all know now that he never turned into the dominant star player he was envisioned to be but he was definitely one of Ottawa's most consistent and reliable players over the near decade that he played for them. He established himself as a good second line player with some scoring ability, topping out at 70 points in 01/02, but most years he was more in the range of 45 or so.

While he's most remembered as a solid if unspectacular player in the NHL, for the Las Vegas Thunder, he was one of their very best and brightest stars.

2. Pavol Demitra, LW (1996/97)
While most of his brief IHL career was spent with another franchise, the Grand Rapids Griffins (who shifted into the AHL when the IHL folded), Demitra's 22 game stint in Las Vegas in 96/97 can't be overlooked. Because...well, it's Pavol Demitra. As with Sergei Zholtok, Demitra is tragically no longer with us. One of the most talented and accomplished Slovakian players of all time, he was killed in September of 2011 along with the rest of his Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (KHL) teammates in a plane crash.

Like Bonk, Demitra was an Ottawa Senators draft pick, but he was at the other end of the spectrum, going 227th overall in 1993. He never really found his footing with the Sens but after playing in the IHL with the Thunder and Griffins, he joined the St. Louis Blues and soon developed into a star player. On the international stage, he was always one of Slovakia's best and most prominent players. This was punctuated nicely at the 2010 Olympics where he was named Best Forward after leading the tournament in points.

A brief teammate of his in Las Vegas was Belrussian defenceman, Ruslan Salei, who also carved out a very respectable NHL career. But unfortunately, that wasn't their only link. Salei was also a member of Yaraslav Lokomtiv  in 2011 and was killed in the crash as well. So that's three former Las Vegas Thunder players I'm aware of who died prematurely.

1. Alexei Yashin, C (94/95)
By now it's pretty clear that the Ottawa Senators are the NHL team with the strongest link to Las Vegas. That's all going to change in a year but the history will always be interesting. Like Bonk, Yashin was a top three pick at the NHL draft (1992 this time) for Ottawa but unlike Bonk, proved right away he was a genuine star at the NHL level. It's only because of the lockout in 1994 that a player of his calibre wound up playing for the Thunder. He and Bonk were actually teammates that year so right off the bat Bonk got to meet the guy who would keep him from being a number one centre in the NHL.

And while I could probably devote several lists to Yashin based on the kind of career he's had, mostly due to the reputation he would develop as an underachiever whose heart didn't match up to his talent, in Vegas he pretty much delivered. In the only 24 games he would ever spend at the minor league level, Yashin showcased his all-world skills, racking up 15 goals and 35 points. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the 94/95 NHL season did eventually start and their Russian star returned to the big league so they were without him down the stretch and for the playoffs.

With 781 points in 850 NHL games (an impressive total especially
considering he sat out the entire 99/00 NHL season with a contract dispute right smack in the middle of his most productive years), I think it's safe to say the enigmatic and sometimes frustrating Yashin was the greatest hockey talent to ever play in service of the city of Las Vegas. With the NHL about to put a team there I guess that won't be true for much longer. But you never know.