Sunday, January 27, 2008

Former NHL Players and Life After Hockey: Dave Feamster

I decided to take a break from reading hockey or other sports related books for a while. So I picked up "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser, a non-fiction book I've been wanting to read for a few years. It's a well-written and researched look at the history and inner workings of the fast-food industry in the U.S.

I was barely one-third of the way through when I came upon this unexpected reference to a former NHL player, Dave Feamster:
Dave Feamster, the owner of the restaurant, is completely at ease behind the counter, hanging out with his Latino employees and customers--but at the same time seems completely out of place.

Feamster was born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit. He grew up playing in youth hockey leagues and later attended college in Colorado Springs on an athletic scholarship. He was an All-American during his senior year, a defenseman picked by the Chicago Black Hawks in the college draft. After graduating from Colorado College with a degree in business, Feamster played in the National Hockey League, a childhood dream come true. The Black Hawks reached the playoffs during his first three years on the team, and Feamster got to compete against some of his idols, against Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Feamster was not a big star, but he loved the game, earned a good income, and traveled all over the country; not bad for a blue-collar kid from Detroit.

On March 14, 1984, Feamster was struck from behind by Paul Holmgren during a game with the Minnesota North Stars. Feamster never saw the hit coming and slammed into the boards head first. He felt dazed, but played out the rest of the game. Later, in the shower, his back started to hurt. An x-ray revealed a stress fracture of a bone near the base of his spine. For the next three months Feamster wore a brace that extended from his chest to his waist. The cracked bone didn't heal. At practice sessions the following autumn, he didn't feel right. The Black Hawks wanted him to play, but a physician at the Mayo Clinic examined him and said, "If you were my son, I'd say find another job; move on." Feamster worked out for hours at the gym every day, trying to strengthen his back. He lived with two other Black Hawk players. Every morning the three of them would eat breakfast together, then his friends would leave for practice, and Feamster would find himself just sitting there at the table.

So what does that have to do with the fast food industry? Feamster left the team before Christmas that season and his hockey career was finished. The book goes on to detail how he bought a Little Caesars pizza franchise a year later (the company is owned by Mike Ilitch, who also owns the Detroit Red Wings) and undertook the day-to-day duties of making and delivering pizzas and mopping floors. Within about 15 years he owned five of the restaurants with yearly revenues of $2.5 million.

Schlosser weaves Feamster's story throughout the chapter on fast-food franchisees and includes anecdotes about how the former NHLer makes a genuine effort to better the lives of the often disadvantaged employees who work for him.

I always find it interesting to read about the lives of former professional hockey players long since out of the game. If you remember them at all, it's through the haze of the past, with all the memories, regrets and changes you've experienced in between. And tales like Feamster's are what makes sports so intriguing beyond the game being played on the field or ice. An obvious microcosm of life, it offers up an endless string of tragedies and triumphs that permanently alter the players and often the fans as well.

Here it's the vagaries of the physical world and how they can hammer our hopes and dreams into sawdust. The suddenness of change and lost potential and whether you have what it takes to turn real personal defeat into something different than you expected but rewarding nonetheless.

And it relates to a feeling I've had for some time. While in the early part of our lives many of us may dismiss the cliched talk of honour and respect and all those vague ideas that add up to how we treat others, who we are and what becomes our reputation, in the end it isn't just a load of maudlin crap best dealt with by Hollywood movies.

Also more grist in there for people who want to talk of certain organizations of today and how those at the top influence and instill values and can create a culture that permeates entire teams.

And the fascination of wondering what repercussions will flow from the incidents and situations of today and how current players will be affected. Perhaps 15 years from now we will be reading about what direction Patrice Bergeron's life took after a potentially shortened NHL career.

3 comments:

  1. A lot of former Flyers players still live in the Philadelphia area. John LeClair and Chris Therrien have a shipping business and Keith Primeau has a sports gear business.

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  2. "Black Hawks" is not "sic". The team used the two word version of the nickname until 1986.

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  3. Although it is now 2009, 23 years after the franchise decided on the one-word name, Feamster's time with the club pre-dated the change. So using the two-word name to describe the club at that time is technically correct. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. (The multiple use of "[sic]" was quite asinine anyway.) I would be interested to see if Fast Food Nation had a footnote on that, as it was a very thorough book.

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