Showing posts with label Nostalgia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nostalgia. Show all posts

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.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

NHL Hockey: Memories, Myths and Nostalgia

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a movie directed by Sam Peckinpah. It's about the end of an era and the gunslingers disappearing along with it.

The ghost-like figures at the heart of the film are being forced to accept changes to a society that is moving on. They lament the inevitable and do their best to adapt but are drawn back into old ways, regardless of whether it may end up costing them their lives.

They speak in a cryptic and fatalistic patois that pays tribute to an honour code that is also dying. They are wary of the contemporary breed of man shaping society and moving things forward. Those amongst them who try to reconcile with the new ways are conflicted with themselves and their die-hard brethren who can never truly conform.

The movie is heavy on style with a loose semblance of a plot. It is a series of vignettes stitched together, all highlighting the conflict between the outlaw and a world that is squeezing him further to the margins. The lack of a traditional cinematic trajectory is almost a precursor to the rock videos that were still a decade away when the film was released in 1973.

That feeling is enhanced by the Bob Dylan soundtrack (and a role by Dylan as well; quite possibly one of the worst acting performances that never saw the editing room floor. So utterly stilted, unnatural and horrid that it adds to what is already a somewhat surreal experience.)

Ironically, despite the outward sense that these ragged mavericks represent a fraternity that adheres to a special code of ethics outside the corrupt establishment, almost every scene is highlighted by a singular and brazen act of gutlessness, many of them perpetrated by those same individuals.

And here is one of the themes that runs throughout the movie. That all people romanticize their lives and hold onto a time that never really existed as they remember. The alternative is to reach the end of life as a broken down son-of-a-bitch with a collection of unfulfilled dreams, fleeting victories and the inevitable realization that it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. When we package life into narratives flavoured with nostalgia and a belief that there was a better time (and the possibility that it could return), it makes living and dying easier.

There's nothing that hasn't been filtered through the rose coloured glasses of the past. (Next time someone is on about the better music of previous decades, pull up a few years of top 10 album sales from that era and take a look at most of the tripe that captured the imagination of the masses.) Hockey is no exception.

Perhaps because there is an ever-expanding number of media outlets providing employment for a host of aging commentators and former players, the lamentations of the past are at an all time high. It's difficult to read a day's worth of columns or listen to a few hours of radio talk shows without being subjected to the tired line about how good the game once was.

Any number of factors are held up as culprits regarding why NHL hockey has supposedly eroded over time. The instigator rule, the presence of helmets and visors and that oft-repeated mantra that "there just isn't the same respect that once existed."

Speaking on Leafs Lunch a few days ago, Bill Watters put forth the inane argument that if the NHL were to forbid the wearing of helmets, the league's revenues would skyrocket and the game would suddenly become much safer. He seemed to sense the absurdity of what he was saying as soon as he floated the idea. He likely received validation and was congratulated on his brilliance when making the claim amongst other like minded old-timers. It was embarrassing to listen to but once he had begun he couldn't back down.

The current number of stick swinging incidents, cheap-shots and other cowardly acts have probably not seen some kind of increase as compared to the past. The claims of greater recklessness in today's game are made without any hard statistical proof and just as often by the same people who reminisce about the mayhem that used to occur. Ah, the bench brawls of old where honour ruled and never an act of nastiness or disrespect took place!

Not that it's impossible to demonstrate that particular eras may have been qualitatively better (different) in certain ways. Just that the comparison is rarely taken beyond anecdotes and relies on hazy recollections and the knowledge that there will always be an audience for such musings.

The nature of such requiems demonstrates how it's about what your mind retains more than any objective reality. An indication of how you've changed, a microcosm of your own screw-ups, hopes and fears. As in the movie, it's about grieving a lost way of life but also about preparing for the ultimate loss. Exaggerations of bygone days are also about trying to avoid irrelevance and being forgotten. The hope that past myths and lives lived are recognized by a new generation already in the process of creating their own stories and memories.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Book Review: As the Puck Turns by Brian Conacher

As the Puck TurnsGiving up stability for a life of diverse experience has its advantages. The greatest benefit is probably the realization that moving on is never a bad idea. Work hard, stay positive and take on challenges with a smile and you're almost guaranteed to carve out a decent existence wherever you go. The episodic nature of your life provides the motivation to keep moving, knowing that another chapter will bring the seminal moments, numerous friendships and fresh outlook that staying in the same place never could.

Brian Conacher lived a colourful and varied life in hockey, observing some of the greatest moments in the game's history over the past 50 years. Player, coach, manager and commentator were all roles he occupied at various times.  While he was never one of the best, most influential or longest serving in any of those capacities, he was still present during some of the most historic and memorable hockey moments of the last half century. He details those experiences in his autobiography As the Puck Turns: A Personal Journey Through the World of Hockey.

Conacher was a fringe player on the roster of the last Toronto Maple Leafs team that won the Stanley Cup in 1967. He picks up the narrative of his life after the '67 Cup win. Following that memorable season, Conacher joined the NHL Players Association at its inception, which brought him the disfavour of Leafs' coach and general manager Punch Imlach. He was subsequently cut loose and then signed with the Detroit Red Wings where he closed out his NHL career shortly thereafter.

Fresh out of the game and with experience playing on the Canadian National squad before his NHL days, Conacher was asked to participate in the broadcast of the World Hockey Championships in Sweden and he readily accepted. He bounced around after that point, going back to play with the National team, then taking on a full time broadcasting career, then attempting a short-lived comeback with the Red Wings.

Conacher would continue to play in the minor leagues for a number of seasons and would also pen his first book, which detailed the state of affairs of hockey in Canada. This earns him the enmity of NHL management and, together with joining the player's association, sets the template for the rest of Conacher's life and the remainder of the book.

Never afraid to question the status quo or stand up for his belief in how the game should be played, this resulted in some natural conflict along the way. Conacher wasn't one of hockey's good 'ol boys willing to become a yes-man to whomever may have advanced his post-playing career. Still, his persistence, love of the game and just plain good timing saw him as a close observer of some of the more interesting and exciting hockey dramas of the past five decades.

Conacher is asked to add colour commentary to Foster Hewitt's play-by-play of the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series and he happily goes along for the ride. The game by game descriptions and the slowly changing mood of the series and public as detailed by Conacher provides the first real in-depth section of the book and it's a great beginning.

He laments the only real blemish on the series, which was the slash by Bobby Clarke onto the ankle of Soviet player Valery Kharlamov. Conacher's distaste for the violence and thuggery of the game becomes a running theme throughout the book.

Conacher has aspirations of coaching and managing in the game and pursues his dream with the Mohawk Valley Comets in the fledgling North American Hockey League. What follows is a lengthy section that is rammed full of the kind of anecdotes hockey fans will love. The trials and tribulations of trying to ice a competitive team and keep the organization financially solvent (Conacher was both coach and GM during his first two seasons with the Comets) provide for some interesting situations and characters.

He confronts the state of professional hockey in the 1970's with the creation of the World Hockey Association (WHA), NHL expansion and the resulting pressure for more players able to play in the top leagues. The increasing violence and goon tactics were a natural offshoot of the demand for more bodies and the fact that not all of them could be of the highly skilled type.

He loathes what takes place many a night as his team travels around the eastern U.S. and Canada visiting opposing teams and being faced with intimidation and violence on the ice. The sad part for him is that in many instances it results in winning hockey for the teams who chose such tactics. He resists going down the same path and in part it costs his team any real success.

Ironically, Paul Newman and the crew for the movie Slap Shot come to town to shoot scenes for the Hollywood film. A movie that exaggerates, ridicules and to some degree glorifies the very aspect of the game Conacher dislikes, his team and others in the league take part and serve as extras. There are some interesting details about the inspiration behind many of the scenes and the not so fictional players as well as observations on the side-show aspect of a Hollywood movie being shot in a small town.

Never one to stay in a situation beyond a point where he wasn't being challenged and also wanting to chase his dream of being a general manager in the big leagues, Conacher makes his next move to the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA. Taking over the GM duties of the Racers, whom the Comets had been affiliated with, Conacher enters the madhouse that is the WHA. Maverick owners, franchises going bankrupt and relocating and a league that is the bane of the NHL, all ratchets the intrigue up another notch.

Conacher realizes the Racers are in deep financial difficulty, butts heads with head coach Jacques Demers and sees the league poised on the brink of dissolution. A handful of teams are doing well compared to the others and so he jumps at the chance to take on the role of general manager with the Edmonton Oilers, one of the clubs expected to make it to the NHL if a merger ever goes ahead. Under the dual ownership of Nelson Skalbania and Peter Pocklington, Conacher is brought in by Skalbania.

In another surprise move that typifies the WHA, Skalbania sells his interest in the Oilers to Pocklington and buys a controlling share in the Racers, the club that Conacher has just left. With Skalbania gone, Conacher knows the gig is almost up and also realizes his dreams of ever being a real player in the world of pro hockey management are almost over. It's almost fitting that Conacher left the Racers before Gretzky briefly came on board and then finally bows out of the Oilers organization before the Great One signs on to make history in Edmonton.

In another instance of fortuitous timing, just as Conacher thinks he will move away from the game for good, he is offered a job as marketing manager at Northlands Coliseum, where the Oilers played their home games (and still do, though the arena has since been re-named.) While now on the periphery more than ever, the final section of the book chronicles Conacher's career managing NHL arenas in Edmonton, Hamilton (just as Copps Coliseum is being completed) and then at the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens.

Still in a situation to observe many of the great hockey dramas of the 1980's and 90's unfold, in many ways these accounts are some of the most interesting of the book. The stories surrounding his time at Maple Leaf Gardens will be especially intriguing to many.

The wealth generated by the Maple Leafs creates a palpable greed that flows through and affects every subsequent layer of the organization. Conacher details the litany of union affiliations whose members worked in the Gardens and the unique position they were in to squeeze concessions from the then owners and management who were loath to ever let a work stoppage prevent a game from going ahead.

Ticket sellers on the take, the outdated and inferior Gardens and the fortunes of the Leafs both on and off the ice are some of the topics covered during one of his final and most memorable jobs in the hockey world.

Throughout his life in hockey, Brian Conacher encountered a wide range of people, both well-known and obscure. He lets us know who he respected and formed lasting friendships with. He also gives the reader a reasonable indication of who he thought less of, though without ever descending into insults or attacks.

An autobiography is obviously one person's version of events and Conacheer seems willing in most cases to not pass judgment too harshly on various individuals. The accuracy of his rendering is given credibility by the fact that he questions and criticizes himself almost as much as others. He accepts that he doesn't quite have the ruthless nature to make it as a GM and even admits to advising Skalbania against signing Wayne Gretzky (after Skalbania bought the Indianapolis Racers and maintained contact with Conacher.)

The writing style here goes beyond the average hockey book. While never too deep or weighted down by lengthy sentences, there are more observations, related topics and extrapolating than many of the slim hockey volumes out there that come across as rush jobs. A decent length that you can sink your bashed up teeth into, I nonetheless almost always wish there was more when reading books about hockey.

If there is any criticism, perhaps there could have been some more cultural flavouring of the times as Conacher takes the reader through the various decades. But after all, it is a hockey book, and anything beyond the sport may have been seen as superfluous by many.

Conacher quite possibly uses more exclamation points than are seen in any other book of this length, but by the end it's part of his positive personality that you've seen come through in the pages.

Surprisingly, he doesn't devote a chapter to the 1967 Stanley Cup winning season with the Leafs. Perhaps because he didn't play a significant role on the team (though he contributed five points during the playoffs) or maybe because the amount of information already out there would make another account seem redundant.

While never a superstar or influential manager, Brian Conacher was a journeyman participant and observer of the game of hockey like few others. His adherence to a particular outlook and his own personal honour code riled some and possibly limited how far he went beyond his playing days. But it also resulted in wide-ranging experiences from within and on the margins. That tendency for not always going with the flow lends itself to an interesting narrative and natural conflict. Together with the number of stops Conacher made along the way, fans of the game have the opportunity to read a unique perspective on the past 50 years of hockey in Canada.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NHL Player Profiles: Teemu Selanne

Heading into the NHL's Hockey Hall of Fame weekend, it's a good time for many fans to look back at their favourite retired players of all time. Joe Pelletier at Greatest Hockey Legends came up with the idea to get as many hockey bloggers onside in posting profiles and memories of NHL players from the past.

My entry is in the de facto retired category. While Teemu Selanne may still end up returning to the NHL, he is already considered one of the game's great players.


Teemu Selanne exploded into the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets in the 1992-93 season at the age of 22. Though a 10th overall pick by the Jets in the 1988 entry draft, he played in his native Finland for four seasons after being selected by Winnipeg.

SelanneHis record setting year was something to behold for fans in Winnipeg. Playing on a line with Alexei Zhamnov and Keith Tkachuk, Selanne started filling the net early on and just kept scoring as the season progressed. He was also helped out by the play-making ability of defenseman Phil Housley.

I took in a handful of regular season games that year in Winnipeg. The one that stands out for me was a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs late in the season.

My room-mate at the time was a student from Ontario who had reluctantly come to Winnipeg to study at the only law school in the country that would accept him. He was a rabid Leafs fan and so we bought tickets for the game, one of two they played against the Jets in Winnipeg that year.

One thing that resonated for me during Selanne's rookie season was not only his speed and scoring but his ability to, on occasion, lay some crushing body checks against opponents. Though I was unable to watch him during most of his post-Winnipeg NHL career, I doubt that trend continued beyond his first few years in the league.

Selanne had a serious injury early on in his career and scoring was of course his real strength but boy did he hammer some opposing players in that first season.

During that game against Toronto, Selanne leveled two Leafs players in a single shift, sending most of the fans into a frenzy. As we looked down on the action in the Jets' end, Selanne took out a Toronto skater just as he sent the puck around the boards and behind the net to another Leafs player on the opposite side of the rink. Selanne flashed across the ice to crush the unlucky player as he touched the puck. The Jets went on to win the game 5-3.

The Winnipeg media seemed as thrilled as anyone that this good-natured, instant NHL superstar in the midst of setting a rookie scoring record was also willing to get involved in the physical side of the game. I still remember Selanne, who spoke with slightly accented English at the time, responding to a post-game question from a reporter who asked about his hitting. With his usual big smile and understated tone, Selanne responded that "when they kick you, sometimes you have to kick back."

Despite a great season for Selanne personally, the Jets were mediocre as usual and exited the playoffs in the first round. Selanne wouldn't see post-season action again in Winnipeg and not for another five years until he was playing with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Nor would he play another complete slate while with the Jets due to a torn achilles tendon in his second season, the lockout shortened 1994-95 campaign and the trade near the end of '95-96.

SelanneSelanne is probably the most talented NHL player ever to be dealt in two separate such lopsided trades. The first time was when he was shipped out of Winnipeg to Anaheim with Marc Chouinard and a fourth round pick in exchange for Chad Kilger, Oleg Tverdovsky and a third round pick.

Panned as one of the worst NHL trades ever, it was near the end of the Jets' last season in Winnipeg in 1996 before moving to Phoenix. Perhaps a colossal snub to the new owners who would take over the following year or more probably just a panic move from a group that was struggling financially and trying to lessen some of the damage.

Selanne had some hugely productive years in Anaheim playing alongside Paul Kariya. In 2001 when it appeared as though his career was on the decline, he was shipped out to the San Jose Sharks for Steve Shields, Jeff Friesen and a draft pick. With the Sharks he had some steady seasons, if unspectacular compared to his earlier efforts.

Teemu was being bothered by a wonky knee and that contributed to his worst output in 2003-04 while playing with the Colorado Avalanche, who he had signed with as a free agent before the start of the season.

He underwent knee surgery in the off-season and didn't play any professional hockey during the lockout 2004-05 season, which he had initially planned to spend with Jokerit Helsinki in Finland. He re-signed with the Mighty Ducks for the 2005-06 season and that marked the beginning of possibly the most impressive late career resurgence ever by an NHL player.

After that stunning rookie season, Selanne tallied 100 points or more on three other occasions, all coming during his first six season stretch with the Mighty Ducks (most of the '96 campaign spent with the Jets.)

He came the closest to reaching that level again in his final two seasons with Anaheim. The surgery, a year spent recovering and practicing hard and the effects of the league trying to eliminate interference in the NHL resulted in point totals for Selanne that were near his peak years.

SelanneIt would be hard to script a better finish for the Finnish Flash than the 2006-07 season. The newly christened Anaheim Ducks (no more "Mighty") won the Stanley Cup and Selanne was 11th overall in regular season points at the age of 36 and third in goals with 48.

The Winnipeg Jets had no real playoff success during their existence as a franchise. They made it to the second round of the playoffs only twice and never beyond that stage. A handful of good seasons, well played games and series and great players are the memories that fans of the former team hold on to.

The history of the Jets is also absent any major player awards with the exception of two Calder trophies for the NHL rookie of the year, presented to Dale Hawerchuk in 1982 and Selanne in '93.

So that rookie season by Selanne is without a doubt one of the highlights in the history of an ultimately disappointing and failed organization. His relentlessly upbeat and positive personality and his on-ice performance will have Jets fans reminiscing for years to come.

While already having financial difficulties and trying to look forward to ways to keep the team in Winnipeg, many fans probably saw that great season by Selanne as a sign of good things to come for the club but of course it wasn't to be.

Though still pondering a return to the NHL, if Selanne never plays another game in the world's premier league, he would be one of the few who went out at the very top.

Monday, October 29, 2007

New Jersey Devils New NHL Arena: The Prudential Center aka The Rock

Devils logoThis is the first example in the history of corporate sponsored arenas that I can remember, in which the rights holder (the insurance giant Prudential) has attached their famous tag-line (in this case, "The Rock") to the official name. Quite possibly it has been done before, but none could have been so appropriate and memorable as the one for the new home of the New Jersey Devils.

Some good reviews of The Rock around the hockey blogosphere. Over at AOL Fan House, there's a photo of a Devils' logo that appears atop the flushing mechanism in the arena bogs. Not sure if it's on top of a urinal or inside a stall. I would guess it's inside a stall, as my memories of using the facilities at the old Winnipeg Arena are of long troughs with po-faced, drunken schlepps emptying their beer-filled bladders between periods.

I've heard that the trough set-up is standard equipment in most other NHL barns. The logistics just wouldn't be feasible for any other type of arrangement. Thousands of mouth-breathing lunatics jacked up on alcohol and the excitement of the game they've been watching wouldn't work quite as well with individual urinals. The added waiting would be the main problem. And no doubt the porcelain would seem like an appropriate receptacle not just for rancid punter discharge but also for a good kicking on occasion.

The troughs always turned my guts mainly for the wretched miasma hanging over the whole spectacle and also because of the sickening potential for bacteria. I always made the effort to wait the extra few minutes for a private stall.

Years later while traveling through some of the nastiest back-waters on the planet, I wondered why anyone would ever use any kind of urinal in a public toilet. Standing vulnerable staring at a wall, just begging someone to bash your face into the concrete and steal your wallet. Add in the fact that leering and brazen deviants seem far more prevalent in some parts of the world and it's not worth the hassle.

I've slipped up a few times while in Thailand and opted for the urinal in what appeared to be a deserted restaurant toilet. There is a particular type of eating establishment in Thailand. Not in tourist areas, it's the kind that appeals to middle class Thais. It usually has outdoor tables with an attached bar and offers barbecue, seafood and a constant flow of pitchers of draught beer served up by sullen, underpaid staff. These kinds of restaurants often have a bathroom attendant.

The first time one of those loose-limbed, whistling little freaks ambled up behind me as I was standing at the pisser and started massaging the back of my neck in hopes of scoring a tip, I nearly flattened him with an elbow.

Just one more reason to avoid the urinals and head straight for a stall.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hockey and Alcohol: a Potent Mix

Rob Ramage was found guilty on Wednesday of drunk driving in the incident that killed former Chicago Blackhawk Keith Magnuson. The response from his coterie of supporters is an odd sort of incredulity that he may actually have to pay for what he did. It's a glaring example of the long-standing claim by many that athletes are so accustomed to being treated as special that they never learn what it means to take responsibility. More than that though, it's a reminder that the booze-soaked hockey sub-culture is alive and well.


One of the saving graces of growing up in a frozen hole like Winnipeg is the number of outdoor hockey rinks that are dotted around the city. Every neighbourhood has a few community centres where, from the beginning of November until the end of February, anyone can go and lace on their skates. You can join in a pick up game or simply coast around on the one ice surface that is usually reserved for both such purposes. As a youngster I spent many hours at the local rinks. By the time I was old enough that a curfew no longer restricted my movements, I would on occasion head out at 11:00 or 12:00 at night when the clubhouse was closed and the floodlights were off.

A perfect windless night for a lone midnight skate with a six pack chilling behind the gate on one of the benches. The ice-cold booze numbs the back of my throat and adds to the surreal atmosphere. Float around in a kind of meditative trance heightened by the effects of the alcohol. Hammer a few shots on net, try to improve my backward skating, enjoy the fact that for once I'm the best player on the ice.

Sit in the box and slurp back a few more leisurely drinks amongst the detritus of the rink. A few splintered sticks, wads of used tape, even a broken puck or two. Laugh about how such an image would play with most people...alone on a frozen night at a deserted ice rink relaxing with a few beers and contemplating life. I take another slug...


The old Winnipeg Arena was located on Maroons Rd. and St. James St. and shared the same patch of real estate with the city's biggest shopping mall, Polo Park. Running along St. James St, which faced the large parking lot and the side of the arena, were a handful of mid-sized wholesale businesses with the requisite loading docks in the back. A rail-line ran behind them and then further on some side streets that were perfect for parking for Jets games and other events at the arena.

Before tail-gate parties there were impromptu pre-game booze sessions that took place on one of the loading docks of the rarely used or deserted businesses. With the arena visible a few hundred metres away and the buzz of the game gaining energy, we whipped ourselves into an alcohol induced frenzy.

The trickle of early arrivers turned into a steady flow of people and then a surging crowd as the opening faceoff approached. Raging towards the game we would stop traffic as we crossed the street and join the throng wedging themselves into the arena. The swilling would continue with cans smuggled in and topped up with the overpriced beer sold at the concession stands.


Playoff hockey provided one of the year's greatest reasons for going on a six week to two months long bender. The rush of the alcohol high together with the excitement of following your team creates an addictive and powerful rush. Not only is the experience incredible but the validation of all those around you who are getting similarly shitfaced adds to the feeling. Even simple things like the barrage of beer commercials rolled out around the playoffs especially to honour committed drinkers, makes it a great time to be alive and drunk. Knowing that the brotherhood of boozers includes many of those players you are cheering for every night adds to the collective insanity.


It’s at once odd but completely understandable that no NHL club has yet enforced a team-wide ban on drinking amongst its players. With the millions at stake and the fleeting window of opportunity for any collection of players to challenge for the Cup, something as simple as eliminating the short-term detrimental health effects of even occasional alcohol intake, would no doubt be positive. Impossible to implement, of course. Beyond any other rationale, booze is legal. Just like the failure to compete and win, a player who can’t handle a few drinks is the one at fault and is simply demonstrating weakness.

Drinking is part of the teenage hockey sub-culture as it is within every other group of adolescent boys. For the simple reason that it feels good and creates incredibly strong and powerful memories. Especially in the early going of a young piss-head’s life, when those feelings are so new and more likely to create lasting impressions.

There are always a percentage of people who, for a variety of reasons, are sucked into the nastiness that is alcoholism and are unable to moderate or control their urges like most others. The NHL has had more than a few examples of players over the years whose careers and/or lives were cut short because of the bottle.


SandersonDerek Sanderson was a star player for the Boston Bruins (and a handful of other teams) and one of the earliest celebrities in the game. Because of all the glamour, accolades and hangers-on that came with success, Sanderson’s off-ice routine became one long alcohol-soaked party. As a way to keep himself plugged into, or insulated from, the non-stop lunacy of the off-ice distractions, he kept on pounding back the drinks.

Sanderson eventually reached the proverbial bottom of the bottle. A down and out skid row vignette straight out of the pits of despair, Sanderson woke up on a park bench hung over, with waves of nausea and self-loathing coursing over him.

Though his playing was greatly affected by his alcoholism, at least he salvaged his life and went on to have a second career as a sportscaster and businessman.

For a player like Sanderson, who reached a high level in terms of playing ability, his off-ice downfall was similarly spectacular and can be compared to other sports legends and their tribulations. Spurred on by the voyeuristic energy of those witnessing such a tragedy, it’s almost like a performance of another kind.


Bryan Fogarty stepped into a tragic role fueled by a cocktail of his inner demons and a river of booze that never stopped flowing until the day he died. It was a trajectory that was instantly recognized by others around him. Yet they were helpless to intervene and save what could have been a very good professional hockey career or at least a life lived beyond the age of 32.

Fogarty could never handle the pressure of a big league career and drank as a way to deal with it all. Just like sports, alcohol is one of those many things humans use as an escape from reality. It allows a person to hide from their problems while providing a whiff of already known or hoped for glory. Of course, the longer you use booze as way to avoid facing your weaknesses, the more tragic their effect on your life will be in the long run.


KordicJohn Kordic was a bruiser who played for a handful of NHL teams including the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. As with many hard-core drinkers, he seemed to gain solace not only from alcohol but from the seediness and accompanying sideshow that is part of the drinking lifestyle. Perhaps it brought reality down to a place that was similar to the internal dialogue and thoughts he had about himself. It’s tempting to offer up half-baked speculation like that in an attempt to bring some kind of semblance of understanding to tragedies such as Kordic’s, though no doubt it’s more nuanced than that.

Like Fogarty, Kordic died at a young age as a direct result of his drinking (and drug use.) The two had apparently formed a brief friendship based on the shared understanding that they both had a serious problem.


Brian "Spinner" Spencer was another tragic case whose problems with alcohol and drugs led to an early death. Spencer grew up in the tough northern B.C. town of Fort St. James and developed a taste for alcohol at a young age.

The effects of alcohol are different for everyone. For every functional boozer there's someone for whom the drink latches onto one of their fundamental flaws, takes hold and never lets go. For Spencer, it must have somehow seemed appropriate to lead a reckless life on and off the ice. Perhaps he felt cursed after his father was killed in a shoot-out with police.

He had been enraged when his son’s first big league game as a Toronto Maple Leaf played on a Saturday night, a match-up originally scheduled to be shown on the CBC in his area, was pre-empted. He stormed off with a gun to the closest CBC station and minutes after arriving he was dead.

Spencer’s personal life included the usual string of self-made problems that come with out of control substance abuse. He ended up leaving hockey earlier than he might have otherwise and was murdered during a drug deal in Florida in 1988.


FleuryTheoren Fleury played in the NHL for 17 seasons and will best be remembered for his years with the Calgary Flames. Fleury was tough as nails, especially considering his stature, and could score goals as well. Probably as close to a functioning alcoholic as the league has ever seen, the drink still ended up costing Fleury a handful of suspensions and must have at least reduced his potential to some degree. Which highlights what he did accomplish as all the more impressive.

Fleury did not hit rock-bottom in such a dramatic way as some other players and he benefited from an increasing awareness within the league and the advent of a substance abuse program in the NHL.


There is a litany of other second or third tier players who will be remembered as much for their off-ice imbibing and related antics as for anything they did on the ice. In many of those cases, the individuals engaged in a fearless and nasty style of play that fit in well with the hard-drinking desperado image. The likes of Steve Durbano, Link Gaetz and Billy Tibbets fit in this category.


With growing societal awareness and stricter enforcement of laws related to drunk driving, many of the most recent examples of NHL players and drinking problems have come to light only after the law got involved. See Mark Bell and Jay Bouwmeester for such unfortunate situations. Both however, seem to have a shot and leaving their problems behind them and continuing on with their hockey careers.

These are only a sampling of the players whose drinking problems destroyed their lives or affected their careers. Others have been social drinkers able to keep their lives relatively stable and unaffected by alcohol up until one tragic mistake that resulted in the death of themselves or innocents (for example, Steve Chiasson and Craig MacTavish.)

When a case involves a well-known player, it will of course have a higher profile. Add in the intrigue of public melodrama and death and the voyeuristic appeal ramps up even more. Do hockey players abuse alcohol more than the general population? Probably not, though I feel it’s at a higher rate than other professional sports played in North America.

What’s the reason? Perhaps it’s the Caucasian-centric nature of the NHL and the Anglo Saxon roots of the drinking subculture and the connections to preparing for battle. The game of football (soccer) as played in Britain seems to have the same boozing narrative and examples of tragic cases of players stoked by the surreal media glare and lapped up by a sympathetic audience.

Or maybe it’s because after being immersed in the ongoing drama that is a boozer’s life, there’s a realization that the trade-off isn’t all that bad. Reliving the moments of glory within the drunken haze of the endless celebration together with being feted as a true raconteur in exchange for the occasional dark night of the soul, potential ruin and early death. Throw in the sympathy, interest and energy of the fans who watch as your life becomes a real-life soap opera and the alternative, which is the drudgery of even temperament, obscurity and a safe, uneventful personal life, just isn’t enough for some.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Let's Stay in Touch...

NHL logoYotes logoJets logoThe Toronto Maple Leafs and the Phoenix Coyotes played a pre-season game in Winnipeg yesterday, with the Leafs coming out on top 3-2.

The Jets slumped out of town in 1996 never to...oops, they do keep returning in their Coyotes incarnation for exhibition games and I believe they even played a regular season game there a couple of years back.

I doubt there is any other example of an NHL team that departed a city and then kept coming back for the sake of nostalgia. It's great for hockey fans in Winnipeg and decent of the Yotes owners to oblige them (of course the dollars have to be there to make it happen , but still) but I've got to believe at some point Phoenix will decide to bypass any further match-ups in the Peg.

For any Phoenix fans who are really passionate about their team, such games have got to have a slightly less than appealing odour to them. Kind of like former girlfriends who want to "keep in touch" if only for the possibility it provides to keep having a good sniff around to confirm that they made the right decision to leave in the first place.

With each subsequent return of the team formerly known as the perennial Smythe division chumps, the lobby for bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg gets a bit hornier than usual and starts rolling out what they consider are their undeniably sound arguments. These have been bolstered recently by what they believe is their new trump card...the salary cap and the apparent boon this is for small market teams. It definitely would be an added help to whatever pro team may eventually get a shot back in Manitoba's capital city but it would be no guarantee of long-term success.

Even the apparently pro-return columnists in Winnipeg, who have got to add at least a bit of nuance to their arguments compared to the core of rabid fans, aren't overly enthusiastic. Here is the less than blinding endorsement from a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press: "modest stability may be more financially attractive than sinking another drill into unfamiliar territory only to discover more dirt."

One argument against such a return is the impossible to deny fact that the Jets never enjoyed consistent fan support in terms of sell-outs, both in the regular season and playoffs. I went to many a game that was not sold out and never had problems getting tickets for playoff games. Often those regular season tickets were bought for 10 dollars each through a promotion at 7-elevens (hey, I was a university student) and even the seats in those sections were often not full. Remember too that there were some very good Jets teams during those years.

Winnipeg is a medium sized city of about 700, 000 people whose population has been almost stagnant for the past 25 years. There just aren't that many people who can be tapped to become new fans. I know, I know...there are thousands of people who are huge fans and likely many saw every Jets game ever played in Winnipeg. But it's more about money than ever before and to keep the beast fed there must be a wide swath of people who can slurp up tickets, blow money on merchandise and make advertisers and media outlets salivate.

It's also important to note that the city is notorious for producing some of the tightest bastards around. There was an urban myth that used to circulate in town. Usually delivered with a knowing sneer, it was said that market research companies regularly tested products in Winnipeg under the premise that if they could flog something there, they could sell it anywhere.

The price at which tickets would have to be sold to sustain a team compared to how much they cost when the Jets were around, would be far greater than the rate of inflation over that time span (7-eleven 40 dollar student tickets somehow don't seem likely.)

I would be the first one to cheer on such a move and would hope for their success. However, while the people of Winnipeg have been conditioned to deal with nasty soul-destroying winters, it would still be a bitter wind that would blow through town if they ever became two-time NHL losers.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Still in the Game: Zarley Zalapski

I've always liked reading "whatever happened to" tales of former NHL players. You remember them frozen in time during whatever seasons they played for or against a team you followed. You may have hurled abuse at them or admired their style of play. And then one day they're gone.

When you hear of a former NHLer still playing in some obscure outpost years after he last laced them up for a team in the world's premier league, there will always be a few comments laced with pity. "He sure has fallen," "doesn't know when to hang 'em up..." etc. I've always taken the opposite view. I find it great that someone who loves the game so much is still playing all these years later. So what if he didn't strike it rich during his NHL days? Who cares if he has nothing else to fall back on?

I was reading this thread over at about Zalapski and noticed that he is playing in a small city in Switzerland called Chur. Years ago I worked for a few seasons at a ski resort near Chur and passed through the place a number of times, headed in when I had a few free days, once bought a guitar from a shop run by some local legend and in my only hockey-related memory, saw the Swiss national team play Slovenia in a medium sized barn rammed full of 3, 000 delirious fans. Can't even remember who won the game but it was a great experience.

Doesn't look like Zalapski plays much with the team. Perhaps he is with them in some other capacity as well. Must have at least some time to hit the ski slopes.

(originally appeared at

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Player/Fan Relationship

Habs logokingslogo.gifJets logoI recently found this well-written blog by a minor league baseball pitcher. Even the self-deprecating title, "Non-Prospect Diary" gives you an idea that he is not your average professional athlete. Some great insights and angles in this entry in which he muses on the relationship between fans and athletes:

"I can't explain to you what its like to avoid someone on purpose. When I write about the concept it just seems too rude and heartless. Maybe it is, but I still do it all the time. In my line of work, sometimes you have to ignore people. You have to tune out the noise of the game. There is no shortage of kids who want balls just because some other kid got one. No shortage of folks who want scraps signed with illegible autographs because everyone else is doing it. No shortage of begging, and pleading for stuff they don't really need, just want because someone else has. "

This brought back some memories I have related to the brief interactions that some fans crave with their favourite players. I never gave this aspect much consideration while growing up and the few instances of meeting hockey players were of the incidental nature.

Years ago while attending Winnipeg Jets games, we would occasionally amble into the lower level after the game where the entrances to the team dressing rooms were located. There was little security and no one seemed to mind that a small crowd would gather and politely wait for players to emerge. There wasn't any aggressive behaviour from fans as I recall and many of the players would stop and provide a few signatures before moving on.

One day after a game as we loitered outside the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room, Guy Lafleur strode out, walked past a group of fans, carried on down the concourse and disappeared through another door. Apparently no one considered pestering him for his autograph. Even at that age I was struck by his relatively small stature and the jarring sight of a pack of DuMaurier cigarettes hanging out of his shirt pocket.

On another occasion, the fact that others were getting signatures from a group of receptive Jets players prompted us to get in the spirit of things. Unfortunately we didn't have anything for the players to write on. Some discarded cigarette packets in the corner solved the problem (the inside sleeve of those 25 pack Canadian brands were perfect for the situation) and we promptly braced Dave Babych for his pen stroke. My friend at the time incorrectly addressed him as Dave Christian which is odd considering Babych's trademark handlebar mustache made him one of the more recognizable players. Babych didn't correct the slip-up, smiled, scribbled his name and carried on.

At a game between the Jets and the Los Angeles Kings, we were at ice level about an hour before the game as players were warming up. Wayne Gretzky was a few feet from us, leaning over with his stick on his knees and awaiting his turn as players took shots on the goalie. Next to us on the other side of the glass was a middle-aged doughy looking oaf with the stereotypical look of arrested development. He started haranguing Gretzky in a steady, monotonous, insanely annoying voice: "Wayne, can I have your stick Wayne. Wayne, please can I have your stick, Wayne...Wayne..."

The shamelessness and nothing-to-lose sense of desperation was cringe-worthy to witness. Gretzky was no doubt used to such bizarre situations and didn't even glance in the oaf's direction. There was also a little kid of about 7 years old near us, pasted up against the glass, staring at Gretzky's iconic mug. As the oaf's absurd pleading continued on, Gretzky turned and looked at the kid, smiled and nodded in that universal style of recognition that even a child understands.

If I remember such a simple gesture all these years later, I'm sure that kid, now long since grown, also remembers.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Years in the Wilderness

Bruins logoLeafs logoJets logoCanucks logo

Years in the wilderness…I’ve always liked that phrase as it relates to sports. It evokes the notion of a team that hasn’t won anything for years but keeps on persevering. It has a nostalgic feel to it. Images of beleaguered players with the thousand-yard stare, half empty barns and the significance of lesser things that otherwise get swept away when a winning aura surrounds a team. For the fans especially, it means someone who loves the game and rides out the storm no matter if it’s 4 seasons or forty.

The hardcore fans make a virtue out of losing. With the requisite rage, disappointment and heart break that goes with losing, they somehow grasp some remnants of enjoyment and pride from the depths of the accompanying shame and embarrassment. They learn to live with the possibility that they might die without ever seeing their team win it all.

The true, the proud and the never say die-ers who make the best of losing and standing by their team. The ragged warriors who cheer each little victory, whether it’s a hard-earned win, a thumping laid on an opposing team’s goon in a loss or simply limping into the playoffs only to be eliminated in the first round.

The phrase is part of the tradition of romanticizing the teams you follow and the path your own life has taken. It definitely reflects on my life for the past number of years as I’ve been in a position that has made it quite difficult to follow hockey with any degree of meaning. My own journey regarding hockey that brought me to this point started over 30 years ago.

That was the year I received my first Boston Bruins jersey, and for no other reason they became the first team I cheered for. The thin material and the stiff, felt logo stitched on the front had a far less authentic feel than the replicas of today but it was luxury to me. Even as a 7 year-old I considered it a special day when I donned my Bruins sweater in the morning before heading off to school. I continued to acquire various Bruins garb over my childhood years, including pyjamas, bedspreads and numerous jerseys.

A few years later, our family moved to Winnipeg and with the proximity and thrill of attending the occasional game, the Jets became my primary team. I still wore my Bruins jersey with pride and cheered for them once the Jets were eliminated in the playoffs (which was early and every year.)

At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs had drifted onto my horizon as a team with some kind of special attraction and mystique. We made the trip to southern Ontario to spend Christmas at my grandfather’s farm every few years. The atmosphere and surroundings helped those few Leafs games televised over the holidays take on a significance in my mind. In the lead-up to Christmas or in those few days before New Year’s, there was usually one or two games shown on television. The seriousness with which my grandfather would sit in his chair and watch the game while others were sure to remain silent or stay in another part of the house added to the mystery of this team with the royal blue jerseys that contrasted so starkly against the ice. I never became a Leafs fan in any sense of the word but those fleeting images are still burned in my brain.

I continued to follow the Jets through the years they iced some truly competitive teams but had the misfortune of sharing the Smythe division with the Oilers. Hawerchuk came and went and then Selanne arrived and with him a new sense of hope. I left Winnipeg in 1994 and have never been back since with the exception of a brief few days almost 10 years ago. I watched from a distance as the Jets packed up and left town for good as well.

I was living outside of Canada and had little opportunity to follow hockey. I worked in Switzerland for a few winters during that time, lacing up the skates on one occasion as the employees from the mountain where I worked played another group of workers from a neighbouring town. I witnessed a great international game played between the Swiss team and Slovenia one evening in Chur, a medium sized town in Switzerland. Those were my only connections to the game at that time.

The internet wasn’t in full swing yet so no real outlets existed for the overseas fan, especially one not remaining in the same place for any length of time. Together with the departure of the Jets I told myself that I wasn’t really interested anyway. I mouthed the usual platitudes about the game changing, “it’s all about the money,” etc. but it was probably just a way to deal with something that I actually did miss.

In 2000 I returned to Canada and lived in Vancouver. With the hassle of getting settled and finding a job, funds were tight and during my 2 years there I failed to see a game at GM place where the Canucks play. I watched NHL games on the big screen at a few pubs I frequented but it was hard to feel the passion I once had for the game. A few years later I left Canada and haven’t been back since.

This past season I started to take a renewed interest in big league hockey. Watching games online and the wide availability of quality websites and discussion boards devoted to the game helped things along. In the interim, during the time when I first left Canada almost 15 years ago until now, other things that were once important to me have fallen by the wayside.

I haven’t looked forward to a hockey season with this much interest for a long time.

It’s good to be back.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

You Never Know How Good You Have it...

Leafs logoJets logo

Until it's gone.

That's what I'm thinking this year as NHL training camps are only a few weeks away.

Years ago when I lived in Winnipeg and the Jets were still alive, I went to an open training camp at the now non-existent Winnipeg Arena. It was free to watch yet there were only 100 fans at the most in the seats at that early morning session.

It was a chance to see and hear the veterans, rookies, no-hopers and coaches in a relatively intimate setting as they went through drills and then scrimmaged. The lack of crowd noise gave the whole experience an unreal feeling. I remember 2 players who were trying to make the team squaring off and engaging in a fight during the scrimmage. The dull smack of fists against flesh echoed throughout the nearly empty arena.

In all those years I only attended one such training camp open house, though there were numerous others. I suppose I had other plans, or it was too early in the morning or it didn't have the cachet of a real season game with all the glitz, spectacle and relevance in the standings.

If you live in an NHL city and have an opportunity to watch your team prepare for the upcoming season, make the effort. You'll have a chance to see things in a more informal atmosphere, hear the banter between players, get a look at how the coaches work the players and how they address them with commands, praise and the good natured insults many teammates and their drill-masters engage in. You might even be able to get involved in a few impromptu conversations with some of the players.


On a related note, though normally the Globe and Mail has some of the best hockey writers and coverage around, this article mocking the Toronto media for spotlighting the upcoming Leafs training camp came across as strangely petty. Not sure what point he was trying to make except that a core of fans definitely are interested in such events.

There are far more positive things Maki could have written about in relation to training camp and the desire of fans to get a glimpse of the action. As I mentioned above, not only is it an interesting outing but probably the only chance many Toronto area fans will ever get to see Leafs players up close in a hockey setting.