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Tuesday, 16 September 2014 20:00

Dick Duff

Dick Duff was a winner.

Plain and simple.

He wasn’t big and he was never considered to be a prolific goal scorer, but the native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario always found a way to get it done, especially in important games.

And the gutsy left winger would do whatever it took to win.

“He would drop his gloves with anybody,” Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Bob Baun recently told Sportsnet. “I had a fight with him every practice!”

That last part was a bit of a reach, but the point was clear that Duff, though just five-foot-nine, 165 pounds, was fearless and played bigger than he stood.

Not surprisingly, his idol was Detroit Red Wings legend Ted Lindsay, who played his minor hockey in the summer in Kirkland Lake.

“He was the toughest, meanest bugger in the NHL,” Duff told Sportsnet.

Beyond being a feisty player, Duff could also produce and in key moments.

He started in the NHL with the Maple Leafs in 1955 at the age of 19, a graduate of St. Michael’s College where he won the Memorial Cup. It was quite apparent from the beginning that the Leafs held Duff in high regard, too, when owner Conn Smythe gave him sweater number nine, which had been worn by the legendary Ted Kennedy.

“When Mr. Smythe gave me Kennedy’s number, I knew they considered me a special player,” he said.

His first full season was 1955-56, when he played alongside George Armstrong and Tod Sloan. That first season he scored 18 goals, then had seasons of 26, 26 and 29, then a huge number.

He won the Stanley Cup with the Leafs in 1962 and 1963, scoring the Cup-winning goal in 1962, ending an 11-year championship drought for the Leafs. In that 1963 final, in the opening game, Duff set an NHL scoring record, with two goals in the first 1:08 of the game, the fastest pair ever from the start of a playoff game and they came against the Detroit Red Wings star goaltender Terry Sawchuk.

In his ninth full season with the Leafs, Duff was traded to the New York Rangers in a 1964 blockbuster seven-player deal that saw Andy Bathgate come to Toronto. The following season he was again traded, this time to the Montreal Canadiens to replace the retired Dickie Moore. He proceeded to be a key player in four Stanley Cup victories in five seasons. And he had a couple more 20-plus goal years, including 25 in 1967-68, eight of those a team-best game winners.

Duff ended his 18-year career with six championships and had stints with the expansion Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres, where he was reunited with his former Leafs coach Punch Imlach. Duff retired in 1972 and later returned to the Leafs for many years in the scouting department.

Duff scored 283 goals and 572 points in his career and had an additional 79 points in 114 playoff games.

He also played in seven NHL all-star games and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006.

“I appreciate my teammates in the NHL, who taught me how to win at the highest level of the game,” Duff said on the day of his induction.

You could safely argue that Duff taught them a thing or two, as well.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014 20:00

Joe Nieuwendyk

It certainly didn’t take Joe Nieuwendyk long to make his mark in the National Hockey League and start his procession to the Hall of Fame.

A second-round draft pick, 27th overall, of the Calgary Flames in 1985 while he was playing at Cornell University, where he was a two-time All-American, he played his first full NHL season in 1987-88 and proceeded to score 51 goals and earn 92 points, which predictably earned him the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the league.

To put his numbers into perspective, Nieuwendyk became just the second NHL player to score 50 goals in his first season. The only other to do it at the time was New York Islanders superstar Mike Bossy.

Not a bad start and it only got better.

In his second season, the big centre, who was raised in Whitby, Ontario, once again scored 51 goals and capped the year off with the franchise’s only Stanley Cup win, coming against the Montreal Canadiens.

Nieuwendyk went on to become the Flames captain a few seasons later.

Knee injuries had an impact on his career at various stages. Contract issues ultimately led to him being traded in December 1995 to the Dallas Stars, for a package that included a future Flames captain named Jarome Iginla.

While he still battled injury issues with the Stars, the big centre still had his success in Dallas. Indeed, in 1999 he was a big reason why the Stars won their first Stanley Cup. With six game-winning goals in the post-season, Nieuwendyk was also named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, as most valuable player.

A third Stanley Cup win would come a few seasons later, in 2003, this time with the New Jersey Devils, though he was injured again during the final.

Nieuwendyk played a season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and parts of two seasons with the Florida Panthers before health problems forced him to retire.

But the final numbers were impressive: three Stanley Cup wins, 564 goals and 562 assists in 1,257 regular-season games. He added another 66 goals and 116 points in 158 playoff games. Talk about a big-game player.

He was also a member of Canada’s gold-medal winning team in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Post playing days, he served as a front-office adviser with the Leafs and Panthers and was general manager of the Stars from 2009 to 2013. Just recently he was hired by the Carolina Hurricanes as a pro scout and adviser.

In 2011, Nieuwendyk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Last March, Nieuwendyk had his number 25 raised in Calgary as a member of the Forever-a-Flame club.

“When I tell (my kids) about playing for the Flames and living in Calgary it’s simple: I tell them they were some of the best years of my life,” he said that special night. “Obviously, winning that Cup (in 1989) was special, but bigger than that was the feeling we had in this city, in this organization…it was a really neat feeling.”

In addition to being a superb hockey player, as a kid he was also one of the top lacrosse players in the country.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014 20:00

Larry Robinson

When you think Montreal Canadiens and the 1971 amateur draft, one name typically comes to mind: Guy Lafleur.

And well it should.

Indeed, The Flower, as Lafleur was known, evolved into one of the greatest Canadiens ever.

But there was another Habs draft pick that year who was also pretty special. His name was Larry Robinson. Selected in the second round, he went on to win nine Stanley Cups, six as a player and three as a coach.

He, too, is regarded as one of the greatest Canadiens ever, at least on the blue line.

Interestingly, as a kid, Robinson never liked the Canadiens.

"I was a Chicago Blackhawks fan," he said in his Hockey Hall of Fame bio. "I really liked their uniforms and Bobby Hull was my idol. The reason I didn't like the Montreal Canadiens was because they won all the time."

And that didn't change during Robinson's time with the Habs.

Robinson, who played his final year of junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers, went on to become a pillar on that great Canadiens dynasty of the 1970s.

Funny enough, after the draft, the Canadiens were still not high on his list of favorites.

"When I first got drafted, I was kind of disappointed," he continued in his bio. "I had been talking to a few scouts from Los Angeles and a couple of other teams. When I got drafted by Montreal, I looked at the lineup and thought, 'Holy Mackerel, I'm never going to make it with them.'"

That's how deep the Canadiens were on defence and how much seniority meant in their system. Robinson didn't actually play his first game in the NHL until January 8, 1973, when the Canadiens had injury problems. Heck, that spring he wasn't even used in the first round of the playoffs against the Buffalo Sabres. But he was still a Stanley Cup winner that year.

Soon after, the one they called "Big Bird" made his mark on Canadiens teams that were great offensively and among the very best defensively.

With the likes of Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard on the blue line, the Habs had four seasons allowing less than 200 goals against and five more at 240 or less during the 1970s. The team won the Stanley Cup six times in that decade.

Big, strong, mobile, skilled and feared by many because of his size, Robinson won two Norris Trophies and was First or Second Team all-star six times.

Born in Winchester, Ontario, Robinson spent 17 years in Montreal and three more with the Los Angeles Kings. Not once did his teams fail to make the playoffs.

Robinson was a presence on the ice in so many different ways. Tall and rangy, he could rush the puck up the ice. He possessed a powerful shot from the point, and was a punishing body checker. Few ever dared to drop the gloves with him.

Indeed, legendary Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden remembered back to the 1976 Stanley Cup final. The Canadiens were facing the Philadelphia Flyers, also known as the Broad Street Bullies. Dryden reflected on the impact Robinson had on that series, scoring a key goal early in the series and establishing a strong physical presence and push back with his body checking.

"They had to bring hammers and crowbars to fix the dent in the boards," recalled Dryden.

Robinson won his first Norris Trophy in the 1976-77 season, finishing with 19 goals and 85 points. The season after that he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs most valuable player. The second Norris came in 1980 after Robinson amassed 75 points.

Robinson's final Stanley Cup win as a Canadien came in 1986. By the time he left the Habs in 1989, Robinson was offensively the best Canadiens' defenceman ever, regular season and playoffs.

He won another Cup, this time as a coach, with the New Jersey Devils in 2000.

"Considering how long I played hockey and how many Cups I got to win as a defenceman with Montreal, it was my first Stanley Cup win as a head coach that is actually my greatest day in hockey," said Robinson.

Not surprisingly, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995. In 2007, his number 19 was raised to the rafters in the Bell Centre in Montreal.