By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Former RMC hockey player Steve Molaski had his uniform number, 23, retired Friday night in a ceremony at Constantine Arena — e veritas photo
On the night when Steve Molaski celebrated the pinnacle of his hockey career, he told the story of how it almost never happened at all.
At a reception before the most prodigious scorer ever to play hockey at Royal Military College had his uniform number retired Friday night, Molaski, now 53, recalled when he hurt his knee more than 30 years ago. He was a member of the Cornwall Royals at the time, 18 years old, fresh from a Memorial Cup victory, and the surgeon was delivering bad news: he would never play hockey again; by the age of 40, he’d be arthritic.
Just like that.
“I thought my hockey dreams were over,” Molaski recalled.
His physiotherapist offered hope. Not necessarily arthritic, she said, but you have to stay active. At about that time, a man named Floyd Crawford started pestering Molaski to get back in the game. Legendary as a hockey man in Belleville, Crawford was at the time coach of the junior B team there. Not only that, the Crawford and Molaski children, 20 in all, between the two families, were multiply intertwined. “I was like an eighth son to him,” Molaski said.
At first, young Steve was having none of it. “I refused him more than once,” he said, but Crawford was smart enough to take matters to a higher court. “He went through my Mom,” Molaski said. “They’d known each other since childhood.
“She goes, ‘You just don’t seem like your old self; maybe you should go out and give it a try.’”
So he did, and his world began to open up again. The team made a deep run into the playoffs that year, and a buddy, by now at RMC, suggested Molaski join him at the college. It wasn’t long before Molaski was contacted by Redmen hockey coach Wayne Kirk. The son of a train engineer knew what the opportunity of a free university education meant to a family of 11, and it wasn’t really a tough sell.
Then fell the second bombshell of that year. Crawford, well connected in the game at many levels since his days with the world champion Belleville McFarlands, called a favour, pulled a string and came up with what he figured was just about the best thing he could have done for young Molaski: A tryout with the Baltimore Skipjacks of the American Hockey League, minimum 10 games, $1,000 a game. In 1982, that was an outstanding offer for a kid playing junior B hockey.
Molaski turned it down.
“That was hard,” he said. “The look in his eyes hurt.
“I knew he wouldn’t do that for everybody. I knew I was a special kid, but I’d given pro hockey a shot. When I was in Cornwall I had Bob Kilger as a coach and he said, ‘Steve go get yourself an education and if hockey can help, don’t hesitate to call.”
Molaski had already been accepted at RMC. It was April and he was to be sworn in June and begin basic training in July. The spanner in the works: Molaski was 20, and at the time, the college didn’t admit cadets who had reached the age of 21.
“I was right at a crossroads,” Molaski said, “and I decided I gave my word first to RMC and when I told him no, he just could not understand it. Floyd’s an interesting character. Hockey is the essence of his life. I’ve never seen hockey run through anybody’s veins like his. It means everything to him, and when I had to tell him no, it hurt. It hurt me a little bit and it really stung Floyd.”
Over the next few years, Molaski was often dismayed by that decision, believing it to be the correct one, yet realizing it had hurt Crawford deeply and probably had cost him a dear friend. Then one day Crawford called. By then he was coaching the Ontario under-17 team preparing for a national championship tournament. Would you, he asked Steve, come and talk to the boys.
There was no question.
“He’d done so much for me and I felt like I’d let him down. Now he was extending an olive branch to me. I said, ‘Floyd, I’m coming. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do.’”
The hockey man had come to terms with his prodigal protégé’s decision. “He forgave me, or maybe it wasn’t as hard (for him) as I thought,” Molaski said. In any case, Crawford understood that hockey had still opened Molaski’s door—it was just a different one.
“That was part of the package he liked, what hockey has to offer,” Molaski said. “It wasn’t about playing in the AHL. It was other opportunities, too. All those kids at that age, playing for the under-17 Ontario team, they’re all expecting to get something out of hockey. They have expectations that hockey will provide a decent opportunity.”
Molaski was pleased to explain that pro hockey wasn’t the only one.
On Friday, Molaski delighted in sharing the story with a group that included minor hockey opponents and teammates, former coaches and commandants, military colleagues, family and friends, the story was remarkably inclusive, capturing many of those elements all at once.
That Molaski, author of 205 points in a five-year intercollegiate career—the sixth-best ever in Ontario intercollegiate annals when he graduated in 1988—while playing with a team that didn’t exactly surround him with a superlative supporting cast, would choose to tell that story after a military career that saw him serve as an artillery officer in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (twice) and rise to the rank of lieutenant-colonel seemed especially poignant.
“I didn’t want to keep it about RMC,” Molaski explained. “The college meant a lot to me, but this was about hockey. I had too many people to thank, from family, really close friends who I played minor hockey with, some kids I played against, who are very special.” To one, Kingston’s Doug Gilmour, a minor hockey nemesis with whom he later played junior in Cornwall, he paid special tribute. “That little pipsqueak,” he said. “They’d beat us 9-2 and he’d score seven goals.” “Yeah,” the pipsqueak, who later elicited similar sentiments from many a National Hockey League opponent, said from the back of the room, “but he always beat the crap out of me.”
The bond among hockey players remains fast. “Another door opened for me to go to RMC through those friends,” Molaski said. “Even after RMC, there were four of us from the college who went over to Europe to play over there. You build lifelong friends, you go through missions, and all these things, and the common thread through all of it was hockey.”
Sunday afternoon, at home in Ottawa, Molaski reflected on the weekend.
“It was a fantastic and eventful evening for me,” he said. “Those people, they didn’t all know each other, yet they were so close to knowing each other. By the end of the evening, a lot of people felt that the six degrees of separation was down to one degree, and hockey was the commonality.”