The Forrest Gumps of the NHL

Let’s go back in time to 20 years ago this month. It’s July 1994. The Rangers have just snapped a 54-year Stanley Cup drought, the Panthers and Mighty Ducks have finished their inaugural seasons, Wayne Gretzky has won his final Art Ross, and the rookie of the year is a fresh-faced goalie named Martin Brodeur. The NHL is booming and on the verge of finally surpassing the NBA, as long as it doesn’t go and do anything stupid like letting its new commissioner lead the league into a pointless lockout.

And while all of this is going on, a lovable dunce named Forrest Gump is ruling the box office. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his work in the title role, bringing to life a character with a talent for spewing syrupy catchphrases and accidentally wandering into some of history’s greatest moments.

NHL players have never been much for catchphrases, unless you want to count “play a full 60 minutes.” But a few players have had an odd knack for the other half of Gump’s trademark. Here are five NHL players whose careers ranged from mildly successful to downright disappointing, but who somehow managed to make multiple appearances in the history books all the same.

Ty Conklin raises the roof

Conklin is just about the archetype of the journeyman backup goalie. In an NHL career that spanned more than a decade, he played for six franchises and never had a year when he started the majority of his team’s games. He wasn’t drafted, and he never won an award, played in an All-Star Game, or even started a playoff game. He just bounced around, signing free-agent deals and doing a reasonably dependable job for whichever team he managed to latch on with.

In fact, you could argue that Conklin had one of the most forgettable careers of any goalie who ever stepped foot inside an NHL arena. But that was the key — he was only forgettable inside. Because once they started playing games outdoors, Ty Conklin somehow became the most prolific goaltender in NHL history.

Despite never being a full-time starter, Conklin found himself as a starting goaltender in the league’s first three regular-season outdoor games. He started that streak in 2003, when the Oilers hosted the Canadiens in the inaugural Heritage Classic. Thanks to an injury to Edmonton starter Tommy Salo, rookie backup Conklin got the start in what at the time was assumed to be a one-off event.

But four years later, the league headed outdoors again for the first Winter Classic, with the Sabres hosting the Penguins. Conklin was in Pittsburgh that year backing up Marc-Andre Fleury, and when Fleury sprained his ankle, Conklin got the start again. He was the winning goalie, even making a spectacular save to set the stage for Sidney Crosby’s shootout winner.

The following year, Conklin was backing up Chris Osgood in Detroit when the Red Wings headed to Wrigley Field to play the Blackhawks. Needless to say, Osgood got hurt and Conklin was pressed into action yet again, earning the decision in a 6-4 Red Wings win.

Sadly, that would spell the end of his outdoor streak, thanks to the NHL’s stubborn refusal to implement my proposed “Just give the Winter Classic to whichever team employs Ty Conklin” rule. But he did come close to a fourth appearance; he was a member of the Red Wings when it was announced that Detroit and Toronto would face each other in the 2013 Winter Classic. That year’s lockout postponed the game and spelled the end of Conklin’s pro career — not to mention sparing starter Jimmy Howard from an inevitable mysterious injury.

Rick Wamsley and the art of the (terrible) deal

Wamsley was another journeyman goaltender, one who had a solid enough 13-year career. Most of that was spent as a backup or part-time starter (he never started more than 46 games in a season), but he typically played well when he was called on and even shared a Jennings Trophy with Canadiens teammate Denis Herron during his first full NHL season in 1982.

Two years later, Wamsley had established himself as a solid platoon starter in Montreal. But on the eve of the 1984 playoffs, he got hurt. Combined with other injuries, that left the Habs without a single healthy goaltender with any significant experience. So they gambled on a virtual unknown named Steve Penney, who went on to have one of the greatest underdog playoff runs the league had ever seen.

With Penney anointed the next Ken Dryden in Montreal, Wamsley appeared to have Wally Pipped his way out of town. That led to the first of what would become a career pattern for Wamsley: getting involved in some of the most lopsided trades in league history.

The first came at the 1984 NHL draft, when the Habs moved him to the Blues for a pair of draft picks. It wasn’t an easy deal for Montreal to make, and it ended up having to use a third-round pick on a goaltender to replenish its organizational depth. But the deal ended up being one of Montreal’s best of the ’80s, as they used the two picks on Shayne Corson and Stephane Richer, both of whom would develop into All-Stars in Montreal.

Wamsley had three good years sharing the net in St. Louis before being dealt again. At the 1988 deadline (he was only traded in Olympic years, for reasons that aren’t quite clear) the Flames were looking for an experienced backup for Mike Vernon. So Wamsley and Rob Ramage went to Calgary in exchange for Steve Bozek and underachieving youngster Brett Hull, who’d only go on to score more goals than anyone other than Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe.

Wamsley was firmly into the veteran backup stage of his career by 1992, when he was moved one last time. It would be the biggest deal in NHL history, at least in terms of volume, as the Flames and Leafs swapped 10 players. Wamsley only played 11 games in Toronto, but Leafs fans didn’t mind too much since the deal also saw them acquire future captain Doug Gilmour. As for Wamsley, he retired in 1993 and went on to a successful coaching career.

By the way, whiz kid Penney never did match that magical playoff run for Montreal, and he was out of hockey entirely within a few years. But things still worked out OK in net for the Canadiens. Remember that third-round pick they used on a goalie at the 1984 draft? It turned out to be a kid named Patrick Roy. Today, Roy, Hull, and Gilmour are all in the Hall of Fame. Rick Wamsley is not, at least until they open a HOF for lopsided deals.

Dave Christian has a very good week

Christian had a successful NHL run that lasted more than a decade. But it’s probably fair to say his hockey career peaked in a span of a memorable few days in the winter of 1980, when he staked out a pair of claims to fame that still stand today.

The first came on February 22, 1980, when Christian was a member of the famed USA Olympic team that beat the Soviets in a game now known as the Miracle on Ice. Two days later, he helped the team beat Finland to clinch the gold medal. That remains one of the most famous upsets in sports history, and Christian wasn’t just a member of the squad — he led the team’s defensemen in scoring.

(That last part may strike you as strange, given that Christian wasn’t a defenseman; he spent his entire career playing center and right wing. That minor detail wasn’t a problem for American coach Herb Brooks, who moved Christian to the blue line and was rewarded with eight assists in seven games.)

Just days after winning gold, Christian signed his first pro deal with the Winnipeg Jets, and on March 2, 1980, he made his NHL debut. It didn’t take him long to contribute — he recorded his first goal just seven seconds into his first shift. Many of the game’s biggest stars have scored on their first shot (like Jonathan Toews) or even their first shift (like Mario Lemieux). But nobody has ever managed the feat as quickly as Christian’s seven seconds. More than 34 years later, he still holds the record for the fastest first time.

That week was about it for Christian’s assault on the hockey record books (unless you want to count his record for most contracts signed at one time, when he somehow wound up with two during an ugly 1991 dispute over his free-agency rights), but he did stick around long enough to appear in 1,009 NHL games over the course of a career that saw him play for five teams. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

How to be part of two of history’s greatest blockbusters (without anyone realizing it at the time)

Nolan Baumgartner didn’t have much of an NHL career. He played just one full season in the big leagues, spending the rest of his pro career making occasional appearances over the course of 15 years while making frequent appearances on the waiver wire. He eventually retired with a grand total of seven goals. One-time grab bag Obscure Player honors aside, it wasn’t much of a career.

All of which makes it strange to look back and realize that Baumgartner was a key piece of two of the biggest trades in hockey history. We just didn’t know it at the time.

The first of those trades came on June 30, 1992. That was the day the Flyers finalized their controversial blockbuster deal to acquire Eric Lindros from the Nordiques in exchange for a package of players and draft picks. Among the players the Flyers parted with that day were star goaltender (and current GM) Ron Hextall, recent fourth overall pick Mike Ricci, and — most memorably — future Hart Trophy winner Peter Forsberg. They also gave up $15 million and their first-round picks in 1993 and 1994.

Fast-forward two years to June 28, 1994. The Maple Leafs and Nordiques make a blockbuster of their own centered on Wendel Clark and Mats Sundin in a deal that was the first time in North American pro sports that two first overall picks were traded for each other. There were other pieces involved, including four players and a swap of the team’s first-round picks from that night’s draft. One of those picks, going from Quebec to Toronto, was the same 1994 first-rounder from the Lindros trade.

The Flyers and Nordiques never got to use that pick, and the Leafs didn’t either — they immediately traded it to Washington in a deal for Mike Ridley. So after being dealt three times over the course of two years, the 10th overall pick in the 1994 NHL draft was finally used by the Capitals to selected defenseman Nolan Baumgartner.

Twenty years later, Sundin is in the Hall of Fame, Forsberg will join him later this year, and Lindros may follow them soon after. And each of the three had their careers altered by blockbuster trades involving Nolan Baumgartner — all before he ever actually stepped foot in the NHL.

The NHL’s ultimate Forrest Gump career

OK, so let’s sum this up. We’ve covered the journeyman goalie who keeps showing up in historic games; the guy who was eventually taken with a pick in the Lindros trade; the guy who built a solid career out of a hot start; and the goalie who made room for the arrival of Patrick Roy.

As a finale, how about a guy who managed to do each and every one of those things? Welcome to the career of goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, owner of one of the greatest résumés in NHL history.

Thibault was drafted by the Nordiques with the 10th overall pick in 1993, the first of those two first-rounders from the Lindros blockbuster. He made his NHL debut that season and was an immediate fan favorite, following that up with a great year in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, going 12-2-2.

That offseason, the Nordiques moved to Colorado and became the Avalanche. Two months after opening night, Patrick Roy took his infamous walk behind the Canadiens bench. Days later, Roy was on his way to Colorado and Thibault was headed to Montreal.

Replacing a legend was an impossible task, and while Thibault played reasonably well in Montreal, he never came close to Roy’s heights. But he did earn a notable place in Canadiens history just a few months after the trade. On March 11, 1996, Thibault got the start against the Dallas Stars and earned a 4-1 win in the last game played at the historic Montreal Forum.

Any other player would describe that sort of moment as a once-in-a-lifetime honor. Thibault was just getting started. Months later, he led the Canadiens to a 6-5 win over Washington on November 26, 1997, in the last game played at the Capital Centre. His reputation as an arena killer now firmly in place, the Habs traded Thibault to the Blackhawks in November 1998. Once again, the trade came just in time for him to wander his way into the history books. On February 13, 1999, he was the starting goalie as the Blackhawks beat the Maple Leafs, 6-2, in the final game played at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Thibault’s career ended after the 2007-08 season. In all, he played 586 games for six teams. And in between, he kept showing up in the background of memorable moments. From the Eric Lindros blockbuster to the Patrick Roy trade to closing down both the Forum and the Gardens (with the Capital Centre thrown in just for fun), nobody ever Gumped his way through hockey history quite like Jocelyn Thibault.

(Well, except maybe this guy.)

Filed Under: NHL

mcindoe-columnist-profile

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

Archive @ DownGoesBrown