Dennis Maruk - Heart of a Champion

Andrew Rodger - NHLA Writer

On February 9th, 1982, many of the game’s greatest players gathered in Washington, DC, for the 34th NHL All-Star game. One by one, the Prince of Wales and Campbell Conference players were introduced on their respective bluelines - Gretzky, Bossy, Stastny, Coffey, Bourque and Robinson. However, the crowd only rose to their feet in unison when the final player was introduced; the greatest cheers that day rang out for #20, Dennis Maruk.

Raised in Rexdale, Ontario, Dennis was a scoring sensation during his Junior career with the London Knights in the early 1970’s, recording 112, 113 and 145 points in his three seasons with the team. Despite his success on the ice, the 5’8 center/winger was overlooked in the opening round of the 1975 NHL Draft. It was not until the second round began that his name was called, not by his hometown Maple Leafs, but by the California Golden Seals.

 

The start of his NHL career was not the conventional one. His play on the ice illustrated his talent level, scoring 30 goals as a rookie during the 1975-76 season, but off the ice, the California Golden Seals were in trouble. An original expansion team in 1967, they moved to Cleveland for the 1976-77 season and became the Barons. Two seasons in Cleveland and 64 more goals for Dennis (28 in 76-77 and 36 in 77-78) added to his growing career point totals, but the Barons would eventually merge with the Minnesota North Stars when financial difficulties plagued both teams.

 

“Just to get drafted was the most important thing,” Dennis said of those first few years in the NHL. “Getting drafted gave you a chance and an opportunity to get into the league, it didn’t matter which team it was.”

 

A trade to the Washington Capitals brought stability to his off-ice situation, and on the ice, Dennis continued to excel and light the lamp with a regularity that could only be matched by the greats of his era. He would eventually return to Minnesota after five seasons with the Capitals to conclude his 14-year career, but there was no doubt in the minds of his fans; if the clock could be turned back on the 1975 Draft, there would be a new number one selection. In the 888 regular season games he played during his career, Dennis scored 356 goals and added 522 assists for 878 points. He would add 36 points in 34 playoff games as well.

 

“I think it started when I was younger,” he recalled of his ability to find the back of the net and locate his teammates with precision passes. “I tried hard to work on my game so that I could be as consistent with my play as possible. That work ethic just kind of kept growing and getting better as I got to Junior. Playing in London for the Knights, I tried to be consistent, not only at home, but on the road as well.”

“In making it to the NHL, I knew it was going to be a lot tougher! First of all, I was told I was going to be too small to play in the NHL, but I proved them wrong - I ended up playing for 14 years. Even though I missed a couple of years because of injury, that consistency and hard work allowed me to be a pretty productive player on some teams that were not very strong.”

A fellow NHL Alumni member, I believe it was Ray Ferraro, who once said in a radio interview that it is one thing to score 30 goals during a season in the NHL, but you are not a ‘30-goal scorer’ until you do it more than once. Dennis scored at least 30 goals six times during his career and I asked him about that assessment.

“You know, that’s true,” he said with a laugh. “I never really looked at the numbers though. I’m not really a points guy or someone that looked at stats; I am pretty modest about it. I knew my game and I knew the players I played with - we would try to work on things and play our game and be consistent.”

“People go back and look at my 50 and 60 goal seasons and the thing I am proudest about was producing a lot of assists in those years. People don’t look at that. The year I had 60 goals, I also had 76 assists. How many players can say that they have done that in the NHL? I look back on that season, looking at the top-ten scorers in the league and my name is there. A little kid from Rexdale is there with Gretzky, Stastny and Bossy - that looks pretty good!”

Scoring 50 goals during the 1980-81 season and a career-high 60 goals in the 1981-82 season, he explained that much of his success was due to his work in practise with his teammates. Trying new things with his linemates prepared them for the lightning-quick game action. When they moved up ice during a game, Dennis and his linemates were able to know where to be to give or receive a pass - and that often resulted in the red light behind the opponents net shining brightly.

“It all really started the year before when I had 50 goals and I played with Jean Pronovost and Bob Kelly,” he said of his 60 goals and record setting 136 point season. “I was the younger guy on that line and we just seemed to gel that season. The next year I played with Ryan Walter and Chris Valentine. That year, Gretzky had 92 goals and Bossy and myself were fighting it out for second place - it kind of hurt Bossy and I in the scoring race to have a guy like Gretzky in there in a league of his own!”

“I think it was more about our line,” he continued. “We had three different players that were perfect together. Ryan had somewhere around 40 goals and Chris had around 30 goals, and I think we went 10 games without producing a goal, so that shows how we gelled.”

To be an All-Star in the early 1980’s was quite an accomplishment. It was an exciting time for hockey fans and hockey players alike. The New York Islanders dynasty was at full-force, the young Edmonton Oilers were on the rise and you could always count on teams like the Flyers and Canadiens to be at the top of the standings. It provided many wonderful memories for Dennis and good times with teammates.

“There a lot people to thank, I could go on and on,” he said of looking back on his time in the NHL. “A lot of people helped my career - you certainly don’t go into a league like that and have success doing it yourself. It is a combination of your linemates, teammates, coaches and all the off-ice people that are extremely important too.”

“The years I went to the All-Star game are a highlight, and so was going over and playing in a World Championship with Team Canada. The year I scored 60 goals, the All-Star game was in Washington and it was an honour for my parents to be there at that time and enjoy the moment with me. Those are the things I think about when people ask me about hockey.”

Dennis shared his passion and knowledge of the game with the next generation of hockey players as an instructor throughout his career, and that has continued as an active NHL Alumni member. While in Minnesota with the North Stars, he worked with young hockey players and he continued that work as a resident of Aspen, Colorado after he retired. Since returning to Toronto a few years ago, he has made himself available to work with individual teams at their practises and became an instructor and mentor at the Winning Techniques hockey camp.

“I always enjoy seeing a little girl or boy with a big smile on their face saying they can raise the puck now or take a slapshot,” Dennis explained. “It means a lot to me - it is very rewarding! The chance to work with kids continued when I came back to Toronto when the opportunity to work with the Winning Techniques camp came about. Figure skating is big there, but they were looking for someone new for their hockey program. It has been a couple of years now and I really enjoy it.”

As the online world grows and we become more and more connected to each other, Dennis has embarked on a new adventure - the world of Twitter and Facebook. He has also launched an exciting new website, DennisMaruk21.com to better connect with friends and fans. Along with his bio information, pictures and contact information, he hopes to add a store to the site soon.

“You know, it’s been fun,” he said. “My phone has been going bonkers! I have had more and more people talk to me about branding - you have got to get your name out there. You have to let people know where you are and what you are doing. Being on Facebook and Twitter, people can say, ‘Hey, I know that guy!’ So, it has been a good experience.”

“The website is to let people know where I am and to let them know that I am available to do certain things - like motivational speaking engagements, working with kids as an instructor or even participating in golf tournaments.”

Whether it is as a speaker, hockey instructor, or just chatting after an NHL Alumni event, the story of Dennis’ career is an inspirational one. He enjoys sharing those experiences and insights with people - the life lessons learned in and out of the spotlight of the NHL.

“It is about dedication,” Dennis said of his approach to hockey and to life. “To be told you are not good enough, or not tall enough - it’s all about motivation, discipline and dedication. That relates to not only your personal life but in business too. I have met with some companies, where one sales person is better than another one is, and they wonder if it is just luck. Well, I think it can be luck in some ways, to be good you have to be lucky, but it is also how you dedicate yourself professionally that leads to success.”

An active NHL Alumni member, Dennis enjoys meeting fans at events like the NHL Alumni Hockey Tour and the annual NHL Alumni Awards Gala. Taking part in these events also provides an opportunity to get to know and become friends with former opponents, while catching up and sharing stories with old friends like his London Knights teammate Brad Marsh.

“It’s good to get together and tell stories,” he said of teaming up with Brad again on the hockey tour. “It seems like just the other day we were playing Junior together!”

“We really are one big family, there’s no doubt about it,” Dennis continued, as we discussed being an active Alumni member. “When we were on opposing teams playing against each other, we had a job to do, but off the ice, it is totally different.”

“I think that at any time, when someone has any kind of trouble, a fellow NHL Alumni member would certainly be willing to help out in any way they can. I think Mark Napier and the NHL Alumni group have worked hard and they are getting better and better at helping. Players are going to be looking to the Alumni for assistance and they’ll be there.”

“The great thing too, is raising money for the charities. I think it is really nice to be able to go out and raise money for a group like the Special Olympics by playing the local police or fire department. We try to make it entertaining for the fans - it doesn’t work if the fans don’t come out. We have to put on a good show for the fans that are spending their hard-earned dollars to not only support the game, but to support these charities. These are the people that throughout our careers came out and supported us, so it is great to give back!”

An NHL executive once told me that heading into the NHL Draft, they have every tool at their disposal to measure a player’s ability and skill level. However, the one key ingredient that makes a great hockey player is immeasurable - the size of their heart. Reminiscing with Dennis and seeing him interact with friends and fans at NHL Alumni events, I can say with certainty that he has the heart of a champion. He took to the ice with passion, desire and dedication to the game, and he brings those elements and more to Hockey’s Greatest Family. If I was building a team, I’m taking Dennis Maruk first overall!

You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DennisMaruk21) and please visit his new website for more information on his speaking engagements, coaching clinics and more: www.dennismaruk21.com

Andrew Rodger is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association, providing news and interviews with our members as the NHL Alumni Insider. His goal is to shine the spotlight on Hockey’s Greatest Family and life after hockey, as well as to help bridge the gap between hockey fans and their hockey heroes. You can find him on Twitter as @ARodgerTVOS.