As told to: Dave Bidini
GARY GREEN: I came from a farm in Tilsonburg, Ontario. Colin Campbell was my best friend. He was a townie, I was a farm boy, and we’d skate every morning. I’d shovel the driveway at five, my mom would put the coffee on, and she’d take me to the rink in town. The rink manager would open the doors and we’d skate in the dark. My mom hung out in what was called “the warm room” and waited. Colin and I would skate, then we’d referee until noon, go back to his folks’ place for lunch, play hockey out on Lake Lister, public skate some more on the rink, then referee in the evening. Colin eventually got drafted by Peterborough, where he played for Roger Neilson. I used to hitchhike with my skates to see him because Roger let the guys go out on the ice in the middle of the night. Roger would sleep on the trainer’s bed while Bob Gainey, Colin, and myself would play. We never went out or ran around town drinking. All we did was play hockey. In the evening, I’d watch the team play, then Colin would take me back out to the edge of the 150 highway and drop me off, where I’d hitchhike home again.
RON MURPHY: My first pair of skates were white, my sister’s skates. Everybody used to laugh at me when I’d hit the ice. We had a pond that we skated on – me, Herbie Dickenson, who lost an eye with the Rangers, and my brother, Bill, who played in the International League with Ohio – and it was there that I learned the game. I made a few local teams, but ended up hitchhiking to Grimsby when I was a kid. I wasn’t getting along with my old man. We lived with his mother and it wasn’t a very good situation, so I just packed up my kit bag one day and never went back. A guy by the name of Normie Warriner got me a job in a factory, and I played there for awhile. Eventually, a scout came down from Guelph and asked me to come up and play junior, but I told him that I had no money, which was true. He said that they’d get me a place and get me situated, and before you knew it, I was in Junior A with Harry Howell, Andy Bathgate, Ronnie Stewart, Aldo Guidolin, and Louie Fontinato. I’d grown up on Fiddler’s Green in Ancaster, where there was only one house on the road, so Guelph, to me, seemed monstrous. We used to go to a place called The Green Rooster, or sometimes the Dairy Queen, which we’d hit maybe a little too often. We won the Memorial Cup in 1951 and then, one day, Alfie Pike, our coach, came up to me and said: “Murph, get yourself a trunk, ‘cause you’re gonna need it.” I guess I looked at him kind of funny, but then he said: “We’re putting you on a train, son. You’re going to play in New York City.”
PERRY BEREZIN: My goal as a boy wasn’t to make a million dollars playing in the NHL. It was to play for the University of Alberta Golden Bears under Clare Drake. He was an institution, a little man with a lot of respect. My focus was totally on college. I got drafted by the Great Falls Americans in the WHL – I still have their puck in a box in my basement – but I only went to two training sessions before I left. I didn’t even tell them I was leaving, I just left. I was so terrified that I’d lose eligibility in college that I bolted. It was pretty rude to just disappear, but my mind was elsewhere. I wanted a scholarship: there was something about earning a scholarship that was very important to me. I never thought about going to the NHL until I got there. The summer I was drafted, I was actually working in a parts warehouse in Fort Saskatchewan alongside this guy named Phil, who’d made a bomb and wanted me to help him detonate it. When I got a call from CBC television telling me that I’d been drafted by the Flames, I told them, “Well, okay then, but I’ve gotta get back to the warehouse.” These days, guys fly to the draft when they’re the eighth or ninth pick. I was touted anywhere from a first- to third-round pick, and while I don’t think you’d want your kid to be as clueless as I was, I knew that if I continued to work hard, I’d stumble on something. When I got the call from the Flames during my second year in college at the University of North Dakota, we were playing on the road against the University of Wisconsin Badgers. I got on the elevator of the hotel to head to the rink and it stopped at a floor where two older guys got on: Cliff Fletcher and Al McNeil. I had no idea who they were at the time, even though they’d drafted me. I’d never had contact with them, which is preposterous when you think of what draft picks go through these days. After the game, they pulled me aside and told me, “We think you’re ready to play in the NHL.” They told me to get an agent, because they wanted me to join the Flames once the season ended. I was totally stunned. But even then, I was thinking: “Aw, it’ll probably not happen. Something will go wrong.”
RYAN WALTER: I left home at 15 to play junior hockey in Langley, BC. I was playing Tier Two when most kids were still in bantam. I had an uncle who told me that I shouldn’t be leaving home so young, but my parents thought it was okay as long as my grades stayed high. My first year went well – my grades actually went up, and I scored 26 goals – and in my second year I was called up to Kamloops to play against Victoria in the first round of the WHL playoffs. In the first game, I drove outside with the puck and had the defenceman beat while heading to the net when he took his stick and sliced me down at the skates. I hit the post with my knee and ripped everything. I had two cartilages removed, and both cruciates, and the interior and exterior ligaments were badly damaged. Everything was torn and mangled beyond recognition. Two doctors at the end of the operation took my parents aside and told them that I’d be fine for walking, but that I’d never skate again. I was 16 and cocky and I refused to believe what they were saying. With rehabilitation, I had to work harder than I’d ever worked in my entire life. I never went through more pain than I went through trying to get the knee back to where it was supposed to be. In the end, I think that having to do this set me apart from other players in my peer group who had similar talent. I had to push harder than they did. I had to learn about resilience and resolve very early on. Afterwards, bloody noses or cuts were nothing to me.
ANDERS HEDBERG: The local professional team, Modo, were always trying to recruit me. I lived in a little village and used to tell them, “I’m happy here playing with my youth team, but thank you.” I could bike to Modo every now and then and see a game, and that was good enough for me. Because pro hockey wasn’t that big in Sweden in the 60s, I didn’t see it as a career. I thought I’d go to university and become a teacher. Finally, when I turned 16, I tried out for the senior team and I made it. But the first day of play in the Swedish Elite League was also the final game of the TV Puck – a huge Swedish tournament for the country’s youth teams. MODO wanted me to play in their season opener, but I told them: “I have to play with my peers, my friends.” They said, “No, it’s silly. You’ve made our elite team. You’re playing with us.” I defied them and said that I was going to play with my friends. The press began trumpeting this story and it became quite a sensation. So Modo had no choice; they arranged a small plane to pick me up after my youth game. Because the TV Puck was broadcast all around Sweden, the whole country looked in to see what this 16-year-old was all about, demanding to play in his youth game as well as with the big club. We played at one o’ clock in the afternoon and I ended up scoring five goals. I flew 30 minutes from Sundsvall to Modo, and at six o’clock, I took to the ice for my first professional game. Thankfully, I scored in that game, too, beating Lief “Honken” Holmqvist, whom I’d watched as a boy, one of the greatest Swedish goaltenders of all-time. It was quite a day, but I still didn’t think I’d end up playing on a line with Bobby Hull in Winnipeg, not in my wildest dreams.
LOU VAIRO: When my dad was a kid, he used to play hockey with the heel of a shoe as a puck. The sticks were 50 cents, and they’d play manhole cover to manhole cover. But there wasn’t a single rink outside of the old Madison Square Gardens on 48th, which had a figure skating rink above it, with no boards. One day, we were playing baseball outside when this thin, sallow-cheeked guy pulled up in a beat-up old car with cellophane windows and A1 EXTERMINATING hand-painted on the door. The guy got out and said, “Have you guys ever thought about playing hockey, or roller hockey?” We hadn’t. We were 8 or 9. We went over to him and he had a hockey stick and a roll of black friction tape. He shot it against the wall of the nearby supermarket and we were so impressed that he could lift the roll of tape off the ground. We all tried it; none of us could do it. He started a team. We lived in a section of Brooklyn called Canarsie, and he named the team the Canarsie Rangers. We all got roller skates, and eventually fashioned enough equipment: construction workers’ gloves, that sort of thing. We’d go to the dump and find an old couch or chair and take out the cushioning to make pads. The blocker was an old black and white schoolbook with duct tape around it. This was how we did it. For shin guards, we used magazines. Then we got permission to flood the schoolyard so we could play by the light of the moon. My mother couldn’t stand to watch me play. One time, she was sitting outside the rink waiting to take me and my brother Jerry home. She thought the game was supposed to be over, so she asked one of my friends where we were. He told her, “They’re in sudden death, Mrs Vairo.” She fainted in the street. She didn’t know what he meant.
TIM ECCLESTONE: I was in Kansas City playing for the Blues’ farm team when Scotty Bowman called my coach, Doug Harvey, and asked for a defenceman. Doug said, “Give Ecclestone a try. He’s playing as good as anybody else.” So I flew up to New York City. I’d hardly ever been on a plane before and it was my first time in the Big Apple. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed on the cab ride coming in. When I showed up at the old Madison Square Garden, I had no idea what to do. I had sticks, skates, and a bag with about a week and half’s worth of clothing. So, about two hours from game time, I went around to the side door of the rink and told the attendant that I was there for the game. He said: “Man, this is New York City. We see a lot of stuff here, but nobody’s ever tried this one on us before.” He said that if I was for real, I’d better try the player’s entrance around back. When I finally found the dressing room, Scotty introduced me to the guys, then gave me the best seat in the house: right beside the spare goalie at the end of the bench, opening and closing the gate. On about the third shift, somebody went down, and Scotty threw me out there.
JEFF JACKSON: I came from Dresden, Ontario, population 2,600. There was a river that ran through town – the Sydenham River – and it froze in the winter, so we played pretty much every day. My backyard turned into a rink naturally, too, and if we weren’t playing in either spot, we were at the arena. We won almost every tournament we entered because we played so much hockey. There was one player who’d made it from Dresden: Ken Houston. He played for Atlanta, Calgary, and a few other teams. When I was growing up, he was the guy who gave me hope that I could go somewhere in the game. When you’re from a small town, the rest of the world seems so far away and unreachable, whether you’re gifted or not. So the fact that Ken used to come home every summer was special. He’d stop by and play grass hockey with us – we’d have two games going on the lawn in front of the high school – hang around, tell stories, and years later, when I made it to the NHL, my first ever shift was against him. I lined up on left wing and he was on right wing for an exhibition game at Maple Leaf Gardens. Before the faceoff, he cracked me on the pads with his stick and said, “Alright. Go get ‘em kid.” On my second shift, I was carrying the puck around the net feeling like a million bucks. My head was down, and when I looked up, there he was. I heard him holler, “Keep your head up, kid!” and then he came at me.
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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