There was early Dave Babych, the junior superstar, the 2nd overall draft pick and the offensive defenseman. And then there was the later Dave Babych, a really solid defensive rearguard who quietly but effectively remained an solid defender.
Babych, whose jersey #44 was every bit his trademark as his bushy moustache, was the top rated defenseman in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft. He was also the consensus #2 overall prospect, trailing only Canadian Major Junior Hockey League player of the year, Doug Wickenheiser.
History might suggest that Denis Savard should have been the first overall pick, or that Larry Murphy and Paul Coffey were the better defensemen. After all, all three made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But the Winnipeg Jets were convinced that the 6’3″ 215 complete package was the best player in the draft.
Babych grew up in Edmonton, dreaming of playing in the NHL alongside his brother Wayne. Dave would dominate with Portland of the WHL, combining size and skating and puck movement. He was a gifted offensive blueliner, but also a very good positional defender.
Babych joined the Jets in 1980. It was not easy for the 19 year old rookie, as the Jets were the league’s worst team and too much pressure was placed upon the young Babych. Still, he was Winnipeg’s best player, posting 44 points and representing the Jets in the NHL all star game. He would post 4 consecutive successive seasons of at least 57 points, including a career high 74 (13 goals and 61 assists) in 1982-83.
Despite his personal successes in Winnipeg, he remained a league secret. The Jets improved, but were never serious contenders in the old Smythe Division. Babych’s scoring exploits were also dwarfed by the likes of Ray Bourque, Mark Howe, Murphy and especially Paul Coffey. The Jets grew impatient, and traded their defensive kingpin to Hartford in November, 1985, receiving rugged winger Ray Neufeld in return.
Babych played 5 and 1/2 seasons in Hartford, suffering from the same anonymity and lack of team success. His scoring prowess also went down in the lower scoring Adams Division, but he was probably the best defenseman the NHL Whalers ever had.
In 1990 it looked as though his career may have been over. Having been able to escape the injury troubles that plague his brother, the 10 year veteran had his wrist fused. It was doubtful if he’d ever be able to shoot a hockey puck again.
The Whalers dropped him, but Pat Quinn and the Vancouver Canucks gave Babych a chance to reclaim his NHL career. He was able to bounce back very nicely, playing 7 seasons in Vancouver. Babych supplied veteran leadership and a steadying influence in the back end, though he never scored more than 32 points.
The 32 points came in the 1993-94 season, which also hosted Babych’s career highlight. Forming a reliable pairing with Gerald Diduck, Babych helped the Canucks reach his only Stanley Cup finals. The Canucks came within a goal post in game 7 of winning the Stanley Cup, but the chalice would escape Babych’s grasp.
Babych is eternally grateful to Pat Quinn for giving him a chance to get his career back on track and to play for 10 more years during the big money era.
“Luckily Pat Quinn took a chance on me,” Babych told Jeff Rud in the book Canucks Legends.
“(After the wrist surgery) you couldn’t stickhandle the same way, you couldn’t move the puck the same way, you couldn’t shoot the same way. So you knew if you didn’t change your game you were kind of hooped.
“Pat basically told me: ‘Babs, I don’t care if you get a point or score a goal. I really don’t car. I just want you to play solid hockey.”
Babych lasted seven years in Vancouver before he was exiled, like Quinn and so many members of that 1994 team before him, by new owners John McCaw and coach Mike Keenan.
Babych would play parts of two more seasons in Philadelphia, but a broken foot proved to be mighty cumbersome to Babych. As it turned out, the Flyers medical staff misdiagnosed the injury and rushed him back to service. Arguing successfully that the misdiagnoses prematurely ended his career, Babych was awarded $1.37 million in a civil lawsuit against the Flyers.
Dave Babych will likely go down in hockey history as a forgotten man. That is unfortunate as Babych was an upper echelon defender in the 1980s and very solid NHL citizen. It total he played 1195 NHL games, scoring 142 goals and 723 points.
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