Craig Coxe From Surfer To The NHL

Craig Coxe From Surfer To The NHL

Hockey was something that I never got enough of. I loved being around the rink from the earliest age. I actually, funny enough learned to play in Tucson, Arizona of all places. Dad was Canadian, and had taught me to skate at an early age.

It was around the age of Ten or Eleven when moved to California, and I just loved playing the game, and Dad could see it, so he told me right there and then that if I wanted to get better at it, I would need to work on things away from the rink. He had built a concrete slab in the backyard so we could work on my shots. We didn’t have the luxury being in California where we could just go down to the pond and play like back East, or in Canada, or any other cold climate for that matter.

My Father was the biggest influence I had in Hockey, and he laid out a plan of work that we could do out in sunny California like push-ups, sit-ups, shooting drills etc… so that I would be better when I did have my ice hockey practices and games.

It is quite common now that some California kids end up playing at a high level of Junior Hockey, and also in the USHL (United States Hockey League) but how this California kid ended up in Bellville, Ontario, Canada is quite a thing. My first stop in Canada was actually in St. Albert, Alberta just outside Edmonton. I had been seen at a midget tournament in Portland by a scout, and he wanted to talk to my dad about me going up there, so I went and tried out, and made the team. Doug Messier, who is Mark’s dad, was my coach at St, Albert, and with Gretzky playing with Mark, and also being one of the owners in Belleville, the connections for me were made, and he told them about me. I could have played in any of the 3 leagues (WHL, OHL, QMJHL) but I always wanted to play in the province where my father had come from, so needless to say it was an easy decision to go play In Ontario for the Belleville Bulls.

In terms of being drafted, that was an amazing experience in, and of itself. I had no idea what to expect, having been a player from California. The exposure to the Draft was nothing like it is today in terms of media exposure. The event took place in the Montreal Forum, and I was there with Mark Messier, his father Doug, who was my coach at the time in St. Albert, and I didn’t even own a suit. I had to borrow some clothes from the oldest son of the family I was living with at the time during the season. Out of nowhere the Detroit Red Wings call my name in the 4th Round, and I’m drafted into the NHL. The feeling was incredible. Coach Doug went down to the Red Wings table on the draft floor, and informed them that I was in the arena, so we went down and met all the executives and staff.

I’ve often been asked about going to training camps as a young player, and I was able to attend as an 18 year old with Detroit, and learn the ropes, so by the time I was leaving Juniors in Belleville, I knew the structure and what the pre-season camps are all about. In fact right before camp the coach of the Vancouver Canucks, the team that now owned my rights, Bill LaForge had phoned me and told me exactly what he was looking for. He wanted some young tough hockey players on his team. I was being brought in to be one of those guys, so I came in to camp in great shape. Interesting concept here, in that we were told not to fight with each other during camp. Didn’t make sense to go toe-to-toe with the guy who will be right by your side come season opener, so to speak. I played that first year down in the minor league team in Fredericton, and then got called up for 9 games during the season.

In pre-season camps, usually the young guys trying to make a name for themselves will fight with each other, and leave the veteran guy alone, but I do remember during my time in St. Louis, that a young Tony Twist who is now rated amongst the elite names of tough guys, came in and challenged veteran Todd Ewen about 4 times during camp. It all depends on the situation, and there’s no real rule or code to it. Guys are out there battling for jobs, so sometimes the veteran just has to answer the bell, and deal with it.

When I was entering into the league, I knew what was going to be required of me to get there and stay there. I was going to have to be in the tough guy role for the team in Vancouver. I came from a Belleville Bulls Team with Marty McSorley as my partner in crime. We had to have each other’s backs, and we did. I knew that I could play though, and this next section should serve as a lesson to younger players in all sports about the subject of limitations that others try and put upon you. In the beginning of my career as I mentioned, I knew that being tough and fighting would get me there, but as the years went on, and I earned some respect around the league, and a little free space out there to play, I wanted to be more of a contributor to the team. I had some coaches like Terry Crisp in Calgary, that had told me I didn’t need to fight as much, and that he’d like to see me contribute more. He believed that I could be a 3rd line or 4th line guy who could go out there play a regular shift, and not hurt my team. I was a guy early in my career who was first on the ice, and last off it, trying to improve my skills. If I would have stayed there, I believe my career in the NHL would have gone on longer, but unfortunately I was involved in the Doug Gilmour trade that brought him from St. Louis to Calgary, so off to Missouri I went, and this was a huge let down as Brain Sutter just wanted me there for one thing, and one thing only. To sit on the bench till he came over and tapped me on the shoulder, to go out and fight. I got sick of it. He set me back to when I was a young player just entering into the league, and I felt I could contribute. Many times when I did get a shift, I’d just go out there and try to make plays. I didn’t mind fighting. I enjoyed that part of the game, but I felt it was easier to do if I was also getting a regular shift rather than sitting and waiting all night to be tapped on the shoulder like when I was 20. The year before all of this was when I had been involved in the two fights that everyone talks about against Bob Probert, and Joe Kocur, so all Sutter wanted was for me to be his meathead and fight those division rivals on a regular basis. I wanted to contribute more than just that to my team. Some guys can just sit there and do that role, and some can’t. I mention these things in detail because I think it s so important for young athletes to be respectful to their coaches, but also stand up for what they believe they can offer to their team. Don’t settle for being the all-time right fielder, or the all-time left defender in soccer, or any of another hundred examples. Work hard on your skills, and show what you can offer. Hard work and sacrifice will get you your chance to shine. Sitting and complaining will keep you right where you are. Not happy.

As a player, I had nothing but the highest respect for Brian Sutter. He played balls to the wall, and was the kind of player that every team would want. His drive to win was 2nd to nobody. I just don’t respect him as a coach for how he treated me.

A big part of playing the role of “team guy” or enforcer is how you react before these games knowing what’s in store for you, and who you might have to throw em’ with. I can only speak for myself in this matter, but I was usually able to sleep the night before pretty well, but then after the morning skate, and meal, I’d never really have a good pre-game nap. In terms of the game itself, like in a situation where the media has built up an example of Pobert-Coxe 2 let’s say, it’s best to just go out there and get it done right off the hop (The start, for those non-hockey fans). Go out, and get a few hits in, and get right into the game was always best for me, but I played for teams, and not in an individual sport, so what was best for the team is the most important thing. I was always nervous before a game, and at 49 years old, I still get nervous, when I’m invited to play in Alumni games. You don’t want to go out and embarrass yourself.

One great highlight of my career, and something that can never be taken away, was when I got the First Goal in San Jose Sharks history…..and it was against my old team the Vancouver Canucks, in Vancouver. The boys before the game were posting 100.00 bills on the board for the first goal, as we were an expansion team. No one expected that it would be me, and somehow I never did get the money. (laughing) The Canuck goalie, Kirk McLean, who was a friend of mine told me after the game, that he was happy, that if it had to be anyone to do it, that it was me who scored. The Hockey Hall of Fame wanted the puck, but that puck was going nowhere else but to my father. He was the most influential person in my development as a player, and he deserved it.

Throughout my career, I never really got into the pranks that were played on the guys, for fear of retribution. It just wasn’t my thing to go and cut up some guy’s clothes, or any of the other things that go on between teammates, and of course what happens in the room, stays in the room, so I’m not saying anything, but there was one great story I’d love to share from my days in St Louis. We were just getting back from a week long road trip, and I hadn’t played too much, so as we’re getting off the plane, I’m with a few other guys who also hadn’t seen much action, and Asst. Coach Bob Berry announces that after this long road trip, me and the other few guys needed to go to the rink, and get some skating in. “Are you kidding me?” So after a little discussion, we end up going, and while we’re in the locker room, our General Manager Ron Caron comes down and decides to start playing trivia questions with us as we got dressed for practice. He goes on to stump us on a Gordie Howe question, so I jump up, and tell him to answer my trivia question. I asked him “What was the distance in miles from the Bat Cave to Gotham City” I have never seen players laugh so hard, as Ron just stood looking at me like I was crazy. For those of you that watched Batman and Robin, that stat was always listed on the screen. (laughing) He stormed out of the room, mumbling something in French, and all the boys applauded me. I mean, come on now. We’re already sitting in there annoyed we have to skate for like 45 minutes, and he comes in with this hockey trivia just to bug us.

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