Searching For Hockey’s Tuffy Rhodes

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Tuffy Rhodes hit 13 home runs in 225 games in six years in Major League Baseball. The most he hit in a single season was eight in 1994, for the Cubs. But even that season was a disappointment, as he hit three of those home runs on Opening Day against Mets ace Doc Gooden.

So, at age 27 — the age most pro athletes peak — Tuffy left America for Japan. After a spending most of the previous season in AAA, MLB granted Rhodes free agency. For the 1995 season, he signed with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Nippon Professional Baseball league.

Tuffy Rhodes’ Japanese career spanned 12 seasons, not including a two season break from 2005 to 2006. He hit 474 home runs in Japan, 36 times his MLB total. Rhodes’ 474 mark is 10th all-time in NPB. He would have broken Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record of 55 dingers too, in 2001, but there are limits to how much success a gaijin (foreign) player is allowed. After tying the 55 mark, pitchers intentionally walked him for the remainder of the season

Still, Tuffy Rhodes went from stateside minor leaguer to all-time great in the Land of the Rising Sun. He was one of three non-Japanese players to ever be granted full free agency rights in NPB.

His success can hardly be explained away as the natural result of stepping down to a lesser league. NPB is often considered a step between Major League Baseball and AAA Minor League Baseball, in terms of difficulty. Rhodes was a good minor leaguer, but never can’t-miss. And for every disappointing Japanese import like Daisuke Matsuzaka, there’s a player like Hiroki Kuroda who thrives in both leagues. Ichiro, to give another prominent example, spent the prime of his career in Japan before becoming one of the greatest hitters in Major League history.

A confluence of factors created Tuffy Rhodes, superstar. Most likely, the small stylistic differences of Japanese Baseball exactly matched up with Rhodes’ skills. After all, Rhodes had hit 30 home runs in one AAA season. That kind of raw power, combined  with the lower Japanese fences and different attitudes toward breaking balls, uniquely translated into a breakout for Tuffy Rhodes, in the same way it derailed the careers of comparable Japanese players making the opposite league change, such as Kaz Matsui and Kosuke Fukudome.

And herein lies the idea that interests me: that, leaving out difficulty, there’s a professional league that uniquely suits each player stylistically, and it’s not necessarily the one he trained to play for all his life. It seems that there’s a lot of potential for a Tuffy Rhodes-type player in hockey, in which there are several more international leagues of near-NHL quality, each owing a unique style to its particular rules and national character.

So who, then, is hockey’s Tuffy Rhodes?

He can’t be a kid on loan from his NHL team — I want a guy who has already tried and failed in North America. Difficulty of the league counts too. Going off behindthenet’s equivalency factors, the KHL, Swedish Elite League, and Czech Elite League are the best NPB analogues, just a tick below their North American counterpart. I’ll be grading these would-be-Tuffies on a variety of factors, some anecdotal, others statistical.

The Candidates

Honorable mentions:  Eric Perrin, Jeff Tambellini, Rob Schremp

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Brandon Bochenski — Right Wing

2011-2012 Line (KHL): 27 G, 31 A in 49 G

Equivalent NHL Production: 60-80 Points

(Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIRE)

Story: A seventh round pick of the Senators in 2001, Bochenski bounced around North America, playing for eighth different teams in five years (including two different stints with the Norfolk Admirals).  Finally, in 2010, Bochenski settled down in Astana, Kazakhstan, signing with Barys Astana of the KHL. Last season, he finished third in the KHL scoring race, despite playing in just 49 games.

Tuffy-ness: He fits the basic outline of the player I’m looking for: a North American who never stuck with any North American team, only to become a superstar abroad. Still, Bochenski’s breakout didn’t come totally out of left field. In 2006-07, he scored 66 points in 35 AHL games — equivalent to 70 points in an 82 game NHL season, right in his estimated KHL-equivalent range.

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Simon Gamache — Left Wing

2011-2012 Line (Swiss-A): 20 G, 25 A in 50 G

Equivalent NHL Production: 30-50 Points

Story: A undersized winger who tore up the Q, Gamache managed to get drafted in the ninth round in 2000, by the Thrashers. A player who consistently tore it up in the AHL, Gamache only got at most 11 games with any NHL game.

Tuffy-ness: He’s a player who never broke into the NHL at all and went on to carve out a long and prolific career in the Swiss-A league. Still, his success isn’t unexpected. He dominated the AHL, which compares almost exactly to Swiss-A in terms of difficulty. The real story here seems to be another skill player tragically overlooked because of his height.

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Kevin Dallman – Defense

2011-2012 Line (KHL): 18 G, 36 A, 53 G

Equivalent NHL Production: 55-70 Points

Story: Kevin Dallman, an offensively-dynamic undersized Junior in Guleph, signed with the Boston Bruins as an undrafted free agent in 2002. He would spend three seasons with the Bruins’ AHL affiliate before scoring one point in 21 games with Boston in 2005 and promptly being shipped elsewhere. Dalman would end up with 31 points in 154 games with three NHL teams, before making the move to the KHL.

Before the 2008 season, he signed with the aforementioned Barys Astana. He would quickly become the Bobby Orr of the KHL’s very young history. His 192 points in four seasons make him the only defenseman in the league’s top 25 all-time scorers — and he’s fourth.

Tuffy-ness: I think we have a winner. Underwhelming North American career? Check. All-time great in his new league? Check. Inability to overcome cultural barriers, despite play? Big check. Turns out Dallman and his family have been expelled from Kazakhstan for comments critical of the country, made on his wife’s blog. All this after Kazakhstan asked him to become a citizen and represent them in the Olympics.

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Of course, I didn’t merely write this post as a random exercise to compare obscure former-NHLers to one obscure former MLB player. The real fascination with Tuffy Rhodes always came down to a simple question: “What if he came back?” Was he suddenly a potential MLB superstar or was he totally a product of his new surroundings?

We’ll never know the truth about Tuffy, unfortunately. But if any NHL General Managers want to solve a similar riddle, there’s a 60-point defenseman banned from Kazakhstan, looking for a new contract.

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