The announcement that Rick St. Croix is the new goalie coach
of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been well received based on merit and on the person.
While St. Croix begins his new career with the Leafs, I am one of the few who has vivid memories of his brief playing career tending goal for the team.
It was early morning on Friday, January 11, 1983. Leafs general manager Gerry McNamara took an early morning phone call from agent Norm Caplan. McNamara knew the call would be about one of Caplan's Leaf clients, Michel "Bunny" Larocque, who was about to be relegated to the role of backup goaltender after expecting a long run as the Leafs' starting goaltender.
McNamara was loaded for bear as he vented to Caplan his displeasure about Larocque's recent goaltending performances. Expecting an argument from Caplan, McNamara was surprised when the agent offered a possible solution. He asked if he could have permission to shop his client Larocque to other general managers to look at trade possibilities. McNamara gave Caplan permission and the expected verbal fireworks between the two never materialized.
Two hours later, Caplan called McNamara back. "Would you take Rick St. Croix from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Larocque?" he asked. McNamara said yes. "Then give Keith Allen [the Flyers' general manager] a call and he'll do the deal." McNamara made the call and the deal was completed an hour later.
I always gave Caplan credit for being innovative in working to find greener pastures for two of his clients in Larocque and St. Croix. Though not well remembered now, Caplan was at the time emerging as the most influential player agent in the business. That all tragically changed when he died suddenly of a heart attack while vacationing in Paris in August 1984. He was only 41 years old.
The landscape for the power base of player agents changed with his death. Just weeks earlier he had added the No. 1 pick in the next year's entry draft to his impressive stable. Wendel Clark was one of many who had to find a new agent, and in this case he began his long professional relationship with Don Meehan.
I was working with the Leafs at the time and can remember St. Croix's first practice just a day later. How times were different. Peter Gross was a sports reporter for the local City TV station in Toronto. They liked to be aggressive and get their personalities as much into the story as possible. I looked out in horror as, after the Leaf practice, Gross was out on the ice taking shots on the Leafs' new goaltender with his City TV cameraman shooting the action.
I quickly put an end to the "session," fearful not just of hearing the displeasure from my boss Harold Ballard as to what was going on, but the genuine worry that St. Croix could be injured by an errant Gross shot.
A little over a year later that concern would play itself out with unusual consequences. The Leafs flew to Calgary for the start of a three-game western Canadian road trip on Sunday, February 20, 1984. The first game was the next night against the Flames.
St. Croix had taken a shot that hurt one of his fingers during a home game against Detroit on Saturday. On Sunday he had his finger x-rayed at the local Toronto Wellesley Hospital. The only problem was we didn't have our team doctor available to check the x-ray and get back to us.
I saw St. Croix that Sunday evening at the pool in the Calgary Westin putting his finger to the whirlpool. This thing must really hurt him, I thought, but I also thought it couldn't be fractured or we would have heard something by then.
The next day was game day and we got the call from Toronto. Our doctor who had been unavailable to check the x-ray out on the Sunday, had done so first thing Monday morning. The finger was fractured. Would have been nice to know before St. Croix (and the team) had boarded the plane the previous day. Remember, lots of things were different in those days.
Now we needed a backup goaltender. It would be tight to get one from our St. Catharines Saints AHL team as they were on the road in some small town in the U.S., and we needed a goaltender for that night in Calgary.
Easy geographic solution: Ken Wregget had been our third-round draft pick in the 1983 draft and played in the same province where we were at the time, with the Lethbridge Broncos of the Western Hockey League. We contacted the Lethbridge team and just got hold of Wregget before their team bus was about to pull out for a road game that evening.
We had to declare an "emergency basis" situation to call Wregget up from juniors. An emergency would mean that you are just plain out of healthy goaltenders and this is the last-resort move. In the big picture we weren't. We still had two healthy goaltenders in St. Catharines, but for that particular game we were stuck.
So Wregget was our backup that night in Calgary and returned to Lethbridge the next day. The Lethbridge team was obviously annoyed at their star goaltender missing an important junior game. We received a call from the NHL office in Montreal a day later and had to explain our emergency. They were less than impressed but there were no sanctions imposed against our team.
The unusual circumstances that we endured 30 years ago are fodder for shaking heads and smiles of disbelief.
What I remember the most are the people. The players. The realization that guys like Rick St. Croix were consummate professionals who were also apprenticing for further NHL jobs in their post-NHL careers. These are the guys who make me proud of their work ethic and their accomplishments.
Guys like St. Croix, John Anderson, Bruce Boudreau, Dan Maloney, Joel Quenneville, Dave Farrish, Jeff Reese, Barry Melrose, Luke Richardson, Joe Sacco, Jack Capuano and Paul Gardner have been NHL head coaches or assistant coaches.
Guys like Tim Bernhardt, Terry Martin, Jim Benning, Peter Ihnacak and Brad Smith have been among the most respected and successful NHL scouts.
Rick Vaive, Mark Osborne, Dale Degray, Mike Stothers, Jeff Jackson, Todd Gill, Derek Laxdal and Steve Thomas have held positions in junior hockey or with NHL organizations.
For some, the hiring of Rick St. Croix as the Leafs' goaltending coach was a simple announcement. For me, it unloaded a flood of different memories.
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