There are a lot of what ifs in baseball. What if Ken Griffey Jr. didn't have all those leg injuries? What if there wasn’t that rain delay in the 2016 World Series? And what if Tom Glavine didn’t sign with the Braves and had instead pursued an NHL career?
It’s not hard to imagine. A two-sport standout at Billerica Memorial High School -- a town roughly 30 minutes from Boston -- Glavine was a highly sought after hockey recruit and had a scholarship to play hockey and baseball at what is now UMass-Lowell. Five days after the Braves selected Glavine in the second round of the 1984 Draft, the NHL’s L.A. Kings selected him in the fourth round -- ahead of two future hockey Hall of Famers.
“My standing joke -- and again, I say with all humility – is being drafted ahead of Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. Of course I would have been a Hall of Fame hockey player,” Tom Glavine told MLB.com with a laugh. “Those guys were, so why wouldn't I, right?”
Going to college and continuing to play both sports was Glavine’s plan. Only when the Braves upped their offer to $80,000 -- enough to pay for college should baseball not work out -- did Glavine commit to one sport.
With the Stanley Cup Finals between the Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning coming up this weekend, we wanted to ask, “What if?” and learn more about baseball’s greatest hockey player.
You might be surprised by how soft-spoken and humble Glavine is. A 300-game winner with a World Series ring and a plaque hanging in the Hall of Fame? If anyone had earned the ability to be a stereotypical jock from an ‘80s comedy, it would be him. Instead, he’s the exact opposite, deflecting every question about his talent to talk about his work ethic or teammates.
That’s not a surprise to Roger Richard, the hockey coach at Billerica Memorial High when Glavine was there.
“He had an NHL shot as a freshman. I think he could have played any sport he wanted to,” Richard said from his home on Cape Cod. “But he was just an all-around good kid. He was accepted by everybody in the high school. He just had a way about him and was just a likable person that’s, you know, very talented.”
After making the team as a freshman, Glavine quickly worked his way up to the first-line center. He killed penalties, and the power play was built around his powerful shot. “Get the puck on Tommy’s stick!” was one instruction that Mike McCaffery, a teammate of Glavine’s, told the Lowell Sun in 2014.
“I had a knack for scoring goals and those guys would get me the puck,” Glavine said. “I'd try not to disappoint them when they did.”
He collected awards by the bushel -- and that's not even counting the All-star and All-conference awards he won on the diamond as the baseball team's ace. He won the Merrimack Valley Conference MVP. He was a First Team All-Star three straight years. He won the Boston Bruins’ John Carlton Award, given to the top Eastern Massachusetts high school player each year. He had 44 goals and 41 assists his senior year, finishing his high school career with 232 points.
Those are all great honors, ones that point to a great pro hockey player in the future. But Glavine's teammates and coach also thought very highly of him -- not because of his talent, but because of his attitude.
Billerica was one of the better hockey programs in the conference, and so there were plenty of games where Glavine’s team simply outclassed the opposition. If the score got out of hand, Richard would pull his team back and not allow them to score any more goals.
But Glavine was usually in the scoring race -- battling it out neck and neck against rival Chelmsford’s biggest star Jon Morris, who went on to play in the NHL with the Devils, Sharks and Bruins.
“If they knew Tommy was in the scoring hunt, they wouldn’t score because they knew I would stop it. Just to give [Glavine] the opportunity. That’s the respect he had from the other kids.”
Glavine’s memories of his playing days make this clear, too. Asked for a game that stands out and both Glavine and Richard give the same answer: A tight 5-4 victory over Chelmsford in which Glavine and Morris scored all the goals in the game.
But whereas Richard noted how well the young phenom played, Glavine -- who still refers to Richard as "Coach" -- remembered something else.
“Coach Richard would probably never admit to this, but we had the lead, 5-4. And I was on the ice. It was the last seconds of the game, and Chelmsford ended up with possession of the puck somewhere at center ice or maybe at their blue line. There’s two or three seconds left in the game, and I had my stick in the air, like ‘Hey, we won this thing!’ And they got a shot off. Our goalie had to make a save.
“Obviously, [it came] from the opposing blue line, so it wasn't a hard save, but had he -- like me -- not been paying attention, they could have easily scored.”
So, at the next practice on Monday, Richard gathered the team at center ice to go over the victory. Eventually, he reached the end of the game and pointed out Glavine’s celebration with time still on the clock.
“He said, ‘If that’s what we want to do, then let’s do it,'" Glavine said. "So, he turned on the music and the strobe lights and all the stuff they have for figure skating or public skating. He’s like, ‘OK, let’s have at it.’ Needless to say, I was embarrassed, but lesson learned.”
Nearly 40 years and an entire other career later, Glavine still most clearly remembers upsetting his coach and not playing for 60 full minutes.
“I was very much a two-way player,” Glavine remembers. “I scored goals, but I’ll be honest: I took a lot of pride in not being on the ice for goals scored against us. I took a ton of pride in penalty killing. That was all-important to me.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, who Glavine -- a diehard Boston Bruins fan since his childhood (he got to skate with the team at practice after winning his first Cy Young in 1991) -- would compare himself to in today’s game: Boston’s four-time Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron. A player so respected for his demeanor on and off the ice that fans call him “Saint Patrice.”
“Somebody that I would potentially compare myself to in today's NHL, with all due respect -- I'm not saying for a second that I was that good in any way, shape or form -- is a guy like Patrice Bergeron,” Glavine said. “This guy scores goals, but is really responsible on the defensive side of the ice. That’s how I was.”
Now living in Florida and working as a broadcaster for Fox Sports South, Glavine got back out on the ice -- kind of -- with current Braves pitcher Mike Soroka, who grew up playing hockey in Calgary.
“Initially, we were supposed to go on the ice, and I gave him a hard time because he asked [the Braves] for permission which, come on. You ask for forgiveness, not permission,” Glavine joked.
Glavine still looked smooth with the stick in his hand, zipping saucer passes to Soroka, and easily slipped pucks into the net. You can see why his high school teammates nicknamed him “Silk.”
We may never know just how Glavine's hockey career would have turned out, but he doesn't have any regrets.
“I'll always wonder what would have happened,” Glavine said. “I certainly don't do any second guessing. It would be really hard to believe that had I gone to the NHL it would have turned out any better.
“But, knowing my work ethic and knowing my skill level at the game, yeah, I think I could have made it to the NHL. Now, how long would I have stayed there? Who knows?”
His coach shares none of these concerns.
“I have no doubt that he would have played in the NHL. I think he would have been good in either [sport]," Richard said. "But he didn’t make a mistake going on to baseball, for sure. And he’s got all his teeth now.”
Michael Clair writes for MLB.com. He spends a lot of time thinking about walk-up music and believes stirrup socks are an integral part of every formal outfit.