Milan Lucic at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver (Kirk Luedeke photo)
I almost opted not to post this at all, because I do not want to this to turn into a debate about whether he should have been kept or traded, but in the end, I’m using this space to say goodbye to Milan Lucic, one of the more important (if misunderstood in recent years) players for the Boston Bruins over the near decade he skated up and down the left wing and (often) left a trail of tears in his wake.
For those who follow the NHL, Lucic’s body of work is well known, regardless of whether you are a fan of the Boston Bruins or not.
From the moment he arrived to the big league in his first real veteran main camp after the 2007-08 season (more on that later- yes, I know he was drafted in 2006), until draft day this past June when Chris Pronger of all people (it isn’t like I know him- he just happened to sit behind me on the bus headed to the BB&T Center from the hotel in Fort Lauderdale and happened to be checking his phone when I sat down.) broke the news to me that Lucic had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings for their 2015 first, defenseman Colin Miller and goaltender Martin Jones (since dealt to San Jose for their first in 2016 and college forward Sean Kuraly), Lucic was one of the most visible faces of the Bruins franchise. As the league’s premier power forward in terms of his blend of physical prowess and ability to score, Lucic was far more appreciated outside of Boston by media and fans of other clubs who longed to have a similar presence on their respective teams, but could often only watch helplessly if Lucic was on his game and hurtled around the ice like a wrecking ball, daring anyone to stop him. Alas, in recent years, that version of Lucic, the one who had arrived like a meteor at age 19 on the heels of a Memorial Cup championship, and went supernova in terms of his popularity and impact by the time the B’s captured the 2011 Stanley Cup in his own hometown of Vancouver, had become at times an empty caricature- a player who wanted to intimidate and be that force of nature, but often got caught up in sophomoric displays on and off the ice that detracted from the immense player and person he was capable of being.
By the time the 2015 NHL season came to a merciful end for the B’s, a lot of fans were ready to see Lucic go. To a degree, I understand that. The salary cap has made the folks who cheer for the laundry much more clinical in their assessments, especially when players like Lucic see their salaries rise to the point of being cost prohibitive.
Lucic’s cap hit was too high for what he was bringing to the team, and with unrestricted free agency looming in the summer of 2016, he was due to receive offers seemed certain to go north of $6 million, perhaps as high as $7 million or more- a price that Boston simply could not afford. So, new GM Don Sweeney, recognizing that the timing was right rather than wait and risk an injury that might crater his value, moved him to the one team that has been reported should have been the club that had him all along- the Kings. I get it, I really do. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Rather than recap all of his years in Boston, I thought I would share a lesser-known tale about Lucic- how he almost was not a Bruin in the first place, and also provide some perspective on my own personal connection to him- one that in my mind- transcended the game he played and the job I did to cover the team for New England Hockey Journal.
How it all happened…also- hometown kid makes good
At age 15, no one in the WHL had time for Milan Lucic.
Completely snubbed in the WHL bantam draft, he almost gave up his dreams of playing pro hockey. That’s what quitters do, after all– they make excuses and justify their lack of success as something unattainable in the first place. Not the son of Serbian blue collar parents from Vancouver, though- he got over his disappointment, rolled up his sleeves and went to work in the BCHL, earning his way to the WHL the hard way…with his fists and on occasion- soft hands with the Coquitlam Express. He caught the eye of the Vancouver Giants- the WHL club nearby and by the end of that year, was brought in for one regular season game and a pair of playoff contests. Coach Don Hay saw all he needed to at that point, and Lucic came back for his NHL draft season, spending the entire year in the WHL, and scoring just 9 goals but showing flashes of the talent that would eventually make him one of the the NHL’s most recognizable if polarizing players.
As fate would have it, Boston’s then amateur scouting director was convalescing in his hometown of Vancouver after beating a sudden onset of cancer in his knee and having successful surgery to remove it before it was too late. Unfortunately (or fortunately as this tale will show) for Scott Bradley, he couldn’t travel, and so whereas he would normally be jetting all over North America and Europe at the beginning of the 2005-06 season to watch the top-rated late 1987/1988-born hockey talent, he was stuck at home. As a result, Bradley saw far more Giants games than he would have, and the burly No. 27 whose skating was rough beyond belief but was creating space for his teammates and establishing a reign of terror in the toughest league in the CHL started to grow on him after Bradley saw little early on with Lucic that resembled NHL material. By the time Bradley was cleared to do more work-related travel to scout other areas, Lucic was his guy, a player he believed was only scratching the surface of his potential.
Fast forward to the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Bradley was still sky-high on Lucic, but so were the Kings, whose guys Bradley had seen at Giants home and way games and guessed were also impressed with his upside. That year, the B’s had a pair of second-round picks- they had traded their own (35) to Washington as part of the 2004 trade for defenseman Sergei Gonchar, but picked up a compensatory selection (37) for not signing bust first-rounder Lars Jonsson from 2000 and then acquired Edmonton’s 50th overall choice as part of the deal that sent Sergei Samsonov to the Oil a few months earlier. Bradley, who had watched the Nashville Predators grab defenseman Cody Franson just a few spots before the B’s a year earlier in the third round, when the team had seriously talked about grabbing him early in the second round instead (they went with Petr Kalus), pushed for Lucic at 37th overall. Yes, he reasoned, it was early, but he was sure to be there, and given his potential payoff, was the best way to ensure the B’s landed him.
However, a disagreement at the table occurred, with several scouts lining up together to argue for talented Russian defenseman Yury Alexandrov there instead. Interim GM Jeff Gorton, in what most folks connected to the game would say was surprising given that his amateur scouting director wanted Lucic there at 37, sided with the area scouts and went with Alexandrov, leaving Bradley to sweat out the next 12 selections in hopes he could get his man at 50. You see, the Kings owned the 48th selection, and all the signs pointed to the fact that they were all set to take Lucic there.
Fate intervened once again, however. A report in the Montreal Gazette quoting former Kings scouting director Al Murray, said that at the time of the 2006 draft, recently hired Kings GM Dean Lombardi felt that the team needed a defenseman, so as their pick came up, he turned to his scouts, most of whom were on the same page and united in their desire to draft Lucic. Instead, the new boss wanted to know who the top defender on their board was, and the answer came back- Joey Ryan of Malden Mass. by way of the Quebec Remparts. The rest, as they say, is history- Ryan to the Kings and two picks later, the Bruins called Lucic’s name to a spontaneous (and loud) ovation of cheers at the old GM Place as many of the Canucks supporters in the place were well acquainted with Lucic from his Giants days.
Many saw the pick of Lucic as a reach at the time. After all, he’d managed a paltry nine goals that season, and even if he was tough- why would you take a player like that in the top-50? Some of those concerns were allayed when we first met Lucic in the bowels of the arena in his Bruins sweater for the first time. He was thrilled and genuinely earnest in his assessment of the situation- being a top-50 NHL pick after being passed over in the WHL lottery felt pretty damn special.
That fall, Lucic came to Boston, but was only allowed to participate in the rookie camp portion. Phil Kessel was dominating the buzz as the team’s top selection and after cratering the year before, the B’s had spent huge in free agency to bring in Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard. With other veterans up front like Shean Donovan, Mark Mowers, Petr Tenkrat (TENKRAT!- sorry inside joke there), Yan Stastny and Jeff Hoggan to name a few, the club sent Lucic and Brad Marchand (taste the irony, eh?) back to their junior clubs without giving them an opportunity to take the ice with the veterans.
I remember talking to Lucic about it after the last rookie camp scrimmage and he was genuinely ticked about it. I recall very clearly him telling me “I skated my bag off” all summer to prepare for main camp…it clearly did not sit well with him that he wasn’t welcome there with the vets. At the same time, he said he understood and would work that much harder to make an impression during the season and be ready to compete in 2007. Therefore, when I said earlier, that he made the Bruins out of his first training camp opportunity- that’s the truth. Like the WHL, he was snubbed his first time out.
We ended up talking a few times while he was still around the team, and he remembered me from the draft. I mentioned in passing that I might not be around to see him at camp in a year because there was a good chance my unit would be sent to Iraq. I recall him stopping what he was doing, getting very serious, and shaking my hand while putting his hand on my shoulder and wishing me luck and safety. He was genuine there, and while I didn’t want to make a big deal of my Army service, it was nice to see a young guy show his appreciation the way he did.
Indeed, my unit was soon after alerted for a deployment (my second) to Baghdad where we would spend 15 months as part of the troop surge in 2007-08. While I was over there, I followed Lucic as best I could- tracking his 30-goal WHL campaign followed by winning the 2007 Memorial Cup. He was named captain of the Giants for the 2007-08 season, but that would not come to pass as he made the Bruins the following fall and went on to post a memorable rookie season with modest scoring (8 goals, 27 points) totals but won the hearts and minds of the Boston faithful with his energy and physicality.
Milan Lucic’s Vancouver Giants away sweater worn in the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament (Kirk Luedeke photo)
Lucic makes it big in Boston
By the time I returned from my deployment at the end of the 2008 season, I was transferred to the Washington D.C. area over the summer. The Bruins played their last preseason game at Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals (an overtime loss with Manny Fernandez in net). When I walked into the visitors’ dressing room, Lucic was seated over at the far end, still with most of his gear on, but we made eye contact and he immediately bounced up and came across the room to shake my hand and welcome me back. It was a small thing for sure…but for me it was a big thing. Though we did not stay in contact during my tour in Iraq, he remembered that I had been overseas, and seemed extremely glad to see me again. It’s not like I had covered him extensively before I left for the desert, but I guess I made enough of an impression and that simple recognition and act of making a small effort to simply say hello went a long way and tells me a lot about who he is as a person.
That interaction framed all further contact I had with Lucic while covering the team from late 2009 until this past June when he was dealt. Even if not interviewing him as part of the coverage, he would always make time for a friendly chat to catch up, as I am not around the team on a daily basis as the beat reporters are. In short, it was the Milan Lucic I got to know when the cameras and recorders were not turned on that I got to know the best, and will always be grateful for. He was honest, sincere, and even if some of his actions reflected poorly at times, I believe that he tried his best to do the right thing and the emotions of playing on the edge like he did sometimes pulled him over to the wrong side.
So, to make a long post short (and thank you for allowing me to indulge in my own personal accounting here), Lucic will be missed far more than most are letting on. Even if he didn’t fight as often near the end as he had done before…even if he didn’t move his feet with the consistency that a player of his status and cap hit demanded, there were times when he was in a class all his own as a force of nature. Those moments simply weren’t enough for a lot of fans…and the team decided to move on as well. But to me, Lucic symbolizes an important time in Bruins history- as the franchise has won just six total Stanley Cup championships since 1924, he and his 2011 mates established a legacy that will always be respected in Boston. He was the right player, at the right time. His 139 goals, 342 points and 772 penalty minutes in 566 career NHL games with the B’s won’t land him at the top of any of the team’s statistical categories, but they do tell part of the story of a player who wore his heart on his sleeve for eight seasons.
The Kings fans and media, if they haven’t figured it out already, are getting a heck of a player. One, if his career trajectory is to be believed, is probably going to bounce back with the best season of his career. 35 goals is not out of the question, and the Western Conference clubs that used to see Lucic only on occasion are going to quickly tire of him finishing his checks and wreaking havoc.
How do you wrap up a blog post about a player who had such a significant impact in Boston? I can think of no better way than to post this farewell/highlight video made this week by Twitter friend “dafoomie” (who does a lot of great work- you should check out his YouTube channel). The images will capture all I could not, but the shadows grow long and it is time to bring this to a close.
Good luck, Looch- thanks for the memories.