The NHL’s Oldest Rookie Made His Debut at Age 38 – and Got His Rookie Card 38 Years Later
On Tuesday, former minor hockey league legend Cornelius “Connie” Madigan passed away at age 89. He has the record of being the oldest rookie to play in the NHL, which he set when he suited up for the St. Louis Blues towards the end of the 1972-73 season at the age of 38. Madigan’s stint with the Blues indirectly lead to a bit part in the film Slap Shot, which indirectly led to him getting his own rookie card – albeit 38 years after his NHL debut.
Madigan, a defenseman, had a minor league hockey career that spanned from 1958 to 1976, most notably with the Portland Buckaroos of the old Western Hockey League. The WHL then was a semiprofessional league on par with the American Hockey League. During his 11 years with Portland, Madigan was named a First-Team All-Star five times and a Second-Team All-Star three times. He also named the WHL’s best defenseman in 1965-66. Madigan’s success in the WHL made him too valuable to be traded or sold to an NHL team.
But “Mad Dog” – as he was nicknamed for his rowdy style of play – finally got his shot to play in the NHL in the latter half of the 1972-73 season. The Blues’ roster was depleted by injuries, and the Buckaroos needed money, so the Blues traded a minor league player and cash for Madigan’s rights and gave him a chance. (I wrote about this in greater detail for The Hockey News in 2019, which you can read here.) When the 38-year-old Madigan made his Blues debut on February 6, 1973, he was the oldest rookie to play in the NHL. He played 20 regular season games for the Blues, usually paired with Bob Plager, plus five playoff games.
During those playoffs, Madigan gave a pair of Blues tickets to Ned Dowd – a minor league player he previously attended a training camp with – and his sister Nancy Dowd. Yes, the same Nancy Dowd who went on to write Slap Shot and the same Ned Dowd who played “Ogie” Oglethorpe in Slap Shot.
A few years later, when Slap Shot was being made, Nancy asked Madigan to appear in her film as Ross “Mad Dog” Madison.
His scene comes towards the end, when the Syracuse Bulldogs bring back all their former enforcers to fight the Charlestown Chiefs in the championship game. “Mad Dog” Madison memorably flips off the booing Charlestown crowd.
That bit part in the film led to Madigan getting a rookie card over three decades after Slap Shot was released. In the early 2010s, Panini America planned on making a small set of cards based on Slap Shot., and contacted several actors from the film, including Michael Ontkean, Dave Hanson, Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson, and Madigan.
Although the Slap Shot card set never happened, Panini still issued autographed cards of the Slap Shot actors in several of its sets. Madigan’s card was included as a part of the 2011-12 Panini Certified Hockey set, in the “Freshmen Signatures” subset. The other rookies in the “Freshmen Signatures” set are actual rookies from the 2011-12 season; Madigan is the only retired player to have a rookie card in that set.
The front of Madigan’s card pictures him with the Blues and has an autograph, signed directly onto the card – fittingly in blue. The card is printed on a reflective foil stock with a slight rainbow sheen. While Madigan’s card is short printed, and therefore not as plentiful as other cards in the set, it is not serial-numbered. From what I was told in conversations with Madigan – as well as with his friend Scott Petterson, who coordinated the deal – Madigan signed several hundred copies of his card.
The back of Madigan’s rookie card summarizes his brief NHL career:
Almost no one called Madigan by his given first name – Cornelius. He went by Connie, although he’s also known as “Mad Dog Madison” from his role in Slap Shot. He was a late bloomer, finally getting called up to St. Louis in February 1973 at the age of 38 to become the oldest rookie in NHL history.
It took Madigan 38 years – including 15 spent in the minors – to make his NHL debut. It took him another 38 years to finally get a hockey card.
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