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Backchecking: John Slaney

John Slaney won the Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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John Slaney won the Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

BY ROBIN SHORT

For all he's done in hockey - the ninth overall draft pick in 1990, a 15-year pro career, 268 NHL games, a pair of top defenseman awards in the American League - John Slaney is remembered for one moment, one goal. “There’s not much talk about it down here in the U.S., but whenever I get to Canada, people remind me of it all the time,” Slaney says. “And I’m fine with that. It was and is a big part of my life.”

On a frigid Friday in Saskatoon, Sask., 21 years ago, Slaney’s goal with about five minutes remaining gave Canada a 3-2 win over the Soviet Union for the 1991 World Junior Championship, marking his country’s first title on home soil. Instantly, Slaney joined Paul Henderson and Mario Lemieux as authors of iconic Canadian moments.

Before the puck drop in Saskatoon, the picture was clear for Dick Todd’s Canadian team: a win over the Soviets meant a second straight gold medal; a loss and a Czechoslovakia win over Finland meant third place.

The Russians were led by a number of future NHLers, not the least of which was Pavel Bure. In fact, Bure was on the ice when Slaney netted the winner, a step or two behind when Slaney intercepted a Russian clearing attempt and uncorked the shot that sent his country into a frenzy. “Looking back now, if the puck takes a hop over my stick, I’m done and Bure’s got a breakaway,” Slaney says. “But luckily I got my stick on it and when I looked up, there were bodies in front of the net. All I had on my mind was to shoot the puck.”

The Washington Capitals drafted Slaney the year he was named the Canadian Hockey League’s top defenseman. His Cornwall Royals coach, Orval Tessier, compared him to Ray Bourque. He went pro in 1992-93 and cracked the Capitals lineup the next year for 47 starts and 11 post-season games.

Slaney was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche in summer 1995 and began a long journey that bounced him to seven NHL franchises when all was said and done. He finished with 22 goals and 91 points.

His biggest mark was set in the AHL, where he closed out his career as the highest-scoring defenseman in league history (519 points) before Bryan Helmer passed him in 2011.

In 2007, he went overseas and spent three years in Germany with Cologne and Frankfurt before hanging up the skates following 2010-11 in the Czech League.

Despite his lengthy North American career, Slaney never reached the potential expected from a first-rounder. “I look back at certain things, but do I get upset about it? I can’t, because it’s gone way past that stage,” he says. “I’m not going to sit back and look what could have been one way or another.”

Over his career, he played with two of game’s greatest, Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles and Lemieux in Pittsburgh. Asked about career highlights, there’s the goal in Saskatoon and a memory from 1995-96. He’d just been traded to the Kings and joined the team to play in a road game in Edmonton. “I remember going into the rink and I’m sitting next to Gretzky in the dressing room,” says Slaney, whose gear briefly got lost during the whirlwind trip. “I thought, ‘Here I am, next to Wayne Gretzky and we’re in Edmonton, the city he pretty well built.’ And Jari Kurri was there, too. That was a lot of fun playing on that power play.”

Now 40 years old, Slaney is an assistant coach with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, working with the team’s young blueliners. “The most important thing most of them still have to learn is when to shoot,” he says. “Sometimes, instead of shooting when they should, they’re looking for second options. But my old saying is, ‘If you don’t shoot the puck, you don’t score.’ ”

Slaney should know.

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