The Man from H.A.N.N.A.
With a population of less than 3,000, Hanna, Alberta is not a town one would expect to produce a large amount of famous residents. This small town on the Canadian prairies proves just how wrong first impressions can be. Hanna can lay claim to being the birthplace of the multi-platinum recording artists Nickleback. Of greater interest to hockey fans, however, is the fact that hockey hall-of-famer Lanny McDonald is among the town’s natives.
McDonald was never difficult to spot thanks to his trademark red, bushy mustache, and his heart was just as prominent. A crowd favorite everywhere he played, McDonald won over fans across the league because of his hard work and commitment to the game. If there was ever a player that people wanted to see meet with success, it was Lanny McDonald.
Growing up, McDonald was a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and dreamed of one day suiting up in a Leafs jersey. While playing junior hockey with the Medicine Hat Tigers, McDonald proved quite capable of playing at the highest levels of hockey, scoring 114 points in 68 games and 139 points in 68 games in the 1971-72 and 1972-73 seasons respectively. Thanks to such impressive performances, he caught the attention of NHL teams, including his childhood favorite Toronto, who chose him with the fourth overall draft pick in the 1973 NHL draft.
McDonald made an instant impact in his Maple Leafs debut, registering two assists. He also received the first injury of his NHL career following a check by Rick Martin. Playing without a helmet for the only time in his professional career, McDonald received a concussion and a cut requiring stitches. Feeling that the injury affected his performance in the early part of his career, he chose to wear a helmet for the remainder of his career despite the fact that he was not required to, and despite the macho attitude of the era.
Whether it was the concussion, the step up in the level of competition, something else, or some combination of factors, McDonald’s first two seasons in the NHL were not up to the standard he or the fans expected. In 1973-74, he managed only 14 goals and 30 points in 70 games, and the next season posted 17 goals and 44 points in 64 games. Patience paid off, however, and in his third season, McDonald had a breakout year with 93 points. The next season, he posted his first 40 goal season, which would be the first of four consecutive and six total such seasons.
In the years before McDonald joined the Maple Leafs, the team had struggled. Following their 1967 Stanley Cup championship, Toronto did not win a playoff series until the 1974-75 season, and missed the playoffs completely in some of those seasons. For a franchise with a history as proud as that of the Maple Leafs, results like those were not acceptable, but McDonald appeared to be a large part of what the Maple Leafs were missing. Three years before drafting McDonald, Toronto drafted Darryl Sittler with their first round draft choice. The season before McDonald came along, Sittler began to hit his stride. Once McDonald began to develop, the Maple Leafs not only had two legitimate star scoring threats, but two threats with good chemistry, as the two became great friends.
From the 1974-75 season through the 1978-79 season, the Maple Leafs won at least one playoff series every year, advancing to the NHL semi-finals in 1978. After a decade of limited success, Toronto appeared to be on the verge making a breakthrough, but the return of a Maple Leafs legend would put a stop to that. In 1979, Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard brought back for Leafs coach Punch Imlach as general manager. Ballard and Imlach were both staunchly anti-union, and Sittler was prominent in the NHLPA. Because of this, Ballard and Imlach both butted heads with Sittler, something that would prove to be the downfall of the Leafs.
Imlach immediately announced that Toronto only had five or six good players, and that the rest of the team needed to improve. The pair at the helm of the Toronto ship made a series of controversial decisions during the 1979-80 season. Head Coach Roger Nielson was highly popular with the players, but with the team finding less success in the 1978-79 season as in the previous campaign, Ballard and Imlach chose to fire him. Both desired to trade Sittler, but were unable to because he had a no-trade clause and asked for $500,000 to waive it. As such, they decided to do the next best thing, and traded McDonald – Sittler’s best friend on the team – to the Colorado Rockies, a move that was unpopular among the fans and the team. The decisions made seemed to set the Maple Leafs back, and the team would not win another playoff series until 1986.
McDonald, meanwhile had been traded to a dreadful team on which he was one of the few bright spots. The Rockies missed the playoffs in both 1980 and 1981, but he would not languish in the wilderness for long. Midway through the 1981-82 season, McDonald was traded to the Calgary Flames. It was a homecoming of sorts, since Calgary is just over 200 kilometers from Hanna.
McDonald would make a nice hockey home for himself in Calgary as well, and the Flames are the team with which most fans associate him. His most successful personal season took place in Calgary when he scored 66 goals and 98 points in the 1982-83 season. He was awarded a captains’ “C” in 1983, which he would share with Doug Risebrough and Jim Peplinski until his 1989 retirement.
Thanks in no small part to McDonald, the Flames were one of the top teams of the 1980s, and their battles with their provincial rivals, the Edmonton Oilers, are now legendary. In 1986, the Flames advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, but fell to the Montreal Canadiens in a five game series.
As the 1988-89 season approached, a couple of significant milestones also approached. McDonald was only 12 points shy of 1,000 career points, and eleven goals shy of 500 career goals. Unfortunately, because of injuries suffered over the two previous seasons, and with many believing it would be his final NHL season, neither was a sure thing.
Despite being limited to only 51 games, he reached both milestones, collecting his 1,000th point on March 7, 1989, and his 500th goal on March 21, with just four regular season games ahead of him. Even with those accomplishments, McDonald’s career was not complete. He still lacked the greatest accomplishment of any player: winning the Stanley Cup.
In 1989, the Flames once again made their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Once again, they faced the Montreal Canadiens. The series was hard-fought, with every game being decided by one or two goals. The Flames won the first game, and then dropped the next two games, losing game three in double overtime. Calgary then stormed back to win three consecutive games, and became the only visiting team to win the Stanley Cup on Montreal ice. McDonald finished his career on a high note personally, scoring a goal in the final game of the series – the last in his career. After the final whistle, McDonald was the first player to hoist the Cup, fulfilling the greatest dream of every player.
Few players have been as loved by the fans or respected by other players as Lanny McDonald. He lived out the dream of many a small-town Canadian boy, and did it with heart matched by few and exceeded by none. The Man from Hanna deserves his revered spot in hockey history.