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The 10 Most Inspirational Hockey Players of All Time

Stephen NelsonContributor IIDecember 25, 2016

The 10 Most Inspirational Hockey Players of All Time

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    "The more difficulties one has to encounter, within and without, the more significant and the higher in inspiration his/her life will be." -Horace Bushnell

    As fans, we often debate amongst ourselves the "fairness" of sports—a play, a call, an individual, a team or, more commonly, an outcome.

    For whatever reason, people view the ends as more important than the means.

    We can talk about whether something is fair, but as I was taught growing up that fair has less to do with the moment or a situation than how you respond to it.

    There have been times in hockey's history where the sport and its players have come upon what most of us would call "unfair" paths. They had to travel roads that were far tougher to navigate than even the one that leads to hockey's hallowed Cup. 

    Here are 10 inspiring players who didn't look for those paths to build character, but instead used them to reveal theirs.

Jim Kyte

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    A 6'5", 215-pound defenseman, Jim Kyte was drafted 12th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 1982.

    He would go on to dress in 598 games in the National Hockey League for the Jets, Penguins, Flames, Senators and Sharks.

    He tallied 66 points and accumulated 1,342 penalty minutes. And he did it all despite having a degenerative hearing condition and being legally deaf.

    The Ottawa native was the first player in the NHL to wear a hearing aid during play—his helmet was specially designed to protect it. During and after his career, Kyte worked to help other players and kids with similar conditions.

    At one point, he teamed up with NHL legend Stan Mikita at his hockey school for the hearing impaired.

Greg Neeld

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    Visors are back in hockey conversations again nearly 40 years after Greg Neeld first put one on.

    Long before these recent accidents with Chris Pronger and Manny Malhotra, it was the "Neeld Shield" that sparked a debate in the NHL.

    As an up-and-coming defenseman for the Toronto Marlboros of the OHA during the early 1970s, Neeld lost sight in his left eye after being hit with an inadvertent high stick.

    Because of the resulting disability, NHL rules prevented him from playing in the league. Despite his protective shield, the league did not want to risk the player losing sight in the other eye.

    Neeld went on to play in the WHA for 17 games, as the league did not have a rule against one-eyed player eligibility. He also spent a few seasons in the IHL.

    Despite his brief time in pro hockey, Neeld left his mark on the game of hockey in terms of player safety.

    Hockey at all levels now employ the use of shields and visors, and based on recent happenings, some hope to make it widespread and permanent. 

Vladimir Konstantinov

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    It was 1997, and the Detroit Red Wings had just won their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

    But the celebration came to a halt when star defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, along with fellow blueliner Slava Fetisov and Wings athletic trainer Sergei Mnatsakanov, were involved in a limousine accident that left "Vlady" and Mnatsakanov with serious head injuries. 

    When people think Red Wings hockey today, they think of Nicklas Lidstrom. The current Wings captain came to Detroit the same year as Konstantinov, and the two became the force that led them to the Cup. 

    But before the accident, Konstantinov was one of the best in the league at his position. He was the runner-up to Brian Leetch for the Norris Trophy in 1997.

    If not for the horrific crash, who knows what could have been for the bruising and skilled D-man.

    A year later in 1998, the Red Wings kept the "Vladinator's" locker and used him as inspiration to win it all again—which they did. During the celebration, Konstantinov was wheeled onto the ice and then-captain Steve Yzerman placed Lord Stanley's Cup on Vlady's lap, making for one of the most emotional scenes.

    Nearly 15 years later, Konstantinov continues to inspire.

    The brain trauma he suffered had some doctors wondering if he would ever be able to walk and talk again. But the same strength and grit that endeared him to fans and intimidated opponents has helped him make tremendous strides in recovery.

    Still a frequent visitor to Joe Louis Arena, Konstantinov has found a new passion away from the ice—art.

Bobby Clarke

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    Diabetes isn't something to mess with, but neither is Robert Earl Clarke.

    There aren't many diabetics who have accumulated as much hardware as Clarke.

    Despite the medical factors weighing against him, the Flin Flon native won the Lester Pearson Award (1974), the Hart Trophy (1973, 1975, 1976), the Selke (1983), the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (1972) and two Stanley Cups (1974, 1975).

    He is not only one of the toughest guys to play the game, but also one of the best leaders pro sports has ever seen. 

Mandi Schwartz

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    Earlier this year, the world lost Mandi Schwartz, a former Yale University hockey star who inspired countless people.

    From hockey players to cancer fighters and survivors to strangers, Schwartz's fight against acute myeloid leukemia sparked a North American search for a bone marrow donor. 

    The Saskatchewan native appeared in 73 straight games for the Yale Bulldogs until she was diagnosed with the disease in 2008.

    Her cancer went into remission, allowing her to return to practice with her teammates. But in April 2010 the cancer returned, which prompted a highly publicized search for a donor. 

    Though the search never resulted in a perfect match for Schwartz, donors for as many as five other patients were found.

    Her cancer would go into remission again in September 2010 after a stem-cell transplant, but it returned just a couple of months later. 

    “I knew I could fight through it, and everyone around me was telling me that I could do it, so I didn’t really have a choice to think otherwise,” Schwartz said in an interview with The Yale Daily News in 2010. 

    Schwartz stopped treatment and passed away in April at the age of 23.

    But as of last fall, marrow drives on her behalf added over 4,200 people to donor registries in Canada and the United States, according to Yale.

    The fight with cancer may have taken Mandi's life, but she inspired thousands to join the cause to help win the war against the disease. 

Gordie Howe

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    Gordie Howe came before Gretzky and Lemieux—and he was arguably better than both.

    Quite frankly the most complete hockey player to ever play the game, Howe got his start in the NHL as an 18-year-old for the Detroit Red Wings in 1946. 

    A scary combination of athleticism, skill, grit, smarts, power and durability, Howe isn't called "Mr. Hockey" for nothing.

    After 25 years in the NHL, Howe retired—or shall we say took a breather. He spent two years away from the game dealing with an ailing wrist.

    He returned in the WHA with the Houston Aeros to play with his sons Mark and Marty. The Howe boys brought Houston consecutive championships in 1974 and 1975. Gordie was named MVP in 1974 with 31 goals and 100 points. After the WHA merger before 1979-80, Gordie was back in the NHL at the age of 52!

    And remember that whole durability thing I mentioned earlier? That season, Howe played in all 80 of the Whalers' games (15G-26A), appeared in the All-Star Game at Joe Louis Arena and suited up for three playoff games (1G-1A). 

    Away from the rink, he has been a true ambassador to the game. He and his wife Colleen have been involved in countless charitable efforts, including the Howe Foundation.

    Most people make jokes about the elderly—Gordie Howe makes jokes about the young.

Travis Roy

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    Boston University is rich in hockey tradition with five NCAA titles and dozens of notable players.

    Some alumni you may have heard of? Jim Craig, Jack O'Callahan, Tony Amonte, Keith Tkachuk, Adrian Aucoin, Chris Drury, Ryan Whitney and Rick DiPietro all wore the Terrier sweater.

    However, only one jersey hangs from the rafters at Agganis Arena (formerly Walter Brown Arena). It belongs to Travis Roy. 

    Roy earned a hockey scholarship from BU, but just 11 seconds into his very first shift, he went headfirst into the boards following a check and fractured his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae—he was paralyzed from the neck down.

    In 11 seconds, Roy's playing career ended, and his life was changed forever. 

    But hockey players don't go away without a fight. Roy returned to BU a year after his accident and finished school, earning a degree in public relations.

    Two years after the accident, he started the "Travis Roy Foundation," which is dedicated to helping individuals and families affected by spinal cord injuries. He also serves as a motivational speaker. 

    Roy wasn't a Boston University hockey captain. He wasn't a Hobey Baker Award winner. He wasn't a first-round pick in the NHL. He wasn't an Olympian. And he isn't in the hockey hall of fame.

    But he is, without a shadow of a doubt, an inspiration to all.

Willie O'Ree

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    Baseball had Jackie Robinson—hockey had Willie O'Ree.

    Both broke the color barrier and blazed the trail for others to follow. 

    He first laced them up for the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, becoming the first black player in the National Hockey League.

    Like Robinson, O'Ree dealt with a cold, harsh world unwelcome to change and scared of progress. 

    It is ironic that as many in society turned cold shoulders and blind eyes toward him, as O'Ree himself was playing with a blind eye—literally.

    While playing junior hockey for the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks, a deflected puck permanently cost him 95 percent of his vision in his right eye. 

    The winger's hockey career spanned 20 years, playing 45 NHL games and totaling four goals and 10 assists.

    Now in his 70s, O'Ree is still involved with hockey and the NHL, having served as the league's Director of Youth Development since 1998.

    So when you see guys like Subban, Simmonds, Byfuglien, Kane, Ward, Weekes or Grier, remember Willie O'Ree. 

Saku Koivu

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    A first-round selection of the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, Saku Koivu's career was off to a nice start—he put up 45 points as a rookie in 1995-96.

    The following few years were full of ups and downs for the Finn. He battled a series of leg injuries, including major knee operations, as well as a shoulder injury that wiped out half a season.

    In 1999, he was named the 27th captain in Canadiens' history—the first European. 

    Fast-forward to 2001, and at 26 years of age, Koivu was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

    He missed nearly the entire season in 2001-2002. "Nearly" is the operative word there. 

    Koivu made an incredible return to the Canadiens' lineup for the final two games. He received an eye-rubbing, eight-minute standing ovation from the Montreal crowd.

    At the end of the season, he was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. The other nominees really had no chance.

    Despite suffering other serious injuries since beating cancer (a detached retina for one), Koivu's determination and passion have kept him in hockey, inspiring others to keep fighting. 

Mario Lemieux

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    The 1992-93 season started off quite nicely for Mario Lemieux.

    The Pens captain was on pace to set a new NHL scoring record before he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.

    He only missed a couple of months due to treatment and returned to the ice on the same day as his final radiation treatments, scoring a goal and adding an assist.

    You can't question that Mario was indeed "Super." You can ask though, had Lemieux stayed healthy, who would be the "greatest" one.

    Lemieux's resume includes a Calder trophy, six scoring titles, three MVP awards, two Conn Smythe Awards, an Olympic Gold Medal and three Stanley Cups (he's the only person to have won the Cup as both a player and an owner).

    He scored 690 goals and tallied 1,723 career points—this despite missing hundreds of games due to various injuries including his bout with cancer.

    But despite all of that, Lemieux's defining achievement was his victory in coming back from Hodgkin's and the courage he showed in doing so.

     

    Follow Stephen Nelson on Twitter: @Stephen__Nelson

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