Sunday, April 3, 2011

Rick Ley

Rick Ley might be best known as Pat Quinn's assistant coach during the 1994 Stanley Cup run and then the man who replaced Quinn the following season where he remained as Canucks bench boss until game 73 of the 1996 season. A great friend of Quinn's, Ley was hired later by Quinn to join his coaching staff when he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs

Ley also had been a successful coach at the minor league level prior to joining the Canucks, and before that he was a star defenseman with the World Hockey Association's New England Whalers. How good was he in those wild and crazy days of the WHA? Ley's number 2 hangs high in the rafters of the old Hartford Civic Center right beside Gordie Howe's #9. He was a solid NHL defenseman for 310 games, but was a WHA standout for almost 500 contests!

Born in Orillia, Ontario, Ley was a star with the OHA junior team - the Niagara Falls Flyers. In 4 years at Niagara Falls, Ley twice lifted the Memorial Cup. His first championship (1965) came in his rookie year but he soon became the team's best player and leader. He was captain of the 1968 championship team. That was quite a feat considering some of his teammates included the likes of Bernie Parent, Bill Goldsworthy, Gilles Marotte, Derek Sanderson and Don Marcotte!

Ley was drafted 16th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1966, and aside from 19 games in the minors in his rookie season was a regular on the Leafs defense starting in 1969. However he was never able to quite establish himself as the star defenseman like he did in junior.

After 4 years with the Leafs, Ley jumped ship to the rival league - the WHA. He signed on with the New England Whalers. He would stay with the organization throughout the entire history of the team in the WHA, and joined the team once they merged with the NHL.

Ley was a star in the WHA. As in his junior days, Ley's statistics were not as impressive as many, but his play was. He was a constant threat to win the WHA's trophy for best defenseman (Dennis A. Murphy Trophy), though he would only capture that title once - the WHA's last season of 1978-79.

"If every coach could instill Rick Ley's desire in all of his players he would fill arenas everywhere and acquire a taste for champagne in the spring" wrote famed hockey writer Zander Hollander of Ley.

Every once in a while Ley's exuberance would get him into trouble. Once such incident unfortunately scars Ley's career and one of the top international hockey events ever - the 1974 WHA-Soviet Summit Series.
Following the conclusion of the 1972 Summit Series, there was a definite yearning for another showdown between the Soviet's best and Canada's best. The NHL wasn't prepared to undergo such an undertaking. The WHA, ever the opportunist and desperate for the marketing exposure, was.

Another September, another 8 game series between the Red Army and the best Canadian born WHAers. Standing beside the grand old names of hockey like Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, was Rick Ley. Ley's job was simple. To maximize his aggressive style of defense in order to intimidate the great Valeri Kharlamov, arguably the greatest of the Soviet forwards.

The first 5 games featured many smaller clashes and confrontations between the mean-tempered Ley and the slick skating Kharlamov, who also had a bit of a mean streak. However by game 6 the Soviets had a commanding lead in the series, and Canada had become frustrated and lost its composure. No one more so than Rick Ley.

Game 6 will forever be remembered for Ley's cheap and dirty play. The game was played in Moscow's Luzhniki Ice Palace, as in the 1972 Summit Series. The Soviets had the game decided long before the final whistle as they took advantage of many power play opportunities to score a 5-2 victory. With less than a minute to play in the third period, the animosity between Ley and Kharlamov intensified. Kharlamov reportedly poked at Ley and mockingly looked at him. This triggered Ley's temper. Ley dropped the gloves and immediately started pounding on the Soviet's star player. Kharlamov had never likely been in a fight before, as it simply wasn't part of Soviet hockey.

With Ley's 40 pound weight advantage, Kharlamov was left laying on ice that was redder than his jersey.

Fan reaction was outrage, in both the Soviet Union and Canada. Canadians were ashamed of Ley's lack of sportsmanship. The Soviets threatened to pull out of the tournament because of this, and even worse, called for Ley to be jailed. Remember, this game was played in Moscow during the height of the cold war.

The next day Ley came to his senses and tracked down Valeri Kharlamov and apologized to him in person. Kharlamov reportedly responded by saying "Its okay, these things happen between hockey players."

The Soviets would go on to win the series against the oldtimers of the WHA. The seventh and clinching game for the Russians was marred with controversy of a completely different sort. With the game tied at 4, Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet, scored at the buzzer. The referee did not count the goal, and replays would prove his call to be the right one.

All told, Ley played in 310 NHL games, scoring 12 goals and 84 points. He had more success in the WHA, where he played in 478 showdowns, scoring 35 goals, 210 assists and 245 points.

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