Whether he’s in or he’s out, Ozzie’s HOF credentials will forever be debated

Published June 27, 2016

One of the best clutch performers in Red Wings history had a very inauspicious start to his playoff career—one in which he would eventually dominate.

Die-hard Red Wings fans can still recall, some 22 years later, the video images of Chris Osgood, 21 years old, weeping softly in front of his locker. It was late-April, 1994.

The Red Wings had goalie problems in those days. They were an annual playoff team but too often the post-season dreams died due to shaky goaltending.

In a move born of desperation, GM Bryan Murray traded a goalie for a goalie—which in of itself smacks of desperation by both teams—when he dealt fan non-favorite Tim Cheveldae to Winnipeg for MSU grad Bob Essensa on March 8, 1994.

The gambit didn’t work.

The Red Wings were in a first-round match with the third-year San Jose Sharks. The best-of-seven series had an odd format—though agreed to by the Red Wings. The teams would play a 2-3-2 format, as opposed to the traditional 2-2-1-1-1.

This meant the three middle games would be played out west, to save on travel. The Red Wings OK’d the change because, frankly, they didn’t think it would much matter, since the Sharks finished with 18 points fewer than Detroit in the regular season.

But it mattered, quite a bit.

One of the reasons was the play of Essensa in net.

Osgood was a rookie and played in 41 games in 1993-94, but Murray and coach Scotty Bowman felt that the veteran Essensa would be a better choice to start in the playoffs.

The Sharks won Game 1 in Detroit, 5-4, and already the 2-3-2 format was looking dicey.

Bowman switched to the rookie Osgood in Game 2, and Ozzie pitched a 4-0 shutout. Still, the Red Wings faced the prospect of three straight games in a hostile arena.

Osgood started Game 3 and Detroit won, 3-2. It looked like the series would be under control, after all.

But Osgood faltered in Game 4, a 4-3 Sharks victory. So Bowman switched back to his veteran Essensa for Game 5. Perhaps the Hall of Fame coach panicked a little.

Essensa was awful in Game 5, giving up four goals on just 19 shots. He was pulled in favor of Osgood, who allowed both shots he faced to elude him. The Red Wings lost, 6-4.

Bowman returned to Osgood in Game 6, and the Red Wings won, 7-1.

That set up a Game 7 that no one expected the Red Wings to have to play against the upstart Sharks.

With less than seven minutes to play in the third period of a tie game, Osgood left his net to play the puck. The results were disastrous.

There are iconic, gut-wrenching plays in Detroit sports history that will never be stomached by the fans.

Isiah Thomas’ pass that Larry Bird stole in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.

David Ortiz’ grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS.

The non-pass interference call that went against the Lions in Dallas in the 2014-15 playoffs.

Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary that beat the Lions last December.

Osgood played the puck but his pass along the boards was snatched up by Jamie Baker, who promptly snapped the puck into the open net before Osgood could recover.

The goal proved to be the series winner for the Sharks. The Red Wings were booed off the Joe Louis Arena ice during and after the post-series handshake.

Afterward, in a deathly quiet Red Wings locker room, the rookie Osgood faced the music. Speaking to the media, the 21 year-old openly wept at his blunder. The weight of the entire universe had fallen on him, and he collapsed under it.

Like I said, no true Red Wings fan will forget the haunting images of Chris Osgood as we saw him in perhaps the worst moment of his hockey life.

But that was then.

Chris Osgood ended up being one of the best big-game performers in Red Wings history. Maybe in all of hockey history.

That’s not opinion.

Osgood won two Stanley Cups as a starter—10 years apart (1998 and 2008)—and a third as a backup (1997). He posted 15 playoff shutouts and had a save percentage in the post-season of .916 to go along with his 2.16 GAA.

In the two Cup wins as a starter, Osgood could easily have been named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for MVP of the playoffs. That he didn’t is no indictment on his performance in either year.

Osgood hoists the 2008 Cup—the year he bailed the team out in the 1st round and beyond

In 2008, as a 35 year-old, Osgood posted a 1.55 GAA and a .930 save percentage in the playoffs, with three shutouts. Ridiculous numbers.

In ’08, coach Mike Babcock started the playoffs with Dominik Hasek in net. But after splitting the first four games in the first round with Nashville—and with Hasek as shaky as a bobblehead—Babcock made the bold decision to switch to Osgood for Game 5.

Babcock’s reasoning was simple.

“The puck has been going into the net too much,” he said, explaining the switch—and the demotion of a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Osgood made almost 17,000 saves in his NHL career, but his rescue of the Red Wings in the 2008 playoffs might have been his biggest. It was clutch goaltending at its best. His first game was a Game 5 overtime win against the Predators and Ozzie didn’t stop until he hoisted the Cup in Pittsburgh.

Today, they’re discussing the Hall of Fame credentials of one Chris Osgood, who is eligible for the third time. The Class of 2016 will be announced today at around 3:30 p.m.

I knew this debate would come.

I knew we would engage in a spirited discussion over whether the Alberta native Osgood should be enshrined. But now that we are in the third year of Osgood’s eligibility, the debate is growing in passion, because he was never considered a first ballot guy, anyway. As the years tick by, there will be more clamoring for his induction by the pro-Osgood folks. And the opponents in that debate will only dig their heels in.

Osgood’s body of work, if you just look at the hard numbers, would warrant a good argument to vote Ozzie into the Hall.

401 victories, including 50 shutouts. A career GAA of 2.49. A career save percentage of .905.

Now, 2.49 and .905 aren’t eye-popping numbers these days, when scoring is at a premium in the NHL. But for a goalie whose NHL career started in 1993, they aren’t numbers to sneeze at.

And there’s all that clutch play in the playoffs for which Osgood was famous—after that horrific start in 1994.

The trouble with an Osgood HOF candidacy is that he played on such powerful teams. In a way, that works against him.

He was never considered irreplaceable, and that’s another strike against him.

His win total, his critics would tell you, was propped up by having a roster filled with Hall of Famers playing in front of him.

Fine.

But I keep coming back to his playoff performances. If I needed a playoff game to be won, there are only three goalies that played in Detroit who I would ask for.

They would be, in this order, Terry Sawchuk, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek (his 2002 play was phenomenal).

Two of the above names are in the Hall of Fame, and they were no-brainers.

Osgood is no no-brainer, but I’m not sure that he’s a no, either.

The debate over Osgood for the Hall will be wonderful to play out, whether he makes it or not. Even as he gives his induction speech—if he’s so fortunate—there will be naysayers to his enshrinement.

That’s OK. Hall of Fame debates are among the most fun in sports.

I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I’d cast a yes.

There are those who say that if you have to debate over a guy’s qualifications at length, then he’s probably not a Hall of Fame player.

Hogwash.

There are all sorts of Hall of Fame players. The no-brainers, the mildly debated and the hotly contested. Guys who wait for years because the appreciation for their careers grows in direct proportion to how long they’ve been retired.

Osgood’s career may not scream Hall of Fame, but even if it whispers it, and the voters give him admission, he’s a HOFer just the same.

I’d vote yes.

 

Advertisements

Howe’s steel trap hockey mind played no favorites

June 11, 2016

When he entered the National Hockey League, all the teams traveled by train. A western swing meant games in Chicago and Detroit.

There were 120 players, total, in the entire league. The rinks were surrounded by wire cages, not plexiglass. Teams played each other 14 times per season. There weren’t rivalries, there were continuations.

You didn’t have to wait months to get retribution, if there was retribution to be gotten.

But sometimes, Gordie Howe bided his time.

“I found out the hard way that I should call him Mr. Howe.”

The speaker was Stan Mikita, a Hall of Famer and every bit as entwined with the Chicago Black Hawks (they split it into two words in Stan’s day) as Howe was with the Red Wings.

Mikita was a young player in the NHL. One of his teammates was the great Ted Lindsay, who knew Howe as well as anyone.

“I nicked him with my stick,” Mikita recalled. “Gordie took his glove off, and checked for blood. There were maybe a few drops on his face.”

Howe told Mikita that he’d pay for the blood, no matter how little.

Mikita, young and full of himself, derided Howe.

“Oh yeah, old man? You should be out of the league.”

Lindsay was within earshot of this on-ice exchange.

In between periods, Terrible Ted went up to Mikita.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Lindsay, who knew a thing or two about Howe’s retribution, said to Mikita about the “old man” remark.

“Ted wasn’t concerned about the blood,” Mikita said as he related the story in Chicago several years ago. “But he didn’t think that Gordie would take kindly to the ‘old man’ remark.”

As mentioned above, the NHL teams played each other 14 times in the 70-game schedule. And many Detroit-Chicago tilts went by after the “old man” remark with nary a glance in Mikita’s direction from Howe.

“I figured he forgot all about it,” Mikita said.

Then one night, during yet another Red Wings-Black Hawks match, Mikita made a pass and admired it a little bit.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up on the trainer’s table.

The Black Hawks’ backup goalie, “a French-Canadian,” Mikita said, told the Black Hawks center what happened to him.

“(Howe) took his glove off, gave you a punch, then  put his glove back on and skated away,” the goalie said. “20,000 people in the building and I was the only one who saw it!”

Gordie never forgot the “old man” remark, after all.

“From then on, I learned to call Gordie, ‘Mr. Howe,'” Mikita said.

Mikita’s respect for Howe was also evident in this great quote.

“The best teams in the league are Montreal, Toronto, and Gordie Howe.”

Mr. Howe, Mr. Hockey, or just plain old Gordie—however you choose to address him, has thrown his last elbow on Earth. He’s gone, passed away on Friday at age 88.

He could have been gone 66 years sooner than that.

Howe was checked by Toronto’s Ted Kennedy late in the 1949-50 season and went horrifically into the boards, fracturing his skull. Howe’s condition was perilous, at the very least. For a couple of days, the pressure on his brain made his prognosis highly suspect.

This was 1950. Brain surgery and treatment weren’t nearly as advanced as they are now.

It’s not melodramatic to say that Howe, not yet 22 years old, lay near death in the hospital.

He survived, of course, and made his way onto the ice several weeks later as his Red Wings teammates celebrated the winning of the Stanley Cup.

Howe survived the brain injury, the Canadiens, Mikita, expansion and his shameful treatment at the hands of the Red Wings following his retirement—his first retirement—in 1971.

Along the way, he made the folks in the NHL offices tear up their record books and write new ones.

He threw elbows, washed hundreds of faces, jabbed countless opponents in the ribs with his stick and he did it all while eluding the watchful eyes of the referee. There was no quicker trigger in the Old West than Howe’s on the ice.

Howe, within a few hellacious moments, virtually ended the tough guy career of New York’s Lou Fontinato in 1959.

There was a scrum behind the Rangers net. Howe was looking on. Fontinato had an idea.

Louie tried to cold cock Howe, but Gordie, again using his amazing quickness, caught Fontinato in his peripheral vision.

Rangers goalie Gump Worsley said that the sound of Howe’s fists pummeling Fontinato’s face was like “someone chopping wood.”

It didn’t take long. But when they peeled Fontinato from the ice, his face looked like a Picasso.

“I broke his nose a little bit,” Howe said in typical understatement.

Images of Fontinato’s deformed face made the wires across the league and Louie’s reputation as a tough guy was gone.

“I broke his nose a little bit.”

When the NHL was getting more strict on hits from behind, Howe posed a simple question that captured his larger-than-life persona.

“If I’m chasing a guy,” Howe wondered, “how the hell am I gonna hit him from the front?”

Someone once asked Howe who had the hardest shot in the league.

“Dr. Finley,” Howe said without hesitation.

That would be John Finley, the Red Wings’ longtime team doctor.

I reminded Dr. Finley of Howe’s statement back in 2007, the night they retired Steve Yzerman’s no. 19.

The doc threw his head back and roared with laughter. He had forgotten about the quote.

Speaking of that night, I was doing some work for Fox Sports Detroit. My job was to corral Red Wing dignitaries for in-game interviews between whistles.

One of them was Mr. Hockey.

At the appointed time, I sidled up to Gordie—Mr. Howe—and said that it was time to get into position for the interview. He didn’t respond right away. I figured he didn’t hear me.

I repeated the request.

“Ah, f*** off,” Gordie said.

He was smiling from ear to ear.

How can being told to f-off turn into such a pleasant memory?

When it comes from Gordie, er, Mr. Howe!