Years ago Kirk Gibson began playing for baseball.s Detroit Tigers, a rookie with enormous ability. Considered a hot-shot, the Tigers and media combined to produce gushy articles, love-letters, and many other forms of adoration. Gibson wasn.t doing badly with the attention until Detroit.s bonehead manager sounded off with his two-cents worth. Going to be the next Mickey Mantle, was our Kirk, yodelled Sparky Anderson. Those words were still echoing around Anderson.s office but young Gibson was instantly set up to fail, shackled to an anvil of expectation. The player himself was shocked, a debate erupted and raged for years. Gibson spent years trying to crawl from under that one.
Hockey is no different. Players have burst into the league, been thrust into a rigid, armour-plated suit of ridiculous expectations practically squeezing the life out of the poor guy, then criticized as an under-achiever when he sinks.
Depending on which great player the rookie is compared to, the poor sap is practically guaranteed to fall short in the eyes of this or that general manager, coach, or addled-brained sports reporter. The NHL has good looking rookies scattered across the league and soon, when a good idea simply won.t spring to mind, some goof will compare Nathan Horton, Rick Nash, Marc-Andre Fleury, Barret Jackman, or Jay Boumeester to Wayne, Mario, Doug Harvey, Terry Sawchuk, or Stevie Y.
Have pity for the kid. Like Gibson, these casual comparisons have surprising longevity. Brad Park was a fine, good skating, playmaking defenceman with the New York Rangers, Boston, and Detroit for 17 seasons. He came into the league as the next Bobby Orr. Regrettably, Park played a game similar to Orr.s. He was no Orr, but, with 1113 games played and 869 points, he turned out be a pretty good Park. Trouble was, he never began receiving the acclaim due him until later in his career.
Same with Denis Potvin of the Islanders - the next Orr. No way. Potvin was rugged, mean, occasionally dirty, a block of granite in his own zone, and a defenceman who could score. Definitely not an Orr. He escaped quickly from the shackles because the comparison was blinding nonsense. Park and Potvin are in the Hall of Fame
Bret Hedican has had a useful career with St. Louis, Vancouver, Florida, and now Carolina. He is a swift skater, handles the puck pretty well, and can make a good first pass. His albatross was Paul Coffey. Coffey had 1531 points in 1409 games, stands 10th in all-time scoring, and one season hit for 48 goals. That record still stands.
Coffey was an exceptional skater, could rush the puck all night if Wayne Gretzky let him, was deft and intuitive, and still got back into his own zone to play a little defence. Hedican.s skating was compared early in his career with Coffey.s. Time after time reporters demanded why he didn.t score like Coffey. Who does? In Vancouver rumbles could be heard from the coaching staff, wanting more production on the power play, more scoring even strength. Hedican has twice scored six goals in a season, another time he gathered 24 assists. No one mentions Paul Coffey much any more.
A comparison which irked the Rat no end was Maxim Afinogenov and Pavel Bure. Some bright bunny decided that Afinogenov reminded him of Pavel; the skating, the shot, the fact both were Russians, and the Buffalo Sabre played right wing. Soon game telecasts involving the Sabres were replete with this odious comparison. Anyone with a little sense saw through this misconception but those big brains in Buffalo insisted on using the comparison, dragging it out earlier this season.
It is to weep. Pavel was the fastest thing the league had ever seen. His speed was so great that on breakaways he often arrived at the opposition.s net and the goaltender hadn.t moved. For awhile there he wasted a number of opportunities simply shooting into the pads of a goalie turned to stone. Pavel.s brilliant skill, speed, and panache combined to produce a winger who frequently played head and shoulders beyond everyone else on the ice. He scored 174 goals his first four years. Twice he hit 60; Afinogenov has scored 65 goals total in four plus seasons.
So who is it going to be? Vancouver rookie winger Jason King the next Jim Sandlak? Toronto rookie centre Matt Stajan the next Doug Gilmour? Or perhaps Boston.s rookie winger Patrice Bergeron will remind someone of Johnny Bucyk.
With any luck, the many kids now in the league will develop a style quickly and make comparisons unnecessary.