Written by Dixon Ward, Vice President, Okanagan Hockey Group
As this being All-Star week in the NHL I thought I would talk about some of the best players that I had the chance to play with during my career. Players from all over the world rise to a level of stardom in the NHL which is a true testament that our game is profoundly global. It is easy for us to focus on our own communities, provinces, and even Canada as a whole, however, there are great players from all corners of the world. Over the years at Okanagan Hockey, we have seen players from over 30 different countries attend our camps and academies. From Australia, Korea, Slovakia, Russia, Germany, Mexico just to name a few. Okanagan Hockey has become a global company and we have had the opportunity to work with and learn from, kids from all over the world.
When I think about the best Canadian I ever had the chance to play with, the obvious choice would be Wayne Gretzky. Arguably the greatest player of all time, Gretzky currently holds or shares 61 NHL scoring records. He started skating at the age of two and early on in his minor hockey days, he showed signs of being a very special player. In his Novice season, he set an Ontario record with 310 goals. By the age of 17, he was playing professional hockey in the WHA.
Growing up in Leduc, Alberta I was a die-hard Oilers fan throughout the ’80s and Gretzky was, of course, my idol. He was a 9 time Hart Trophy winner for league MVP and led the league in scoring seven times during that decade. I copied everything he did right down to the jersey tuck and blue blades on my skates. Having the opportunity to watch him play throughout the early years had a profound impact on me as a player. I learned so much about how to think the game just by watching him. The subtlety of his deception and game manipulation was extraordinary and his competitive spirit was infectious to anyone who watched him. Gretzky was motivated to be the best but was also driven by a strange paranoia, “Besides having total respect for the game, I had this fear of getting cut.” Gretzky boldly stated a few years ago. “I had this fear of getting sent to the minors. So I approached every game and practice like it was my last. It was something my dad taught me at a young age and I never got rid of that feeling. I never took advantage of what I was or who I was, I looked at it like gosh I got to be good tonight, better than I was last game”
Gretzky would go on to win four Stanley Cups during his time in Edmonton and put the City of Champions on the map. The star power of the OIlers in the ’80s is something that we will never see again in this day and age of salary caps and hockey parity. Something Gretzky knows all too well, “I was on a great hockey club in Edmonton. The memories that I have and the players I played with and the championships we won and we are still friends today all those guys I played with. We were kids growing up loving playing hockey, we didn’t think that one day you are going to be in the hall of fame, we were just playing hockey and practicing and trying to be the best we could be. We were fortunately led by the right guy and Glen Sather let us play a system and style that we were comfortable with what happened to be very offensive. We figured out how to combine that offense with defense and became very successful and became champions. The rest is history.”
Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988 shocked everyone, especially me. While totally devastated at the time, little did I know, that move to the Kings would end up being one of the best things to ever happen to me as a hockey player. Even though I didn’t know that at the time, fast forward 10 years and I find myself on the left-wing alongside Gretzky and Kurri in my first game with the LA Kings. This was never supposed to happen, how did I end up here? Not long before I had these guy’s posters in my room. Needless to say, I was not only extremely nervous, but I could also barely breathe. The game was a blur and I was not at all good. I remember coming off the ice and walking straight into the coach’s office. I looked at Barry Melrose, our Head Coach at the time, and said “don’t ever do that to me again”, put me on the 3rd or 4th line where I belong”. By then he didn’t need any convincing and that is exactly where I went.
As great as Wayne was, his greatest attribute was his character. He was kind, generous, loyal, and the most humble man I ever met. For this reason, he will always be the greatest in my eyes, regardless of his on-ice accomplishments.
The best American I ever played with is a little tougher to narrow down, but if I had to pick just one guy, Pat Lafontaine would be at the top. I had the pleasure of playing with Patty in Buffalo for a couple of years and saw first-hand the incredible skill that he possessed. One of just 9 Americans to reach the 1000 point plateau in the NHL, I often wonder how much more Lafontaine would have accomplished if not for concussions derailing his great career. His best season in the NHL was in the early ’90s when he scored 53 goals, collected 148 points and helped Alexander Mogilny score 76 times. Growing up he idolized Guy Lafleur of the Canadiens and Gilbert Perreault of the Sabres. Fortunately for him, he played his junior hockey in Verdun and got to see a lot of the Habs. He studied the action on the ice and tried to incorporate those things into his game.
His skating, puck handling and playmaking ability was as good as I had ever seen. Longtime Islanders broadcaster Jiggs McDonald might have described him best when he said, “We always talk about Wayne Gretzky’s vision and how he saw plays before they happened. Patty had a degree of that, not to the extent that Wayne did, but very close.” Like the Gretzky I knew and played with in LA, Lafontaine is a top-quality human being and a gracious leader, Pat made everyone feel important regardless if you were a rookie or a 10-year veteran. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, he was somewhat of a trailblazer and inspiration for a lot of USA hockey players. When Patty broke into the NHL, Keith Tkachuk was 11 years old, Bill Guerin was 13 and Jeremy Roenick was 14. At that impressionable age, those three teenagers had an All-American idol to worship and emulate. Lafontaine showed them how a kid from Detroit could be a dazzling and productive superstar in the National Hockey League.
Although he was blessed with an amazing skill set, Patty was crazy about his skates. They had to be just right in order for him to be comfortable. He was so obsessed with the perfect feel, that he would get off the plane in whatever city we were in and instead of heading to the hotel with the team, he would go straight to the rink and sharpen his own skates until they were perfect. He would work on them into the night and skate by himself until he felt they were ready. For players like him, being comfortably mentally was as important as the skates themselves. He had everything you wanted in a centre: speed, vision, hockey sense, defensive ability, scoring ability and an intensity and edge needed to be successful. He had the rare privilege to play for all three teams in New York State, New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers. In fact, since 2001, the winner of the regular-season series between the Rangers and Islanders is awarded the “Pat Lafontaine Cup” and the losing team must make a $50,000 charitable donation. Patty was such a great player and person that he has a trophy named after him. An incredible honour for a great American hockey player.
After thinking about the best European player that I had the chance to play with, I decided that it is a tie. Pavel Bure and Dominik Hasek. The “Russian Rocket” and “Dominator” played different positions, were from different countries and both were difference makers for their respective teams. Bure was over a point a game player and finished his career with almost 500 penalty minutes. He played on the edge and didn’t put up with anyone taking any liberties with him or his teammates. Hasek was incredible in between the pipes, winning the Vezina Trophy six times, the Hart Trophy twice and the Stanley Cup two times in Detroit. Dominik also won an Olympic Gold Medal, a nice accomplishment for a guy who screwed skate blades to the bottom of his shoes as a 5-year-old when trying out for his first hockey team in Pardubice, Czechoslovakia.
As a rookie with the Vancouver Canucks, I played my very first NHL game with Pavel Bure on the right-wing. I had heard all about the “Russian Rocket” through the media and from his accomplishments the year before. Little did I know that trying to keep up with him was a waste of time. He was so unbelievable explosive that if you were not prepared to move and more importantly, move the puck quickly, you would be left behind. Playing with Pavel kick-started my career in the NHL and for that, I will always be thankful to him. That year, he finished with a team record 60 goals and 50 assists. Myself, I ended up with 22 goals and 30 helpers the best year of my NHL career. Bure showed me and the rest of my teammates what it was like to care about winning. Winning was his number one priority no matter what. Learning lessons like that early on in your career and then seeing these patterns repeat themselves with other superstars shows the recipe for hockey success is not that complicated. Skill, will and a strong desire to win.
Dominik Hasek, in my opinion, was the greatest goalie to ever play the game. I played with the “Dominator” for 5 years in Buffalo. The fans in that city love and revere him as one of the Sabres all-time greats. He still runs his “Hasek Heroes” charity to help inner-city kids play hockey and returns to Buffalo a couple of times of year. Now as big as Hasek is in upstate New York, his popularity in his homeland is even more epic. For those who don’t know what a huge celebrity Hasek is in his home country, consider this, the Dominator is considering a run at becoming the new President of the Czech Republic in 2023. At his Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech, Hasek talked glowingly about the pride he has for the Czech Republic and I wish him success in his political journey.
On the ice, he was the most unique player that I have ever come across. He was our on-ice leader in Buffalo, locker room jokester and the most competitive guy you will ever see. He prepared more than anyone and worked harder on his game than any goalie I had ever played with in the NHL. For example, one day in practice, he asked us to all line up 20 feet in front of the goal to take shots. This was a normal drill that every goalie goes through, however, Dominik dropped his stick, put his hands behind his back and asked us to take slap shots at his head. He wanted to train himself not to flinch. By the end, his mask was broken, his helmet was cracked and all he said was “thanks” and skated off. An amazing goalie, a unique man, and a Hall of Famer.
At OHA, I had an opportunity to play with some of best players in the country and had coaches that pushed me to be my best, positioning me to play for the Penticton Vees and now the University of Denver.