Original Six teams use past to guide future

The difference in playing for an Original Six team (1:03)

What is special about playing for one of the NHL's Original Six teams? Barry Melrose skated for two of them and talks about the difference it makes for the player. (1:03)

Walk into almost any locker room, and there will be a tribute to the organization's history somewhere on the walls.

This is especially true with Original Six teams. Pictures, artifacts, retired numbers and replica Stanley Cups are all part of the décor within the sacred homes of the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

But each of these organizations has something better than a sign to keep its rich history alive: an alumnus serving as a conduit connecting generations of players.

Check a team's registry, and you'll find former players working in a variety of roles, including advisory and development. It's normal to find Hall of Famers walking around the rinks, speaking to current players about the past and the current state of the game.

Many teams have more than one former player available for the current players, but the so-called go-to guys carry a lot of weight in their respective organizations. These ambassadors have become de facto history professors for the younger players in today's game. It's an important role. Their knowledge and experience are invaluable for teams.

The Rangers have Rod Gilbert and Adam Graves in the mix. Gilbert, 74, played 18 seasons for the Rangers and still plays an integral part for the club.

"The greatest conduit we have is Rod Gilbert," said Graves, who played 10 seasons with the Rangers and currently serves on the hockey and business operations staff.

Gilbert was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982 and had his No. 7 retired. Graves, 47, had his No. 9 retired by the Rangers in 2009.

"As a player, being lucky enough to play through the '90s for a decade and being able to spend time with Rod for the last 25 years and understanding the history of this organization and the privilege of wearing that jersey, it's been invaluable," Graves said. "When I think of this organization and the pride I feel every time I walk into Madison Square Garden, or back many years ago when I was lucky enough to wear that jersey, that is what I like to talk about. It goes from generation to generation."

Graves said he is proud of the strong connection between former and current Rangers players. Not only did he witness this as a player, but he also has seen it continue in his current role.

"For me, one of the most enjoyable and appreciated aspects of it is meeting all the players from the different generations," said Graves, who was quick to name Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan as the leaders on the current team who respect the organization's history.

"Growing up in this organization, they have as much pride, joy and respect for the storied history of the Rangers organization, and I can't say enough great things about how respectful they are, especially at different events," he said. "The current players couldn't be more supportive at every [alumni] event every year."

In Boston, the ambassador role is filled by Johnny Bucyk. "Chief" has been a member of the organization for 60 years, beginning as a player in 1957-58. He retired after the 1977-78 season and has since served in numerous roles for the Bruins.

"That means a lot. That shows commitment, and he's a great example," said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who also acknowledged the post-career contributions of Cam Neely (team president), Don Sweeney (general manager), Ray Bourque and Jay Pandolfo. "It's a great thing to see, and that's what you want to see: former players that use their experience and wisdom for helping the development of younger players too."

Hall of Famer Bucyk, 80, is instantly respected by any player who has worn the spoked B.

"He's very important -- not just for new guys but for anybody who's coming to the team as a new player in the league or even a veteran," Chara said. "I enjoy his company, and he's such a big icon and face of the franchise."

It's not unusual to see Wendel Clark walking around the Air Canada Centre and hanging out with the Maple Leafs. Former Blackhawks star and current broadcast analyst Eddie Olczyk helps serve as the organization's history teacher. Chris Chelios is one of the resident experts for the Red Wings. In Montreal, well, there's an endless stream of legends on hand for the Canadiens.

"I don't think today's player knows a lot about the players that played before them, or came before them and I think it is very important for teams to hire those ambassadors," said Olczyk, who also pointed out continued contributions from former Blackhawks legends and official team ambassadors Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito, Stan Mikita and Denis Savard in Chicago.

"It is important for former players to connect the generations, or connect the past to the present and to let guys know how important it is to be active in the community, both in season and out of season," Olczyk said. "It's important for the game."

Among the four major sports, hockey has always trailed football and baseball in that area. The NHL has done a solid job building its brand and its game, but Olczyk believes the game's biggest ambassador should be more involved.

"We need Wayne Gretzky back in the National Hockey League," Olczyk said. "We need arguably the greatest player in any sport, let alone the National Hockey League, we need Wayne Gretzky around. We need him from a lot of reasons."

Organizations, at least the successful ones, will always need ambassadors with a strong alumni presence to keep the past and present connected. Each of the Original Six teams has current players who would be perfect for this role. Chara, 38, has two seasons remaining on his contract, and recently admitted he would consider a post-career role with the Bruins.

"It's possible," Chara said. "I'm not going to lie -- it's a possibility. Hopefully, that's far away. It's something that, when you spend so many years and so much time around, it would be nice to give back to another generation of players. It's something I would definitely keep my doors open for [in] the future."