Rick Heinz knows how hard it is to make it in the NHL, knows it so well that he wrote a book about it.
A different time, a different place, a different position, and it might have worked out differently. Heinz was a goalie who played nine seasons of pro hockey, from 1978 to 1987, almost all of it in the Blues’ organization.
In five of those seasons, he saw time in the NHL, but in most of those seasons, his NHL game total was in single digits. Much of that time, he wasn’t the backup goalie, he was the No. 3 goalie — the guy in the minors who got called up when someone got hurt. Only once, in 1983-84, did he spend the full season in the NHL. The rest he bounced back and forth between the Blues and their farm team, in Salt Lake City or Peoria.
“I was like a toilet seat, up and down,” Heinz recalled.
He made his debut in the ’80-81 season, having been called up after backup Ed Staniowski got hurt and then being thrown into a game when starter Mike Liut took a puck to the groin.
“I had a tuna fish sandwich on the way in from the airport,” Heinz said, “and I felt that tuna fish sandwich in my throat. I’m on the bench saying, ‘Get up! Get up!”
While that game got him started, one really stands out. It was March of 1983 and the Blues had a big game coming up with Toronto, which was chasing them for third place in the Norris Division. But the day before, March 8, the Blues played the Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders and coach Barclay Plager wanted Liut rested and ready for the Toronto game. So Heinz got one of his nine starts that season against the Islanders.
“I think it was the highlight of my life, my career,” he said. “Like winning a championship, everything clicked that night for me.”
Heinz stopped 39 shots in a 6-0 win. When the game ended, he formed his arms into a V, for victory, then skated to the bench throwing kisses to the fans.
“I was so excited, I was so jacked up, I was on cloud nine,” he said. “The fans were always so good to me there. The few times I played, I felt such support. Whenever I played, for me, that was like icing on the cake in my relationship with fans. Every time I made a save, they stood up for me, clapped for me. (Broadcaster) Dan Kelly gave me a couple shots about throwing kisses to the fans.”
Heinz remembers an early save on a breakaway by Greg Gilbert that set the tone, and an early goal for the Blues by Mark Reeds. He remembers Alain Vigneault clearing a puck off the line after it got behind him. And he remembers the Islanders’ Clark Gillies repeatedly parking in front of him, leading to Heinz being called for slashing him — making him one of only a handful of Blues goalies to post a shutout and be called for a penalty in the same game.
The Blues got him a videotape of the Islanders’ telecast of the game.
“I think I wore it out I watched it so many times,” he said.
Of course, the shutout didn’t change anything. Liut started the next night in Toronto, and the Blues lost 5-2 and the Maple Leafs ended up finishing three points ahead of the Blues for third place.
“Mike was a hell of a competitor,” Heinz said. “He just was on a real roll. It was a poor time for me. I could never really get in there, get on a roll myself. Even if I played well, the few times I got in, it was always going back to Mike anyway. ‘Give Mike a breather, give the kid a game, get Mike back in.’ I could never establish that momentum. Even though I proved myself in the minors with four championships, I could never get that experience in the NHL.”
Heinz was on teams that won two Central Hockey League titles and two International Hockey League titles. (“Even though it’s the minors, it didn’t diminish the rewarding experiences,” he said.)
He was the IHL’s top goalie in 1984-85, the year Peoria won the title. The closest he got to a Stanley Cup came in his second season, 1981-82, when the Blues traded him at the deadline, along with Tony Currie and Jim Nill, to Vancouver for goalie Glen Hanlon.
It was a different experience there, with coach Harry Neale running a looser ship than Heinz had found with the Blues. (“My first game, against Buffalo, he said, ‘Let’s go out and and try to tie these guys!” Heinz said.)
The Canucks went to the Final that season, losing to the Islanders in four games. Heinz played in only three games for the Canucks, none in the playoffs, but he still was that close to winning it all and had a great time. After the season, the Blues reacquired Heinz for cash.
His NHL career ended in 1984-85, with a 4.06 career goals-against average and an .857 save percentage. After two more seasons in the minors, his playing career was over. (He passed on an offer to extend his career in Finland.)
He returned home to the Toronto area and wrote a book, “Many Are Called . . . Few Are Signed: The Hard Realities of Professional Hockey” a guide for young players hoping to make it in the NHL which, he said, was a best seller in Canada. After that, he started a goalie and hockey school, which has had a healthy list of NHLers pass through it. (“I was a much better teacher than goaltender,” he said.)
The school did so well that when Heinz sold it in 2008, the new owner kept Heinz’s name on it, even though he no longer had anything to do with the programs.
Heinz owned a junior team in Milton for a year and later the Humberview Hockey Club for younger players. Now, he’s retired, living in the rural outskirts of Toronto, gardening, reading and exploring spirituality. A few years ago, he bought a race horse that has run at the nearby harness track and won a few races, but now has an injury and might never race again.
“Everything I’ve ever done has been related to hockey and it’s always been a great experience,” Heinz said. “Hockey has been good to me. . . . You get to my age, 66, and I look back and say, ‘That was OK, that was a nice experience, but it’s in my past.’