Two years ago, Mike Liut was standing with a colleague on the concourse observing a Buffalo Sabres shoot-around from the far end of the rink. The retired goaltender wanted to make sure he caught up with his pal Bryan Trottier, then an assistant Sabres coach, while he was in town.
“I think that’s Trottier there, isn’t it?” the colleague said.
Liut squinted — the goalie’s eyesight not what it used to be and the action was yards away.
“No,” Liut said, with certainty.
“How do you know?”
“That’s Trottier over there,” Liut pointed to a human shape. “Look how smooth he is with the puck.”
Never teammates until they battled together on the NHL Players’ Association in the late 1980s, and even though both ’56 babies were well past age 56, Liut could still spot Trottier’s distinctive stride from across an arena.
Trottier cruised to the centre line and fired six or seven pucks into a vacant net, each shot 12 inches above the ice and denting the mesh behind the stick side of an imaginary right-handed goaltender.
“Right where you can’t get it: over the pad, under the blocker,” Liut recalls today. “A dart from 40 feet. That’s the key. A zinger. It zings when he shoots it.”
Seems like a fitting time, doesn’t it?
With the New York Islanders making headlines and winning playoff series again — their first in 23 years — and with the Pittsburgh Penguins looking once more like a legitimate Stanley Cup threat, the timing just feels right.
The one guy to don sweaters for both of those old Patrick Division dynasties — one of the greatest centremen to ever play the game, straight up — will be getting honoured, again.
Bryan Trottier, we learned Tuesday, will be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame on Nov. 1 as part of the 2016 class. He’ll be 60 by then, 50 years and seven Stanley Cups removed from the Saskatchewan boy who honed his skills atop a twig-riddled frozen creek and idolized Jean Beliveau.
Trottier won four Cups with the ’80s Islanders and another deuce with the Mario-era Penguins, which ties him with names like Mark Messier and Doug Harvey for the 10th most Cups in a playing career.
Yet his 18 years at centre ice are still under-appreciated outside of Long Island.
Maybe it’s because the teams he won with were not Canadian or weren’t so rich in history, until he arrived. Or that, while a leader of the highest degree, he wasn’t captain. Trottier wasn’t often the top point-getter on his own team.
Maybe it’s because that early-’80s Islanders Deathstar had so many strong personalities: Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Billy Smith, Clark Gilles, Bob Nystrom, John Tonelli, Al Arbour. Or that, late career, he morphed into an important checking forward, a glue guy, with the star-studded Penguins.
Look at the list of the 26 players with the most Stanley Cup rings: Trottier is the only one who never played for Toronto, Montreal or Edmonton.
Maybe it’s because, after representing his birth nation at the 1981 Canada Cup, he used his North American Indian Card (Trottier’s grandma was a Chippewa) to gain dual citizenship. Trottier switched sides and played for Team USA in 1984 because he felt he owed the country he lived in. His wife was American.
Maybe it’s because he didn’t wow us as a head coach. The greatest players seldom do.
Trottier was the first skater from a post-Original Six team to win the Hart Trophy, in 1979 (i.e., Before Wayne). He took the scoring race that same season, claimed the Conn Smythe in 1980, and was runner-up to Gretzky for the Hart in 1982.
He ranks 16th in all-time scoring with 1,425 points, put up six 100-point campaigns, has nine all-star game participant ribbons, and won five different individual trophies. He scored a then record-setting 95 points as a rookie and won the Calder Trophy in 1976, accepted his prize and sat back down beside Gordie and Colleen Howe at a banquet table. Trottier would win the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 1989, while a young Stevie Yzerman set the league afire with No. 19 stitched to his back as a nod to Trots (no Barry).
Arbour once said he would never trade Trottier for Gretzky.
“Gretzky is an offensive genius for sure. But at this stage Trots gives you more things,” the late coach said. “Defensively, he’s outstanding. And he’s physically tough. He comes up with his 100 points a year, automatically, along with everything else.”
As a player, Trottier was the complete package. His analytics would’ve made nerds drool. Good down low in the defensive zone supporting the puck. Blessed with intuition, work ethic and an enviable hockey IQ.
“Jonathan Toews reminds me a lot of Bryan Trottier,” Liut says. “The guy who can’t lose. The guy who finishes in a quiet way. Not loud. Not dirty. Relentless. Skilled. Smart.
“He wasn’t the fastest skater. But like Toews [who also wears 19], he was solid on his skates and strong on his stick. You didn’t knock him over. He led by example. Led by tenacity. He was honest. He was humble. Those are great hockey players. There’s no drama in their game. They just played, every day. It is a steely determination. A great man.” (And one who can sing.)
Trottier was the perfect setup man for the trigger on skates that was Mike Bossy, whose name arguably rings more bells.
“I think history will remember Trots as a great hockey player,” Bossy once said, “and me as a great goal scorer, not a great hockey player…. Any team that needed a strong and determined center who could score and check and win face-offs would naturally choose him over me.”
Just as Trottier chose team over self.
After retiring, Trottier, as an assistant coach on the 2001 Colorado Avalanche, watched Ray Bourque lift his first Stanley Cup, Trottier’s seventh all told.
He explained about how a championship feels earlier this year, how Toews has felt, how Tavares might one day.
“If you think you know how fun it will be, multiply that by 100,” Trottier wrote for The Players’ Tribune. “But it’s not just about fun. It touches parts of your soul that you cannot imagine. It’s not about you. It’s about your teammates. It’s about everyone who got you to that moment.”