Friday, September 21, 2007

Wayne Babych

Wayne Babych was on the verge of becoming the dominant power forward of his generation. Then disaster struck.

Wayne and his brother Dave grew up in Edmonton, dreaming of playing in the National Hockey League together. Both would become stars in the junior leagues, high draft picks in the NHL and NHL stars.

Wayne, who was three years older, started out with the old Edmonton Oil Kings that transferred to Portland, Oregon in 1976. Babych erupted into a junior star. He scored back to back 50 goal seasons, and once scored a hat trick in the span of just 25 seconds.

The Blues would draft Babych 3rd overall in the 1978 NHL Amateur draft, just behind Bobby Smith and Ryan Walter, and ahead of the likes of Ken Linseman, Brad Marsh and Al Secord.

Babych would turn pro immediately, turning down chances to play in Portland with brother Dave, who was joining the junior club that season, and chances to play professional baseball in the Montreal Expo's organization.

He stepped right into the St. Louis lineup and never looked out of place. Donning the #10 jersey he played 67 games along side the Blues top guns, Bernie Federko and Brian Sutter, on the "Kid Line." Babych brought blazing speed and a shot that Danny Gallivan would have called cannonading. At 5'11" and 190lbs, he was quite a bit smaller than his brother, but his upper body strength was second to none. He could dominate the boards and corners and he hit like a truck.

Babych would score 26 goals, 36 assists and 63 points, all then-rookie records for the franchise. He was a finalist in rookie of the year voting that saw the Calder Trophy go to Smith of the Minnesota North Stars.

After a 59 game sophomore season where he scored 26 goals and 61 points, Babych benefited more than most with the resulting coaching change. The following season saw Red Berenson take over the bench management duties. Babych was moved onto a line with playmaker Blake Dunlop and Swedish speedster Jorgen Pettersson. Babych erupted for a 54 goal-96 point season, though he could only muster 2 playoff tallies in 11 games.

Babych was as big of a star in St. Louis as any athlete let alone hockey player. He would sign a 4 year contract worth over $400,000 with a $125,000 signing bonus, huge dollars for 1981.

That would be the apex of Babych's career. He could have been the best power winger of the 1980s. He could skate, shoot, score, hit and fight. He was a highly underrated fighter who was not afraid of the odd dust-up no matter who his opponent was.

In a pre-season game Babych dropped the gloves with Winnipeg's Jimmy Mann, one of the biggest, baddest goons of the day. Just as Babych was about to throw a punch, the linesman intervened, grabbing his arm. Babych's rotator cuff was severely ripped.

Doctors tried a lengthy rehabilitation process followed by surgery to take the rotator cuff apart and rebuild it. They were never able to properly fix it, but Babych tried to play on, despite the pain.

But he was never the same. He even worsened the injury due to more fighting.

After three seasons of failing to crack the 20 goal mark, and after a failed trade attempt to Edmonton, the Blues exposed Babych on waivers in 1984. The Pittsburgh Penguins were looking for goal scorers to play with their new phenom Mario Lemieux. Babych played alongside Lemieux and Warren Young, scoring 20 goals for the least time in his career.

The following season Babych was moved to Quebec and then Hartford, where Wayne and Dave Babych finally achieved their childhood dream. They were in the National Hockey League, playing together for the Whalers. Wayne has said "it was a dream come true" and worth all the pain in his career.

"Dave set me up for my first goal in Hartford," Wayne told Gary Mason in the book Oldtimers. "I went through some kind of hell in my career, but to play with my brother is all I wanted to ever do."

Unfortunately injury hell was not over for Wayne Babych. In a pre-season game in September, 1986, Babych was slashed across his left leg, breaking it horrifically. At one point he was told he may not have use of the left leg again, let alone play in the NHL again. But the determined Babych worked incredibly hard to regain his form, and even suited up for the final four games of the regular season.

Those games also proved to be the final four games of Wayne Babych's career. Still suffering of significant pain in the leg and of fear of further damage to the leg, Babych left training camp in 1987. He retired with 519 NHL games played, 192 goals scored, 246 assists and 438 points.

Because Babych retired after fewer than 20 games after the injury, Babych qualified for a NHL disability pension. He took the money and ran a water slide park in Winnipeg before he and his brother got into the golf business, building and operating a couple of courses.

Through all the injuries and pain, Babych never lost the love of the game. He continues to play in many Oldtimers hockey charity games throughout the season.


darryl,  July 13, 2011 at 11:26 AM  

what a try warrior

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