As told to: Dave BidiniMy grandparents were from Italy: one set from Calabria, the other from Abruzza. They were hardworking people living in the Soo, and my parents were like them. When I discovered playing hockey, it’s all I wanted to do, but mom insisted that I go to school rather into junior hockey; St. Catharines; which is where the Makis and the Espositos had gone before me. My mother told me, “You’re going to college,” and she drilled into me the idea that having a good job and a good life was more important than anything; certainly more important than sport and hockey. My uncle Marco was a dentist and he told me about the University of Minnesota, which had a dental program. I said “Okay,” and decided to play college hockey at a time when only a few people– Red Berenson, Lou Angotti, Marty Howe– did that. Going there, I had no idea what Minnesota was, let alone where. All I knew was that I was going to be a dentist and play a little hockey. After graduating, Chicago wanted me and so I phoned Tommy Ivan to figure out my deal. I took a job for the summer and was going to go to my first NHL camp. But Mr Ivan wanted me to sign a contract before I came to camp, and that didn’t seem right. I was married, a recent college grad, and was making 25 K selling envelopes so, when they offered the standard 8 K, I walked away. If it wasn’t going to happen the way I wanted, it wasn’t going to happen at all.
USA Hockey found out that I was available and so Walter Bush, who ran the national team, got a local congressman to put a bill through congress making me an American citizen. I became captain of the 1968 US Olympic team in Grenoble, France– Herb Brooks was my team-mate– and we finished sixth. We spent that New Year’s Eve at the Broadmoor Hotel. It was during a tournament with Team USA, the Russians, the University of Denver, and the Italian National hockey team. They called me “Luigi,” and, after I scored on them– it was 8-1, I think– they shouted, “How can Luigi score on Italy??” Afterwards, we had a wild party, all of us chugging an arm’s length of beer. Peggy Fleming was there and she was hammered.”
We had a wild party, all of us chugging an arm’s length of beer. Peggy Fleming was there and she was hammered.”
Playing around the world with Team USA was an incredible experience. Five years after turning down the Hawks, I signed a personal services contract with the North Stars. When I got to the team, Wren Blair looked at me on the end of the bench and told me, “You’re everything I hate: a college guy, a Canadian who became an American, and a defenceman who rushes the puck.” In my first game I played all five positions. I flew into St. Louis on a Saturday afternoon and played against Dickie Moore and Doug Harvey, but one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid was because I was already 27 years old and had a college degreee in my back pocket. I had a fall back no matter how my career played out and I think it bothered Blair. Besides, my personal services contract meant that I did got paid regardless because I did other things, and everything, for the team: selling advertizing for programs, radio and tv broadcasting, coaching local junior teams. There was an old school still around at the time but I was not of it.
In 1972, I went and taught at Phil and Tony’s hockey school. They were lamenting the fact that they had to go early to (Team Canada) training camp. “We’re gonna wait ’til the last minute,” they said, and I told them, “Guys, I’ve played the Russians. You are in for a real experience. They waved their hands and scoffed. “They’re amateurs. We’re gonna kill them!” After Canada tied Russia in Winnipeg, I flew in and met the guys and I said to Tony, “Well ‘Bo,’ now do you understand?”
Players and teams today are very different, for better or worse. Because I’m had my turn with the national team, I knew about training and being physically prepared. At my first camp, Leo Boivin was hanging over the boards soaked in sweat during the first practice. I asked him if he was okay, and he said, “It’s the first time I’ve put on skates since last year.” Guys in the off-season didn’t prepare and there was no support in place. Our trainer was an old goaltender who I had to show how to tape my knee. Once, I took a drink of water during practice but our coach told me not to drink water; I guess he thought it was a show of weakness or something.
Hockey success in the USA has been the result of a series of episodes, instead of one great explosion. The best American player in the draft next year is going to be Auston Matthews from Phoenix. The trajectory of growth has been slow and steady with junctures all the way along. Playing college hockey was is a huge factor. Guys from USA and Canada have come down to play and stayed and now, in one district in Florida, for instance, there are three former NHL coaches running the squirt program. People point to “Miracle on Ice” and that’s great, but it was only one step. Hockey in this country will be fine as long as those steps continue.
DAVE BIDINI is the co-creator of ‘Slapshot Diaries’ as well as a writer/musician/columnist from Toronto and the author of 12 books.
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