Defensemen Sheldon Souray (left) and Wade Redden followed long NHL careers in the minors and in disrepute, but once upon a time, they created an indelible junior memory for at least one longtime hockey fan.
Normally, the only time you look backwards when considering prospects is to assess their body of work to predict performance.
With prospects, it’s all about the future.
For no obvious reason, I found myself thinking about the past this week, specifically my favourite memories from junior hockey.
As a radio sports reporter, then daily newspaper sports reporter and editor, I spent many a winter afternoon and evening in chilly ice palaces covering the local shinny teams. Then there were all the other times when I left the press box to get a real fan experience.
I have particularly fond memories of watching the Prince George Cougars play Western Hockey League games in the Coliseum, following them into the brand new Multiplex.
My most special memories are of sitting beside Prince George Symphony Orchestra conductor Paul Andreas Mahr, a keen hockey fan and one of my favourite Prince George people.
Mentioning hockey memories would not be complete without talking about the players, so here are my three favourite junior hockey moments, all from the northern B.C. city of Prince George.
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? I got an eye-opening physics lesson in the mid-1990s when the Brandon Wheat Kings came to town.
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils 71st overall in 1994, Sheldon Souray played 11 games for the Cougars in 1994-95 after playing in 40 for the Tri-City Americans. In an unusual trifecta, the colourful defenseman also squeezed in seven games with New Jersey’s AHL farm team in Albany. He played in 32 games for the Cougars the next season before a trade to the Kelowna Rockets.
Playing at 6-4 and 231 pounds in the NHL, Souray was almost that large in the WHL. Unpredictable and explosive on and off the ice (a big reason why he played for three WHL teams and five NHL squads), Souray was the epitome of a then-rare and freakish blueliner with huge size and shockingly fast skating ability.
Sheldon Souray displays his surprisingly fast skating for a big man as well as his slick hands:
More conventional two-way defender Wade Redden played three seasons for the Wheat Kings in Brandon, where he so impressed scouts that the New York Islanders claimed him second overall in 1995.
For years, Wade Redden was a dependable NHL blueliner whether the puck was on his stick or not:
Sometime during either the 1994-95 or ’95-96 WHL season, an irresistible force smashed right into an immovable object.
Souray forayed down his off-wing on the far side of the ice from Paul and I. Bursting past Brandon forwards and Prince George teammates alike, he found himself one on one with the only Wheat King between him and the Brandon net.
In full flight, Souray roared across the enemy blueline. Accustomed to physical play (he once had 140 PIMs in a 40-game WHL stretch), he was used to simply steamrolling smaller opponents.
Using every iota of his strength, mobility and hockey IQ, the much-smaller Redden (about 6-2 and 209) stepped up smartly and did the unthinkable.
He dropped the onrushing Souray in his tracks.
Redden might have backed up a step, but Souray went down in a heap and Redden calmly passed the puck out of danger. No wonder the Isles grabbed him second overall. I wonder if one of their scouts was in the arena that day.
Overall, both players justified scouts’ faith, although not without hiccups.
Redden, traded to Ottawa by the Islanders, helped the Senators to the playoffs in all 11 seasons with them. He played more than 1,000 games in 14 NHL seasons and finished with a career plus-160 rating.
Although his career ended with him on the shelf due to a wrist injury, Souray had 109 goals and 300 points in 758 regular-season games in 13 seasons.
Both were considered among the worst free-agent signings of the late 2000s. More than a decade earlier, though, they made a sensational junior hockey memory.
I was in the Prince George Multiplex when The Giant became a folk hero.
In the 1996 entry draft, the Islanders took a chance on a towering, gangly Slovakian defender, choosing Zdeno Chara 56th overall. In the NHL after only one WHL season, the man who would become the tallest player in NHL history had 22 points and a whopping 120 PIMs in 49 games with Prince George.
Already 6-9 with the Cougars, he didn’t have the greatest mobility, but compensated with an unparalleled wingspan. He also had a screaming missile of a slapper from the point, although it was not a guided missile in the early days, striking terror into teammates and foes alike.
As he’s done throughout his storied NHL career (mostly with the Boston Bruins because village idiot GM Mike Milbury traded him for Alexei Yashin and a first-round pick that became Jason Spezza!) Chara was always a willing physical player.
As I recall, the Cougars were on the road to start the ’96 campaign and were playing their home opener against the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Word had obviously spread throughout the WHL about the sky-scraping Slovakian. North American tough guys were lining up to clear-cut the lofty Prince George pine tree.
Early in the game, a Seattle player challenged The Giant, as I came to call him. Hurling his gloves to the ice, Chara decked the Thunderbird with one punch from a ham-sized right fist, knocking him unconscious.
The packed arena went wild and a folk hero was born, although fan reaction might have been more restrained with what everyone except NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has since learned about the tragic effects of concussions on the brain..
I include a video clip of Chara subduing another, almost-as-large, Seattle player later in the season with a succession of right hands that almost defies the video camera’s ability to track them.
Zdeno Chara displays his prodigous punching ability in a brief but violent Western Hockey League altercation:
The Giant’s NHL career is winding down, but my brief exposure to him as a junior (and my impression that he’s a solid citizen and an excellent teammate) has made him my favourite NHL player for many years.
Just another example of how fan loyalties can be cemented before prospects play their first NHL game.
Ray Ferraro played only one B.C. Junior Hockey League (since abbreviated to BCHL) season, but what a time it was.
Always two or three inches under six feet as a junior and NHL player, the speedy forward played just one game of 1981-82 with the Trail Smoke Eaters of the Kootenay International Hockey League. Moving to the Tier II Penticton Knights, he racked up the astounding totals of 65 goals and 70 assists in a mere 48 BCJHL games.
In one game against the Prince George Spruce Kings, he gathered the puck near his net to my right as I watched from the press box. Quickly reaching top speed, Ferraro dashed the length of the ice before depositing the puck in the host’s net with one of the best solo efforts I’ve ever seen on ice.
Here's an example of Ray Ferraro at his puck-rushing, goal-scoring best during his glory days with the New York Islanders:
The following season, he amassed 41 goals and 49 assists in just 50 WHL games with the Portland Winter Hawks.
Now a knowledgeable and respected (if sometimes irascible) TSN hockey commentator, the pride of Trail, B.C., scored 408 goals and 490 assists in 1,258 NHL regular-season games. His career best was with my New York Islanders (there they are again) with 40 goals and 40 assists in 1991-92.
Exactly one decade after his eye-opening solo dash in Prince George.
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What are your most memorable hockey prospect memories? Leave a comment with this article and I might feature it in a future column.
Thanks for reading.