Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Great Ratelle and Zultek the Magnificent

The Great Ratelle and Zultek the Magnificent...

No, they're not magicians from Vegas.

They're hockey players. From opposite ends of the spectrum (not the Spectrum).

Jean Ratelle was a legendary New York Ranger and Boston Bruin of the '60s and '70s. Matt Zultek's a first-round bust of the late '90s.

I'm a huge hockey fan, but not much of a hockey historian. I started following the game, thanks to my buddy Dave, back in the mid-'80s. Anything before that, well, I'm playing catch-up.

So I used to date this girl, who we'll call Steph (because that's her name), who was a huge Rangers fan. I mean that in the sense of die-hard, not in the sense of waistline, she was a pretty small girl, though she worried way too much about whether or not she was fat. It's really somebody else's problem now.

(I should just put "neurotic girls apply here" on my profile, shouldn't I?)

Anyway, the fact that she was real curvy for a skinny, athletic girl isn't the point.

The point is, she loved the Rangers to the point of obsession. You guys think I love the Raiders? This was like worse. She didn't just rate the NHL Entry Draft, say, she knew which Ranger scouts had good and bad track records.

I could probably come up with several of the Raider scouts' names, but I wouldn't know 'em if they moved in next door.

So one day, she's telling me about this Ratelle fellow as if he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. (He IS in the Hall of Fame.) And I'd never heard of him. So she gives me pretty much his entire life story. (Girl had a two-track mind: hockey and hockey... well, a three-track mind. But nevermind that.)

The next time he came up in conversation, I sarcastically (sardonically?) referred to him as "the Great Ratelle" - I wasn't even thinking of Wayne "the Great" Gretzky, it just sounded good and snide. So whenever I see Ratelle on my Strat cards or in a hockey book, I always think of "the Great Ratelle."

Perhaps the only real upside to my hideous breakup with Steph (outside of us being rid of each other) is that I regained some semblance of my Strat-O-Matic dignity. I taught the girl to play the damn game, and she ALWAYS won. Like Michelle with Magic: The Gathering. It's a curse, I guess.

That brings me to Zultek the Magnificent, who was placed on injured reserve last week by the Greenville Grrrowl (that's not a typo, that's their name). The Greenville paper's coverage is, frankly, a bit spotty, so I don't really know what's wrong with him, but he's hurt. Again.

I am probably the world's leading expert on Matt Zultek, and possibly his only fan who isn't a family member or personal acquaintance.

Since you've probably never heard of him, a brief lesson in what happens when you combine hype, Dave and OCD.

A few years ago, the Philadelphia Flyers traded for Matt Zultek. Dave tells me this is a steal, because they traded the Boston Bruins a ninth-round draft pick, and Zultek was a former first-round pick - and a former second-round pick.

In hockey, you can get drafted twice - once at 18ish, and if you don't sign in two years, again at 20ish. Every year, several players "re-enter" the draft after not coming to terms with the team that picked them the first time, or just not impressing the team enough to want to sign them.

So Zultek was a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 1997. Speaking of the Great Gretzky, that pick was part of the package LA got from St. Louis for Gretzky in 1996. So for the greatest player of all time (Steph would say second-greatest, citing Bobby Orr, but I'll go with the consensus), the Kings got a handful of pretty unexceptional players and a first-round pick... which they blew on Zultek.

In my man Matt's defense, plenty of first-round picks (at least two a year) don't ever make it to the NHL, and probably three or four more (at least) don't really do much when they do get there. Extrapolating an 18-year-old isn't an exact science.

The Kings chose not to sign him, so he re-entered the draft - LA got a compensatory pick in the second round, and I read one report where GM Dave Taylor claimed they could get just as good a player with that choice. And indeed, they could have, as Zultek was chosen in the second round, by the Boston Bruins, who chose re-entry candidates - from the same team - with their first two picks. (Defenseman Nick Boynton, you may have heard of; he's a budding star.)

Aside, that's the weird thing about re-entering the draft - some players actually want to do it, even though it seems like 9 out of 10 are chosen LOWER than they were the first time around. There are rare exceptions, but still. Some former first-rounders go as late as the third or fourth round sometimes.

(One of the great stories, a goalie named Mathieu Chouinard refused to sign with the Senators one year as a first-round pick, and the Sens used the compensatory second on... Mathieu Chouinard. Probably just to spite him.)

So Boston chose Zultek in the second round... and he refused to sign.

If you don't sign a re-entry guy after two years, he becomes a free agent. So rather than get something for nothing, the Bruins traded Zultek to Philadelphia.

Enter Dave.

Dave has been one of my best friends since childhood, and he introduced me to hockey and taught me to play. He is a die-hard Flyers fan - not quite as nutso as Steph, but close enough. And believe me, the girl sets a high standard of greatness in fandom, I'll give her that.

Dave, on the other hand, can have an intelligent conversation about something besides the Flyers and his job. Like the Eagles. Or the Phillies. Or Republican politics, which is why we usually stick to talking about sports.

So Dave is telling me all about this Zultek guy, who signed with the Flyers and immediately suited up for their top farm team, the Philadelphia Phantoms. (Yeah, the Flyers have the shortest call-up travel time in the world - the Spectrum is across the parking lot from whatever the Flyers' arena is called now. I still call it the "F.U." from its days as the First Union Center.)

A few weeks later, we're at a game - we have on occasion, and before Dave's second and third children, gotten small season-ticket plans - and it happens to be stick-auction night.

Dave and his wife, I might point out, went home with the prize of the evening, a goalie stick signed by the entire team. Jenni, Dave's wife, insisted he wouldn't be allowed to go crazy, then stood over the silent-auction list like a hawk, snarling at anybody who wanted to bid on the Big Stick.

The Flyers and Phantoms both had sticks in the auction. Not to be outdone... well, to be outdone, but not to be out-sticked, I bought Zultek's.

Hey, it was cheap. The minimum bid was $100, and anything above that was a tax write-off. I bid $125, and I probably could have bid $100. The only three people in the arena who'd ever heard of the guy were me, Dave and Flyers GM Bob Clarke, who'd just traded for him. And Dave had already spent his money.

What is rarer than a Zultek autographed stick, you ask? How about a Zultek AHL goal. He has one. For his career.

Now might be the time to point out he's a FORWARD.

That's why I took to referring to him as Zultek the Magnificent, as any potential investment value in my stick went the way of, well, Zultek's career.

Needless to say, my man Matt has spent most of his pro career not in the AHL, the triple-A minor league, but the ECHL, the double-A minor league.

Where he led the Trenton Titans in scoring one year and won a league championship last season despite a dreadful year.

Sum up his ECHL career this way:

Year 1: Injured a lot, but good.
Year 2: Great, lots of scoring.
Year 3: Championship, but no thanks to him.

This past offseason, he left Trenton after three years - they were the Flyers affiliate, but the Flyers released him a couple of years ago; the Titans kept him around because, well, he was pretty decent. Until last year.

Anyway, he signed with the Grrrowl, and it's been a tough long-distance relationship. I've still never been to a Titans game despite living about a half-hour away, but they're easy to follow in the media. The Grrrowl, not so much.

But I still have the stick mounted on my wall, next to a stick autographed by the entire Phantoms team the next year - that I got for a whopping $25 more than I paid for my Zultek stick.

Don't get me wrong, I still root for Zultek, and follow his career religiously. I'm hoping he makes the NHL, if even for a game, and not just so I can say I knew him when. I mean, he's got a great hockey name, he's huge and... er... I knew him when.

Of course, he's going to be 27 in March, and is on the injured list of a double-A squad while on pace for another so-so year, so the odds are not good.

I guess he won't be the next Great Ratelle. But who could?

The Great Ratelle
Zultek the Magnificent
The New York Rangers
The Los Angeles Kings
The Boston Bruins
The Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Phantoms
The Trenton Titans
The Greenville Grrrowl

Yeah, I know. No sooner do I bitch about not having much time to write, than I start posting again. Sue me. I write when the mood strikes me and I have time. So I got struck.


Aric Blue said...

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzhuh? What?

Sorry, my eyes glazed over at the first mention of the word "hockey". Now Luke's all about the hockey. He goes to watch that shit LIVE every week.

Ace said...

Luke's a freak, but then, I'd go watch live every week if I could.

It's better live.

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