Dirk Graham, Right Wing, 5th round, 89th overall, 1979 Draft
Although Ryan Kesler might be the most obvious example of a Canuck draft pick that went on to win the Frank J. Selke Award as the NHL’s best defensive forward, he is by no means the only one. Mike Peca, whose most notable accomplishments as a Canuck were an infamous hit on Teemu Selanne and being the key piece going back to Buffalo in the Alexander Mogilny trade, won the award twice. The other Selke recipient, the focus of our continuing series on late round Canuck draft gems, was both a future NHL captain and one of the all-time great moustachioed men in league history – Dirk Graham.
Picture Graham today, as the above photograph suggests, and he probably wears the sweater of the Chicago Blackhawks. After all, he played 546 regular season games with the franchise as well as another 75 in the playoffs. He had his most productive seasons with the ‘Hawks, and was its captain from 1988 to 1995. Only current captain Jonathan Toews has held the honour longer. But Graham was not drafted by the organization with which he later became synonymous. In fact, his route to 1800 West Madison Street (the address of the old Chicago Stadium) was far more circuitous than that. And it started, of course, in Vancouver.
The 1979 NHL Entry Draft is generally considered one of the greatest of its kind in league history. It yielded five future Hall of Famers, and numerous NHL all-stars. This is especially noteworthy, since the draft was only six rounds in length and only 126 players were selected. (Another player by the name of Wayne Gretzky was also of draft age, but was the property of the Edmonton Oilers). Even for the Canucks, it was a massively successful draft – although these successes played most of their careers elsewhere. Three-time 50 goal-scorer Rick Vaive went fifth overall to Vancouver, while Brent Ashton (he of the nine career NHL teams) went in the second round, 26th overall. Dirk Graham, meanwhile, went to Vancouver at 89th overall – in the fifth round.
After signing a multi-year contract on September 7, 1979, Graham joined the Canucks farm team, the Dallas Black Hawks. His professional debut was modestly successful, placing eleventh on the team in scoring despite being its youngest player. He began the next year with the Canucks other affiliate – the Fort Wayne Komets of the now-defunct International Hockey League – but only for six games. It wasn’t until he decided to play out his contract with the Canucks and join the IHL’s Toledo Goaldiggers (great name!) that Graham began to blossom as a pro. In the 1982-83 season, Graham exploded for 125 points to lead his team in scoring and attract the interest of the NHL and the Minnesota North Stars.
After playing for the North Stars for the better part of four seasons, Graham was acquired by the Blackhawks for former Canuck Curt Fraser on January 2, 1988. While Fraser had to be shutdown for the season with an infection of the Epstein-Barr virus, Graham started to assert himself as a near point-a-game player with the Blackhawks. He scored a career high of 33 goals and 78 points in 1988-89. Over the next several seasons, Graham also cemented his reputation as a two-way threat, culminating in his Selke win in 1991. He is still tenth in all-time shorthanded goals with 35, scoring ten in the 1988-89 season alone.
In September 1991, he even earned the opportunity to represent Canada at the Canada Cup (the predecessor to the World Cup of Hockey), an opportunity helped in no small part by the positive impression he made on a nightly basis with his Blackhawks (and Team Canada) coach Mike Keenan. Despite scoring three goals and an assist in the tournament, Graham contributed far more than boxcar stats. The venerable hockey writer Red Fisher described Graham as “a leader in the dressing room and often on the ice,” for Team Canada. He and other Canadian grinders Shayne Corson, Brent Sutter, and Rick Tocchet set the tone – chipping in offensively where possible. His empty-net goal with 42 seconds remaining in the clinching game against the Americans was simply icing on the cake.
Named the Blackhawks interim captain on January 1st, 1989, after Denis Savard went down with injury, Graham held that title until his retirement in 1995. A hard-nosed player, he retired from the game in part to ease the physical toll it took on him. “I can walk away from hockey while I can still walk,” he joked at the time. Graham then transitioned into coaching, rather unsuccessfully, after his playing career ended.
Would Graham have had as successful a career had he remained a Canuck? It’s impossible to tell, of course. But imagine how well a player of his mould would have fit in with the other Canuck grinders of the 1980s – grinders like Smyl, Fraser, and Williams. Such a team could have formed a roster in stark contrast to their high-flying divisional rivals the Edmonton Oilers. That does nothing to diminish the quality of the 1979 draft for the Canucks, however, one of the finest in the history of the franchise. Thankfully for the Canucks and their fans, Graham would signify the last of the organization’s late round diamonds in the rough who never played for the team. And he wouldn’t be the last draft pick to win the Selke, either. The remaining gems all played meaningful games in a Canucks uniform – including some of the best players in franchise history.