DGB Grab Bag: Traveling Jagrs, Mythical 1917, and Nutso Billy Smith
Plus, let's just start making stuff up about 1917. No one will know if it's true or not anyway.
Screen Capture via YouTube/SPORTSNET
Three Stars of Comedy
The third star: This KHL player – This is technically from last week, but qualifies for this week's list due to the time zone difference.
You've seen these guys before. They're a roving pack of Jagr impersonators who represent every one of the star's many stops around the hockey world. Now that he's in Calgary they need a new member, and the auditions seem to be going well.
The first star: Nathan Walker's butt makes history– He's the first Australian to ever play in the NHL, which earned him a call from the prime minister, during which he awkwardly had to talk about his own butt until the PM said "Well that's fantastic."
Bonus points to the Australian ambassador to the U.S., who shows up as a supporting character in this story and somehow has this actual name.
Be It Resolved
The first week of the season featured plenty of impressive performances, some of which even closed in on all-time records. In fact, you probably got pretty used to seeing stats like this:Or this:
And eventually, you probably stopped and went: Wait, what the heck was going on back in 1917?
You wouldn't be alone. The NHL has this weird thing about its history. The league has been around for 100 years, as they're constantly reminding us this season. But for the most part, they tend to ignore the first quarter-century or so and just skip right to the Original Six era starting in the 1940s. Plenty of casual fans have no idea that there were once teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Eagles and Hamilton Tigers, and unless you're Dick Beddoes you don't know about Joe Malone and other stars of those early years. To hear the league tell it, history basically begins when Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard showed up, and everything before that was some sort of warmup.
And then we see all these stats show up this week, and you think "Gee, the 1917 version of the NHL sounds fun as hell."
I think the league should embrace this. Ideally, they'd do that by marketing their entire history, not just three-quarters of it, but that ship has sailed. The league has spent decades making it clear that they don't want to do that, so I'm not going to bang my head against a wall.
No, I think the league should go in the other direction. So be it resolved, the NHL needs to start making stuff up about the 1917-18 season.
It's a perfect opportunity. Nobody knows anything about what was going on back then anyway, so you may as well have fun with it. The NHL should just start dropping random "facts" about their inaugural season and see how long it takes everyone else to catch on. Stuff like:
- In 1917, it was a minor penalty for a goaltender to let his skates touch the ice.
- There were five pucks on the ice at all times, but you could only score with the one that had bees inside it.
- Player awarded an automatic penalty shot any time an opposing goaltender made a save.
- The league only started with only four teams, but quickly dropped to three because one of the arenas burned down. (Wait, that one is actually true.)
- Goalies wore full face masks, but they were made out balsa wood and didn't have eyeholes.
- Jaromir Jagr won rookie of the year.
- Literally everyone involved was drunk at all times. (Also probably true.)
Have some fun with it, NHL. You've never told us anything about that first season before, so you've got a blank canvas to work with. Don't let it go to waste.
Obscure Former Player of the Week
While Walker is the first Australian-trained player in league history, he was born in the UK, meaning there has still yet to be an Australian-born NHLer. According to the hockey-reference.com database of player birthplaces, that leaves 16 countries that have produced one and only one NHL player. That includes this week's obscure player: Willi Plett.
Plett was born in Paraguay to Soviet parents but raised in Ontario, where he didn't start playing organized hockey until he was nearly in his teens. He was a big kid who could also play, and he was picked in the fifth round of the 1975 draft by the Atlanta Flames. He debuted that year, playing four games, then scored 33 goals as a rookie in 1976-77 to win the Calder. He'd top that with 38 goals in the team's first year in Calgary in 1980-81, a season that saw him become the first player to ever have that many goals and at least 230 PIM. (He's since been joined in that club by eight other players.)
He was traded to the North Stars in 1982 because in those days, everyone who could fight had to serve some time in the Norris Division. He played five years in Minnesota, then ended his career with a season in Boston after they nabbed him from the Rangers in the waiver draft.
Overall, Plett was a skilled tough guy, or maybe a tough skill guy depending on how you wanted to look at it. He crossed the line once or twice, including a nasty stick-swinging incident with Wings' goalie Greg Stefan that earned him a big suspension, but he was generally considered a respected enforcer in an era packed with them. He finished with 834 games, 222 goals and 2,572 PIM, one of only six players to record 200+ goals and 2,500+ PIM.
(And yes, his name was "Willi", not Willie or Willy. It's an Eastern European thing. What, you want to tell this guy that he spells his name wrong?)
The NHL Actually Got Something Right
Given what happen in Las Vegas two weeks ago, it felt like there was really no right way for the Golden Knights to handle their home opener on Tuesday. A big splashy ceremony would have felt inappropriate, obviously. But at the same time, it's the first home game in franchise history; you can't treat it like any other game, because there haven't been any others. The team was left to walk what seemed like a near-impossible line.
And they basically nailed it. On Tuesday, they managed to be respectful without being maudlin. They found a way to say what needed to be said without making it all about them, and hit the right notes in the process.
Does that fix anything? Not even close, as others have argued. But we knew they weren't going to be able to do that. So they did what they could.
When these things are done well, they always seem easy in hindsight. But this couldn't have been. As Elliotte Friedman pointed out, the Knights no doubt spent weeks preparing a big show designed to make an impression on their new home. It's almost a tradition that new teams have to do something embarrassingly over-the-top to mark their first game, as Grab Bag readers already know all about. Instead, the Knights had to scrap all that (including a mascot unveiling) for something more fitting.
And it worked. Full credit to the team and league for making it happen. And if they want to loosen up a bit and have some fun at tonight's second game, that's cool too. Things won't ever go back to normal in Las Vegas, but they'll inch their way in that direction, and the NHL can be a small part of that.
Classic YouTube Clip Breakdown
Today is Friday the 13th, which conjures images of a madman in a goalie mask hacking and slashing innocent people to pieces. Or, as NHL fans of the 1980s called it, Billy Smith.
- Yes, it's our old pal Smith, the craziest goaltender to ever strap on the pads. When he wasn't winning four straight Stanley Cups, he was blazing a trail that would be followed by guys like Ron Hextall, Patrick Roy, Ray Emery, and others. He was nuts.
- How nuts? Well, today's video features a selection of suspension-worthy stick fouls involving Smith and just one of the NHL's other 20 teams from a single playoff series. It's still five minutes long. You do the math.
- Our clip begins with Game One of the 1983 final between Smith's Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers. We're midway through the first period, with the Islanders leading 1-0, and the Oilers have the puck deep in the New York zone. Glenn Anderson circles the net on a wraparound, then mysteriously falls over for no reason. Huh. Might want to see a replay on that one.
- On a second look, we get a clear view of Smith executing a one-handed slash to Anderson's knee. Let's just point out two things. First, that play is dangerous and downright dirty, and should absolutely be a penalty if not an outright suspension. Second…I mean, that's a pretty cool move, right? Think of the combination of timing, hand-eye coordination and arm strength you need to pull that off and score a direct hit. I bet he couldn't do that again if he tried!
- We skip ahead to late in game two, as Wayne Gretzky sets up behind the net. We used to call that Gretzky's "office," because it was where he did his best work. Unfortunately, he then skates out to the side of the net, which is Billy Smith's office, in the sense that it's where he performs amputations.
- Yes, Smith manages to pull off the exact same move again, hacking Gretzky on the knee. That leads to a stare down, followed by a scrum. I can't tell who every player on the ice is, but the Oilers have Gretzky, Anderson and Jari Kurri, while the Islanders have a Sutter. So, advantage New York.
- The announcer, longtime Islanders homer Jiggs McDonald, is great here. "Smith with a swing at the puck, and Gretzky has gone down like he was shot." Those 1980s pucks sure were tricky, always disguising themselves as the MVP's kneecap.
- "You have to remember back to the time when Billy Smith… did it to Anderson." Ah, yes, back to those distant and hazy times of literally 48 hours ago. We were all so young then.
- "He didn't hit Anderson obviously that bad." These announcers are great. "They're acting like a bunch of little kids now." Seriously, so great.
- Hey, can we just point that legendary linesman Swede Knox is looking sharp out there? Not a hair out of place.
- Meanwhile, a policeman who weighs 120 pounds and is clearly packing a loaded gun just casually climbs over the glass behind the bench to settle some fans down. He's never seen again. My guess is he's still there.
- Gretzky is furious, getting in the face of referee Wally Harris to plead his case. I can't read his lips, but I'm pretty sure he's explaining that dangerous stick-related fouls need to be called consistently, even when they're committed by star players late in crucial playoff games.
- Smith does indeed get five minutes, which needless to say outrages our neutral announcers. "Look how low the stick is!" If I'm ever charged with a violent crime, I want these two to be my defense lawyers.
- We cut to the end of the game, as Edmonton's turns the tables by spearing Smith, causing the goalie to execute a full backflip in his crease while shedding all his equipment, Beetle Bailey-style. You'd think this would make the Islanders angry, but Dave Semenko is standing nearby so everyone just pretends they didn't notice.
- For the record, the NHL responded to all this by being furious at…the Oilers. For complaining too much about the Anderson slash. As league VP Brian O'Neill put it, "[Oilers coach Glen] Sather has created a situation where Billy Smith is a monster. Billy Smith has had his problems, but he's made an effort to tone it down." Seriously, right? He's slashing guys in the knee now instead of directly in the eye. If he tones it down any further he'll be hacking ankles, and at that point why even bother?
- We skip ahead to later in the series, as Anderson gets his payback by blatantly running Smith on a loose puck. That leads to Smith dramatically dragging himself back towards his crease like a wounded Terminator before making a miraculous recovery once he realizes there's no penalty being called.
- Our last moment comes from the final game of the series, as Smith nudges Anderson and gets rewarded with a swat to the head that once again causes him to temporarily die. Smith basically admitted to taking a dive after the game, telling reporters ''I was hurt about as much as Gretzky was hurt in the second game…when I hit Gretzky he lay down and he cried to the referee, so I just took a chapter out of his book. I put myself on my back, and I squirmed and kicked and I played dead just like he did."
- I mean, can you imagine someone dropping that quote today? We'd all lose our minds for a week. Back then, everyone shrugged and went "Yeah, seems reasonable".
- By the way, the Islanders won the series in four games, and Smith got the Conn Smythe. I think he won this round, you guys.
- [Turns earnestly towards camera.] If you'd like to learn more about Billy Smith losing his mind, please enjoy clips of him getting into it with Scott Stevens, fracturing Curt Fraser's cheekbone, and fighting everyone from Tiger Williams to Eddie Johnstone to Lanny McDonald.
- Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993, the only goalie to make it in that decade. HHOF officials could not be reached for comment, as they were all suffering from mysterious knee injuries.
Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org .