As told to: Wayne Arthurson
Earlier this week on The Players’ Tribune, hockey great Bryan Trottier wrote a letter to his younger self. It was a great piece on how a 10-year-old kid grew to become a hockey legend, winning six Stanley Cups.
However great the letter, Trottier’s journey was, and still is, rare. With hockey and other sporting dreams, most of us never got to realize them the way Trottier did. So I decided to write a letter to my younger self.Kid, I’m from the future. I’m you, 40 or so years from now. You’re looking at me like, “You? What’s with the potbelly and all the scars? What the heck happened to me?”
Now, I know you’re thinking — that’s impossible. There’s no way. You’re 10 years old and you watched Paul Henderson score the winning goal against the Russians. Or you watched your favourite player, Yvan Cournoyer, become MVP in the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. Both events seemed like they were broadcast from the moon, especially the series with the Russians. You remember seeing the actual moon landing, when your dad was stationed in Germany, right? It was pretty cool, but at no time did you think you would ever walk on the moon. That was science fiction stuff, which you read a lot of. But when you saw Cournoyer win the Cup, you thought ,“Yeah, that’ll happen to me one day. I’ll make the NHL and I’ll win the Stanley Cup.” Many of your friends think the same way and you replay those dreams during endless games of road hockey.
You didn’t learn to skate on a homemade hockey rink or on some lake out of a Group of Seven painting. You learned to skate like many Canadian kids did, on an indoor rink. It happened when your dad was in Germany, two years before the moon landing. Some older kid grabbed your hand and told you to hang on. You either moved your feet or you’d be dragged along. So you moved your feet and you could skate from that day on. A couple years went by and you were a bit faster than most kids. You scored a few more goals than most kids, assisted a bunch, too. One year, you won the scoring title in your league. Your parents sent you to power skating every year and you even went to a week long hockey school with with a bunch of pros. You were the second fastest skater in your age group.
Your mom thought you would make it. So did your dad when he was around. He drank more than the usual dad, but he was there from time to time, sometimes as referee. He’ll give you your first penalty ever in hockey. Two minutes for tripping. Mom will be pissed, but hey, you’ll accept it cause you did trip the guy. Dad will also give you your second penalty in hockey. Two minutes for hooking. Yeah, you did it.
It’s not a sudden destruction of your dream, but a slow realization of where you truly stand in the hockey world.
But I have one important thing to tell you: sorry kid, you won’t make it. I know you have the hockey dreams, I know you believe in your heart they will come true, that you will be the one. But it’s not in the cards. There are other kids, some of them just down the street, that are better than you. A lot better. To be brutally honest, you’re only an average player. And I mean average by overall population standards, not by NHL standards. You’ll never be close in skill and talent to the weakest player in the NHL. Or the AHL. Or any of the minor pro, semi-pro, university or college teams. Never. Don’t worry, there are millions of kids like you, millions who have the same dream, but in the end, just don’t have it.
As you hit your teenage years, this will dawn on you. It’s not a sudden destruction of your dream, but a slow realization of where you truly stand in the hockey world. At 13, you’ll be the last player cut from your neighbourhood A team. You’ll have fun in the B league that year, playing with a bunch of your friends and scoring a lot of goals. But you’ll be playing in the B league. You’ll try out again for the A team next year, even the AA team for the region. You’ll be cut in the first round this time. Some of those kids are a lot bigger, which your mom will complain is why the coaches don’t like you. You’re not small, you’ve never been small, but you’re not a big guy. Only average. But you’ll know that these kids are not just bigger than you, they are faster than you, they are stronger than you. They also have more puck sense; more awareness of where they are supposed to go and what they are supposed to do. And their shots are hard.
You also don’t like to fight, and in the 70’s at the level and age you’ll be at in a few years, fighting is everywhere. At 16, you’ll play for a team that’s known for fighting. Every game there are at least four or five fights. In one game, there’s a bench clearing brawl — a battle so horrible that it’s mentioned on a local sports radio show the next day. You won’t fight anyone in this brawl; you’ll just grab another kid like you, hoping against hope that your dance partner doesn’t throw a punch. Neither of you do, so that’s good. But you quit playing hockey at the end of that season.
Still, you’ll remain in the game. The same year you play for the fighting team, you follow your dad into the officiating side. Minor hockey at first but in your second year as a ref, you move up, doing some Junior B, Senior Men’s. You’ll ref a game in which one of your high school phys-ed teachers is a goalie. He lips off at you in the second period and you give him two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. He starts to say something, but realizes he can’t. Even though he’s your teacher in school and can boss you around in gym class, make you run laps and do push ups, there’s nothing he can do here ’cause you’re the ref. He’ll look at you differently afterwards, realizing that despite the fact you read a lot of books and have glasses, you’re more athletic and mature than he originally thought. It’s a nice feeling.
It’s not the Stanley Cup but the whole school hears of your goal and your smile lasts for about a week.
So you start to think that maybe being a ref is a different way of making your hockey dream come true. It’s fun and your dad says he hears talk about you being checked out by the higher leagues, that somebody thinks you have potential. So you go to a ref camp, all the instructors are refs you’ve seen on TV. At 17, you’re the youngest person there. You can mostly keep up with the pros and you call some good games during the camp. They say you need something called conditioning, but are overall pleased with your ability.
Then one of the pros talks about his life. He’s away all the time and unlike the players, he has to book his own flights and hotels. He also has to pay for those in advance and send his expenses to the NHL to get reimbursed. He has to carry and clean his own equipment, make sure his own skates are sharpened. He talks about thousands of fans screaming at him, sometimes throwing stuff and admits it’s a hard slog. And to a 17-year-old who likes reffing games but is also discovering music, writing, and girls (actually you discovered girls awhile ago but, it’s just that some are discovering you), it’s not something you are keen on slogging through. You like hockey but it’s not your passion in life.
So you’ll quit as a ref and leave hockey completely, only to watch it on TV from time to time. But that’s fine, ’cause you now have other passions. Music is one, but so is writing. By now, you’ve read so many books, you realize that you can do better than some of them. You try a few short stories and to be brutally honest, they are amateurish. But when compared to others your age, you have a greater awareness of story, of character, of language, the same way those better players had a better awareness of the puck and the game. No one you know can write as good as you. You meet a writer, well, some college instructor who had one book published, and like the ref from the camp, he talks about the hard slog of a writer. This time, you’re not scared of that ’cause unlike hockey, you love to write. You study journalism and dream of publishing a novel by the age of 25, then winning a GG or some other big award when you’re old. Like 40.
But let me tell you another important thing: even though I’ve ruined your hockey dream, don’t quit playing the game now. You’re only 10 and hockey is a load of fun. Playing Bantam B hockey, your team will travel to Innisfail for a tournament. You’ll make it all the way to the final game. At the end of the second period, you’ll be down 5-1. Despondency reigns in the dressing room before the final period. Just before you head back, Mike Hamilton, your captain and one of your best friends says: “It can’t get any worse, guys, so let’s go.” You come back in the third, tying the game 5-5. About four minutes into overtime, you get a pass from Mike, sending you over the other team’s blue line. There’s only one D between you and the goalie. Normally, you’d try to make a move to get around the D; instead you skate a couple of strides and fire a wrist shot from the top of the face-off circle. The goalie is screened by his own player and doesn’t see the puck. It goes in and you win the tournament. Your teammates jump the boards and crush you underneath them with joy. It’s not the Stanley Cup but the whole school hears of your goal and your smile lasts for about a week.
(I’m in the second row, third player from the right.)
But the most important thing you’ll learn while playing hockey (and other sports) is how to lose, how to accept defeat and move on. That’ll be important for you later in your life. You will get a lot of rejections as a writer. But you’ll move on much quicker than other writers you know. You won’t take it personally (well, not too much), but you’ll learn from those rejections, like you did when you lost in hockey, and find another way.
You’ll become known as a good writer, publish some books, a couple by a big New York publisher. So in a sense, you’ll make it in the big leagues. You’ll also be married and have a kid. And when she takes up neighbourhood pond hockey, you’ll help out. And realize that out of all the dads in the neighbourhood, you’re one of the fastest skaters.
Wayne Arthurson is a writer/musician from Edmonton and author of the award-winning Leo Desroches crime series. The third book in the series will be published in Spring 2016.
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