How John Garrett nearly won MVP at the 1983 NHL All-Star Game
10 months ago
Recently, John Garrett announced that this will be his final season behind the mic, capping off 21 unforgettable years as the beloved colour commentator on Sportsnet’s regional Vancouver Canucks broadcast.
Over the last two decades, Garrett has achieved folk hero status for his sense of humour, love of ketchup, and his penchant for shunning silverware.
His playing days, however, have been largely forgotten by newer generations of Canucks fans. He joined the team a year after their run to the Cup Final in ‘82, which marked the beginning of a long span of mediocre hockey in Vancouver.
While the team’s overall performance was nothing to write home about during Garrett’s time with the Canucks, his first opportunity to represent the team on the world stage was about as auspicious as it gets.
The story has been told and re-told several times around these parts, but seldom with the level of detail it deserves.
Garrett’s time in the spotlight is coming to a close. That makes now as good a time as any to reflect on how it began: with a trade call from the Quebec Nordiques just over 30 years ago, and a trip to Uniondale to play in the 35th NHL All-Star Game.
Joining the Canucks
Garrett was acquired by the Canucks on February 4th, 1983 in a trade with the Quebec Nordiques for defenceman Anders Eldebrink. Management saw him as an upgrade over their current backup Ken Ellacott, a career minor leaguer who would play the only 12 NHL games of his career that season with the Canucks.
The 31-year-old Garrett arrived in Vancouver already a seasoned veteran, having held down a starting role in the World Hockey Association for several years with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, Birmingham Bulls, and New England Whalers. The story goes that during his time with the Saints, teammate Rick Smith gave him the nickname “Cheech” because his moustache made him look like actor Cheech Marin. This was, presumably, the only thing the two had in common.
He remained with the Whalers at the time of the NHL-WHA merger, and played his first season of NHL hockey in 1979-80. He held down the starting job with the since-renamed Hartford Whalers for their first two NHL seasons before being traded midway through the 1981-82 season to the Quebec Nordiques for goaltender Michel Plasse and a fourth-round pick in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft.
Garrett’s NHL career is best remembered for a series of humorous anecdotes that include playing with a hot dog stuffed in his pads, winning a game 10-9, and earning the nickname “Lotto” after finishing a season with a 6.49 goals against average. So it may come as a surprise that playing in an All-Star Game was not entirely foreign territory for Cheech, who had two All-Star appearances under his belt in the WHA, including one as a First-Team selection in 1976-77.
Still, his resumé was far from what you’d expect from an NHL All-Star. He posted a 6-8-2 record and an .874 save percentage with the Nordiques prior to the trade, making him the first goalie with a losing record to be named to an All-Star Game in league history. He’d also played only two minutes for the Canucks prior to being named to the team.
“But”, as coach Roger Neilson put it, “they were a good two minutes”. (Calabria, Pat. For All-Stars, the lines are drawn. Newsday. February 8, 1983.)
Garrett was left as the Canucks’ only option to represent the team at the All-Star Game thanks to a rule that stipulated that each team had to send at least one player. When Richard Brodeur suffered a perforated eardrum at the end of a game against the Leafs on February 5th, the league was left without enough time to reconfigure the rosters, and the Canucks were forced to send their only other goaltender.
As Cheech would later recall, “the coach turned to [him] and said, ‘you played two minutes for us and you’re going to the All-Star Game’”.
Garrett had all of one game to get acquainted with his new coach, a 4-4 tie against the New Jersey Devils the following night, before heading to Uniondale to suit up as the Campbell Conference’s second goaltender.
Having only received notice of his appearance a few days prior, Garrett had little time to prepare. He arrived on Long Island just 5 hours before puck drop, hitching a ride in Jean Beliveau’s limo on the way.
In the whirlwind of activity that had surrounded Garrett over the past week, he hadn’t had enough time to pick up a new mask. He had artist Greg Harrison quickly paint a new Canucks design over his old Nordiques mask that had barely dried by the time he made his first relief appearance.
Despite the chaotic circumstances, he arrived with a carefree and easygoing attitude, keeping his teammates loose from the outset. He was a frequent target of friendly jokes and helped the Campbells keep a lighthearted attitude heading into the game.
“People were asking me if I was embarrassed to be coming here. I said, ‘sure, but how often do you get to play in a game like this?’” (Garret, Gretzky sparkle in Campbell’s 9-3 victory. The Daily Sentinel-Tribune. February 9, 1983)
Meanwhile, Garrett’s teammates were in Atlantic City. They’d been kidding him, too.
“‘You play two minutes for us and they make you an All-Star,” he would later recall. “It must be some sort of record, making the team without a single vote.” (Trust, Dick. Lewiston Daily Sun. February 10, 1983)
He’d joked that in the event that he was named MVP he would sell the prize— a brand new Pontiac Firebird— to cover their gambling losses. No one expected just how tantalizingly close he’d come to fulfilling his promise.
Garret began the game on the bench, as the Wales Conference opened the scoring early in the first period when future Canuck bette noire Mark Messier turned the puck over to Paul Stastny in his own zone. Stastny quickly sent a slick back pass to his Nordiques teammate Michel Goulet, who went low glove side on Chicago’s Murray Bannerman to make it 1-0.
Messier nearly made up for it on his next shift with a pair of scoring chances, but despite several minutes of back-and-forth play and a power play for the Wales Conference, the score remained 1-0 until Wales Conference goaltender Pete Peeters accidentally kicked the puck into his own net on the penalty kill midway through the period. The goal was eventually credited to future Canuck Dave Babych, then a member of the Winnipeg Jets.
It looked as though that might be the extent of the offence as the period wound down to its final minute, with both teams trading chances but remaining tied thanks to the efforts of their respective netminders. That changed when Ray Bourque fired a sharp angle shot that squeaked between Bannerman and the post in the final minute of play, as Garrett’s Campbell Conference headed into the first intermission down 2-1.
It didn’t take long for the Campbells to return the favour, as Minnesota North Stars teammates Neal Broten and Dino Ciccaerelli combined to tie the game at 2.
After allowing the questionable Bourque goal in the previous frame, Bannerman put up a wall for the remainder of his time in net, keeping Wales at two goals until ceding the crease to Garret at 10:04 of the second period. Meanwhile, at the other end of the rink, Peeters swapped places with Flyers youngster Pelle Lindbergh.
Garrett was quickly tested by a pair of chances coming in quick succession. He turned aside both with ease, prompting teammate Lanny McDonald to skate over.
“You’ve got the glove compartment”, said Lanny, referencing the reward for being named as the game’s MVP. (Trust, Dick. Lewiston Daily Sun. February 10, 1983.)
Almost immediately following the stoppage in play, he was forced to make another impressive save on Rick Kehoe, falling backwards onto the puck to keep the game tied.
Garrett would continue to turn away shot after shot, stonewalling the likes of Mark Howe, Denis Potvin, and Peter Stastny. His impressive play was enough to steady the Campbells until Tom McCarthy scored on the rebound to give them the lead, 3-2.
While they may have held the advantage on the scoreboard, the Campbells were dominated in the shot clock for the remainder of the period, as Cheech was forced to make another pair of brilliant saves on Bryan Trottier and Hector Marini.
On his next shift, Lanny skated over and spoke to Garrett once again.
“Now you’ve got the tires.”
McDonald would fire the puck high and wide on a breakaway a few moments later and the score would remain 3-2 entering the final frame.
Garrett finally got a moment of rest to start the third, making just one save before a penalty to Mike Ramsey put the Campbells on the power play.
It was around this time that Lanny skated over to Garrett one last time and asked, “do you want four-speed or five-speed?”
After they failed to capitalize, Michel Goulet went coast-to-coast on Garrett as the play went in the other direction. But once again Garrett shut the door.
As impossible as it seemed, Cheech was the undisputed favourite to win the MVP with just over half a period to go.
After the next play stoppage, the floodgates began to open, as Wayne Gretzky scored his first goal of the night. Then Lanny McDonald scored a few minutes later, then Gretzky again after that.
NHL broadcasts have changed significantly in the 40 years that have passed, to the point where they are almost unrecognizable to a modern audience. There are no chyrons, no shot clock, nothing to indicate the game state, and even the score would only appear for a few seconds following a commercial break. As a result, it’s tough to know the exact timing of certain events. But if you go back and watch the Canadian broadcast, there’s no mistaking the moment it all slipped away from Garrett.
It wasn’t after Gretzky’s second goal. Two goals in a game where players regularly net several points wouldn’t necessarily have been enough to earn him the MVP, especially in light of Garrett’s unexpected dominance.
Instead, it came a few moments later, in a fashion that’s become familiar to Canucks fans, who all know a jinx when they see it.
In the aftermath of yet another entry in the long line of Garrett’s impressive stops, play-by-play announcer Jim Robson wondered aloud if Garrett had the MVP in the bag:
“Garrett could be the winning goaltender in the All-Star Game! What a Cinderella story! Hector Marini shot, they deflect— they score!”
He would allow his only goal of the night on the following shot, a Hector Marini tip-in. It was the one time all night that he looked human.
Gretzky would score another two goals shortly thereafter. He set an NHL All-Star game record by scoring more times in a single period than any player had scored in the entire game before.
By that point, there was no debate. The car was Gretzky’s. He was the undisputed MVP.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gretzky would finish his career having won several more cars.
“I think he gave it to his uncle,” Garrett joked several years later.
Ultimately, Cheech’s failure to secure the MVP was a minor disappointment nestled within a great success. The journeyman goaltender had played like a true all-star, turning away all but one of the shots he faced and backstopping his team to a 9-3 victory.
He was all smiles following the game as he continued to show off the trademark sense of humour that made him such a fan favourite as as colour commentator several years later:
“It was great goaltending that won the game!” He shouted to reporters afterwards.
“My wife was probably glued to the TV set watching the game to make sure I wasn’t just out somewhere.” (Tschappat, Mike. All-Star goalie Garret’s a Canuck— for now. Daily Record. February 13, 1983)
Meanwhile, Gretzky was holding court, discussing his record-setting performance.
“It might be number one on my list”, he told Bruce Berlet of the Hartford Courant, exhibiting the specific brand of faux-humility that would become a staple for him across tens of thousands of interviews.
While he was still a precocious 22-year-old with limited playoff success at that point in his career, he had already won the Hart Trophy in each of his first three seasons. He’d also won the scoring race twice, shattering the all time-record for goals and points in a season the year before. But apparently those accomplishments didn’t quite hit the level of earning MVP honours in a meaningless exhibition game.
Cheech missed out on the car, as well as a chance to cement what would have been one of the greatest zero-to-hero stories in the game’s history. But at the end of the day, he was just happy to make the cut, even on a technicality:
“My kids, ten years from now, won’t know whether I was voted on or not.” (Tschappat, Mike. All-Star goalie Garret’s a Canuck— for now. Daily Record. February 13, 1983)
While ultimately filled with the kind of unserious and low-stakes hockey we’ve come to expect from such an event, the 35th NHL All-Star Game signalled something of a changing of the guard among the league’s elite. While Al Arbour, Mike Bossy, Dave Langevin, Denis Potvin, and Bryan Trottier would get the last laugh in the 1983 Cup Final by defeating the Oilers in a sweep; The Oilers would flip the script the following year and beat the Islanders four games to none and begin establishing their own dynasty. They would win four of the next six Stanley Cups, with Messier and Kurri sticking around for all of them.
One of the many players victimized during the Oilers reign of terror was poor Murray Bannerman, the man who shared the crease with Garrett in 1983. After helping the Blackhawks reach the Campbell Conference Final in 1985, Bannerman gave up a whopping 38 goals in 6 games to Gretzky’s Oilers. He retired in 1988 and eventually became VP of US Sales for a Montreal-based transportation and logistics provider.
Pete Peeters, the man who faced off against Bannerman in the first half of the game, would continue a long and impressive career that included leading the Bruins to the Wales Conference Final that season and winning the Canada Cup in 1984. He eventually retired in 1991 and embarked on a prolific career as a goalie coach. He was most recently in the news for catching an 11-foot sturgeon, the largest ever recorded. Seriously.
Pelle Lindbergh, Garret’s opponent in that night’s goaltending battle, would go on to lead the league in wins the following season. He captured the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie in the process, becoming the first European goaltender to do so. He died tragically in 1985 in a drunk driving accident and became the only player in NHL history to be posthumously named to an All-Star team.
Roger Neilson, the only other Canuck representative at the game, continued a decades-long career as an NHL coach. The highlights of Neilson’s time as a bench boss could fill several other articles, but include coaching the Flyers to first place in the Eastern Conference in 1999-2000, making several technological innovations in the coaching profession, and routinely trolling the NHL into revising its rulebook.
Wayne Gretzky would, of course, win several championships; individual awards; set numerous unbreakable records; and generally just continue to be Wayne Gretzky for the next 15 years. Given the breadth of his accomplishments, it’s hard not to resent The Great One a little for throwing a wrench in what would have been one of the sport’s great Cinderella stories. But it’s easy to forget that at the time, despite putting up offensive numbers that had never been thought possible before, he yet to win a championship at any level. Unfortunately, Gretzky upstaging a member of the Vancouver Canucks would become a recurring theme for the rest of the 1980s.
In many respects, the opportunity to play on an international stage at the 1983 All-Star Game appearance marked the high-point of Garrett’s NHL career. Garrett’s best years as a goaltender were arguably already behind him by the time the WHA folded, and were certainly in the rear view mirror by the time he joined the Canucks. Cheech would help keep the Canucks in the playoff race, posting a respectable 7-6-3 record down the stretch and picking up his lone playoff win for Vancouver as the team fell to Flames three games to one in the first round of the 1983 playoffs. He retired from pro hockey in 1986 after three seasons with the Canucks; but not before getting hired as the team’s assistant GM, losing the job almost immediately, and then spending the rest of the year as the third-string goalie.
He jumped straight from the crease to the broadcasting booth the following season and the rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back on the wildly improbable saga that brought Garrett first to the Canucks and to All-Star status shortly thereafter, I’m struck by how uniquely suited he was to the cult-hero role he’s achieved in Vancouver.
After the Canucks squeaked out a 1-0 victory in game 5 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, Kevin Bieksa had high praise for then-rookie Chris Tanev: “He could have played the game with a cigarette in his mouth, he’s so calm and cool out there.”
Replace “cigarette” with “hot dog”, and you’ve basically got the perfect assessment of what made Cheech, in a sense, the ultimate Canuck.
He approached both his appearance at the game and subsequent one-upping at the hands of Wayne Gretzky with the laid-back attitude of a man who had already done and seen all the game had to offer. His charm, affability, and self-deprecating sense of humour would have made him a star on Twitter had the social networking platform existed in the 1980s. But above all, he has always been deeply relatable.
Nothing could be more emblematic of the Vancouver Canucks experience than the stars aligning for just long enough to make you believe in the impossible, only to have it snatched away moments later by Wayne Fucking Gretzky.
Maybe that’s part of why John Garrett has been such a perfect colour commentator for the Canucks, a team that has had its share of almosts and what-ifs, but has yet to win the ultimate prize. It’s a shame that if that day ever comes, Cheech won’t be there to call it.
Instead, in typical Canucks fashion, we are left with a bittersweet ending.
So long, Cheech. Your enthusiasm and passion for the game and for this team will never be forgotten.
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