In looking back through the years and serving as a coach, referee, and former minor pro player, I have always been asked by many, "how did you get here?" Not only have I been asked that question by fans, parents and players I have coached, but many want to know what the right path is for a player today trying to achieve a career in the game of hockey.
There are several meanings to the word career when dealing with any sport and it varies from a young player dreaming of being the next Sidney Crosby to mom and dad just wanting a return on their investment in which little Billy gets a full ride to the University of his choice. There is one thing for sure though in all the different versions of that answer, I never advised any player or parent to follow the path or the journey I went on to get to where I am today.
A minor pro career that spanned over ten seasons, although not consecutively, that took me through all of the provinces and most of the states, and has me settled in a little community most known for floods and the location that Slap Shot was filmed. A retired player who had a desire to guide young players on a better path, a safer journey with a better opportunity to achieve their ultimate goal of playing at the highest level possible, there was always one thing for sure, "do as I say, not as I did!"
Lacing them up for the first time at 3 years old in a little rink outside of 100 Mile House in northern British Columbia I can barely remember much about those early years except how cold it was on those outdoor rinks and how warm the hot chocolate was by the wood burner in the warming room. It wasn't long before my family moved a little further south to Chilliwack B.C. where playing in the indoors seemed like such a great idea, my youth hockey was pretty normal as it was for most, my father coached the team my older brother and I played for the top teams in the organizations we played in.
After a couple years our family headed in land to a small farming and logging community of Enderby B.C., the town was small as was the hockey program and we would consistently get slapped around by the likes of Vernon and Penticton both which would select their travel teams from hundreds of kids and we would take who ever showed up. It was around squirts when I realized that I wasn't going to keep pace with my brother who had a knack for scoring and looked like a young Gretzky both in looks and ability so I decided that if we already had the scoring covered I would take care of the net.
I started playing goal around 10 or 11 and there I would stay until moving up and through minor hockey. My brother and I started attending junior try outs at 15-16 and again and again we were unsuccessful at cracking a line up for a BCJHL team. We tried out for Kelowna, Vernon, Summerland, Salmon Arm and Merritt. I made it down to the number three guy a few times and was edged out by older more experienced goalies, my brother on the other hand had the skill and talent but was missing a key ingredient, a mean streak! We would return and play for our local minor hockey program and wait for the next fall to try out again.
I returned home again after another fall of try outs and I decided that I was done with playing goal and I was going to become a defenseman, maybe not the best idea I ever came up with but I figured why not. I was age eligible for Juvenile and went out for the local team, after a brief few games it was decided by the coaches, the league a few other people that I probably shouldn't be allowed to play any longer that season, for some reason they saw no humor in the style in which I played or I guess you could say fought. With nothing going on around home I decided that I would pack my belongings and head to the city. After hitch hilking out to Calgary Alberta I got my first job repossessing cars for a local repo company and that would certainly cure the craving I would always have for excitement. After a few months of living large in the big city in a mobile home on a car lot that I shared with to bull mastiffs and a couple hundred repossessed cars I wondered into town for a night out, it was shortly thereafter that I was looking at 2 years behind bars for several assault charges, it was time to head home.
At 18 years old my life had taken a real terrible turn in the wrong direction, I came back to B.C. trying to figure out how to turn things around and try to get my life back although my life was about to belong to the courts. The court proceedings were delayed several times as one of the victims in the assault was still in very serious condition in the hospital and could not attend the pre trial hearings, although not the best situation for that gentleman, this proved to save my life!
The summer turned to fall and once again I attended training camp in Merrit and once again I got cut and sent home, only this time I followed my brother and his buddy down to the Kootney International Junior B league. I suited up a couple games with the Creston Clippers, it was very obvious that this particular group wasn't very interested in development and or moving up to the next level based on the party's and extracurricular activities. Shortly thereafter I asked for my release and headed up the highway to play for the Kimberly Knights of the same league. This program was well run and looking to move players up the ladder. During one game against the Clippers I was accused of actually knocking my own brother's tooth out and like I said to the ref., "if you didn't see it you can't call it!"
December 8th that year I got a phone call from my parents at home to inform me that my girlfriend had been in an accident while snow skiing and had been taken to the hospital in Vancouver. I left Kimberly to join her and her family in Vancouver where I learned that she had broke her back in the accident and was paralyzed from the chest down. This was a real eye opener and life changing experience for everyone involved. After spending part of the holidays with her in Vancouver and then returning home to prepare to head back to play the rest of the season in Jr. B, as she had told me that she wanted me to go and continue to play.
Prior to my return to Kimberly I took time out to attend a Merritt vs. Vernon Lakers game in Vernon. At the game I realized that Merritt had hired a new coach, through an introduction after the game I was invited to return to Merritt for yet another try out as the team had one player card remaining and the coach was going to let a group of players try out for that one position. Over 30 players showed up for the one spot and although I had originally been released again two days later the coach called and informed me that he had changed his mind and would me to join his team. After all those tryout's I had finally made it! I played out that season or what was left of it and put up some respectable numbers at least in the penalty minute column; I did score my first goal on the very last game of the season.
Once the season ended and summer rolled around it was time to face the past, the court case was finally going to happen and in talks with my lawyer he advised me to change my plea to guilty, have the case moved from Alberta to British Columbia as part of an agreement so my family would be able to visit me throughout my two year stay with federal government. If it wasn't for a lot of unbelievable great hockey people my life may have been over, my Merritt Centennials host Mom, other booster club members, family, teachers and my coach ,Chuck Tapp who offered to be responsible for me all stood up and said good things the judge and that along with agreeing to perform 650 community service hours, 2 years probation and a 9 o'clock curfew for a year I was able to walk out of that court room.
I returned to Merritt as a veteran player, named an assistant captain and played on a team with a group of players that I will never forget, we finally snapped the Merritt losing streak, made the play offs where we beat the Lakers in 7 games and then lost to the Penticton Knights who I believe went all the way to the Canadian Junior A finals. Penticton's number one scorer was drafted that spring first overall by the Detroit Red Wings, Joe Murphy.
That season ended on a bit of a high note yet a little low, my junior eligibility was now over, I had hurt my knee in game 2 and eventually would find out that it was broken, the top of the posterior cruciate had snapped off in a bad hit but I managed to play that year and most of the next in College before finally going to a real doctor and requiring surgery to pin it back together.
I was invited to play for the Camrose Lutheran College Vikings and attended camp in the fall which lasted 6 weeks before I felt that school was not for me, it took about 400 miles to realize that I had made a very poor decision and called Coach Mike Johnston if I could come back in the next semester, he said that I could if I stayed in shape. Once again I followed my brother to the Kootneys where we would play for the Cranbrook Royals in the Canadian Sr. Hockey League.
Once again I would stay there a couple games and realize that the life style would only be one that would put me back in trouble so I headed back to Kimberly where the Dynamiters Sr. team was looking for a defenseman. It was there that I was able to travel to Alaska and play the Gold Kings in a three game series, which proved to be quite an experience, a Senior league hockey team that sells out every home game and the fans love to throw beer on you.
I returned to college after Christmas and would finish the year and then required surgery to repair my bad knee, in discussions with Coach Johnson after the season it was decided that college was not really a good place for me and that he would no longer be requiring my services. Coach Johnson went on to coach several Canandian National Teams, with the Canadian Olympic program, assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks and is currently the General Manager and Head Coach of the Portland Winter Hawks, I should have listened and respected him as both a coach and a mentor. Several years later while he was with Vancouver and they were playing in Pittsburgh I had the opportunity to go down after the game and apologize for being such a thorn in his side during my brief stay in Camrose. Coach Johnson was the true professional and accepted my apology and we actually had a great conversation, it is truly one hockey experience that I really messed up, I had the chance to play for a great coach and get a college education.
The following summer in my home town of Enderby, Gary Rissling of the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to run a conditioning camp for Junior, College and pro players. During our sessions he would always out work everyone on the ice and preached a good clean life style and professionalism. Gary really cared about the players he was helping and to this day I attribute my desire to help players from the summer I spent skating with him. I was invited to join a close friend of mine Gary Stewart to attend try outs in Salt Lake City with the IHL Golden Eagles, I knew I was getting in over my head but took a shot, the shot lasted about as long as I figured it would and before long I was heading home. Looking to continue playing I had heard about a new semi professional league that was starting down near the coast. The Pacific Northwest Hockey League, PNHL, this league would later become known as the Pay Now Hockey Later League.
After attending tryouts and getting drafted in the first round, the league organizers figured they could cash in a little more and held a second camp, this camp was held in Bellingham Washington and again a great turnout and more money for the owners. Eventually we would be sent off to our new cities and start preparing for the season. As we sat in the dressing room about to get dressed for our first team practice we were told that the league organizers had headed south with all the money, not good! No money of my own and nowhere to turn I pulled a player agent card out of my pocket and made the call.
Art Breeze, a player agent out of Calgary had seen me play at the try out for the PNHL but never being one to think I was that good I never figured I would need an agent, well I needed a bus ticket more than anything. I called and he delivered, a one way ticket from Vancouver Island to Moose Jaw Sask., what the heck was I thinking? Off I would go to one of the coldest places on earth in the winter, another trip to Alaska to play the Gold Kings again and I was becoming a real fixture in the Canadian Senior leagues
Upon returning from our Alaska adventure it was time for Christmas break and I headed back home and with the thought in my mind of telling my dad that the ride was over. I had given it my last shot and I was thinking the game of hockey wasn't going to work out for me. My Dad and I were sitting at the kitchen table on Christmas day it was about 8:00 pm, Dad and I were discussing what was next for me when the phone rang. A soft spoken gentleman asked if he had the right number, and once I confirmed that I was who he was looking for he asked if I had seen the movie Slap Shot, I responded rather quickly as we had all seen that classic many times. He then asked if I would like to play for the Chiefs? I was in shock but excited and after looking in the atlas to see where Johnstown PA was located I agreed to make the trip.
On January 6, 1988 we were skating out on the ice at the War Memorial to the rocking sounds of Gary Glitter with over 4000 screaming fans joining in and 13 seconds in to that first game I had my first fight and before the night was over I had fought three times, picked up a couple helpers and we won 5-3.
The season was short but as a group thrown together we made a huge impact in the community and what would become the East Coast Hockey League. After one trip through the league several teams dropped out and never played another game which left only three teams. The Virginia Lancers were being coached by John Torterella who is now the bench boss with the New York Rangers and Stanley Cup winning coach of Tampa Bay and the other bench was being manned by Rick Dudley who has a had a great career in pro hockey as a coach and General Manager.
Once the season ended I had kept a series of plays and fights on video tape, I sent the tape to Phil Esposito who was the General Manager of the New York Rangers and was fortunate enough to be invited to training camp the next fall.
I skated at the Rangers camp and during my very first shift I managed to get into to three fights, yes three fights. After I fought a well know NHL tough guy Reid Simpson I went to pick up my gloves and as I bent over an opposing player kicked my glove away, I straightened up, hauled back and cracked him. Once that tussel ended in a wrestling match on the ice I got up and was heading towards the bench when Mr. Simpson felt we should go again and we did and I thought for sure both lungs we going to collapse as I gasped for air for the next 40 minutes.
The rest of camp was as expected and I was assigned to the Indianapolis Ice in the IHL. This was so far from where I had come but I was on my way. Playing in the IHL was an experience that was so full of mixed emotions, a coach that sent so many mixed signals and you just never knew where you really stood. In January that year I was traded to Flint to play for the Spirit, a struggling team with an uncertain future. I finished that season and returned to Johnstown to get married and then learned that I had been invited to try out for the Hartford Whalers. During the Whalers camp I had to take a couple days off to fly home and be with my wife for the birth of our first daughter, upon returning I felt I continued to play well but knowing that I was far from ready to play in the NHL, I was assigned to Binghamton of the AHL and relocated.
Hartford had established a zero tolerance rule as far as off- ice behavior and zero tolerance didn't include fighting with bouncers on a road trip. I was sent to Fort Wayne of the IHL for my off- ice activities but decided to return to Johnstown and the Chiefs as a player assistant coach, husband and father. Over the next couple months I would work on getting back to the AHL and by January I was on my way back up only with the Maine Mariners the number one farm team of the Boston Bruins. I finished the season in Maine and spent the summer trying to convince the Bruins in to signing me prior to training camp, although my AHL coach Rick Bowness tried to get things together for me it never happened and I never went back, I think about that decision a lot but feel it was the right decision to make for my family.
During the next season I would start as the Captain and player assistant coach of the Johnstown Chiefs but by the middle of January I had been traded to Louisville and then to Hampton Roads where I was part of the Championship team coached by the legend John Brophy.
I was able to go out a winner and end a career that never should have been had it not been for some good people and a lot of miles. Over the next several years I came out of retirement 4 times to play two full seasons with Nick Fotiu in Johnstown, Roanoke Express and again for the Chiefs for two games under Scott Allen. During the last outing it was announced that I had just become the only player in the ECHL to play in three separate decades, once I heard that I knew it was time to hang them up for good. I miss the fans, the noise, the team mates and the fight. Hockey has been a long road for me as a player but worth every mile.
I have been fortunate enough to make a life through the game of hockey as it made it possible for me to come to Johnstown and meet my wife, with my wife we have three unbelievable children that have had a lot of success in school and athletics. Our youngest has started his journey and no one has any idea where that journey will take him or how many great hockey people he will meet on the way. The road map for hockey is one of many highways, roads and detours which along the way every player and parent must try to figure out if this is something that they really want. The game requires a multitude of sacrifices and hours of hard work each day but the reality of it all is that when it is all over and you sit down to write about it it really is worth it.
Enjoy the Ride!