Coaching, not Cup, would cap Housley's career

Phil Housley took his game from high school to the NHL. Now, he's ready to take it back.

Updated: January 21, 2004, 9:28 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

I first saw him getting dressed for his first training camp in the National Hockey League.

He skated out onto the ice and immediately he looked small, a kid surrounded by men.

Phil Housley
Phil Housley's career ended with less fanfare than with which it began 21 years before with the Sabres.
He was, after all, exactly that.

Phil Housley was an 18-year-old high school kid from Minnesota thrust into the NHL from the Minnesota High School state tournament almost overnight.

And while it was never easy, the kid from South St. Paul, Minn., didn't disappoint.

He played 21 seasons in the NHL, skated in 1,495 regular-season games, registered 1,235 points, captured a slew of records for an American-born players and American-born defensemen, won a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics and was one of the great skaters and power-play specialists of all time.

It was a nice career, even if it didn't include a Stanley Cup.

That's the way it was for Housley. He was by no means a perfect player. He had holes in his game; his lack of size often made him a defensive liability in his own zone. At times, his off-ice decisions rubbed people the wrong way; his reported visit to a Columbus, Ohio, strip club with Theo Fleury last season may have negatively affected the final days of his career.

Housley may not have been a perfect player or a perfect person, but he was a determined and dedicated one.

Housley broke into the league with the Buffalo Sabres, back in 1982 when they had six first-round draft picks over two years. They were going with kids. Some of them, such as Housley, Dave Andreychuk and Tom Barrasso, made it and made it big.

A whole lot more did not.

Housley's father once told me that the goal heading into high school was to earn a college scholarship. Any scholarship would be fine. But should he play well enough to attract interest from the University of Minnesota, the sacred skating grounds for Minnesota high school kids, well that would have been just about perfect.

The "U" was interested, no question about it, but so was Sabres general manager Scotty Bowman.

The Sabres had been tracking Housley throughout his high school career. When he put up 65 points in 22 games during his final season and took his team to the finals of the state tournament, Sabres head scout Rudy Migay was watching. Eventually, Migay got Bowman, who was also the Sabres' coach, to see Housley in person. He didn't disappoint.

Right then, Bowman told all the other scouts and general managers in attendance that he was drafting the kid and that he was going to do it in the first round.

Drafting an 18-year-old is commonplace in the NHL. Drafting one out of a U.S. high school was rare. Playing him immediately in the NHL? Well, that was almost unheard of. U.S. high school kids didn't play anywhere near the number of games that kids playing junior hockey in Canada or even Europe did. Housley's experience level wasn't even on par with most U.S. college players, and scouts didn't think a whole lot about drafting them very high, either.

Still, Bowman did it. He picked Housley sixth overall in 1982 and plugged him right into the lineup the following season.

And why not? The kid -- Housley was always referred to as "the kid" back then -- could skate almost like no other. In fact, Bowman made references to Housley being Bobby Orr-like at that draft, a mistake that put a tremendous amount of pressure on Housely. But the kid handled it.

Housley landed a spot in the All-Star Game as a 19-year-old during his second season. Not the Young Stars Game, which didn't exist back then, but the All-Star Game. It was his first of seven.

"People don't realize he scored 31 goals in that second season," said Bowman, now retired from coaching and managing, but still a special consultant to the Detroit Red Wings. "He was a defenseman and he wasn't 20 years old and he scored 31 goals. Even Orr didn't do that."

Of his 1,235 career points, which are fourth all time among NHL defensemen, he scored 338 goals, 129 of them on the power play. He was running up numbers that were indeed Orr-like, or at least on a par with Paul Coffey, and he could skate as well -- some argue better -- as both.

"It was a good long run, and I got to live a dream for a very long time," Housley said when he announced his retirement late last week. "There were a lot of great moments. When you play over 1,400 games, there are so many memories."

In a way, it's sad to see Housley go. Early in his career, it seemed as if his opportunities were limitless -- he was putting up numbers, playing in front of Barrasso and being coached by Bowman.

But none of them won a Cup with Buffalo. Bowman won it just about every place else he went -- Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Barrasso won it twice with Bowman in Pittsburgh. But Housley, whose 21 seasons amount to two lifelong quests by NHL longevity standards, played for Winnipeg, St. Louis, Calgary, New Jersey, Washington, Chicago and Toronto and never did.

He might have kept going had the Minnesota Wild taken an interest. There was even some thought that he might catch on with a Cup contender in one last attempt to etch his name in history.

Instead, he opted to end it, preferring instead to build a new life with his wife and high school sweetheart, Karin, and their four children back in his home state.

Whatever Housley's future holds, hockey surely will be a part of it in some form or fashion. He has always answered the call for Team USA in international competition, and he has given willingly of his time and talents to USA Hockey. He recently served as an assistant coach for the U.S. National Under-18 Team in international competition. He'll likely do more of that, but the immediate plan is to explore coaching opportunities in his native Minnesota.

Friends say he would jump at the chance to coach high school kids. Housley could look them in the eye and they would know he was once one of them, a kid growing up playing hockey in Minnesota, hoping to realize a dream.

That would be a fitting end.

The kid, a man among boys.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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