Editor’s Note: It’s “Underdog” week at SB Nation, and, here at Canes Country, we’re going to be taking a look back at some of the more memorable underdog players in the team’s history. The Hurricanes have had a number of players who exceeded expectations as a low draft pick, undrafted player, bargain free agent or seemingly minor trade to carve out a role and become a fan favorite. Today, we feature a depth defenseman who has something in common with, we assume, every paying customer who ever saw him play in the NHL.
To Steven Halko, there are two ways to win a hockey game: “scoring more goals than the other team,” says the retired Carolina Hurricanes defenseman, “or preventing the other team from scoring as many goals as you do.”
Halko was a defenseman from the first time he stepped on the ice. He was selected out of Manitoba junior-A hockey by the Hartford Whalers in the seventh round of the 1992 draft, then spent four years at Michigan and served as the Wolverines’ captain in his senior season before graduating and joining the Hurricanes in 1997. He went on to carve out a 155-game NHL career on the strength of preventing goals. Which is good because, as he’s quick to point out, “I knew what I wasn’t good at.”
The statistics don’t lie: Halko was indeed not very good at scoring goals. He is one of 3,289 players in NHL history who have reached the 155-game mark, according to Hockey Reference. 3,288 of those players scored at least one goal. The one who didn’t? That would be Steven Halko, an underdog if there ever was one.
In fact, Halko is one of only six former NHL players who played more than 100 games without scoring a goal. And just two players in the history of the league played more games than Halko before finally putting a crooked number in the goals column: former Blues tough guy Tony Twist played 185 games before lighting the lamp for the first time, and it took Terry Murray 218 games across nearly seven seasons to register his first.
To put it in perspective, Haydn Fleury scored his first goal against the Ducks this past October in his 95th game. If he hadn’t scored that goal, was still stuck on zero, and proceeded to play in every game from that point up to the time the NHL season was paused, he’d still be two games short of 155.
Not that Halko would have minded sharing a mantle with a player who was one year old when Halko made his NHL debut. “I really like the way he plays,” he says. “I’ve been impressed with his game. He’s probably one of my favorite defensemen on the team.”
But lest you think, dear reader, that Halko wallows in the ignominy of holding a record no player really wants to hold, he’s quick with a quip. “You know Cam Ward scored a goal, right? The thing is, he got a lot more power play time than I did. Check the stats.”
It should be noted, however, that Halko did score two goals while wearing a Hurricanes sweater - in back-to-back games, no less! - against Olaf Kolzig and Sean Burke, two legitimate NHL goaltenders.
Only one problem: they were in exhibition games, so they didn’t count for the official record. “They were nice goals, too, on two really good goalies,” Halko says proudly.
To prove Halko’s point about a player’s value going beyond scoring goals, late in his NHL career he even played a few games at forward. Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice sufficiently trusted the defensive acumen of a player who had never played forward to slot him in on the fourth line, making Halko the hockey equivalent of a utility infielder.
After retiring from the NHL, Halko and his family remained in the Triangle, and he has worked as a financial advisor for nearly two decades. His NHL notoriety, to the extent that there is any, is largely lost to hockey history, except on those rare occasions when some unlucky player starts knocking on the door of 155.
But scoring goals was never a priority for Halko. Unlike so many kids who grow up dreaming of scoring the goal that wins the Stanley Cup for their team, the Toronto-area native had two specific career aspirations: “I wanted to play at Maple Leaf Gardens, [and] I wanted to play against Wayne Gretzky.”
He accomplished both. Halko may have never scored an NHL goal in an official sense, but he certainly achieved his NHL goals. He recalls a papier-mâché model of Gretzky he put together at age 6 — “it was ugly,” he freely admits — and shipped off to Edmonton, a first-grade expression of the high esteem in which Halko held his idol. “Though I never expected to hear anything back, I was disappointed as the weeks and months went by with no response,” Halko says. “But he was still my favorite player.”
Eight months later, an envelope arrived at the Halko house with a return address of Edmonton, Alberta. And 16 years after that, almost to the day, Steven Halko achieved a goal he’d been pursuing since he first put on skates. The Hurricanes and Rangers played a home-and-home surrounding Christmas in 1998, and Halko finally faced Gretzky on NHL ice. Appropriately, in both games, the Great One was held scoreless.
That mattered infinitely more to Halko than any goal would have.
“I got to play against Wayne Gretzky in the NHL. I got to play against my idol. [I] lined up for a face-off against him and forgot everything else.
“Dreams do come true.”