Some fans — typically those of the Toronto Maple Leafs — absolutely loved Darcy Tucker.
Everyone else spent most of their time shouting less-than-creative rhymes for his last name.
Either way, he was impossible to ignore.
A ticking time bomb on skates, in any given game the fiery five-foot-10, 180-pound winger could explode with a devastating (maybe even borderline dirty?) body check, drop the gloves and then drop a player usually much larger than himself, or bang home a clutch goal, often directly after a cross-crease pass from legendary Leaf Mats Sundin.
He might even launch himself headfirst into the opposing team’s bench — just ask the Ottawa Senators.
There were certainly many memorable moments in the 1,015-game (including 68 playoff appearances) career of Tucker, who was drafted and debuted with the Montreal Canadiens, had stints with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche, but starred for the Maple Leafs for the majority of the 2000s.
For him though, it was his first NHL game — a 3-3 tie against the St. Louis Blues in the incomparable Montreal Forum on Jan. 13, 1996 — as one of two moments that stands out in his mind the most.
Drafted in the sixth round of the 1993 Entry Draft by the Habs, Tucker cracked the roster as a regular in the 1996-97 season, before being traded to the Tampa Bay Lighting during the 1997-98 campaign. He’d stick with Tampa until Feb. 9, 2000, when he was dealt to the Maple Leafs.
That, he said, was the other biggest moment of his career.
“It was a team that my dad grew up watching and liked,” he said of the Leafs.
Tucker was raised in Endiang, Alta., a tiny hamlet with a population of 15, as of the 2016 Census conducted by Statistics Canada. His family is still among that group.
Far from the largest player on the ice in the heyday of the hulking power forward, Tucker overcame that perceived disadvantage to become a major junior star, earning three Memorial Cup titles with the Kamloops Blazers, a team he captained for one season, along with a World Junior Hockey Championship gold medal. From there, he captured the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Trophy as American Hockey League rookie of the year after scoring 93 points in 74 games in his only season for the Fredericton Canadiens.
His NHL role became that of an agitator, who drew the ire of opposing players and fans, but he was also a six-time 20-goal scorer, including a career-high 28 goals in 74 games for Toronto in 2005-06. He was never the most skilled player on the team, but he became an undeniable icon in the city and among fans of the hockey club in general during his time there anyway for his fearless style of play.
Officially retiring on Oct. 1, 2010, he finished with 476 points (215G-261A) and 1,410 penalty minutes in 947 regular season games, with another 21 points (10G-11) and 81 PIM in his 68 post-season appearances.
Hockey Day in Canada
Tucker will be in Corner Brook for Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada this month, the event running from Jan. 17-20. He describes his role with Scotiabank as “one of their teammates,” alongside other ex-players like Lanny McDonald and Cassie Campbell-Pascall.
The group has been staging this event for a number of years now, which Tucker says he considers “an honour.”
“It’s just amazing hearing the stories of the people of the towns that we’re in, getting to meet them and greet them and have some conversations,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun for all of us.”
Tucker has played hockey on the island before, during his AHL days with Fredericton when St. John’s had a franchise and an NHL training camp with the Leafs, but unfortunately he might not lace up the skates in the Jan. 19 Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada NHL Alumni and Royals Classic, due to hip surgery over the summer, a repercussion of his dialed-to-11 style of play.
“Depending on how I’m feeling leading up to it,” he said. “We’ll see.”
He’s said he appreciates the rich tradition and the heritage of the province and always loved his visits. This upcoming one, he said, will be no different.
“It’s amazing, we have a lot of fun when we do this and we’re there right from the 16th to the 21st,” he said. “So we’re going to spend some good time in Corner Brook.”
It was definitely harder to break into the game as a smaller player back when he accomplished the feat, Tucker says, but said by the time his career was winding down, those types of players had already begun to establish themselves.
“I look at the game today, it’s a skilled game, fast-paced, good hands,” he said. “You’ve got kids come out of nowhere … these guys have skill coaches and skating coaches and all kinds of things.
“I’m just shocked at the amount of players that are so much better than I was even at a certain age, that don’t actually even get the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League,” he continued. “It’s such a more more skilled game and I marvel at the level these kids play at these days.”
He’s not sure what kind of opportunity would be presented to him if he were a young player in the same situation he found himself in back in the day. He certainly wouldn’t have had access to the same level of coaching, he says, growing up in a town of about 25 people at best at the time.
“We were basically, in those days, self-taught,” said the 42-year-old. “We went out on the backyard rink or the pond in Alberta and you played with the puck and things happened.”
He said the development process is so much more structured now, and even pointed to social media and YouTube as interesting advantages for kids who can sit and watch players from all over the world come up with new moves.
“Technology is a funny thing, man,” Tucker said. “Get kids in front of a TV and they can digest a lot of information in a short period of time.”
‘Through and through Leaf’
One of the fortunate ones to wear the sweaters of both the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, Tucker said both storied organizations have great fan bases, but he lives in Toronto now with his wife and three children and describes himself as a “through and through Leaf.”
He said it’s great to see where the team is at in its development with its young players right now and he believes it’s only a matter of time until they’re going to accomplish “something good.”
“We’re all fans now,” he said with a laugh. “We sit in the alumni box and we’re all cheering for that thing to get done that needs to get done.”