Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Story of Mikko Leinonen

A few days ago I noted that one of Wayne Gretzky's 60 existing NHL records is shared by a fairly obscure player, Mikko Leinonen. In April, 1982 Leinonen set the NHL record for assists in a playoff game with six.

Mikko Leinonen began playing for his hometown team Tappara Tampere in the Finnish professional league as an 18 year old. He played four seasons finishing in top six of league scoring the last two seasons. As a 22 year old he transfered to Modo in the Swedish league and finished fourth in scoring with 44 points in 36 games, one behind future Canuck Tomas Gradin.

After one more year in Sweden, he went back to Finland with Karpat Oulu where he put up back-to-back 52 point in 36 games seasons.

During the 79/80 season Leinonen suited up for Finland in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and scored 6 goals and 10 points in the 7 matches. He also played in the 1981 Canada Cup were he scored only 1 assist in 5 games. It was at this tournament that he and fellow Finn Reijo Ruotsalainen were signed by the New York Rangers.

Upon joining the Rangers training camp, Leinonen played on a line with Anders Hedberg and the comback attempting, 42 year old Bobby Hull. Neither Hull nor Leinonen made a big enough impact as Hull, (who hadn't skated in 18 months) hung up the blades for good and Leinonen was sent to Springfield of the AHL. He would score 4 goals and 6 points in 6 games before being recalled to the Rangers.

Leinonen ended up spending most of the first half of the season in the press box. He was quoted,"You learn nothing when you watch. The game looks easy from the outside but you don't see the speed of it." When he finally drew into the line-up, he started to produce. After a game in early March in which Leinonen scored two goals and added an assist, his coach Herb Brooks said, "We finally said, 'Let's find out about him, let's give him a certain number of games, give him a job and see how he does' ".

Leinonen finished his rookie NHL year playing 53 games, scoring 11 goals and 31 points. On April 8, 1982 in the Rangers second playoff game against the Flyers, Leinonen erupted for his record breaking night. He notched his first helper on a Carol Vadnais goal less than two minutes into the match, then had assists on second period powerplay markers by Don Maloney and Robbie Ftorek in the second period. With 1:10 left in the second he assisted on Dave Silk's goal to make it 5-2 New York. 4:31 into the third period Leinonen assisted on Rob McClanahan goal then finished up assisting on Eddie Johnstone's late powerplay goal.

According to the Pittsburgh Press newspaper Leinonen "constantly skated from one side of the rink to the other" on the powerplay. Brooks compared him to a "center fielder in baseball. 'He's got good broken field running instincts'", changing his metaphor mid-stream to football.

After the game Leinonen said, "I heard them announce some records. I didn't know anything about them before, but it's nice to know afterward that I received some records. But it's no big difference if I score a record. If the team is winning, I am satisfied." Well, the Rangers would beat the Flyers three games to one, but were taken down by the Islanders in the next round four games to two. Other than a late goal to make it 7-2 for the Islanders in a game two loss, Leinonen was pointless in round two and he would miss three of the six games in the second round. He finished the playoffs with 1 goal and 6 assists in 7 games played.
The next season, 1982/83, Leinonen played full-time with the Rangers and tallied 17 goals, 51 points in 78 games. He played 7 of the 9 playoff games scoring 4 points as the Rangers lost once again to the Isles in the second round. In 83/84 Leinonen played more than half the season in the CHL with the Tulsa Oilers gaining 38 points in 33 games. Upon returning to New York he scored points at an NHL career best rate with 3 goals, 23 assists and 26 points in 28 games. His success did not carry over into the playoffs with a mere 2 assists in a five game first round loss to, yes, the Islanders.
Leinonen returned home to Finland as a free agent to once again play for Karpat Oulu where he
scored 19 goals, 34 points in 35 games. The Washington Capitals signed him for the stretch run on March 13, 1985 but inadvertantly violated league rules when they lent Leinonen to Karpat for their playoffs before bringing him back to the NHL.
He played only three regular season games with Washington before being suspended for the Caps first playoff match by John Ziegler. Washington was also fined $7000 for the violation. He played only one playoff game in the Capitals first round ouster at the hands of....the Islanders.
In 1985/86, at the age of 30 he played his last full season with Karpat Oulu dropping off to 23 points in 36 games. He retired after the following season.
Mikko Leinonen played a total of 162 NHL games, tallying 78 assists and 109 points, and one NHL record shared with Wayne Gretzky.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Gretzky 50, I'm feeling old

I recall vividly collecting O-Pee-Chee hockey cards in 1980, Gretzky's rookie year. I was 9 years old and the scoring exploits of this guy fascinated and amazed me. The magazine pictured above was issued by Scholastic books in 1980 and was perhaps my very first non-hockey card related piece of hockey memorabilia, even back then I knew to keep it in good condition.

I cut out newspaper articles and photos to put in scrapbooks, I made my own Gretzky hockey cards and drew pictures of him. Hockey stickers were collected and traded and in 1982 I distinctly remember having about twenty of Gretzky's card from the 81/82 set. Even then however my Leafs were number one as I recall trading a Gretzky oversize card straight-up for the Darryl Sittler one.

So yes....the fact that Wayne Gretzky is 50 years old now brings back recollections of youth and makes me feel that much older, (I am turning 40 this summer after-all).

Even this long after Gretzky retired, he still holds 60 NHL records having only had one of his more obscure ones taken from him. Upon retirement he held the record for most career assists in regular season overtime with 15. He has since been tied by Doug Gilmour and passed by Adam Oates with 17 and new record holder Mark Messier with 18. Most recently, Niklas Lidstrom tallied his 16th career overtime helper.

Of Gretzky's remaining records, few really are in any jeopardy. Seeing as he is tied with 10 other players with 4 goals in one period, it is not unfathomable that someone could score 5 in a period. Likewise, one day someone may score 8 assists in a game to surpass Gretz and Billy Taylor or score 5 points in one period of a playoff game or All-Star game (nine others have also scored 4 in a playoff period, two others 4 in an All-Star period).

Who's to say Alex Ovechkin wont have six more 50 goal seasons over his career to surpass Mike Bossy and Gretzky's nine each. And maybe, just maybe someday a player can fluke their way to 24 straight games with an assist with a few cheap second assists along the way.

Gretzky's 6 assists in one playoff game (tied with Mikko Leinonen of the Rangers) is not unbreakable. Incidentally in the other six games of the 1981/82 playoffs Leinonen scored zero assists.

Gretzky's most "common" record would be Most Assists, One Playoff Period with 3. He has done it on five occasions, but the feat has been accomplished at least 70 other times. Ray Bourque did it three time, Toe Blake, Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr have done it twice each. This one should fall eventually.

It's fairly safe to say then that around 50 of Gretzky's records are pretty safe, and should stand the test of time.

For the record, my favourite Gretzky record is his scoring exactly 100 goals in a season, playoffs included of course. In 1983/84 he has 87 in 74 regular season games and 13 more in 19 playoff games. Even is Steven Stamkos were to score 60 this year or Ovechkin 70 next year, they would have to score 40 and 30 goals each in the playoffs alone. Remember the record for one playoff year is 19. Mind-boggling.
Pictured is the magazine that was handed out for free in minor hockey dressing rooms of the early 1980's by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

UBC tender signed by San Jose

Just before 2pm this afternoon, Jordan White of the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds was signed to a one game amateur tryout with the San Jose Sharks. The NHL stipulates a player must be signed by 2pm in order to play in that evening's game, and White just made the deadline. Sharks goalie Antero Niittymaki was injured in the game day skate necessitating the emergency signing.
This season White has a 7-11 record for UBC with a GAA of 3.51 and Save Pct. of .876 in starting every game for the T-Birds. Last season he went 4-7 with a 3.91 GAA. Also last season he was in net for UBC in an exhibition against the Norweigian Olympic team and lost 4-1.
He played 34 games over two seasons in the WHL an had a 4.83 GAA to go with a won loss record of 2-26-2. Yes, 2-26-2.
He did however have a game with Portland in 2007/08 in which he stopped 68 shots in a 4-0 loss.

Return of Wellwood and the miracle of Chris Tanev

Ok, back home from two weeks in Maui I have not been in touch with the hockey world as I would have liked. Although, I did manage to watch the Canada/Russia Gold medal game on a patio in Lahaina...with the audio on even! I caught the Leafs at Los Angeles on Fox Sports West in my condo and barely managed to keep my fantasy pools all up to date. Perhaps worse I missed four games of my own two beer league teams, (they went a collective 0-2-2, which makes me feel a little better). Now it's back to full hockey immersion.

Kyle Wellwood makes his return to the NHL tonight when San Jose visits Vancouver. Apparently he will centre the third line of Benn Ferreiro and fellow newcomer Ben Eager. In 25 games with KHL's Atlant Wellwood scored 5 goals and had 3 helpers while averaging 8:39 of playing time per game. He hasn't played a game since December 29th when he notched a goal in a 4-3 loss to Dinamo Minsk. In that game he actually played 12:29 in 13 shifts. This was less playing time however than Atlant teammates and fellow ex-NHLers Fedor Fedorov, 39 year old Oleg Petrov and Jan Bulis who played seven minutes more than Wellwood.

On the Canuck front, mounting injuries to their defense have led to the call-up of rookie Chris Tanev. Tanev is less than two years removed from playing Tier II hockey in Ontario with the Markham Waxers. The undrafted 22 year old parlayed a 41 point season with Markham into a spot with R.I.T. of the NCAA. He signed with the Vancouver organization after a nifty 28 point year in college and this year with the Manitoba Moose has 9 points in 39 games.

The rise from Tier II hockey to the NHL in a year and a half is simply remarkable. One other player this season however has followed a slightly similar path to Tanev's. Brandon Pirri starred with the Streetsville Derbys and Georgetown Raiders that same OJHL that Tanev was in Markham. Pirri however is two years younger and was drafted in the second round by Chicago in 2009. He would also play US college hockey scoring 43 points last year with RPI. This year Pirri has 5 goals and 10 assists for AHL's Rockford and played one game with the Blackhawks.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tony Demers - From Running with The Rocket to Prison

The story of Tony Demers is a case of promise unfullfilled and ultimate tragedy. Born in Chambly, Quebec in 1917, Demers began his professional hockey career with the Lachine Rapides of the QPHL in 1938/39. The following year with the Valleyfield V's he notched 30 goals in 35 games as well as playing 14 games with the Montreal Canadiens.

In 1940/41 he played a full season with the Habs and scored 13 goals and 23 points. The next year due to injuries he was limited to 7 games (and 7 points) in the big leagues and 14 more games back with Valleyfield. The next year of 1942/43 The Rocket arrived in Montreal. Tony Demers began the season on a line with the rookie Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach. It was Demers' first goal of the year which allowed Richard to gain his first ever NHL point on an assist. Richard however would only play 16 games as a rookie on account of a leg injury. Along with Lach playing only one game the previous year and Demers continuing injury woes, the unit was dubbed The Ambulance Line. Demers ended up with 7 points in 9 games in 42/43 and a longer injury list.

At the begining of the following year Demers was dealt to the New York Rangers and played 25 games for the AHL Providence Reds tallying 21 points. He would suit up for only one game with the Blueshirts this year before returning to the QPHL and Lachine in 1944/45. Of course, this season Maurice Richard scored 50 goals for the Habs and Montreal won the Stanley Cup. At the age of 27, Demers would never play in the NHL again.

Demers played the next four seasons in the Quebec circuit scoring 79, 68, 108 and 111 points each season and led in goals scored twice. It was at the end of the 48/49 when his legal troubles began in earnest. He was accused of betting on the outcome of game near the end of the season and was suspended for the first ten matches of of the next year. He would never serve the suspension.

On Sept. 16, 1949 Demers was arrested in the beating of his female aquaintance after a night of drinking together turned bad. Doctors would inform police that the victim appeared to have been beaten while Demers insisted the injuries were sustained when she jumped from his moving car. She died the following day and on Sept. 19 Tony Demers was charged with manslaughter. In November he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was released after serving 6 years. Demers never played hockey again. He died in 1997 at the age of 80.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Nazzy and the First Rounders

Maple Leaf top prospect and first round pick from two years ago Nazem Kadri has been sent back to the AHL, obviously the correct move by the team (he was so happy about it he got into a fight in his first Marlie game back). The kid has yet to even play 20 games in the AHL, there is no shame in developing slowly but surely. The pressure of being a first round pick of a team as scrutinized and short of talent as Toronto is hard enough, and the truth is, rarely have the Leafs ever suceessfully developed first round forwards througout their history. If indeed any of these picks have slightly panned out, it was most certainly with at least a full season or two in the minors.

The only other recent forward Toronto has selected in the first round was Jiri Tlusty in 2006 and the jury is still out on him, (although they won't be out for long). Before that. the last first round picks spent on a forward position was when they selected the following;

Alex Steen, 24th overall in 2002. Spent three full seasons in Sweden after being drafted and wasn't a full-time NHLer until age of 21. He of course was traded away...for Lee Stempniak...along WITH Carlo Colaiacovo.

Brad Boyes, 24th overall in 2000. He played 238 games in the AHL before becoming an NHL regular as a 23 year old, in St. Louis.

Luca Cereda, 24th overall in 1999. Played 161 AHL games, never made the big time.

Nik Antropov, 10th overall in 1998. Would play one full season in Russia after being drafted and played a half year in the AHL along with two and a half unproductive years in the NHL. Didn't contribute regularly unil he was 22.

Landon Wilson, 19th in 1993. Played two more years of college after the draft as well as a full season in the AHL before being traded away.

Brandon Convery, 8th in 1992. He toiled in the "A" for 243 games and never really amounted to much in the NHL.

Grant Marshall, 23rd in 1992. Spent one year in each of the AHL and IHL and was lost to Dallas as free agent compensation....for signing Mike Craig.
Scott Thornton, 3rd in 1989. Played 114 AHL games before being traded away and not becoming a regular til age 23.
Rob Pearson, 12th in 1989. Would play only 30 AHL matches. In his first full season he became one of only 10 players to have at least 20 goals and 200 PIMS in a season which they were 21 or younger. Interestingly, of the ten one was a defenseman, Scott Stevens and four of them were Maple Leafs. Along with Pearson, Wendel Clark did it in both of his first two seasons, Rick Vaive once and Tiger Williams once. Unfortunately for Rob Pearson (and the Leafs), that was his pinnacle.
Scott Pearson, 6th in 1988. Played parts of three AHL seasons before barely becoming a regular as a 23 year old with Quebec when he scored 13 goals and 1 assist. He was the first player in almost 70 years to have that many goals with one or zero helpers, also the last to it since.
From 1983 to 1986 the Leafs actally would do well selecting forwards in the first round and it showed in the fact that none of the three players played even one game in the minors.
Vincent Damphousse, 6th in 1986.
Wendel Clark, 1st in 1985.
Russ Courtnall, 7th in 1983.
These three would go on to play exactly 3200 NHL games and a collectve 21 seasons in Toronto. The first rounder they took among these three in 1984, defenseman Al Iafrate also played almost 800 NHL games. So from '83 to '86 their first round picks were terrific, and still the losing continued.
In summary most individuals except the very top tier player, require seasoning in the minor leagues. This isn't to say that Kadri will not be a top player, we can't be sure yet. History says we will find out in the next few years though.

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