As told to: Greg Thomas
We grew up in Scarborough, in the Birchmount and Sheppard area. Within the first year, I was interested in hockey. My mom said, “Are you kidding me? You are not playing that game!” I guess I kept pestering them and my parents finally relented and that was that.
We went skating the first time when I was five years old and my sister told me, “It is really slippery out there, Darren.” I remember touching the ice and she was holding my hand and I pushed her away and I just started skating around the ice. It came pretty naturally to me.
My dad wasn’t a hockey guy but he was sports guy in Australia. From what I’m told, he was a very good sportsman in his time. I think he was very astute in terms of learning the game of hockey and understanding it. To this day, he has a very strong knowledge of the game.
He considered the hockey environment and what opportunities existed for me within the environment. Growing up, I was a little defenceman and I always played on teams where I played a lot. It was excellent for my development.
I always played defence. This is back in the ‘70’s and my family was big Bobby Orr fans. He wasn’t a big guy and he played defence. That is what I wanted to do. I liked being on the ice every second shift. If I could have played the whole game, I would have.
Bantam was a big year. I went and played for Don Mills with Andrew McBain, a future first round pick for Winnipeg and still a close friend of mine. We lost in the city finals that year. The following year, I played for St. Mike’s before joining there Junior B team in grade 11.
I was dreaming of the NHL. As a kid, I wanted to be Bobby Orr. I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer; I wanted to be a hockey player.
When I was playing at St. Mike’s as a Midget, I started to watch a lot of major junior games with my dad on Sunday’s if I wasn’t playing. We went out to Oshawa and watched the Generals. To me, that is what was going to happen; I was going to play junior. I didn’t think it wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to be a hockey player and that was the progression at that time. The NCAA was really the route for guys who weren’t good enough.
I ended up in Belleville playing for the Bulls. The first year was tough. I think I was pretty tight with my friends in Toronto and I was definitely a homebody so there was no question, I experienced a lot of homesickness that first year.
Because I could skate, I was able to adapt to the game relatively quickly. If you can skate you can always keep up with the game and you are never really out of place. It was a good year. It was a learning year, that’s for sure. I was snake-bitten all year; I have never hit more goalposts in my life. I scored my first goal in the last game of the year.
There was quite a lot of pressure for young kids playing in junior. You are an asset; that is the reality of it. I don’t think that sinks in at first, but you see guys traded and, with hindsight, you realize how much the educational piece was neglected. The educational aspect is taken far more seriously today but during my time, education really had zero value to most teams.
You worry. You worry about how much you are playing; you worry if scouts are noticing you. I didn’t really pay much attention to what other guys were doing in the league but there was a lot of worrying about myself, I think.
My draft year was my second year in Belleville. I expected to be drafted. I had been told I would be drafted somewhere between the second and sixth round. That was my expectation going in. The people that advocate for you at the level are your agent, your coach and general manager. When you are told you are going between the second and sixth rounds – and I know it isn’t in my agent’s best interests to downplay my skills or character; it had to come from somewhere else, right?
Rick Curran was my agent and began representing me in junior. Back then the agent’s role was to talk to the general manager or coach on your behalf. For example, it was made clear with Belleville when I went there that I wanted to know at the 48 hour deadline; if they were going to sign me or if I would pursue the college route. We also agreed that if I didn’t end up signing a pro contract, they would pay for my university education. So, he was able to do things like that for me that I don’t think all players benefited from.
Having said that, in hindsight, it might have rubbed some feathers the wrong way. It wasn’t common to have an agent unless you were a first round pick into the OHL draft. I was a seventh round pick after breaking my ankle halfway through the year. I was not a big guy. In my OHL draft year, I was 5’10 and 160 lbs. I think I showed up for camp in Belleville the next fall and I had grown an inch and a bit and had put on an extra ten pounds. When you are looking back at the 80’s, my size certainly wasn’t a drawing card. Now, had I been playing in this day and age, perhaps there would have been a different story. But back then, however, it was almost strictly a big man’s game.
I remember when the Central Scouts would just drop in to do their measurements and weights before the game. They’d come in around October or so and it would be unannounced. You’d line up, back in those days, wearing the heavy blue cotton underwear with the trapdoor and away you’d go. And shit, the panic would be on, I would rush to the washroom and chug a water bottle and stuff a few of pucks down my jock so I would hit 180. I would be standing on my toes to make sure my head would hit six feet. I knew that if I came under six feet, I was dead. You laugh about it now but at the time you had to hit certain milestones or they just wouldn’t even look at you. Or at least that is what I thought.
The best decision I ever made in my life was not going to the draft; that is for sure.
The best decision I ever made in my life was not going to the draft; that is for sure. My agent called and said, “I am taking some guys down to Montreal for the draft. I want you to come along.” For whatever reason, I didn’t go. I told him to give me a call when it happened and I just kind of chilled out at home. The day just went on and on and I am thinking, “Holy shit, what’s going on?”
So then I guess I got the call late in the afternoon or evening because they did the whole draft in one day back then. My agent called me and he sounded awful, just awful. He said, “I’ve got good news for you, you’re drafted.” And I go, “Okay, it doesn’t sound like good news.” He said, “You’ve been drafted by Edmonton.” And I thought, “Fuck, how am I going to make that team.” And then he said, “And it was in the twelfth round.” I did the math right away and realized that I was the last guy taken in the draft. I was devastated – well, I wouldn’t say devastated; I was not happy.
I have had that experience a couple times in my life, when you have this expectation of something and then it happens and it is a letdown. I think you just have to regroup and contextualize it and think about it. The closest thing I can think of is when I trained for my first marathon. I got to the finish line and I heard all these stories of how awesome the feeling is and I got there and I just thought, “No, this wasn’t good.”
I think with the NHL draft, it was the expectation that I was going to go between the second and sixth rounds. I was upset. I was embarrassed at the time. After I got the news, later on at night, I just kinda went up to my room and was pissed. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, and after a while, my dad came up. The best thing he said was, “You know what, fuck it. Look at Sather’s teams, look at the guys he’s got; he’s got guys that weren’t drafted, he’s got Europeans, he’s got all kinds of guys. You gotta go there and become one of his guys.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s it.”
I think I got up the next morning and went to the gym. And that was it; I just got to it. As I said, I was upset that night and I got a call the next day from Barry Fraser, the Director of Player Personnel and he said, “You know what Darren, we are so excited to get you in the draft.” He made me feel great so I felt really good about it. It was a very short-lived moment of self-pity.
Camp was in Edmonton. We were all treated amazingly. Edmonton, of course, was the pinnacle at the time. It was the Mecca of hockey. Everyone was there, I mean, everyone: Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky, the list seems endless. They set the expectation that you are a champion. There was no second place. You trained like a champion and you behaved like a champion and that was it. That culture, I thought, was fantastic. I learned a lot about how to prepare like a professional. It was quite something.
The first skate, the first two-on-one drill was intense. With a lot of these drills, you are in motion and you are spinning around and you look up and Jari Kurri is coming down your right side. You think you got the guy covered in front and Kurri puts a backhand saucer over your stick and it lands right on buddy’s stick and you think, “Holy shit, I just got scored on.” And then Grant Fuhr stacks the pads and saves your day. Things like that, as an 18 year old, it was an eye opener; that is for sure.
It was hard not to be awestruck. In my first scrimmage, I remember coming around from behind the net and crossing over the goal line. I get my head up and coming in on the forecheck is Dave Semenko. And, of course, he’s not going to lay me out but I didn’t know that. He’s got that wide stance that looks like you can drive a tractor-trailer through it and I passed the puck through his legs out to the winger on the outlet. I thought, “Okay, here it comes.” It was like when you were a kid and you wrestled with your Uncle. You knew you had been hit by man-strength. I remember calling my dad that night and saying, “Holy fuck, I just got hit by Dave Semenko, how cool is that!”
We had a rookie game in Calgary. One of the guys, I guess his ritual before the game was to empty all his equipment onto the floor. So he does this and then he puts his jersey on the floor. The trainer comes in and just snaps on this poor guy, “That’s the fucking flag! What are you doing putting the fucking flag on the floor.” He just tore a strip of the kid. You realized how serious the Oilers were about their team
When we made the walk out to the ice at the Saddledome for that game, one of they guys starts humming the theme song to Hockey Night in Canada. All of a sudden, you have twenty guys humming this theme song. So there we were, a bunch of 18, 19 and 20 year olds humming away as we approached the ice.
I knew I wasn’t going to make the Oilers coming out of that first camp. At a point in camp, I sat down with Barry Fraser and Ace Bailey and a couple of other guys and they reviewed my camp. They said, “You know what Darren, you were the surprise of the camp for us, we didn’t think we were getting this good of a hockey player.” Now, I’m not blowing smoke or anything. I did have a good camp and was a strong skater so I could keep up. I was a skilled player and I played well.
They said, “We want you to go back to Junior and work on – “ and I’m waiting for them to say my defence. That is all I ever heard in Belleville, “Why are you rushing the puck? Get back, get back! Why didn’t you hit that guy! You gotta run that guy.” And I’m looking at my coach and thinking, “I’m a 170 lb defenceman, are you serious? You want me to run Bob Probert through the glass?” That wasn’t my skill set. I was a puck-moving defenceman on Olympic-sized ice in Belleville.
Well, the Oilers said, “We want you to work on your offence.” And I kinda went, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “No, you are going back on that Olympic ice and when you get the puck, you carry it. That’s you.” I told them that might be hard to do because I had asked for a trade. They told me not to worry about that.
I went back to Belleville and I was treated a little differently. It was a remarkable start to the year. In the first 29 games I had 15 goals. From what I understand, I was added to the list for Team Canada for the training camp but I broke my wrist right before the camp in December. I played the rest of the season with a cast on my hand. The good part of having the injury was it contradicted the knock on me; that I wasn’t tough enough to play. I think that is what my coach had told people in the lead up to the NHL draft.
When I broke my wrist all the Edmonton brass were at the game. I actually spoke to Rick Curran before the game and he said, “I’m not sure I should tell you but, they are all going to be there and they are there to watch you. So if you want a contract you better fucking step up.” I said, “ Ah, okay.”
I think on the second shift of the game I got checked into the boards and I broke my wrist. I had the trainers throw some tape on it and I played the rest of the game. After I came out, I had an icepack on my wrist and Barry Fraser asked me how I was doing. I said I thought I had jammed my wrist but it’s no big deal. He told me that he heard that Sherry Bassin was putting me on the list for Team Canada.
I wake up the next morning, head to the doctor and find out it is broken. I got to the rink and my coach said, “Well fuck, we’ll put a playing cast on you and you’ll be good to go.” So I played the rest of the year with a fiberglass cast on my wrist.
The Oilers, I think, were quite happy that I was a guy who broke his wrist and finished the game. It was later on that year that they offered me a contract. The bad luck for me was that I tore an abdominal muscle a week or two before my second Oiler camp. It was a rectus abdominal muscle tear and the doctors didn’t really know how to deal with it.
At camp it kind of felt like a pulled groin. I tried to skate through it. After the first skate, Ace Bailey came over to me and pulled me aside. I remember sitting on the bench with him and he said, “What the hell is wrong with you? What’s going on?” And I said, “My groin is just fucked. I can’t skate.” He took me in to the doctors; they treated it like a pulled groin and it didn’t improve.
They were planning on sending me down to Halifax, regardless. I went down to Halifax for a few weeks. It rattled me. I put it as the reason why I am where I am now. I remember going down to Halifax as a 19 year old with a grade 12 education. I was not playing and in my head I’m going, “You won’t be able to skate.” I could feel it. I knew something was wrong and as a 185 lb defenceman playing at that level, if I can’t skate and move the puck, really I’m no use to anyone.
I remember sitting in a restaurant with Bruce Boudreau in Halifax and looking across the table at him. He was about 30 and a career minor leaguer and I thought, “I do not want to be that guy.” Now, of course, I look at Bruce Boudreau and I would love to be that guy! Heck in today’s NHL, Bruce Boudreau would have had a great career. He was a fantastic player and wonderful guy.
But because I wasn’t playing in Halifax, I had a different lens on the entire experience. Your mind has a million things it can think about. When you are playing all you have time to think about are the details of the game. When you lose those things to think about, you start having doubts.
As a 20 year old, you are still living in dog years. At 30, Bruce seemed like an elder statesman. I looked at it hard and asked myself, “Do I really want to be in Halifax for another ten years? Is this really where I want my life to go?” The Halifax experience did scare the crap out of me. It was a complete reality check.
They sent me back to Toronto and the injury was finally diagnosed. I was back playing in January and I got a call, out of the blue, from the Peterborough Petes. They knew I was a free agent in the “O”. Initially, I thought, “Are you kidding me? I signed a pro contract; I am going back to the AHL.” But my agent said it might be good opportunity for because the Petes were poised to make a run to the Memorial Cup.
While playing for the Petes, I started getting all these universities approaching me to come and play. At first, I would just say, “No, I am under contract.” And then I started to reflect on it and maybe going to university wasn’t such a bad idea after what I had seen in Halifax.
I went to a couple of different visits to schools. I spoke to the Oilers about it and they were very progressive in their thinking. Randy Gregg was one of their guys at the time. They were completely supportive.
I chose to go to York University. Once I got there, it just seemed right. That first year of school, the Oilers invited me back to camp but I said, “Look, I’d really like to have a good start to the school year.” I was actually scared of making the decision of going to school and then failing. So, I wanted to make sure I had that good start. I wanted to be with my teammates and fit in and not be some prima donna who heads off to pro camp.
After my first year of university, my contract had run out. My agent told me they weren’t intending on re-signing me. I wasn’t really even interested in it, to be honest. I knew they weren’t going to sign me again. I was getting very focused on my schooling.
I had a great time playing at York for my first two years. Once I was accepted into the Faculty of Education, however, I just didn’t have the time to commit fully to the hockey team. It just didn’t feel right to be a part-time member of the team.
I started working as a teacher and didn’t really play much hockey from my second year of university until 1993. I got a phone call from the Australia Hockey Federation to come and play for them in their World Championship. Actually, they had asked me a couple times while I was in university and the tournament was always during exams.
Well, I was out working and I get a phone call from them again and I thought, “Ah, you know what, I haven’t played in a couple of years, why not? I started playing pick-up with a bunch of guys, training and getting in decent shape. A week before the trip, there was a mix-up on the Australian’s end with some paperwork and I couldn’t play. It was a bummer. I was looking forward to it; it was in Barcelona.
The Australians, however, prior to heading to Barcelona, were doing some training in Toronto for a few days. They invited me to come and skate with them and meet the guys. They were all keen guys and actually really strong skaters but cement hands and pretty low hockey intelligence.
I went through the drills with them and when we came off the ice, I was off to the side talking to the trainers. The rest of the guys went into the dressing room. I get in there and the captain comes up with one of the youngest guys on the team and says, “Darren, we’re giving you his passport. You are going to play.” They were working up this scheme to get me into this tournament. I just laughed, of course. We went out for dinner later that evening; it that was the one time in hockey where I did feel like the superstar. They were hanging off every word I was saying. I was their Wayne Gretzky. I was this Australian guy who was drafted.
I think, in looking back on why I stopped playing, the fun had left it. I could sit on a shrink’s couch forever talking about the relationship I had with my junior coach. When you can’t you play the game the way you like, it isn’t fun.
One of my fondest memories is from Bantam when Andrew McBain and I were chosen to a do a photo shoot on the ice with Bobby Orr. When we were done with the shoot, we were in the dressing room and the CCM rep was pressuring us to get out of the equipment so he could get out of there. Bobby walks in and says, “Hey, we gonna play some shinny?”
Orr was in his 30’s at the time and we spent an hour out there playing shinny. Let me tell you, I have seen the look on his face on only one other person, Wayne Gretzky. I remember being on the ice with Gretzky and they both had this look in their eyes; that it’s a magical place where they are. And I know I have never had that look in my eyes playing the game. It is simply a different level.
I remember doing suicides in Edmonton in my second camp on that first day and looking over at him and I’ve got this groin and I’m dying and I’m thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” And I look over at him and he has a look on his face like, “Fuck, we gotta do more of this. I love this.”
And that is the joy that at one point I think I had, when that leaves you, it is not a fun thing. You are a 5’11, 180 lb defenceman getting pounded by these 6’4 guys and it becomes…not fun.
My life and work as a teacher has given me the opportunity to work with so many kids through the years and have a positive impact in their lives and educations. I love what I do; it couldn’t be more rewarding. I have now spent well over half my life as an educator and I wouldn’t have chosen any other path for myself. There is no feeling like the feeling of making a difference in a young person’s life.
My life in hockey certainly was instrumental in shaping the person I have become but more than anything, it put me on a path where I found a career that has fulfilled me every day.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
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