Underrated Nation: Dave Babych

We at The Hockey Guys are pleased to bring back a very successful weekly series feature called Underrated Nation. Writer, fan and NHL history aficionado Bill Kellett will focus on a different NHL’er every week in our Underrated Nation segment’s, seen only on The Hockey Guys.

By Bill Kellett

There are certain players that you can’t help but root for regardless of whether they play on your team or not.

Character guys like Harold Snepts, Kevin Lowe and Charlie Huddy to name a few. They were guys who did their jobs but were never flashy or in the spotlight.

Another we should add to that list is Dave Babych.

Dave Babych was born May 23, 1961 in Edmonton, Alberta. Babych was somewhat of a child prodigy in hockey terms. He had success at every level of minor hockey and was quickly gaining comparisons to Bobby Orr. In the 1977-78 season on his junior A team the Fort Saskatchewan Traders he registered 100 points in just 56 games. It was enough to get recognized by the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. He was a standout in each of his 3 seasons in Portland. His performance was enough to get him drafted 2nd overall in the 1980 NHL entry draft by the Winnipeg Jets. After impressing Jets brass at training camp Babych also made the team in his draft year, something which was uncommon at the time.

Babych’s rookie season was notable for a few reasons. At the time, him being drafted 2nd overall made Dave and his older brother Wayne (who was drafted in 1978 3rd overall) were the highest set of brothers drafted. It has since been surpassed by the likes of Sylvain and Pierre Tuergeon and Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Interestingly enough the Jets gave Babych the number 44. This is significant because he would become the first player in NHL history to don that number. Today it is quite a common number.

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In his first season in Winnipeg Babych had an amazing rookie campaign finishing with 44 points and for 10 years would lead all defenceman on teams he played on in scoring amongst the defencemen. But his breakout year came in his sophomore season when Babych exploded for 19 goals and 48 assists and would lead the Jets to their first ever NHL playoff round. The team had acquired veteran blueliner Serge Savard that season and pairing him with Babych proved pure magic. Babych would years later claim that he became the defenceman he did because of lessons learned from Savard.

As if recording 48 assists in one season wasn’t enough the following season 1982-83 saw Babych get a mindboggling 61 assists, breaking his own club record for assists (it is still a franchise record for assists by a defenceman even for the relocated Phoenix Coyotes). Babych also played in that seasons All Star game another first for the rising star blueliner.

Babych would once again play in the All Star game in 1984 and that season would be the best in franchise history recording 96 points and finishing fourth in the entire NHL. That would prove to be another strong season for Babych, who was now paired with Norris Trophy winning defenceman Randy Carlyle.

During the 1985-86 season the Jets had one of the most solid backends in the league sporting Babych, Carlyle, and youngsters Dave Ellett and Teppo Numminen. They were so deep in fact that the management felt it necessary to add another forward to the mix and felt dealing from a position of strength made sense. Unfortunately the price they would have to pay would be high and would turn out to be possibly the worst move in franchise history. After only 19 games the Jets shipped Dave Babych to the Hartford Whalers for forward Ray Neufeld. Neufeld would never become more than a role player and 5 years later was out of the league completely, meanwhile Babych would continue to thrive even on a perpetually bad team like the Whalers.

Ironically that season would be Babych’s 2nd best point-wise as he was on a tear with the Jets prior to the trade having recorded 16 points in the 19 games. It continued in Hartford where he would tally another 53 points in 62 games for a total of 69 points, one more than he would have in his breakout year of 1981-82.

The teams in Hartford were never very good but managed to make the playoffs every year that Babych played there. His points totals would remain consistent every year hovering around the 50 point mark every season. In 1987-88 Babych’s 50 points placed him second on the Whalers in scoring. He would score 14 goals that season but despite always putting up a boatload of assists this would be the final year he would register double digits for goals.

In 1990-91 Babych suffered a severe wrist injury that kept him out the majority of the season, upon his return, in his first game back he suffered a severely broken thumb and it would end up sidelining him for the rest of the season. All told Dave Babych would only play 8 games in 1990-91, still managing to record 6 assists.

Fearing an injury prone player the Whalers made the curious move of leaving Babych exposed in that seasons expansion draft., he was immediately scooped up by the Minnesota North Stars and was subsequently immediately dealt by Minnesota to the Vancouver Canucks for fellow defenceman Tom Kurvers.

Though his points totals were in decline Babych would probably be more valuable to the Canucks than any other team he would play for. He was instrumental in helping to develop young Canucks like Jyrki Lumme and Bret Hedican. Just as he found in Winnipeg when he was mentored by Savard, Babych was now the grizzled veteran passing along his knowledge.

The Canucks were a rising squad who were slowly putting together the pieces of a successful team. Babych was a very important ingredient to that team and immediately fell in love with the city, where he still lives to this day.

Babych was able to reinvent himself from offensive juggernaut to stay at home reliable veteran. He would however set a franchise record that still stands today, becoming the only defenceman in club history to score a hat trick, which was done during the 1991 season against the Calgary Flames.

Babych would always be remembered for his goal in game 5 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers, it would prove to be the winning goal and would send the series to a game 6 and was a stepping stone for the Canucks coming 1 goal away from winning it all. However despite reaching the pinnacle in 1994 the Canucks would go into steady decline after that run. During the 1997 season the Canucks would fire long time General Manager Pat Quinn and would replace him with the iron fisted

Mike Keenan, the move would signify a horrifying change of direction in the clubs plans, and would plummet the Canucks into their darkest period. One of the first orders of business for Keenan and his new regime was to dismantle the core that Quinn had built, and Dave Babych was no exception, it was believed he was constantly butting head with Keenan and his ice time was diminishing. In the 1997-98 season Babych would have his worst offensive output having just 9 points in 47 games, Keenan was leaning towards his guys like Enrico Ciccone and Jamie Huscroft ahead of the wily veteran and his production was suffering for it.

In his one act of mercy Keenan decided to deal Babych to a contending team for the playoffs and shipped him to the Philadelphia Flyers for a 6th round pick. However Babych would play only 6 games with the Flyers before blocking a shot and breaking his foot. The incident would become an ongoing battle between the Flyers and Babych, team physician Dr. Arthur Bartolazzi diagnosed the injury initially as a bone bruise and gave Babych painkillers and said he was fine to resume playing. Babych would later sue the Flyers and Dr. Bartolazzi for $2 million in damages claiming the team defrauded him and led him to believe his injury was less serious than it was. The trial was not settled until after Babych’s career had ended but in 2002 he was awarded 1.3 million in lost wages and $350, 000 for pain and suffering.

The incident may have been an integral part of the Flyers shipping Babych to the Los Angeles Kings at the 1999 trade deadline. He would end up playing in only 8 games for the Kings and then took a turn in Europe with the Swiss team HC Ambri-Piotta, but could only manage to play 3 playoff games their due to his previous injury. Babych would finish with 1195 games and 723 points in his career, numbers that could have been so much better if not for injuries and his role changing dramatically with the Canucks from offense to defence.

After retirement Babych landed a small role in the movie Slapshot 2 and was hired as assistant director of player personnel for the Vancouver Canucks, being the right hand man to Dave Gagner, it’s a position he still holds today as well as taking part in numerous Canucks old timers games.

Dave and brother Wayne were close at the beginnings of their careers and in fact even married twin sisters, making them not only brothers but brothers-in-law as well. Both have since remarried but have remained close friends since both retired.

Dave Babych accomplished an amazing amount in his career and was sadly buried on floundering teams early on in Winnipeg and Hartford but made the most of all opportunities, when it became his turn to pass on the mentoring he had received from Savard and Carlyle he took up the father figure role in a heartbeat and showed his versatility to adjust to all situations. Whether it was the foot injury late in his career or just simply the passage of time Babych felt his career ended too soon, a real telling characteristic of a man who lived and breathed hockey, seeming 19 seasons wasn’t enough for him. Babych has remained in the game and just as in his playing days is making a difference, even if it’s not noticed every day, the exact reason that has won him a permanent place in the Underrated Nation.

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