the nokomis dandy
bryan trottier: just wanted to be one of those guys that can be relied on all the time
At the age of seven, Bryan Trottier told his mother he wanted to be a teacher when he grew up.
A year later, Jean Béliveau changed his mind. Trottier can’t forget the moment that fixed his future: it was 1965, April, when he watched the Canadiens’ captain take hold of the Stanley Cup. “He didn’t pump it up over his head the way players do now,” Trottier recalls. “Instead, he kind of grabbed it and hugged it.” There and then, Trottier told his dad: someday I want to hold the Cup just like that.
Better get practicing, his dad told him.
So Trottier, who’s now 66, did that. The son of a father of Cree-Métis descent and a mother whose roots were Irish, Trottier would launch himself out of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, into an 18-season NHL playing career that would see him get hold of the Stanley Cup plenty as one of the best centremen in league history. Before he finished, he’d win four championships with the storied 1980s New York Islanders and another pair alongside Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Trottier was in on another Cup, too, as an assistant coach with the 2001 Colorado Avalanche. His individual achievements were recognized in his time with a bevy of major trophies, including a Calder Trophy, a Hart, an Art Ross, and a Conn Smythe. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997.
Trottier reviewed his eventful career in a new autobiography, All Roads Home: A Life On and Off the Ice (McClelland & Stewart), which he wrote with an assist from Stephen Brunt, and published this past fall. In October, I reached Trottier via Zoom in Garden City, New York. A version of this exchange first appeared at sihrhockey.org, the website of the Society for International Hockey Research.
What brought you around to writing an autobiography now?
I’ve been asked to write a book for a long, long time, probably 40-some years. But when I was playing and coaching, I just didn’t want to give any secrets away, or strategies. I’m a little more of an open book now, like when I do speaking and going into Native communities and talking to the kids. And they enjoy the stories, and those are the stories I love to tell. I really don’t dwell on negatives all that much, I really kind of look toward the positives. And there have been a heck of a lot more positive than negatives. I think when people are looking at headlines — negative headlines always seem to make stories a lot more interesting. But I’m not like that. I try to move on as fast as I can, and start making good things happen for me and my family. So that’s really what I’m talking about.
All Roads Home is a very positive book, all in all. But you’re also very frank about the challenges you’ve faced, including the deaths of your parents, and being diagnosed with depression. Those can’t have been easy subjects to get down on the page.
No, well, because I’m kind of an open book, I really don’t have a problem talking about a lot of stuff. The things I focus on are obviously the more … fun stuff. I bring the other stuff up to let people know that this is part of me, I’m human, there’s nothing that horrible about it. The really cool thing is that, out of that, you get some introspection, you get an opportunity to feel loved and supported, especially by family and friends, and the hockey world in general. And the stigma about some of that stuff is … you always say to yourself, oh my god, it shows weakness, or whatever. It doesn’t. It just shows that you’re human. And people rally. I rally for my friends when they have troubles or hardships.
This COVID thing really left a lot of people like disconnected. It was really rough on a lot of different folks. And those moments of darkness, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just human. A little bit of struggle: don’t worry about it, you know, just reach out. And you reach out, you’ll be surprised how people rally for you. Mental wellness and mental health is kind of a hot topic right now, thank god. So, yeah, whatever I can do through just stating something in a little book like this, if it helps a few people, great.
You worked with the writer Stephen Brunt on this project, one of the best in the hockey-book business. What was that like?
Stephen was fantastic at jogging my memory and reminiscing and checking up on me every once in a while, my memory, when I stumbled. But what I found was that the chronological order that he provided, and the structure that he provided, was fantastic. We did it all by phone. And the manuscript was thick, then we had to review it and edit it and condense it, throwing some stuff out, while still making it sound like my voice. So that was a little process.
And Joe Lee was a great editor, and you need that, I needed that, because I was a rookie writer. It was really kind of fun how it formed. And my daughter, who’s a journalism major, she was of great help. And then my other daughter was my sounding board. So I had a good team, it’s kind of like hockey, you know, we all rely on each other. Looking back, I call it my labour of joy.
The book starts, as you did, in Saskatchewan. Talk about a hockey hotbed: Max and Doug Bentley, Gordie Howe, Glenn Hall, Elmer Lach, and you are just of the players who’ve skated out of the province and on into the Hall of Fame. What’s that all about?
[Laughs] Go figure how that happened. But yeah, I’m so proud of Saskatchewan. When I found out Gordie Howe was from Saskatchewan, that really gave me a boost. When you’re little province producing really great hockey players, it gives us all a sense of pride, about where we come from, our roots, our communities. I think every little town in Saskatchewan is like my little town. We’ve got grain elevators, a hotel, we’ve got a beer parlor, a couple of restaurants. We definitely have a skating rink and curling rink, right? I think a lot of little towns in Canada can relate to this little town of Val Marie, because it really is a vibrant little community.
He had the audacity to be from Quebec, but on and off the ice, Jean Béliveau was such an icon, for his grace and style as much as his supreme skill. What did he mean to you?
He was the captain, he was the leader. He played with confidence and, like you said, he had this style and grace. He just looked so smooth out there. He was just a wonderful reflection of the game. Everything that I thought a hockey player should be, Jean Béliveau was. And Gordie Howe, too, Stan Mikita. These guys were my early idols. George Armstrong, Dave Keon. I’d go practice, I’d try to be them. But Béliveau was above them all. And my first memory of the Stanley Cup was Jean Béliveau grabbing it.
You talk in the book about the Indigenous players you looked up to, growing up. How did they inspire you? Did they flash a different kind of light?
Well, they were just larger than life. Freddy Sasakamoose … I never saw him play, I just heard so many stories about him from my dad, who watched him play in Moose Jaw. He was the fastest player he’d ever seen skate.
When I saw players like Freddy Sasakamoose and George Armstrong and Jimmy Neilson, I said, maybe I can make it, too, maybe there’s a chance. Because those are the kind of guys who inspire you, give hope. So, absolutely, we revered these guys. They were pioneers.
There’s a lot in the book highlighting the skills of teammates of yours, Mike Bossy and Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Mario Lemieux. Can you give me a bit of a scouting report on yourself? What did you bring to the ice as a player?
I didn’t have a lot of dynamic in my game. I wasn’t an end-to-end rusher like Gilbert Perreault. My hair wasn’t flying like Guy Lafleur’s. I didn’t have that hoppy step like Pat Lafontaine. Or the quick hands of Patrick Kane or Stan Mikita. I was kind of a give-and-go guy, I just kind of found the open man. And I made myself available to my teammates for an open pass. Tried to bear down on my passes and gobble up any kind of pass that was thrown at me.
I think when you work hard, you have the respect of your teammates. I wanted to be the hardest worker on the team, no one’s going to outwork me. It’s a 60-minute game, everything is going to be a battle, both ends of the ice, I would come out of a game just exhausted.
And I really prided myself on my passing, on my accuracy, and I really prided myself on making sure I hit the net — whether puck went in was kind of the goalies fault. And I prided myself on making the game as easy as possible for my teammates, at the same time. If they threw a hand grenade at me, I gobbled it up, and we all tapped each other shinpads afterwards and said, hey, thanks for bearing down. That’s what teams do, and what teammates do, and I just wanted to be one of those, one of those guys that can be relied on all the time.
You mention that you scored a lot of your NHL goals by hitting “the Trottier hole.”
Yep. Between the [goalie’s] arm and the body. There’s always a little hole there and I found that more often than I did when I was shooting right at the goal. We always said, hit the net and the puck will find a hole. Mike Bossy was uncanny at finding the five-hole. He said, I just shoot it at his pads and I know there’s always going to be a hole around there. So I did the same thing: I just fired it at the net. If the goalie makes a save, there’s going to be a rebound. If I fire it wide of the net, I’m backchecking. It’s going around the boards and I’m going to be chasing the puck.
But Mike had a powerful shot. And Clark Gillies, he had a bomb. When I shot, I’m sure the goalies were waiting for that slow-motion curveball. They often got the knuckleball instead.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about is finding the fun in hockey. You talk about almost quitting as a teenager. With all the pressures for players at every level, I wonder about your time as a coach and whether that — bringing the fun — was one of the things you tried to keep at the forefront?
Coaching was fun for me on assistant-coaching side because you’re dealing with the players every day, working on skill, working on development, working on their game. As a head coach, you’re working with the media, you’re talking to the general manager, you’re doing a whole bunch of other things, other than just working with the players. But you know, the fun of coaching for me it was really that that one-on-one aspect. There’s so many so much enjoyment that I got from coaching. And I hope the players felt that. When the coach is having fun, they’re probably having fun.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
charlie burns, 1936—2021
Sorry to hear of the death, late last week, of Charlie Burns at the age of 85. Born in Detroit in 1936, he grew up in Toronto and went on to join the OHA Junior A Marlboros in the early 1950s. He was 19 in 1954, starting his third year with the Marlboros, when he suffered a double skull fracture falling into the boards in an accident at practice. He underwent brain surgery, during which a silver plate was installed to stabilize his skill; he wasn’t expected to play hockey ever again. He recovered and did indeed return to the ice — wearing a helmet.
It was in 1958, with the Allan-Cup-champion Whitby Dunlops of the EOHL that Burns starred at centre at the World Championships in Oslo, Norway, when Canada won gold. His teammates included Harry Sinden and tournament-leading-scorer Connie Broden; a 21-year-old Burns distinguished himself an ace penalty-killer, and was named the tournament’s outstanding forward.
Burns launched into his NHL career that same year, with the Detroit Red Wings, and he went on to play 11 seasons, taking turns over time with the Boston Bruins, Oakland Seals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Minnesota North Stars. Numberswise, his best year was 1968-69, when he notched 13 goals and 51 points for the Penguins.
Midway through the following year, 1969-70, Burns was named playing-coach of the North Stars, succeeding Wren Blair, the man who’d coached him with Whitby a decade earlier. After going 10-22-12 in the regular season, Burns saw his regime come to an end after the North Stars were eliminated in six games in the Stanley Cup quarter-finals by the St. Louis Blues. He does maintain the distinction of being the last playing-coach in NHL history.
After hanging up his skates in 1974, Burns served as assistant GM in Minnesota, making a return to the bench that year when he replaced Jack Gordon. His record that time around was 12-28-2 and in the summer of ’75, Burns gave way to a new coach, Ted Harris, returning to his GM duties.
Born in Egmondville, in Ontario’s southwest Huron County, on a Saturday of this date in 1904, Cooney Weiland grew up in nearby Seaforth. He started his 11-year NHL career in Boston and finished it as a Bruin, too, winning bookend Stanley Cups in 1929 and 1939 with Art Ross’ team. He also saw ice-time for the (original) Ottawa Senators and Detroit’s Red Wings. He was Boston’s ninth captain. Appointed in 1937, he served two seasons in the role, between the tenures of Red Beattie and Dit Clapper. As a coach, Weiland had charge of the Bruins for two seasons, steering them to another Cup in 1941. Weiland went on coach the AHL Hershey Bears and then, enduringly, from 1950 through to 1971, Harvard University’s men’s team.
fred stanfield, 1944—2021
Saddened to hear the news that former Boston Bruins centreman Fred Stanfield has died at the age of 77. Born in Toronto in 1944, he broke into the NHL with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1964 before he was traded (along with Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge) to the Bruins in 1967 in exchange for Pit Martin, Gilles Marotte, and Jack Norris. In Boston, he often lined up with Johnnys Mackenzie and Bucyk, and in so doing, piled up six successive 20-goal seasons, aiding in a pair of Bruin Stanley Cup championships, in 1970 and ’72. He played two seasons with the Minnesota North Stars and parts of four others with the Sabres in Buffalo before he stowed his skates in 1978.
won’t you come back, dave keon
phil esposito: frankly, I had my doubts
Hall-of-Fame centreman Phil Esposito is 79 today, so many happy returns of the rink to him. Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on a Friday of this date in 1942 a year before his goaltender brother Tony made his debut, Phil was the first NHLer to score 100 points in a season (ending up with 126 in 1969). In 1971, he set a new mark for goals in a season, with 76. Along with a pair of Hart trophies and five Art Rosses, he won two Stanley Cups, both with Boston. He played 18 years in the NHL, mostly with the Bruins, though he was a Chicago Black Hawk before he was traded to Boston 1967 and then, after another trade, this one in 1975, he joined the New York Ranger.
When hockey writer Andy O’Brien visited with Esposito’s parents in 1970 for a profile for Weekend Magazine, Patrick Esposito confided that, early on, he wondered whether his elder son had what it took to make the NHL.
“Frankly, I had my doubts,” he said. “He was big and tall but he was weak on his ankles. However, he could handle the puck, and even when he was playing juvenile he led the league and had everybody talking about him. He kept on leading leagues but, no, I never felt quite certain he would make it.”