My esteemed colleague Ken Campbell, and many others in the hockey world, sometimes make statements such as these when it comes to sending players back to junior hockey:
Campbell: “There has never been a player in the history of hockey whose career was ruined by being brought along too slowly, but hockey’s scrap heap is littered with players who were put into situations they weren’t capable of handling.”
He wrote that recently in a blog about junior players remaining with NHL teams while they still have junior eligibility remaining. His departure point was 19-year-old Sean Monahan and how the best option might be the American League, though that’s not open to him. The Calgary Flames announced today they’re keeping Monahan. Decisions on other teenagers on other NHL teams are forthcoming.
But I don’t buy into the claim that there’s never been a career ruined by being brought along slowly. How can that be proven? There’s no alternate universe whereby we can see what happens under a different scenario.
All I can think of is what might have happened to the career of Marc Habscheid back in 1981 had the Edmonton Oilers decided to keep him as an 18-year-old. Habscheid was a late draft pick (113th overall) who had an exceptional training camp and pre-season. His five goals and 10 points in nine exhibition games ranked behind only Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky on the Oilers.
The Oilers crushed his dream on the eve of opening night by sending him back to Saskatoon of the Western League. Habscheid was choked up. Here’s what he told Dick Chubey of the Edmonton Sun. “They said I played good enough. I know I never expected to go this far, but once you get a taste of it… I’m disappointed. Come to think of it, I had forgotten about my junior team.”
Habscheid tore up the WHL upon his return, scoring 64 goals and 151 points in 55 games. But did he pick up bad habits along the way? Did he learn the game defensively? How might his development have been altered playing in a lineup of Gretzky, Messier and a handful of other future Hall of Famers?
This is what Oilers GM Glen Sather said at the time: “We didn’t send him down because he didn’t play well, but he’s going to play a helluva lot more – say, 40 minutes a game – than he would in four or five shifts per game here. He’s a legitimate first pick as far as I’m concerned. He may be 18, but he’s certainly not playing like an 18-year-old. He’s showing more poise than Mark Messier did when he was that age.”
It took until Habscheid was 25 to make the NHL on a full time basis with the Minnesota North Stars. He did end up playing 345 big-league games, but he was never really a high impact player and finished with 72 goals and 163 points.
Habscheid spent two seasons with the Canadian national team in his quest to crack the NHL and I remember talking to him at that time. He harkened back to that magical pre-season he had as an 18-year-old in Edmonton and how things might have unfolded differently. He wasn’t bitter or angry. He just wished he was given the opportunity to advance his game playing with and against the best.
Monahan will stay with Calgary. He has earned that right. Sending him back to junior so he could develop more slowly would have been a mistake.