Tonight's game showcases the old (Gordie Howe, Dave Keon, J.C. Tremblay) and the new (Gordie Roberts, George Lyle, Mark Napier); the borrowed (Thommie Bergman, Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg) and the blue (John Garrett, Del Hall). But amidst all these players either voted or named to this year's All-Star Game is a young man with perhaps the most remarkable story of them all.
Scandinavian of face, Henry Winkler of body, Robbie Ftorek has overcome many obstacles to reach his particular pinnacle. First, Ftorek is an American, reared in the affluent Boston suburb of Needham, Mass., known primarily for pretty girls, ten-speed bicycles, and well-to-do Route 128 industrial businessmen. Although Needham produces its share of teachers, engineers, and mothers, this pretty town is not exactly Kirkland Lake, Ontario when it comes to producing hockey players. While his WHA hockey peers were engaging in war after war in Canadian junior hockey, the wispy Ftorek trucked off to Needham High with a hockey stick in one hand and an algebra book in the other.
But even more significant than this early environment is his size, or lack of it. In street clothes, Ftorek looks like he just worked as the altar boy for Father O'Hurley at the ten o'clock high mass. Or maybe he just got through working the all-night shift at the local flower shop. Maybe his next class starts in 15 minutes.
Whatever, at about 150 pounds, Robbie Ftorek is a Willie Shoemaker in a world of Willie Mays'. Scout after scout would watch Ftorek in high school wind his way around and under enemy defensemen, shattering records and cheerleaders' hearts, only to sit back and say, “he's just too damn small.” But this did not stop Ftorek. Nothing Stops Robbie Ftorek.
Cap Raeder, the sensational second-year goalie with the New England Whalers, knows Ftorek best. While a senior at Needham High, Raeder was the sophomore goaltender.
“My favorite Ftorek story occurred late in the year after we won 16 straight and looked like we were on our way to another state championship,” rememebered Raeder. “Walpole High broke our undefeated string the year before and they were the last team we had to beat to go undefeated this next year. I'll never forget that game. They were leading 3-1 with a minute and a half to play. Then Ftorek stops the game, skates down to our goal and says to me, ‘Rades, how many do you want?’ I say, ‘Enough to win.’ So do you know what the guy does? Ftorek scores two goals, sets up two more and we win, 5-3. It was the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen in hockey.”
Raeder has followed Ftorek's exploits very closely, through the Detroit Red Wings and through his early days with Phoenix.
“I have patterned my attitude after Robbie,” Raeder said. “He is always working, always digging, always on the go. And then Boom, he's in bed by eleven o'clock. I mean every night. We go fishing in the summer and he'll get me up at some ridiculous hour like six o'clock and he won't quit until supper. He is the most dedicated guy I've ever met. But with all the success he's met with Phoenix, he is the same Robbie Ftorek I knew in high school. He'd cut off his right arm for a friend.”
Raeder also recalled Team USA incident.
“We were in practice one day in Providence and I was going through the motions. All of a sudden, Ftorek stops, throws down his stick, and starts yelling at me to get to work, that he was sick and tired of watching me loaf through practice. Don't forget, we've been friends since grade school. I couldn't believe it, but then I remember, this was Robbie Ftorek yelling at me, my friend, my buddy, and I worked my butt off the rest of the camp. I love this guy, he's just the greatest.”
His busy-as-a-bee style filled the cavernous Boston Garden to capacity during those high school days, the only schoolboy drawing card in scholastic history. But his work with the Phoenix Roadrunners, his leadership, and his play under adversity makes Ftorek a very special breed.
While the Roadrunner organization trimmed the budget by dispatching such stalwarts as Cam Connor and Barry Dean elsewhere, Ftorek was left to carry the load on his 150-pound shoulders. At the end of December, his 24 goals and 30 assists ranked fourth behind Buddy Cloutier, Anders Hedberg, and Serge Bernier in WHA scoring. While the Roadrunners allowed about 40 more goals than they themselves have scored, Ftorek stood at plus-10, the only plus player on the Phoenix roster, a statistic belying the club's poor overall p-m mark.
Robbie is well on his way to another 100-point, 100 penalty-minute season, proving that true grit is not just exclusively part and parcel of burly wingers and defensemen. His hit-and-run style angers the opposition but as Robbie says, “I don't mind big guys trying to run me, but by the time the defenseman gets where I am, most of the time I'm gone.”
So to the Wily Coyote's of the hockey world, Ftorek just scores his goals, sets up plays, and bugs the hell out of his opponents.
Beep-Beep. Robbie Ftorek is the ultimate Roadrunner.
And tonight, the smallest star.