Dear 14-year-old Mike,
I write to you today as a 60-year-old man, and I have some news from the future that you probably aren’t going to believe.
There are 30 teams in the NHL in the year 2017, and next season, there’s going to be one in Las Vegas.
Guys don’t smoke cigarettes and drink black coffee at intermission anymore. They drink smoothies and “stretch.”
The going rate for a 50-goal scorer is about $9 million a year.
And fighting is considered a dying art.
I know the last one probably sounds pretty good to you right now. You’re about to experience more than your fair share of violence. In fact, the reason I’m writing to you now is because you’re about to go through one of the toughest times you’ll ever have to face.
I hope you have enjoyed your beautiful nose for the past 14 years, because pretty soon it’s not going to be so straight anymore.
Officials from the junior team in Laval, Quebec, are about to offer to move your family into a new house so you can play for them. Everything will seem perfect at first. Until now, your parents have been raising their 10 kids in a 4½-room apartment in Montreal. You’ve never even had a real bedroom. You’ve been sleeping on a cot at the end of a hallway, behind a little curtain. When you think about hockey, you don’t visualize the Montreal Canadiens in their red-and-white sweaters. You hear the Montreal Canadiens. That’s because your father always makes you go to bed right before Hockey Night in Canada starts. He pulls the curtain shut, but your cot is right outside the living room, so you always stay up anyway and listen to the TV. You don’t have many memories of seeing Jean Béliveau play, but you do have vivid memories of hearing Danny Gallivan’s voice go up a few notches whenever Jean would touch the puck.
When you move to the new house in Laval, you’ll finally get your own bedroom. But your life on the ice for the next four years is going to be difficult. When you arrive, you’ll be known as a natural goal scorer. There’s nothing natural about it, actually. That’s something that will bother you for the rest of your life — whenever people ask you, “Why was scoring so easy for you, Mike?”
It was never easy. Your mother loves to tell people the story about how you scored 21 goals in your first mite hockey game. But even if that story is true, the goals only tell part of the story. Because your mom always leaves out the part about how much time you spent all by yourself out in the backyard rink, shooting at a wooden board. You don’t have a real net, so you practice by aiming for the black puck-marks on the board over and over and over until your feet are frozen. (Remember how mom would make you thaw your feet in cold water because hot water would “make your toes fall off?”)
For whatever reason, some people will resent you for being a goal scorer. Other teams are going to target you, big time. You’ll get jumped from behind. Sucker punched. Completely knocked out by blindside hits. (In the future, there’s a serious injury called a concussion. You don’t know what this is yet, but unfortunately you’re going to have quite a few.)
Some nights, you’ll be sitting on the bench just trying to catch your wind when you’ll look up and see the other team — literally the whole team — rushing your bench for a brawl. The slashing and cross-checking will be so common that it’s barely worth mentioning. This is just the reality of junior hockey in the 1970s.
The abuse will leave a mark on you forever. Your nose will be broken. Your ribs will be cracked. But it will leave a mark on your soul, too. Psychologically, just riding on the bus to games knowing the violence that awaits you is something that you’re going to have a hard time with. There are going to be so many long bus rides when you’ll think, Why am I even doing this? What’s the point?
But you have to keep going. You have to keep going for two reasons.
- If you don’t quit, you’ll set the record for goals in junior hockey and make it to the NHL.
- The girl behind the counter at the snack bar.
Number 2 is the far more important reason. The girl working the snack bar every morning at the rink in Laval is pretty cute, right? I know all your tricks, kid. You’re too shy to actually talk to her, so you go and buy a chocolate bar from her every single day before practice.
Well, eventually, you’re going to need to work up the courage to have a real conversation with her. Maybe even ask her what her name is. (It’s Lucie, by the way.) Her brother is the coach of the midget team, and he’s a pretty tough guy, so you better make damn sure that you’re a gentleman.
This is the girl who’s going to be by your side for the rest of your life. She’s a huge hockey fan, and nobody — not even you — is going to be harder on your performances.
In 1977, just six years from now, you will get the luckiest break of all time. Twelve teams will pass on you in the NHL draft. They’ll want nothing to do with you. They’ll think you’re too timid. They’ll think you’re not tough enough to score in the NHL. Or at least that’s what you’ll be telling yourself when you’re sitting in your lawyer’s office staring at the telephone, waiting for it to ring.
Finally, you’ll get a call from a guy named Bill Torrey welcoming you to the New York Islanders. He’s the general manager, and he’s in the process of building a dynasty. Now, I need to warn you about something.
Bill is a legend.
You are a shy, naive kid.
Please, please, please just let your agent handle the contract negotiations. Can I change the future with this letter? If I can, I’d like you to do something for me: When you sit down with Bill and he makes you a lowball offer on your contract, just let your agent do the talking. Let him compare the deal with other rookie deals. This is just how business works.
You want to know what you did? (DON’T DO THIS.)
Bill will be sitting there with his famous red bow tie, and he’s going to say, “So, Mike, since you’re not happy with this deal, how do you think you’ll perform at the NHL level?”
And you won’t even take a moment to think. You’ll just blurt it out.
“Well, I think I can score 50 goals this year.”
It might take a minute for Bill and your agent to stop laughing. You’re not even guaranteed a spot on the team, and this is a good NHL team. Fifty goals? Fifty goals? It’s a ridiculous thing to say, especially for a kid who is embarrassingly shy. I still don’t know where it came from. It just came out.
So don’t do that. Because even though your contract will get sorted out, I can pretty much guarantee you it has nothing to do with your bold prediction. And you will walk into training camp as the kid who told Bill Torrey he was going to score 50. (The retellings of your moment of bravado will get more and more outlandish.)
Make no mistake, though. The Islanders brought you in to score goals. Which brings me to my next piece of advice: Just leave your coach alone.
Al Arbour doesn’t want to talk to you, kid.
The first two or three practices, you’ll keep skating up to Al during breaks and asking what you should be doing in your own zone.
“Coach, am I supposed to be on the wall?”
“Coach, when the puck is behind the net, am I in the right spot?”
Finally, he’ll shut you up.
“Mike, do you know why we brought you here?”
“Mike, we brought you here to score goals. Can you score goals for us?”
“Mike, don’t bother me about your defense ever again. If I have anything to say about your defense, I’ll come and see you, O.K.?”
You’ll speak to Al maybe two or three more times the rest of the season.
Al doesn’t need to speak to you, because he’s got a guy named Bryan Trottier keeping you in check. Bryan is going to be your best friend in hockey. I should warn you now, though. He’s a western Canadian guy with a funny little mustache, and he can barely shoot a puck through a paper bag.
Bryan certainly doesn’t look like a physical specimen, but he’s one of the strongest centers you’ll ever come across. And he works on every aspect of his game. He’s the complete hockey player, and you’re going to develop such an unbelievable chemistry with him that you guys won’t be able to keep a leftwinger.
They’ll always complain that you and Bryan are just passing the puck back and forth to one another. It’s kind of true. But it works. At some point, you’ll tell Bryan, “You don’t need to see me, just my stick. As long as you can see my stick, put it there.”
It’s the philosophy that will help you score 53 goals in your rookie season. Trots will score 46 (but he’ll take a lot of pride in pointing out that he smoked you in total points). Those first two seasons, you’ll develop great scoring chemistry with him, but your team will fall short of the Stanley Cup.
You guys won’t have what it takes yet. You’ll score plenty of goals in the regular season, but you’ll struggle come playoff time, when the game gets tighter. There will be no time, no space. You’ll be hacked and slashed mercilessly. Guys will constantly be trying to get you to drop the gloves.
So you’re going to make a decision that, at the time, is going to be extremely controversial. In 1979, you’re going to announce to the press that you’re never going to fight again. That’s it. You’re done with it. No matter what anyone does to you, you’re not going to fight. You think it’s pointless and insane.
Oh, boy. That’s going to be an interesting time.
You need to be prepared for the names you’re going to get called. You need to be prepared for how people are going to look at you for making a statement like that in 1979. For a guy who is already unfairly labeled as “timid,” this is going to be a big deal. Some people in the hockey world will simply not accept that someone who doesn’t fight can ever be a winner.
Then, in Game 1 of the 1980 Stanley Cup finals against the Flyers, you’re going to have your moment of truth. Your team will accidentally ice the puck on a power play, and as you make the turn to skate back up ice to the faceoff dot, you’ll look up and see Mel Bridgman coming straight for you. Huge, mean, nasty Bridgman. Holy s***. He’s not budging.
What do you do?
In that split second, you need to run over him. It’s the last thing in the world he’ll be expecting. You have to make a statement to yourself that you’re not going to back down from the intimidation.
If you do it, he’ll end up flat on his ass in front of the entire Philadelphia Spectrum.
Everybody will be too shocked for there to be a big brawl. That moment won’t end the cheap shots, but it will be liberating for you. It all goes back to the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’re riding the bus to those junior games.
In the split second you see Mel coming at you, you need to say to yourself, Enough.
That collision in Game 1 will set the tone for the next four years of your life. You’ll go on to win the game in overtime, then go on to win the Stanley Cup. Three more Stanley Cups will follow.
My biggest piece of advice for you is to try to remember more of it. As sad as it is to say, as I write this to you at 60 years old, I can barely remember anything about lifting those Stanley Cups. I don’t know if it’s all the hits I took, or just because of how overwhelmed I was at the time, but I really cannot remember much.
What I do remember is Bryan with the Cup. I have a vivid memory of him going completely apes***, racing around the ice with the Cup above his head at Nassau Coliseum. I can see him standing on the bench with it, egging on the crowd. I can see him jumping on Billy Smith after we won our fourth Cup in a row.
My advice to you, kid, is to remember more. And to cherish your time more, because your time is going to be shorter than you think.
Remember when you did the running long jump at the school Olympics and you busted your kneecap? You had that cast that ran all the way from your ankle to your hip? Remember, you played catcher all summer long with your leg stuck way out to the side?
Well, your knee is never going to fully heal. It won’t seem like a big deal, because you can skate just fine. But in the future, when medical science gets more advanced, they’ll discover that this kind of imbalance has an effect on your body in subtle ways. Nine years into your NHL career, before you even reach age 30, your back is going to go out on you. And when the back goes, it’s over.
You’re not going to be able to write the ending to your story on your own terms. And that will be a very tough pill to swallow. But it will also be a good lesson for you as a young man. It’s just how life works. There’s only so much of our story that we can write ourselves. A lot of it is prewritten for us.
Just think of your father, for example.
Where did your path to four Stanley Cups begin? Did it begin with the collision with Mel? Did it begin with all the hard work you put in with Bryan Trottier? Did it begin with the phone call from Bill Torrey? Did it begin when you scored 260 goals in Laval, or 21 goals in your first mite hockey game?
No. None of that happens without the very first chapter of your story, which was written for you.
Remember when you were in the little apartment in Montreal, sleeping on the cot? Some winter mornings when you woke up for breakfast, your father would be coming in from the cold with icicles frozen to his eyebrows, and we could get the HVAC contractor for getting heating into the house. He had been out there for hours, flooding the backyard with a hose and nailing a wooden board to a post.
Thousand of miles away in western Canada, Bryan’s father was flooding the pond behind his house by chopping up a beaver dam.
We don’t get to write the beginning and ending of our story.
But we can stay up late listening to the sounds of Hockey Night in Canada.
We can talk to the girl at the snack bar.
We can stop smoking cigarettes after our rookie year.
We can run over Mel Bridgman.
We can look back and say: Thank God I was an Islander, and I love you Bryan Trottier.