By Darren Eliot -
The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame recently inducted Lou Lamoriello, Eddie Olczyk and Mike Modano into its pantheon of greats for their respective achievements and contributions to hockey in this country. All are certainly deserving of the accolades for a variety of reasons.
In Lamoriello’s case, he is a builder beyond belief in the world of US hockey. His protégés are legion and they themselves have lineage linking all the way back to Lamoriello’s days as the head coach at Providence College. Follow the branches and you will find the Lou disciples in management, coaching and scouting across the hockey landscape. The most notable is Brian Burke, who is larger than life in his own right in the world of hockey both at large and specifically at USA Hockey, where he serves in many capacities including GM of Team USA.
I remember chatting with Lamoriello years after my Cornell Big Red team beat his Friars in the ECAC semifinal game at the old Boston Garden in 1980. Lamoriello’s N.J. Devils were about to win the 2003 Stanley Cup over the Anaheim Ducks. I was there covering the Final for NHL Radio on Westwood One and we were just casually talking hockey before Game 7. As we reminisced, I made the error of reminding him of our 1980 triumph, to which Lamoriello pointedly and succinctly countered with, “But we got you in ’81 in the Final. Good too. 6-1 after two, as I remember…” He was right about the outcome and every detail. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Lamoriello has one of the sharpest minds – not just hockey minds – I’ve come across.
When it comes to Eddie Olczyk, my memories span nearly 30 years when he was a projected first-round pick playing for Team USA during the 1984 Olympic season and I was a goaltender fresh out of college playing for Team Canada. In those days we competed as rivals, but we became friends and colleagues over the years. “Edzo”, as he has been known by people in the game forever, is a character with a quick wit and a quicker smile. He was one of the better “chirpers” that I remember, his delivery punctuated by a twinkle in his eye making his epithet all the more galling.
In one goal-mouth scramble sequence, Olczyk was skating for the Chicago Blackhawks and I was tending goal for the L.A. Kings. I had the puck covered and Olczyk crashed the crease sending us both sprawling in a heap, as other players hovered above pushing and shoving. Referee Bob Myers signaled goal, to which I started screaming at him from the bottom of the pile. As I tried to extricate myself and get at Myers, Olczyk – in no hurry to get up at all – kept me pinned as I writhed and whined, and just started laughing at me, which only infuriated me more. The puck never entered the net and there was no way Myers could see it in the midst of all that crease chaos. Olczyk stood up, looked at me and said, “Get the right guy”, pointing to the goal judge – in the Fabulous Forum – our home rink – who had turned on the red light in error, signaling the late game-tying goal and giving Myers a visual he deferred to.
Olczyk went on to score 342 goals in his NHL career – many more legitimate and memorable than the one I described. As we got to know each other over the years working together as broadcasters, I got to see how invested he was in all things hockey. As the 3rd overall pick in 1984 and a Chicago kid drafted by his hometown team, there was a lot expected of him. There always has been. And Olczyk has been a tremendous ambassador for the game of hockey in this country since his teenage years, handling the pressure of expectations with aplomb every step of the way.
In Mike Modano’s case, he was another teenage phenom – a Michigan product who opted to make the jump from Compuware’s Midget team to the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League in Canada. He was breaking into the NHL as I was busting down to the AHL, so my interactions with him have been solely as a broadcaster. I was in Nashville covering the game when he broke Joe Mullen’s record of 502 goals by an American-born player, which was very cool, as was Modano taking extra time to make sure all media outlets and fans got what they needed from him. It was his achievement, but he made time for everyone who wanted or needed to be a part of it.
Personally, though, my most vivid Modano memory – other than being captivated by his smooth stride as he effortlessly cruised around would-be defenders – was at the 2002 NHL All-Star Game in L.A. I was again working rink side for NHL Radio. The entire player entrance before the game was “scripted” and as part of that, I was to interview Modano as he lined up in the tunnel before the on-ice player introductions. Well, “backstage” was bedlam. Players weren’t in line by number and people – mostly non-hockey, just-here-for-the-event types – were randomly roaming the corridors of the Staples Center. And I couldn’t find Modano anywhere.
Don’t ask me how you lose a star of that magnitude, but I did. As the producer was counting me down to go live – Modano saunters up to me and says with a grin, “Aren’t you supposed to interview me?” I responded, “Yeah, but aren’t you supposed to be headed to the ice?” Modano shrugged and said, “Whatever you need.” I always thought that was such a cool – there’s that description again – gesture and response. He didn’t need to seek me out, but he did. Amidst the chaos, he was calm and composed – just as smooth and controlled as he was on the ice finding the open spot in traffic.
So, for different reasons and on different levels, I feel a connection with this class of USAH inductees. And that is the word that best describes all three men: class. Congrats to all three and thanks for the hockey memories.