NHL 99: ‘Too small’ Mark Recchi displayed the heart of a lion and unreal vision

Welcome to NHL99The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.

It was May 11, 1991. Game 6. Wales Conference final. Boston at Pittsburgh, score tied 3-3, late in the third period, the Penguins leading the series, 3-2.

Mario Lemieux, the most talented hockey player ever, received attention from three Bruins, including Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque. The entire Boston defensive unit shifted to Lemieux’s side, leaving a patch of ice unaccounted for.

It was the opening Mark Recchi had craved his entire life.

The Bruins, who gawked at the 6-foot-4 Lemieux, might as well have been the scouts who ignored Recchi his entire life in favor of the hulking players who were taking over the NHL. Recchi chugged down the right wing like a bat out of hell, smoked a wrist shot past Andy Moog and didn’t look back for the next 20 years, the fire that drove him to the NHL burning until he skated with the Stanley Cup — for the third time — in his native Western Canada two decades later.

Recchi played in 1,652 career NHL games, good for eighth all time. Only 12 players have produced more than Recchi’s 1,533 points. Only 20 have scored more than his 577 goals.

No one ever had a bigger chip on his shoulder.

“Let me tell you about Mark Recchi,” said Ken Hitchcock, who coached Recchi during his prolific junior career in Kamloops. “He had to deal with small man’s syndrome his entire life. It pushed him and pushed him. You’ve never seen someone so determined to prove people wrong. He was like that from the day I met him. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

That is the story of Recchi, whose bust rests in the Hockey Hall of Fame and who sits No. 91 on The Athletic’s list of the best players of the NHL’s post-1967 expansion era. Small in stature, big in talent and the heart of a lion.

“I was always told I was too small,” Recchi said. “At every level of hockey, I heard it. All I ever wanted was to prove people wrong every year. Call it a chip on your shoulder if you want. Whatever it was, it pushed me forever.”

It pushed him to be one of the great players of his time.

“There was always something special about him,” said Jim Rutherford, the general manager who acquired Recchi to play on the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. “Very, very special.”

(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Recchi is a son of British Columbia. He was born in Kamloops, starred there in the WHL and finished his NHL career carrying the Stanley Cup as a member of the Bruins in Vancouver.

Generously listed at 5-foot-10, Recchi never blew scouts away with his size or his skating.

“He didn’t look like a hockey player,” said Phil Bourque, Recchi’s first roommate in Pittsburgh. “The league was getting bigger. Rex was short. And coaches always thought he was out of shape, but he wasn’t. He just had this incredibly thick build. He was always in great condition. But everything about his appearance fooled people.”

Hitchcock was never fooled. Recchi started his career in junior hockey with New Westminster. Hitchcock wanted to bring Recchi back to his hometown.

“We traded seven players for Mark and for the rights to Craig Berube,” Hitchcock said. “And it was the right choice. That’s just how good he was. We gave up a ton, but we got even more back.”

Still, in Recchi’s first year of draft eligibility, he was ignored by every NHL team.

“Everyone missed,” Hitchcock said. “Every single one of them.”

The Penguins had considered selecting him in 1987 when Eddie Johnston was their general manager. Johnston was replaced by Tony Esposito in 1988, but forever the Penguins’ godfather, Johnston told Esposito he would be wise to select Recchi.

In the fourth round of the 1988 draft, Recchi became Penguins property. He made the team out of training camp in 1988, but, after a slow start, was sent to the minor leagues for the rest of the season by coach Gene Ubriaco.

“He never should have been sent down,” Bourque said. “We all knew it.”

Instead of pouting, Recchi racked up 99 points in 62 games in the AHL. The fire inside of his belly wasn’t about to be doused by yet another rejection.

“It all depends on the person,” Bourque said. “There are some people who are totally defeated when something like that happens. That kind of rejection can be a very difficult thing to come back from. But Mark Recchi isn’t one of those people. He’s the kind of guy who is going to brush himself off, take a deep breath and then stick it up your ass. And that’s what he did when he came back to Pittsburgh.”

Recchi had his breakout season during the 1989-90 campaign, finishing with 30 goals and 67 points in 74 games. The same skills that produced 154 points in 62 games during his final junior season were again on display.

Recchi saw the ice at a rare level. His playmaking was special from the very beginning.

“Unbelievable vision,” said Sidney Crosby, Recchi’s linemate a generation later. “He always knew when to get you the puck, always thought the game at such a high level.”

Recchi might not have been big, but he wasn’t afraid to get his nose dirty. Like Crosby, many of Recchi’s goals came in front of the net. In the late 1980s and early 90s, standing in front of the net wasn’t a treat for anyone, let alone someone Recchi’s size. But he didn’t care.

“I was just so hungry, so determined,” Recchi said.

Recchi could also shoot the puck better than most. Much like Mark Messier, Recchi often showcased the ability to fire wrist shots past goaltenders while shooting off of the wrong foot from the right-wing circle.

“Teams carried around a tape measure back then,” said Rick Tocchet, who was traded to the Penguins in 1992, sending Recchi to Philadelphia. “Today, he’d be the first pick in the draft, and for good reason. Don’t underestimate all the skill that he had. Incredible hands. Vision. Great shot. Tough as hell. So smart. But teams saw size then, and it scared them away.”

Recchi’s breakout rookie season ended with more disappointment, continuing the theme of Recchi never getting ahead. Uwe Krupp’s overtime shot beat Tom Barrasso in the final game of the 1989-90 season, keeping the Penguins from the postseason.

It only fueled the fire.

“I wanted to establish myself,” Recchi said. “And I wanted to win so bad.”

Recchi became a star in 1990-91, registering 113 points in a season the Penguins had to play without Lemieux until late January. With Lemieux out, the Penguins had become a good team. With him, they became a juggernaut, with Recchi playing on his right wing.

“I coached (as an assistant in Philadelphia) against those teams with Recchi and all of those guys in Pittsburgh,” Hitchcock said. “It wasn’t fun.”

Recchi was a high-IQ, skilled player in a league that was still promoting violence. Recchi soon found that Pittsburgh was a little different — that he had found a home. Lemieux was the greatest player in the game. Paul Coffey was the greatest offensive defenseman in the game. Kevin Stevens was blossoming into the greatest power forward in the game. Jaromir Jagr was the best teenager in the game. Other Hall of Famers on that roster included Ron Francis, Joey Mullen, Bryan Trottier, Larry Murphy. Those Penguins weren’t all that interested in fighting or violence. General manager Craig Patrick, a disciple of Herb Brooks, believed in the skill game.

“You better believe it made me better getting to play with Mario, Coffey and the rest of those guys every day,” Recchi said.

The other players on that team will tell you that Recchi made those guys better, too.

“He could think the game at Mario Lemieux’s level. He could also think it at Phil Bourque’s level,” Bourque said. “He made all of us better.”

Recchi’s postseason in 1991 is one of the more under-appreciated in hockey history. He put up 34 points in 24 games that spring and recorded at least one point in 17 of the first 18 postseason games. Only Lemieux’s outrageous 44 points in 23 games kept Recchi from winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.

It was Recchi, though, who scored the biggest goal of that postseason. Game 6 against Boston fully put him on the map.

“That’s the most important goal I ever scored,” Recchi said. “It’s not every day you score a goal that puts your team in the Final.”

Finally, Recchi had made it to the big time. And finally, he was playing for a coach who believed in him.

“I can still feel Bob Johnson pinching my cheeks after we beat the Bruins,” Recchi said. “Bob was so positive. I needed someone to believe in me, and he did.”

(Rick Stewart / Getty Images)

Just as Recchi was becoming a superstar, he was brushed aside once again. Only months after Johnson died of brain cancer, the Penguins stunningly traded Recchi before the 1992 playoffs to Philadelphia in a three-way trade that brought Tocchet to Pittsburgh.

Recchi used the slight to his advantage and became an even bigger star in Philadelphia. To this day, his 123 points in the 1992-93 season is the Flyers’ single-season record.

“I wasn’t happy about (the trade), and they were rebuilding at the time,” Recchi said. “But I knew I needed to make the most of it.”

His teammates in Pittsburgh, despite embracing Tocchet immediately, weren’t thrilled about it either.

“Guys loved him, and I knew that,” Tocchet said.

Even though Recchi was gone — and not just anywhere, but to the Penguins’ bitter rival — he still played a role in Pittsburgh’s 1992 Stanley Cup triumph. He was gone from the roster, but the bond remained.

As the spring of 1992 roared on and the Penguins won 11 straight playoff games to claim the Cup again, a familiar face was around.

“After games, you go to the family room and see your friends and family,” Bourque said. “After almost every game in the ’92 playoffs, I’d walk in that room and there was Rex. Think about that. This team traded you. They didn’t want you anymore. They thought someone was better than you. But we were his friends, and so he came back to Pittsburgh and sat in that crowd every single night. He was there supporting us. Who else would swallow their pride enough to do that? That’s the kind of friend Mark Recchi is.”

When Recchi first arrived in Pittsburgh, he moved into Bourque’s house in Upper St. Clair, a suburb southwest of downtown Pittsburgh. It didn’t take long for Bourque to see Recchi was as special and driven off the ice as he was on it.

“I think he’s more domesticated now than he was then,” Bourque said. “Lots of blacks and grays in our decorating skills. But you know what? You could even tell the kind of person he was by what kind of roommate he was. He got that from his parents, Mel and Ruth. Amazing people, just like him. He’d always make sure the bills were paid, that the house was clean. Little stuff like that. He cared about you, about everything. His personality off the ice, in the room, on the bench, if you were having lunch. You just connected with him.”

On a team of Hall of Famers and larger-than-life personalities, Recchi stood out for being his own man.

“I had so many great teammates,” Bourque said. “Mario. Coffey. All of those guys were great teammates. But Rex is the best teammate I ever had. If I’m on my deathbed in 20 years and I hadn’t seen him in 20 years, it will feel like I just saw him yesterday if he comes to see me. That’s who he is. He’d do anything for anyone.”

The 1990s saw Recchi play in Philadelphia, Montreal and then Philadelphia again. In a time when offense was starting to dwindle, Recchi played in 766 games in the 90s and averaged 1.1 points per game during that stretch.

He also became a fine two-way player. In Pittsburgh, offense was all that really mattered, as the Penguins largely outscored their way to championships.

“I realized it was a little different in other cities and that I had to will myself to become a better all-around player,” Recchi said. “So that’s what I tried to do.”

His old junior coach noticed.

Hitchcock, who later would coach Recchi in Philadelphia, marvels at Recchi’s ability to be a chameleon.

“As time went on, he became a great top-six player in this league for a long time,” Hitchcock said. “But later in his career, he became a totally invaluable role player. How many players can really be both of those things in a career? Not many.”

Recchi was willing to do whatever it took for as long as it took to stay in the NHL.

“It’s funny,” he said. “If you had asked me when I broke into the league, I would have been so happy staying in the league for five years. That was it. That was the goal. Play five years in the NHL? Sure, I’d sign up for that. But then, after I’m in the league for a decade, I kept feeling better and better. I kept myself in shape. I worked incredibly hard. And I just wanted to help teams win no matter what role I was in.”

Recchi also credits his body type for his longevity.

“I’m thick,” he said. “Look at the other guys who played so many games in the NHL. Jagr. Francis. Messier. All thick guys. Look at Phil Kessel (who is on the verge of becoming the NHL’s ironman). Thick guy. Doesn’t get hurt. I do think that helped me.”

(Harry How / Getty Images)

By the time 2005 rolled around, Recchi had signed to play with the Penguins. Lemieux was 40 and Crosby was 18. Recchi wanted in on the action.

However, a disappointing season led to Patrick trading Recchi to a blossoming Carolina team.

Recchi had his heart set on staying in Pittsburgh, but by now, the drill was clear.

Team doesn’t want me? Wait until I show them what I can do.

“I wanted a forward and I wanted it to be someone who knew how to win,” Rutherford explained. “When you get to know him, you learn that he’s more determined than anyone else. That he’s all about winning. All the guy did his entire career was prove people wrong. I wanted that attitude around our team, around our younger guys.”

Recchi gave the Hurricanes seven goals and 16 points that spring. At 38, he still had it.

“A truly incredible leader,” Rutherford said. “I don’t know if we win the Cup or if we don’t if I don’t trade for him. That’s just a game people play. You never know. But I know he helped us and I know that I learned about what a special, determined person he is.”

Recchi played until he was 43, winning a Cup for the third time in his final NHL game in 2011 when the Bruins beat the Canucks in Vancouver.

“Talk about special,” Recchi said.

All the people in British Columbia who said Recchi was too small to play in the NHL when he was young witnessed the Hall of Famer finishing off his career by breaking the Canucks’ hearts.

“That desire to prove myself never went away,” Recchi said. “It was still there, even in the end. Every day, I had to prove myself. It’s probably why I played so long, to be honest.”

In the decade-plus that has followed, Recchi has enjoyed successful player-development stints and has been an assistant coach in Pittsburgh and New Jersey. Recchi no longer has much interest in coaching but wants to work in the NHL again, ideally as someone who develops young players.

The guy who still remembers every coach and talent evaluator who put him down enjoys nothing more than molding young players, big or small.

“I was at a charity event recently and they had my numbers on display,” he said. “It’s still mind-boggling to me what I was able to do. It’s not always about the size, you know? It’s what’s inside somebody that matters.”

Recchi plays golf these days and is living the good life with his family.

Don’t think for a second, though, that the fire doesn’t still burn.

“It does,” he said quietly. “I want to work again. I’m never tired of it.”

(Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)

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