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ALUMNI LONG READ DIRK GRAHAM'S road to NHL mainstay

New for 2021 on ReginaPats.com is our Alumni Long Read series – a monthly look back at the career of a former Pat. We’ll revisit their days with the Regiment and where life has taken them both in and out of hockey. Up first is Dirk Graham – two-time 100-point player with the Pats, former NHL player, coach, and current scout with the San Jose Sharks.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS ON RETALLACK

Growing up a block from Regina’s Taylor Field, Dirk Graham spent countless hours just a stone’s throw from Saskatchewan’s football epicentre.

But for Graham, it was hockey on a sand parking lot that provided the most enduring memories of his childhood.

“I grew up right across the street from [Taylor Field] on Retallack Street and there was a rink that the city used to come by in the winters and they would water a sand parking lot there, so that was our hockey rink,” recalled Graham.

“I’d put on my skates in the veranda and walk across the street and skate every day. The Regina Pats were something that all of us as young kids really aspired to get to.”

“I grew up a Boston Bruins fan, so I’d certainly say ‘I’m Bobby Orr’, but you’d also say ‘I’m winding it up, I’m Dennis Sobchuk, I’m going end-to-end.’ It was definitely something that was very much on our minds.”

Inspired by Pats greats like Sobchuk, Robbie Laird and others, Graham honed his skills moving through the Regina minor hockey ranks, finishing his minor hockey days with the midget Pat Canadians.

It was 1975-76 when Graham made his junior debut, skating in 54 games for the Regina Pat Blues in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. The local product didn’t disappoint in his lone SJHL season, registering 36 goals and 32 assists for the Pats’ junior A affiliate.

After that successful season with the Pat Blues, which also included and eight-game audition with the Pats in the Western Canadian Hockey League, Graham made the jump full-time to the Pats for the 1976-77 season.

THE PRIVILEGE OF BEING A PAT

As the biggest hockey show in town, the Pats were stars to a young Graham.

“At the end of the street, a gentlemen named Larry Wright lived there, he played for the Pats years before me. Every now and then…[he] would come down the street and skate with us and as a boy it was like a god had come onto the ice with us.”

Growing up going to games at the Regina Stadium, the privilege of putting on the Pats sweater wasn’t lost on the hometown kid.

“It was a real thrill and I felt it was a great accomplishment in being able to do that," Graham said of pulling on the sweater for the first time. "Watching players that you idolized and players that you really looked up to and then being able to accomplish something that they had already done was awesome.”

"You certainly learned the lessons of team and camaraderie, and playing hard and sticking up for each other, so those are some of the things and some of the qualities that got instilled in me at a very young age."

Over three full seasons with the Pats, along with his 1975-76 debut, Graham played a total of 229 games with the Regiment amassing 150 goals and 169 assists, as the Pats built towards their eventual 1980 Western Hockey League championship.

"Honestly it was really something that helped me develop at an early age some of my leadership qualities that helped me be a captain here in Chicago for a number of years," Graham said of his days with the Pats, including a couple of tough seasons in the standings.

"We didn't match up talent wise, but we certainly had a good close, tight-knit group that played hard for each other, so it was a great experience from that aspect."

EARLY STRUGGLES IN PRO HOCKEY

Take a quick look at Graham’s career trajectory and you’ll see his ascent to NHLer was anything but a straight line.

After being drafted 89th-overall in the 1979 NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks, Graham embarked on a journey that would last over five years before he became an everyday NHLer.

“All of a sudden you’re thrust into pro hockey, which is a huge leap, and you don’t expect to get cut. You kind of think this is just going to continue, I’ll make the team. Well, that didn’t happen in Vancouver,” Graham recalled of his first NHL training camp in 1979.

The first stop on Graham’s pro career came in Dallas, with the Canucks’ Central Hockey League affiliate the Black Hawks. He lasted just one season before being cut from the club prior to the 1980-81 season.

From Dallas it was onto Fort Wayne, Indiana of the International Hockey League where Graham would spend less than a month before getting a break that would change the trajectory of his fledgling pro career.

FINDING HIS TOUCH IN TOLEDO

When opportunity knocks, answer the door.

For Graham, that knock came in the form of a meeting between opposing coaches in Fort Wayne.

“The Toledo Goaldiggers happened to be playing in Fort Wayne and I think the two coaches talked and the coach from Fort Wayne said ‘do you have any interest in this Dirk Graham kid, we don’t want to keep him at all here.’ And the Toledo coach said ‘yeah, I do.’ I went to Toledo and it ended up being the best opportunity for me. I ended up running into some great people – some people who really had a profound effect on me in hockey and turning my career around.”

The Toledo coach who took a chance on Graham was Bill Inglis.

“I still to this day give him all the credit in turning my career around,” Graham said.

With the support of Inglis and an impressive cast of teammates like former Pats coach Lorne Molleken, Graham rekindled his career on the shores of Lake Erie.

“Bill called five NHL teams and said…’I’ve got a kid down here that can help your organization.’ One team sent a scout and that was the Minnesota North Stars. It was Glen Sonmor who came down.”

MOOSE JAW CONNECTION LEADS TO MINNESOTA

After two stellar seasons with the Goaldiggers, the good times were rolling for the Regina product after a 105-point season in 1981-82 and a Turner Cup championship.

No longer under contract with the Canucks, Graham was looking to catch NHL eyes. Cue Inglis, who did his best to make sure his star would get another NHL opportunity after finishing second in the IHL scoring race during the 1982-83 season with 125 points, 70 of which were goals.

“Bill called five NHL teams and said…’I’ve got a kid down here that can help your organization.’ One team sent a scout and that was the Minnesota North Stars. It was Glen Sonmor who came down. He watched me play one game,” said Graham, who impressed the Moose Jaw native Sonmor.

“We were in the finals against Milwaukee when we won our second Turner Cup and Glen came down [...] and said ‘I want to talk to you tomorrow. I want to sign you to a contract.’ That was really a turning point in my career.”

It was a turning point that Inglis worked hard to provide his star forward.

“I give a ton of credit to Bill Inglis. He didn’t have to go out of his way to do that. He didn’t have to do those things. He could’ve kept me in Toledo to play for him and possibly win some more championships, but he went out of his way to do that. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for that.”

FULL-TIME NHL STATUS

With his eyes once more on a realistic shot at playing in the NHL, Graham entered the 1983-84 season with plenty of optimism.

“When I was able to sign that contract with Minnesota I really said to myself this is another opportunity and it’s on me to take advantage of it,” said Graham.

And while he got his first taste of the NHL that season with the North Stars, Graham once again learned that making the team full-time isn’t an easy task.

Playing the majority of the ’83-84 season in Salt Lake City with Minnesota’s Central League affiliate, Graham was still trying to prove he was an NHL calibre player. The following season, Graham was about to build the remaining foundation for what would lead to full-time NHL status.

Going back and forth between Springfield in the American Hockey League and Minnesota during the 1984-85 season, Graham caught the eye of Melfort product Lorne Henning, who was coaching the North Stars’ AHL squad.

“He never gave anything to me, I earned it, but there was that guy who knew me and knew what I could do, so that was a huge turning point along the way.”

Fast forward to the fall of 1985 and Henning is the newly minted coach in Minnesota, and Graham has an ally behind the bench.

“He kind of brought me with him. I had an advocate, or someone who knew what I could do on the ice. There wasn’t that kind of doubt [in my mind] that if I made a mistake I would be sitting on the bench and be sent back to the minors again. I had someone on the bench as the head coach, who really believed in me. He helped me a tremendous amount in that aspect,” Graham said of Henning.

“He never gave anything to me, I earned it, but there was that guy who knew me and knew what I could do, so that was a huge turning point along the way.”

CHICAGO COMES CALLING

An everyday NHLer by the time the 1987-88 season rolled around, Graham seemed to have a home in Minnesota. But as pro hockey will teach you, never get too comfortable.

“I got a call from (Minnesota GM) Lou Nanne and Lou said ‘Dirk I just wanted to give you a call and let you know that we’ve traded you today,’” Graham recalled of that fateful day in early January.

“I had just made it to the NHL. I think I had been in the NHL a year and a half and I was like ‘Oh my God, what’s going on.’ And my heart sunk and I said ‘to where Lou?’ and he said ‘Chicago.’ I literally said to him ‘Oh my God, anywhere but Chicago.’ I was just so anxious about going there.”

Now, Graham was headed to a bitter rival.

“I was shocked and honestly scared to death to go there. We had a tremendous rivalry. Minnesota and Chicago was ridiculous. It was back in the old Norris Division and there were brawls all the time, and fights all the time…I didn’t have too many friends on the Blackhawks.”

When he arrived, those fears quickly subsided – but not without a few tense moments to start.

“You know how a dressing room is buzzing, everyone is talking and there’s a liveliness? Well I walked in and the dressing room went completely silent. I went ‘oh shit, what did I get into here.’"

“You know how a dressing room is buzzing, everyone is talking and there’s a liveliness? Well I walked in and the dressing room went completely silent. I went ‘oh shit, what did I get into here.’"

“I walked over to my stall and started unpacking my stuff and there was a gentlemen by the name of Troy Murray who came over to me right away and said ‘I just want to welcome you to Chicago and if there’s anything I can do for you let me know.’

“Doug Wilson ended up coming over and welcoming me and then at that point I knew I really landed in a special place here with special people.”

“These guys really went out of their way to make me feel at home in Chicago and again, those teams that I was on through my Chicago years were very close, tight knit teams and we played hard for each other.”

WEARING RED AND WHITE WITH HOCKEY ROYALTY

Over the course of seven-plus seasons in Chicago, Graham became a key piece of the Blackhawks’ success during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Beginning with the 1989-90 season, Graham served as captain of the storied Original Six franchise, wearing the ‘C’ for six seasons, including during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1992, where they would fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was a remarkable period of time for the Queen City kid, who went from fledgling pro to 1990-91 Selke Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defensive forward, along with a spot on Team Canada at the 1991 Canada Cup – an experience that seemed improbable, if not impossible just a few years earlier.

“It was just off the charts. It was such an exciting time. From a hockey standpoint I’d pulled on some different sweaters along the way. It was a tremendous honour to pull on the Pats sweater, and then to pull on an NHL sweater with the Minnesota North Stars was unbelievable. Then you go up again and pull on the Chicago Blackhawks uniform, then you pull on one with the captain on it, but I think the ultimate thing is to pull on the Team Canada jersey. To play for Team Canada was pretty special.”

SKATING AWAY ON HIS OWN TERMS

As the NHL miles added up, so too did the toll on Graham. By the time 1994-95 season had wrapped up, Graham came to the conclusion it was time to walk away – while he still could.

Wanting to make sure he left on his terms, Graham’s remarkable playing career came to a close with nearly 800 NHL games to his name.

“It was important for me to be able to walk away from the game on my own terms a little bit and to be healthy and walk around, play golf, and workout when I was older,” Graham, who still calls the Chicago area home, pointed out.

“There was a part of me that I wanted to move away from the game, or playing at least anyways, because my first few years playing [pro] hockey weren’t great, so I wanted to get out – I don’t know if on top is the right term – still being able to contribute. It was a difficult decision, but it was kind of made by my body saying it’s time.”

MAKING HISTORY BEHIND THE BENCH

While it’s been more than two decades since his last NHL game as a player, Graham has never left the game.

He immediately stepped into a coaching role as an assistant with Chicago after his playing days, and has gone onto coach and scout at both the NHL and AHL levels.

Among his many stops over the years, Graham made history in 1998 with Chicago, when he became the first black head coach in NHL history – something that didn’t strike Graham at the time, but has meant more over the years.

“At the time, no, but I think reflecting back especially the way things are moving now, I think it was good,” said Graham of whether he thought much about the significance his hiring had at the time.

“At any point if young kids – whether they’re black, white, Hispanic or whatever – can see someone doing something a little different that looks like you and inspire them to reach for those stars, I think that’s always a huge positive.”

“As we move along, the more coaches of colour [that are] coaching in the NHL, or the AHL, the more expected it’s going to be. It’s just a matter of time. There are more black players playing now, so I think it’s tremendous for the game, obviously. It’ll continue to move in the right direction as we move forward. Looking back it was a tremendous thing and hopefully it inspired some kids along the way.”

PAYING IT FORWARD

Guidance is something Graham is always happy to provide in his current role as a scout and development coach for the San Jose Sharks, an organization he’s been with for more than a decade.

Now, Graham hopes to share the insights he gained from a hockey career that provided so many memorable moments, but also plenty of adversity as he chased his NHL dream.

“Along the way as we’ve talked about, I’ve had special people help me. Whether it was Bill Inglis, or Lorne Henning, or Glen Sonmor. I know how I feel about them and how they helped me. If I can help a kid in that aspect, that’s pretty special stuff.”

“There are some kids that are at the same position that I was, where the dream is dying a little bit and [I] reach out to them and say maybe not, because I thought it was dying out and I ended up being the captain of an NHL Original Six team and playing in the Canada Cup.”

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