Stickin’ it to ‘em
Former Atlanta Flames
captain and Chicago
Blackhawk makes home
Story by Greg Sullivan, Photo by Angelina Bellebuono
So what is less likely than a three time National Hockey League all-star retiring in Buckhead? Retiring in the real Buckhead (the one in Morgan County).
Well, it's really not too unusual if you know where Tom Lysiak is from.
Welcome to High Prairie, Alberta, a remote Canadian town of 2,737.
"In the winter there wasn't much to do up there," said Lysiak of his home town, a nearly four-and-a-half hour drive to the nearest large city, Edmonton.
The surroundings in High Prairie are what fostered one of Lysiak's lifelong interests, the outdoors; the very thing that led to his discovery of Morgan County while he was playing for the Atlanta Flames NHL team in the '70s and was looking for off-time escapes to hunt or fish.
But it was something else in High Prairie, more to do with the culture, that eventually led him to the South in the first place. After all, it was the game of hockey that put Lysiak on the map.
The Flames' all-time point and assist leader after nearly six full seasons for the team before being dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks in a blockbuster trade was a self-described late-bloomer growing up when it came to the ice.
"Most kids knew how to skate in the first grade, I didn't," said Lysiak. It was that year, he said, that he was inspired to pick up a stick after watching two kids playing hockey while he stood thinking to himself, "That's what I want to do."
Shortly thereafter he joined his first league, and from then on things were never the same for the once Canadian farm boy.
"After that first year it didn't take me long to realize I was one of the best ones out there," he said.
While growing up, and then as a young man, it started becoming clearer and clearer to those around him that he might be playing the right game for his talents. By the age of 12 he was in a 19-and-under league and led that league in scoring.
That's when Lysiak said he himself became convinced he was in the right business.
"I thought, well, I could make a career out of this," said Lysiak. "I came out of that league with all my teeth. So I was doing real good," he laughed.
By the age of 16 Lysiak had left home to play minor league hockey in the Canadian city of Medicine Hat, and after leading the Western Canadian Hockey League in scoring in his second and third seasons there he appeared ready for a transition to the NHL after just turning 20.
The off-season before that, though, Lysiak said the NHL's rival league at the time, the World Hockey Association, a league known for paying star players more than the more prestigious NHL, had a team that made a play for him before he was ready for the NHL draft.
Lysiak said he turned owner Bob Hope's Los Angeles Sharks down on an outrageously high offer for the time of $200,000 to leave Medicine Hat early. He said he refused partly because of his friendship with the owner of the Medicine Hat team who used to take him salmon fishing.
"I didn't get that much in the NHL the first year," he said, and now he admits that it may not have been the best idea to pass up the offer even though he was willing to at the time. But that wouldn't be the only time opportunity would knock for the young player who eventually would take his game to a bigger stage.
Finally, after that third season at Medicine Hat, Lysiak felt ready to be drafted, although he wasn't too keen on the possibility of being drafted second overall by the Montreal Canadiens, as was expected.
Through his agent, he threatened to go to play in Houston for a non-NHL team if the Canadiens drafted him. The Canadiens were known to be partial to players of French heritage at the time and Lysiak had none. He said the Atlanta Flames heard of the threat to the Canadiens and asked him if he would play in Houston if the Flames drafted him. Lysiak told them, "No, if you draft me I'll go to you."
So the Flames traded up for the second overall pick to take the spot of Montreal, and with them they brought Lysiak back to Atlanta. He signed a three-year deal and by the second day of training camp they had brought him a six-year contract, and now years later he still isn't too far down the interstate.
Lysiak said he felt he was doing pretty good for a guy that drove to work in Atlanta the first time in a '58 Buick before he started cashing big league checks, although they were a long shot from today’s salaries.
For those who don't know of the Flames, they were the first major hockey franchise in Atlanta, a place they made their home from 1972 to 1980, before they bolted to Calgary for the 1980-81 season.
These days Thrashers players, to some extent, may feel they're blazing new trails in a region dominated by fans of college football and Braves baseball, but Lysiak and his teammates were the original ambassadors of the sport to the area. He joined the team in just their second year of existence and it wasn't long before people across the country took notice of his presence on the southern team.
In a Chicago Tribune article from February of 1974, writer Bob Verdi asked Flames coach Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion of the star rookie he had playing center.
"If I were a writer--and I'm not, I've got a tougher job--I know who I'd vote for [for rookie of the year]. Lysiak," said Geoffrion.
"Way back in the beginning of the season," he told Verdi, "the kid took the puck behind the net, skating through the whole Boston Bruins team and came up against Bobby Orr. He put the puck through his legs, cut to the inside and damned near scored. I knew he had it then."
Geoffrion wasn't the only one who saw promise in the young Lysiak. He finished second in the Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the league's top rookie, as he helped to guide the young franchise to their first-ever playoff appearance and Lysiak's first of 12 appearances.
Lysiak got better from there, making the NHL all-star team in 1975, 1976 and 1977, and he was made team captain for the Flames for the following two years.
His 276 assists and 431 points during his time with the Flames were good for Atlanta Flames franchise records, and he ranks second all-time in the Atlanta club's books in goals with 155.
While playing in Atlanta, Lysiak said he spent much of his time in the area north of the city, making his home in the Marietta/Smyrna part of town. But one of his teammates would introduce him to Morgan County, in the form of Rutledge and Hard Labor Creek, and it wasn't long before Lysiak got his own hunting camp in Rutledge where he said he spent a lot of his time enjoying the outdoors throughout his playing career.
"I liked the country living," he said. "You can hunt more and fish more."
Lysiak had also started getting used to Atlanta and its fans who he said seemed to not understand the game at first. This, he said, was given away when they'd sometimes clap at awkward times, leaving players looking around wondering what all the clapping was about.
Not all the fans, though, were unfamiliar with the game.
"I think about half of our fans were probably northerners," Lysiak said. "If we were playing Boston or New York it felt like we were on the road."
One advantage Lysiak and his teammates did have being down south was some relative anonymity.
"I wouldn't have any problems going to eat, but Chicago was a different story," said Lysiak.
Although, he now says he grew to love being in Chicago, at the time of the monumental eight-player trade that sent him to the Blackhawks he wasn't all too pleased.
"I was sour, I was real sour," he said. His desire to stay in Atlanta was well-documented.
"I feel terrible," he told the Chicago Tribune in the immediate aftermath of the trade. "I love Atlanta. But if I was Atlanta, I'd have made the deal, too." In that article, he went on to say that the three Blackhawks players would help Atlanta, and he said he thought that in the long run Chicago would benefit too in the trade.
But with the five Flames going to Chicago and the three Black Hawks going to Atlanta, in a deal that included the entirety of either team's star power at that point, hockey fans in both cities expressed initial feelings of outrage and betrayal.
As time passed, though, Chicago got used to Lysiak and Lysiak got used to Chicago.
"Chicago was a great city to play," he said.
Lysiak, who was known throughout his career as a playmaker, said he became a better defensive player when he was with the Blackhawks. The team wasn't bad either. They regularly won their division, however, they often had struggles in the playoffs.
In the latter part of his career Lysiak said he took his share of injuries.
"I got five Christmases off in a row, four for broken bones and one for a suspension," he said.
The suspension, a harsh and unprecedented 20-game one for tripping an official during a 6-1 win over the Hartford Whalers, brought a lot of publicity to the Chicago center, who, along with the NHL Players Association, took the league to court over the punishment. NHL Players Association Executive Director Alan Eagleson told the Chicago Tribune, "If 20 games is the maximum, and [Lysiak] gets it for bumping into a referee in the faceoff circle and knocking him down, he might as well have punched him."
People's opinions on the ruling varied greatly, but the debate certainly increased Lysiak's fame around the country, although many of his numbers have achieved that for him on their own merits.
After just over seven seasons with the Blackhawks, Lysiak finished up his career with 292 goals, 551 assists and 843 points in 919 career games in the NHL. He also racked up 70 or more points in five different seasons including two career bests of 82 points, once for the Flames in 1975-76 and once for Chicago in 1981-82. He topped 50 assists in a single season five times.
Then after the 1985-86 season he decided not to go back and play another year for the Blackhawks at the dissappointment of the team's staff.
"Now I wish I would've," Lysiak said. "Every year after that the salary was doubling."
The other reason he said he later wished he would have kept playing for a few more years is that his daughter was only two years old at the time of his early retirement.
She did, however, get to see him play in an alumni game a few years after his retirement, which Lysiak said made up for things a little bit.
Lysiak, along with his wife and daughter, who recently finished college, are now in their third year living in Buckhead. Before that they spent over 22 years living in Social Circle. Lysiak spent a lot of his post-hockey time there in the landscaping, real estate and construction industries, though he said he's now been out of the construction business for over three years.
He spends a lot of his time these days hunting, fishing and golfing; still exhibiting his love for the outdoors that he's shown since his youth.
Although, Lysiak admits to not actively following hockey these days, he did get a chance to reunite with some old friends at festivities for the NHL All-Star Game held in Atlanta earlier this year.
"That's always good," he said. "I think we need a team in this town."
Now that his playing career is over, Lysiak still seems to be enjoying his time in Georgia, and he said he still takes time to see old friends and to visit family up North.
"Lysiak frequently takes time to think," said Bill Fleischman in a 1983 column for The Hockey News. "He even advises sports writers on career planning."
Fleischman said in the article that talks of his own 1983 trip to San Diego to cover the NCAA Convention peaked Lysiak's interest in an interview. The two joked about Fleischman needing to make a move.
"They say you should change cities every once in awhile," Lysiak told Fleischman. "It's good for you, [it] refreshes you."
Even though his hockey days are behind him, it would be fair to say Lysiak is upbeat and seemingly refreshed himself in Buckhead, a little more than an earshot from Social Circle and a very long way from High Prairie, speaking of moves.