Apr 29, 2009
Mike Peluso's numbers quickly let you know what type of player he was. In 458 NHL games, Peluso racked up 1,951 penalty minutes and he remains the last player to reach the 400-PIM mark.
A fan favorite in every city he played in, he was also known for having a ton of heart. Many tough guys get the label automatically, but Peluso truly wore his heart on his sleeve. Despite his reputation as a willing enforcer, the most well-known image of Peluso might actually be him crying on the bench while the Devils were minutes away from winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history in 1995.
RJ Jones had the opportunity to speak with Peluso about his hockey career, how it started, and how it has continued since his playing days ended.
RJ Jones: You were drafted in 1984 by the New Jersey Devils. Instead of playing Juniors or in the minor leagues, you went to the University of Alaska-Anchorage. How did you make the decision to go the university route?
Mike Peluso: Back in the 80s, the ultimate goal for any high school hockey player was to get a Division 1 college hockey scholarship. So, thatís basically the goal for any high school hockey player here in Minnesota. I did receive a scholarship from Greenway High School in Coleraine, Minnesota. I got an offer to play Junior B hockey in Stratford, Ontario. Youíre still able to get a scholarship to the Junior ranks without losing your eligibility to play in the Major Junior hockey. So I went to play Junior B in Stratford for a year. I then decided to accept a full division 1 scholarship offer from the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
On the Iron Range in northern Minnesota in those days, parents worked very hard in the mining company and in other industrial areas. So, if you didnít receive a sports scholarship, you went into the mining company, which was really prosperous back in those days. I worked my ass off to try to get a Division 1 scholarship to try to continue my sports.
Jones: As a defenseman in Anchorage, you set school records for points. How would you describe your playing style during that time?
Peluso: I was a puck-moving defenseman. I was a big kid who developed late. I worked on my agility and skating. I think my biggest asset was my rink sense and making good decisions with the puck. I was a competitor in a lot of ways and I shot the puck well.
Most kids who go to a Division 1 program sit out the first couple of years and they donít get a chance to play right of way. I arrived at UAA as a freshmen/first year player who received 15-20 minutes a game. As a freshman, that really helped my development. But, to sum it all up-I was a puck-moving defenseman who had a good shot and possessed excellent rink sense.
Jones: You signed with the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent in 1989 and started the season with the Indianapolis Ice, being re-shaped into a winger. How hard was it to make that transition from defense to forward?
Peluso: I was drafted by the Devils in 1984 out of high school. I played 4 years at the UAA. After my career was over in Alaska, New Jersey decided not to sign me, so I attended a summer hockey camp in Brainerd, Minnesota, ran by Chuck Grillo and the Minnesota North Stars staff. I decided to give one good effort to continue to my hockey out of college and play professional hockey. My Dad said I should give it a chance, and I worked my ass off all summer. I put a lot of miles on the highway with running, training, and lifting. I then went into Brainerd and worked out all summer and skated with the minor league team to the North Stars, which was Kalamazoo.
After that camp, the North Stars gave me a try out. I checked into the hotel in Kalamazoo where they were holding their training camp [and] I signed with agent Jeff Solomon. Jeff called the North Stars and said I had a guaranteed contract with the Black Hawks, which really wasnít the case. So, with a bluff move by my agent, the North Stars said ďgood luck ď to me, and go for it. Now, I didnít have anywhere to go. So my agent called the Blackhawks and provided them a little background to my game. There wasnít a lot of scouting then [that] went on in Alaska. Chicago decided to give me a tryout.
I went through training camp without a contract, playing exhibition games making $100 a game, which was great. I had a great training camp and I had no idea what to expect. During these inter squad games, I was hitting everything in sight, thinking everybody fought. I remember their first round draft pick received a puck along the boards, and I knocked him on his ass. I was surrounded by players from the other inter squad team, and got into a fight in my first day of training camp, not knowing this would pave my way into the NHL. I just did it because thatís the way I played not knowing that the more I got into these fisticuffs would better my chances in getting a contract. I was very unaware that was the case.
I went on to play in every exhibition game that season. I was still up with the Blackhawks even though many players were by now being sent down to Indianapolis.
I remember my first exhibition game when we were playing St. Louis in the Chicago Stadium. I was getting a lot of ice time and finishing my checks. St. Louis was up 5-3, and they were getting pretty rough with us. I remember Robert Dirk was giving Steve Thomas a problem, challenging him and giving gloved face washes. I stepped in and fought Dirk. I basically did it to protect a teammate and I was, again, unaware this was helping me in trying to earn a contract. I continued to fight everyone and play hard throughout the preseason.
Then on the last day of rosters, I was sent to Indianapolis. But, Mike Keenan had called me into his office and interviewed me, not knowing who I was or where I came from, and wasnít even aware I even played hockey in Alaska. He asked what my goal was, and I said I would just love a contract in the minor league system. He said you already have that, and they signed me to a 3-year deal. I played that year in Indianapolis.
Chicago had an excellent team; President Trophy winners. There were very few call-ups that season. I had great coaching in the minor leagues with Darryl Sutter. Darryl pushed me in every way possible, challenging me to get better and to understand my role and to continue to do what I did in the Blackhawk exhibition games.
So, going from Defense to Forward was something that occurred under Mike Keenan. I was a defenseman all of my life, [but] we were lacking in the physical department up front. In Buffalo in the small rink, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ĒYouíre going to play wing with Jeremy Roenick and Steve LarmerĒ on the left side in an exhibition game. The Blackhawks were somewhat a dump and chase team and basically try to run you right out of building. It was very effective approach in my opinion in those days.
I remember J.R. dumping the puck, and I got in on the forecheck and leveled some guy (I donít remember who it was) and almost put him out in the parking lot. That hit brought a lot of attention from the other team. It ignited our team and gave us a jump in some ways. The rest is history, and thatís how I became a left-winger. The speed of the game was pretty quick for me back on D. I lacked agility and foot quickness for a defenseman. I still had the rink sense and I know I could have played defense in the league. But, I had to change my role and become more physical.
Jones: Going from an offensive college game to playing a tough professional game seems like a wild swing. Did it feel like a completely different game on the ice?
Peluso: Not at all. I was always competitive and physical by nature. I hated to lose. I would adjust my style in anyway I could to jumpstart our team. What helped me was developing my game in college. We would practice a lot and play games on the weekend. I was able to develop my game in terms of skating and technical attributes. Whereas the Major Junior hockey player is a tough guy his whole life and he establishes that role from day 1, in college you play more and you naturally improve your game when youíre on the ice in offensive and defensive situations. The college kid lacks toughness because heís never fought before, but heís also a better overall player than a role player. Back in those days, college players werenít hungry enough and were scared when they were on the ice, so they never reached their full potential. I always had that competitive nature which helped me.
I did have my ups and downs in the minors in terms of fighting. I would just go at it and I never had a style. It helped me become a left hander. I always knew in the back if my mind I could play a regular shift and thatís what helped me go the college route.
Jones: You saw action in two games for the Blackhawks in your first professional year and had your first regular season NHL fight against Basil McRae. Do you remember what was going through your mind at the time, or was it all a blur?
Peluso: I remember my first NHL game very well. I played 3 games in 3 nights in the minors and we won those 3 games. We were given the weekend off when the equipment guy started packing my gear, and mentioned Darryl Sutter wanted to see me. He called me in and said I was going up for a Sunday game against Minnesota. Apparently, Minnesota and Chicago previously had a real physical game in which Jeremy Roenick was beat up a little bit. I was excited to drive up from Indianapolis.
Prior to the game, there was a brawl during warm up, and we all squared off. Wayne Van Dorp was beat up pretty bad by [Shane] Churla. Since the Flyers, these 2 teams were probably the 2 toughest teams ever assembled in my opinion, in overall toughness. I think I squared off with Neil Wilkinson. We didnít throw any punches as we were only mingling around. Van Dorp was scratched from the game because of the scuffle during warm up.
The game got nasty right from the start. There were fights left and right. One of my idols during those days was Al Secord, and he had a few. I remember Basil McRae was on the ice. There was some pushing and shoving. No gloves were dropped yet as there was a linesman in between us. The ref said let them go, so we did. It was a pretty good fight. The only problem back then was you could alter equipment. Both Basil and Churla had velcro. They would cut their sleeves, and when you grabbed on, the velcro would rip. Their sleeves would go all the way up to past their elbow pads and you really couldnít grab on to anything. But it was a good fight. You just go into it and try to represent the team youíre playing for.
Dirk Graham was one of the best captains [of any team] I was ever a part of, [Ö]one of the greatest captains of all time in my opinion and the people who really knew Dirk and played for him would probably same thing, one of things Dirk said was that logo, the Blackhawk crest you had on your jersey was all about going to war and we all bought into it. Every day I looked at that crest, that was something I wanted to do. When you put on a Blackhawk jersey, youíre going to battle. That was the type of team we had. We would be up by a lot of goals and we still wanted to run the other team out of our building.
That Blackhawk team was one of the toughest, in terms of overall toughness, ever assembled, in my opinion, and we were like brothers. We did a lot of meetings together and we hung out together all of the time, and it was all under the direction of Mike Keenan and Dirk Graham. Iíll never forget those days we played in the old Chicago Stadium.
Jones: How did you feel after that, your first experience in the NHL?
Peluso: I felt great. With that team (Chicago) win or lose, guys would always bond. They, and Mike Keenan, would always come up to me after every fight, win or lose, and tell me I did a good job, ďyou jump started our team.Ē Because of that encouragement, I wanted to fight more because it was a rewarding and you had a part in the teamís success and that was a big part of hockey in those days.
Mike had a lot of confidence in me as a player as well. My biggest asset was I could change the momentum of a game when were down to wake up the other guys. It wasnít always a fight. On the forecheck, I think I was more of a danger to the other team. I went the college route and I was able to skate. I was a linebacker on skates. I would get the puck in deep, and all I wanted to do was put someone right through the glass. When you finish your checks and punish people, those guys would come to you. I was much more effective in fights when I would do that than simply squaring off and youíre not pissed off about something.
That was my biggest asset other than fighting. I would focus in on a dumped-in puck and I would literally try to put you right through the boards. When I did that, their tough guys would come at me. I didnít have a care who you were. I respected my opponent, but I really didnít respect finishing my checks. Iím not going to finish my check because youíre a skilled guy. When you punish skilled guys, their tough guys were coming after you and I would never back down from a fight. I learned that from my father.
Jones: The next season was your first full season in the NHL. At what point did you feel like you made it, that you were a bonafide NHLer?
Peluso: During my first full year, I was never comfortable. I spent half of the season in a hotel, but Mike eventually told me to find a place to live. In those days, you were constantly moving up and down and it didnít matter who you were. There was no collective bargaining agreement that said you couldnít go to the minors. I think that hurt hockey in a lot of ways as far as from an entertainment standpoint. Youíre on edge every day knowing that after a few bad games, you could go to the minors. Every day, every player played knowing they could be out of the league. Thatís why there was so much aggressiveness and toughness. Now, a guy can sit on the roster all year for a long time and never get sent back to the minors. Itís good for a player from a contract standpoint and I wish that were the case for me. It didnít matter who you were, no one was exempt from going down. And thatís why guys were edgier back then versus nowadays.
Jones: What was the most memorable moment of your rookie season?
Peluso: Scoring my first NHL goal against the Red Wings and goalie Tim Cheveldae. My Blackhawks teammates, who are the greatest guys in the world, took me out for a few beers. I remember Michel Goulet told me that the one that stands out the most is your first NHL goal. When that puck went in, I was ecstatic.
Another moment I will always remember was playing in the old Chicago Stadium. I would honestly have a tough time choosing between winning a Stanley Cup or playing in Chicago Stadium. Playing in the Chicago Stadium was one of the biggest highlights of my life. Those fans in that small buildingÖ there was nothing like it. I will never ever forget that building, the fans, and the excitement that was part of it all. The kids who werenít born when Chicago Stadium was around really missed the boat and what hockey was really about.
Other great places like Boston will be missed, but Chicago Stadium was just a phenomenal place to play. When you walked up those stadium stairs, it smelled like beer, cigarettes and you name itÖ! When you entered the ice, it was a thrill and a level of energy and excitement like no other. With teammates like Doug Wilson, whom I love and who was one of the greatest teammates I ever played with, and Dirk Graham, Chris Chelios, Steve Larmer, Al Secord, Denis Savard, Ed Belfour, Dave Manson, and Bob McGill, those were just incredible days that I will never forget with a group of guys who were unbelievable great teammates.
As crazy as I was during those days, I look back at it all now and for the first 5 years of playing pro hockey, I would have died on the ice. I donít know why, thatís how I was, but I was fearless without fear of the consequences. I was always there for my teammates and I feel that if we were taken advantage of physically, it was my job to protect my teammates and I didnít matter if you were Russian, Canadian, or an ex player who I used to fight. You could always count on me to be there as a teammate and jump into fight any battle to protect my teammates.
Jones: In 1992 your 'Hawks went to the Cup Finals before losing to Mario Lemieux's Penguins. How do you think that experience helped you later in your career?
Peluso: We played Pittsburgh with all toughness and heart. We blew a 6-3 lead in game 1 of the SC finals in Pittsburgh. We were on a roll, and things went downhill from there. We then lost game 2. There were momentum changes on that series. We willed our way and we tried to beat the out of them. We even went after them during warm up as we were crosschecking guys. Thatís the way we were going to play. We got off to a great start in game 1. The unsung heroes from game 1 for the Penquins were guys like Rick Tocchet. But they had so much skill. We tried to beat them to death. If we have won game 1, you never know what would have happened. If you get to the finals, and you donít win the Stanley Cup, a moment I donít remember all that well and no one cares to remember a second place finisher in the game of hockey. Itís either the cup, or itís nothing.
Jones: You were chosen in the expansion draft by the Senators. How did you feel going from Cup contender to a brand new franchise?
Peluso: Expansion was on the rise during that time, and I had no idea I would be let go. It was probably the hardest thing to accept. With all due respect to the Ottawa Senators, it was like saying goodbye to your brothers in Chicago. We had a brothers system, and leaving that situation was difficult. During that summer, there was a new list of things I had to work on in terms of going to Ottawa. I never thought I would leave Chicago.
So, I had some bigger challenges ahead of me. The first obstacle was in how to accept the change. I was with Chicago for 3 years, and getting used to the change was very tough and I didnít know anything about Ottawa. But my career would have been cut short if not for the Senators. I loved Ottawa once I arrived and got accustomed to the change and living there. I loved Ottawa. Itís a great city, and I loved being part of their first year. It was very exciting. To me thereís no better place to play than in Canada. People are so knowledgeable and passionate about their teams. Itís hard to find that.
Jones: You scored a career high 15 goals and 25 points with the Sens. Were you asked to play a different role with Ottawa?
Peluso: I went from a 4th line player to a 2nd line player. But I still fought. I fought more there than people really want to believe. I always was a good player in terms of my role, I just received more ice time in Ottawa. I fought everybody. I had 318 penalty minutes. I think I had to step up more in Ottawa than anywhere else. I was by myself. Teams still had 2 or 3 guys in their lineup that fought. I always fought when we were behind [and] that happened a lot. In the meantime, I was able to score 15 goals/25 points. Because of my ability to fight and put up some numbers, I was also probably at the top of the list in terms of possibly being traded for some draft picks.
Rick Bowness was a good head coach. I never had a bad head coach during my NHL career. I appreciated everything they taught me.
Jones: After being traded to New Jersey, you suffered another heart-breaking playoff loss, this time to the Rangers in the Conference Finals. The year after, you were part of the Devils first Stanley Cup Champion team. What was winning like after a couple of near misses?
Peluso: I loved Jersey. It took me a little time to adjust, as I didnít spend much time out East. It took me a good year to settle in. I had great teammates.
I fought a lot of the guys from New Jersey. Whenever I played against them, I always wanted to prove them wrong for not signing me. If you look at my numbers from when I was with other teams, I did a lot of my scoring and fighting against the Devils. But [Ö] they were a bunch of great guys, with great coaching in Jacques Lemaire. Jacques taught me a lot about the game and really worked with me in terms of my positional play. And again, it was one stepping stone in continuing my hockey career. Jacques taught me a lot about the game from a tactical standpoint where Mike Keenan taught me a lot about the mental aspect of the game. It was a great combination of coaches.
Jones: How did it feel, winning a Stanley Cup with the Devils?
Peluso: I never would have thought I would ever win the Cup being I was a kid from Northern Minnesota. My father always instilled in me to work my ass off and to give it one good chance. He would say,Ē Do it for me. You trained. You worked your ass off. Go out there. Get on that plane and give it one chance.Ē
I did it, and I made a good first impression. I canít thank my Dad enough for putting a boot in my ass.
Peluso: Playing on that line was unbelievable. Our first year, I think I had 15 points, Bobby had around 33, and Randy had 27. Randy and Bob were both around a plus-28. [...] We punished people, drew penalties, and changed the momentum of a lot of games. We scored, fought, and finished checks and got the crowd into the game. Every time our line hit the ice, I could see the fear in the eyes of the other team. [...] Randy and I could play. Randy was one hell of a college player and heís one of the toughest guys I ever faced. Bob was a big Czech kid who could play. Everybody tried to duplicate this line, but you canít if [guys] arenít able to play. To this day, there was never another 4th line like that.
Jones: From your first Hawks-Stars game, to the Rangers-Devils battles, you were part of some great rivalries. What was the most intense?
Peluso: The Rangers/Devils battles werenít as intense as the Blackhawks/North Stars. Not even close. There were more tough guys in the lineup for the North Stars/Blackhawks games than there were for the Rangers/Devils games. The Rangers had a few tough guys, as did the Devils, but you canít compare the rivalries and the battles. Not even close.
Jones: Were those your favorite games to play in?
Peluso: No. My favorites were the games played in the old Chicago Stadium. All of the games I played with the Devils were fun, but the games I played at the Stadium were my favorites.
Jones: You dropped the gloves five times with Randy McKay, your eventual Crash Line partner. What was it like becoming teammates with him?
Peluso: Randy and I fought throughout the years. I went after the Devils, and he was always a role player and a tough guy. We always seemed to go at it. Those were some good memorable fights, and then we became teammates.
It took awhile to adjust. Randy was distant at first, because the Devils were his team and I was a little nervous. Then one day before we hit the ice for training camp, he came up to me and we started talking and the rest is history. I have a great deal of respect for Randy and heís a great friend. I actually thanked Bobby Holik and him for all the memories of playing on that line.
Peluso: I didnít prepare any differently, I just went out there and finished my checks and fought the same way. Looking back, I shouldíve had a strategy. I just started throwing. Iíd fight anyone. Win or lose, what do you do? I never had a strategy. They were all rivals.
I didnít hate one player more than anyone else [but] I hated playing Buffalo. It wasnít because I was scared, it was just the chicken stuff they would do. All of the yapping and talking, ďletís get it on!Ē you know. That had a lot to do with [Matt] Barnaby.
Jones: Did animosity in the game ever get carried over off the ice?
Peluso: No animosity off the ice. Like Churla told me once, ďleave it on the ice.Ē There was never anything that carried over after the game.
Jones: Did you try and influence any of your younger teammates the same way?
Peluso: I always took care of the first year players. Iíd take care of Europeans who couldnít speak English during their first year of training camp. They didnít know where they were going or what they were going to do, and I [experienced] that when I was with Chicago my first year. [So] I would always pull rookies aside and see if they needed anything specific.
A lot of these kids were sent to the minors and they couldnít speak any English. I remember taking care of Patrik Elias in New Jersey and I helped [Pavol] Demitra in St. Louis. I treated these guys the way I would want to be treated. Especially in training camp where guys were looking for a lot of direction.
Jones: Filling a tough guy role for much of your career, did you do anything specific to train for it?
Peluso: I did a lot of running and weight lifting. Thatís what helped me.
Jones: Did the outcomes of any of your fights effect how you'd go into your next one?
Peluso: No. It never affected me in how I went into my next fight. I just went out there and got it on. I just started throwing lefts. Whatever happens, happens.
Jones: When you played, who was the best trash talker/agitator?
Peluso: Kevin Kaminski. He tried to take my knee out and he wouldnít fight. Before I knocked him down and he turtled, he kneed me along the boards and I chased him. He did the fake glove drop, so I had enough and dropped him. He was one. Barnaby, at times, was effective. The teams I was on didnít have that many yappers because there was a code in place. There wasnít a lot of trash talking. I did my fair share as well, though.
Jones: Your last injury forced you to retire pretty quickly from the game. It must have been difficult to have it happen so fast. What did you do at that point?
Peluso: With my role came lingering injuries. I still suffer side effects from the Tony Twist knock-out. Stu Grimson hit me from behind along the boards. I suffered a neck injury. I got a MRI, and they told me I was done playing.
Jones: What are you up to nowadays?
Peluso: I work as a scout for the Edmonton Oilers. I learn a lot with a great group of guys, and I enjoy it. I thank Stu McGregor and all of the guys on staff. This is a close group of guys who have been real helpful to me. Not only helpful as far as a job, but also in getting me back on my feet and understanding. Because when hockey is over, there are a lot of people standing around wondering what theyíre going to do next. I always tell kids to prepare themselves for other things besides hockey. I always ask them what theyíre going to do when hockey is over.
Jones: Many times, young players feel the need to try to impress the team brass during NHL training camp. Can you recall any training camp bouts where you believe you caught the coachís attention or solidified your spot on the roster?
Peluso: I remember a fight New Jersey when Reid Simpson came in. He came at me 3 times. I canít remember the details other than a few guys jumping in. He was sent to the minors the next day. All the while, here I am with a busted up hand going into exhibition games. It was senseless, but what can you do? I couldnít back down. I thought I got the better of him in a few of those. He was a tough kid, and he was trying to make the hockey team, and I understood that. He wasnít in the lineup for our exhibition games. I wish he was, and I thought in fighting me 3 times he would have been. In these exhibition games, there were 3 or 4 guys who would fight who were minor leaguers who wanted a job.
A lot of times, my best fights were when I was scared. There were times where I couldnít sleep at night. And Iím sure that was the same for the other guy.
I think it should be a rule that coaches donít allow fighting in training camp. We didnít have that rule in Jersey [and] there was always a potential for that during the preseason. Why beat each other up during camp scrimmages? You want to save your hands and face for the exhibition games. In todayís game, they really donít have too many tough guys in the lineup, but back in the day, there were 4 or 5 guys that would fight. And thatís why fans loved exhibition games.
Thanks to Mike Peluso for taking the time.
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