As told to: Joe Pack
The 1986-87 season was a difficult year for me. In November of ’86, my father was killed in a car accident coming back from one of my games in Spokane. Just after his death, I was invited to the World Junior team but got hurt the day before the tournament started. Pat Burns came to me and asked if I could make it. I obviously wanted to play for Team Canada, and 1987 was the year of the (Punch-up in Piestany) brawl. I didn’t rehab quickly enough and so I went back to junior. I had a no-trade contract, was an all-star in the western league, player-of-the-year the year before, and had over 100 points a year. I had a no-trade and I got traded to Medicine Hat for a great goaltender named Troy Gamble. I had such a strong relationship with the Chiefs that I didn’t want to go. It was a great team, though, and I played on the first line with Neil Brady and Mark Pederson while Trevor Linden was a 16-year-old right winger. Given the year that I had, going on to win the Memorial Cup was pretty dramatic. My mom flew out and Linden’s and Wayne McBean’s parents looked after her.
When I was in junior, I was fortunate enough to be a top-six forward, but that was the time when they really started to have a top-six, bottom-six mentality. I later joined the Sherbrooke Canadiens in the American Hockey League and Pat Burns was the coach. We won the President’s Trophy because the skill and ability on that team was significant. I was told the French players were there to play and I was there to be physical – to fight. My role changed to a bottom-six forward, although it wasn’t articulated as well as it is now. I had to reconcile that.
Then, when I was with the Leafs in Toronto, it was the same sort of thing. I enjoyed it for a while, but when I got sent down to Newmarket I decided to just play and not be preoccupied with fighting. It was then that I made the decision to retire. I had two years left on my contract, was still fairly young, and I had a taste for the NHL life. I think internally I had achieved a goal but I didn’t want to stain my life experience there in that particular role.
My son Justice has had a three-year career in the OHL and he was fortunate enough to go to a couple of NHL camps last year. Our conversations are pretty clear. He’s a physical kid, bigger than I am, and he fit a particular role playing alongside Alex Galchenyuk and Nail Yakupov, and he was fairly comfortable choosing to fight. As a father, I walked him through that. Some of my best friends were with tough guys in the NHL. I wanted to make sure I didn’t prejudice him and instead let him make a decision for himself. He’s an intelligent kid. I took him down to Nashville to see Stu Grimson – one of my oldest friends. Stu was quite helpful with Justice. I think the OHL and David Branch’s restrictions on fighting have helped him too. You have to play. After the Blues camp, they asked him to play in the QMJHL. They wanted to see him produce and play and it’s been great for him. My wife and I watch him and he scored his 17th goal last night and has had six fights. He’s fourth on the team in scoring. There’s freedom for him to just go and be a complete hockey player. I see him maturing in his game.
Once, I lined up for a faceoff in LA. I was playing with the Leafs on the third line with Tommy Fergus and the draw was in the offensive zone. Larry Robinson was beside me and he turned to me and said, “Hey Rocky, I’m so glad you’re here, you really deserve it, I really thought you should have had your shot in Montreal.” The puck dropped and off it went and I just kind stood there for a second because I was shocked. What a nice thing to say when he didn’t have to say a thing. I consider it one of my fondest memories of having played in the NHL.
JOE PACK is a freelance writer based in Toronto and a rec-league rent-a-goalie.
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