The first U.S. born female to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, Pearl Buck, had some incredible knowledge on the subject of history. She once wrote, "If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday." These words of wisdom perfectly describe how to embrace the present without holding on to the past. Rather, we are encouraged to search the past in ways that force us to understand where we are today.
Hockey fans know a thing or two about the past. Those that long for a day when hockey was simple and pure are called "dinosaurs". Yet on the other hand, those that embrace goal celebrations and big pads are "youngsters". However, one undeniable fact that both groups firmly embrace is that hockey has a rich and enthralling history. From elementary roots in the pond hockey game to the streets of New York and Sean Avery's man-fashion blithering, the love of the game can be celebrated by exploring the progression of its players and supporters.
The American Hockey League is celebrating its 75th Anniversary in 2011, and like any tough old bird, it's seen, heard, and experienced many incredible moments. Like a great-grandfather unpacking memories to future generations, the AHL has announced four more than admirable inductees into this year's Hall of Fame. The 2011 class will be honored at the AHL All-Star Classic in Hershey, PA in a special ceremony on January 31st. They'll be joining the ranks of Bruce Boudreau, Johnny Bower, Willie Marshall, Eddie Shore, Frank Mathers, and many other names that are certainly held in high regard by fans around North America.
Although the league itself is 75 years old, the American Hockey League Hall of Fame has only been in existence since 2006, which makes for a slew of individuals to choose from its historic past. This year's inductees include a founding father, an old-timey Red Wing, a 17-year goalscoring machine, and a centerman with 12 consecutive 20-goal seasons. This group is actually quite remarkable, as each member has left his mark on a league known for developing strong, viable talent for 75 years.
The Founding Father - Maurice Podoloff (1890-1985)
To label Maurice Podoloff as a founding father of the American Hockey League is something of an understatement. He was born in Ukraine, but his family moved to New Haven, Connecticut when he was only six years old, and he was no stranger to struggle. His humble and penniless upbringing forced Maurice's father to seek work in the real estate business, which by the early 1900's was a burgeoning profession. Through hard work and diligence, Maurice Podoloff would go on to graduate from Yale University and Yale Law School. Realizing that the legal profession didn't quite fit his life goals, Maurice followed in his father's footsteps and entered the real estate business. One of his first business transactions was the purchase and refurbishing of a run down ice rink in New Haven. He leased it to the Yale hockey team for some time, but had a few holes on the weekly schedule that needed to be filled. The dollar signs flashed before his eyes, and he purchased a professional hockey team that would play neighboring teams from Boston, Philadelphia, and Providence, teams that were a part of the Canadian American Hockey League which included Podoloff as a charter member. In 1935, Podoloff was elected the league's secretary-treasurer and was instrumental in facilitating a merger between the CanAm and International Leagues, forming the International American Hockey League. By 1940 the "International" was dropped from the name and the American Hockey League was born. He added to his list of accomplishments by adding new teams in Washington, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. His steady promotion of the game and support for fundraisers during World War II further cemented his name in the hockey history books. Podoloff accomplished many incredible things for hockey in North America while simultaneously becoming the first president of the National Basketball Association. He was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1974 and each year the Maurice Podoloff Trophy is awarded to the NBA's most valuable player. Let's see Gary Bettman do that!
The 20-Goal Campaign - Harry Pidhirny (1928-Present)
Reliability and consistency are two qualities that every hockey player pursues. In such a rough, torrid sport finding these qualities in a player is rare, but when it happens, it's a beautiful thing. Harry Pidhirny was a centerman's centerman: durable, tough, and strong on his skates for nearly 17 seasons in the American Hockey League. The Toronto kid began his playing career with the Young Rangers and would eventually join the Philadelphia Rockets in 1948 where he would score 39 points in 68 games. The following season he was signed by the Springfield Indians for only $7,000 by owner Eddie Shore, and began a streak of 12 consecutive 20-goal seasons. From 1951-1954 the Indians were shipped off to Syracuse where he led the team in goals scored all three years, capping it off in 1953 with a six-goal game, a feat that's been achieved only three times in AHL history. Harry would later play for the AHL's Providence Reds and the old Western Hockey League's San Francisco Seals. In a recent interview, Pidhirny said of the era, "It was good hockey. There was only about eight teams in it and only six National Hockey League teams. There was no such thing as a slapshot when we started." During his time with the Indians he only mustered two NHL call-ups to the Boston Bruins, but he didn't seem to mind as long as he played the game. He was the first AHL player to reach 1,000 games played and eventually tallied 1,071 games, which places him third on the all-time list. His reliability, durability, and consistency is probably best demonstrated by the fact that he played in every one of his team's games five different times. He dabbled in coaching, and even played briefly in a senior league before retiring at age 41. Harry enjoys hockey to this day, but like every good retiree, spends a lot of time with a driver and tee in hand; now he can enjoy it as an AHL Hall of Famer.
Old Timey Red Wing - Larry Wilson (1930-1979)
As a member of the NHL's original six, you have to stop and relish in the greatness that is Red Wings hockey. From top to bottom, the list of players, records, and Stanley Cups is pretty staggering for a non-Canadian franchise. Larry Wilson accomplished a feat that very few get to enjoy. In 1950, Larry Wilson's first year as a Red Wing, he won the Stanley Cup as a centerman on a team that featured wingers Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe. He would spend some time in the AHL with the Indianapolis Caps, and did a short stint with the Edmonton Flyers before embarking on an adventurous 15 seasons as a player and six more as a head coach in the American Hockey League. 13 of those 15 seasons as a player were spent with the Buffalo Bison, in which he would become the all-timer leader in every offensive category imaginable. Three times in Buffalo he played over 70 games and won the Calder Cup with Buffalo in 1963. Upon his final game in 1968, Larry Wilson had racked up 298 goals and 492 assists for 790 points in addition to 543 penalty minutes. After hanging up the skates, Wilson would turn to coaching. In his first season he took the Providence Reds to the Calder Cup Finals where he was defeated by the Springfield Kings, coached by his four-time Stanley Cup winning brother, Johnny Wilson. Larry died suddenly from a heart attack prior to his coaching season with the newly established Adirondack Red Wings. Alongside his brother Johnny, Larry's son, Ron, would add to the Wilson legacy of coaching as the coach of the Ducks, Capitals, Sharks, and currently, the Toronto Maple Leafs. From an early NHL high to a powerhouse in the AHL as a player and later as a coach, Larry Wilson's legacy of greatness lives on.
The 17-Year Goal Scoring Machine
Listed at only 5' 6", Mitch Lamoureux found ways to be a dynamic goalscorer and a scrappy opponent too. Lamoureux, a native of Ottawa, was selected in the eighth round of the 1981 NHL draft after early success with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. He had several stints in the NHL, but the 1983-84 season with the Pittsburgh Penguins was his best, putting up a decent showing of 18 points in 62 games. He hit his goalscoring stride when he was sent from Pittsburgh to the Philadelphia Flyers and from there to Hershey, where he'd become a Bear to remember. In a recent XM Home Ice interview, Lamoureux elaborated on his domination as a goalscorer: "Plain and simple, I made a living in front of the net." Hitting that net hard earned him a Calder Cup Championship in 1988 following the Hershey Bears' first-ever 50-win season. Although pausing to head overseas for two seasons, Mitch Lamoureux would continue on as a Hershey Bear in 1993 and post a career high 45 goals and 60 assists. In that same XM interview Lamoureux pointed out the importance of the AHL: "A long time ago someone gave me some great advice. Really two pieces of advice. Play as long as you love the game, and play as long as they'll let you." Mitch reached the 30-goal mark six times in his AHL career; he sits seventh all-time in goals with 364, and ninth in points with 816. And at 5' 6" he managed to hold his own, punishing opponents with 100+ penalty minutes in six different AHL seasons. Today, the Hershey Bears continue to be a how-to guide for minor league hockey development. They've been in the AHL since 1938 and have four numbers hanging in the rafters: #3 - Defensemen Frank Mathers and Ralph Keller, #8 - Centerman Mike Nykoluk, #9 - Centerman Arnie Kullman and Tim Tookey, and #16 Centerman Willie Marshall and Mitch Lamoureux. Settling down in Pennsylvania is something that Lamoureux did many years ago. He continues to be called upon by the Bears for special events, and will be rightfully lauded by the crowd at the January 31st, 2011 Hall of Fame ceremony's in Hershey, PA. "I was never the type of player that could lug the mail and go coast-to-coast," said Lamoureux on XM, "but with great teammates, and great coaching, I found a career. Hockey is in my blood."
After much research, and plenty of thought, I too found myself embracing the past in the American Hockey League. A league that was founded by men who embraced the can-do spirit to the players that developed along the way, it truly is a remarkable history. A history lesson wouldn't be complete without some sort of emotional tie-in or life-lesson, but to me this year's Hall of Fame inductees demonstrate so perfectly why hockey is the greatest game on earth. It's simple, rough, dynamic, enticing, brutal, and sometimes unjust, but at every level - Juniors, International, Collegiate, and beyond - the hard work and persistence of such an entertaining sport pumps out some of the most remarkable figures in sports history. So let's grab a healthy dose of history, and whether you're a "dinosaur" or a "youngster" begin to understand the journey of those that played a game we all love and know so well.