I loved being around the rink from the earliest age. I actually, funny enough learned to play in Tucson, Arizona of all places.
Dad was Canadian, and had taught me to skate at an early age. He was in the construction business, and when the jobs were finished down there, we up and moved back to California where I had been born, and I continued playing there, with the amazing parental commitment it took to get me places through the horrific Los Angeles freeway system of traffic everywhere.
It was around the age of Ten or Eleven when we had moved back, and I just loved playing the game, and Dad told me right there and then that if I wanted to get better at it, I would need to work on things away from the rink. He had built a concrete slab in the backyard so we could work on my shots. We didn’t have the luxury being in California where we could just go down to the pond and play like back east, or in Canada, or any other cold climate for that matter.
My Father was the biggest influence I had in Hockey, and he laid out a plan of work that we could do out in sunny California like push-ups, sit-ups, shooting drills etc… so that I would be better when I did have my ice hockey practices and games.
It is quite common now that some California kids end up playing at a high level of Junior Hockey, and also in the USHL (United States Hockey League) but how this California kid ended up in Bellville, Ontario, Canada is quite a thing. My first stop in Canada was actually in St. Albert, Alberta just outside Edmonton.
I had been seen at a midget tournament in Portland by a scout, and he wanted to talk to my dad about me going up there, so I went and tried out, and made the team. Doug Messier, who is Mark’s dad, was my coach at St, Albert, and with Gretzky playing with Mark, and also being one of the owners in Belleville, the connections for me were made, and he told them about me.
I could have played in any of the 3 leagues (WHL, OHL, QMJHL) but I had always wanted to play in the province where my father had come from, so needless to say it was an easy decision to go play In Ontario for the Belleville Bulls.
In terms of being drafted into the NHL, that was an amazing experience in, and of itself, as I had no idea what to expect, having been a player from California. The exposure to the Draft was nothing like it is today in terms of media exposure. The event took place in the Montreal Forum, and I was there with Mark Messier, his father Doug, who was my coach at the time in St. Albert, and I didn’t even own a suit. I had to borrow some clothes from the oldest son of the family I was living with at the time .
Out of nowhere the Detroit Red Wings call my name in the 4th Round, and I’m drafted into the NHL. The feeling was incredible.
I’ve often been asked about going to training camps as a young player, and I was able to attend as an 18 year old with Detroit, and learn the ropes, so by the time I was leaving Juniors in Belleville, I knew the structure and what the pre-season camps are all about.
In fact right before pre-season camp, the coach of the Vancouver Canucks, the team that now owned my rights, Bill LaForge had phoned me and told me exactly what he was looking for. He wanted some young tough hockey players on his team. I was being brought in to be one of those guys, so I came in to camp in great shape.
Interesting concept here, in that we were told not to fight with each other during camp. Didn’t make sense to go toe-to-toe with the guy who will be right by your side come season opener, so to speak. I played that first year down in the minor league team in Fredericton, and then got called up for 9 games during the season.
In pre-season camps, usually the young guys trying to make a name for themselves will fight with each other, and leave the veteran guy alone, but I do remember during my time in St. Louis, that a young Tony Twist who is now rated amongst the elite names of tough guys, came in and challenged veteran Todd Ewen about 4 times during camp.
It all depends on the situation, and there’s no real rule or code to it. Guys are out there battling for jobs, so sometimes the veteran just has to answer the bell, and deal with it.
When I was entering into the league, I knew what was going to be required of me to get there and stay there. I was going to have to be in the tough guy role for the team in Vancouver. I came from a Belleville Bulls Team with Marty McSorley as my partner in crime.
We had to have each other’s backs, and we did. I knew that I could play though, and this next section should serve as a lesson to younger players in all sports about the subject of limitations that others try and put upon you. In the beginning of my career as I mentioned, I knew that being tough and fighting would get me there, but as the years went on, and I earned some respect around the league, and a little free space out there to play, I wanted to be more of a contributor to the team.
Coach Crisp in Calgary always believed that I could be a 3rd line or 4th line guy who could go out there play a regular shift, and not hurt my team. I was a guy early in my career that was first on the ice, and last off it, trying to improve my skills.
A big part of playing the role of “team guy” or enforcer is how you react knowing what’s in store for you, and who you might have to throw em’ with. I can only speak for myself in this matter, but I was usually able to sleep the night before pretty well, but then after the morning skate, and meal, I’d never really have a good pre-game nap.
In terms of the game itself, like in a situation where the media has built up an example of Bob Pobert vs. Craig Coxe Round 2 let’s say, it’s best to just go out there and get it done right off the hop (The start, for those non-hockey fans). Go out, and get a few hits in, and get right into the game was always best for me, but I played for teams, and not in an individual sport, so what was best for the team is the most important thing. I was always nervous before a game, and at 49 years old, I still get nervous, when I’m invited to play in Alumni games. You don’t want to go out and embarrass yourself.
Throughout my career, I never really got into the pranks that were played on the guys, for fear of retribution. It just wasn’t my thing to go and cut up some guy’s clothes, or any of the other things that go on between teammates, and of course what happens in the room, stays in the room, so I’m not saying anything, but there was one great story I’d love to share from my days in St Louis.
We were just getting back from a week long road trip, and I hadn’t played too much, so as we’re getting off the plane, I’m with a few other guys who also hadn’t seen much action, and Asst. Coach Bob Berry announces that after this long road trip, me and the other few guys needed to go to the rink, and get some skating in.
“Are you kidding me?” So after a little discussion, we end up going, and while we’re in the locker room, our General Manager Ron Caron comes down and decides to start playing trivia questions with us as we got dressed for practice. He goes on to stump us on a Gordie Howe question, so I jump up, and tell him to answer my trivia question. I asked him “What was the distance in miles from the Bat Cave to Gotham City” I have never seen players laugh so hard, as Ron just stood looking at me like I was crazy. For those of you that watched Batman and Robin, that stat was always listed on the screen. (laughing) He stormed out of the room, mumbling something in French, and all the boys applauded me. I mean, come on now. We’re already sitting in there annoyed we have to skate for like 45 minutes, and he comes in with this hockey trivia just to bug us.
When I’m a guest at Youth Sports Camps now, I always try and let the kids know that if you’re going to play, you should play to the best of your ability. If you’re just in it for fun, then that’s great too, but if you’re playing to try and earn a high school or college scholarship, or perhaps pursue professional athletics, then you can’t short cut it. It definitely is not a part-time commitment. You have to train your mind and body for the level of dedication that’s needed.
Photo Credit: icewars-review.com