One-on-One with the First Number One: Wendell Young

Tuesday, 12.04.2012 / 9:04 AM
Matt Sammon  - Lightning Radio

Anything can happen when your family visits Disney World. In fact, you could even be drafted by an NHL expansion team. Hey, it happened to Wendell Young.

“We were in Disney, in Orlando, when I got picked up by Tampa in the expansion draft. We were in a Disney hotel, and it was like 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and I go, ‘Oh yeah the expansion draft’s today.’ And like 15 minutes later the phone rang. It was my agent, and I was told I was picked up by Tampa Bay. I paid for a long vacation to Disney, now I’m going to live in the vacation land!” Come for “The Mouse”, stay for the hockey. It was a chamber of commerce ad campaign that played out for the Young family on June 18, 1992. Being one of four goaltenders with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Young knew he was probably going to move during the expansion draft. Little did he know he could look for a house while he was on vacation, yet another chapter in Young’s life where he put himself in the right place at the right time.

And that’s the way he’d like for you to think of his career in hockey, which has now spanned over 30 years on and off the ice. “I’ve been really fortunate to play pro hockey, but I’ve been fortunate to play on some good teams. Some of the championships I was a key contributor, and other times I was behind the scenes. You know, right place right time. There are some great players who have never won a championship.” But the old saying goes, “You have to be good to be lucky, and lucky to be good”, and Young’s career track shows he had a little bit of both. He is the only goaltender to have ever won a Memorial Cup, a Calder Cup, a Turner Cup, and the Stanley Cup. Given the fact the Turner Cup and the International Hockey League are no more, he pretty much has that unique honor locked down for good.

The luck began to play out for Young in his first season of youth hockey, when he was four or five years old, and he was volunteered to play goal for a playoff game. “My first year when I was playing, I was a defenseman. We got to the playoffs, and our goalie couldn’t make the game. There was a snowstorm and he couldn’t get to our game. Coach asks, ‘Who wants to play goal?’ Every kid in my dressing room put his hand up, except me. And the coach goes, ‘Wendell you’re in.’ I said, ‘But I don’t want to play!’ He goes, ‘I can’t pick amongst everyone else, you’re the odd one. You’re going in.’ I had NO interest playing goal. And I went in, I got a 4-0 shutout, I had about four shots, thought I was the best ever. I remember continuing the playoffs, I remember our goalie was there for all of the games [and] my dad trying to console me and trying to explain to me why I couldn’t play goal for the rest of the playoffs.” From there his love for goaltending took off, and he was so good he was at the wrong end of the hand-me-down line with his older brother Darryl. Actually, he was at the right end—Wendell got the newer, better equipment while older brother Darryl got the sweaty leftovers. “I said [to Darryl] ‘Mom and Dad were good scouts, they knew you weren’t very good and I was going somewhere!’” Darryl, by the way, is a good scout too as he is part of the Vancouver Canucks’ scouting staff.

Wendell was going somewhere, and he was good enough to get drafted in the 4th round of the 1981 entry draft by Vancouver, starting a productive career in the 80s as a Memorial Cup and Calder Cup winner while being mentored in the NHL by Richard Brodeur, Ron Hextall, and Tom Barrasso. He would receive the lion’s share of starts in Pittsburgh in the 1989-90 season, and while he downplays his role on the 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup champion teams, the fact is his name is engraved on the Cup twice. And that takes us to that fateful summer vacation to Disney World. While Young and his family were waiting in line for the Dumbo ride, he was first in line at the expansion draft thanks in part to the experience he had playing under Tony Esposito and Gene Ubriaco in Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh experience helped Young on opening night against Chicago—the same team the Penguins had swept in the Finals just months earlier. “It was unbelievable… it was such a buildup for it. We were focused as a team, we didn’t want to be embarrassed as an expansion team. Especially on opening night, all eyes were on us. And I was well-versed on the Chicago Blackhawks, I knew them very well and I knew what they were all about and I knew what kind of powerhouse they were. That night, it was magical. Chris Kontos had the game of his life, and things seemed to fall our way, and had a great evening.” While that opening night win over Chicago was memorable, it was just one of 84 games that season, and it would be one of 23 wins. An expansion team also takes its lumps in its first season, but Young says even on the nights when the team lost, the Tampa Bay fans showed their appreciation for the new kids in town. “We were the hardest-working team in the NHL, there was no question about it. We [were] probably the only team in the history of sports that got a standing ovation after losing, but the fans appreciated how hard we worked and what kind of character we had on the team, from Rob Ramage to Basil McRae and Marc Bergevin, like their personalities. We went out and played hard every night and I think the fans appreciated that fact.”

Young would appear in 40 total games over the first two seasons of Lightning hockey, backing up Pat Jablonski in season one and Daren Puppa in season two. As the 1994-95 season approached, prospect J.C. Bergeron was emerging as a legitimate NHL goaltender, making Young the third wheel on the goaltender cart. But as had been the case in his career thus far, a tough situation turned in his favor. The NHL lockout of 1994-95 had Young, Bergeron, and everybody in the NHL on hold. But it didn’t keep the IHL standing still, as the upstart Chicago Wolves needed a backup goaltender to pair up with 1992 Olympic star Ray LeBlanc. The new head coach of the Wolves was Gene Ubriaco, and like he did in 1988 as head coach of the Penguins, he reached out to his friend Tony Esposito for some help. Technically Young was loaned to the Wolves, but he would appear in 37 games while the NHL sorted out its issues. After a ten-game return to the Penguins that season, Young went back to the Wolves. Seventeen years later, he’s running the show in Chicago. “I’m like that Saturday Night Live skit—the guest that never leaves!”

Thirteen years after his playing career ended in Chicago, Young has experienced every facet of management and coaching for the Wolves. For four seasons he was the goaltending coach, now doing the mentoring for rising stars Kari Lehtonen and Ondrej Pavelec. When general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was hired by the Blackhawks as their assistant GM in 2009, Young assumed the role of general manager and has held the position since. For a man who confesses he loves the business side of hockey, there’s a playful charm in how he approaches those daily tasks too. “I had a great conversation with [Oilers GM] Steve Tambellini at the draft, and I said, ’Steve, do you know what we really do? We’re playing fantasy hockey for real!’ A lot of people pay a lot of money to play fantasy hockey… we do it for a living.”

While he plays “fantasy hockey” with other people’s money, and the stakes are certainly higher in that league, Young enjoys looking back on his time in Tampa Bay. It was a short time, but the bonds created 20 years ago have helped him become the successful GM he is today. “We have a bond, you know that championship bond, that no one can ever take away. And even though we didn’t win a championship with Tampa I have a bond with these guys, because we came in and did something. We started hockey in the southern states basically, and our team was so tight it was almost like a championship team. And it’s amazing because I’ve been on other teams and we haven’t won anything and that bond’s not there. But it seems like the Tampa Bay Lightning, we were such a character group. Even if I don’t see a guy for ten years, it’s like I saw him yesterday.”

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