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The 38-year old Rookie: How injuries opened the NHL door for a veteran journeyman

Connie Madigan was a force in the minor leagues for 15 seasons before finally getting a crack at the NHL.
Scott Petterson

Scott Petterson

Cornelius ‘Connie’ Madigan didn’t raise many eyebrows when he made his NHL debut on Feb. 6, 1973, with the St. Louis Blues. The team was so beset by injuries that 12 defensemen suited up for them that season.

However, the 38-year-old Madigan set a record that night that still stands: he was the oldest rookie to play in the NHL. And with today’s game being all about speed, it’s a safe bet that distinction will never be surpassed.

Back then, Madigan didn’t know he was setting a record. He was just happy to finally get a shot in the NHL. “Blues broadcaster Dan Kelly told me after a game that I was the oldest NHL rookie,” said Madigan, now 84. “I told him it should have been a long time ago.”

Don Cherry, who played with and against Madigan in the minors, added: “Connie should have gotten his chance when he was in his 20s or early 30s. He would have been a lot better. But a lot of guys were like him and never got a shot.”

Madigan was a standout defenseman in the old Western League – most notably with the Portland Buckaroos – when it was a professional circuit on par with the AHL. Early on, he established himself as someone not to be messed with, earning the nickname ‘Mad Dog.’ The moniker came during a game in San Diego when the public-address announcer, seated between the penalty boxes, proclaimed, “Two minutes for delay of game to ‘Mad Dog’ Madigan.” An irate Madigan swung his stick and cut the microphone wires, and the nickname stuck. “There were some wild characters that came out of that Western League, and he was one of them,” said Gary Sabourin, who played with Madigan on the Blues during the ’72-73 season and roomed with him at training camp the following fall. “Connie was his own man, just a strange dude.”

Cherry, who was Madigan’s partner on defense with the WHL’s Spokane Comets in 1962-63, added: “We got a lot of room out there because of his reputation. You had a lot of time to move the puck. He was a good skater, and there was nobody tougher. I liked playing with him.”

Playing against Madigan was a different story. “Years later, he was playing for Portland and I was playing for Vancouver,” Cherry said. “I came down the ice with the puck and Connie swung his stick and broke it over my arm. I dropped the puck back to the teammate behind me, and he was so afraid of Connie that he didn’t touch the puck.”

Tom McVie was both a teammate and an opponent of Madigan’s in the WHL. “There were other tough guys around, but I don’t know if there was anyone tougher than he was,” McVie said. “Playing against him wasn’t much fun. When I used to go in the front of the net against Madigan, it was
like backing into an airplane propeller.”

At one time or another, Madigan was the property of the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Black Hawks and Boston Bruins, but he didn’t crack the NHL with any of those Original Six teams – due to injuries or personality conflicts with coaches. “I was a good team guy, but sometimes I had a little trouble with coaches,” Madigan said.

After the Bruins demoted Madigan to the AHL’s Providence Reds in 1964, he and Reds coach-GM Fern Flaman couldn’t agree on a salary, so Madigan was traded to Portland. There, Madigan blossomed into one of the best defensemen in the WHL. He was named a first-team all-star five times, a second-team all-star three times and the league’s best defenseman in 1965-66. But he became a victim of his own success – too good of a player for the Buckaroos to sell or trade to an NHL team.

That changed midway through 1972-73, when the WHL was on its last legs. The Bucks traded Madigan’s rights to the Blues for a minor-league player and cash, but Madigan’s stint as the NHL’s oldest rookie almost didn’t happen. The Blues wanted him to report to its WHL team in Denver to serve as a player-coach. Madigan had no interest in that, but McVie happened to be visiting when Blues president Lynn Patrick called Madigan’s house and McVie talked Patrick into giving ‘Mad Dog’ a chance.

Patrick agreed to give Madigan a five-day tryout with the Blues, and he performed so well that he was signed for the rest of the season. “He still had the heart to play the game,” said Floyd Thomson, Madigan’s teammate in St. Louis. “And you know what? He played pretty damn well, too. He’d been around the game long enough. He knew how to play. He was so happy to finally play in the NHL.”

Madigan played in 20 games that season, collecting three assists and 25 penalty minutes. “They knew I could fight, so there weren’t too many times I was challenged,” said Madigan, whose only NHL bout was against Real Lemieux of the Los Angeles Kings.

Madigan played another five games in the playoffs and stayed out of the sin bin until his final game, when he and Stan Mikita traded slashing penalties. “I hit him and knocked him flat,” Madigan said. “He didn’t like that. Ten minutes later, Mikita gave me a tap and nicked me over the eyebrow. Just a little cut. No big deal. If you hit somebody, you’re going to get hit back.”

During those same playoffs in 1973, he gave a pair of Blues’ tickets to Ned Dowd – a minor-league player that he knew from a prior training camp – and his sister Nancy Dowd. Yes, the same Nancy Dowd who wrote Slap Shot. Three years later, she phoned Madigan to repay him for his kindness. “I thought it was a prank, so I hung up,” Madigan said. “She called back and reminded me about the tickets and asked me to be a part of Slap Shot.”

In the 1977 film, Madigan, by then 42, appears as Syracuse Bulldogs’ tough guy Ross ‘Mad Dog’ Madison, memorably giving a one-finger salute to the booing Charlestown fans before brawling with the Chiefs in the film’s final act.

Strangely enough, it was his bit part in Slap Shot that led to Madigan getting a rookie trading card nearly 40 years after his NHL debut. Card company Panini planned on making a small set of cards featuring actors from Slap Shot and contracted Madigan for the use of his photo and to sign several hundred cards. The Slap Shot card set never happened, but Madigan had a card picturing him with the Blues issued in the 2011-12 Panini Certified set, with the back detailing his short NHL career.

And short it was. Madigan was invited to the Blues’ camp in the fall of 1973, but at almost 39, it was an uphill battle, and his NHL career was over just as fast as it started. However, Patrick signed Madigan to a three-year deal before assigning him to the WHL’s San Diego Gulls. Midway through 1973-74, Madigan was traded back home to the Portland Buckaroos to finish out his contract. He still resides in Portland today, and is a regular spectator at Winterhawks games. Madigan’s NHL career lasted just over two months, and it was a long time ago, but he still appreciates every moment of it. “I want to thank the late Lynn Patrick and the St. Louis Blues for taking me into the NHL at 38,” he said. “I had a great time when I was there, and I’ll never forget it.”


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