This is part a continuing series of articles entitled – The Forgotten Habs. Each column will focus on a player who was a valuable contributor to the success of the Montreal Canadiens. These players, by and large part have largely been forgotten to the passage of time, and their role in the history of the Canadiens has become a mere footnote in the team’s glorious history. None of these players can be found in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but without them, the history of the bleu, blanc, et rouge, would not be so illustrious.
Once he was the very best of hockey’s junior stars. Every NHL team wanted him. Unfortunately in a career marred by injury, he never made it to the heights expected as a player … But Doug Wickenheiser made it in the most important game of all: life!
He was the most courageous human being I’ve ever met.
– Red Fisher
There is a certain status in being the first overall pick in the NHL entry draft. In addition to being recognized as the best prospect in the hockey world there is also an expectation about your future. Players like Gilbert Perreault, Denis Potvin, Dale Hawerchuk, Mario Lemieux have all gone form being the top pick to elite players in the NHL to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. In recent years number one picks like Alexander Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby have quickly made the step from the draft podium to NHL superstardom.
However, not every first overall pick has gone to enjoy a successful NHL career. For every Mike Modano there is a Brian Lawton, for every Joe Thornton there is an Alexander Daigle, and for every Vincent Lecavalier there is a Patrick Stefan.
Sadly, for as many players who have used the first overall pick as the springboard to NHL superstardom there are an equal number of players whose careers seemingly careened downhill almost immediately after they were announced as the top pick of the draft…
These players whose careers fell far short of expectation find themselves labeled with a certain stench of notoriety. Each year when the draft rolls around they are always brought up as the ones that failed, the picks that went wrong, the reason why a team continued to skirt the bottom of the NHL basement – all of this compounded by the fact that quite often a player selected after them goes on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career.
For every Guy Lafleur there is a Doug Wickenheiser.
To this day the mere mention of the name Doug Wickenheiser stirs feelings of disdain from many Montreal Canadiens fans. Over the next week or two, any discussion about the Habs draft history will undoubtedly feature Wickenheiser and it won’t be flattering.
However, twenty-eight years ago this week Doug Wickenheiser was the Steve Stamkos of his day. Ranked by the Hockey News and the Central Scouting Bureau as the top prospect in the draft he was for many the unquestioned number one pick. At the time it seemed to be the start of a dream, little did anyone know at the time how short the dream would be for Doug, both on and off the ice.
Doug Wickenheiser was born on March 30th, 1961 in Regina, Saskatchewan. Learning to skate at the age of six, by the age of nine Doug was unquestionably, the premier player in Regina minor hockey. Three years later, at the age of fourteen, Doug found his games being attended by numerous NHL scouts. Playing junior hockey for his hometown Regina Pats, Doug became the most dominant player in the Western Hockey League.
“Doug was an exceptional player, as everyone is aware,” recalled Bob Strumm, the Pats general manager in a later interview with the Regina Leader-Post. “He had it all … the size, the skill and an exceptional sense for the game around him that all great players have. He had three or four speeds and used them all effectively when he had the puck.”
During the 1979-80 season Doug dominated the junior hockey ranks, leading the WHL in goals (89) and points (170). Doug’s tremendous production didn’t let up when the regular season ended, as he captained the Regina Pats to the Memorial Cup, while leading the league in playoff assists (26) and playoffs points (40).
At the conclusion of the season the award piled in for Doug. In addition to being named the top player in the Canadian junior ranks, Doug was also awarded the WHL MVP, the CCM WHL MVP, the WHL Brownbridge trophy as the leagues point leader, and was named to the WHL first all star team.
The Montreal Canadiens held the first overall pick in that year’s upcoming draft and selected Doug with the first overall pick.
In a draft considered top heavy the general consensus was that there were three elite prospects that towered over the rest of the draftees; Doug, Wayne Babych, and Denis Savard.
In the ensuing years much has been made about the Canadiens passing on Denis Savard in order to choose Doug with the first pick. The fact that Savard went on to enjoy instant success on his way to a Hall of Fame career has proven that the Habs made the wrong selection.
However, what happened after the draft has unfortunately blurred the realities behind the 1980 draft. Of course, hindsight makes geniuses of us all, and through the years many enduring myths have been propagated through the years about the circumstances leading to that June day, twenty-eight years ago.
The Canadiens entered the summer of 1980 as a team in transition. Weeks earlier, the Canadiens had been eliminated in the Quarter Finals by the Minnesota North Stars as their dream of a fifth consecutive Stanley Cup came to an end on Forum ice.
What nobody could have known then was that this loss a few weeks before had been the end of an era, the day where the Canadiens days of domination came to an end. The signs were everywhere. The architect of this dynasty, Sam Pollock had left two years ago. Their coach, Scotty Bowman had left after the teams fourth consecutive Cup the spring before, as did future Hall of Fame players Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, and Jacques Lemaire. Of course, looking back now one could see that stars like Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and Steve Shutt were all beginning the downside of their once great careers.
At the time however, many Montreal fans and media saw this loss as a temporary blip and not the beginning of the Habs eventual descent from the top that we now know it was. This opinion was also shared by the Canadiens brain trust at the time, general manager Irving Grundman, chief scout and player personnel director Ron Caron, and head coach Claude Ruel.
Ruel, had long coveted Denis Savard and actively pushed for the Canadiens to select him with the first pick. However, both Grundman and Caron coveted Wickenheiser as opposed to Savard. At the time the Canadiens group of centers, Pierre Larouche, Pierre Mondou, Doug Risebrough, and Doug Jarvis were all smallish in size, as were the Canadiens top two center prospects; Guy Carbonneau and Dan Daoust.
Wickenheiser was that tall, big center that both Grundman and Caron thought was the Habs missing piece. They were not alone in this assessment. Guy Lafleur actively begged in the media for a big center that he felt the team had been lacking since Pete Mahovlich was traded to Detroit a few years earlier. The Hockey News and Central Scouting both ranked Wickenheiser as the top player in the draft, as did an informal poll of the league’s general managers.
At the time, the Habs pick of Wickenheiser was widely accepted with only smatterings of protest coming from the French media.
Soon however, those small smatterings of dissent would soon mushroom into something far more sinister.
Sadly, it didn’t take long for Doug Wickenheiser’s dream to turn into a nightmare.
Starting in training camp there were whispers about Doug and his play. Putting additional pressure on the rookie, the Canadiens gave Wickenheiser the jersey number 25, the same number as Jacques Lemaire, the team’s Hall of Fame center who had retired the year previously. Claude Ruel, the Canadiens head coach, perhaps still smarting over his being outvoted on Denis Savard seemed to go out of his way to take out his frustrations on the highly touted rookie.
“Claude Ruel didn’t like him,” Larry Robinson recalled years later, “Ruel didn’t think he was a quality NHL player, or a decent number one pick,” suggesting that it was “a way to protest the team not picking Denis Savard?”
As fate would have it the Canadiens opened their season against Savard and the Black Hawks at the Forum in front of a nationwide audience on Hockey Night in Canada.
Scoring two highlight reel goals, Denis Savard was named the game’s first star in the Black Hawks 5-4 win over the Canadiens.
Doug Wickenheiser watched the game from the Habs press box as a healthy scratch.
From that night on the whispers about Wickenheiser, especially from the French media began to gather steam. During a rookie season in which he appeared in only half of Montreal’s games, contributing seven goals and fifteen points, Doug’s numbers paled next to his main rival as Denis Savard scored twenty-eight goals and seventy-five points.
There was no relief to be found in the playoffs as the Canadiens were swept in the first round by the upstart Edmonton Oilers. Wickenheiser, a player of such promise the year before went home for the summer a disillusioned young man.
The 1981-82 season promised to be different for Doug. He diligently worked out over the summer as never before, and was relieved to see his personal nemesis, Claude Ruel replaced as Canadiens head coach by Bob Berry. However, Doug’s frustration only grew as he was moved away from his natural center position to the left wing, a position he had never played before. Once again, he was unable to play a full season, as injuries limited him to 56 games (12 goals, 23 assists, 35 points).
The boos and catcall from the fans and the media were only increasing as Wickenheiser’s rival Denis Savard emerged as a full fledged NHL superstar, finishing sixth in league scoring with 119 points.
Sadly, the Canadiens once again were victims of an early playoff exit at the hands of their newfound bitter rivals; the Quebec Nordiques. For many the blame for this continued run of disappointing losses was the underachieving phenom from Regina. Both fans and writers began wondering aloud about how different things would be if only the Habs had taken Denis Savard with that first pick.
1982-83 would be Doug Wickenheiser’s best year as a Montreal Canadien and also his last. Playing his first full season, Doug scored a career best 25 goals in a career high 55 point season. Once again however, the Canadiens were swept in the first round by the Buffalo Sabres. Sadly, for Doug his breakthrough season was lost amidst the hysteria surrounding Denis Savard who leapt to third amongst the leagues scoring leaders.
Many increasingly directed their venom towards Doug as he became the target of the fans frustrations and the media’s taunts. Doug unwittingly became the focal point of one of the most tumultuous times in Montreal hockey history. It was quickly becoming apparent that the situation was becoming untenable for both Doug and the Canadiens. Ironically, while many blamed Doug for the Habs descent into darkness, the record shows that the team was still a regular season powerhouse which constantly and continually faltered around playoff time.
For this Doug was the whipping boy amongst the Canadiens supporters, who conveniently overlooked the fact that Doug was not the one to fault for the team’s playoff disappointments. In his career, with the Montreal Canadiens, Doug Wickenheiser never suited up for a playoff game.
In retrospect, the reasons behind the Canadiens faltering fortunes during this time lie more with ineffective management.
The unquestioned team of the seventies was allowed to grow older, as players like Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and Steve Shutt were kept long after their best days were behind them, before being discarded with little or any compensation coming the other way. The Canadiens draft well, which under Sam Pollock had been so bountiful now became barren as no new superstars emerged to take the place of those departed. The team appeared to be caught off guard and ill prepared by the exodus of many famous players, and sadly a reliance on many of the team’s older stars to carry the load resulted in regular season highs only to see tired and worn out players unable to stop the playoff lows.
To no ones surprise the summer of 1983 saw the firings of both Irving Grundman and Ron Caron. With his two foremost champions in the front office now gone, Doug Wickenheiser found himself as a player adrift, and now began to see the writing on the wall, as his future with the Canadiens was no longer a bright one..
Doug, for many the symbol of frustration for the Canadiens, their fans, and the press, was mercifully traded to the St. Louis Blues on December 21st, 1983. Such ended one of the most controversial and disappointing careers in Montreal Canadiens history.
Doug Wickenheiser was all of 22 years old.
Rescued by his foremost supporter, Ron Caron, now general manager of the St. Louis Blues, Doug strived to make a new start and leave the pain of Montreal behind him.
St. Louis turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Doug Wickenheiser. Free of the shackles of expectation that haunted him during his stay in Montreal. In his 46 games with the Blues in 1983-84 season Doug contributed 28 points. In the first 68 games of the 1984-85 season Doug contributed 43 points and became a valuable member of the Blues. For the first time in many years, Doug was once again enjoying the game.
And then the dark cloud that had been following Doug since he joined the NHL once again appeared and this time it was the worst hit yet. During a rookie initiation ceremony with the Blues, Doug jumped out of the back of a pickup truck and was struck by a car, blowing out both his MCL and his ACL.
After undergoing surgery, Doug was told by doctors that his hockey career may have come to an end. In his years in Montreal many had questioned Doug’s courage, his heart, his intestinal fortitude.
One year later nobody was questioning Doug Wickenheiser’s heart anymore.
Doug, thanks to countless hours of rehabilitation, was able to rejoin the Blues for the last 36 games of the 1985-86 season. And while it quickly became apparent that the injury had robbed Doug of some of his hockey skills, it was his ability to refocus his abilities and concentrate on becoming a defensive specialist who excelled at face-offs that helped contribute to a Blues team on the rise.
After finishing third in the Norris division, the Blues upset the Minnesota North Stars in the first round, before defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in a hard fought seven game series in the Norris finals. Matched up against the upstart Calgary Flames in the Campbell Conference Finals, the Blues found themselves on the verge of elimination in game six, down three games to two, and facing a three goal deficit in the third period, the Blues mounted a furious comeback to force overtime.
At the seven minute, thirty second mark of the first overtime period fortune finally smiled on Doug Wickenheiser, whose scored the most famous goal in St. Louis Blues history, capping off the “Monday Night Miracle.” And while the Flames went on to win the series two nights later, it couldn’t dampen Doug’s shining moment and the greatest of all Blues moments.
Undoubtedly, the high point of Doug’s career, the next year saw Doug gut his way through the entire season, not missing a game. In the off-season Doug was claimed by the Vancouver Canucks in the waiver draft. Playing the entire schedule as the Canucks fourth line centre, before setting off on a nomadic hockey journey that saw stops with the Canadian Olympic Team, a game with the New York Rangers and forty-three games with the Washington Capitals that ended his NHL career, Doug’s NHL career which had begun with so much hype now ended with a whimper.
Wishing to continue with the game he loved, Doug spent a year playing in Italy in 1990-91, followed by a year in Austria, before winding up his professional career with stops in the International Hockey League, in noted hockey hotbeds Peoria and Fort-Wayne.
At the conclusion of his playing career, Doug moved to his true “home,” the city of St. Louis. His love of the city remained undimmed, but it was the love of a woman that sealed the deal. Doug quickly opened the Blue Line Nursery along with Wick’s Frozen Custard and settled into a domestic life.
Married on August 8th, 1992 to local girl Dianne Pepple, on August 4th, 1994, Doug became a proud father to twin baby girls. Four days later, on his second anniversary, Doug underwent surgery to have a malignant cyst that he had first noticed four years before removed from his wrist.
Doug threw himself into the St. Louis community, helping current Blue Kelly Chase run a hockey camp that raised money for the Gateway Locomotives, a hockey league for developmentally disabled children.
1997 saw Doug and Dianne welcome their third daughter into the world. Sadly, in October of that same year, a lemon sized tumor was found in Doug’s right lung. It was only then that Doug and his family were told the news that no one ever wants to hear; the tumor in his lung was cancerous and inoperable.
Facing the biggest battle of his life, Doug dedicated himself to fighting this dreaded disease. Inspiring all those around him, Doug fought cancer with a level of courage many of us can only aspire to.
In his honor, the St. Louis Blues began wearing a special helmet decal bearing the wick of a candle and the number fourteen.
On March 14th, 1998 the St. Louis Blues held Doug Wickenheiser Night. Following a Blues league game that afternoon, 36 ex-teammates and friends, including Hayley Wickenheiser (Doug’s fourth cousin), participated in an old-timers alumni game, followed by a dinner and auction which raised $100,000 for the newly established 14 fund (Doug’s jersey number with the Blues).
Mustering all of his remaining strength, Doug walked out to center ice to drop the opening puck, as the crowd exploded in an outpouring of love for a man who giving cancer the ultimate battle.
Four months later in July, doctors found cancerous lesions in Doug’s brain.
Doug fought his battle sustained by his faith, hoping that prayer would provide that miracle of miracles.
“I really believe it will,” Doug answered, when questioned about the power of prayer the following month by the Regina Leader Post. “Right now, we’ve had a bit of a setback, but it’ll work its way out. I really believe that,’ an optimistic Doug exclaimed. “The only way we can get through this is by believing and praying that the miracle is going to happen.”
Years before while playing for the Canadiens many questioned Doug Wickenheiser’s heart. Now facing the direst of diagnoses, Doug Wickenheiser showed many of us the true value of courage. Facing a death sentence, Doug never lost his hope, his beliefs, and where many would have questioned why, Doug immersed himself in his faith and beliefs.
On January 12th, 1999 Doug Wickenheiser lost his valiant and courageous battle with cancer. He was thirty-seven years old. He left behind his wife Dianne, and three daughters, twins Rachel and Kaitlyn, at the time 4 ½ years old and Carly aged 1 ½..
That same year the Blues raised a banner with the number 14 and the Wick logo to the rafters and announced that the 14 fund would be the team’s official charity. During the 1999 All-Star game in Tampa, held twelve days after Doug’s passing, each player sported the Wick logo on their helmet.
Doug Wickenheiser never lived up to the immense expectations placed on him as the top eighteen-year-old prospect in the summer of 1980. He endured the wrath of many fans and media for not living up to others expectations of him. He suffered through these hard times in silence, showing a form of class uncommon of many who find themselves in the same situation.
But while Doug may have fallen short as a hockey player, he was truly a unique individual who possessed a desire and courage that we rarely glimpse in life. In the game of hockey Doug never became the superstar many expected him too, but in the game of life, the most important game of them all, he was truly a Hall of Famer.
Much of the information in this column was found in the book, “The Last Face-Off: The Doug Wickenheiser Story by Ted Pepple.