These are hockey’s most triumphant winners in their own style. They exude confidence, push others around them harder and they dig deep when the team needs them to be clutch. Some of these talented people get to the top by either leading by example, taking charge at key moments or just simply by having a strong character. One trait that they all have in common is they are true motivators and they leave an everlasting impression. My top five choices for most inspiring hockey people is based on the magnitude of their significance in beating the odds, captivating audiences and the level of compete they had to get where they were at.
5. Josh Harding
Josh Harding is the current back-up goaltender for the Minnesota Wild and is considered one of the best at that echelon. He is a fighter and he never had it easy in his pro career at the NHL level. At first he had to compete with the talented Finnish goaltender Niklas Backstrom which was always interesting to watch since both Harding and Backstrom have the desire to succeed. He never got the starting job for the Wild and when that wasn’t bad enough it got worse when was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in September 2012. In his first game back post-diagnosis, Harding stopped all 24 shots he faced in a 1-0 shutout win over the Dallas Stars. During the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs against the President’s Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks as the 8th seed, Niklas Backstrom injured himself during warm ups before Game 1. Harding would replace him in a 2-1 overtime loss stopping 35 shots, which brought praise not only from his teammates but also from players on the Blackhawks for his incredible play despite still being affected by Multiple sclerosis. The Minnesota Wild however would lose the series 4-1, but Harding would win the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in recognition of his efforts. He still plays for them Wild to this very day.
4. Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel is one of those players that just keep on trying no matter how bad his situation gets. Prudence is the very definition to describe him and after all he is a Rabbit in the Chinese Zodiac and Prudency is one of their staple trademarks. He is a player who oozes skill and isn’t afraid to show off his deking abilities. He also has a laser of a wrist shot and combine that with his unmatched speed you got one heck of a fireworks display. He played for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in his junior years and was drafted 5th overall by the Boston Bruins in 2006. He immediately made the team as a rookie upon being drafted as an 19 year old but unfortunately on December 11, 2006, his family announced that he had testicular cancer. It was scary news at first because this made his future in hockey uncertain but incredibly he made a swift recovery after just five days of having this cancer. He had surgery to treat the illness which required some time off playing for the Bruins but returned after missing just 11 games and that is something that is difficult to deal with as a young rookie. He finished his season off with 29 points in 70 games and won the Bill Masterton Trophy for his short but courageous battle against testicular cancer.
On September 18, 2009, Kessel was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a first round pick in 2010 (Tyler Seguin was selected 2nd overall), 2011 (Dougie Hamilton was selected 8th overall) and a 2nd rounder in 2010 (Jared Knight was selected 32nd overall). He was surpised and happy when he learned he was traded to Toronto but that came at a price. He was heavily scrutinized and was expected to perform with high expectations every night and with facing his former team Boston 6 times a year, he struggled to be consistent with his scoring and as a result he tallied only 55 points that season.
For 9 straight seasons the Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs between 2003 and 2012 until they broke out as the 5th seed in 2013 and it just so happens they were facing a very physical and heavily structured Boston Bruins squad. Kessel never had great success facing his former team but what was expected to be a clear cut series sweep for the Bruins, turned into a dramatic 7 game back and forth action-packed affair. Kessel solved the Bruins at the right time as he racked 4 goals and 2 assists in 7 games so all in all he defeated the critics and performed as a key player at the right time after 3 years of failing to help Toronto make the playoffs.
3. Steve Sullivan
Steve Sullivan is one of those small but skilled players that nobody believed into him having a career in the NHL. It didn’t look promising from the start when got drafted as low as 233rd overall in 1994 by the New Jersey Devils. He did make the team 1995 and started coming into form as a speedy winger with an accurate shot and got an opportunity with the Chicago Blackhawks in the year 2000 to step up and became a regular goal-scorer for the team and capitalized on it. He established himself as a tier 2 point-scorer and proved the critics wrong by not letting his 5′ 8”, 160 lb frame slow him down.
He was traded to the Nashville Predators in 2004 and carried on where he left off scoring more often in Nashville than he did for the Blackhawks. Unfortunately in 2007 he faced a severe back injury and not only was he out for the remainder of the 2006-07 season, he was sidelined for the entire 2007-08 season and half of the 2008-09 season. That equates to about almost 2 years of being injured. He returned for the last half of the 2008-09 season and tallied 32 points in 41 games which is impressive considering he rarely skated in those 2 years he was out. Needless to say he won the Bill Masterton Trophy for his long-awaited triumphant return to the NHL after fully recovering from his jury after being away for so long.
2. Saku Koivu
Saku Koivu was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1993 as the 21st overall selection. He plays the centre position and is a two-way playmaker with great offensive instincts. He first played for the Canadiens in 1995 as a rookie and played well enough to be named the first European captain of the club at the start of the 1999-2000 season. Koivu received some very bad news on September 6, 2001 when the doctors diagnosed him with Burkitt’s lymphoma. He was expected to be out for the entire 2001-2002 season plus facing uncertainty whether he would play again but remarkably on the 80th game of the regular season for the Canadiens, Koivu shockingly dressed for the game in Montreal. It was a surprise to everyone especially with the severity of the cancer. Upon entering onto the ice, Koivu received a standing ovation for 8 full minutes while fans were screaming his name relentlessly. He helped the Canadiens into getting a playoff spot and was a catalyst in upsetting the Boston Bruins in 6 games in the quarter-finals that season. Koivu continued his inspirational play with setting a new career high in the following 2002-2003 season with 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists). He also won the Bill Masterton Trophy that year for his perseverance and dedication.
After being captain of the Canadiens for 10 years Koivu decides to play out his contract to sign with the Anaheim Ducks in 2009. On January 22, 2011 Koivu returned to Montreal for the first time as an opponent of the Canadiens and was welcomed with a standing ovation as the fans there loved him when he served as captain for his tenure with the club.
Koivu deserves great respect for his dedication to the game and determination to help his team out when it mattered. No matter who you are, you can’t say anything negative about him; he is a class act and an inspiring leader.
1. Mario Lemieux
Mario Lemieux isn’t number 1 on my list because he is the best player out of my choices for this article. It’s because of what he went through to became the best and win. Lemieux was always considered a talented prodigy of hockey. Being the uncontested 1st overall pick in 1984, he went on to have many spectacular seasons throughout the 1980′s but it wasn’t until 1991 when he won his first Stanley Cup championship. He also captained the Pens to another Cup the year after in 1992 establishing the Pittsburgh Penguins as a dynasty. He also scored an unbelievable career high of 199 points in 1989. After accomplishing so much, his life suddenly took a turn for the worst when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 and underwent numerous radiation treatments and even had some of those treatment sessions on the same day he had to play for the Penguins. That wasn’t all he had to face as he went through many surgeries for his back as he injured it twice in 2 years between 1994 and 1995. He even took a leave of absence because of the fatigue that settled into him after many radiation treatments and understandably so. He did return in 1996 and miraculously played at the level he was competing at before his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Eventually his body couldn’t take any more stress as he decided to hang the skates in 1997 and was immediately inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Shocking rumors were brewing as there were hints of Lemieux attempting a comeback in the year 2000. He did comeback after rehabilitating himself for 3 years and was the same old scoring machine like he was before notching 76 points in 43 games in his triumphant return helping the Penguins squeak into the 8th seed after everyone thought the Pen’s season would be a write off. Once again, Lemieux wasn’t healthy for long as he sustained a nagging hip injury and kept him in the pressbox for most of the 2001-02 season. He didn’t miss too many games in the 2002-03 season but at the beginning of the 2003-04 season Lemieux suffered Atrial Fibrillation and was out for 71 games for that year. The 2005-06 season would be his last as he did recover from the injury the season before but only to have it occur again in late 2005. On January 24, 2006 Lemieux officially made his second retirement from the NHL and was done for good in his playing career.
Despite after all of his success when he was healthy, Lemieux just had that desire to play hockey injury after illness after ailment. There was absolutely no quit in this person and to me is the very definition of what determination is in a human being. He will never be forgotten on how he played on the ice and battled off of it. He is the only player to return from retirement after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and has a very decorated set of achievements and records including 6 Art Ross Trophies, 3 Hart Memorial Trophies, 2 Stanley Cups as a player (1 in 2009 as an owner of the Penguins), 4 Lester B. Pearson Trophies and numerous gold, silver and bronze medals while representing Canada in international hockey.