He was a junior hockey superstar – and the #1 selection in the NHL Draft.
But , his NHL dream quickly became a nightmare and he never reached the heights expected of him.
However, his impact on the world and the NHL had little to do with unfulfilled expectations.
Instead, the story of Doug Wickenheiser is a story of a proud and courageous man whose resilience in the face of public failure and grace amidst heartbreaking misfortune left a proud legacy that continues long after his tragic death.
“Doug Wickenheiser was the most courageous human being I’ve ever met.”
– Red Fisher,
Hall of Fame Montreal Gazette Columnist
Doug Wickenheiser was born on March 30th, 1961 in Regina, Saskatchewan.
He was a stellar youth athlete excelling as both a left handed pitcher in baseball and dominating scorer in hockey. By the time he was 14, his games were attended by numerous NHL scouts. At age 16, he joined the proud Regina Pats junior franchise and would become the premier player in the Western Canadian Hockey League.
Wickenheiser had it all: Size, skill, skating ability and a high-level hockey IQ. After his second junior season he was offered an $80k per year contract by the WHA Birmingham Bulls, but Doug remained in juniors to stay singularly focused on his NHL dream.
During the 1979-80 season Doug dominated the junior hockey ranks, leading the WHL in goals (89) and points (170). In the post season Doug captained coach Bryan Murray’s squad to the Memorial Cup, while leading the league in playoff assists (26) and playoffs points (40).
At the conclusion of the season more accolades piled in for Doug. In addition to being named the top player in Canadian junior hockey, Doug was also awarded the WHL MVP and was named to the WHL first all star team.
In 1980, there was general consensus that there were three elite prospects that towered over the rest of the draftees; Doug Wickenheiser, defenseman David Babych, and Montreal junior legend Denis Savard. Of the three, Wickenheiser was rated #1 by the Hockey News and NHL Central Scouting.
Recently eliminated in round one of the 1980 playoffs and one season removed from their fourth straight Stanley Cup, the Montreal Canadiens were a franchise in transition. After the 1979 season legendary GM Sammy Pollock retired and coach Scotty Bowman left for the Buffalo Sabres. Future Hall of Famers Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer and Ken Dryden all retired. By 1980, Irv Grundman was team GM, Ron Caron was Director of Player Personnel and Claude Ruel was now Head Coach.
But Pollock left the Habs cupboard stocked and there was plenty of reason to believe the Canadiens decline would be brief.
The brilliant Pollock had a propensity to compile first round draft picks – often at the expense of the league’s lower-tier teams. In this fleecing, Pollock sent two minor leaguers – Ron Andruff and Sean Shanahan – along with the 19th overall pick in the 1977 draft to the lowly Colorado Rockies in September of 1976 for the Rockies’ first-round pick in 1980.
It didn’t seem like a bad deal for the fledgling Rockies at the time as they thought that surely by 1980 the club would be nowhere near the bottom of the standings. As it turned out, however, Don Cherry’s 1979-80 Rockies finished dead last among the NHL’s 21 teams. Thus Canadiens had secured the #1 overall pick – and – they chose Wickenheiser. Defenseman Dave Babych went to the Winnipeg Jets at #2 while Montreal junior standout Denis Savard was chosen by the Chicago Blackhawks with the third overall pick.
In future years, the Canadiens were often criticized for passing on local legend Savard to take Wickenheiser, but that is a textbook example of “hindsight is 20/20/.” There wasn’t a scout or team in the league that didn’t have Wickenheiser tabbed as a “can’t miss” future superstar.
In fact, of the 21 GM’s polled after the draft, 15 said they’d have picked Wickenheiser #1 while the remaining six would have taken Babych. But there was one hockey person who did actively lobby to take Savard #1 — new Montreal Coach Claude Ruel. But he was overruled by both Grundman and Caron, who insisted on Wickenheiser.
The Habs decision to bypass Savard for Wickenheiser was widely accepted with only smatterings of protest coming from the French media. Soon however, those small smatterings of dissent would soon mushroom into something far more sinister. It didn’t take long for Doug Wickenheiser’s dream to turn into a nightmare. Starting in training camp Ruel, perhaps still agitated over the loss of Savard, went out of his way to take out his frustrations on Wickenheiser.
“Claude Ruel didn’t like him,” Larry Robinson recalled years later, “Ruel didn’t think he was a quality NHL player, or a decent number one pick,
As fate would have it the Canadiens opened their season against Savard and the Blackhawks at the Forum in front of a nationwide audience on Hockey Night in Canada. While Wickenheiser peddled away on an exercise bike in the Habs locker room, as a healthy scratch, Savard dazzled the crowd and was the game’s first star in a 5-4 Chicago win.
Wickenheiser’s season went downhill from there as he recorded just 15 points in 40 games while Savard posted twenty-eight goals and seventy-five points. Although he worked hard and handled his plight with class, Wickenheiser’s NHL debut was a total bust.
The 1981-82 season promised to be different for Doug as Ruel was replaced as Canadiens head coach by Bob Berry. However, Berry moved Doug away from his natural center position to the left wing, a position he had never played before.
Doug fell out of favor with Berry and completely lost his confidence recording just 35 points in 56 games. Meanwhile Savard emerged as a full fledged NHL superstar, finishing sixth in league scoring with 119 points. The 1982-83 season would provide a glimmer of hope for Wickenheiser. He was among the NHL’s scoring leaders early in the season and ended up with a career best 25 goals and 55 points often playing on a line with Ryan Walter and Guy Lafleur.
Despite his improved play, it was clear that Wickenheiser would never compare favorably with Savard – and, as a result, he faced the venom of Montreal fans. Making matters worse, was the Habs four straight first-round playoff exits.
To no one's surprise, the summer of 1983 saw the firings of both Irving Grundman and Ron Caron. With his two foremost champions in the front office now gone, Doug Wickenheiser found himself as a player adrift and his days in Montreal were numbered. But Caron, was named GM of the St. Louis Blues and on December 21, 1983 he acquired Wickenheiser, Greg Paslawksi and Gilbert Delorme for Perry Turnbull. Such ended one of the most controversial and disappointing careers in Montreal Canadiens history.
Doug Wickenheiser was all of 22 years old.
Speaking of Wickenheiser’s Montreal tenure, his ex-junior coach Bryan Murray said: “They ruined him,” “Here was a kid from a small town who was always the best at whatever he did. He was a natural athlete – the best ballplayer, the best hockey player by far, and suddenly he’s not even good enough to play. They sit him in the stands. They ruined his confidence..he got all mixed up…depressed, started drinking. He didn’t know how to handle it at such a young age, and it should have never happened. He was more than good enough to play right away, he was a superb hockey player. He should never have sat one game in the stands.”
In St. Louis, Wickenheiser finally began to enjoy the game again, settling into a defensive role and contributing 28 points in 46 games. In 1984-85 Wickenheiser took major strides in reaching his projected potential. Centering a checking line with Mark Reeds and Jorgen Petterson, Doug scored 23 goals in the Blues first 68 games. In the 68th game, March 10 1985, Doug scored three goals in a win over the Detroit Red Wings. At practice on March 14, 1985, Blues coach Jacques Demers rewarded Doug’s hard work by placing him on the Blues first line with future Hall of Famers Bernie Federko and Joey Mullen.
Demers noted that Doug had one of the best shots in the league and should easily be a 30-goal scorer. It seemed that Doug Wickenhesier had finally arrived. And then the dark cloud that had been following Doug since he joined the NHL once again appeared – and this time it was the worst hit yet.
After that practice on March 14 the Blues players took part in a rookie initiation ceremony. Doug slipped climbing out the back of a pickup truck, fell backwards into the road and was struck by an oncoming car, blowing out both his MCL and his ACL.
After undergoing 4.5 hours of surgery Doug was told by doctors that his hockey career may be over. The team doctor said the knee looked like a “Bomb site.” But Wickenheiser remained upbeat and logged countless hours of painful rehabilitation over the next 12 months. He returned to play midway through the 1985-86 season.
In his years in Montreal some had questioned Doug’s courage and intestinal fortitude. One year later nobody was questioning Doug Wickenheiser’s heart. He never regained full range of motion in his knee but again settled into the role of faceoff and defensive specialist to help a Blues team on the rise.
After finishing third in the Norris division, the Blues upset the Minnesota North Stars in the first round of the ‘86 playoffs, before defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in a hard fought seven game series in the Norris finals. Matched up against the upstart Calgary Flames in the Campbell Conference Finals, the Blues found themselves on the verge of elimination in game six, down three games to two, and facing a three goal deficit in the third period, the Blues mounted a furious comeback to force overtime.
At the seven minute, thirty second mark of the first overtime period fortune finally smiled on Doug Wickenheiser, whose scored the most famous goal in St. Louis Blues history to that point, capping off the “Monday Night Miracle.”
nd while the Flames went on to win the series two nights later, it couldn’t dampen Doug’s shining moment and the greatest of all Blues moments in the 80s.. The Monday Night Miracle, was undoubtedly the high point of Doug’s career, the next year saw Doug grind his way through an 8-goal season. Never a fast skater, Doug’s knee injury had slowed him considerably.
His longtime champion – Ron Caron – left him exposed in the 1987 NHL Waiver Draft and was not particularly charitable to him as he sent him packing – even suggesting that Doug consider another vocation. The Vancouver Canucks claimed Doug in the 1987 waiver draft and he labored as the Canucks fourth line centre, before setting off on a nomadic hockey journey that saw stops with the Canadian Olympic Team, a single game with the New York Rangers and forty-three games with the Washington Capitals before ending his NHL career in 1990
Doug’s NHL career which had begun with so much hype now ended with a whimper.
Doug spent a year playing in Italy in 1990-91, followed by a year in Austria, before winding up his professional career with stops in the International Hockey League, in Peoria and Fort-Wayne. While in Peoria Doug noticed a small growth on his wrist but the team doctors dismissed it as a cyst. A year later, Fort Wayne doctors also told him it was a cyst but they encouraged him to have it surgically removed. With his playing career over, Doug moved to his true “home,” the city of St. Louis and opened the Blue Line Nursery along with Wick’s Frozen Custard and settled into a domestic life.
Doug was Married on August 8th, 1992 to local girl Dianne Pepple.
On August 4th, 1994, Doug became a proud father to twin baby girls.
Life was good for Doug Wickenheiser –until CRUEL FATE ENTERed his LIFE ONCE AGAIN.
Four days after his twins were born, Doug underwent surgery to finally remove that cyst from his wrist while again being reassured by doctors that it was nothing to be concerned about.
But, Three days later – just a week after the birth of his twins – Doug learned that the cyst was cancerous. He was diagnosed with bone cancer and was given the option of amputating his arm or enduring chemotherapy. He chose the latter option and immediately began grueling radiation treatments.
Meanwhile, Doug threw himself into the St. Louis community, his businesses and his especially his new family. 1997 saw Doug and Dianne welcome their third daughter into the world.
But, everyone’s worst fears were soon realized when, in October of that same year, Doug’s cancer returned in the form of a lemon-sized tumor on his right lung. It was then that Doug and his family were told the news that no one ever wants to hear; the tumor in his lung was cancerous and inoperable.
Facing the biggest battle of his life, Doug dedicated himself to fighting this dreaded disease. Inspiring all those around him, Doug fought cancer with a level of courage that most can only aspire to. In his honor, the St. Louis Blues began wearing a special helmet decal bearing the wick of a candle and the number fourteen.
On March 14th, 1998 the St. Louis Blues held Doug Wickenheiser Night. Following a Blues league game that afternoon, 36 ex-teammates and friends, including Hayley Wickenheiser (Doug’s fourth cousin), participated in an old-timers alumni game, followed by a dinner and auction which raised $100,000 for the newly established 14 fund.
Mustering all of his remaining strength, Doug walked out to center ice to drop the opening puck, as the crowd exploded in an outpouring of love for a man who gave cancer the ultimate battle. Four months later in July, doctors found cancerous lesions in Doug’s brain. Doug fought his battle sustained by his faith, hoping that prayer would provide that miracle of miracles.
“I really believe it will,” Doug said. “Right now, we’ve had a bit of a setback, but it’ll work its way out. I really believe that. “The only way we can get through this is by believing and praying that the miracle is going to happen.” But, there would be no more miracles for Doug.
On January 12th, 1999 Doug Wickenheiser lost his valiant and courageous battle with cancer. He was thirty-seven years old. He left behind his wife Dianne, and three daughters, twins Rachel and Kaitlyn, at the time 4 ½ years old and Carly aged 1 ½..
That same year the Blues raised a banner with the number 14 and the Wick logo to the rafters and announced that the 14 fund would be the team’s official charity. During the 1999 All-Star game in Tampa, held twelve days after Doug’s passing, each player sported the Wick logo on their helmet.
Today the legacy of Doug Wickenheiser lives on in a lot of places:
And Doug’s spirit is especially alive today in the eyes of the family he left behind but still inspires to this day.
While he never became a superstar in the NHL, he proved to be a man who possessed a level of desire and courage that we rarely glimpse in life.
As a friend, teammate, husband and father he was truly a Hall of Famer.