Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Not-so-lucky Pierre

Let's travel back in hockey time to the summer of 1987. The Buffalo Sabres have the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. They did it the old-fashioned way, earning it with the worst record in the league in those pre-lottery days. What to do with it?

The argument comes down to two players. Pierre Turgeon is extremely talented. He's coming off a season in which he scored 154 points in only 58 games in junior hockey. What's more, he's not even 18 yet on the day of the draft. He has a chance to get bigger and stronger and therefore better.

Then there's Brendan Shanahan, a big, tough forward with a scoring touch. Shanahan had 92 points in 56 games in his last year of junior - not overwhelming, but pretty darn good.

Turgeon or Shanahan? That was the discussion leading up to the draft itself. Most media members indicated that Turgeon had a better chance to be a more dominating player in the NHL, but they certainly liked talking to Shanahan more. Some of that was a language barrier when Turgeon of Quebec spoke to English-speaking reporters, but Shanahan certainly came across as the more mature and interesting person.

As we know, the Sabres opted to take Turgeon with that first pick. I'll always remember that, because I worked in Buffalo's public relations office at the time. In fact, I believe I was the first person from the Sabres' organization to shake Turgeon's hand when he was picked. Turgeon stayed in Buffalo until he went to the Islanders in a trade for Pat LaFontaine, as the team wanted to create more excitement in an attempt to get a new arena.

This wasn't a situation like Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf. Both Turgeon and Shanahan lasted a long time in the NHL. Ever look at Turgeon's final numbers? They are a little spooky in a way. Turgeon finished 515 goals, 812 assists, and 1,327 points. The Sabres' other first overall pick, Gil Perreault, finished with 512 goals, 814 assists, and 1,326 points. Turgeon did play a couple of extra seasons, giving him 103 more games than Perreault. But it is funny how that turned out.

Here's something else that's funny: Do you ever hear Turgeon's name mentioned as a serious Hall of Fame candidate? Not really. Many of the players in that point range are either in or considered a contender year after year, but Turgeon only comes up when the list of candidates is a long one. As in, oh, yeah, him too.

What are the arguments against him? He didn't dominate the competition. Turgeon had two seasons with 100 points, and three years with 40 or more goals. However, longevity is a virtue and those who compile offensive stats are often rewarded by the Hall. Then there's the "he didn't win anything" discussion. You hear that a lot in pro sports, and it's tough to judge that. Some guys just get stuck on mediocre to bad teams, and they aren't going to get much hardware no matter what they do.

The last argument, though, is the most interesting. Turgeon got the all-purpose label of "soft" along the way. It's hard to define that to the hockey outsider. Soft players shrink when the games turn tough and physical. Turgeon obviously preferred to rely on his skill, finishing in the top five of voting for the Lady Byng six times in his career and winning it once. But in the world of hockey, "soft" players fall short in a basic test of greatness.

That brings us, belatedly, to a book Gare Joyce wrote in 2006 called "When the Lights Went Out." It's about the 1987 World Junior Championships. (Just finished the book, it's excellent.) In the last game of the tournament, Canada and the Soviet Union got into an epic brawl in the second period. Both benches emptied, and the fighting went on and on to the point where, yes, some lights in the building were turned out. The game never resumed, and both teams were kicked out of the tournament - costing Canada some sort of medal.

When the dam broke and the players poured on the ice to pair off, one Canadian stayed behind - Pierre Turgeon. "It was crazy, but fighting was never my game," Turgeon is quoted as saying.

Apparently Turgeon's teammates instantly didn't forgive him for sticking to the bench. They immediately froze him out after the game. Some Canadian media members thought at the time that Turgeon's action, or rather lack of action, was unforgivable under the circumstances - to the point where it might hurt his NHL prospects.

Almost 20 years later, Joyce interviewed some of the players about that tournament. Everett Sanipass, who was on the center's junior team in 1987, had this to say about Turgeon: "He was soft. Gutless. He scored goals, but I bet his teammates didn't have any time for him, wherever he played. I guarantee it." Another anonymous Team Canada teammate said, "You're never going to win when your captain has balls the size of snow peas."

I never heard this issue come up before the '87 draft, but it certainly sounds like Turgeon picked up a reputation that day in Czechoslovakia that he never shed. It might even be part of the reason why Turgeon isn't considered Hall of Fame material by some. That would mean he's still paying for it today.

And if that's all true, the defining moment of one of the greatest talents of his generation came when he just stayed on the bench as a 17-year-old during a fight a few thousand miles from home. That, in turn, raises a question that must have crossed Turgeon's mind at some point when he couldn't go to sleep.

If he had it to do all over again, would he still sit there?

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