Catching Up With: Tom Chorske

Tom Chorske played 596 NHL games over 11 seasons, spending 2 years with the Ottawa Senators.  Like our last interview guest, Lance Pitlick, Chorske was a member of the first Senators team to qualify for the post-season.  He was much traveled in his NHL career, suiting up for the Canadiens, Devils, Senators, Islanders, Capitals Flames and Penguins.  I was able to track Chorske down this week and he was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer a some questions about his career, from high school to his time in Ottawa and on to his second career in business and color commentary.

As usual, my questions and comments are in RED, while Tom’s responses are in black.

 

Let’s go back to the beginning.  You were a two sport star in High School.  Did you have any thoughts of choosing football over hockey?

I had fun in football, I played quarterback and I had some success at the local level.  I was All-Conference one season but hockey was really my dominant sport.  I think any of the football scouts knew that and I really wasn’t a big time football player, certainly not a Division 1 quarterback.  Had I not had hockey, I probably would have pursued football a little harder and maybe could have played defensive back or something.

You were Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey in High School (in 1985).  Tell me of the importance of that honor, and what it meant at the time?

Yeah, well I was the very first one named, so I guess that is a little bit of a distinction, but an award doesn’t mean so much when there is no history to it.  But it was presented to be by the late Herb Brooks, and there were several other long-time Minnesota High School coaches that were at the head table.  It was pretty well publicized and well attended so it was kind of a big deal.  Looking back over the years the players that have been named Mr. Hockey since then, the award has gained quite a bit of notoriety here in Minnesota so it is pretty meaningful now.  Its kind of a fun fact that I was the first one.  I am behind the award now, I am involved with the banquet and the presentation of the winner every year now.   The players that have come behind me have all been division 1 hockey players and in some instances have gone on to play in the NHL as well.

Yes, when you look at the history of the award and some pretty good high school players have won it (Brian Lee, Paul Martin, Ryan McDonagh, Jeff Taffe, Darby Hendrickson).

Yeah, and there are some players who were nominated and didn’t win, and went on to have nice hockey careers.

You were drafted in the first round (16th overall) by the Montreal Canadiens.  Did you attend the draft in person?

You know, I didn’t.  I was projected to be an early second rounder and really at that time it was never presented to me that I should go to the draft.  I don’t think it was ever talked about by my parents, they weren’t ever thinking about it.  I went to the draft this year (in Minnesota), and it has probably gained a little bit (more) hoopla now, the magnitude of it.  Looking back I think had I gone to the draft, which was in Montreal, and I was drafted by the Canadiens, I don’t know if I would have been prepared for it.  I would have been a little overwhelmed and under-prepared to handle the media.  So in some regards it was probably good that way, although it might have opened my eyes a lot too.  It might have been fun to have been there for that.   It was pretty meaningful to have been drafted in the first round, and by the Montreal Canadiens.

Were you committed to the University of Minnesota at the time you were drafted?

The Golden Gophers

It was after my senior year of high school, so yes I had committed to the University.

I don’t believe the CHL was the destination back then for US players that it is now, but did Montreal have any input on where you played?

At that time I think they were very comfortable with their draft picks playing in the WCHA in college.  Their second round pick, Todd Richards, was also going to Minnesota.  I think they were comfortable with the level of play in the WCHA at that time.  There also wasn’t a lot of US high school kids going up to play in the Juniors.

Now you see quite a few players, even ones that have committed to NCAA schools , are leaving to go to the CHL when they get drafted.

It is much more common now.  It wasn’t as common back then.  We had the USHL, which was mostly for kids that hadn’t quite gotten a scholarship to a Div 1 school yet.   Now kids are leaving their high school teams for the USHL, it has become a very strong feeder program.

I want to bring up what is probably one of the lower points in your career.  Can you talk about the 1988 US Olympic team tryouts?

Yeah, that was really disappointing , because I had my heart set on playing in the Olympics.  When you are younger and making your “wish list” of things you want to accomplish in hockey, it was up there on it. I was like the last player cut and it was probably fairly done.  I didn’t perform as well as I needed to and all things being equal I think they started to look at regions too, how many Minnesotans, how many New Englanders do we have?  I hadn’t separated myself from anyone.  It was kind of a tough call, but I kind of saw it coming.  As I was coming down the home stretch (to the final cuts) it was affecting my play.  I lost some confidence and I was pressing a little bit. So it was disappointing, but once it was over and done I just kind of went back to the drawing board.  I got determined that I was going to go back for one more year of university and try to have a fantastic season and hopefully win a national championship and then turn pro after that.

So did you win that National Championship?

Lost it in overtime.  So that was two big setbacks in about a year’s time.

So did you use that for motivation as you went ahead in your career?

Yeah, I did.  That one was tough, to lose that National Championship.  I had had a bit of an injury that year too, otherwise I think I would personally have had an even stronger season.  I still felt like I had my NHL career, at least the opportunity to have a career, still in front of me, so I turned my attention to that.

Can you tell me what you remember about your first NHL game?

It was pretty nerve-wracking, playing at the Forum and putting on the Habs sweater.   Pat Burns was our coach, and I was surrounded by a bunch of good guys.  I think I was playing with Brian Skrudland and Mike McPhee. Those guys were really nice, and tried to make it easier for me and help me along.  It was really exciting, and just a cool feeling when you get to step on the ice for your first NHL game.

A young Canadien

What about your first goal?

I think it was about 7 or 8 games into the season.  We were playing the Boston Bruins at the Forum, and I don’t remember all the details, but I think I got the puck and coming down the right side and I fired a slap shot and it beat Reggie Lemelin far side on the ice.  That is a big moment for me too, especially scoring it at the Forum.  Whenever anyone asks me, I just have to say what a cool moment it was to do it at the old Forum, playing for the Habs.

Fast forwarding a bit to the 1995 season, where you won a Stanley Cup in with the Devil.  What was that feeling like?

The thing about that, was in 1994 we had lost the Eastern Conference championship to the Rangers in double overtime.  So we got about as close as you can get to getting to the finals, only to lose.  Then to bounce back and the next year to get there was really satisfying.  For me the fact that I had been there for 4 seasons, the year I got there they were still in the midst of coming out of their “Mickey Mouse” days, as Gretzky called them.  They had a foundation of players there, Bruce Driver, John MacLean, Ken Daneyko.  Chris Terreri was the goalie at the time.   Lou Lamoriello had put together a good base of players and then I was fortunate enough to be added to the team and given the opportunity and found a spot on the team.  Then we kind of

A highlight in anyone's career

grew from there, every year we were getting better and better and added pieces like Scott Stevens, who came in the same year as me, and Randy McKay.   Then some young players came up like Billy Guerin, Brian Rolston and obviously Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer.  We all just started to gel and those two seasons in 94 and then in 95, that was a really cool process to be a part of.  I take that with me too, wherever I go.

Did you get to have the Cup for a day?

Yeah, I actually had it for 2 days here in Minneapolis. I had the opportunity to have several gatherings and visits, took it to some hockey rinks, to some bars and restaurants and some family and friends’ homes.  It culminated in a downtown party, so lots of good memories there.  I still see people who remember being at a party with the Cup, it is something that people never forget.

Yes, the Cup is in Ottawa right now with Chris Kelly and Peter Chiarelli.  It is quite the attraction.  So the next year you came to Ottawa.  What were your first impressions of the City and the team?  It wasn’t a very good team at the time.

Yeah it was one of the worst teams in the league, so I went from the best team to the worst.  That was tough, but I understood that the Devils were trying to make some room for players and I also understood why the Senators were interested in bringing me on board.  So that is how you have to view it, as you are in demand from a team that is looking to make improvements and climb in the standings.  When I got there, there was still a lot of work to be done.  I wasn’t going to change it myself.  The coaching staff changed twice that year, and the General Manager changed as well, and we were still playing in the old building (Civic Centre).  So it took a little while to build the management, build the coaching staff and then build the team.   Ultimately, I guess I was there for the start of it, maybe in there a little bit too early.  But my second season there, we move into the Corel Centre, and make the playoffs for the first time in the (rebirthed) era.  I take some pride in being part of that as well.

You were definitely a part of two of the most interesting season in Senators history, with the season of 3 coaches and then being part of the first playoff team.  Can you tell me about the local legend and the special role you played down the stretch in helping make the playoffs the first time?

Yeah, the Buddah!  The Buddah was a lot of fun, something that kind of happened by accident.  I had picked up the Buddah at the All-Star break.  I was the player rep for the NHLPA, so I represented the Senators at the player meetings, that were always held at the All-Star game.  So I was in San Francisco at some little shop and I picked it up.  They had good luck ones, and good health ones, and all these different Buddha’s that you could pick from.  So I picked a good luck one and after that I think I scored 13 goals in the next 30 games or something.  Finally one of the reporters asked me about it you know (asking) “what do you attribute your scoring to?” and the Buddha was there, and I just looked up and said “maybe it’s this Good Luck Buddha I bought” and all of a sudden it’s a big story.  It was right around the end of the season and going into the playoffs and they ran with it.  For the most part it was a lot of fun and I know there were some people in the Bhuddist community that didn’t appreciate it but the fans had a lot of fun with it and people still remember it so its great.

Besides the first playoff experience in Ottawa, what are your other Senators memories, good or bad?

On to the Senators!

Opening up the brand new building.  There weren’t as many new buildings then, so it was kind of a big deal.  It made coming to the rink feel really classy, and very professional.   I became pretty good friends with some of the players on those teams, had a lot of fun.   We didn’t win a lot of games (at the start) but made the playoffs.  Getting to know Daniel Alfredsson was kind of a treat.  He has gone on to become such a great player, captain, leader and first class professional athlete in my opinion.   Sean Hill was there, Ted Drury and we had a good little core of guys that were young enough to have some fun but old enough to know we were part of something that was kind of cool.  Playing for Jacques Martin, I really respected him.  I thought he did a really good job as a coach.  My memories of Ottawa are nothing but real good ones.  I frankly wish it would have lasted a little bit longer. But some of that was a little bit of a change in management and some of it was probably  my own doing.  It was a great experience there.

How would you describe your style of game?

Probably moments of brilliance with my skating ability and some offensive ability.  I could always put up somewhere between 15-20 goals, then I started to take a lot of pride in my penalty killing ability.  So I was that guy who was a penalty killer as opposed to a power play guy.  But I could put up some offense and I tried to pride myself on a respectable plus/minus number and often played against some of the other teams’ better players because I could skate with them and shut them down.  So while I wish I had put up 20+ goal seasons more regularly, and done a few things differently, I was kind of a hybrid combination of a good defensive player who could provide some offense and occasionally some big goals and some shorthanded goals.  I don’t know if that falls into any one category, but (that’s what I was).

Is there anyone playing in the league now that would remind you of yourself?

I’ve never thought tons about it, I more look at players now and wish I had played more like “him”, with some of “his” attributes.  I certainly would take “his” paycheck. Players today, there are really some fun players to watch.  Players that are dynamic with their skills like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and then you’ve got some of the big power forwards.  The players today, there is a lot of skill, and a lot of speed.

When I was talking with Lance Pitlick, he mentioned that most players seem to go through a 1 or 2 year period after retiring, of “what next”?  Did you go through a similar predicament?

I think everyone does.  If you play the game that long and really identify with it, you felt like you loved the game and gave a lot to it, then things change.  I took about a year and a half, and went back to university.  I had started my degree, and I was awfully close.  I just went back and kind of took my time getting my degree which I got that taken care of.  Then I started talking to people about what to do in a second career and I ended up in a sales and business development role with a local company.  I learned a little bit about selling and about business and our business community and that was pretty good.  I was treated

Chorske the Colour Analyst

very well and had a good mentor there in my manager.  Then I had the opportunity to go back to New Jersey and was offered the radio (color analyst) job there and I was the analyst for the Devils in the 06-07 season.  I did it with the hopes of maybe morphing into operations with the Devils and they were opening a new arena there too.  I didn’t give it a whole long period of time, I did the radio thing for one year and it didn’t look like there was going to be enough opportunity to go inside the organization, so I decided to head back to Minnesota and re-immerse myself in a business capacity.   I am in the insurance world and I work at a great insurance agency and employee benefits group.

You are also doing some analysis on TV now also?

Yeah, that been a lot of fun.  I got thrown into an opportunity to work with Fox Sports North, they cover our local University of Minnesota Gopher  hockey team which has a pretty rich tradition, and its where I played.  They also do the Minnesota Wild, and two years ago I did a little bit, and last year I did about half of the games with the Wild.  By the end of last year I guess I started to understand how to do the job better and get a little confidence at it.  Its been a lot of fun being back around the game in that capacity.  I see the players regularly and when I am at the games and not on the air I am in the press box and I run into managers, agents, player that are scratched or hurt and media types that are travelling with the visiting teams.  So I am seeing old faces, familiar faces, and that has been a lot of fun too.

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So there is our second installment of “Catching Up With”.  If you missed my first installment, you can read my interview with Lance Pitlick HERE.

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Topics: Daniel Alfredsson, Herb Brooks, Jacques Martin, John MacLean, Lance Pitlick, Martin Brodeur, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, Randy McKay, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, Sean Hill, Ted Drury, Tom Chorske

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