The Verdict: Olczyk's talents span from rink to booth, and beyond
Life is good for Eddie Olczyk.
After broadcasting 116 games last season for his beloved Blackhawks and on national television, he learned Wednesday of his induction into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. Remarkably, Edzo did not get word of the honor at an airport or while being wired for sound.
He’s on summer vacation, so he can relax and enjoy. It hasn’t always been thus. Having completed his first tour of duty in Chicago, Olczyk was a member of the Maple Leafs when his wife, Diana, prepared to deliver the couple’s second child, Tommy, in November of 1990.
“I was with her in a Toronto hospital,” Eddie recalled. “The baby was due any minute, and I told the Leafs I would play that night. Don’t worry. I’ll be there. Nurse comes in and says there’s a phone call for me. I go outside to take it, then come back to Diana’s room. She looks at me and asks, ‘Where are we going?’ She just knew I’d been traded. I didn’t say anything. Then she says, ‘Winnipeg.’ I knew we were in it for the long haul. Amazing, how things happen.”
"THE VERDICT" WITH BOB VERDI
Blackhawks Team Historian 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.
“I think back to where it started in Niles, then moving to Palos Heights,” he went on. “The sacrifices my parents, Big Ed and his Diana, made for me. His grocery store, where I brought in carts from the parking lot and got those pages to report to Aisle 4 for a cleanup. Aisle 4 was baby foods. Shooting pucks in the garage, dreaming of playing for the Blackhawks. Now I talk hockey for a living, thanks to a tremendous organization here in Chicago that allows me the flexibility to work for a great network, NBC. Great wife, great family. How lucky am I?”
Olczyk was inducted along with Mike Modano, the explosive former Dallas Stars forward, and Lou Lamoriello, a much-decorated executive with the New Jersey Devils. Eddie O says he’s in elite company, but so are they. He is not only Pat Foley’s regular sidekick with the Blackhawks; Edzo is the lead analyst who teaches hockey to the entire country, and he’s not even from the East Coast. He’s a pure Chicago guy whose ascent through passion and instinct has been “tremendously tremendous,” to borrow a phrase from Eddie’s brilliant marathon with Doc Emrick at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. They described game after game among teams from varied cultures with different names. Then, when it was over on a Sunday, Eddie O hopped a red-eye to Tampa for a Monday night tilt.
“That’s what I do,” he said. “And to think I didn’t like flying for so many years. Especially when we started having kids, because flying meant leaving them. Getting better at it now, though. This is what I love, and if viewers who listen don’t realize what I did before this, that’s fair. I understand.”
When the National Hockey League convened for its annual amateur draft at the Montreal Forum in 1984, there was scant doubt that the Blackhawks wanted to select a much-heralded, home-grown product. There wasn’t any question, either, that the Pittsburgh Penguins would take Mario Lemieux as the first overall choice. After the Devils snagged Kirk Muller, the Blackhawks grabbed Olczyk, their first ever native-born first rounder.
He had performed for the United States in the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and it was a tough act to follow. The Americans authored the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980. Olczyk joined the Blackhawks in training camp and without ever playing a minor league minute, made the big club, a rookie fulfilling his lifelong dream.
Moreover, Eddie O scored in his first NHL game on October 11, 1984, a season-opening 7-3 rout of the Detroit Red Wings at the Chicago Stadium. It was a big deal in Chicago, especially for hockey fans, but not as big as it might have been. Only days earlier, the Cubs had completed their epic pratfall in San Diego, losing a third straight game to the Padres when only one victory there would have sent them to the World Series. That same afternoon in Soldier Field, Walter Payton of the Bears broke Jim Brown’s career rushing record of 12,312 yards.
Gradually, though, Eddie O got his due. He evolved from an 18-year-old prodigy to a member of the “Cyldesdales Line” (as coined by Foley) beside Curt Fraser and Troy Murray. Eddie’s aforementioned “long haul” was estimable: 342 goals in 1,031 games with the Blackhawks, Jets, Penguins, Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings. He won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994, and was such a good fit that two franchises—the Blackhawks and Winnipeg—brought him back. He retired as a Blackhawk in 2000. Also, after playing for the Penguins, they hired him as coach in 2003. The new generation probably regards Eddie O as a broadcaster first and foremost, but the fact is that he could play and did for 16 years.
With the star-studded Rangers, Olczyk was voted the Players’ Player award that championship season. It had something to do with Eddie’s spirit. Coach Mike Keenan, a believer in creative tension, needed a whipping boy, and he gave that title to Eddie because Eddie could take it. Though an injury (and Keenan) precluded Olczyk from playing the required 40 regular-season games, his teammates petitioned to have his name engraved on the Cup. Olczyk’s ability to relate and communicate extends to the booth, where both Foley and Emrick rave about the chemistry enriched by an analyst who not only knows the game, but understands that this is show biz, entertainment, fun.
Foley insists that Olczyk has a photographic memory and can recreate a play after it unfolds without viewing a tape. He knows where everybody was on the ice, praises Foley, maybe three shifts ago. This gift, says Foley, is “mind-boggling” when one considers the breakneck speed and personnel changes hockey entails. Eddie proclaims “Stop it Right Here!”, pulls out the telestrator and takes his audience to school. Eddie O is not only an expert at reviewing the action. He is prescient. Way back in April, Olczyk touted the Los Angeles Kings as a playoff team to watch.
There are various and sundry unconfirmed reports that Olczyk’s knack of handicapping serves him well when he dabbles in one of his hobbies, the one that involves four-legged athletes. The surprise is that he has time to decompress with Diana and their four children, two of whom—Eddie and Tommy—were invited to the Carolina Hurricanes’ recent rookie conditioning camp. This was another “tremendously tremendous” development for Eddie O, and now he is a member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. He can relax and enjoy, but probably won’t. Edzo didn’t get where he is in the world’s fastest sport by standing still.