Former Hawk Ludzik a true renaissance man
Steve Larmer, the former Blackhawks’ star, is living happily ever after in retirement at his lakefront manse northeast of Toronto. Take this as gospel truth from a past teammate and pal forever, Steve Ludzik.
“He’s very comfortable,” says Ludzik. “You know Larms. I’ve never seen anybody who can sit in one place for hours without moving except to breathe.”
Since we know where Larmer is now, where is Ludzik? He's writing a weekly “Where Are They Now?” column for his local newspaper, The Niagara Falls Review, and his latest subject was Larmer, who acquired the nickname of “Grandpa” because he seemed advanced for his age even when he was 17.
Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
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As sedentary as Larmer is, Ludzik remains the polar opposite. Or since he is known as the “Polish Prince,” perhaps we should make that Polish opposite. Ludzik regularly drives from his residence in Niagara Falls, Ont., to Toronto, where he is a TV and radio hockey expert for TSN. The other day Ludzik did an eight-hour shift, a long stretch to diagnose the Maple Leafs.
Ludzik is active in junior hockey, he’s a raconteur, he paints, and the newspaper column is not a tryout. He’s already got a book out: “Been There, Done That,” which contains many anecdotes from the 1980s, when he and Larmer were sidekicks on some quality Blackhawks teams that always seemed to bump into the dynasty Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky.
Ludzik arrived in Chicago with considerable expectations. Larmer, his linemate with the Niagara Falls Flyers, almost didn’t come at all.
“Larms was drafted 120th overall in 1980,” recalls Ludzik, who got selected 28th the same year and played 413 games as a versatile forward. “One of the Blackhawks scouts told him he didn’t know why he was even picked because they didn’t need a right wing in Chicago. So they didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for Larms. One day that summer, he was cooking hot dogs, and he told me he was just going to quit hockey. ‘What’s the sense of going to Chicago, Ludzy?’ He was going to just stay in Peterborough and build swimming pools with his father. Fortunately, Grandpa changed his mind.
“Then at our training camp in 1983, the general manager, Bob Pulford, was all set to send him to the minors. Larms wasn’t lighting it up, and you know, he might not have been in tip-top shape. A bit of a butterball. Well, luckily, the coach, Orval Tessier, turned the corner just when Pully was telling the trainers to ship Larms’ equipment out. Orval told Pully he’d seen Larms play in juniors. Orval said this kid can do it. The rest is history, thanks to Orval. Larms won the Calder Trophy as best rookie, he had a fabulous career, he won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
Excellent point by Ludzik. Larmer scored 441 career goals, was as exemplary on the road as at home, played both ends and logged 844 consecutive games—an NHL record for durability with the same franchise—before his amazing streak ended. He never should have been allowed to leave the Blackhawks for New York, but that’s another story for another day. Larmer secured his championship ring in 1994 and turned in his skates in 1995, although he surely could have played longer.
As Larmer’s road roommate with the Blackhawks on occasion, Ludzik shamelessly abused his childhood friend. One afternoon, Ludzik convinced a hotel telephone operator to ring them out of their pregame nap with shocking news.
“I made sure Larms picked it up, and she said, ‘This is your wake-up call…it’s 7 p.m.’”, recalls Ludzik. “I had changed all the clocks in the room while he was sleeping. Well, Larms loses it. He’s screaming that we’re going to get sent to the minors! We’re supposed to be on the ice at 7, and here it is 7, and we’re still in our room! Naturally, to calm his nerves, he lit up a cigarette. By this time, I’m laughing so hard, I’m crying. It was only 4 o’clock, not 7.”
Larmer and Ludzik took business courses at DePaul while with the Blackhawks, broadening their horizons. Ludzik was a free spirit who took so much grief for wearing his favorite grey suit with brown shoes that he did what anyone would do. He painted the shoes gray. Ludzik got roasted in the locker room for his addiction to pro wrestling. When George “The Animal” Steele or Abdullah the Butcher were on TV, you didn’t dare disturb Ludzik.
“A lot of things that have happened to me, I never thought would happen,” Ludzik says. “But that’s what makes it so much fun.”
Indeed, Joel Quenneville remarked recently about how many of his former Hartford Whaler teammates have joined him in the coaching and broadcasting ranks. Well, the Blackhawks planted a similar tree, and Ludzik formed an unlikely branch. He coached the Tampa Bay Lightning for a couple seasons, shortly after winning the Turner Cup with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League. Ludzik, in fact, was the last coach in Gordie Howe’s remarkable career.
“He was almost 70,” Ludzik says. “Gordie signed and played one game for the Vipers. That way, he could play in six different decades.”
In Ludzik’s recent epistle, he closed thusly: “When asked what his greatest accomplishment in his three years in the Falls, Larmer was quick to quip: ‘Hey, Ludzy. You borrowed my old ’73 Chevy Chevelle to take a girl named Mary Ann Czaplicki out on a first date. You’ve been married for 28 years. I’ll take credit.'”
Concluded Ludzik, “I never said thanks.”