Saturday, October 3, 2009

Interview With Chris Kotsopoulos

This is Chris Kotsopoulos. He was a no-nonsense defenseman in the 1980s. He did not have a lot of skill, but he had lots of heart, desire and physicality. He played hard and had that mean streak that GMs wish every defenseman had. As a result, he was a sought after commodity, holding down a NHL job for 9 seasons.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Chris Kotsopoulos. Here's our conversation:

GHL - As a kid, what team did you cheer for, and who were your idols?

- Growing up I cheered for the Boston Bruins. Tough to do while living in Toronto. Bobby Orr was my main hockey idol.

GHL - Did you always play defense? Were you always a physical player?

- I started out playing hockey as a forward and then switched over to defense around 11 or 12 years old. Yes, I was always a physical player - and I enjoy it.

GHL - You took a bit of an unconventional route to the NHL, especially for the 1970s. You only played on season of major junior, before enrolling in Canadian university, Acadia.

GHL - What made you decide to go this route?

- I had a run in with the head coach the next season in Windsor, Wayne Maxner. I expected to be traded, but it never happened. I played a little bit with Collingwood tier 2 Junior A. I quit hockey for a while. Then, the only option that I had to get back into hockey was to go to Acadia University.

GHL - Was schooling always important to you? What did you study? Did you ever complete your studies?

- I think, back in the 70s, getting your High School degree was the most important thing. At Acadia, I was basically in the general arts program. I wasn't sure if I was going to continue or not. I always had the dream of just getting back and playing in the NHL. I did not complete my studies.

GHL - You left school to turn pro in the minor leagues, playing in Toledo with no affiliation to a NHL team. What made you decide to go this route?

- I was playing hockey in a Summer league with Carl Brewer's Koho International. A coach from the Streetsville Junior B League named Tom Barrett asked me if I wanted an opportunity to try out for a pro hockey team and I said sure. He then got me a tryout with the Toledo Gold Diggers. I saw peers of mine that I grew up and played with getting drafted in the NHL that I knew I was at least as good as or better then them, in my mind. It gave me the inspiration to give it a shot.

GHL - The following season you signed with the New York Rangers organization. Who discovered you? Did you have interest from other NHL teams? Why did you pick New York?

- Through the head coach in Toledo, Ted Garven. He asked me to step into the office one day. In the office was Dan Summers. He was a scout for the New York Rangers. He offered me a chance to go to camp the next season in Richmond, VA with the New York Rangers. From there, I made the New Haven Nighthawks, which was the top farm club of the Rangers. I was only signed to an AHL contract. At the end of the season there was interest from Vancouver, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers. I picked New York because I was most familiar with it and familiar with the organization.

GHL - When did you realized making the NHL was not an impossible dream?

- When I was around 16 years old. Playing in Windsor. I knew that I had the ability, I just needed the chance.

GHL - Who helped you the most in your development as a (pre-NHL) hockey player?

- My parents, obviously. They drove me everywhere. Tom Barrett was also very helpful. Ted Garven, the coach of Toledo. Lastly, Parker McDonald the head coach of the New Haven Nighthawks. All these people were helpful in my development as a hockey player. They all encouraged me and gave me a chance.

GHL - You are off to your first NHL training camp. What was that like? Who took you under their wing, so to speak?

- I was excited but a little nervous at the same time. Obviously, I was unknown at the time. No one really took me under their wing.

GHL - A year later you made the Rangers. Tell us about that team and your teammates. Who was your partner and what was your role?

- It was the toughest team that I ever had played on. Fred Shero started the season as the head coach and then Craig Patrick took over. We struggled through most of the year and basically limped our way into the playoffs. But we were able to beat the Kings and the Blues. Unfortunately we were defeated by the Islanders in the playoffs. I never really had a partner, we all sort of played with everybody. We had a rotation there because of the injuries the team had. We all learned how to play with each other. My role was just to be a tough stay at home defensemen.

GHL - Phil Esposito and Ron Duguay were on that team. There must have been some crazy times off the ice?

- It's a secret and it's gonna stay a secret. Sorry!

GHL - Tell us about your first NHL goal.

- I remember following up the play and it was Barry Beck that made a drop pass to me and I one timed it past Don Beaupre in Minnesota.

GHL - Describe the Islanders/Rangers rivalry back then. Was that the best rivalry of all time?

- The rivalry was pretty intense and tough. All of the games were very physical. I remember the national anthem in MSG and they were throwing fish on the ice trying to hit Denis Potvin with it. It was kind of shocking, but it happened. I would say it was one of the best rivalry's the NHL had at the time.

GHL - You only played one year with the Rangers, but they are the team you still consider your heart to be with. Why is that?

- There's no other place to play, in my mind. The fans and the city appreciates hard working players. The memories were great there for me.

GHL - You were a tough, no-nonsense defenseman, who would drop the gloves without thinking twice. According to your first fight was against none other than Terry O'Reilly. What do you remember about that one?

- I honestly don't recall the fight. I do remember my first game against the Bruins was an exhibition game in New Haven where I had played the previous year. The Bruins were just loaded with tough and physical players: Wensink, Jonathan, Secord, Cashman, and O'Reilly. I do remember getting into a couple of scraps that night.

GHL - You also fought the likes of Joey Kocur, Bob Probert and Willi Plett. Who was the toughest guy you fought? Who was the most overrated?

- The toughest guy that I fought would have to be Bob Probert. But I'd also put Larry Playfair in that category. There's also many more! I'll leave it at that.

GHL - What do you think about fighting in today's NHL? Is it on its way out of hockey? What do you think about the instigator rule?

- I think that they are trying to deter the fighting in today's NHL, but I think that it's a mistake. Whether people want to hear it or not, fans still enjoy it. The instigator rule sucks. It's almost like people are trying to trick you into dropping your gloves now. Sorry, but that's the way I feel.

GHL - We've heard this a lot lately - there is not as much respect on the ice as there used to be. Do you think this is true?

- Absolutely. There's no respect left. Clean hit gets retaliated on now. why? I don't understand it. Hitting always has and always will be part of hockey. If you keep your head down, you deserve to get hit.

GHL - As a defenseman who was the toughest forward to stop? Gretzky? Lemieux?

- Individually, I would go with Lemieux. He was big, strong, and had the moves.

GHL - What advice would you give to young defensemen today? What should they work on most?

- The game is faster in this day and age. Your decision making has to be quick. Move the puck fast to get it going up the ice. As long as the puck isn't in your end of the ice, they can't score against you. It's all about speed now a days. I do feel sorry for the stay at home defensemen that can't touch the men in front of the net, that's ridiculous.

GHL - Would you recommend young players go to the Canadian junior leagues or US College?

- Not everybody makes it to the NHL. It's a tough call. If you're a really good player, your best way to the NHL would be through the Canadian Juniors. If you're looking to get an education and have preparation for the event that you may not make it to the NHL, I would recommend the college route.

GHL - After one season in the NHL you were traded to Hartford, from New York, the city you truly loved. How hard was that to deal with?

- At first it was very hard to deal with. Hartford was a struggling franchise in the NHL. I had a tough time coming from, what I consider a first class organization in New York. Things were just a bit different in Hartford and I'll leave it at that.

GHL - You spent 4 pretty good years in Hartford. What was your favorite memory of the Whalers?

- Winning the Budweiser Cup for the best defenseman in my first year, thanks to Mark Howe. Howe was my partner and he made it pretty easy.

GHL - You played with some pretty good players there. Could you briefly comment on a few:

- Ron Francis. You could just tell that he had the knowledge of the game. He was just a smart hockey player. Just a solid and steady center. His Hall of Fame induction proves that.

- Mark Howe. Very, very underrated and fantastic player. He could skate and shoot. Like I said earlier, without Mark Howe I do not win that Budweiser Cup.

- Mark Johnson. A very talented and gritty player. He wasn't very big. We had some run ins early on, but we learned to appreciate each other.

- Greg Millen. Very athletic and a bit of a showman as a goaltender. Very good goaltender but I just wish he would have stayed in his crease more, haha.

GHL - You were moved to Toronto where you put in 4 more years with the Leafs. As a boy growing up in Southern Ontario, how special was it to pull on that Leafs jersey?

- It was great. I grew up in the city of Toronto. Although I was a Boston fan, I did watch the Leafs growing up. It was an honor to play for my home city.

GHL - What was your impression of Harold Ballard?

- He was a great businessman. I'm probably one of the only ones that will say this, but I liked Harold Ballard. I was one of the only players who could call Harold Ballard by his first name. Did he know much about hockey? Probably not. But he knew how to make money. He was a character.

GHL - What was it like to play with Wendel Clark?

- I had just gotten traded to Leafs and Wendel was drafted the same year. He was just a fireball his first season. Hitting, fighting, and scoring. Just a tough kid from Western Canada. He didn't have the size but he had the stones to take on anyone. Sometimes I look back and wonder had he not taken on everyone, would his back be OK? I warned him in his first year that he can't keep going after all the tough guys all the time. He had to pick and choose his spots better. Unfortunately, as time went on, his back started to give out on him, as we all know. It was great to play with him.

GHL - Your time in Toronto was a bit mixed, with you struggling for ice time at times. What happened in Toronto?

- I have to disagree with you about struggling for the ice time. When I was healthy, I played a regular shift - and more. I believe that my injuries, and I had a few, kept me out of a lot of games. Ice time was never a problem there when I was healthy.

GHL - What was the worst injury you ever had?

- I tore my groin and part of the muscle came off the pelvis bone. It took the Leaf doctors over a season to finally figure out what was wrong. I believe it was the beginning of the end of my career once I got that injury. I was never the same after that.

GHL - After a brief stint in Detroit, you retired. How tough was the transition from hockey to retirement?

- It's tough. For all these stars of the game, there are more people like me that played the game. I wasn't particularly happy about the NHL when I retired. I think a lot of guys feel that way when it's finally done.

GHL - You enrolled in a NHL/NHLPA program to help ease the transition to "real" life, learning broadcasting. Do many players take advantage of this program?

- Not as many as there should be. I think it's a great experience. We, as hockey players, felt in control when we were on the ice. When you're in a studio though, you feel like a rookie again. It was tough, but worth it.

GHL - You work on broadcasts at Quinnipiac. How did you get involved in that? Are you hoping to move up the ranks, perhaps all the way back to the NHL?

- I got involved with it through the Life After Hockey Program. One of the teachers there was Bill Schweizer, who has covered the NFL, NHL, MLB, and NCAAMB. He asked me if I would like to try it and I said "sure". It's been a great experience. It depends on "moving up in the ranks". I don't want to say never.

GHL - You also have taken up new media, writing for The Fourth Period and now you have your own blog, Kotsy's Korner. What made you decided to write online? What is the best thing about blogging?

- The Life After Hockey Program, doing the radio at Quinnipiac, and being encouraged by many people gave me the motivation to give blogging a try. I get to see every Rangers game as well either in person at MSG or on TV. The Rangers are my first love, so I chose to focus my blog primarily around them. The best thing about blogging is getting to speak my mind and getting to hear the responses from the fans. I really enjoy interacting with the fellow Rangers and NHL fans that come onto my blog.

GHL - Have you always been a writer?

- No, I have not. It's not that easy!

GHL - You have one son, Cody. Does he play hockey?

- No, he never played hockey. He was a great High School Football Player though and he is the designer of Kotsy's Korner. I owe a lot to him.

1 comment:

Graham Clayton said...

As well as Kotsy's Korner, Chris has his own webiste as well:

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