Dennis Polonich

Foam Lake Saskatchewan is a small town to the east of Saskatoon that lives and breathes hockey. The small town has produced some fine hockey players over the years - most notably St. Louis Blues Hall of Famer Bernie Federko, Winnipeg 30 goal scorer Pat Elynuik and Detroit Red Wings tough guy Dennis Polonich.

If you look at Polonich's penalty minute totals - you'd assume he was a hockey goon. He had 1242 career PIM in just 390 games, including one season with 302 PIM. But when you take a look at his size - just 5'6" 166 pounds - and you can not help but be amazed that this man took on the NHL's heavyweights like Hammer Schultz, Tiger Williams and Clark Gillies!

Polonich was a Theoren Fleury-like player out of the Flin Flon Bombers of the WCJHL. Mostly because of his size, he was passed over by NHL teams until 1973, when the Red Wings took a late round flyer on him in the NHL Entry Draft. Polonich had spent the previous season playing for the London Lions in Britain of all teams, a Wings experimental affiliate team. The Wings liked his spunk and brought him to training camp.

"Polo," as he was affectionately known as, made a good impression on the Wings in his first NHL training camp - fighting and clawing anything in site. The Wings rewarded him with a trip to the minor leagues - something which seemed unlikely even just a year ago. Dennis went to the AHL Virginia Wings and played admiringly, and was rewarded for his fine play with a 4 game call up. Dennis rarely got to play in his first 4 NHL games, however.

In 1975-76, a spot on the Red Wings roster was opened up thanks to the departure of hot young superstar Marcel Dionne. Polonich benefited from this as he got a chance to play somewhat regularly in the NHL - 57 games. While no one ever said Polonich was the guy who directly replaced Marcel Dionne and his 121 points from the season before, in a way he did. He certainly did not have the skill or the style or the offensive statistics of Marcel, but Dennis brought his fiery style of play to the Motor City much to the delight of Red Wings fans. Dennis came to play every single night, and left every ounce of exhausted effort on the ice by the time the game was over. He had just 11 goals and 23 points that season - and a well earned 302 minutes in penalties. But he was named as the Wings most exciting player and almost instantly became a fan favorite in Detroit.

Fans of the lackluster 1970s teams in Detroit had little to cheer about their team in those days, but they loved their Dennis.

"I was popular," Polonich said. "I can remember them chanting, 'Polo, Polo, Polo.' When I look back, those are the things that warms the heart."

Polonich would play 4 and 1/2 more seasons in Detroit. For a time he captained the team, and he always led by example.

"I was a feisty little disturber on the ice," Polonich said, "and I played against some of the all-time great lines."

While many disliked the violence of hockey back in the 1970s, Polonich makes no apologies for the way he played.

"I played with a lot of emotion and I tried to get the team to play with emotion," he said. "In hindsight, some of the time it was called for, and maybe some of the times it was unnecessary. But that's the way I played and that's what I had to do to survive."

Polonich was involved in one particularly ugly incident ion October 28, 1978. After getting speared in the face, Colorado Rockies Wilf Paiement hits Detroit's Dennis Polonich in the face with his stick, causing some serious facial injuries. County prosecutors investigated the incident, but unlike a few other on ice incidents in the time period did not press any charges. While Paiement was suspended for 15 games, that wasn't good enough for Polonich who then opted to sue Paiement, who was covered by an insurance policy for such events. Polonich and his lawyers apparently agreed to settle out of court for $50,000 but the insurance company wanted to try it's hand with the judicial system. That proved to be a costly error as a US federal jury awarded Polonich a princely sum of $850,000!

Polonich was never quite the same after the ugly incident. In 1979-80 he had just 2 goals and 127 PIM in 66 games. By 1980-81 he was sent down to the minor leagues by the mid way point of the season. Aside from an 11 game call up in 1982-83, Dennis would remain the minors until he retired in 1987.

Dennis scored 52 goals and 82 assists for 141 points in 390 NHL games. He will be remembered as a cult hero in Detroit and as a feisty heart-and-soul type in the colorful yet violent 1970s.


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