Rozner: Unsung Lysiak meant a lot to Olczyk, Blackhawks teammates

  • Four years before they played together, Blackhawks player Tom Lysiak sent this autographed picture to a young Ed Olczyk.

    Four years before they played together, Blackhawks player Tom Lysiak sent this autographed picture to a young Ed Olczyk. Photo courtesy of Eddie Olczyk

 
 
Posted6/6/2016 5:30 AM

If the Blackhawks had been able to win a Stanley Cup in the mid-'80s, Tom Lysiak might have been remembered the way teammates talk today about Jonathan Toews.

No, he wasn't the captain. He didn't have to be. Lysiak was a leader of men and the type of player his teammates would have followed anywhere.

 

In hockey circles, that's just about as good as it gets.

The 63-year-old Lysiak died last week after a long and arduous battle with leukemia, putting up the kind of fight his friends would have expected.

The No. 2 pick in the 1973 draft behind only Denis Potvin, Lysiak was the most popular player in Atlanta Flames history, joining the team as a rookie star a year after the franchise was born.

But late in the 1978-79 season, Lysiak was sent to the Hawks in a huge, eight-player trade that was unpopular in both cities, due to the fan favorites swapped in the deal.

It did not, however, take long for Chicago fans to see the value in Lysiak.

"Not too many centermen were as big and strong as he was with his talent," said former teammate Bob Murray. "He's a guy you're always searching for. Teams are still looking for guys like that."

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Now the Anaheim Ducks' general manager, Murray had been a Hawks defenseman for four years when Lysiak arrived in 1979, and the two played seven years together in Chicago.

"He would have been a No. 1 center on a lot of teams, and he was very effective playing against other teams' top line," Murray said. "Heart-and-soul, team guy who didn't care about the press or accolades or stats. No maintenance, Tommy just played."

Lysiak was big for his era (6-1, 205) and possessed a great shot and incredible hands. He was a terrific stick-handler, passer and faceoff man, but underrated in how strong he was physically and in every facet of the game at both ends of the ice.

Lysiak also had a mean streak and a serious edge.

Though he wasn't, intrinsically, a fighter, if you asked him to go he would oblige. A young Bobby Smith once made the request in a preseason game, so Lysiak dropped his gloves and dropped Smith with one punch. Smith went down hard and Lysiak casually skated to the box without even looking back.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"He was a sleeper in that regard, because he wasn't thought of that way," said former Blackhawks teammate Eddie Olczyk. "But if you played against him -- and I did in practice -- you knew he was strong and he had that side of him you didn't want to mess with. Players who did found out pretty quickly that it wasn't going to end well for them."

Long before Olczyk could appreciate Lysiak from a short distance, he admired Lysiak from afar, watching from the stands at Chicago Stadium.

"I loved his game," Olczyk said. "When he came to Chicago, he became my favorite player."

Olczyk was developing his own game, but few players made it big from the Chicago area in those days, so the 14-year-old had no clue what was in store when an Olczyk pal sent a letter to Lysiak on Olczyk's behalf, asking the veteran center for an autographed picture.

Lysiak quickly sent a photo to the Olczyk home with a message that read, "To Eddie, hope someday we can play together. Best wishes, Tom Lysiak."

Four years later, Olczyk was drafted third overall by the Hawks and went to camp, skating on his first day on a line with Lysiak and Darryl Sutter.

"I get the chills just thinking about it. I feel lucky that I got to play with him and have him as a teammate," Olczyk said after traveling to Atlanta for Lysiak's funeral. "Great teammate, great player, great leader. Really underrated player. He would be a monster in today's game with his size and skill.

"He was a real professional and he loved everything about being a pro. Most guys loved playing. They like the games. He loved everything about it. He loved being at rink and that rubbed off on me."

Olczyk moved that picture from his bedroom wall as a kid to his office desk as an adult, where it has taken up residence for decades as a reminder of what is great about hockey.

"He was pretty sick when he returned to the Hawks Convention a couple years ago, and I told him the story about the picture," Olczyk recalled. "The next day I brought it in and showed Tommy and his wife, Melinda, and his daughter, Jessie.

"It was pretty emotional for all of us. Hard to believe he did that for me, sent me that picture, and then I got to play with him. How do you not get emotional?"

It's a tight community, the world of hockey, and when one is lost the entire group mourns.

It is particularly tough to lose one as special as Tom Lysiak.

And to lose him so young.

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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