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.

 

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)

star trek

Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this same date in 1965, Mario Lemieux is 56 today, so all due hullabaloo to him. He was a callow 19 in the photograph here, which dates to September of 1985, when La Presse photographer Paul-Henri Talbot caught his departure from his family’s home in Ville-Émard, in the west end of Montreal. “It was this morning at the crack of 7 a.m. that Mario Lemieux took the road to Pittsburgh, where training camp will begin in a few days,” a caption reported. He was driving, so the way would be long: 17 hours, according to La Presse.

That fall, Lemieux already had an NHL season under his belt. As a rookie centreman for the Penguins, he’d finished the 1984-85 campaign with 43 goals and 100 points to his credit, along with a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie to show for it. When Pittsburgh opened its camp a few days later on the ice of the Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Recreation Centre, the local Post-Gazette noted that for all his offensive fireworks, Lemieux had work to do on his defensive skills.

“I’ll try to work more this season on playing both ways,” Lemieux said, “but my job here is to score goals and get as many points as I can for the team.” He did his duty, piling up 48 goals by the time that season was over, and 141 points, second only to a 25-year-old Wayne Gretzky and his record-breaking heap of 215 points.

(Image: Paul-Henri Talbot, La Presse)

the coach learns his lines

Chalk Talker: Born in Verdun, PQ, on a Monday of this very date in 1933, Scotty Bowman is 88 today, so here’s saluting him. No coach in NHL history has surpassed Bowman when it comes to wins both regular-season (1,244) and playoff (223). As a coach and executive, he was in on 14 Stanley Cup championships over the course of his career, second only to Jean Béliveau’s 17. (Illustration: Serge Chapleau, c. 1974)

coffey break

Born in Weston, Ontario, on a Thursday of this date in 1961, Paul Coffey is 60 today, so many returns of the day to him. A three-time Norris Trophy winner, he helped the Edmonton Oilers win three Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s and added another to his CV with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991. He was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team four times. Other than Bobby Orr, he’s the only NHL defenceman to score over 100 points in a season more than once: Orr did it six times, Coffey five. In 1986, Coffey broke Orr’s seemingly unassailable record for most goals in a season by a defenceman when he scored his 47th. (Coffey finished the season with 48, a record that still stands.) 

Writing in 2004, when Coffey was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal recalled Coffey’s remarkable mobility. “With apologies to Orr, who could spin and bob and weave his way through traffic,” Matheson wrote, “no-one had Coffey’s breathtaking ability to sail effortlessly by checkers like they were construction zone cones.” 

Matheson went on to recall the night in Edmonton in ’86 that Orr’s broke in an 8-4 Oiler win over their visitors from the coast.

Coffey rolled back to pick up the puck in the Oilers end and skated through the entire Vancouver Canucks team before lifting a shot past goalie Wendell Young. 

Funny thing was, Coffey had nothing left in his tank before the play started. 

“I haven’t told this to anybody but I actually was looking to get off the ice,” Coffey [told Matheson].

“I was exhausted when I went to get the puck in the left corner. The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Geez, it’s a long way to the bench.’ I was trying to get to centre so I could dump it in. But I picked up some speed, looked up and said, “Whoa, there’s some room here.”

He went by five Canucks like they were inanimate objects.

the kladno kid

 Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1972, Jaromír Jágr is, it turns out, not actually ageless: he’s 49 today. That said, he is still playing pro hockey, working the right wing for his hometown team in the Czech Republic, Rytíři Kladno, in the Chance Liga, the second-tier Czech league, a full 31 years after he made his NHL debut for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990. He’s played in 13 games this season, I’ve learned from the Kladno website, collecting a goal and three points. The player’s biography there is worth a browse. “If you are interested in a little about the privacy of Jaromír Jágr,” it tantalizes, “then know that his favourite dish is a Czech classic — chicken fillet with potato salad and banana ice cream as a dessert.” The youthful portrait here is by the artist who goes by the handle Gypsy Oak. Follow him on Twitter @gypsyoak or visit the Gypsy Oak Art Studio, here.

wordsmith

You Can Call Him: Al Smith was a Penguin in Pittsburgh for two seasons, 1969-70 and 1970-71.

Al Smith’s best year in the nets might have been in 1977-78, with the New England Whalers, when he won the Ben Hatskin Trophy as the WHA’s best goaltender. Smith, who died on a Wednesday of this date in 2002 at the age of 56, got his pro start as a Toronto Maple Leaf in 1966. Before he retired from puckstopping in 1981, he also saw NHL service with Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Hartford, and the Colorado Rockies. He subsequently worked selling cars and ads, picking fruit, and driving taxis. He wrote, too, in his later years, novels, including The Parade Has Passed and The Tragedy of Lake Tuscarora, and a long poem called Raymond Hollywood, and the play Confessions To Anne Sexton.