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.

Signal Close Action: Bryan Trottier buzzes Ken Dryden’s net at the Montreal Forum on the Sunday night of December 10, 1978, while Canadiens defenceman Guy Lapointe attends to Mike Bossy. Montreal prevailed 4-3 on this occasion; Trottier scored a third-period goal and assisted on one of Bossy’s in the second.  (Image: Armand Trottier, Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

 

le poteau = cournoyer

A birthday for former Montreal Canadiens captain and speediest of right wingers Yvan Cournoyer, born in Drummondville, Quebec, on a Monday of this very date in 1943. That makes him 79: happy birthday to him. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, he was a star, of course, of Canada’s 1972 Summit Series triumph. Cournoyer won 10 Stanley Cup championships over the course of his 16-year Habs tenure, scoring a bucket of goals, including a career-high 47 in 1971-72. He scored 43 in 1968-69, none of which came on the Saturday night of January 18, ’69, at Montreal’s Forum, when (above) he loosed a shot on Chicago Black Hawks’ goaltender Denis DeJordy, and beat him high — only to be denied (below) by a crossbar. Montreal won the game all the same, by a score of 3-1, getting goals from Claude Provost, Serge Savard, and Bobby Rousseau. Kenny Wharram scored for Chicago.

 

(Images: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

whale gun

Net Gains: Born in Taschereau, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1955, Pierre Larouche turns 67 today, so here’s to him. Drafted as a centreman by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1974, he would become, at just 20, the youngest player in NHL history to score 50 goals in 1976. (Wayne Gretzky broke that record in 1980.) He scored 50 for Montreal, too, in 1979-80, and 48 for the New York Rangers in 1983-84, making him the only NHLer to score 45 goals or more with three different teams. His 14-year career also saw him stop for a stint with the Hartford Whalers, and he scored 25 goals in their green in 1981-82. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

don’t look back

Gone But Not Forgotten: Toronto Toros’ goaltender Gilles Gratton gets out to cut the angle — no, sorry, I guess that train has left the station. Andre Hinse is the shooter here, and with this well-placed puck he put his Houston Aeros ahead in the first period of this WHA game on February 5, 1975. Houston ran up a 5-0 lead before the visiting Toros responded with a goal by winger Jeff Jacques, seen here in futile pursuit. Final score: Houston 5, Toronto 2. (Image: Bela Ugrin)

in it to bin it

One-On-One: Born in Nynäshamn, Sweden, on a Thursday of this same date in 1950, Ulf Nilsson is 72 today, so a tip of the Jofa to him. Here he is in February of 1977, when his WHA Winnipeg Jets beat the visiting Calgary Cowboys 6-4; Gary Bromley is the goaltender here. This was a big night for Nilsson’s linemate, right winger Anders Hedberg, who scored a hat trick and made some history: his final goal (assisted by Nilsson) was his 51st of the season. This was Winnipeg’s 49th game that year, which meant that Hedberg had outdone Maurice Richard’s 1945 fest of 50 goals in 50 games. Hedberg had actually only played 47 of this games, having missed a pair of games with a cracked rib. He finished the 1976-77 season with 70 goals in 68 games to lead the Jets in scoring with 131 points. Nilsson wasn’t far behind: he finished with 39 goals and 124 points. After four seasons with the Jets, Hedberg and Nilsson made a move the NHL, joining the New York Rangers in 1978.  (Image: University of Manitoba Archives, Winnipeg Tribune fonds)

et le but

Sure Shot: Guy Lafleur scores the first goal of the game at the Montreal Forum on Saturday, October 27, 1979, beating Detroit Red Wings’ goaltender Jim Rutherford. Pierre Larouche looks on; he registered an assist on the goal, along with Larry Robinson. Montreal won the game by a score of 3-2. (Image: Armand Trottier, Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

le tir

Lean In: Guy Lafleur scored 560 regular-season goals in his NHL career, and another 58 in the playoffs. In 1976-77, he scored 60 and in five other campaigns he scored 50 or more. And then there was his final year in junior, 1970-71, when he skated for the QJHL Quebec Remparts: he scored 130 goals in 62 games that season. The shot he’s loosing here was one he took at the Forum on Thursday, February 9, 1984. Lafleur scored a hat trick on Vancouver goaltender John Garrett before the night was out, though Montreal fell 7-6 to the visiting Canucks. (Image: Denis Courville, La Presse)

praising cain

Blurbing Herb: Herb Cain skated the left wing for Montreal’s Maroons and Canadiens in his day, but it was as a Boston Bruin that he made his mark on NHL history. In March of 1944, Cain collected two assists in a Boston win over the Chicago Black Hawks, giving him 75 points on the season, a new record for a single NHL season that surpassed Cooney Weiland’s 73 in 1929-30. Cain, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1982 at the age of 69, went on win the NHL scoring title that year, finishing with 82 points, just ahead of Chicago’s Doug Bentley. It was 1951 before Gordie Howe broke Cain’s record. A member of two Stanley Cup-winning teams — Maroons in ’35; Bruins in ’41 — Cain remains the only eligible scoring champion in NHL history not to have been elected to the Hall of Fame.

small comfort

Crease Violation: Boston winger Lloyd Gross celebrates the puck he’s put past a dispirited Roy Worters of the New York Americans in a game at the old Madison Square Garden. “Once a bosom companion of little Roy Worters,” the Daily News reported, “[Gross] skated right up to him and let him gave it, zingo! Like that.” Just a month after Ace Bailey’s grievous head injury, this game marked the first time a New York crowd had seen the Bruins wearing, to a man, “the new-fangled helmets.”

Hockey pundits used to like to talk about Roy Worters’ stature, which was slight, and I guess that hasn’t changed. “Worters, who is but five feet and two inches tall, weighs 128 pounds, and has hands so small he cannot catch the puck as it speeds toward the goal mouth, is one of the best skating goalies in hockey.” That’s from a 1928 dispatch, just as a trade was converting Worters from a Pittsburgh Pirate into a New York American.

Born in Toronto on a Friday of this date in 1900, the tiny-handed man they called Shrimp played 12 NHL seasons, most of those for the Americans. He won a Hart Trophy in 1929, finishing ahead of Toronto’s Ace Bailey and Boston’s Eddie Shore, and collected a Vézina for his miniature efforts in 1931. He never won a Stanley Cup. Worters died in 1957 at age 57. He was voted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1969.

ott’s job

A son of Kitchener, Ontario, back when it was still called Berlin, Ott Heller was born on a Thursday of this date in 1910. After starting as a right winger, he grew up to be a defenceman, and a stalwart one at that, working the New York Rangers blueline for 15 seasons starting in 1932. New York won two Stanley Cup championships in those years. From 1942 through to ’45, Heller served as captain of the Rangers. 

The game in which he’s depicted here won’t be held up, perhaps, as an exemplar of his or his teammates’ defensive prowess: on this night, March 4 of 1944, Heller’s Rangers lost to the Bruins at Boston Garden by a score of 10-9. That’s Heller on the right, clashing with Boston center Art Jackson, who contributed a pair of goals to the Bruins’ total. Jackson’s teammate Bill Cowley collected four goals and a pair of assists. Winger Fern Gauthier scored a hattrick for New York. Ken McAuley was the Ranger goaltender, with Bert Gardiner in the Boston net. 

At the time, the 19 goals the teams combined for was reported to be a new NHL record for scoring abundance, though it wasn’t so: on January 10, 1920, Montreal and the Toronto St. Patricks splurged to the tune of 21 goals in a 14-7 Canadiens win. Several other previous games had seen 19 goals, too. That 1920 game still has a hold on the record, though it’s now shared with a modern-day game from December 11, 1985, when Edmonton’s profuse Oilers overwhelmed the Chicago Black Hawks 12-9. 

old poisoneer

Goalgetter: I don’t know that Nels Stewart gets the credit he deserves as a goalscorer. He scored 34 in 36 games in his first year in the NHL, 1925-26, and a couple of years after that he put away 39 in 44 games. If there had been a trophy recognizing the NHL’s best rookie that first year, 23-year-old Stewart would have won it, but since there wasn’t, he made do with leading the league in scoring, collecting the Hart Trophy as MVP, and helping his Montreal Maroons win a Stanley Cup championship. Born in Montreal on a Monday of this same date in 1902, Stewart centred Babe Siebert and Hooley Smith on Montreal’s famous S Line through the ’20s. He won a second Hart in 1930. Later he skated for the Boston Bruins and the New York Americans. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison bypassed Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart died in 1957 at the age of 54, so his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1962 came posthumously.

riverton’s rifle

Born in Riverton, Manitoba, in 1950 on a Sunday in April of this date, Reggie Leach is 70 today. Just why he still hasn’t been voted to hockey’s Hall of Fame remains a mystery, but the oversight does nothing to diminish what he accomplished as a goalscorer in the NHL. Best known as a Flyer, Leach was never better than he was in the spring of 1976, which is when he scored five goals in a decisive Conference-Final game against the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals on his way to notching 19 goals in 16 playoff games. Though Philadelphia fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals, Leach was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy that year, as playoff MVP, the only non-goaltender in NHL history to win the award as a member of the losing team.

With an assist from Randi Druzin, Reggie Leach published a memoir in 2015, The Riverton Rifle: Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life. I had a chance to talk to him at the time, on assignment for Slapshot Diaries. I asked him about goaltenders; here’s what he told me:

Q: You scored a lot of goals in the NHL. Was there one goaltender who gave you particular problems?

A: You mean one goaltender I couldn’t score on? Gerry Cheevers. I did score some goals on him, but he was one of the hardest goaltenders for me to score on. I couldn’t figure him out.

When I played, I used to watch the warm-ups all the time and practice shooting from different spots. Where I was dangerous was top of the circle, and out farther. I wasn’t that great inside, I don’t think. Kenny Dryden: the easiest goaltender, for me. Yep. Because Kenny was scared of my shot. And I beat him high all the time, always over the shoulder.

Gerry Cheevers, I’ll tell you a story. When I was in Boston, I remember going to practice as a rookie and as a rookie you just go all-out, you just shoot it, and I go in there and I put one past Cheevers and I thought, Yeah, I beat him. But Gerry, if you hit him with a puck, he’d chase you down the ice. I hit him one time in his chest, he chased me with his stick, and the guys were all laughing, they didn’t tell me that. Gerry Cheevers would stand, no lie, all he did was stand in net, stand there, wave his stick. Right? And that was his practice. And if you hit him, he’d chase you down the ice.

But goaltenders are really strange. Our thing with Bernie Parent, we’d say, Bernie, you weren’t that goddamn good, you only had 18 shots a game. He was funny. One time in Vancouver he comes in — he always smoked the cigar, right — he’d come in with the cigar and say, Boys, I feel good, give me one goal today, that’s it. And guys would be smiling, great, yeah, we only have to get the one goal. And 99 per cent of the time, that’s all we needed, the one goal. That’s the way he was. And Bernie actually stayed out to practice his angle-shots all the time. I would shoot the puck at him and I’d tell him, Bernie, just move over a bit more, and he’d say, Just shoot the puck, I’ll do the moving. He would have everything all angled out, left-handed shots versus right-handed, he would work on that, the only goaltender I ever saw who worked on something after a practice was Bernie. All the other ones I played with never did.