Better Late Than Never
(Originally Published on September 11, 2017)
Mike Krushelnyski was late to the game.
He laced them up for the first time at 12 years old, almost unheard of in this day and age.
Krushelnyski played a variety of sports growing up but nothing challenged him more than hockey. “I was hooked right away,” said Krushelnyski. “I played football, track and baseball but they were all to easy.”
Krushelnyski would find his calling on the ice. He would play throughout the ranks of minor hockey in his native Montreal, but everything changed the summer after playing Midget. “I grew close to 8 inches over that summer and all of a sudden at 17 years old, I was a force on the ice.”
Krushelnyski was playing Junior B locally in LaSalle, PQ when he was first noticed and later drafted by the famed Montreal Junior Canadiens of the Quebec Major Hockey League.
“Playing in Montreal was a little scary. I was still a boy in a man’s body, so my first three months were quite the learning process.”
The hometown kid found himself sharing the ice in his rookie season in the Q with a young 17-year-old phenom from Pointe Gatineau, PQ; Denis Savard.
“Everyone thought this scrawny little kid was going to get killed, but he just skated circles around everyone and lead our team in scoring and well the rest is history,” remembered Krushelnyski.
Krushelnyski had 44 pts in 46 games his rookie season in the QMJHL. The Boston Bruins selected the talented rangy centermen in the 6th round 120th overall in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft.
The 6”2 200 pound center started to find his way in the QMJHL in his sophomore season. “Fortunately that season, I felt more comfortable and adjusted to the level of hockey.” Krushelnyski would score 39 goals and was 1pt shy of a 100pt season in 1979-80.
“I was very fortunate to be drafted by Boston,” said Krushelnyski. The self-proclaimed late bloomer would be surrounded by Bruin legends upon his arrival to Beantown for his first training camp. “Gerry Cheevers was still playing and here I was sitting next to him and Wayne Cashman.”
Krushelnyski fondly remembers his first practice with the B’s and going 1 on 1 with future Hall of Famer Brad Park.
“I just figured, I’d blow right by him at 100mph, but all of a sudden, Parky had the puck and he was headed the other way.”
The veteran Bruins took the young rookie under their wing and showed him the ropes. “I remember playing keep way with Terry O’Reilly, learning very quickly he would never give up, and never quit battling.”
“Peter McNab, taught me tricks to win more face-offs, not only were they great hockey players, but they were great men. They were teaching me what was needed to be successful at that level,” said Krushelnyski.
Krushelnyski needed time to develop and adapt to the pro game but more importantly he needed to convince himself he belonged at the NHL level.
He would put up impressive numbers in his first year pro with the Springfield Indians of the AHL in 1980-81 scoring 25 goals and amassing 53 pts. in 80 games.
“It was really my second year in the AHL with the Erie Blades, when I really felt that I could compete at the NHL level,” Krushelnyski said.
He would see his first NHL action in 1981-82 when the Bruins called him up for 17 games where he only scored 3 goals and 3 assists. He would get his first taste of playoff hockey that same year suiting up for just one game in the post season.
Krushelnyski thoroughly enjoyed playing in the Gardens and believed it was a match made in heaven for the tough Bruins squad.
“Teams knew going into Boston was a chore, and we definitely lived up to that standard. The Gardens was a little smaller, more upright so our fans felt like they were right on top of the opposition, some nights they truly made a difference,” Krushelnyski said.
The 1982-83 season turned out to be Krushelnyski’s breakout year with the Bruins. “I don’t know how, but all of sudden, I was on a line with Rick “Nifty” Middleton and Barry Pederson. Nifty was magician with the puck, he would bob and weave his way through the defense,” said Krushelnyski.
“Even when you thought they were going to stop him, he would somehow get through and score the most spectacular goals.”
“What a set of hands, and what a mind, I remember one game he had three breakaways and scored three different goals,” Krushelnyski said. Still in awe of his former teammate Krushelnyski believes Middleton should be enshrined with hockey’s greatest.
“To this day, I still wonder why he isn’t in the HHOF, his stats speak for themselves, if you were on his team, or playing against him or a fan watching from the seats, you would know how talented and important he was to his team,” said Krushelnyski.
Krushelnyski blossomed into a bonafide power forward amassing 130 pts. in 182 games for the Black and Gold before receiving a call from Harry Sinden in the summer of 1984 that would change his career forever.
Krushelnyski would be traded to the Edmonton Oilers for Ken Linsemen.
“I will always be a Bruin because they drafted me, looking back and watching old games, I now realize that I was sitting next to my childhood heroes,” said Krushelnyski.
“To be able to say that I was given pointers by the likes of Ratelle, Middleton, Cashman, O’Reilly and Stan Jonathan is incredible.”
Krushelnyski credits then Bruins coach, Gerry Cheevers for helping in his development both on and off ice. “He would push us, teach us and when not knowing the answer about something, he wouldn’t pretend,” said Krushelnyski.
“Gerry and the rest of that crew taught me, never to pretend, follow through with what you say and to be yourself.”
Krushelnyski would take the lessons learned from his time with a veteran Bruins squad and apply them to an Edmonton Oilers team on the cusp of a dynasty.
Boston to Edmonton. 4,226 Kilometres. 40 hours by car.
When Mike Krushelnyski got the call from Bruins General Manager Harry Sinden in the off-season in 1984 he wasn’t expecting to be traded, he was expecting a raise.
The newly married Krushelnyski would make the trek to Oil Country by car with his wife knowing full well things would be drastically different in Edmonton. “The Bruins were built to be rugged, but the Oilers, were built for speed, it was a whole different era. You have to remember the core group were young kids, all up and coming,” Krushelnyski said.
“To watch Messier run someone over while carrying the puck, and see Anderson flying down the wall, or Coffey winding it up and leaving opponents in the dust and Fuhr stopping a 2-0 and three breakaways a night, times were a changing,” confessed Krushelnyski.
Krushelnyski was accustom to the “old school” style of play, which he had grown fond of in Boston. He had two consecutive twenty-goal seasons with the Bruins before being acquired by Oilers for Ken Linsemen.
The quintessential power forward was known for going hard to the net and creating time and space for his line mates, something he learned playing beside the likes of Barry Pederson and the ultra talented Rick “Nifty” Middleton. However, that would all change when he found out he would be playing with #99.
“Gretz was on a whole different page,” said Krushelnyski.
“We had just finished a shift on the power play, Gretz said ‘hey Krush, next time go to the net and close your legs, next thing you know, Gretz is behind the net slapping the puck off my knee pads, now I’m scoring goals and I don’t even have to shoot, “Boy do I ever like playing with this kid,” said Krushelnyski jokingly. Krushelnyski would have the best season of his career in 1984-85 on Gretzky’s wing, scoring 43 goals and adding 45 assists. He would add 13 pts. in 18 playoff games.
The kid from Montreal who only started the game at 12 years old would hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career.
Krushelnyski was the perfect compliment for Gretzky and Kurri but surprisingly would find himself on a new line to start the 1986 season.
Glen Sather and John Muckler might have strategically planned Krushelnyski’s move to a new line at the start of 86’ campaign, but the rangy forward had no choice to adjust to the speed and up-tempo style in which Messier and Anderson preferred.
He would be reunited with Kurri and Gretzky later on that season but his offensive production declined, as he was limited to just 54 regular season games. Krushelnyski would still manage a respectable 40 pts. that season and would add 9 pts. in 10 playoff games.
Sather and Muckler’s impact on a young Oilers team would be well documented. “Glen was the orchestrator and psychologist, while John was the X’s and O’s guy,” said Krushelnyski.
“Glen would get everyone ready and John would teach us with the coaches board on and off the ice.”
Krushelnyski fondly remembers awaiting the start of a playoff series where Muckler and the Oilers thought they were well prepared.
“We were waiting for like ten days before our next round and had been practicing a certain concept, sure enough 1st period of Game 1 we’re loosing and John walks in and yells, opposite side, opposite side, forget what we were practising, we lost Game 1, but won four straight because John was smart enough to catch it and figure out how to beat our opposition.”
“Glen and John taught me and the entire team how to win,” added Krushelnyski.
Krushelnyski has become accustomed to hearing questions regarding what it was like playing with Gretzky and the other superstars from the Oiler dynasty but the passing of Dave Semenko really hit hard.
“It was real blow, it was a sad, sad day,” said Krushelnyski. “Sammy was a great guy and teammate, I will always remember his humour, stature and quick wit.”
“I will never forget one game, a fight had started but both benches weren’t watching it,” Krushelnyski said.
“They were watching Sammy, who was being held by two of their tough guys. When Dave was suckered by a third opposing player, he turned and said ‘Is that the best you’ve got’, the other two tough guys just let go of him and quietly skated away. The next shift we scored two goals and the shift after added two more, all thanks to Sammy,” added Krushelnyski.
“He made us all bigger, tougher and more confident, we all miss Sammy,” added Krushelnyski.
Krushelnyski would play 358 games in an Oilers jersey, amassing 265 points in four seasons before the historic trade that shook the hockey world.
Krushelnyski would play for eight more seasons with three different organizations over that time (LA Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings). After being traded by the Oilers, Krushelnyski would only break the twenty-goal plateau once.
He would try his hand at coaching after his retirement and won another Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 1996-97 as an assistant.
The 57-year-old, who now calls Toronto home, believes the current game is in a great place. “I must admit, I think hockey is better in today’s NHL, all the players are fast, skilled and technology and analytics have really progressed the game,” said Krushelnyski.
Krushelnyski’s journey in the game of hockey is the stuff of legend. The 4-time Stanley Cup Champion remains incredibly active in charitable endeavours surrounding the game but offers up this advice for up and coming youth.
“I believe young players should become the best skater they can be, speed is everything and if you can out skate your opponent, you will win every time.”
“Secondly, I would try to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are and play to your strengths and continue to work on your weaknesses,” added Krushelnyski.
“Thirdly, watch the NHL as much as you can, you can catch a move or something that might make you even better,” Krushelnyski said.
Mike Krushelnyski, finished his NHL career with 1,036 games played while amassing 641pts.
Not bad for a kid that started the game late.
Better Late Than Never,