Michigan hockey pioneer Real Turcotte helped develop generations of NHL stars
The last line of Real Turcotte's obituary was a fitting epitaph for one of Michigan's hockey pioneers.
"The family ... would like to remind you to 'practice your moves 10 minutes a day.'"
Turcotte, a former Michigan State forward who designed a systematic approach to teaching skills like stickhandling and puck control at his hockey schools in the state and across the country for nearly 50 years and who helped develop generations of American stars in the National Hockey League, died June 15, 2020, at age 79 of congestive heart failure.
"He would be on the Mount Rushmore of hockey school coaches," said Waterford's Pat Lafontaine, a high-scoring Hockey Hall of Fame center who had 468 goals and 1,013 points in 15 years with the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers.
"Real was ahead of his time. He knew the value of learning how to feel like the puck was second nature on your stick, how to roll your wrists, to keep your head up, to make better reads, better passes. He was at the forefront of bringing highly developed skills to the sport in this country."
Lafontaine said he constantly practiced those moves at the Real Turcotte Stickhandling School and on the Turcotte-coached 1981-82 Compuware team, arguably the greatest midget team in Michigan hockey history. The team went 80-2 with a 60-game winning streak, and Lafontaine had 175 goals and 324 points, nearly four points per game. Seven players on that team were drafted by NHL teams (Lafontaine/Islanders, Al Iafrate/Maple Leafs, Alfie Turcotte/Canadiens, Jeff Rohlicek/Canucks, Dave Sikorski/Red Wings, Jerry Pawlowski/Whalers and Jim Andonoff/Rangers).
"I remember having a discussion with Real about hockey and his philosophy on teaching kids," said Hall of Fame builder Pete Karmanos, the owner and manager of the record-setting Compuware team and the architect of the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.
"He said, 'Pete, don't you understand something?' I said, 'What's that, Real?' He said, 'I would rather win a game 8-7 than 2-1.' He was more focused on skills and what the kids were doing offensively. The rest of the stuff, you can learn how to play defense. Teaching people how to handle the puck and all the offensive instincts you need, that's not something you're going to do overnight."
Turcotte, who was born in East Angus, Quebec, in 1940, began his hockey career in the Montreal Canadiens' junior system and played briefly with the 1956-57 Ottawa-Hull Canadiens coached by Scotty Bowman, who led the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups (1997, 1998, 2002).
With few available jobs in the six-team NHL and the Canadiens in the midst of four straight championships in the late '50s, Turcotte, a 5-foot-8-inch, 165-pound forward, moved to East Lansing and played four years for coach Amo Bessone and the Michigan State Spartans and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and later a master’s degree in physiology.
He led the Spartans in scoring in his sophomore season with 15 goals and 43 points in 26 games and still shares the school record for most assists (6) and most points (9) in one game against Ohio State at the old Demonstration Hall in East Lansing on Feb. 17, 1961.
"My dad turned down an AHL contract with Detroit for $12,000 because he could make $2,000 more teaching high school," said Alfie Turcotte, his oldest son who played seven years in the NHL with 17 goals and 49 points with the Canadiens, Winnipeg Jets and Washington Capitals.
After starting the stickhandling schools in 1971 which eventually expanded into more than 80 cities in the U.S. and more than a dozen cities in Canada, Turcotte coached the Lansing Lancers in the now defunct International Hockey League in 1974-75 and he was the owner, GM and coach of the Nanaimo Islanders in the Western Hockey League in 1982-83.
"I was on that Nanaimo team and he sold me to Portland around Christmas for $25,000, two players and two conditional draft picks," said Alfie Turcotte, who went on to win a Memorial Cup with Boston Bruins power forward and future Hall of Famer Cam Neely. "He needed money to pay bills for the buses and expenses. My mom wasn't too happy. I don't think she talked to him for a month."
Influenced by watching skilled players like Canadiens icons Jean Beliveau and Rocket Richard and puck-possession teams like the Anatoly Tarasov-coached Red Army teams in the 1970s, Turcotte broke down their best moves on ice, frame by frame, figuring out the skills needed to perform each move. His book published in 1985, "Search for the Lost Art," is still required reading for skills coaches.
"He would get mad if we dumped the puck in," said younger son Jeff Turcotte, who played for the Toronto Marlboros in the Ontario Hockey League and the Hampton Roads Admirals in the East Coast League before coaching in Los Angeles and guiding the L.A. Junior Kings to 16 California Amateur Hockey Association state championships and six trips to the USA Hockey national championships.
"Why give the puck away, he would say. That's why he liked watching the Russian Five. That was the way the game should be played, in his eyes. Control the puck and you control the tempo. When I came back to Michigan last month, I grabbed one of his straight Titan sticks. He wanted to handle the puck on both the forehand and backhand. That's the way my dad was. Every detail mattered."
Oak Park's Mike Nodler has worked for the Turcotte hockey schools for 30 years, including the last 20 years as head instructor in the summer along with his regular job as a speech pathologist. He said Turcotte's experience as a high school math teacher, passion for learning and detailed approach to teaching made it easy for Karmanos "to just stand back and let him do his thing."
"I was talking to my wife when he passed away and I said Real was one of the most genuine, super nice people I've ever met," said Nodler, whose son Josh attended and taught at the stickhandling schools and is now a sophomore on the Michigan State hockey team and draft choice of the Calgary Flames. "He was always upbeat. He'd come into a room and you just knew something good was happening. He was humble, kind and an absolute legend in the hockey world."
Alex Turcotte is the third generation of hockey-playing Turcottes and the highest NHL-drafted family member. Selected fifth overall by the Kings last year after recording 125 points in two years with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Plymouth, he's been spending extra time during the pandemic with his grandmother in Commerce and preparing for his first pro season with Los Angeles without "one of the biggest influences in my life" and "the reason I am the player I am today."
"We were really close and this has been hard on everyone," Alex Turcotte said. "When I was 12 or 13 years old, my dream was to play in the NHL, as crazy as it sounds. He could've said, 'Do you know how hard it is or I might need another job.' He went along with it. He dreamed with me. Looking back, it was pretty awesome and I'm grateful he got to see me drafted. I miss him every single day."
The list of NHL players who've been influenced by Turcotte's hockey schools includes Hall of Famer Mike Modano, 55-goal scorer Jimmy Carson and three-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Kane, who attended the expanded schools in Buffalo before joining the Chicago Blackhawks.
Lafontaine though says Turcotte's legacy should be more than his hockey schools and the star-studded cast of American stars who have arrived in the NHL after the United States' gold-medal performance at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.
He credits two other coaches on the ground-breaking Compuware team who just passed away (Jack Bowkus and Asa Smith) and says Turcotte also taught them "life lessons and character development" about "assisting others" and that it's "not always about scoring goals and winning."
"I believe there are three key mentors in your life: parents, coaches, teachers," said Lafontaine, who consults with the NHL on grassroots issues for developing minor hockey. "Real was our coach and teacher and he helped open the door for boys and girls to dream bigger.
"I can remember our Compuware team going up into Canada and, by the end of the tournament, the stands were packed and they would be saying, 'Who are these Americans?' That team and our coach was a stepping stone and laid a foundation for a lot of players and teams to come."
Real Turcotte glance
►Who: Real Turcotte
►Birthplace: East Angus, Quebec
►Born: Sept. 25, 1940
►Died: June 15, 2020
►Hockey schools: Started the Real Turcotte Hockey Schools in Michigan in 1971. Graduates include Hockey Hall of Famers Pat Lafontaine and Mike Modano. Schools expanded to more than 80 U.S. cities and more than a dozen cities in Canada.
►Hockey family: Son Alfie was the 17th overall pick by Montreal in 1983. Son Jeff played for the Toronto Marlboros in the OHL from 1986-89. Grandson Alex was the fifth overall draft pick by Los Angeles in 2019.
►Local connection: Recorded 94 points in 74 career games in four years with Michigan State. Shares the school record for most assists (6) and most points (9) in one game against Ohio State in 1961. Lived in East Lansing, Milford, Commerce.
►Quote: "Real was ahead of his time with puckhandling skills," said John Lafontaine, the younger brother of Pat Lafontaine and the hockey coach at Cranbrook high school. "Now all the kids coming into the NHL look they went to the Real Turcotte Hockey School."