By Mike Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
If you grew up in Needham playing ice hockey, there is a 100 percent chance you’ve heard the name Robbie Ftorek. My father, Joe Flanagan, grew up in Needham in the 1970s. So, even as a Walpole guy, Robbie Ftorek's name was all I heard throughout my upbringing.
For the better part of the last three decades, prep leagues such as the ISL, Founder’s League and NEPSAC have flourished, constantly breeding Division I college and NHL hockey players. Back in the 1960s and 70s, high school hockey was different than what it is today. Hockey players grew up playing on the ponds with their friends, and those same groups of friends competed alongside one another for their town high schools. Because of that, public schools such as Needham High were the cream of the crop when it came to high school hockey.
Of all the incredible hockey players that have come through this state (Keith Tkachuk, Ryan Whitney, Ryan Donato, Chris Wagner, etc), none lit up the high school hockey world quite like Ftorek did during his senior year at Needham in 1969-1970. In just 23 games, Ftorek accumulated an absolutely ridiculous 118 points with 54 goals and 64 assists to set a new state record. Ftorek is considered by many to be the best high school hockey player in Massachusetts history.
Following his time at Needham, Ftorek was named to the United States Olympic Team in 1972, helping the Americans to a silver medal by leading the team in scoring. Following his Olympic exposure, Ftorek signed with the Detroit Red Wings. Ftorek spent the majority of his time while with Detroit in the minor leagues. In 1974, Ftorek signed with the Phoenix Roadrunners of the WHA (which later merged with the NHL). In 1976-1977, Ftorek scored 46 goals to go along with 71 assists and was named league MVP. Ftorek was the first-ever American-born player to earn the award. Following the disbanding of the WHA, Ftorek went back to the NHL, spending time with the Quebec Nordiques and New York Rangers before retiring in 1985. Ftorek amassed 77 goals and 227 total points in the NHL to go along with 216 goals and 523 points in the WHA.
Since retiring from playing, Ftorek has been active in the coaching realm. In 1985, he was hired to coach the New Haven Nighthawks. Ftorek helped lead the Nighthawks to the AHL playoffs in three straight seasons from 1985-1988. Midway through the 1987-1988 season, he was promoted to the NHL. His first job? Coaching Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. Despite reaching back-to-back postseasons, Ftorek was fired following the 1988-1989 season after feuding with Gretzky.
Ftorek spent a good number of years coaching in the minor leagues following his two-year stint in LA, coaching the Halifax Citadels (1989-1990), Utica Devils (1992-1993) and Albany River Rats (1993-1996), winning a Calder Cup with Albany in 1994-1995.
In 1991, Ftorek was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 1998, Ftorek landed his second NHL coaching job, this time with the New Jersey Devils. Ftorek led New Jersey to a 47-24-11 record and playoff appearance in his first season at the helm, but was fired following the 1999-2000 season, despite the team going a respectable 41-20-8-5 with 103 points. That same season, the Devils went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Following his two years in New Jersey in 2001, Ftorek was hired to coach his hometown Boston Bruins. In 2001-2002, the Bruins finished with a 43-24-6-9 record and 103 points, earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, Boston fell to the much-hated Montreal Canadiens in six games in the first round. The following year, the Bruins regressed to 33-28-8-4 under Ftorek and the Needham native was fired. That would be Ftorek’s final NHL coaching job.
After leaving Boston, Ftorek coached the Albany River Rats from 2003-2006 and Erie Otters (OHL) from 2007-2013. He has spent time as a scout in the Calgary Flames organization and recently coached the Norfolk Admirals (ECHL) from 2016-2019.
It’s incredible to think that a Needham native could hold such a lengthy and incredible track record in the game of hockey. St. Sebastian’s has certainly produced its share of future NHL stars like Brian Boyle and Noah Hanifin, but Needham High School produced more than just a great hockey player. Robbie Ftorek is a hockey lifer.
For funny and incisive sports analysis as well as game highlights, follow Mike Flanagan on his personal Twitter and Instagram @flano0.