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The Verdict: Lysiak's Return Sparks Trip Down Memory Lane

Wednesday, 01.06.2010 / 9:12 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
Lysiak played nearly eight seasons in Chicago after six years in Atlanta.
For the first time since he retired from the Blackhawks in 1986, Tom Lyisak returned to Chicago Tuesday night.

He is still glib and still retired, although he did work as a chef at a bed and breakfast he and wife Melinda recently and briefly presided over near their residence in Madison, GA — about halfway between Atlanta, where Lysiak made his NHL debut in 1973, and Augusta, home of the Masters.

“You’ve seen my hands…can you imagine me cooking with them?” said "Tom the Bomb," who is 56 with the gray hair to prove it, but still appears in good shape, although he can’t remember the last time he laced up his skates. What Lysiak clearly can recall is that date — March 13, 1979 — when he was a key component in one of the Hawks biggest deals ever.

“I tried to stop it a month before it happened,” admitted Lysiak, who was injured at the time but was in the press box while his fellow Atlanta Flames were playing in Minnesota. Lysiak noted the presence of Bobby Orr, who was then serving as an assistant to Hawks general manager Bob Pulford. “I had heard some rumors and figured Bobby was up there scouting us. So I spread the word that I thought something was up with me, hoping maybe that would kill the deal.”

It didn’t. Just before the trade deadline, the Blackhawks and Flames exchanged eight players. Lysiak, Harold Phillipoff, Pat Ribble, Greg Fox and Miles Zaharko were sent to Chicago for Ivan Boldirev, Phil Russell and Darcy Rota.

Understand that Lysiak had been the marquee man in Atlanta, where the Flames debuted as an expansion team in 1972, along with the New York Islanders (the Flames eventually moved to Calgary). In the NHL’s initial foray into the South, Lysiak clearly was "The Man." But Boldirev, Russell and Rota were quite productive and extremely popular in Chicago. To say that the enormity of the transaction and the significance of the names involved caused shockwaves is not an overstatement.

“I was down when I heard about it,” said Lysiak. “I loved Atlanta. I still do. I’m still there, right? And when I got to the Blackhawks, I don’t think the guys who were there were too happy to see me because three of their buddies — three really good players—had left. I’m guessing the guys who left Chicago and went to the Flames felt the same way. It was something, I’ll tell you. Eventually, I really got to like it here and felt real comfortable.”

But in his first game at the Stadium, Lysiak couldn’t help but notice three cardboard cutouts deployed in the second balcony — one each for Boldirev, Russell and Rota, bearing their former Hawk jerseys and numbers, as if they had passed away.

Tuesday night, the mood was infinitely more relaxed. Lysiak signed autographs for fans, then adjourned to the Hawks’ alumni suite at the United Center to tell stories with ex-mates such as Cliff Koroll, who first placed the call to Lysiak about making a trip to Chicago. It took some convincing because Lysiak was never fond of the spotlight.

“But I’m glad I did it,” Lysiak concluded. “The building is full, you have a really good team here, and one thing hasn’t changed: it’s still cold in January.”

New Year’s Day Classic Still a Winner

Compared with the Winter Classic 2009 at Wrigley Field featuring the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, television ratings were down about 10 percent for last Friday’s revival at Fenway Park between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers. But that changes nothing.

The NHL has scored a hat trick with its three New Year’s Day happenings. When the Hawks visit Boston for their game against the Bruins (indoors) Thursday night, they likely will hear about the buzz that permeated New England for this special event that has become a jewel for hockey. For the league to turn a regular-season game into such a stellar attraction is a touch of genius. Spectators love it, players cherish a return to their roots and owners can’t complain when seating capacity is at least doubled.

For the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins filled a football stadium. Talk about cash registers ringing a happy tune.

Next question: where does the NHL go from here?

It would seem that Canada, birthplace of hockey, has to be involved and the sooner the better. NBC, with no football on New Year’s Day, probably would like to cling to that date, although a Winter Classic in any Canadian city would work, regardless of when.

Once upon a time, the NHL scheduled games on Christmas, but the league now shuts down on December 24th and 25th. However, the 26th represents a busy resumption of competition and the 26th is a holiday in Canada, Boxing Day. Could the league try two Winter Classics each year — Boxing Day in Canada and another for New Year’s Day in the United States? Perhaps, although that would create the possibility of rendering these spectaculars less so.

The NHL should proceed carefully, but this idea is a keeper. Whenever you can get Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke on the ice together, then follow with a fresh air tiff between visceral rivals, you have a phenomenon that no other sport can produce in-season, and that includes all-star games.

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributing writer for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.