Monday, February 21, 2011

Mike Byers, hockey player (1946-2010)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 9, 2011

Mike Byers scored an impressive 27 goals in his rookie season in the National Hockey League, yet his scoring touch was overlooked in an era of goon hockey.

A slick-skating forward with good hands, Byers played in 166 NHL games for five different teams. He had an audition on the right wing of a Buffalo Sabres line featuring Gilbert Perrault and Rick Martin, losing the coveted spot to Rene Robert, who would become an essential part of a trio celebrated as the French Connection line.

Byers jumped to the rival World Hockey Association, where he played in an all-star game and won a championship.

Michael Arthur Byers, who was born in Toronto on Sept. 11, 1946, joined the junior Toronto Marlboros at age 17. The Marlies played an exciting brand of hockey, attracting large crowds to games at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Byers scored more than 20 goals in each of his three seasons as a junior. In December, 1965, he was named to an all-star team for an exhibition against the Soviet Union’s national team. His all-star teammates included such future NHL stars as Bobby Orr, Danny Grant, Derek Sanderson and Serge Savard.

The Marlies were a powerhouse club during the mid-1960s, sending many players on to the professional ranks. In 1966-67, the roster featured such future NHL players as Brian Glennie, Gerry Meehan, Terry Caffery, Chris Evans, Mike Pelyk, John Wright, and Brad Park. That season, the last for Byers as a junior, the Marlies won the Memorial Cup championship, vanquishing the hometown Port Arthur (Ont.) Marrs in five games.
Painting by Kurt Kauper.

The Toronto Maple Leafs invited Byers to training camp at Peterborough, Ont. The young forward performed well, but coach Punch Imlach sent him and defenceman Jim McKenny, a Marlies teammate, to Toronto’s farm team at Tulsa, Okla.

“There’s no sense keeping these kids around and not play them,” Imlach said. “It’ll be to their benefit if they play regularly some place else.”

The forward spent most of the season split between the Tulsa Oilers and the Rochester Americans. While in the minors, he was scouted by Scotty Bowman, who soon after began a brilliant coaching career in the NHL. His verdict at the time: “Great speed, but he doesn’t have the puck enough. I like to see a player on top of that puck.”

Injuries opened a roster spot on the Leafs in March, 1968, and Byers was recalled from the minors. He scored his first NHL goal by shoving home his own rebound past Ed Giacomin of the New York Rangers in a 3-1 victory at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Byers began the following season back in Tulsa. The Leafs called him up again for five games of spot duty towards the end of the season before trading him to the Philadelphia Flyers in a five-player deal. Byers put in another five games with his new employers, but balked at first when they wanted to demote him to their minor-league affiliate at the start of the following season.

“If he applies himself, he can make our team,” said Flyers assistant general manager Keith Allen.

Byers spent the entire 1969-70 season with the minor-league Quebec Aces. The Flyers then traded him to the Los Angeles Kings.

He performed admirably in his first full season in the NHL, scoring 18 assists to go with 27 goals, the latter a club record for rookies that would last a decade.

Another trade put Byers with the Sabres, where he was reunited with Imlach. The fleet forward scored five goals in his first five games with his new club.

In the offseason, he jumped to the Los Angeles Sharks of the WHA, a new circuit whose owners were offering spectacular pay raises to players. Midway through the league’s inaugural season of 1972-73, the Sharks traded Byers to the New England Whalers. The club’s green,black and white sweater would be the ninth different one he donned in less than six seasons as a pro.

The Whalers were the class of the fledgling league, finishing first overall before eliminating the Ottawa Nationals, Cleveland Crusaders and the Winnipeg Jets to win the inaugural Avco World Trophy. Byers notched six goals and five assists in 12 playoff games.

He followed with his best pro season, scoring 29 goals for the Whalers. He managed to score even after taking 12 stitches over his left eye in one game.

As he neared age 30, though, his scoring slumped. After recording just four goals and three assists in 17 games to open the 1975-76 season, general manager Jack Kelley announced his disappointment in Byers’ play. The veteran right-winger was given an unconditional release after none of the league’s team claimed him for the $100 waiver price.

The muscular skater eventually signed as a free agent with the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers, managing just three goals in 20 games. He ended his playing career in the minors with Rochester.

In 166 NHL games, he had 42 goals and 34 assists. In 263 WHA games, he had 83 goals and 74 assists.

After leaving hockey, he pursued a career in finance, becoming an executive with an investment firm in Los Angeles.

He continued to play old-timer hockey, once facing-off against a team including the actor Richard Dean Anderson, star of television’s MacGyver, in a charity match. The celebrity had been a prospect as a young man and found the old hockey ways bubbling to the surface during the game.

“This guy, Mike Byers, he started taking the stick across my chest, kind of holding me up and checking me real tough, and started getting higher and higher on my body, and finally it was across my neck,” Anderson told the Los Angeles Times in 1987.

“This was like a charity game and they’re winning, 9-3, and I took off my gloves. Now this guy was known to be able to hold his own in fisticuffs, and all my team members are going, ‘No, no, forget it!’ We both got two minutes.”

A few years ago, Byers was the subject of a portrait by the American painter Kurt Kauper, who earned notoriety for his imagined rendition of Bobby Orr in the buff. Byers’ image is based on his 1971-72 O-Pee-Chee hockey card, featuring him in the golden livery of the Los Angeles Kings, a rendition the New York Times described as “Christ-like.”

Byers died of cancer on Sept. 16, five days after his 64th birthday, at his home at Novato, Calif.

Once, during his playing days, Byers had an odd exchange with a literary figure. His brother, Stephen Byers, a musician, had befriended the Beat writer William S. Burroughs, whom he took to a game at Maple Leaf Gardens. After the match, the two spectators went beneath the stands to the dressing room, where Burroughs witnessed the sweaty player handing a signed hockey stick to a boy in a wheelchair. The “gentleman junkie” author of such works as “Naked Lunch” then demanded an autographed stick of his own, which Byers duly presented. What Burroughs did with the souvenir is unknown.

This 1971-72 O-Pee-Chee hockey card was the model for the  painting by Kurt Kauper.

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