Thursday, September 15, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview: Laurie Boschman Discusses the Return of the Jets and Ottawa's 20th Anniversary


NHL Alumni member Laurie Boschman
(Photo: Andrew Rodger TVOS)
The NHL spotlight will shine brightly on two Canadian cities this season. After a lengthy absence, hockey fans in Winnipeg are preparing to welcome back their beloved Winnipeg Jets. Meanwhile, fans in Ottawa will be celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the modern-day Senators. One former NHLer with a strong connection to Winnipeg and Ottawa is NHL Alumni member Laurie Boschman, and he is thrilled for fans in both cities.

During his NHL career, Laurie played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, New Jersey Devils and the Ottawa Senators, scoring 229 goals and adding 348 assists in 1,009 games. Selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round (ninth overall) of the 1979 NHL Draft, he spent three seasons with the Leafs and one full season with the Edmonton Oilers before joining the Winnipeg Jets and becoming an integral part of the franchise. When Boschman arrived in Ottawa at the end of his career to join the expansion Senators, he was named the first captain of the revitalized franchise.

In March of 1983, Laurie was traded from Edmonton to the Winnipeg Jets and joined an outstanding group of players that included future Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, Brian Mullen and Dave Babych. By 1985, the roster included three future NHL Head Coaches in Randy Carlyle, Paul MacLean and Scott Arniel. Laurie’s hard work began to pay off in Winnipeg, as he quickly became a fan favourite in the Prairie town. With a solid lineup and working together as a team, the Jets finished the 1984-85 season with 96 points and a 43-27-10 win/loss record - the best point total in the organization’s history.

“We had some great players,” Boschman recalled in a recent interview. “We just couldn’t get past Edmonton!”

“I have some great memories from Winnipeg and we really did have a great group of guys out there,” he continued. “I was there from 1983 until 1990 and out of those seven years that we were in the Smythe Division, the Stanley Cup Champion came out of our division six times. Edmonton won it five times and Calgary won once. Montreal was the only team to win the Cup that didn’t come from the Smythe.”

“Sometimes you would contain Gretzky and Messier, but then Kurri or Coffey would beat us. Other times, we would contain Coffey and Kurri and then Gretzky would do something spectacular or Grant Fuhr would stand on his head. I think there are seven Hall of Famers from that particular squad - they were just a really tough opponent.”

Younger hockey fans may not recall the Smythe Division of the 1980’s (now the Northwest Division) but the regular season and playoff battles between Edmonton, Winnipeg and the Calgary Flames were legendary. Marty McSorley, a member of the Oilers in the mid-80’s, once told me that teams absolutely hated making the Western swing through Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton. Good teams and players would finish the trip with a -13 or -14 plus/minus rating.

In Winnipeg, visiting teams faced the daunting task of shutting down Hawerchuk, Boschman, MacLean and Steen. In Calgary, they had to tangle with Lanny McDonald, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwnedyk, Gary Roberts, Al MacInnis and Mike Vernon. If you somehow made it through those two teams intact, Edmonton was waiting with future Hall of Famers in Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. It is impossible to find a comparable situation in today’s NHL. Boschman explained that it was Edmonton’s high tempo, wide-open style that brought out the best in all of them.

“With the style that Edmonton brought to the Smythe Division and the NHL, you had to play and compete against them with their style; they were always willing to trade goals with you. They also had great goaltenders in Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog, and Moog was no slouch as a goaltender, so you had to compete with them at their level.”

“The games were more like 6-5 or 5-4 as opposed to today where you have some lower scoring games. They took lots of chances because their defence was always active. They had Charlie Huddy, Kevin Lowe and of course, Paul Coffey; he could easily bring the puck from end to end and he had a wicked shot too. You couldn’t contain them over a seven game series. You could try, but we weren’t able to do that when I was there. We just weren’t able to beat Edmonton - we got by Calgary but we never could beat Edmonton.”

With the Atlanta Thrashers relocating to Winnipeg this summer, the Jets are alive and well once again. Hockey fans in the province, as well as the members of the original Jets franchise, are thrilled to be back in the NHL and are looking forward to the start of a new chapter in the organization’s history. While Laurie’s Jets never made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, he said he has nothing but great memories from his time in Winnipeg and he is happy to see the NHL return to the city.

“I was surprised that they did call them the Jets,” Laurie said. “I thought that they would go in a different direction, but I am totally fine with that obviously! I am just really happy for the people of Winnipeg and Manitoba. We had a hockey camp out there this summer with Hockey Ministries International and I was there for a week - the excitement was quite palpable within the community. A lot of people are so pleased to be in the big leagues again.”

“They have a pretty good team coming into Winnipeg with Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Pavelec is a pretty good goaltender too. Eric Fehr is a Manitoba boy, so I think the city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba are going to be very happy with their team out there.”

Traded from the Jets to New Jersey in September of 1990, Laurie spent two seasons with the Devils before being claimed by the newly formed Ottawa Senators in the 1992 expansion draft. The original Ottawa Senators franchise was a founding member of the NHL but left the league in 1934. When they returned to the NHL in time for the 1992-93 season, Boschman’s experience and strong work ethic made him a natural choice to be the first player to wear the “C” for the Sens.

As the franchise prepares to celebrate their 20th Anniversary, I asked Laurie if he could believe that twenty years had passed since that first season.

“It really is hard to believe because it has gone by so fast,” he answered. “Our youngest son Jeffrey, who was just an infant when we came here for the 92-93 season, is now heading into his second year at University. I can hardly believe that it has gone by so fast - it truly is amazing!”

“It was a challenging first year and it was challenging to be a part of an expansion team, but it was also an interesting experience because I had never done that in my career. Living in Ottawa since then, it is interesting to see the growth of the team because my wife and I brought up three sons that played hockey and grew up as Sens fans. It is really neat to see that younger generation now that totally embraces this team.”

The Senators are admittedly in the midst of a rebuilding process heading into this season, but it is a far cry from the team’s 10-70-4 record in their expansion year. The organization has grown, spending much of the last decade as one of the league’s most consistent teams and fought their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Unlike other expansion franchises in new NHL cities, the Senators had to overcome a unique obstacle in gaining new fans - the Montreal Canadians and the Toronto Maple Leafs were already firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of hockey fans in Canada’s capital.

“It was a very unique experience for sure and there was a ton of excitement here,” Laurie reminisced. “I think what we noticed back then, was that while we had tremendous fan support right from day one, we also recognized that there were lots of Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians fans, which still exist in Ottawa today. There was a lot of allegiance to those two brands and so it has taken twenty years to establish a fan base and a brand here in Ottawa. I think the Senators are solidly entrenched in the community now.”

An active member of the Ottawa community, the NHL Alumni and the Senators Alumni Association, Boschman enjoys helping organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). Each year, the Sens Alumni take part in the Hope and Heroes benefit dinner, which raises funds for the Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

Since 1985, Laurie has been involved with Hockey Ministries International (HMI) and now serves as their Director for Ottawa and Eastern Ontario. HMI provides young Christian hockey players the opportunity to learn about the game, while exploring and growing their faith. He travels throughout the country speaking with young hockey players, holding clinics and camps, and he works with NHL players interested in helping the organization.

“Working with HMI gives me an opportunity to be involved with two of the great passions I have in life,” Laurie explained. “Expressing my faith in Christ and talking about Bible-based principals, as well as hockey.”

“We provide great instruction from players that have played junior, semi-pro, college, in the American Hockey League, all the way up to the NHL. We also talk about principals from the Bible that have helped us and we feel will help these young athletes in their lives. We talk about how we handled peer pressure and some of the challenges that are out there - how to navigate around them. We find that there are a lot of players that are interested and helped by it, so we feel we are providing a really good service to them.”

Many athletes in baseball, football, basketball and hockey are speaking about their faith, what it means to them and how it has helped them in their lives. There are many highs and lows in the lives of professional athletes - the pressure to succeed is immense. Their performance is constantly questioned; the team’s performance is scrutinized. Laurie explained that he too was up with the highs and down with the lows early in his career, but credits one of his teammates in Toronto for helping him renew his faith.

“When I got to Toronto and sat next to Ron Ellis, there was just something different about him,” he said. “I saw this peace about him that I certainly didn’t have as a 19 year old. I started asking him some questions and he basically talked about his personal faith in Jesus Christ.”

“I come from a religious background and I believed in God and I knew about him, but I didn’t know that I could know him in a personal way - I thought that was just for the priest, the pastor or the minister. When Ron started talking to me about his relationship with God, it got me interested in Christianity. I think more than anything though, what attracted me to the faith was Ron’s life. He was really consistent, he was always the same and had peace no matter what; I wanted the same peace that Ron had.”

Through his work with Hockey Ministries International, Laurie is helping others rediscover their faith and find their own peace of mind, while sharing the knowledge from his hockey career to help grow the game. As the fans in Winnipeg and Ottawa prepare to celebrate their teams, the long-time Jets forward and the Senators’ first captain will be celebrating right along with them.

To learn more about Laurie’s work with HMI, visit their website: www.hockeyministries.org

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