FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

Bruce HeadshotBy Bruce Berlet

Athletes often have unique ways to get involved with the sports that they love.

Nick Evlampios Fotiu got plenty of enjoyment from football, soccer and boxing while growing up in Staten Island, but a bit of divine intervention helped the rugged New Yorker develop a desire to play hockey.

Fotiu loved the New York Rangers so much that he would follow their every move and spend more than an hour each way taking a bus, a ferry and a train from his home to Madison Square Garden, where he would sit in the cheap “blue seats” in the upper reaches of The World’s Most Famous Arena.

And on Sundays, Fotiu would stop in Greenwich Village to visit his grandmother for a pasta dinner and then travel to MSG to watch a team that occasionally challenged for the Stanley Cup but didn’t win pro hockey’s most cherished prize for more than half a century.

Ironically, a few years later, Fotiu would ride the same train for a totally different reason.

“It’s ironic how I was taking that train as a kid to watch the Rangers and ended up taking it to play for the Rangers,” Fotiu said.

But not before that night while entering MSG at 15 when Fotiu’s journey through life changed dramatically in the start of a quest to defy all odds to reach the pinnacle of hockey.

“When I walked into Madison Square Garden, God told me this was what I was going to do, play for the New York Rangers, and I’d never played hockey in my life,” Fotiu recalled. “The Rangers honored me and Brian Mullen last year, and I got up in front of 250 people and told that story. I said, ‘You can believe me if you want or you don’t have to believe me, but this is what happened.’ ”

With God’s helping hand and guidance, the son of a Greek father and Italian mother began to occasionally rise in the middle of the night and spend three hours taking two buses and two subways back and forth from Staten Island to Skateland, a rink in New Hyde Park. He also took a bus over the Verrazano Bridge and two subway rides to the Coney Island rink, all while hiding an ax in his bag.

“I’d go anywhere where I could get ice – Coney Island, Long Island, anywhere,” the 58-year-old Fotiu said. “I’d go at 3:30 in the morning three times a week so I could get extra ice time. And I took the ax because I was 15-16 years old and didn’t have anyone to take me anywhere. I had to do it all by the subway system, so coming home at 11-12 o’clock, I needed something for protection. People don’t even want to get on the train at 6 o’clock much less midnight.

“Then when I got my license, I’d drive to Long Island, skate for 11/2-to-2 hours and then go back home and work construction with my godfather. When I look at my history and background, it’s an amazing thing that God got me involved with hockey.”

While growing up in Staten Island, Fotiu attended St. Johnsville Academy and New Dorp High School, where he was all-city in soccer and began boxing at 17. He started playing competitive hockey in 1971 for the New Hyde Park Arrows in the Rangers-sponsored Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association and attended summer hockey camps run by Rangers’ Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert. When his favorite team practiced at Skateland, he carried the players’ stick and told them he would make it to the NHL one day.

Fotiu eventually traded in his work boots and shovel for skates and sticks, and Rangers general manager Emile Francis, who took over the Hartford Whalers in 1983, got Fotiu involved with the Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association. Then Francis got Fotiu a job with the Cape Cod Cubs of the North American Hockey League, where the rugged left winger made an immediate impression, getting 12 goals and 24 assists in 72 games. Not to mention 371 penalty minutes, the most anyone in pro hockey had that year and reflective of his boxing prowess, including the PAL heavyweight champion in 1972.

As the 1973-74 season wound down, Fotiu was promoted to the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins. Then he signed with the New England Whalers for the playoffs after part-owner and managing general partner Howard Baldwin and general manager Jack Kelley called Francis asking if he would let Fotiu go so he join sign with the World Hockey Association team.

“I had a hard time leaving Providence because (coach) John Muckler didn’t want me to go,” Fotiu said. “But I told him I had to go so I could sign with Hartford, so Emile called Muckler and told him to let me go. I was in Nova Scotia getting ready to play against the Voyageurs when I was signed by the Whalers.”

Three teams, three leagues, three contracts and now Fotiu was in hockey heaven.

“Everything happened so quickly,” Fotiu said. “I remember showing up at the Big E (in Springfield) and signing a contract before the game. It was amazing after one year of (pro) hockey I walk in the Whalers dressing room and they have my jersey hanging up, and it’s the playoffs. All of a sudden, I’m in the room with Rick Ley, Al Smith, Jim Dorey, all the guys I watched in the National Hockey League when I was 16-17 years old.”

Fotiu played two seasons with the Whalers before the Rangers bought his contract for $50,000 and he had to play two exhibition games against the Whalers, which is how the WHA got to play the NHL. He signed with the Rangers on July 23, 1976 and was an instant hit in New York as the fans embraced the local kid because of his work ethic and fearlessness on the ice. But contrary to some reports, Fotiu was not the first native New Yorker to play for a New York team. Rangers, yes. All of New York, no. Billy Burch, born in Yonkers, played for the New York Americans in the 1920 and 1930s.

After three seasons with the Rangers, Fotiu was claimed by the Hartford Whalers in the 1979 expansion draft. Rangers’ management wasn’t happy to see Fotiu head 100 miles northeast, so he was reacquired on Jan. 15, 1981 for a fifth-round draft pick, which turned out to be Bill Maguire. In 1982 and 1984, Fotiu won the Frank Boucher Trophy from the Rangers Fan Club as the team’s most popular player on and off the ice.

Fotiu had a diminished role with the Rangers in 1983-84 and 1984-1985, then had four goals and two assists in nine games with the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks before being traded to the Calgary Flames on March 11, 1986. Fotiu, Joel Otto and future Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Mullen, from the “Hell’s Kitchen” section of New York, played against Wayne Gretzky’s line on the archrival Edmonton Oilers.

“Calgary traded for me at 34 years old for a sixth-round pick (in 1987) because they thought I was one of the ingredients to beat Edmonton,” Fotiu said. “And it turned out they were right. We outscored Gretzky’s line, beat them in the playoffs and then lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals. So that was pretty neat.”

Former Wolf Pack general manager Al Coates, then with the Flames, said it was so close to being so much more in the team’s first trip to the finals.

“If Nick hadn’t gotten hurt, we may well have beaten Montreal in the finals,” Coates said the day that Fotiu was named an assistant coach under Ryan McGill. “John Kordic and Chris Nilan weren’t afraid of Tim Hunter. They were terrified of Nicky.”

Before the trade, Fotiu met Giants assistant coach Bill Belichek, now the New England Patriots head coach, who told Fotiu that he wanted him to play for the Giants.

“I was about 29 or 30, and he told me that he would make me an unbelievable linebacker,” Fotiu said. “Maybe I could because I was pretty good at anything I did.”

Ironically, Fotiu went on to play for the Flyers and Oilers, two of the bitterest rivals of the teams he played for. He retired after the 1989-90 season, shortly before his 38th birthday. He finished with 16 goals, 26 assists and 399 penalty minutes in 83 NAHL games and was 5-4-238 in 110 WHA games and 60-77-1,362 in 646 NHL games.

If Fotiu hadn’t had that visit from God, he might have got into boxing, which he started to do to stay in shape and train for tournaments.

“When I was a little kid, my father always taught me how to fight and protect myself,” Fotiu said. “Then one day I was at the gym and they were watching me fight and asked if I wanted to box in a tournament. I boxed in that event and then won the PAL heavyweight championship at 19.”

The pugilistic prowess helped formulate Fotiu’s aggressive demeanor on the ice.

“At least I could protect my teammates, which is what it was all about,” Fotiu said. “But after I was the most penalized player in hockey with the Cape Cod Cubs, I averaged a lot less (fights) per year. The first year was a stepping stone for what I could do.”

Few players wanted to fight Fotiu because of his boxing background, but he didn’t like being called a goon.

“I played hockey,” Fotiu said. “If anybody wanted to fight, I’d fight, but the main thing was to protect my teammates.”

The Flyers’ Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, one of hockey’s notorious enforcers, wrote in his book that Fotiu was the only person he was afraid to fight in his NHL career.

Fotiu said Kim Clackson (1,302 penalty minutes in 377 NHL and WHA games with four teams) and Jack Carlson (1,111 PIM in 508 NHL and WHA games with five teams) were the toughest players he fought.

“I don’t think there was anybody tougher than that that I had to face,” Fotiu said.

Fittingly, Fotiu and Carlson were centerpieces in arguably the most famous brawl in hockey history in the 1975 WHA playoffs between the Whalers and Minnesota Fighting Saints. Minnesota defenseman Bill Butters, who played with Whalers after the Fighting Saints folded, precipitated a 32-minute, bench-clearing melee when he sucker-punched Larry Pleau.

“Everybody had just kind of quieted down, and when Pleausy looked away, Butters suckered him,” Whalers defenseman/left wing Alan Hangsleben said.

Butters later admitted that after a lackluster first period by the Fighting Saints, he and some of the other tough Minnesota players had been instructed by coach Harry Neale, who later coached the Whalers, to stir things up to get the team out of its doldrums.

Butters, an assistant coach for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team after being a spokesman for Hockey Ministries, succeeded in record fashion. After Pleau was basically attacked, Ley jumped off the bench to help. So did Fotiu. Soon so did everyone else.

Moments later, Carlson, a featured character in the movie “Slapshot” with his brothers, sucker-punched Fotiu. The ensuing highlights included Fotiu ending up on top of Carlson on the Fighting Saints bench; goalies Al Smith and John Garrett duking it out at center ice; and Whalers broadcaster Bob Neumeier’s call of the greatest brawl in franchise history being captured on the 45 rpm flip side of hockey’s most famous song, “Brass Bonanza,” which resurfaced as the theme song of the Connecticut Whale a month ago.

Here’s the audio of the aforementioned fight…
Here’s a special about it…

Not surprisingly, Fotiu became the first winner of the fans’ Favorite Whaler vote.

“Nick saved my ass,” chuckled Garry Swain, a teammate for three years and now vice president of corporate sales for Whalers Sports and Entertainment who set up Ley’s winning goal in the game. “I was about to get in my third fight, and I ran into (tough guy) Curt Brackenbury. I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ We somehow ended up in their bench, and Nicky came and got him away from me, which was great.”

When informed of Swain’s sentiments about the fight, Fotiu laughed and said, “I saved a lot of peoples’ ass.”

Hangsleben, a teammate of Fotiu for five seasons, jokingly called the longest bout in hockey history “old-time hockey” and won’t ever forget how the teams got back to Minnesota – on the same plane.

“We were in the opposite ends of the plane, and no one said a word,” said Hangsleben, who has been a general superintendent for a large roofing company, Gordon Contractors Inc. in Landaham, Md., for nearly 30 years. “Can you imagine the war that would have gone on in the plane if the teams sat near each other with all those ding dongs like Bill Butters and Jack and Steve Carlson on that team?”

Fotiu said his most favorite memories with the Whalers were playing for the team, playing with Hall of Famer Gordie Howe and being overwhelmed by the fans the first time he stepped on the Hartford Civic Center ice.

“The Whalers, especially Jack Kelley, gave me a chance to play and showed me what life was like in the pros,” Fotiu said. “And the fans were just great to me.”

Fotiu reciprocated by tossing pucks into the stands at the end of warm-ups. It’s a ritual that he carried over to his days with the Rangers, where he tried to reach the “blue seats” where he had sat as a young fan and pucks normally didn’t land during games.

“I used to see little kids smile, and then the people looked forward to me throwing pucks,” Fotiu said. “It was just fun, just me and people in Hartford and then just me and the fans in Madison Square Garden. But we could go into any arena with a captive audience and make people feel good.

“I was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One minute I’m throwing pucks, feeling good, and the next minute I’m banging somebody against the boards.”

Or throwing punches, though Fotiu said his fighting was blown out of proportion in his later years.

“When I got the NHL, I really didn’t have to fight that much,” he said. “People thought I fought all the time, but I think the most fights I had in one year was 12, then it was four. In the WHA, I had to prove myself, and obviously I did have some battles, but in the NHL it didn’t seem like I was fighting a lot.”

But Fotiu did get special enjoyment from trying to intimidate the opposition, especially when the Flyers visited Madison Square Garden one night.

“I knew it was going to be a tough game, so I told someone to let me know when the Flyers were coming off the bus,” Fotiu said.

In the meantime, Fotiu did four sets of 40 pushups, taped his wrists and got his arms all pumped up. Then he put on a tight T-shirt and stood near the door where the Flyers came in. He was sweaty and looked upset as he prepared his sticks for the game, knowing the Flyers would look at him and see his muscles bulging out.

“I kind of played my own mind games,” Fotiu said. “They thought I was just sawing sticks, but I had already done all this workout stuff. They’d start thinking, ‘Look at this freaking guy.’ ”

When the Flyers got ready for the game, Fotiu ran a lap around the concourse and dumped water on himself to make it appear he was sweating even more. Then he went near the Flyers locker room and told the trainers he wasn’t playing, that he just ran three miles to get warmed up.

Fotiu knew the Flyers players could hear what he was saying, and having set his trap, he buzzed around during warm-ups and made an immediate impression in the game.

“When I got my first shift, I came out like a bat out of hell, just banging guys and scaring the heck out of them,” Fotiu said. “I just knew they were on the bench saying, ‘Man, this freaking guy is nuts. He just ran three miles and look at him.’ They didn’t want anything to do with me anyway, but that was just my psychological thing.

“As long as nobody was touching or hurting my teammates, I really didn’t care. That’s what it was all about, protecting my teammates. As you get older, you start getting better and better.”

Hangsleben and Swain know Fotiu about as well as any former Whalers after doubling as his roommate in Hartford and on the road.

Hangsleben, a rugged defenseman and left wing named a Fan Favorite Whaler and Unsung Hero who also didn’t mind sticking up for teammates, played five seasons with Fotiu after meeting him at a hockey school in Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada.

“There was nothing there, just a rink,” Hangsleben recalled.

But Fotiu made quite a first impression.

“I knew Nick was going to be there as a (PAL) boxing champion, and when he showed up, here was this great big guy in a canary yellow leisure suit,” Hangsleben said with a chuckle. “When you’re a farm boy out of northern Minnesota, you’re going, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ”

But Hangsleben quickly learned Fotiu was anything but the second coming of Big Bird on Sesame Street.

“It was sure good to have Nicky on your team,” said Hangsleben, a general superintendent for a large roofing company, Gordon Contractors Inc. in Landaham, Md., for nearly 30 years. “There was no one better to go to war with than to have him on your side or at your back. Plus, he was my roommate at times, and I liked him a lot.”

Hangsleben also was among the few Whalers still on the ice after a game in Indianapolis during the 1975-76 season when the Racers suddenly shut the gate to the locker room so they could go after Fotiu. Three Racers jumped Fotiu, who had two tendons severed when Ted Scarf “accidently on purpose” stepped on the back of his hand.

“They wanted to start a war,” Hangsleben said. “Nicky’s hand was completely immobilized, and they had to reattach his tendons to his fingers that were going back in his arm.”

Fotiu needed 90 stitches to close the wound and was sidelined about three months, reducing his regular season to 49 games, though he did return to play 16 playoff games.

“That was a bad scene,” Fotiu said.

Swain remembers the soft and hard side of Fotiu.

Swain and his wife liked to visit Fotiu and his wife on Cape Cod, and Fotiu would get Swain to go clamming in the sand and collecting lobsters in 20 pots in the water.

“There was nothing mechanical on his boat, so it was all hand-over-hand,” Swain said. “So every time you went near Nicky, it was a workout, but he made the best clams casino that I can ever remember.”

Swain also will always remember that night at the Civic Center when Fotiu helped prevent bodily harm to the smallish center in the playoff game against the oxymoron named Fighting Saints.

“They had four or five really tough guys, and (physical play) is the way they liked to play,” Swain said. “That fight was nuts there for awhile, but Nicky saved my butt and made me a lot braver. When he was around, he probably made everybody a little bit tougher, and when we lost him, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in trouble now.’

“It was great to have him around, and he was pretty much there the whole time I was there.”

Swain said he felt fortunate to have Fotiu around for more than just protection. Fotiu kept bugging Swain about sharing his two-bedroom apartment in Simsbury.

“After I finally agreed, I thought I had absolutely nothing in common with the guy,” Swain said, laughing. “But we got along fine, and he got his grandmother’s spaghetti sauce from Staten Island. He’d come up with these great big white bottles of the stuff, looked like three gallons. We ate it about every other day for six months.

“We started out like Mutt and Jeff, but by the end of year, we were best buddies.”

But a year later, Fotiu got married and was gone – along with grandmother’s spaghetti sauce.

Fotiu ended his career as a player/coach of the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks in 1989-90 and then got into coaching fulltime.

Fotiu was coach of the ECHL’s Nashville Knights and Johnstown Chiefs, who played in the rink made famous by the “Slapshot,” and then was an AHL assistant coach and director of player development under Roy Sommer with the Kentucky Thoroughblades and Cleveland Barons for four years and with Ryan McGill with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers’ top affiliate, for three years. He also was an assistant coach for Team USA in the 2002World Championships and assisted Herb Brooks, author of “The Miracle on Ice” in the 1980 Winter Olympics, during training camp for the 2002 Olympics.

Fotiu_N_0910_Ins1Since 2005, Fotiu has scouted for the Rangers, done many appearances for Madison Square Garden and worked with youth hockey organizations while splitting time between an 18-acre family horse farm in Jamesburg, N.J., and East Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod.

Despite limited hockey skills, Fotiu is ranked No. 100 on the all-time list of Rangers in the book “100 Ranger Greats” (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). He will return to Hartford for the first time in three years on Wednesday to share stories and sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. before the Connecticut Whale plays the Portland Pirates, coached by former Whalers Kevin Dineen and Eric Weinrich.

“It’ll be nice to be back because the people in Hartford were always so nice to me,” Fotiu said. “I was a fan favorite and still keep in touch with some of them. Plus, I actually opened up both arenas.”

Yes, Fotiu and Ley are the only players who were with the New England Whalers when the new Hartford Civic Center opened Jan. 11, 1975 and with the Hartford Whalers when the enlarged Civic Center re-opened on Feb. 6, 1980 after the roof collapsed in 1978.

“I’ve got memories from both places,” Fotiu said

Here’s Fotiu tangling with his future boss, Jim Schoenfeld
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