In the spring of 1965, after scoring 58 goals in 60 games while playing for Clinton Comets of the Eastern Hockey League, Orval Tessier, hampered by a painful back injury, said good-bye to the game.
But hockey wasn’t done with the Cornwall native.
In the summer of 1971 a call from the Cornwall Royals brought him back to the game, as a coach, and put him on an unexpected path to the NHL.
His first piece of offseason business was to convince his old Kingston pal Gord Wood to join the club as its head scout. Together they used their deep Kingston connections to lure some top talent from the Limestone City, among them Bob Murray and Gary MacGregor.
A few months later, the rookie coach, who had been working as a Molson’s Brewery rep and playing in old-timers games, turned the struggling Royals into a Memorial Cup champion when the underdogs shocked the Peterborough Petes.
Tessier soon had junior clubs banging on his door with lucrative contract offers.
The year after his Memorial Cup victory, the Quebec Remparts made him the world’s highest paid junior hockey coach with a report $30,000 contract. At the time, Harold Ballard was paying Johnny McLellan $17,500 to coach the Leafs.
He guided the Remparts to the Memorial Cup final where they lost to the Toronto Marlies.
Tessier returned to Cornwall (for a lot less money) before making stops in Chicoutimi and Kitchener.
He parked himself on the NHL doorstep in 1982, when in his first season as coach of New Brunswick Hawks, the Chicago Blackhawks top minor team won the American Hockey League championship.
Chicago was impressed. He was named head coach of the NHL club. In his second NHL season, he won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach. Despite taking the Hawks to the Campbell Conference two years in a row, he was fired.
Many believe it was because of a quip he made during a series against the Oilers that his underachieving players needed “heart transplants.”
It sowed the seeds for a locker room rebellion with goalie Tony Esposito the suspected ring leader.
Tessier became the first Chicago coach to win the Jack Adams award. There hasn’t been one since.
He returned to the Royals who by this time were well on their way to becoming a dysfunctional outfit suffering under the clueless – in hockey and other things – Willie Wise.
But after four post-NHL seasons with the Royals, he was recruited by the Colorado Avs as a scout. The Avs became Stanley Cup champs in 2001 and Tessier had a coveted Stanley Cup ring.
Tessier was one of the best when it came to spotting a diamond in the rough.
When Matt Schneider showed up at the Royals’ training camp as a walk-on, Sam, the elder Schneider, demanded that the team guarantee him college tuition (four years) if he wasn’t selected in the top three rounds of the NHL draft.
It was a huge commitment.
The owners consulted Tessier who had paid special attention to Schneider from a lofty seat in the Ed Lumley Arena in the first two days of training camp while his capable assistant Brent Loney ran the scrimmages.
He told them it was their money, but he saw a lot of talent that could blossom into a top three-round pick.
The Rhode Island native signed and became a third-round pick (44th overall) of the Montreal Canadiens. He played in 1,289 NHL games.
Tessier’s Colorado gig was the final chapter in a dazzling hockey career that saw him win two Memorial Cups (the first as a player with Barrie Flyers in 1953), and Ontario Hockey League (Royals), Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (Royals and Remparts), American Hockey League (New Brunswick) and NHL (Colorado) championships.
As a rookie with the Ontario Hockey Association junior Kitchener Greenshirts, he led the club with 87 points on 62 goals and 25 assists. In his second season, with Barrie, he had 94 points on 54 goals and 40 assists. One of his team-mates was Don Cherry.
He became the consummate minor hockey hired gun. His goal-scorer prowess took him to Montreal (Royals), Hershey, Quebec City (Aces), Springfield, Trois-Rivieres, Kingston, Portland and Clinton. In all, he had eight 50-plus goal seasons.
While playing for Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Professional Hockey League (an upstart rival to the AHL), he set a professional scoring record in the 1959-60 season with 126 points on 59 goals and 67 assists.
He was named league MVP and most gentlemanly player. The City of Kingston honoured him with an Orval Tessier Appreciation dinner attended by 600 fans.
In his autobiography, Frontenacs general manager/co-owner Wren Blair called Tessier one of the “greatest goal scorers I’ve ever seen.”
“When Tess got in range of the goal, I never saw a player who could pinpoint shots the way he could.”
Blair said if Tessier had been a better skater, he would have been a gimme for the NHL.
“He came up short in the wheels department.”
Tessier passed away on Aug. 25 at age 89.
Rest in peace, Orv.