Mike Stothers: A Playing Life
Stothers looks back at his playing career, recalling a kid Bernie Nicholls, "Iron Mike" Keenan's yoke, and the bench-clearing brawl that ended all bench-clearing brawls.
Mike Stothers is the picture of a hockey lifer. It is a face well earned.
In his very first NHL game in 1984, Stothers was struck in the face by a Mike McEwen slapshot. The defenseman suffered a broken nose, a concussion, and was carried off in a stretcher. The Ontario Reign head coach remembered, "I was playing in the Philadelphia Spectrum. Played through the first period, no issues. Second period, I was in front of the net. It was a defensive zone faceoff for us. Washington wins the puck back to the point. Mike McEwen took a slapshot, came up high. I was in front of the net with one of their guys. I didn't even see it coming."
It wasn't funny back then, but Stothers can have a rueful laugh about it now.
"Yeah, that's my claim to fame. I might be the only guy who did that. Some guys scored in their first game, but I think I'm the only guy in his first NHL game to be carried off in a stretcher. I got that I could tell my kids and my grandkids."
Before that McEwen slapshot, he was a highly-regarded prospect for the OHL's Kingston Canadiens. Among his teammates was charismatic sniper Bernie Nicholls. "Bernie was every bit of the character that you saw in the NHL. He's a gregarious, happy go-lucky, always looking for something to do, busy type of a guy. He's very social, very talkative," Stothers recalled. "He used to wear those big fur coats to the games and practice. If there was a spot for Bernie, it was probably in LA or New York, just because of the larger-than-life personality that he had."
But Nicholls wasn't all flash.
"He was a good teammate to everybody. He was a little older than me, but he treated all the rookies well. He was well liked by the veteran guys. He was just a fun guy to be around."
According to Stothers, this kind of player is essential to any locker room. He compared Nicholls to a current Reign player, "He was almost like Bissonnette is for us here. Listen, from a talent standpoint, there's no comparison from Bernie to Biss. But from a character and a guy you need in your room [point of view], just for energy and positive vibes?
"They're always upbeat and positive. And Bernie was like that. And Biss is huge for us here. There's so much value to those guys in a team sport."
In 1980, Stothers was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the NHL Draft. For Flyers GM Keith Allen, who had built the famed Broad Street Bullies, a 6'4" defender who would amass over 500 PIMs in three years at Kingston seemed a natural fit. For Stothers, Allen "was a genuine, nice man and I think he was almost like a father figure. And he was extremely intelligent. He made some shrewd deals and trades."
That's how Allen earned the moniker "Keith the Thief." Despite the nickname, the recently-passed Hall of Famer was beloved throughout the league.
"That was his nickname. But he did it in such a way that I don't think it ever offended anybody. He could trade a player; the player had the utmost respect for Keith himself and the Flyers organization. In this business, it's hard to...find many people that somebody wouldn't or couldn't say a bad word about. And Keith Allen, there's not a bad word you could say about him.
"He loved his players. He really, really loved his players. The guys knew that. And they played hard in the organization for him and for the coach. [Coach Fred] Shero was the same way. That was a great combination."
Stothers's praise, however, was more guarded for his very first NHL coach, "Iron Mike" Keenan, "He was very hard, he was very demanding. He could be harsh in his dealings with his players.
"Everybody comes in, and they want everybody to know that they're the guy in charge and they're the boss. And Mike came from, I think, the University of Toronto or something close. He didn't have that NHL background."
But Stothers has gained a greater understanding of Keenan's methods over the years, "I'm not so sure he didn't do it for a reason.
"You know, the old theory that the team is not going to win because of him, but they're going to win to spite him. And his support staff, his assistant coaches did a great job of deflecting and buffering. So the whole coaching staff was good.
"You can't argue with the success he had with the Flyers. He took a young team, they had three rookies, Derrick Smith, Peter Zezel, and Rick Tocchet, ended up going to the Stanley Cup Finals in .
"Iron Mike? He's earned and deserves the reputation. But you can't argue with the success he's had."
Stothers did enjoy one thing about Keenan's regime, "His practices were great. They were short. High intensity. He didn't spend an hour and a half or two hours on the ice. It was like, Let's go to work...they were enjoyable."
These type of practices are incorporated into his work today as Reign head coach. And in some ways, it seems like playing under Keenan helped him learn the kind of coach he didn't want to be, "There's ways you think back and you look at it and you go, I don't think I would handle it that way."
"Back then you could do it that way," Stothers noted, recognizing that it was a different era when he played under Keenan. "The game's changed, the personalities have changed, the players themselves...they don't really want that in-your-face confrontation. They want answers to the questions that they have of 'Why are we doing this?' or 'How come we're doing this?' "
Stothers has embraced this evolution and believes his former bench boss has grown too. "A lot of coaches have been like that. They've been harder and they've learned that, hey, they need to change. You're not going to change the 23, 24 players you got. You better change. And if you lose your job enough, you got to reflect and go, 'Okay, what do I need to improve about myself as a coach?' I'm sure he has."
In all, Stothers skated in 30 NHL games with the Flyers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He also played in a handful of postseason contests, including a couple in 1987, when Philadelphia made the Finals again under Keenan. But perhaps his most famous playoff appearance was one that he didn't actually appear in. It was Game Six of the 1987 Wales Conference Finals. Actually, it was a bench-clearing brawl before Game Six of the 1987 Wales Conference Finals.
"Yeah, I really screwed that one up," Stothers admitted.
"There was an incident with Claude Lemieux, who was always trying to put the puck in the empty net, being the last guy off the ice [during warmups]. Mike told Chico Resch, our backup goalie, and Eddie Hospodar to stay on the ice and not allow Lemieux to score on the empty net.
"The Flyers guys had exited. The Montreal guys had exited. And Claude just kept skating around. It got to the point where Eddie actually turned the net backwards and pushed the net against the boards. It was weird.
"Then Lemieux went off the ice. So Eddie and Chico started coming off. And then Lemieux jumped back on the ice, out of the tunnel, and shot a puck into the empty net. And when he did so, Eddie went after him."
Actually, it was Shayne Corson who had jumped onto the ice with Lemieux and shot the offending puck. Anyway, at first, it was just Hospodar pounding a turtling Lemieux and Resch trying to corral Corson. Everybody else, including the officials, were in their respective locker rooms, unaware. But word got out quick.
"Our team went out there; their team went out...everybody paired off.
"It was kind of bedlam on the ice. There was nobody there to break it up. And I remember being paired off with Brian Skrudland."
This was a pretty good match-up for the 6'4" Stothers, as the 6'0" Skrudland was no more than an occasional fighter. But the bigger defender wasn't looking to take advantage of this mismatch.
"I'm looking around, and a lot of guys I think are going to get suspended and not be able to play. I'm thinking, 'I'm going to be able to play!'
"And I was thinking, 'Okay, like so-and-so is going to be out, I'm going to get to play.' And I was so excited to think that I was going to get in to play the game.
"As it turns out, I don't think they suspended anybody or sat anybody out. I was a healthy scratch. So I was like, 'Darn it!' "
Eventually, game officials finally restored order. As Stothers mentioned, everybody played that night, though after the game, Hospodar was suspended the rest of the postseason. Most importantly, this event spurred the NHL to introduce legislation to penalize players who leave the bench to fight, effectively ending the era of the bench-clearing brawl. It's not missed by this fighter. "The only thing I can say is I can't believe that nobody got seriously hurt because it was a riot, basically, on the ice. It didn't go into the stands, thank goodness, because back in the old Montreal Forum, there wasn't even any glass behind the players' benches or anything. So fans could've very easily gotten involved."
This doesn't mean that Stothers thinks fighting should be completely abolished from the sport. Keep in mind that he is the Hershey Bears' all-time leader with 1,519 PIMs.
"Well, obviously, I had a role. I didn't mind doing it. I still think there's room for it in the game. I'm not one of those ones who think it should be taken out of the game altogether. I think that's what separates our sport from other sports.
"It keeps the honor in the game. There's some guys and their hits to vulnerable players. I don't think that would happen if you were to be held accountable."
Stothers also believes most fans want to keep fighting, "If you're at a game, and a fight breaks out, does anybody leave? No. Does anybody go get popcorn? Does anybody go get a beer? Does anybody go get a soda? No. We are in an entertainment business.
"I mean, boxing's still going on. UFC's never been bigger."
But what about the potential long-term health risks from fighting, such as CTE? If Stothers was concerned for his own well-being, he didn't betray it, "I mean, I could be a sufferer myself. I don't even know it yet. But you know what? It's a contact sport. You know it going in.
"We sign up, and we know. It's a risk," Stothers stressed. "It's a risk being a fireman. It's a risk being a police officer. I'm all in favor of proving the safety of the players and for the players. But we as players, we signed up for it. So you know what? You're not going to hear me complain. I love my career, and I wouldn't change it for the world."
Speaking of his career, it took a very unusual turn in 1991, as Stothers accepted an offer to be a player-assistant coach for Hershey. Initially, it wasn't an easy transition for the 29-year-old:
"I probably could've handled that better: I wasn't ready to coach. I wanted to play. And to let the playing aspect of it go was very, very difficult.
"A lot of those guys, I played with for a lot of years. And now all of a sudden, one game I'm a player, one game I'm helping the coach or whatever. It was a little awkward. I just wanted to play.
Luckily for the Reign, Stothers eventually realized where his destiny lay. The next season, he retired from playing and became a full-time Bears assistant.
"I think anybody that's looking or wanting to get into coaching should make sure they're done as a player. You can't have it both ways.
"But you have to have a passion for it. And I think the passion really became apparent to me once it was, 'What are you doing? Are you playing or coaching?'
"Once you get through that 'You're not going to play anymore,' and you get by that 'Oh man, that's all I know and that's all I've ever done, what am I going to do now?' Coaching is the second-best thing to playing."
From guiding a teenage Justin Williams to focusing an about-to-move Thrashers' squad to hoisting the Calder Cup, Stothers's coaching career has certainly not been "second-best." But that's for our next article, coming soon.