Friday, February 8, 2013

Kevin Todd

Despite a strong junior career with Prince Albert, Kevin Todd was never a sure-thing prospect. He was not a great skater. He was small and wiry.

"I was 18, and was injured during my draft year in Prince Albert. Because of being hurt, I dropped down several rounds," Todd said.

The New Jersey Devils picked him 129th overall in 1986. They let him play out his junior eligibility and then apprenticed in the minor leagues for a couple of years.

In Utica of the AHL Todd proved to be an very solid player. Then in 1990-91 he exploded into an AHL superstar, scoring 37 goals, 81 assists and 118 points in 75 games. He would win the John B. Sollenberger Trophy as the AHL's leading scorer as well as Les Cunningham Award as the league's MVP.

After three years pro and just 2 games called up to the Devils, there was no denying Todd his shot at the NHL in 1991-92. He made the most of his chance, playing in 80 games with the Devils and staying in the National Hockey League for most of the remainder of the decade.

The Devils gave Todd a full opportunity to replicate his AHL dominance in his rookie season and Todd came through. 21 goals, 42 assists and 63 points, plus another 3 goals and 5 points in 7 playoff games. He broke Kirk Muller's team record for most points by a rookie.

Unfortunately the story reached it's climax that season. The following year he stumbled out of the gate, scoring just 5 goals and 10 points in 30 games before being traded to Edmonton with Zdeno Ciger for Bernie Nicholls.

Todd finished the year in Edmonton, then moved to Chicago before reinventing himself in Los Angeles. He became a good defensive forward known for his face-off ability. He worked hard along the boards, using his wide stance to maintain his balance to offset his lack of size in these battles. He played admirably in a third line role with the Kings and has been on record saying that that season was his favorite of his career.

Todd finished his career with two seasons down the street in Anaheim. All told, this one time NHL long shot played in 383 NHL games. He scored 70 goals, 133 assists and 203 points. 

Todd extended his career in Switzerland but retired after suffering a neck injury in his first season overseas. 

Todd travelled the world thanks to hockey - from Chicago to Hollywood, from Disneyland to Europe. So where did he set up shop once he hung up his blades? Back in Utica where he may have enjoyed his best hockey days. He opened a successful sports store which he later sold. At last report he opened a laser hair restoration service in the area.

Who does Todd credit for making him into a NHL player - former Utica coach Tommy McVie.

" Tom pushed defense, and I learned about conditioning and personal accountability - which was non-negotiable. Tom taught us the basics of hockey, and was the biggest influence in me making it to the NHL", Todd tells. " I had no clue on how to play defense in my own end, until I came to Utica. I went from a scorer in the minors to a checker in the NHL. He taught me 95% of what I know about hockey".


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Uli Hiemer

Uli Hiemer is a legend in German hockey circles. He also had a good three seasons with the New Jersey Devils but elected to return to Germany to play with Dusseldorfer instead of pursuing a NHL career.

Hiemer played his junior hockey at the same time as NHL veteran Uwe Krupp. Hiemer, two years older, was considered to be a better player at that time. Hiemer was drafted 48th overall by the Colorado Rockies in 1981 while the gigantic Krupp was drafted 223rd overall in 1983.

Hiemer joined the relocated Rockies in New Jersey in 1984 after representing Germany in the Canada Cup tournament. He played in 53 games scoring 5 goals and 29 assists. Three of his goals came against Pittsburgh on Hallowe'en 1984, establishing a franchise record for goals by a defenseman in one game.

Hiemer would struggle along with the rest of the Devils the next two seasons. He played another 90 games but also saw time in the American Hockey League. He became the first German-born player to play regularly in NHL history, but after three years was still having problems adjusting to the more rugged North American style of game.

"Hiemer had a lot of trouble adjusting," recalls his head coach, Doug Carpenter. "European teams don't play as often as we do, and the traveling just doesn't compare. The hockey is played at a different pace, too. All in all, it's quite a shock."

"So what I did," continued Carpenter, "was let Hiemer get his feet wet on our power play. He's good at that, see. And so he gradually got the idea that he could carry the puck and pass it effectively in this league. With that confidence, he was able to take on more and more work."

Hiemer returned to Germany in 1987. In 143 NHL games he scored 19 times and had 73 points. 11 of his 19 goals came on the power play.

In addition to his NHL experience, Hiemer represented Germany in three Olympic tournaments, nine World Championships and one Canada Cup tournament in his 14 years of service with the German national team. He also was a standout with Dusseldorfer upon his return to Germany, scoring over 200 goals in his career in the German leagues.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Randy Velischek

When you break down Randy's game, you kind of wonder how he managed to play in the NHL for more than 500 games He was at best average at such things as skating skills, shooting and offensive creativity. He wasn't the strongest or most physical d-man though he could hold his own. 

If you look at the sum of his parts, you could call him an overachiever. But what Randy lacked in natural skill, he made up for in great hockey sense and intelligence.  When you combined his average skills with his above average mental understanding of his own game and his desire to be a good hockey player, you had a pretty dependable defenseman in Randy Velischek

Velischek was almost always positionally perfect. He understood what his job was and what the opposing forward was going to do. He was a master of using defensive angles to thwart oncoming forwards. He understood his own limitations at the NHL level and learned to play within them, thus allowing him to succeed and become a nice NHLer for parts of 10 seasons..

Born in Montreal, Randy was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars in 1980 (53rd overall). At the time the Montreal native had just completed his first year at Providence College where he played solidly. But 3 years later Velischek blossomed into a standout prospect as he had an amazing year in his final ECAC season. He had 52 points in 41 games, including 18 goals. He was a All Star and All American and finished 2nd in Hobey Baker Award balloting (behind Harvard's Mark Fusco). He was also a great student as he graduated magna cum laude

Velischek finished his strong year by playing his first 3 NHL games at the end of the season. He also played in 9 playoff games. The rookie didn't pick up a point and was used sparingly, but the experience was great as Randy learned a lot just by practicing with the professionals, and by being a part of the North Stars "Cinderella Run" to the Stanley Cup finals.

Many great things were expected from him after that incredible final season of college hockey, and his promising debut in the NHL. However things did not go according to plan. The North Stars went from a promising young team to a floundering one, due largely to the fact that they didn't develop their players properly.

Randy himself never got a great chance in Minnesota. He lacked the skills to be an offensive d-men that people had perhaps expected him to become. He spent the next two seasons developing solidly defensively but not putting up any significant offensive numbers. As a result the Stars sent him to the minors for a total of 69 games and became disenchanted with him.

The Stars exposed Velischek in the pre-season waiver draft in October 1985 where he was eagerly snatched up by the New Jersey Devils. Lou Lamoriello was the Devil's general manager who picked up Velischek in one of his earliest pickups. Lamoriello, now universally hailed as a hockey genius, was well aware of what Randy could do. The two were together at Providence College  several years earlier.
After one season split between NJ and the minors, Randy become a steady and unheralded defenseman. 

Often paired with Joe Cirella, Velischek was finally being utilized properly and given a chance to thrive. He would develop into what many would call the perfect 5th or 6th defenseman.

Randy spent a total of 5 seasons in NJ before he was shipped to Quebec on August 13, 1990. He was dealt to complete the big Peter Stastny deal earlier in the year. The Nords wanted a veteran d-man to help out their youngsters.

Randy spent a year and a half with the Nords before being sent to the minors. He remained in the minors for 3 years to complete his pro hockey career. He briefly made a 3 game appearance with the Durham Wasps of the British Hockey League in 1995-96 before he was released from his contract so that he could join the New Jersey Devil's media department.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Grant Marshall

This is Grant Marshall. He was an energetic grinder with good mixture of size, speed and toughness. He was an aggressive forechecker who could surprise with underrated offensive ability.

Marshall would play 10 seasons and 700 games in the NHL, scoring 92 goals and 239 points. He helped Dallas (1999) and New Jersey (2003) win Stanley Cups. All in all, a pretty nice hockey career.

One thing you can be sure of is that Grant Marshall appreciated every moment in the NHL. That's because he almost never made it. On a December night in 1990 the young Ottawa 67s forward lay on the ice, a victim of a nasty hit from behind. His neck was broken, and he was paralyzed.

Everybody thought he was done, of course. How could you not think that. That paralysis proved to be temporary, no small miracle in itself. He hung around the team wearing a halo screwed into his to immoblize his broken vertebrae.

He kept an upbeat attitude, saying in hindsight "When you're a kid you don't know much. You just roll with it." Though no one knew if he would ever play hockey again, he earned so much respect from his teammates and around the hockey world for his contributions to the 67's off the ice.

Well, his teammates mostly showed respect.

"They used to hang jock straps on (the halo)," said Marshall to Ottawa Sun reporter Chris Stevenson.

He was an inspiration to anyone who knew his story. So you can imagine the spark he provided when he returned to the ice in the playoffs in 1991.

"I remember it was the conference finals and we were playing against Eric Lindros," recalled Marshall. "I went out there and tried hitting him. I did a 180-degree face plant and the rest, as they say, is history."

Marshall, who also battled temporary deafness as a kid, never knew how to back down. It would become his trademark throughout his lengthy National Hockey League career.

After being picked in the first round (23rd overall) of the 1992 draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, he paid his dues in the minors for a couple of years before establishing himself as a regular with the Dallas Stars. He was part of that franchise's growth into a Stanley Cup champion in 1999.

After a couple of years in Columbus, Marshall was acquired by the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline in 2003. Chipping in nicely with 6 goals in 24 games, Marshall enjoyed a second Stanley Cup championship.

Marshall would play a couple more seasons in New Jersey before exiting the NHL in 2006.

Looking back on his life changing injury, Marshall has taken what he can from the incident."

"I think I'm a better person for it," he said. "There are people who are hurting all the time and can't do anything about it. My family supported me and made my life a hell of a lot easier."

It's a great story about a great guy.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Paul Gagne

Paul Gagne was a high draft pick of the Colorado Rockies. Selected 19th overall in 1980, Gagne was never able to warrant such a high selection.

A tremendously popular player in New Jersey, Gagne was a capable left winger on some very weak Rockies/New Jersey Devils teams in the early and mid-1980s. However he was never able to demonstrate his offensive prowress he showed in his last year of junior when he scored 48 goals and 101 points in 65 OHA games. Gagne twice posted 20+ goal seasons at the NHL level, but was generally a 15 goal, 15 assist role player who was being asked to fulfill a role of 1st or 2nd line left wing. Blessed with good speed, Gagne was particularly hindered by his lack of size and strength.

On March 25, 1986, in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, Gagne suffered a serious back injury. The injury left Gagne out not only for the rest of the season, but for the next two entire seasons! Gagne attempted a comeback in 1988-89, signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. He had a really good season at the AHL level, posting 33 goals and 74 points in just 56 games. He was also called up to the Leafs for 16 games.

Gagne returned to the minors the next year but a mid season trade saw him end up in the NY Islanders organization. Gagne spent most of the remainder of the season in the Isle's famr team in Springfield of the AHL, but also saw 9 games on Long Island, chipping in one goal.

That goal would prove to be his last NHL goal. At the completion of the 1990 season Gagne left North American hockey and headed to Europe where he njoyed some good seasons in Germany and Switzerland. Gagne stopped playing competitive hockey in Europe in 1996.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Joe Cirella

Long time New Jersey Devils defenseman Joe Cirella took a while to find his NHL groove. It did not help that high expectations were heaped upon him back in the 1980s when the Devils were one of the weakest teams in the league.

Cirella was actually drafted 5th overall in 1981 by the Colorado Rockies, and played his rookie season the following season in Denver. In 1982-83 the Rockies packed up and moved to New Jersey, but aside from 2 games Cirella did not. He was returned to junior, where he probably should have played the season before, too. He had only one season of junior behind him, and though he was dominant with the Oshawa Generals (at the end of the millennium he and Bobby Orr were named as the two greatest dmen in Generals history), he was clearly rushed into the National Hockey League and his confidence was shot because of that.

Cirella returned in 1983-84, this time to stay in the NHL for the next 13 years. Much of that time was spent with the Devils, but he also played with the Nordiques, the Rangers, the Panthers and ever so briefly with the Senators.

Cirella offered a big and strong presence in front of his own net and in the corners. He was not afraid to hit hard or to do the dirty work. He was certainly no heavyweight, but he was known to drop the gloves a few times each season.

Defensively he could be caught wandering out of position, and struggled with his back skating at any great speed. As he matured he learned to play within his limitations and offer solid minutes of play. He may be best remembered in New Jersey for playing on a tandem with Randy Velischek.

Skating forward was a strength for Cirella. He had a strong burst of speed off his first couple of strides, and caught the opposition by surprise by carrying the puck out of the New Jersey zone to relieve the pressure. He never had much agility or puck skills to do much more than hit the center line and dump the puck in.

In 828 games Joe Cirella scored 64 goals, 211 assists for 275 points. Most of his offense came from point shots from the blue line, though once in a while he would surprise everyone by jumping into the slot for a one timer.

Joe Cirella was a solid NHL depth defenseman for many years. Had he not been rushed out of junior and had better coaching and support early in his NHL career, he may have come closer to achieving the high expectations placed upon after his amazing junior season and high NHL draft ranking.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dave Pichette

Tall and lanky, Dave Pichette was an interesting player. He was an excellent power play pointman, as he showed with the New Jersey Devils in 1984-85 with 17 goals and 57 points. His PP prowess kept him in the league a long time, for a total of 322 games over 7 NHL seasons. He scored 41 goals, 140 assists for 181 points.

But he had several flaws in his game. He was very suspect defensively, often wandering out of position. To make matters worse he was incredibly slow and frail. Essentially, he was a power play specialist who rarely earned his coaches trust in any other aspect of the NHL game.

The closest he came was during that season with the Devils. But the next season he quickly fell back out of favor with coach Doug Carpenter. The Devils were a very bad team back then, and could have really used Pichette's PP ability. Shortly after Christmas that season he suffered a serious concussion thanks to a hit from Chicago's Wayne Presley. Pichette never really came back from that. He was soon out of the NHL altogether, but continued to play in the minor leagues and in Germany.


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