<
>

Phil Housley's Hockey Hall of Fame induction long overdue

Drafted by the Sabres in 1982, Phil Housley played in Buffalo the first eight seasons of his career. Steve Babineau/Getty Images

It's always a bit daunting to start in on chronicling the story of a Hall of Famer whose career, not short to begin with, never really ended.

So as we shine a light on Phil Housley -- the highest-scoring U.S.-born defensemen in the history of the NHL, second only to Mike Modano among all U.S.-born players, with 1,232 points -- it seems the best place to start is the 1982 draft.

Leading up to that draft, Buffalo general manager and coach Scotty Bowman and trusted scout Rudy Migay had their eye on this skinny kid from South St. Paul High School. They'd seen him play in the high-profile state high school tournament a year earlier, when he wowed the two hockey men by seemingly never leaving the ice. And they watched him again play one game with a local junior team at the end of that 1982 season.

They didn't have to wait long to have their visit justified.

"He just raced up the wrong side through [the] whole team [and] scored," Bowman recalled. "I said, 'Rudy, we don't have to see anymore.' "

The Sabres were desperate for defensive help, even though Scott Stevens was also available in the draft. Bowman wanted to ensure he got the player he wanted, so he sent center Alan Haworth to Washington with the proviso that if only Stevens or Housley was available, they were to leave the latter for the Sabres.

Turned out to be a moot point because Capitals GM Roger Crozier selected Stevens with the fifth overall pick and Housley became a Sabre with the sixth pick.

At the time, the draft was held pretty much every year in Montreal. Housley's father was a plasterer, and a family of five -- Housley was the youngest of three children -- couldn't afford the trip from the Twin Cities to Montreal.

An indication of how different the times were then, Housley traveled with well-known local sports writer Charley Hallman instead of his parents. Hallman and Housley flew to Toronto and took the train to Montreal.

Lindy Ruff, then a young player for the Sabres, was shocked when he first saw Housley at camp that fall.

"What I remember when he came to camp, I thought we'd invited a 13-year-old to camp," Ruff said.

"He looked that young. And I wasn't that much older at the time either, but I had a few war marks on me. Phil, I just thought this guy, he's not going to be able to play in this league and it was shocking how good he played. Incredible, incredible vision. He was a tremendous player. For a guy to have that career at his size and do what he did, I hold him in pretty [high] regard."

In the fall of 1982, Ruff was living with teammate Mike Ramsey and when it became clear Housley wasn't going anywhere but into the NHL, the two invited Housley to live with them until he got a place of his own.

"And then, finally when he got a place -- this is a true story -- when he got a place he still stayed an extra couple of weeks," Ruff said. "We said, 'Phil, you've got an apartment. You've got to go live there.' "

Housley laughed when the story is recounted, although he challenged the veracity of the tale. Still, he remains eternally thankful for the presence and good nature of players such as Ruff and Ramsey, and Larry Playfair and Gilbert Perreault, not to mention Bowman, who rolled the dice on a high school kid and ended up with a Hall of Famer.

In his first preseason game, Housley was awestruck as he watched his boyhood idol, Guy Lafleur, and the rest of the Montreal Canadiens flying around the Forum ice, Lafleur so close Housley could touch him during pregame line rushes.

In that game, Housley was named second star and the young defenseman began to realize this wasn't a dream but a place he belonged.

"Going out to Buffalo for my first camp, I think I was just ready," Housley said.

Joining Team USA at the World Championships the spring before the draft for an exhibition game, Housley was warned by his agent that he might have to play some in the minors. Housley knew the minors might be an even tougher place for a slight teenager from Minnesota.

"That wasn't going to be for me because you hear stories of the aggressive play and I worked extra hard and I was ready to go when I got into camp," he said.

Housley collected 66 points as a rookie and ended up second to Steve Larmer in rookie of the year voting for the Calder Trophy.

The next season he had 31 goals and 77 points, and the point totals would continue on a pace that would ultimately see him join the class of 2015 in the Hall of Fame.

"The thing that stuck out with me is you don't realize, to make a comparison, you make it to the state tournament in Minnesota, state high school and it's a big thing and those games are huge," Housley said. "Now, every game is big in the NHL. Every game is like a state high school tournament game where there's a big crowd, every play's important. You have to be prepared. You have to be ready to play because of the competition."

Rick Dudley was just finishing his playing career when Housley joined the league. Dudley ended up behind the Sabres' bench as coach as Housley was finishing up his stint with the Sabres in the late 1980s.

"I really, really like Phil," said Dudley, who is now senior vice president of hockey operations for the Canadiens. "I think he's a wonderful guy."

Although he might have been smallish, Housley did not shy away from contact, according to Dudley.

"He was a competitive bastard," Dudley said. "He did not like to lose. He did not like to even lose a battle."

What impressed Dudley about Housley was his willingness to accept criticism, to try to continue to learn in spite of an enviable skill set.

"I thought he was a wonderful talent," said Dudley, who recalled one night when Housley scored a rare shorthanded goal when the Sabres were playing 3-on-5.

"I think it was on a breakaway," Dudley said, still amazed at the feat.

If there is someone who has a handle on things like "greatness," it's Bowman, who is the owner of 14 Stanley Cup rings as coach, GM and executive.

"He was a great player," Bowman said of Housley. "There was not much he didn't do except get on a Stanley Cup team.

"He just loved hockey. You couldn't play at his level if you didn't know the ins and outs of the game. He had that sixth sense about him."

The closest Housley would get to a Stanley Cup was in 1998, when the Washington Capitals advanced to their only Stanley Cup finals before being swept by Bowman's Detroit Red Wings. Housley had been acquired by the Capitals by his current boss, Nashville Predators GM David Poile.

In between his start in Buffalo and that lone run to the finals, there were stints with the Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues, Calgary Flames and New Jersey Devils. He then finished out his career with the Flames (again), the Chicago Blackhawks and finally the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Leafs acquired Housley at the 2003 trade deadline. Toronto was coming off a berth in the Eastern Conference finals and thought Housley might be the missing piece to the puzzle. He played one regular-season game, broke his foot and then hobbled back to action for three playoff games -- and that was it.

Even now, there are moments where Housley wonders what might have been, how circumstances might have seen him earn the game's greatest prize. He admitted that when he watches each spring as the Stanley Cup champions hold the Cup aloft, he feels a pang of regret.

"That's the time I would say, 'Geez, it would have been really special to win a Stanley Cup,' " Housley said. "And then you go on with your life.

"Am I disappointed I didn't win a Cup? Yeah, I'm disappointed. But it wasn't in the cards for me."

That's not to say he doesn't have a good perspective on his own accomplishments.

He said he believes he had an impact on the game. Indeed, that impact continues in a different form as he continues to grow as a coach.

"I'm proud of my career," Housley said. "I've had a tremendous passion for this game. I think it's a big reason why I'm coaching now."

The seeds for his path to coaching were sown a few years before his retirement.

In the spring of 2000 in USA Hockey's offices in Colorado Springs, Colorado, legendary hockey man Lou Vairo got a call from his boss who told him he was going to have to coach the World Championship team. He wasn't exactly thrilled -- "I didn't even have my skates," Vairo recalled -- but agreed to take on the team along with another USA Hockey icon, Art Berglund.

One of the first people Vairo called was Housley.

"We always had a great relationship," Vairo recalled.

Housley's mother had just died, and Housley didn't think he could leave his dad and family at the time. Vairo suggested that maybe Housley's father would like to come and that the rest of the family could join them in Russia later in the tournament.

Housley asked his father and the two roomed together and were able to get through a difficult time by sharing each other's company and the game they loved.

"It was a good trip for both of us," Housley said. "He could get away and be a part of our group."

In fact, Vairo and Housley's father became such good friends that Vairo invited him to the tournament the following year.

The only down side might have been getting a good night's sleep.

"It was great except when he snored, then I had to kick him out of my room and he had to get his own room," Housley said with a laugh.

Four years later in 2004, Vairo got a similar assignment from his boss. Moe Mantha was out as the head coach of the U-18 U.S. team and Vairo was to go to Marquette and meet with the players and get them ready for an upcoming Four Nations tournament in Switzerland.

"I said I'll do it on one condition, I want Phil Housley," Vairo said.

Vairo called Housley and asked the recently retired defenseman if he was interested in coming along to help coach the youngsters.

What would he be doing? Housley asked.

"Everything," Vairo told him.

The team lost one game and Vairo still recalled the response Housley got from the young players.

"Their eyes popped open," he said. "It made for a great week. He did a great job. Guys like that, our best players, they bring credibility to our international programs."

For Housley, it was something of a revelation.

"I was behind the bench and right there at that time I thought, this could be something that I could really enjoy because I have such a passion for the game and this is the closest to the action you're going to get without playing," he said.

Not long after, Housley accepted a job coaching high school hockey near his hometown at Stillwater Area High School. It was perfect, really.

He got to apply his own significant experience in learning a new craft and he got to spend time with his dad.

Sometimes he'd call at night and suggest he and his dad go up to the lake and do some fishing the next day.

He would go on to coach internationally for USA Hockey, including winning a gold medal as bench boss at the 2013 World Junior Championships before taking a job as an assistant with the Predators.

Housley's father died in 2010, and remembering his parents will be part of an emotional evening for Housley on the night of his induction in Toronto.

His parents didn't get a chance to see Housley earn a gold medal as the head coach of the U.S. in the World Junior Championships in 2013.

And while they certainly saw their son as an NHL player many times, they never got to see Housley in his current role as an assistant coach. And of course they wouldn't know of the honor that their son would enjoy as a member of the class of 2015.

Housley was in Arizona helping his son, one of four children, move into his own place in anticipation of attending Arizona State University. It was supposed to be about his son that weekend and instead he ended up on the phone doing interview after interview when news of his induction spread.

Housley, who recently became a grandfather, said he knew the Arizona trip would coincide with the annual Hall of Fame call, a call that had failed to be delivered to Housley for more than a decade since he became eligible.

"I wasn't really too worried because in past years I didn't want to get disappointed, but 10 minutes later I saw the phone and it had a 416 area code [Toronto], so I said, 'This could be the call' and sure enough Lanny [McDonald] and John Davidson were on the other end," Housley recalled.

"I think you look at who's going in [the Hall of Fame], you can't argue with the players that have gone in before me during that time when I had a chance to be elected. You can't argue. In the '80s and '90s, there were so many impact players in the game that did a lot of amazing things. You sort of analyze it for a little bit and then you move on and you just hope the next year. But certainly when you do get the call it sort of erases all those years that you were able to elected [and weren't]. You just forget about it and you just focus on what an incredible honor it's going to be."