Living The Hockey Dream Captures The Magic Of The Game
November 19, 2009 11 Comments
In Living The Hockey Dream, author Brian Kennedy, Ph.D., a native of Montreal, an Associate Professor of English at Pasadena City College and a freelance hockey writer who covers the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks for Inside Hockey, explores the hockey dreams—realized or not—of people involved with the game at all levels and all walks of life.
To be sure, this is not a book focusing on National Hockey League superstars and their glory days in the NHL—if that’s what you are looking for, prepare to be disappointed.
“What I was trying to do was get them to tell similar stories,” Kennedy explained. “Take a guy like [former Kings superstar] Marcel Dionne. It wasn’t just ‘tell me about your hockey career,’ because I can find that out from books, from the Internet, whatever. But tell me about you growing up in the game. What was your corner rink like? What was your neighborhood like? Then, of course, it extends into their career.”
“What I was trying to do was get, not just an inside story, but a story that had the theme of the young person and the way the game appeared or had meaning to him or her and then how that extended into the present,” Kennedy elaborated.
Like his previous book, Growing Up Hockey: The Life and Times of Everyone Who Ever Loved The Game (see Recommended Reading For the “Lull:” Growing Up Hockey), this is not your typical hockey book about NHL stars, past and present. In fact, even when dealing with a former NHL player, Kennedy’s approach was unique and refreshing.
“What I tried to do was, instead of looking at their lives starting from their careers, I went from the opposite way,” said Kennedy. “Start with you as a kid. Tell me who you are and what your dreams were. How were they lived out as a child and in your younger days? What happened later was a product of that.”
“The focus is on stuff that maybe most readers wouldn’t know and that I certainly didn’t know, and, in some cases, stuff that these guys hadn’t even thought about in years,” added Kennedy. “Some of them, I would ask them a question about their corner rink, or when they got their first hockey stick. They would look at me strangely because they hadn’t thought about that forever because they get the same questions over and over. I was trying to get at some different aspects of their lives in the game.”
Of course, what NHL players did in their careers remains significant. Nevertheless, Kennedy was looking deeper into the souls of those who are profiled in the book.
“I talk about their numbers and the number of goals guys scored or the Stanley Cups they won,” he said. “But all that can be found on the Internet. But that stuff isn’t a narrative. What I was trying to do was create a narrative about what the magic of the game is for these guys.”
“Ian Turnbull, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and also for the Kings, told me exactly what he was like when he was a boy and the things that happened to him, including one time when he got in trouble,” he added. “When you get to know him now, and he’s in his fifties, I guess, you realize that he’s the same person and that’s the magic. So if people want that glimpse into the personality behind the player or what generates that spark of passion, that’s what I was trying to bring out.”
Some of the former players profiled in the book are among the all-time greats, including the legendary Bobby Hull, the great Chicago Blackhawks left wing who, along with teammate Stan Mikita, brought the curved stick blade to hockey. To be sure, Hull is one of the few players who revolutionized the game.
But when the time came to interview him, Kennedy got a rather severe case of cold feet.
“It was funny…his son, Bobby Jr., told me his story and then he told me, ‘here’s my Dad’s cell phone number, but you’ll never get ahold of him because he never answers his phone,’ said Kennedy. “I had that number for two or three months and never could work up the courage to call him.”
“But I finally dialed the number, even though I was terrified to call him,” added Kennedy. “I had done my research and had my questions ready. But with all of these stories, you don’t know the direction they’re going to take until you start chatting with them where that story is until you start talking to the guy.”
Kennedy then described his exchange with the great Bobby Hull.
“He answered in his gruff, somewhat raspy voice, ‘Hello?’ I introduced myself. ‘Mr. Hull. This is Brian Kennedy and I’m writing this book…’”
At that point, Hull cut Kennedy off.
“Oh, OK,” Hull told Kennedy. “Let me tell you what happened when I was a little boy. You just listen.”
“He started to tell me the story and I said, ‘Oh…that’s very interesting,’” said Kennedy.
“No, no. Don’t interrupt me, just let me tell the story,” Hull said to Kennedy. “You just listen and then after, you can ask any questions you want to.”
“He talked for about five or six minutes and gave me some great details about his childhood and he let me ask all the questions I wanted,” Kennedy noted. “I guess we talked for about thirty or forty minutes. The first few minutes was almost surreal because I couldn’t believe I had this guy on the phone.”
Kennedy was totally in awe of the legend on the other end of the line.
“While I was interviewing him, I was seeing that famous picture of him with the curved stick that we all saw when we were kids,” Kennedy beamed. “I was seeing video of him scoring certain goals and I was thinking of everything I’ve ever read about the slap shot and when he first started launching those missiles.”
“So I’ve got all that going on in my head at the same time, so I’m not fully grasping the fact that I’m having a conversation with the great Bobby Hull.”
Another player from days gone by who is profiled in the book was former Kings and Montreal Canadiens superstar goaltender Rogie Vachon.
“[Vachon] is the kindest person, the most warm and honest,” said Kennedy. “I talked to him in person at a game and I called him to do the interview, but I felt like I was sitting in his living room. He’s just that open.”
“He is from way far north in Quebec,” added Kennedy. “The chances of him ever making it to the NHL, based on the remoteness of where he was and the time he was playing his minor hockey, was extremely unlikely, and especially to make the Montreal Canadiens, given the depth of talent they had in goal over the years. So in a way, he set up his own success, and that’s what makes it so nice to tell his stories. You just get the feeling that he thinks of his career as a gift, even though it’s not—it’s something he deserved because he was so talented and courageous as goalie back in those days.”
“While talking to him, you get a sense of reverence for the game in the era when he played. Talk about the icon of a goalie of his time. For me, that’s Vachon.”
Kennedy also noted the black mark on the history of the Hockey Hall of Fame in that Vachon has not been inducted as an honored member.
“I asked him about that and people who read the book can see the reaction…again, very gracious,” said Kennedy. “But if there was anyone who deserves to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame who is not—if you look at his numbers, a Vezina Trophy, three Stanley Cups, and the fact is, he wasn’t just the second fiddle on that team.”
“[Vachon] shared the goaltending duties with Gump Worsley in that Vezina season and they won the Cup that same season, let alone everything he did for the Kings in the mid-Seventies,” added Kennedy. “There is no way we can keep that guy out of the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
Kennedy also looked at the lives of some of the current players in the NHL, including Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal.
“When you look at a game, you don’t read the depth of these guys’ pasts,” Kennedy stressed. “I love the history part of the game, including the recent history. Look at Eric Staal. He’s one of four brothers and we know a little bit about his parents and they have that commercial on the NHL Network, so we’ve seen them. But you don’t think about who he is really and what he sacrificed as the oldest brother who leaves home early to play the game, and that’s an experience that most of these guys have.”
“Especially for an American fan who isn’t in a city where you have a junior team—I went to high school in Ontario [Canada] and we had the Peterborough Petes in our school, so we knew these guys were hockey players and came from somewhere else,” Kennedy explained. “I think a lot of people don’t think about that. For a guy like Eric Staal, that’s a dimension of his life that comes out in his story. I think that gives fans more of a glimpse into the human side of it or the depth of these guys as people.”
“We think of hockey players like our elementary school teachers. When you go home, they either don’t exist anymore or they live in the classroom. After all, you don’t see them anymore. What these guys are doing is showing me facets of their lives from before they played in the NHL, and, in the case of the retired guys, afterwards. That’s something you don’t see when you watch them on the ice and that you don’t read in game coverage.”
In the past, Kennedy has talked about the love Canadians have for the Stanley Cup, and in covering the Ducks during their 2007 run to the Stanley Cup Championship, Kennedy got to touch that most revered of all sports trophies.
“To me, [former Canadiens legend] Maurice Richard is still alive,” said Kennedy. “Howie Morenz, the great Montreal Canadiens player from the Thirties. All those guys are there in that trophy. So when I touched it—and I could feel it—I really could, under my fingertips, feel the surface of it, I still have that exact feeling in my mind. It was like I was part of something huge and eternal, in a way.”
“I had seen it before and I had touched it before, but in another context, when the Los Angeles Kings hosted the 2002 NHL All-Star Game,” added Kennedy. “You could get your picture taken with it and everything. But that’s out of context. The night I touched it on the ice [when the Ducks won it] was a totally different thing. I felt like all the moments that all the great players had ever touched it were distilled in that moment when I touched it. I know that I was never much of a hockey player and that there’s no way I would’ve won the Stanley Cup by myself. But I think everyone wins it in their own way and that’s my way of winning it.”
Kennedy’s love for the Stanley Cup gave him the idea to profile the “Keeper of the Cup,” Phil Pritchard.
“Here’s a guy who takes the Stanley Cup with him to his hotel room every night,” said Kennedy. “He could dance around with it. Take it into the shower if he felt like it. What’s that like? What would you do?”
“I managed to get ahold of him and it turns out that he’s the most regular guy on the planet,” added Kennedy. “But he takes his role almost as a sacred obligation. He understands what that trophy means.”
Indeed, Kennedy looked way beyond NHL players in writing the book.
“It’s not just about hockey players,” he emphasized. “It’s about other people in and around the game. [USA women’s hockey great] Cammi Granato. [Television reporter] Chris Simpson. The paralympic captain, who lost his leg to cancer, even the minor league players. They’re all in there for different reasons.”
Another chapter went in yet another direction, looking at Kennedy’s nephew, who is playing youth hockey. But even though the chapter does not come right out and hit you in the face with it, there is an unmistakable message here.
“This generation is probably asking too much of kids,” Kennedy stressed. “I know I never was a great hockey player. But when I look at my nephew Daniel’s games, I think ‘wow. You don’t really have to be that much better to be the best kid out there.’ So you think, ‘c’mon boy. Why can’t you be the one?’”
“But what you’re really saying is, ‘why couldn’t I have done that back then,’” Kennedy added. “So I guess if there’s an underlying message it’s to parents to say ‘look, let the kid play the way he wants to play. Don’t try to make your lack of having fulfilled the dream come true in the child.’”
“Daniel, if he makes the NHL, that would be great. I know we’ll all be very proud of him. But I don’t think he has to do that for hockey to have meaning in his life or to give him something.”
After reading and seeing all the news reports about parents pressuring their children to be better in their respective sports, not to mention reports about how that pressure has often led to altercations at games, Kennedy’s message is one that should resonate with all parents with children in athletics, not just hockey.
One chapter really brought out Kennedy’s love for the game. And before anyone thinks something is fishy here, let me state for the record that this reporter was involved in this particular story, as Kennedy is a colleague of mine who has sat next to me in the Staples Center press box the last handful of seasons as we’ve covered the Kings. Nevertheless, the story ends up really having absolutely nothing to do with me at all.
A couple of seasons ago, after Kings goaltender Erik Ersberg was injured during a game, Kennedy wondered what would happen if the backup goalie was injured as well?
So what did Kennedy do? He asked Kings head coach Terry Murray during the media scrum interview after the game.
Murray told him, jokingly, but as deadpanned as he could, that someone from the press corps would probably have to put on the pads.
At that moment, knowing that Kennedy had spent some time in goal during his youth hockey days, I pointed to him and said to Murray, ‘he’s played in goal.’”
Murray then said that the duty would have to fall to Kennedy.
Of course, I am not telling the story as well as Kennedy does in the book, and I am doing that intentionally. Nevertheless, this chapter might be the one that, not only captures the magic of the game for himself, but also shines a light on how the book captured the magic of the game for all the other people profiled within its pages.
“I’m a person who has an imagination,” said Kennedy. “With that incident, you and I both know that I’m not the official Kings press box backup goalie. But in my imagination I am, and in some kind of funny way that the chapter lives out, I actually am.”
“Of course, I don’t really believe some of these things, but it’s fun to play with these ideas and sometimes, what you imagine kinda comes true,” added Kennedy. “If I thought, when I had a ticket to a Kings playoff game—I saw two playoff games in 2002—if I had thought then that I would walk into Staples Center’s Team LA store that I would see a book about this team or about hockey that I had written—if I had imagined that, there was no possible way this could’ve been true. But like Growing Up Hockey, this book is a product of that same energy and imagination.”
Kennedy, Brian. Living The Hockey Dream. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Folklore Publishing, 2009. ISBN (10-digit): 1-894864-82-4. ISBN (13-digit): 978-1-894864-82-4.
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