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.
one last night at the forum
It was 25 years ago, on a Monday of this date in 1996, that Montreal’s Canadiens took a final turn on the ice of the famous Forum. They beat the Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1, for the record, though the game itself was truly the undercard for the pre- and post-game ceremonies by which Canadiens bade farewell to the arena that was their home for 72 years and some 3,500 games. A crowd of former Canadiens was on hand that night, including 20 Hall-of-Famers. Guy Lafleur and Jean Béliveau were on hand for the game’s ceremonial opening face-off, and when Maurice Richard joined them at centre ice, the crowd stood and cheered for ten glorious minutes.
I was there that night, high up at the north end, Section 601, with the overflow press, near where they used to keep the ghosts. I won’t say that I was there under false pretenses, though it’s true that I may have stretched those same pretenses to accommodate my powerful need to witness and distill the history unfolding … I mean, Émile Bouchard was out there on the ice, for Gump Worsley’s sake — and of course Gump was there, too. Both Butches Bouchard, in fact, father and son!! Mahovliches, major and minor! Lach and Reardon and Moore, Henri Richard, Savard and Lapointe, Ferguson, Shutt, Dryden, Cournoyer! It was unbelievable.
I was freelancing for The Financial Post in those years, reporting for the paper’s arts section from several non-fiscal sectors — that is, I wrote book and movie reviews, travel features. The Post didn’t need me covering a hockey game, even a historic one, but I was able to convince my editor that the auction on the day after that Forum finale was enough of a business story to demand my presence. The Canadiens didn’t mind accommodating me — or if they did, they didn’t mention it. (The feature I filed is here.)
Ezra Soiferman was at the Forum that night, too, and he was toiling harder than I was. It may be that we passed one another in the halls as the old arena’s time as the home of the Habs expired; it’s possible. A Montreal filmmaker and photographer, he attended the game as a guest of Forum anthem-singer André Ouellet.
Soiferman took some 250 images as he wandered the arena that night. It wasn’t until 2016 that he collected some of them into a book, which he published privately to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Canadiens’ departure for the Molson (now Bell) Centre. Other than the cover image, below, and a photo of a Guy Lafleur greeting Ouellet, there’s nary a hockey player in it: this particular album is filled with last glimpses of fans and ushers, custodians and purveyors of chiens chauds, security guards, corridors, stairwells, seats, doorways, escalators, grey girders, and — yes — urinals. It’s an odd, honest, altogether charming chronicle of a venerable old arena on one night at the end of an era.
a savardian spin
a very canadiens christmas
They called it the plague and the creeping crud, but mostly it was known, and feared, as the gunk: a virulent and strange oozing rash that afflicted players across professional hockey in the late 1970s and into the ’80s, forcing several of them out of the game altogether. With today’s news that Chicago Black Hawks’ winger Marian Hossa will be forced to sit out the 2017-18 NHL season due to “a progressive skin disorder,” a look back at a pestilence past.
“It’s a mystery,” was the diagnosis of Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman. Doctors called it contact dermatitis, but even they were largely baffled by what exactly it was they were dealing with. “We don’t know what’s going on completely,” a lead investigator, dermatologist Dr. William Schorr, confessed in 1976. By then, an estimated 70 NHL players were suffering, along with uncounted others in junior and minor leagues.
The NHL decided it wasn’t concerned enough by the outbreak to mount its own investigation. “It’s the type of thing the individual clubs themselves would have to be involved in,” executive director Brian O’Neill told The New York Times while Dr. Schorr puzzled over symptoms. By 1979, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta was getting ready to start a study of the rash.
No word on where that went. Back in the rinks, most cases of the rash resembled psoriasis, sometimes in its later stages oozing a yellow pus. Often it started on the hands before spreading (or “erupting,” as The Times put it) wherever the player’s body came in contact with his equipment. Was dirty old gear to blame, dyes, detergents, tanning agents from leather? Theories abounded. Was it a nervous condition related to the anxiety of scoring droughts and playoff pressures? A reaction to Zamboni fumes? Fibreglas from sticks? As dermatologists treating players agreed that the rash wasn’t communicable, team trainers struggled to curb it while doing their best to minister to gunk victims with cortisone-based ointments.
Guy Lapointe, Lou Nanne, Bill Clement, Rick Vaive, and Dennis Polonich. Players from across the league were afflicted, using all different brands of equipment.
Canadiens centreman Jacques Lemaire ended up spending a week in hospital in the early ’70s. “They had me bathing in lotion,” he told the Times. “They had to put me on sleeping pills every night, the itching was so bad.”
A dermatologist was able to help Clark Gillies of the New York Islanders clear up his rash. “He said it was something to do with bleach and detergent and the nylon in the equipment,” he said. Meditation helped another Islander, defenceman Jean Potvin, when nothing else would. “I know I was a lot more relaxed and I never had any of I again. I have to think it’s a nerve symptom.”
None had it worse than Tom Reid. A defenceman who started his career with the Chicago Black Hawks, he went on to ply the blueline for ten years as a Minnesota North Star before finding himself gunked out of the game in 1978.
“It was a gradual thing,” he told me a year or so ago when I stopped in at the bar he owns in St. Paul, Minnesota, not far from the Minnesota Wild’s home rink. “It started about the size of a dime on my arm. Then it got bigger. It went down my side and it just started to spread. As soon as I was off the ice, in two weeks it was gone. If I came back to the ice, play a few games, it would come right back again.”
“We changed equipment. They covered me in creams, they covered the equipment. I changed underwear, t-shirt, after the warm-up, at the end of every period — it just got worse.”
He was getting pills, injections of steroids. He spent 11 days in hospital to start off the 1975-76 season. At one point, he said at the time, he was getting 30 shots a day to help in the relief effort.
“It was pretty painful. It was at the point where my whole side was just pus. They couldn’t figure out what it was. I’d be wrapping towels around my body, which helped — the problem was when I had to take the towels off. I couldn’t sleep — for a while I was sleeping sitting upright in a wooden chair. A few other guys on the North Stars had it. Doug Rombough had a little bit of it, Lou Nanne had some, so a few guys — not like I had it. It forced me out of the game. It got to the point by the end where they couldn’t give me any more cortisone. I had to retire.”
It was ten years later before doctors came up with anything resembling an answer to the gunk mystery — too late for Reid’s career. In 1988, a member of the Edmonton Oilers’ medical staff was one of those who discovered that one of the causes had to do with the use of formaldehyde in the manufacture of equipment as a way of preventing mildew and maintaining colour.
“Once we figured out that was the problem, we had a good, quick solution to it,” Dr. Don Groot told The National Post in 2000. This one: the addition of a cup of powdered milk to the second rinse cycle of a wash, he said, seemed to do away with both the formaldehyde and the gunk it bred.
(A version of this post appeared previously at http://www.lockerroomdoctor.com.)
le pompier: he does everything strong
“His father was a fire captain” is a phrase you sometimes see in biographies of Guy Lapointe, who’s 66 now, usually right before a mention that he was all set to become a policeman before hockey claimed him. Tonight, just before the Montreal Canadiens raise Lapointe’s number 5 to the rafters of the Bell Centre, a few notes on his career might be in order. For example:
Growing up, in Montreal, his favourite player was Jean Béliveau. He only started playing hockey at the age of 13, and never dreamed of playing for the Canadiens: he didn’t think he was good enough. When he was invited to his first Montreal training camp, his dad had to browbeat him to go. He thought his chances of making the team were zero.
When he turned professional, he spoke not a word of English, according to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Teammates laughed at him, until he threw one of them over the boards. The first time he sat in the Montreal dressing room, getting ready to play his first game, he could hardly tie his skates, due to nerves and the excitement of looking at Béliveau across the way. His first year in the NHL, Montreal won the Stanley Cup. It was unbelievable.
That’s what he said, not me. Also him: from the moment you’re a Hab, you learn about winning. You can’t accept even a single loss.
He was a dominant force, says the Hall, and to be reckoned with. He was one of The Big Three, obviously, with Larry Robinson and Serge Savard.
Youthful inconsistency is a phrase you sometimes come across regarding his play before he graduated to the Habs. Less obtrusive were words applied to his style in 1973, compared to Bobby Orr and Brad Park. “He’s strong,” said Béliveau. “Not just when he shoots, but in everything he does. He does everything strong.”
In 1973, just before the Canadiens won another Cup, he was the undisputed choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy, according to The Gazette in Montreal. Coach Scotty Bowman thought so, as did his counterpart from Chicago, Billy Reay. Lapointe was the one to pick the team up when they floundered, I guess, plus he was playing the powerplay and the penalty-kill and also scoring and, too, in the dressing room, he charged up his mates with some spicy invective.
But then Yvan Cournoyer won the Smythe instead — Le Chinois. I don’t know what happened.
Lapointe’s nicknames included Pointu and Le Pompier. He does a lot of swearing in Ken Dryden’s The Game (1983). He did 20 push-ups every night and another 20 when he woke up in the morning, while also playing a regular game of handball, fast. He was almost always the last player to leave the ice at practice. In The Game, Dryden alludes to this while also pinpointing personal burdens that may have affected Lapointe’s game before adding this:
… when the slate is clean and it is just him and the game, Pointu plays with the unrestrained joy of a boy on a river, uncomplicating the game for all of us.