As told to: Dave BidiniI remember distinctly that I had no plan for life other than playing professional hockey. I came from Lansing, Michigan where nobody made the ranks. I made the decision that I wanted to play, and everybody laughed at me. I wasn’t even the best player in my town and Lansing had a pretty limited minor hockey system to begin with. We only played once a week. My friends and I would have four-to-six weeks of outdoor pond ice every winter, and when we had it, I remember getting up at four in the morning and playing until school started. Then we’d go back and play more after school. We’d play until we got so hungry we couldn’t stand it, and then we’d go home. I also remember having odd jobs like shoveling snow and mowing lawns so I could afford to go to summer hockey camps. During the hockey season at home in Michigan, I’d play organized hockey maybe once or twice a week. But there were hours of pond hockey, and I’d get on Greyhounds and go to different towns to go to the different hockey camps in the summer.
I remember figuring out that amateur hockey didn’t really exist in my hometown after the age of 16. I moved to Minnesota by myself and lived in boarding houses while I finished high school, which was what a lot of guys did. I grew up in Minneapolis with very little supervision, which wasn’t very good for me because I abused some privileges.
When I played bantam hockey, I scored 50 goals. But once I made it to the Peterborough Petes, my coach Gary Green said, “Listen, man, you only have one chance to play in the NHL, and that’s as a heavyweight.” I said, “Well, OK.” If there was a choice between having to fight a bunch of tough guys every night or not being there, I didn’t mind. There was no question in my mind. I sustained no injuries then. The worst thing I ever got was a black eye. I grew up in a fairly rough neighborhood and I was in nastier fights in grade school than in the NHL. In the pros, you’ve got two big linesmen hovering over you. If someone really starts to get the best of you they’re going to step in and intervene. You’re not really in a place of risk. The only thing you’re risking in a hockey fight is your pride. I got my bell rung during one of my very first games and other than that, I don’t think I had any concussions. I had my bell rung by a few other guys too, but I felt fine by the next day.
“Listen, man, you only have one chance to play in the NHL, and that’s as a heavyweight.”
There are two things I remember from my first NHL game with Hartford. First, I remember waiting patiently for the coach to call my name. When he finally did, I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m about to go onto the ice in an NHL game.” I hopped over the boards, and my pants caught on a nail, and I couldn’t get over. There was a crazy rip through my pants, and they were torn to smithereens. But I went on the ice anyway. That first game was against the Washington Capitals. Washington had just called up Mark Lofthouse, whom I’d routinely knocked on his ass in the AHL. I’d always pushed him around, and he’d always avoided me; wanted no part of me. During the game, I got close to him, but he threw a shoulder into me, knocking me down. I thought, “You dumb shit, you’re in the NHL now. Don’t take any crap.” That was a quick wake-up call. Nobody backed down from anyone in the NHL.
I played four excellent games with the Edmonton Oilers in 85-86, and that was the biggest break I ever got. I was playing regular shifts for them. Not long after that, we were in Vancouver, and I had a breakaway. Goaltender Richard Brodeur came out and charged me. I almost got around him, but he tripped me, and I went flying straight into the boards feet-first. I blew my ankle out, and I never skated like that again.
In the WHA, John Brophy was a living legend. He had been in every jail cell between Miami and Halifax at one point or another. Brophy would get drunk and start fights, get arrested, spend the night in the tank, and stumble out and run practice. And people would say “Oh, that’s just John.” No one ever gave him credit for being an incredible trainer. He’d meet me at the gym and put me through these brutal workouts. I remember playing for him in Nova Scotia and going through boxing-like training. It made me a much better player.
Guys that play now are in tremendous shape. But there’s a problem with the game now. They’ve taken out its teeth. I think Mario Lemeuix used my name once when he was complaining, saying “The NHL needs to get rid of guys like Jeff Brubaker.” What they’ve done now, there are unintended consequences of the rules they’ve made. When they created all of these obstruction-related penalties, there’s no jostling now. And that would start fights. When you’d be going down the wing with a tough guy and pushing back and forth a bit, you gave each other a little stick and the next thing you knew you’d have a fight on your hands. Now that there’s no jostling, nobody’s ever mad. The only fights now are ridiculous; two teams put their tough guys out, and they have a fight for no reason and then they sit on the bench for the rest of the game. That’s bullshit. What made hockey fun was you never knew when something was going to erupt. You’d go a few games without any fights, and then you could have eight fights in one game because the teams were in the mood that night. So many guys now would have been weeded out when I played because they would have failed the test. They wouldn’t have been able to establish themselves as someone who couldn’t be pushed around. They’ve lost a critical element in the game.
I was in the American Hockey League and Detroit had so many good players in the minors. I got a huge break when Bill Dineen, my coach, decided that he wasn’t going to play me anymore, so he decided he’d make me an assistant coach. We ended up winning the American Hockey League championship. That credential helped me get the job in Greensboro, NC, where I started a 12-year coaching career. I got a charge coaching at that level by taking a guy that been overlooked and giving him the idea that he could play. I took a lot of pride in my ability to teach guys that they were just as good as others. I’d convince them that if they were willing to put more into it than anyone else and were able to seize the day when they got on the ice, then they’d have the ability to show what they could do and get called up to the next level. I’d tell them, “You don’t have five days to impress somebody. You don’t have five hours; you don’t have five minutes – you have five seconds to show somebody who you are.” When I’d send guys up, I’d make sure they were in the right frame of mind.
I had a lot of success coaching, and I was very close to getting to the NHL to coach. But then I had a couple of bad years and all of a sudden nobody wanted to talk to me. People in hockey avoid people on a losing streak like the plague. At that point I said, “I don’t need this shit. I’ve seen this happen. When you’re on the way up, you’re picking and choosing jobs. When you’re on the way down, you’re taking what you can get.” So I thought, “I can do other things. I don’t need this game.”
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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