Throwback Thursday: Mike Liut Q & A

I’m re-posting an interview I did with former NHL goalie and current Octagon agent Mike Liut. The Bowling Green product began his pro career in the defunct WHA and was one of the league’s best netminders during the 1980’s era of “Firewagon Hockey”- when scoring reigned and a “top” NHL goalie sported a goals against average at or just north of 3.00 and an .890 save percentage was upper tier. The great thing about being able to cover the sport I love is the chance to meet my boyhood idols and Liut was one of them, even though ironically enough- he never played for the Boston Bruins.

Liut is an interviewer’s dream, as he has an amazingly detailed mind for recall and I remember being near overwhelmed with his answers to my questions. It’s always a treat when I run into him here and there at NHL drafts, combine or other byways where the game brings us together and he’s always extremely gracious to this writer who can’t help feel the same kind of thrill he got at age 11 when Liut signed an autograph outside the Civic Center. Enjoy

Mike Liut on the cover of the 1987-88 Hartford Whalers media guide and yearbook

Mike Liut on the cover of the 1987-88 Hartford Whalers media guide and yearbook

***

New England Flashback, originally published April, 2004

During the 1980’s, goaltender Mike Liut was one of the more recognizable names in the National Hockey League at the height of the 21-team era. Liut, who came to the from the St. Louis Blues to the Hartford Whalers in a blockbuster trade engineered by GM Emile Francis, spent almost five full seasons and parts of another as the Whale’s big name in goal. Liut established himself in the NHL with a memorable 1980-81 campaign when he won the Lester B. Pearson Trophy given to the league MVP as voted on by the players. He arrived in Hartford at a time when the franchise was foundering, not having made the NHL playoffs since their inaugural season in 1979-80, when the World Hockey Association, which had begun in 1972, merged with the NHL, and the Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques were brought into the fold.

The Whalers were struggled for respect in the early ‘80’s, even though they had some fine young players coming up through the ranks such as Ron Francis (Liut’s second cousin), Kevin Dineen, Ulf Samuelsson, Ray Ferraro and Sylvain Turgeon, the 1984-85 club was just about out of the playoffs when GM Emile Francis dealt the popular Greg Millen and Mark Johnson to the Blues for Liut. Although the 1985 Whalers finished strong, the team would grow by leaps and bounds the following season, not only making it to the postseason, but then stunning the favored Nordiques in the first round of the 1986 Adams Division semifinal series.

Liut was expected to be a savior in Hartford, and although the pinnacle of his Whaler career came in a devastating seven-game playoff loss to the Montreal Canadiens in 1986, the former Bowling Green University standout and Weston, Ontario native gave Hartford fans some great memories of big game performances, and the confidence of a top goaltender at a time when scoring levels were at their highest in history. A glance at Liut’s statistics given the drop in offense in this day and age, doesn’t do much for those used to seeing GAA’s in the sub-two’s and three’s, but at a time when teams combined to average nearly eight goals of offense per game, he was one of the game’s best.

Liut was also one of the first in the wave of cat-quick goaltenders with size (Liut was 6-2) who took up a considerable amount of the net and frustrated shooters with their athleticism. He was an immensely popular workhorse goalie in St. Louis, still talked about by Blues fans in reverent tones, but had to fight for the hearts and minds of the Whaler faithful, who despite watching some of the moribund Hartford teams of the early 80’s, were attached to Millen, and sad to see him go. Because of Liut’s reputation with the Blues, the people in the insurance capital expected him to single handedly carry the Whalers into contention. When there were some bumps along the way, Liut became the focus of fan frustration at the Hartford Civic Center. Never one to deflect blame to others, Liut weathered the storm, and came out of it as one of the most popular Whalers players of all time.

The Whalers weren’t ever able to get out of the old Adams Division, and until the franchise’s inspiring run to the 2002 Stanley Cup final as the Carolina Hurricanes, had never been in any bigger NHL game than the 2-1 overtime loss suffered at the hands of Claude Lemieux and les Habitants in ’86. Liut and his mates made the playoffs each year that he was on the team, but were eliminated in the first round by the Canadiens every time. At the 1990 trade deadline, Liut was moved to the Washington Capitals for winger Yvon Corriveau, and retired after the 1992 season without having ever won a Stanley Cup or played in a single final series.

After hanging up his skates, Liut, now 47, earned a law degree and went to work for the NHLPA before deciding on settling in Michigan and embarking on a career as a player agent. Liut is an integral member of the Octagon Firm (along with another former Whaler and Bruin Brian Lawton), which represents over 65 NHL clients, Boston’s Jeff Jillson among them. He also spent three seasons on Red Berenson’s staff at the University of Michigan where he was a goalie coach, mentoring current Dallas Star Marty Turco.

Liut recently sat down with HockeyJournal.com and shared his experiences with the Hartford Whalers and time in New England as one of that franchise’s top players.

Hockey Journal.com: When you look back on that first Whaler team you were with, what are some of the things that stick out in your mind the most?

Mike Liut: When I was initially traded to Hartford, we were almost mathematically out of the playoffs at that point, and as a team, we had about eight or nine rookies who had been getting a lot of playing time. Guys like Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson, as well as Paul MacDermid and Ray Ferraro, were given the opportunity by our coach, Jack “Tex” Evans to get a lot of ice time and grow as players at the highest level. We were a team without direction, because when you have that many rookies, you have a lot of guys who are just happy to be there, and haven’t yet learned to raise the bar so to speak and focus their efforts on the higher goal of winning a championship.

Over the last 10 games or so, we were relatively successful, but it was on the final night of that season, when we were playing the Bruins, that we took an important first step toward contention. Boston was a much better team than we were at the time, and were also in a fight to lock up second place in the Adams, thereby avoiding a first-round matchup with the Canadiens. The Bruins really needed the points, and so when the puck dropped, they literally jumped us, and what might have been a game that some guys in our room thought was going to be meaningless, turned into much more- it was a war, and our guys went from just playing out the string to having to fight for survival. The bottom line is that the guys were challenged in a way that they’d never been challenged before as hockey professionals.

We went into a hornet’s nest at the Boston Garden, and our players had to fight back against what was a pretty tough Bruins club, or get hurt. The end result was that we did battle back and we won the game, and it ended up costing the Bruins the points and dropping them to third. The win didn’t alter our fate any, but it did Boston’s, and to beat the Bruins in that kind of an environment was huge. It gave us a head start on the next year, when we would take that next step and make the playoffs for the first time in many of the guys’ NHL careers.

HJ: How did the Whalers go from being a non-playoff team for so many seasons to finally making it in 1985-86?

ML: I think it was a process that begun with draft picks like (Ron) Francis, (Kevin) Dineen, (Ray) Ferraro, and the others that formed the nucleus of a young team in which I was the old man at age 29. But, we were very consistent in the early going, and that consistency allowed us to not only keep pace with the strong teams in our division, but fostered confidence that we were a team that could go out and get the tough points against the best under challenging circumstances.

Then, we hit the worst skid I had ever seen as a professional in February, when we went Oh-for-the-month and literally slid out of the playoffs. I can’t even begin to describe the frustration we all felt at that time. We were inventing new ways to lose games, and nobody had any answers. We were also missing important players like Ron Francis, who was injured, and we just couldn’t seem to catch any breaks. It was easy to point fingers, and that’s when the fans began booing Tex Evans. It was a brutal situation to be in, because people were literally climbing on the glass behind the bench and screaming at him during games, but he never, ever turned on the players. That’s something he refused to stoop to, and we didn’t ever forget that loyalty and respect he showed us. Emile Francis, who was also under tremendous pressure because he had dealt two fan favorites in (Mark) Johnson and (Greg) Millen for me, gave the players a reason to fight for the team with his public outpouring of faith and support in us. They (Francis and Evans) never cracked, never jumped on the team or made us the fallguys for our struggles at that time, which was so important because when you’re in a slump of that magnitude, you never think you’ll win another game.

I remember one interview with Emile Francis when he went out of his way to single me out for praise even though I wasn’t playing well. He said, ‘I’m not worried about Mike Liut at all. He’ll play one good game and get right back in the saddle.’

To show that much confidence in someone- when Rome is literally burning- that is the definition of leadership in the purest sense. Both (Evans and Francis) could’ve played the blame game, and they wouldn’t have been far off the mark by doing so. But when they showed that loyalty to the players, we had no choice but to respond and turn it all around.

And it all started with another crucial win against Boston.

HJ: What happened next?

ML: That was the night Kevin Dineen knocked out Mike Milbury, and it was an unbelievable game. We were coming off of a bad loss against Pittsburgh and had flown in the night before, but the Bruins were waiting for us, having had the previous day off. We were in about as fragile a state as you can get, and then they scored on their very first shot. I think we could’ve packed it in at that point, but didn’t. Dineen KO’d Milbury, and everything in the game turned on that one event. We were able to beat the Bruins that night, went on to beat Buffalo in a home-and-home series, and the whole thing turned from there. Part of that was getting Johnny Anderson in a trade from Toronto, and he really shot the lights out down the stretch (eight goals, 14 assists in 14 games with the Whalers after the trade) and Ron Francis came back from his ankle injury, plus- Dave Babych helped stabilize our blue line and provide some offense for us. We rode that momentum all the way into the postseason.

HJ: What did beating the Nordiques in the first round that year do for your team’s confidence?

ML: Well, it was an enormous boost. We stole Game 1 (3-2 OT) in Quebec and really believed that we were on a roll. Everything just seemed to be working out for us, and that’s the thing about hockey. The teams that peak at the right time are the ones who are most dangerous in the playoffs. We may have surprised Quebec with our tenacity, and because they had the pressure on them as being the favorites, we were able to come in as the underdog and win a great series.

HJ: The Montreal series went down to the wire about as close as it can go. What are some of your memories of that whole experience?

ML: It was an unbelievable time for us. We went into Montreal and took the first game, and that’s when it really hit us that we could do it, that we could beat a team as good as the Canadiens. They tied up the series, and then I took a shot off the knee in warm-ups for Game 3 back home, and my knee swelled up to the size of a grapefruit. I started the game, but had to come out, and we lost. Although I wanted to get in very badly, I couldn’t go for Game 4. At that point, we were down 2-1, and we knew what giving Montreal a 3-1 lead going back to the Forum would do for them, so Stevie Weeks stepped in and was magnificent, making a ton of big saves to keep us in it long enough for Kevin (Dineen) to score that memorable overtime goal when he beat two Hall-of-Famers in Larry Robinson and Patrick Roy to give us life.

Looking back on it, I think these guys really came of age that year. They grabbed a piece of their place in the league and so many players stepped up when they had to. Stevie (Weeks) did his part, and every time you turned around, somebody else was scoring a big goal or making a play to help us win. We were just a very close team, and as hard as it was to lose in overtime like that, we were all better men and players for having gone through that together. It was an epic series.

HJ: When you look back at some of the young players the Whalers had, but traded away in their primes or just before they reached them such as Francis, Ferraro, Dineen, Samuelsson, Turgeon, Sylvain Cote and so on, do you think that Hartford could’ve made a serious run at the Cup in the early 90’s when those guys were at the top of their respective games?

ML: Oh, absolutely. Building a successful hockey franchise and patience go hand-in-hand. When you look at a lot of the trades Hartford made that ultimately broke up the core group of that ’86 team and the ’87 team that won the Adams Division in the regular season, I think there was an intent to get better very quickly, and challenge the top teams in what was the Wales Conference back then with clubs in the division like the Bruins, the Canadiens, and even some of the top Patrick Division teams like the Penguins and the Rangers. You can certainly look back with the benefit of hindsight and say that if the Whalers had kept those players, they would’ve evolved into a contending team. At the time, you trade a guy like Ray Ferraro for Doug Crossman, and at the time, it makes sense because Crossman is one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL. But a couple of years later, Crossman is out of the league, while Ferraro is scoring 40 goals for the Islanders and goes on to play at a high level for more than a decade. That’s just one example, but when you look at the trades as a whole, a few definitely made the team better, such as the Sly (Sylvain Turgeon) for Pat Verbeek deal, but some of the others had a detrimental effect on the chemistry and overall performance, which led to the team’s decline in the 90’s.

HJ: When you were traded to the Washington Capitals near the end of the 1990 season, did it come as a surprise to you?

ML: Not really. We had been hearing rumors for a while, and I think I was the obvious choice to be dealt between Peter Sidorkiewicz and myself. I was the oldest guy on the team, and the Whalers were looking to make a move, so no- I wasn’t really surprised when I got the call, but I was disappointed because we loved the area and all the support we had received from the Hartford community over the years. It’s always difficult to have to pull up the roots and move, no matter how you feel about the situation, and when you have a family with small children involved, it adds to the complexity of it all.

HJ: What was your overall impression of your time spent in Hartford?

ML: We loved it, and cherish the memories we made there. Hartford is a great community in which to raise a family, and the Whalers fans were extremely passionate about their team and the sport. It’s funny, but my daughter, Jenna, who’s a senior in college this year, took a summer tour of New England with her roommate, who is from the Boston area. She was still pretty young when we left Hartford, but when she came back from her trip this summer, she said, ‘You blew it by not going back there (to Hartford) when you retired from the NHL, dad!’ She really loved the East Coast, and that just brings it all back for me and the great times we had living in that part of the country. Hockey is so much a part of life there, and it’s a lot different from some of the other places I spent time in as a player. Of course where we live now in Michigan, I find a lot of similarities to New England with the way hockey is viewed in the regional sports culture, but there was something about that area that made it a special place to play. And as far as the community and school systems available to our children, we couldn’t have asked for anything better as parents.

HJ: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job as a player agent and how has your own experience as a successful NHL player helped you in your new career?

ML: I enjoy the chance to sit down with someone who is having problems and helping them work through their issues. Professional athletes are no different than anyone else- if they’ve lost their confidence, it usually means they are lost and confused. They live in a world where every time you step on the ice, someone is out there trying to intimidate you, trying to make you feel like you’re not good enough. Someone is trying to beat you. So many players I was close to during my playing career, I saw this happen to firsthand, but as a walking library of the NHL with 15 years of experience, I can now take the time and draw on my own lessons learned to help our clients be the best players and people they can be. This in turn provides the fan with a better product when the player is at the top of his game and everyone wins.

HJ: You had a big impact on me as a youngster. You were one of my hockey idols, and it has been a real privilege to speak to you about your experiences today.

ML: Thanks a lot. I always get a real charge when people tell me that. But to be honest, I was getting paid handsomely to play the game I loved, so I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to compete in the NHL for as long as I did. The honor is really all mine when I meet someone who tells me that I had a positive influence in their life. As professional atheletes, some may not like the fact that children and young people look up to us, but it’s a responsibility we need to take seriously. This is why I enjoy being an agent so much- it allows me to stay close to the game, but to impart some of the knowledge I gained as a player over the years to others who may be struggling to find their way a little bit.

Looking back on it all, I have few regrets over how it all turned out. And, I’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime. I loved my time in Hartford and am grateful that I had the opportunity to spend five good years there as a member of the Whalers.

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