In the early 1990s, in the wake of John Slaney’s gold-medal clinching goal at the 1991 World Junior Hockey Championships in Saskatoon, Slaney memorabilia was the hottest commodity among local hockey fans.
Kids strolled into rinks proudly wearing his Cornwall Royals or Washington Capitals jerseys, his name and number stitched across the back. They bragged to one another about an autograph they got after waiting outside Brother O’Hehir Arena, Slaney’s old stomping grounds near his family home on Merrymeeting Road in St. John’s.
Even more treasured was a rookie card — sometimes bearing John’s signature and with a short message — they might have received through some connection to the blueliner.
“Back then, everyone was looking for hockey cards, and I would sign a whole bunch and my mom would give then away,” recounts Slaney, who will be inducted in the American Hockey League’s Hall of Fame Wednesday morning as part of the AHL All-Star Classic festivities in St. John’s.
“Whenever I had the opportunity to do things around here, I tried to do as much as I could.”
Some kids, lsuch as Brendan Hagerty, were fortunate enough to receive one of Slaney’s hockey sticks, signed personally by the Capitals’ first-rounder. The story of how in 1992, a 10-year-old Hagerty came to possess that stick is one that illuminates both Slaney’s generosity and character.
That spring, Slaney, then 20, was back in St. John’s after the conclusion of his junior season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Cornwall Royals and six more games with the Baltimore Skipjacks, Washington’s AHL farm team.
At the time, the St. John’s Maple Leafs had advanced deep to the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs, but were facing what would turn out to be a more than two-week layoff after having earned a semifinal bye in what was a unique playoff format that season.
To keep the players in game mode and satisfy a hockey-hungry fan base, Leafs coach Marc Crawford organized a Blue vs. White intrasquad game at Memorial Stadium.
To fill out rosters and to add something special to the game, he invited Newfoundlanders Darren Colbourne and Todd Gillingham, who both had played pro elsewhere that season, to participate.
They agreed, and once permission was obtained from the Capitals, so did Slaney, whom Crawford had coached for two seasons in Cornwall.
After the game, Hagerty was among a group of fans who had amassed near the Leafs locker room door in search of memorabilia.
“We would ask for everything,” Hagerty recalls. “Jerseys, tape, gum. Everything.”
As Slaney passed by, Hagerty asked for the defenceman’s stick, which was offered over freely.
“Two or three of us grabbed on to it and I had a good hold on it, but someone wrestled it away from me,” he recalls.
“I was quite upset that night.”
But St. John’s being a small city where three degrees, not six, of separation is the norm, Hagerty’s mother had a connection to the Slaney family through a co-worker and a call was put in.
“About a week later, John actually called me and said, ‘I heard you had a bit of trouble getting a stick. Why don’t you come down to my parents’ house and grab one.’”
Slaney wasn’t there when Hagerty arrived to collect, but the stick was, and on the nearly straight blade was a personal message which read: “To Brendan. Good luck in the future. John Slaney. #27”
“I was always dying to use it, but I never did once,” says Hagerty, who still has the stick and brought it to Slaney’s family barber shop for a long overdue reunion on Monday evening.
“It meant an awful lot to me as a 10-year-old.”
At that time, everything Slaney did meant a lot to hockey fans, young and old, at home. Prior to his being drafted in 1990, the last Newfoundlanders to have enjoyed any big-league success in pro hockey were Grand Falls’ Tony White, who played 164 NHL games with the Capitals and the Minnesota North Stars in the late 1970s, and Come By Chance’s Bob Gladney, who played 13 of his 14 NHL games with the 1983-84 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Slaney’s obvious talent and humble beginnings made him a household name in St. John’s and around the province. He quickly became a hero and a role model for aspiring youngsters and would continue to do so through a pro career that saw him play 268 NHL games and another 631 in the AHL, where his 519 career points are second-most by a defenceman in league history.
That’s a lot of hockey, but that exhibition game 22 years ago, is among those that stands out.
“It meant a lot to me,” Slaney says when asked to reflect about being celebrated as a 20-year-old with a chance to make a name for himself in pro hockey’s ranks.
“I remember the ovation I got at Memorial Stadium (during that Blue-White game) after having scored the winning goal (for Canada). It was like ‘Wow, is this for me? This is crazy.’”
He’s likely to get the same type of ovation during Wednesday’s all-star game, but Slaney, as he always has, takes it in stride and exhibits the same profound humility that carried him so far in his hockey career.
“It’s nice to be honoured for what I’ve done over my career. For me, I’m really lucky that I can do this in my hometown. I don’t think there’s many guys who get to do that.
Even if he isn’t entirely comfortable with the extra attention.
“I’m not a guy to stand out in the crowd and say ‘hey, here I am.’ That’s just not me. I was always a guy like my dad, sitting in the back corner, doing my thing.”
Slaney, who turned 42 last week, will have to endure the spotlight for a few more minutes on Wednesday, but he’s happy to have his entire family — wife Brenda, children Tyler, 12 and Julia, 7, his mother Helen, sisters Cathy, Debbie, Jackie, and brother Joe — there to share in the occasion.
The only one missing will be his father, Joe, who passed away in 2001.
“Dad didn’t say very much, but he would be proud,” Slaney says as he looks around the barber shop his father built.
“I wish he could be here.”