After his hockey career at Harvard doesn't end as planned -- with a fat NHL contract -- Bill Keenan decides to play in the minor leagues in Europe, where the glamour of professional sports is decidedly lacking. Part fish-out-of-water travelogue, part coming-of-age memoir, Odd Man Rush: A Harvard Kid's Hockey Odyssey from Central Park to Somewhere in Sweden -- with Stops along the Way reveals Keenan's deep affection for the game, even as he describes fans who steal players' clothes from the locker room or toss empty beer cans onto the rink after games. Abusive fans, cold showers, long bus rides -- nothing diminishes his love for the sport. "Because that's the way it works with me and hockey. Even when it's horrible, it's wonderful." In this excerpt, he encounters ex-NHL center and ex-convict Mike Danton in Sweden:
The day before our next game, Richard Flodin walks in the locker room as I sit in my stall lacing my skates.
"Know your blood type?" He runs his hand through his golden mane and smirks.
"Not sure. Why?"
"Might want to find out." He tosses a newspaper in my lap and I eye the article previewing our next game against IFK Ore. Below the headline is a large color picture of our opponent's newest North American forward: Mike Danton.
Danton, a Canadian who played in the NHL from 2001–2004, was convicted in 2004 of conspiracy to commit murder (hiring a hitman to kill his former agent, David Frost, who had allegedly sexually abused Danton on several occasions). After serving five years in prison, Danton enrolled in college for two years and now is looking to reignite his professional hockey career.
Instead of boring you with the play-by-play of our game against Ore, I'll just come out and tell you I scored a goal on an absolutely blistering slapshot that makes Fulton Reed's knuckle puck look like a mini-mite's backhander. Even more remarkable is that I scored from center ice. Had it occurred during an NHL game in the mid-'90s televised on Fox, the glowing puck would've had that stupid bright red comet tail on it as it streaked through the air. Instead, this happened in the Swedish First Division, in 2011, in warmups. Let me explain.
I'm not sure if it's genetic or cultural and I'm not sure why I care, but hockey players sometimes do things on the ice for no other reason than to piss the other team off . It makes us feel good. The twenty-minute warmup prior to each game is a terrific opportunity to express ourselves in this way since it's the only time when every player on both teams is wheeling around the ice. Add in the fact that there are seventy-eight pucks on the ice, no refs, and lots of tension building, some interesting stuff can happen. Back in the States, spectators may be familiar with the team goons chirping each other at center ice during warmups. Most of the time, once the game starts, these same players will back up their tough talk by dropping the mitts and shoving their elbows down one another's throats. Well this ain't the States.
In tonight's warmups as I go through my routine of scouting out the talent both on the opposing team and in the stands, I detect stray pucks soaring into our zone like meteors. Because the rest of my teammates are focused on actually doing the warmup drills, I take it into my own mitts to investigate the matter further. Skating slowly along the boards to the blue line being careful not to collide with any of my teammates who enjoy doing hot laps in our zone, I spot an Ore defender lofting full-length saucer passes into our end. With time running out on the clock, guys on both teams start filing off the ice. Not this guy, though -- he's still sending high sauce down to our end like a jackass. Wheeling behind my own net and gathering speed for the first time in warmups, I pick up a puck, briefly fumble it in an unnecessary toe-drag attempt, then race to center ice, and unleash a slapshot that hums through the air neck-high clanging bar-down in the opposite net. My saucer puck-lofting opponent looks just as shocked as I am, and in a display of respect nods then skates off the ice. It's the effectiveness of passive aggressive maneuvers like this that make me enjoy this league.
Now let's get to the game action.
Richard Flodin and Linus bury a goal each, leaving us up two-zip after the first intermission. In the second period, I track down my puck-lofting friend from warmups and deliver a jab to his ribs at the end of a shift. He remains down on the ice so I know he's not coming after me. However, on my half-assed skate back to the bench, I wonder if it might make more sense to exert more effort with my legs to get off the ice than with my arms which I flail around wildly signaling to the guys on the bench that I need a change. The chippy play continues, and after taking their timeout, Ore comes out aggressive, too aggressive for Jocke, and at the end of the period he gets into a fight/hair-pulling match with an Ore defenseman.
For some reason, the sight of two hockey players trying to deposit their fists through one another's faces compels the non-fighters on the ice to engage in friendly chitchat with the opposition. Maybe it's knowing that we're not involved in currently having someone try to carve our face out that gives us relief and creates this sense of solidarity. I peer to my right, and the closest Ore player to me is Mike Danton.
His ultimate fighter head looks tiny compared to the tree-trunk neck that supports it. His face conjures up a mix of a pissed off bull and an undefeated wrestler. His nose is small and flat, most likely a combination of genes, an NHL career, and a prison sentence.
I watch his gloves, hoping like hell they stay on his hands. But I'm not as concerned as you might think. You see, I've played against Danton before. In fact, I've fought him and beat the piss out of him. Then again, that all happened when I was sixteen and playing NHL 03 on PlayStation 2. A real life fight between us would look like an angry six-year-old Canadian thrashing an American piñata.
Danton's lips curl up, revealing a jack-o'-lantern smile. Appearing more content to observe than participate, he removes his right hand from his glove and props up his visor. While his face tells the story of punches taken, his knuckles tell one of punches thrown. He puts his glove back on then props his chin on the butt end of his stick in the pose Ken Dryden made famous. I'm not sure how to begin our conversation, so I look for common ground.
"Not a bad tilt for a couple Swedes, eh?" I say.
"Don't know how to throw 'em, but they'll fuckin' swing away. You Canadian?"
"American. How'd you end up here?"
"Only place that gave me a visa. Small town, but great people. I thought we had the nicest people in Canada, but I might be wrong."
Jocke and his dance partner, nearly finished giving each other French braids, are separated by the referees and escorted to the penalty box.
"Good luck this season, bud." Danton taps me on my shin guards before skating to his bench.
"You too." I skate away and thank the hockey gods my first non-video game interaction with Danton doesn't end with my obit.
The paths Danton and I took to Sweden are so far from one another it's amazing we ended up in the same place. He grew up in a small town while I grew up in the biggest city in the world. He's estranged from his father, and I'm not. He stayed healthy, and I got injured. He's signed an NHL contract, and I've signed up for the NHL Center Ice package on satellite television.
But here we both are, looking for a fresh start on the ice, a new beginning, finding refuge in the same spot. A few months later, Danton would make national news in Sweden, but not for his play on the ice. One of his teammates began convulsing during a game, choking on his own tongue. Danton was first to react and, using techniques he learned in prison, saved his teammate's life.
I spend most of the second period in a mental haze, overthinking my interaction with Danton. While not the most skilled player on the ice, Danton is the most intense, hunting down loose pucks. He must have seen those same National Geographic clips Coach Donato loved. It's his unpredictability that gives him an edge. I can't tell whether he's going to steamroll a defender and barrel down on goal, or pickpocket a defenseman, slyly lifting up his stick to steal the puck. For three years, Danton lived the dream of every young hockey player, myself included, when he played in the NHL. Watching him now, I see a guy pursuing that same dream once more. I see a guy willing to play in a place he probably can't locate on a map, but playing with a passion that shows everyone watching that he believes he can make it back. Through Danton I see hope.
In the third period, after receiving a pass from Jocke in the neutral zone, I hightail it down the left wing and cut to the middle hoping to confuse the defenseman and create some options. Reading the play, Ore's far side defenseman steps up on me, forcing me to make a quick dash to one side. Skating at top speed, I'm unable to fully dodge the defender's body and my left leg collides squarely with my opponent's right knee. I lift myself up relying heavily on the support of my stick and try to skate to the bench; I make it one stride before my left knee gives. The referee whistles the play dead, and my teammates help me off the ice.
The paramedics run into the locker room and help me take off my skates and shinguards, as they begin a series of pokes and prods around my knee. Can this be happening again? I think, flashing back to Belgium.
As I look on, desperate to understand their conversation, one of the paramedics says, "It feels like there's some damage to the MCL. I think your ACL is fine. That's the good news. But the MCL most likely has a tear. I don't know how severe. We need an MRI to determine that. Keep it iced for the next day or two. Keep the leg high, always high."
"How long? If it's what you think it is, how long until I can play again?" The two paramedics look at each other then, after exchanging a few thoughts in their native language, the one who'd been speaking to me says, "One month. Maybe less. Maybe more." I hear an unusually loud roar from the crowd. I hobble out and crack open the door. Players and coaches on both benches are going ballistic. Röös seems especially outraged at the refs who either missed a bad call or perhaps stole his last whiskey nip. Maybe both.
My eye is then drawn to the on-ice play. One of the twins, like a human missile, tracks down an Ore player, the same Ore defenseman who took out my knee. I'm too far away to make out the face, but I can tell by the way he has the Ore player in his crosshairs that this is no ordinary attempt to finish a check but retribution for knocking me out of the game. I can finally make out the face -- it’s Jocke. Fueled by revenge and possibly nicotine deprivation, Jocke sails in at full speed, but the Ore defender slips to the side at the last moment. Apparently when I was helped off the ice, no one bothered to ensure the gate was properly latched, and Jocke's momentum carries him head first through the boards, clear off the ice. The referee blows his whistle as a buzz of curses and shouts fills the arena, and I hobble back to the locker room.
Not every day a guy runs through the boards for me. I lift my leg back on the bench, place an ice pack on my knee, and sit alone with my thoughts. When the final buzzer sounds and my teammates file back into the locker room, many of them voice their concern and offer me a few pats on the back, and words of encouragement.
Most teams have a tradition after victories that involves presenting something -- a hard hat, an axe, a puck -- to a player who contributed in some exceptional way that game. "Boys," says our captain, Marcus. "Tonight, one guy in here showed stora bollar." Marcus grabs his crotch. "He took a hit and got back up, and you could tell he wanted to come back. Because of this, Tomtegoes to Billy." Marcus walks to my stall and hands me a small wooden gnome that has a white beard and pointy hat.
"What's Tomte?" I ask Anders as I inspect the gnome.
"It's a very old figure in Swedish folk stories. Tomte protects those who believe in it from all bad things."
Tomas walks by my stall and taps me on the shin pad. "In my office when you’re showered."
I finish undressing, stagger into the shower, then after channeling the mythological power of Tomte by rubbing his stomach and stroking his beard, I place him above my stall, hoping this isn't the last opportunity I'll have to receive the honor.
Tomas sits as his desk, turning slowly from side to side in his swivel chair. Next to him stands Henry Nordlund, one of the team managers, clicking the top of a pen. Tomas slowly raises his hand to his mouth and jams a snus into his upper lip. "Take a seat, Bill," he says. "How's the knee feel?" Something's not right -- this is the first time he's called me Bill since he picked me up at the train station.
"I don't think it's too serious. The paramedics said it should be fine. Nothing serious," I plead as if my repetition will aid the healing process.
Henry and Tomas turn to each other, their faces serious as they exchange words too quietly and too Swedish for me to understand.
"I'm going to be fine -- good to play in a couple weeks. I know the rehab for this injury."
Tomas swivels his chair back facing me and leans forward, tapping his desk.
"That's good. Well, Henry and I have talked. We like you, as a player and a person. We want you to stay the year here in Lindesberg."
I try to remain cool and fight off a smile, but it's impossible. "Fucking awesome! This is where I want to be. My knee should be fine in a couple weeks. I can't wait to get the regular season started."
"Fucking awesome, indeed. We have the contract here for you to sign. Next week, you will move into an apartment. Linus and Richard will be living in the same complex, one building down from you. Take a look at the papers here. It has our agreement for your salary and apartment we provide. We can translate whatever you don’t understand, but maybe it's good practice for your Swedish." I go over the contract with Tomas and Henry and rip the paper with the pen when I sign it.
"Going to miss living in the cabin?" Tomas asks leaning back in his chair. "I think I'll survive."
"One more thing, Fuckface. There's something I need from you that's not written in your contract."
"You must agree to be my caddy. First time I shot in '70s was when you were on my bag. What do you say?"
"Once winter starts, I'd be happy to."
: I should probably ease off the "ehs," but it seems to give me credibility in the hockey world.
-- Excerpted by permission from Odd Man Rush: A Harvard Kid's Hockey Odyssey from Central Park to Somewhere in Sweden -- with Stops along the Way by Bill Keenan. Copyright (c) 2015 by Bill Keenan. Published by Skyhorse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow Bill Keenan on Twitter @billkeenan86.