Former Komet Con Madigan set an unbreakable NHL record

Con Madigan (Courtesy of Fort Wayne Komets)

On this date 45 years ago, something happened which can never be duplicated. As this excerpt from “On To the Show: Fort Wayne’s everlasting impact on the NHL and the greater hockey world” shows, former Komet Con Madigan became the oldest NHL rookie ever. The book is available on Amazon at this link.

Just before Christmas 1972, Con Madigan received a phone call from St. Louis Blues General Manager Lynn Patrick, who was looking for someone to take over his Denver farm team as player-coach. The Blues had just bought out Madigan’s contract with Portland of the Western Hockey League, and Patrick was sure Madigan would be thrilled with the new assignment.

“I said no,” Madigan said. “That’s not what I wanted. I told him, `I hear you guys have a couple of defensemen hurt, and I can play in St. Louis.’ ”

Madigan, was a life-long minor leaguer, an enforcing defenseman who could actually play offensively as well, earning all-league honors eight times, including a then-record 272 penalty minutes along with 57 points for the 1959-60 Komets. He was tough enough that few challenged him unless they were trying to make a name for themselves, finishing his career with 18 consecutive seasons of at least 100 penalty minutes.

Following the 1967-68 expansion from the original six to 12 teams, Madigan should have already been playing in the NHL but Portland would not release his rights. This was, finally at age 38, his chance at the show.

Instead of being offended by Madigan’s brashness, Patrick told him to get on a plane and come in for a tryout. But, Patrick said, if Madigan didn’t make the team he’d have to go to Denver.

“I was there for five days, and (Blues star) Garry Unger came up and told me they were signing me,” Madigan said.

And that’s how Madigan set a remarkable record, on Feb. 1, 1973, becoming the oldest rookie in NHL history by playing in a game at Montreal. Madigan played 20 games that season and five more in the playoffs, mostly pairing with Blues all-star Bob Plager, finishing with three assists and 25 penalty minutes. Though he was officially a rookie, Madigan was easily the oldest player on the team, just a few months older than defenseman Bob McCord and two years younger than coach Jean-Guy Talbot.

“I had a lot of fun,” said Madigan, who continues to live in Portland, Oregon. “Guys were really good to me. All I did was pass the puck a little quicker. It was just as easy to play in the NHL as it was in the Western League, the guys were just younger. There were a lot of players in the WHL who could have played in the NHL, but there was no way to do it! They owned you, and you had to do what they said.”

Madigan even fought a few times that season, especially in Philadelphia, home of the Broad Street Bullies.

“There were a couple of guys in Philly, and I said, `It’s your building and you put the show on, but don’t worry when I hit you you’ll know it,’ ” Madigan recalled. He wasn’t called “Mad Dog” for nothing!

Knowing they had younger players coming up, over the following summer the Blues gave Madigan the choice of going to Denver as the coach, Portland or San Diego, and he chose San Diego with the parting gift of the last season of a two-year contract. About 40 games into the season, the Gulls’ goaltender got hurt, and Madigan was traded back to Portland for a replacement.

By the time Madigan retired at age 40 in 1975, he’d earned 3,537 penalty minutes which at the time were the second-most in minor league hockey history. He was renowned enough to star as Ross “Mad Dog” Madison in the 1977 movie “Slap Shot.”

Madigan retired in Portland where he worked as a pipefitter. The Buckaroos honored him with “Con Madigan Day” in 2009.

Spurred by the influx of veteran players from Eastern Europe, in 1990 the NHL changes its rookie classification rule. Now players are not considered rookies if they have passed their 26th birthday, meaning Madigan’s record can never be broken.