NHL's Top Feel-Good Stories from the Past 20 Years

Al DanielCorrespondent IIOctober 6, 2012

NHL's Top Feel-Good Stories from the Past 20 Years

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    With the NHL’s current news cycle all but encompassed with increasingly grim labor developments, it is time to take the advice of the Cheers theme song and give hockey fans a break from all their worries.

    Much has been made of the fact that the ongoing 2012 lockout, combined with two preceding lockouts and a brief players’ strike, is the league’s fourth work stoppage in the past 20 years. However, each of those first three stalemates subsided and ultimately yielded an abundance of decidedly positive on- and off-ice stories.

    At some point, the 2012 NHL lockout will likewise be resolved, and 30 fresh sheets will be open to more stories that will universally endear the sport to its established and prospective fanbases.

    While everyone waits for that, here is a chronological glance back at the NHL’s 20 best comebacks, milestones and ideal displays of humanity from the last two decades.

Honorable Mentions

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Canada’s Sport in Canada’s Capital

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    Granted, the on-ice results of the first few years were hardly palatable for the fans, but the point was there was a fanbase with an NHL team in Ottawa.

    A protracted 58 years after the original franchise left for St. Louis, an expansion created the Ottawa Senators, who commenced operation in the autumn of 1992.

Raising the Goal Standard

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    Perhaps the most famous of Wayne Gretzky’s 61 record-breaking moments occurred on March 23, 1994, when he buried the 802nd regular-season goal of his NHL career.

Roberts on the Rebound

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    The recipient of the 1996 Masterton Trophy, Gary Roberts had seen his 1994-95 season end with a neck injury on Feb. 4, 1995. He would not return to extramural action for another 330 days, then suiting up for the Calgary Flames in a home bout with the Hartford Whalers on Jan. 10, 1996.

    All he did that evening was kindle an eight-game point-getting streak, which included a hat trick in his second game back and a cumulative 8-8-16 scoring log. By the 1995-96 season’s end, he had tallied 22 goals and 42 points in 35 appearances.

    After his career was in question again with a lost 1996-97 season, he resurfaced with the Carolina Hurricanes for the 1997-98 campaign and continued to play until 2008-09.

Gutsy Granato

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    In 1996, following a head injury, brain surgery potentially saved Tony Granato’s life and may have also signaled the end of his viability as an athlete.

    But within eight months of his last game as a Los Angeles King, Granato started fresh with the San Jose Sharks to commence the 1996-97 season. Like Roberts before him, he tallied a hat trick in his second game back (at his old abode in L.A., no less) and claimed the Masterton at season’s end.

    In addition, he earned a spot on the Western Conference roster for the 1997 All-Star Game and played before his new fanbase in San Jose less than a year after his previous season had prematurely ended.

McLennan Recovers, Resurges

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    In the summer of 1996, following his third season split between the New York Islanders and the minor leagues, goaltender Jamie McLennan was hospitalized with bacterial meningitis. Life-saving intensive care was followed by a less-than-promising push to restore his athletic form.

    Incredibly, McLennan managed to find new employment with the St. Louis Blues for the 1996-97 season, which he spent entirely with their farm team in Worcester, Mass.

    As it happened, the 1997 Calder Cup playoffs were the last of McLennan’s AHL days for the next four years. Barely 15 months removed from his frightful illness, he made the cut with the Blues and was a mainstay for three years before transferring to the Minnesota Wild in 2000.

    McLennan’s productive valiance was promptly rewarded at the conclusion of his first full NHL season, when he garnered the Masterton Trophy.

Hockey Fights Cancer

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    This slide is all about (at least) seven feel-good stories blended into one. Since the 1992-93 NHL season, referee Paul Stewart and five players (Mario Lemieux, John Cullen, Saku Koivu, Phil Kessel and Jason Blake) have all conquered cancer to continue their careers on the ice.

    In the midst of that, shortly after Cullen’s comeback and transition to coaching and Stewart’s return to officiating, the Hockey Fights Cancer charity made its debut in December 1998.

Gretzky Goes Out Gracefully

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    Rarely has a team’s lack of a postseason berth yielded such a favorable situation.

    Wayne Gretzky knew well in advance exactly when his final NHL season would end and gave the hockey world enough advanced notice for everyone to ensure they savored the last moments.

    In his last game, played on a mid-April Sunday in 1999, Gretzky tallied an assist to help his New York Rangers forge a 1-1 regulation tie against the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. His output was enough to tack on one more last-minute tangible moment of glory, but not so much that anybody wondered why he was retiring then.

    Sandwiching that assist and that game, which had a slight extension that culminated in an overtime loss, was a set of appropriately emotional pre-game and post-game ceremonies.

    One more ceremony was held five-and-a-half months later, when Gretzky’s No. 99 became the first jersey digits to be retired league-wide. With that, No. 99 brought dignified closure to a multitude of eras as the world approached the cusp of Y2K late in 1999.

State of Hockey, State of Happiness

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    Like Ottawa before them, Minnesota hockey fans saw one NHL team leave, only to be granted a new club in a round of expansion. Annual attendance has spoken to an unmistakable and unconditional appreciation for the Wild.

Super Mario Returns

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    Less than two years after Gretzky left the game, one the few contemporaries who could have rivaled him in a “greatest ever” debate opted to rekindle a comparatively shorter, less fulfilling career.

    Mario Lemieux―who had retired in 1997 at the age of 31 after 13 nonconsecutive, injury and illness-riddled seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins―declared that he would become the NHL’s first player/owner shortly before the halfway mark of the 2000-01 season.

    In his comeback campaign, Lemieux pitched in 35 goals and 76 points in 43 appearances, then tacked on a 6-11-17 log in 18 playoff games. He also emboldened the Penguins’ PR muscle in the withering wake of one of the team’s financial scares.

Roger Reaches 1,000

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    The innovative Roger Neilson concluded his coaching career―and, sadly, his life―with three years as an assistant on Jacques Martin’s staff in Ottawa.

    There was one welcome interruption to that tenure, though, at the conclusion of the 2001-02 regular season. Martin stepped aside for the final two games and handed the head coaching title to Neilson, which brought the latter up to 1,000 NHL contests as a team’s primary bench boss.

Berard Battles Back

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    The first overall choice in the 1995 NHL entry draft, Bryan Berard was in the middle of his fourth professional season when a high stick blinded him in one eye.

    Berard’s injury was suffered on March 11, 2000, six days after he had only turned 23. Another 573 days passed before he defied the general consensus and resumed his career.

    As it happened, Berard’s 2001-02 campaign would be the first in which he saw action in all 82 games since he was a rookie in 1996-97. He missed only two contests in 2002-03 and made 58 appearances the following season, which culminated with Masterton accolades.

Arbour Lands on Milestone Island

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    The conductor of the New York Islanders’ Stanley Cup symphony of four straight titles, Al Arbour put in an additional appearance behind the bench on Nov. 3, 2007, 13 years after his last full season.

    With that, he upped his career count to 1,500 games as a head coach.

Lightning Reward Retired Prospect

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    David Carle, the younger brother of established NHL blueliner Matt Carle, could have been selected late in the second or in the third round of the 2008 entry draft. He entered having been ranked no. 60 among North American skaters.

    But shortly before the weekend of the draft, the aspirant Alaskan was forced to abruptly retire in 2008 upon being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which was discovered amidst testing at the combine.

    Matt Carle’s employers at the Tampa Bay Lightning nonetheless chose to sacrifice their final pick for the sake of letting the younger Carle live the dream of being drafted as his final on-ice accomplishment.

    Carle went on to his brother’s alma mater at the University of Denver, where he was a student-assistant coach. Upon graduation in May 2012, he accepted an assistant coaching gig with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers.

Winning Ways

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    Twice in less than a decade, the NHL’s career wins record among goaltenders was revised, first via Patrick Roy on Oct. 17, 2000 and then by Martin Brodeur on March 17, 2009.

    Roy notched No. 448 to eclipse Terry Sawchuk’s 30-year-old record and ultimately retired with 551 regular-season victories. A little less than six years later, ironically on St. Patrick’s Day, Brodeur notched No. 552.