Friday, July 9, 2010

Brian Engblom

Brian Engblom was a wonderfully classic defenseman. He dominated by using skillful defense in an era of high scoring offensive rearguards.

Brian, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, starred in just two seasons at the University of Wisconsin in the mid 1970s. The Montreal Canadiens, known for their great collection of blue liners, thought enough of Brian to use their 3rd draft selection, 22nd overall in the 1975 entry draft.

Brian turned professional immediately, but was used at the minor league level in his first two pro seasons because of the great depth the Habs possessed in the NHL with the likes of Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard.

It wouldn't be long before Brian would prove he was too good for the American Hockey League. While playing in Nova Scotia in 1976-77 Brian dominated the entire league. He scored 8 goals and 50 points, but his brainy play without the puck really set him apart. He was named as the AHL's best defenseman.

Engblom actually finished that season in Montreal. After Nova Scotia was knocked out of their playoffs, a few of the key prospects were brought up to Montreal to experience the playoff run towards their 1977 championship. Engblom was the luckiest of prospects, earning the right to play in 2 playoff games - his first two games of his soon to be brilliant NHL career.

Engblom would sip champagne from the Stanley Cup in his first three seasons in Montreal. He would learn a lot from the stars of the dynasty era like Robinson and Lapointe.

"I think coming up to the Canadiens when I did was excellent preparation," said Brian. "That was in 1978 and they had guys who were terrific at carrying the puck. I learned to stay at home and protect our zone and that was tremendous discipline, which is paying off now."

Brian said that in 1981, and while the Canadiens were beginning a rebuilding phase after their 4 consecutive Stanley Cups to finish off the 1970s, he was definitely benefiting from his upbringing in the end of that dynasty. Brian emerged as Montreal's best defenseman in 1980 through 1982. Not only was he Montreal's best defenseman, but he emerged as one of the league's elite defenders. He was named to Team Canada 1981 for the Canada Cup tournament. And in 1982 Brian led all NHLers with a plus-78, good enough to earn a spot on the post season Second All Star Team.

The 1982 post season started much too early for Brian and the Canadiens in 1982. In 1981 upstart Edmonton Oilers, led by a young kid named Wayne Gretzky, upset the heavily favoured Canadiens in 3 straight games. The same thing happened to the Habs in 1982, this time at the hands of their new hated rivals - the Quebec Nordiques. Despite posting the league's 3rd best regular season record and the league's best defense, there was a strong sense that Montreal had to shake up their team to avenge such losses to these new upstarts, and to regain the Stanley Cup.

The Canadiens would go about a massive changeover to attempt to accomplish that. The biggest trade saw Montreal trade away Brian, along with future superstar Rod Langway and solid players Craig Laughlin and Doug Jarvis, head to Washington in exchange for solid rearguard Rick Green and the much-coveted Ryan Walter.

Walter, one of the most complete and underrated players in NHL history, would return the Habs to Stanley Cup glory in 1986, but the trade is considered to be victory for the Capitals. Laughlin would go on to become a 30 goal scorer, while Jarvis cemented his reputation as a great defensive center. Rod Langway would inspire a passion in his play that would turn the struggling Caps franchise around into one of the strongest of the 1980s.

Brian would continue to play incredible hockey, but in a city with not much of a hockey spotlight he found it hard to get recognition playing in the immense shadow of Langway. Brian never cared about personal success however. Langway would win two Norris trophies, a regular all star and nearly usurped Wayne Gretzky from the Hart trophy mantle, but the Capitals great turn around was also in great part due to the similarly effective Engblom's play.

Engblom actually only played parts of two seasons in Washington. He was then moved to Los Angeles in exchange for another young defenseman named Larry Murphy. Murphy, already a proven scoring star in LA, would go onto a spectacular career, highlighted by his years in Washington. Brian would perform valiantly with a weak team in Los Angeles.

On January 30, 1986, Brian became a member of the Buffalo Sabres. Again Brian was involved in a big trade, as Brian and Doug Smith were sent to New York state in exchange for Larry Playfair, Sean McKenna and Ken Baumgartner.

Brian only had the opportunity to apply his trade for 30 games in Buffalo before he was traded in the summer of '86. He was sent to Calgary in exchange for a bruiser named Jim Korn. Brian's stay in Calgary was also brief. He got into only 32 games before he was forced to retired due to a severe neck injury. He retired with 659 games on his resume. He scored just 29 goals to go along with 177 assists for 206 points in his stellar career.

Brian was quickly emerging as a star defenseman when he broke into the league, but he left rather quietly after non-descript stops in places like L.A., Buffalo and Calgary. It is truly a shame, as he could have been remembered as a star defenseman that he seemed destined to be.B

A whole new generation of fans know Brian as a different kind of star - broadcasting star. He began his career as a color analyst on Los Angeles Kings telecasts, but by 1995 moved onto become the much respected hockey reporter for ESPN.

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