Fall has finally made its warm greeting into Canada and you know what that means. It’s hockey season! After a dreadfully hot summer it felt great getting into the crisp atmosphere of a hockey arena again. And I started my 2018/2019 season with quite the barn burner.
The Ottawa 67s and Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League graced the City of Cornwall with their exhibition presence on Labour Day. It was the first time the OHL had returned to Cornwall since 1993 when the Royals moved to Newmarket.
I didn’t think I was going to hop into scouting mode for an exhibition game but after a couple minutes into the first, I was kicking myself for not bringing a notepad.
Only one player really stood out to me and that’s unusual. I’ll usually pick a couple guys on each team to look at but this time was different. I could only focus on one kid because he was just that good.
I went into this game blind. I’ve been away from the major junior world for a bit now so I didn’t know who was who on the roster. I didn’t know who to look for and I didn’t know if any of these kids were drafted. What I do know is that one kid stole the show.
Marco Rossi is a 16-year-old centre from Feldkirch, Austria.
You read that right.
And you know what? This kid is going places.
Unbeknownst to me, Rossi was selected 18th overall in this year’s import draft by this 67s. He committed early which tells me he’s serious about his future. Picking the OHL at an early age is a hard-enough decision to make for North American skaters let alone somebody from across the pond. Commitment is half the battle.
What I saw on the ice was something I’ve seen lacking a lot in today’s junior game. One is hunger and the other is a hockey mind. Marco Rossi was the hungriest guy the ice. He never stopped from puck drop to the game ending horn. Lazy he is not a word in his vocabulary.
He created space if needed and played with his head. Always thinking. He was constantly moving, looking for any opportunity to present itself. He went hard to the net and was one of the only few on both teams who consistently got in the front of it.
It seemed to me that his hockey knowledge is vastly wise for his age. The maturity of play from this 16 year old is astounding. I mean, he still looks like a baby. Even with that white turtleneck tucked underneath.
At 5’9 and according to Elite Prospects, 156 pounds, Rossi just flew up and down the ice. There is no worry about cement skates here. His skating ability is right up there on the list of his greatest assets. His edges are so clean, crisp and full of speed. Don’t even get me started on his back check. Which brings me back to the hunger. His hunger for the game made everybody else look a couple speeds slower then normal. Kingston was slow to begin with so they looked like molasses out there whenever Rossi was around.
Another thing I liked about him was that he really wasn’t afraid to throw a check and follow through. So many guys don’t finish their checks these days so it was refreshing to see. There is definitely a hint of the North American style play in his game already.
Rossi clocked in the first goal of the 3-2 shootout win for the 67s. Again, Rossi made the space and the play for himself and provided quite the stick handling procedure and accurate shot. Rossi liked to shoot in this game so it will be interesting to see how he adapts in the OHL. Last season he notched 51 points in 34 games with the GCK U20 Lions in the Elite JR. A league over in Switzerland. That looks great on paper but it might be difficult to translate that into high numbers on North American soil.
Hockey prodigy’s coming out of Austria are not unheard of but they are few and far between. Austria has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1912 when they introduced their men’s team. They haven’t claimed a medal since the men claimed bronze in 1947. They are at almost 10,000 players registered with 75 outdoor and indoor rinks in the country. Compare that with Canada who has 631,000 registered players and 8,300 outdoor and indoor rinks. You do the math.
The National Hockey League is home to a few Austrians. Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl were likely dreamt about by a young Rossi as he skated on the rink. Is it premature to compare him to these fellow Austrian greats? I’d say yes if we were comparing styles of play. But if we’re just talking chances of making a GOOD career out of if? This early snapshot says he’s definitely on the radar. He’s already being lauded as a high pick in the 2020 draft.
What is going to help is he got picked up by a great team. Last year Ottawa was running near the bottom rungs in the standings. That’s a terrible position for the team but it’s great news for a skilled player. More ice time to go around.
I’m hoping for the best with Marco Rossi. He got me excited not only about hockey again but major junior hockey in general. Let’s see how he gets settled with the atmosphere of being on a Canadian hockey team and everything that goes with it. Hopefully his energy and determination will translate well onto the scoresheet. He is a much-needed breath of fresh air on the ice.
Hey, has anybody made Marco Polo/Barber Pole joke yet?? Get at it Ottawa 67s fans!!
While millions of viewers had their eyes glued to the Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the eventual winners Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, a feeling of fear and sadness was rolling through the city of Cornwall, Ontario.
See, as Sidney Crosby was raising the Prince of Wales trophy as Eastern Conference champion, 90 students/players of the Ontario Hockey Academy saw their on ice dreams suffer a major setback.
OHA was on fire and burning quickly.
Cornwall’s fire Chief, Pierre Voisine, seems to think it had been started in one of the dorm units that houses the students (no official confirmation as of yet). As the flames continued to rage and get worse an evacuation was called. Over 100 people, students and staff alike, spent the night in the Ramada Inn down the street. No one was hurt.
Here’s where things get sad and tricky.
Belongings were lost, hockey equipment has been lost and maybe most importantly, passports have been burned.
Most of the students are European and classes were supposed to finish up today. Flights had been schedule to fly out as early as this Saturday. Of course, I don’t know which players are still here but just taking a gander at the men’s Major Midget AA team roster, it includes students from the UK, Australia, Israel, Belgium, and Germany. That’s just for one team! Luckily for UK students, the British Consulate in Ottawa has already been in contact with OHA to see how they can help in speeding things up. However, it’s not clear just yet about the others. Hopefully as the day goes on today we’ll get some kind of idea of what’s happening on the international front.
For those that don’t know what the Ontario Hockey Academy is, it’s a high performance academic-athletic private school. Basically high school and an awful lot of hockey. They prepare you for the University or College route to the big time. It’s a big thing internationally because students from all over the world can come and learn from hockey’s best: Canadians.
While the fire has been put out and I’m sure an investigation has been put underway, thoughts now turn to what can we do to help. If you’re looking to start fundraising, collecting items for care packages, helping to replace items and what not, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can get the word out. I have a pretty big reach locally and in the UK that I’m sure could be useful to help these kids get their dreams back on track.
Ontario Hockey Academy. What happened has happened and now it’s time for the rest of hockey’s family to step in and have your backs. This won’t keep the Mavericks down.
It’s even harder to lose someone close unexpectedly. You’re not prepared for the emotional toll that follows the days, months and even years after one’s death. But a death is much more then mourning. It becomes a time to reflect and celebrate a life once lived to its fullest.
When the unexpected news of Matt Suderman’s passing arrived on my plate this past weekend, I was stunned as many of you were. That news is still bothering me which is only natural. When I started writing, Matt was one of first players I became good friends with. While I only caught the end of his career, I could tell that he was a special guy; especially by the way people spoke about him.
Gosh, such sad news about the passing of Matt Suderman. A real gent on & off the ice. Thoughts with his family, friends & team mates.
At 6’3 and 235 pounds, Suderman was a giant, albeit a very friendly one that most can testify too. A big boy coming out of the prairies with a solid junior career with the Saskatoon Blades under his belt, Suds was never known for his goal scoring prowess or point totals. No, he was that big body you wanted in front of the net, to block shots and to know you’re safe on the ice whenever he was around. Everyone needed a guy like him in the locker room.
Being a likable character and knowing his role on the ice lead to being a very late draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in the 7th round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. Yes, that may be a late round pick but being drafted is being drafted and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. Sudsy played his entire career bouncing around the minors. That’s not unusual for most. But being able to get paid to play a game you love can sometimes be a reminder to one self that you’re one of the lucky few.
Suderman was a fan favourite almost everywhere he went. Whether he was dropping the gloves against Mario Joly and Erick Lizon with the Arizona Sundogs, blocking shots for the Dundee Stars or taking the lead with the Hull Stingrays, Suderman was a man who commanded respect. And that respect was given to him a million times over. In Hull we saw him fight for what was right and for what he believed in.
Matt Suderman was also diabetic.
I find this must be mentioned for all of young athletes out there struggling with the terrible disease or those who have just been diagnosed and thinking they have give up the sports they love. While there famous hockey stars that played and continue to play through it (Bobby Clarke and Max Domi come to mind), it’s important to know that even the tough guys and guys who you have more in common with then you think you know, also have to fight through something. Sudsy never let the illness define him. That’s one of the main reasons he’ll always be a close friend to me.
I'm not a wine person but I know Suds enjoyed a few so I poured one in my dads fav glass my salut to you pal cheers! pic.twitter.com/RodrnFfdm1
As John Scott grins from ear to ear on his teammates shoulders and as he collects the NHL All Star game Most Valuable Player award, it seems to be a fitting ending to a long chapter and era of the National Hockey League.
Without realizing it, John Scott, sitting on top of Taylor Hall and Mark Giordano’s shoulders, is the TRUE last of the enforcers. As he waves to the electric Nashville crowd, the era of goons and enforcers of the NHL close out like a Hollywood movie.
Throw away the drama that the NHL created about this guy for a moment and just think about that. Is there any other guy in the National Hockey League at this moment who plays the same role as Scott? There’s no promising that Scott will ever get called back up to the big leagues again. Montreal doesn’t have a spot. He’ll grind it out on The Rock, in St. John’s, Newfoundland as their Canadiens affiliate.
Hollywood honestly could not have written a better ending to the enforcer era even if they hired Mike Myers to do the writing.
This is a crucial time for hockey in general. As more and more criticism and arguments come out based on head shots, concussions, CTE, players committing suicide and depression, the league slowly started to phase out the enforcing role and let it ride quietly into the night. However, most hockey players will tell you that role keeps hockey safer and keeps players in check.
This weekend was a huge win for John Scott. You can tell with every flash of the camera on him that he’s happier than he’s ever been to be apart of a spectacle like that. He turned into the NHL’s very own “Rudy”, and carried the hearts of thousands. I’m sure his story even turned on new fans to the game as well. I bet Arizona is kicking their behinds now on the amazing marketing campaign they could’ve had. John Scott, Coyotes jerseys would’ve sold out within seconds.
And he earned his keep. Anybody who juggles 4 years of playing hockey at Michigan Tech while earning an ENGINEERING DEGREE is more than deserving of the opportunity.
It was a win for Scott but it was also a win for every enforcers who has EVER played the game of hockey no matter what league you’re in. Seeing one of your own be ridiculed by management and league officials then embraced by the entire league’s fan base at a game that showcases the best of the best is a definitive high-five for the job they do night in and night out. (Just FYI, Scott’s not the first tough guy in the All Star game, Mr. Probert was selected in 1988.)
The enforcing occupation is a dirty job but for the past 30 years, someone has had to do it. There’s a lot of pride that goes into the hearts of these guys just from protecting their players. They become respected around the league even if they come with much less talent. They are also some of the most soft-spoken guys you will meet off the ice. Case in point, John Scott.
As the All Star weekend came to a close, it really does feel that we finally come to the end of an exciting and fantastic era of NHL hockey even though I’m afraid of what’s next. Will fighting make a comeback? Maybe. If things get insanely out of hand 10 years from now it just might. But if you want to see a quality scrap in the meantime, you’ll have to make your way to the LNAH.
All in all I can actually say that I have not had this much fun over an All Star game or a player for that matter since I was a kid. Great job Nashville for hosting it as well even though I’d rather have James Hetfield coach then Vince Gill.
Oh, and who do you think will play Gary Bettman in the John Scott movie?
(Originally published in the October 2015 edition of On Fire, the Coventry Blaze match night program)
The Coventry Blaze are embarking on an already busy schedule for the 2015-2016 season. This October, the schedule will throw a dagger into what the players are used too. Having won the league championship, the year before, the Blaze earned themselves a spot to compete in the IIHF Continental Cup. Coventry’s group play will be held in Tychy, Poland and the Continental Cup tournament will see the top teams in European countries play for the title of Europe’s best.
No team from the UK has won the Continental Cup since its creation in 1997. However, many teams have entered. The 2001 London Knights squad came close having lost in the finals to the ZSC Lions from Zurich, Switzerland. The Blaze are no strangers to the tournament. This will mark the fifth time that Coventry has entered into the challenge since the cup’s inception in 1997. They’ve finished in some very respectable places as well, no doubt a nod to the fine recruiting the brass does each year.
One person on this year’s Coventry squad has graced European ice with Continental Cup experience.
That man is your captain.
Ashley Tait was apart of the 2005-2006 Blaze squad that traveled over to Grenoble, France for their group action. Their bracket included the Amstel Tigers from the Netherlands, the Herning Blue Fox out of Denmark and the hosts, Bruleurs de Loups Grenoble. Coventry eventually lost to Grenoble in the last round of their group play and it signaled a start to the decline of the rest of the season as the Blaze fell into injury after injury. Nevertheless, it is an experience that Tait holds dear to his heart. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play in two Continental Cups and enjoyed them both,” remembers Tait fondly. “I always enjoy experiencing foreign cultures and generally just getting to play in and see another part of the world is a nice perk that being a hockey player gives you.”
As the underdogs, the 2005 Blaze had no pressure going into the tournament. It will likely be the same for the 2015 Blaze when they commence their journey as well. Tait holds the key to leadership. If you don’t believe me just look at this stat: Ashley Tait has iced for the Blaze for eight seasons and he’s been named captain for all of them. “Obviously I’m very proud to be in that position,” said Tait. “But I’d like to think how I play and conduct myself on and off the ice wouldn’t differ if I was wearing a letter or not.” There are a lot of fresh faces on this Blaze roster who are new to not only the EIHL but to Continental Cup play as well. will be a good place to test skills and determination; come back to the homeland as better players. Tait will be called upon to keep the locker room calm and rally the troops to burst when needed. He’s also tasked with keeping the players in check. No partying on game night, right? The players will listen. Why?
Because Ashley Tait is well respected.
Tait has had quite a career thus far in British ice hockey. At 40 years old, the man can fly up and down the rink like the latest North American import who has just gotten off the plane. He has a vast amount of championships written to his name including IIHF World Silver and Bronze medals. His accomplishments allowed him to be chosen on a side that played against the Boston Bruins. Tait literally has no down side to his game. His work ethic is applauded by many and desired by all.
As the Blaze make their way over to the Stadion Zimowy in Tychy, Poland, all areas of the game must be addressed. Will travel and fatigue become a factor in the tournament? Tait doesn’t think so. “Not especially. It’s not too far for us to travel and we’ll travel on a day we don’t play.” The extra rest will help but there’s another thing that gives Tait a minor worry. “I think adjusting to the bigger ice will be more of a concern initially.”
“It’s generally (the tournament) a very quick 3 games in 3 days. It’s really all about being ready for the games, not worrying about being tired and making sure you enjoy it.” This year’s Cup presents another challenge for Ashley as well. “Unfortunately I’ve haven’t been able to progress beyond the first round. Hopefully I can help change that this time.” The Coventry Blaze have been pooled in group C in the second round of the Challenge Cup competition. In their bracket, the Blaze will face GKS Tychy (Poland), CSM Dunarea Galati (Romania) and the winner of group A. The second round of the Continental Cup tournament takes place October 23-25 in Tychy, Poland.
With the demise of the goon era already a thing of the past and with current leagues cutting down majorly on fighting, one is left to wonder where do these guys turn. They’re clearly not ready to retire yet and can still useful as an agitator. However, if the 4th liner next to you has better skills with the puck then you can kiss your cushy NHL or AHL job goodbye.
Guys are getting demoted at a steady rate. Paul “BizNasty” Bissonnette wasn’t a part of the Coyotes discussion this year. The Leafs sent Fraser McLaren and Colton Orr packing. After making his way to the NHL the hard way, Rich Clune thought he finally found a steady job with the Nashville Predators. He played one game this year and then headed down to play with Milwaukee. Kevin Westgarth has a Stanley Cup to his name and not one NHL or AHL wanted him. He ended up across the pond with the Belfast Giants.
The culture of the National Hockey League is changing dramatically and anyone can see that. Every team wants to have four sharp, fast, skilled lines now instead of the latter lines filling up with grinders, enforcers, and pests. They need to do more than just fight.
There are a lot of these players around the world that are starting to find themselves out of jobs. Hell, there are a few guys in Major Junior who might not have a job playing pro hockey after their junior career is done. I don’t think fighting will be banned out right but there’s going to come a point where suspensions are going to get heftier and ridiculous in order to deter the player from fighting or players are going to start getting banned from leagues. So where do these guys go is the million dollar question.
There’s only one place.
If you are not familiar with the LNAH through my writing yet, I’ll bring you up to speed. With seven teams in Quebec and one in Ontario at the moment, the LNAH is a league where basically anything goes. The “show” is what draws fans from around the world to it. Fighting is king. Staged or not, fighting is promoted in this league. It’s also the league that has those big brawls you may have seen on SportsCentre time and time again.
What people don’t expect when they actually watch a game is that the hockey is decent. The league is filled with former first round draft picks (Cornwall’s Sasha Pokulok went 14th overall to Washington in 2005, two picks later the Atlanta Thrashers picked up long time LNAHer Alex Bourret.), former AHL and ECHLers. It’s a big mix.
The LNAH has one thing going for them and that is they will never outlaw fighting. When the time comes that it’s no longer welcome in the NHL, the LNAH will welcome all of the out of work enforcers with open arms. Not even just the enforcers. Guys who play dirty and have one or two scraps a year will come over too.
If the LNAH can market it right, it’s going to become a gold mine. Fans will have nowhere to go but the LNAH if they want to see a fight. It will become popular as hell and teams will pop up all other the place. I could see teams in the Maritimes and North Eastern U.S. jumping into the fold.
Now here’s one thing that I think the current brass of the LNAH won’t like.
To make this sustainable the brawls and sideshow antics have to go or at least get toned down a bit. The LNAH is looked down upon because of this in every other league. I’ve heard from more than one player that they think the league should be banned in its format. Another called it a joke. There are also TONS of fans that feel this way believe it or not.
The other thing that needs to be changed is the “must have played junior in Quebec (and for Cornwall, Ontario)”. The enforcers of the league are on the verge of retirement. You’re going to need somebody to replace them be it straight from Major Junior or buddy in Kazakhstan that likes to throw down. These players are what makes the league. It would be a shame to not let others in eventually. If the league wants to last, this rule needs to go with or without the fighting.
There’s a few other minor rules and things that the LNAH needs to change but they’d be able to do that on the fly year by year.
Take a step back and think about it for a minute. Picture the next 5-10 years.
No more fights in the NHL on TV to look forward to on Saturday nights. Can’t see a beauty tilt between players on the verge of making it live in the AHL. Forget about trying to look for one on a Major Junior level. But we can go down to the arena in our mid-size communities and catch 4 or 5 a game. How about that.
You can’t deny that every single hockey fan on the planet likes a good hockey scrap. Especially live. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing your team get pumped up with momentum after one.
I had originally set out to make a part 2 of my article “The Dark Side of Hockey: What people never think of” and delve into the sections with a little more detail. However yesterday, I got a message to my facebook page that immediately required action and have it brought to the forefront of my attention.
When I originally wrote that article I was fed up with hearing how my friends in different teams throughout the world were being treated and how rampant mental illness is in sports with nobody doing a damn thing. I figured at the very least I could write about it and try to bring some awareness to society. I remember thinking that if I could help just one person it would all be worth it.
It was worth it.
Todd McIIrath reached out to me on the afternoon of September 24, 2014 with a lengthy message. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“I stumbled upon your original article about a week after I had been planning to take my own life. I felt as if I was battling something so unique to MY situation until I read the first half of your article. Your article saved my life. I am literally driving from Wisconsin to my hometown in Michigan to admit myself into a facility in an attempt to rebuild. Thank you.”
I could not just leave that message sit and not respond. I responded right away and found out that Todd was in the passenger seat of a car at that very moment with another 5 hours to go before he was admitting himself into a facility in Eastern Michigan. I’m a fairly easy person to get along with so we naturally started a conversation on the topic that fate joined us together with. I then asked the burning question if he’d want to tell his story. With actual enthusiasm he obliged and had the same mentality I did: “If it helps just one person Ash, then it was worth it.” Hey, I had all night. I was all ears.
By the time McIlrath had hit bantam, he knew he was something special in the hockey world. Having played with names such as Erik Condra and Matt Taromina, McIIrath was drafted to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round. Weighing his options, he decided to sign an offer with the United States National Team Development Program and stay a bit closer to home.
He was off to a heck of a start for his junior career. As with all athletes however, he was faced with adversity and well, it wasn’t really his strong suit. Tacking onto his drinking and smoking marijuana that started in Grade 8, McIlrath had started using almost every day. Getting caught cheating on an exam saw him lose his scholarship with the USNTDP as the coaching staff no longer had confidence in him to crack the lineup. However, he could return to the team the next season but had to go to high school in his home town and commute to the practices and games. To cope with not only the loss of time but to gain an edge, he turned to the drugs of Ritalin and Ephedrine. “This was during the height of ephedrine awareness. Athletes were dying, and I was buying yellow jackets by the bottle on a weekly basis.” In the midst of
this he had managed to commit himself to Notre Dame University and the Fighting Irish hockey team. Towards the end of the school year, a plagiarism incident put the stop to that entirely. He lost the confidence of not only his coaches but his teammates and most importantly, himself. “At this point I was the problem child. I began to alienate myself from my teammates.”
The following summer was a blur built around girls, booze and drugs. When he arrived at camp that very fall, the team had brought in two new forwards. They clearly had no use for him. “The writing was on the wall. After getting healty’d (scratched) the first six games of the year,” McIlrath recalls. “I packed my car and went home.”
By now his agent was already in the middle of a three way deal that was trying to send him back to the OHL albeit with the Sarnia Sting. His parents turned him off of that idea as they wanted him to play NCAA so he managed to land himself in the USHL with the Indiana Ice. The season started off great and seemed like all of McIlrath’s problems were behind him until he popped his shoulder out in the middle of November. McIlrath moved home to have surgery and was sent off with a bucket full of pills and self-described “post-rookie season swagger”. For the first time in his life he was a normal kid, at home, with no responsibilities. Naturally, the partying became out of control. “I can remember playing drinking games with the option to take a shot, or take a pill; on a school night.” Vicodin and booze saw his new found confidence sky rocket. It also gave him an addiction to prescription medication.
The following season he was billeted with a family that was fairly well off and had a full bar set up in their basement. He was still addicted to pain meds but had upgraded to oxy-contin from having built up a tolerance to Vicodin. “‘Vicodin isn’t cutting it anymore’ was enough of an explanation for my doctor.” By Christmas he was leading the league in points but to his discredit (or credit depending on how you look at it), he only iced a handful of games sober. “My game day routine involved popping an 80mg tab of oxy before my pregame nap, and snorting half of one before I left for the rink.”
Of course his luck got even worse. His first game back from Christmas break saw him tear his ACL. “To this day, I swear it happened because of what I put my body through on a nightly basis.” It was at this point where he began to struggle with how people saw him.
He donned a narcissistic attitude that would make him lash out at people if they didn’t treat him like a God. He’d avoid people that would try to keep him humble and fed off of the rest that told him how great he was. That summer he committed to Bowling Green State University but instead of going, he decided to stay back one more year in junior to be a big fish in a small pond.
“When I think about BGSU (Bowling Green State University) my brain immediately associates it with coke, girls, alcohol and hockey. In that order.” McIlrath had enjoyed a very positive and acceptable first year at Bowling State. By the end of it, he took a job bouncing at a local bar and that’s when things inevitably turned sour once again. “I was always a yes man, so when someone asked me if I wanted a line (of cocaine), I was in deep.” In fact, he played his entire sophomore year on cocaine and you wouldn’t know it from looking at his numbers. Fate came twisting again when his coach’s friend ran into him at the bar while McIlrath was drunk. The coach brought it up at a pre-season meeting and once again he was back in the dog house. He was jerked around every which way; in and out of the line-up, demoted to defence, encouraged to give up for good among other things. By December of his junior year he didn’t care and just focused on playing for fun. After more partying behaviour, the coached took the matter into his hands and gassed him. It was over. He played his final year and graduated with a major in Psychology. “Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me.”
That was it. Hockey was over.
He spent the next three months in an alcoholic haze and the next two years depressed without a hope in life. A friend however told him about the AAHL; the All-American Hockey League. “This league was absolute hell, but I was playing again. This was verbatim the league you spoke of in your article. Five fights a game, not sure if we were getting paid, three guys in a one bedroom apartment; gong show.” The use of his hockey talent gave him a bit of hope. He managed to catch the eye of an organization in the East Coast Hockey League. Through all of the booze, drugs, highs and lows, McIlrath felt like he was being given a second chance. Determined to not blow it, he obliged when the team offered to fly him out on game day.
“And I kid you not, I tore my ACL again in my third shift!”
A constant string of bad decisions combined with even worse luck started to eat at him. As his depression worsened, it’s here where McIlrath first entertained the idea of taking his life. He managed to get a coaching gig with an independent team but was fired when the owner found out he was a coke head. Defeated he turned back to the AAHL and won a championship with the Battle Creek Revolution and signed on for next year
with the Fort Wayne Komets. The bad luck didn’t stop as a drama with his twitter account made the team let him go and that was the end of that.
Depression came back in full force and after a month of feeling sorry for himself, he managed to call up a friend who got him a coaching gig with a junior B team. Things started to seem normal at a steady pace again. The team placed third in nationals and by the end of the year, he had found himself quite the lady that was smitten with him. He turned her into his wife.
However after a few problems in the relationship arose, McIlrath reached his all-time low. He quit coaching and succumbed to the blackness of his depression. He managed to stay alcohol and drug free for an entire year before these problems existed. Determined to save his marriage, he invested and opened up a hockey school. In its second year of existence, it was all too much. “Everything on the surface was silky smooth, but as cliché as it sounds, I was just another duck on the pond.” McIlrath knew that his sober living was limited. “The money started pouring in, and it was flying up my nose faster than I could pay the bills.” He managed to save enough money to pay his employees and the bills on time when they arrive but that was it. “Every spare penny went toward living a rock stars lifestyle when I was barely getting by.”
Things continued to be rocky. On Fourth of July weekend of this year, McIlrath blacked out a party and hit rock bottom in his depression. “My plan at this point was to get through the summer, finish my hockey school, have a night out with the boys and take my own life.”
“So I decide to take a victory lap. I visit my family, and closest friends over the past few weeks and prepare my exit. I had my spot picked out, and even now I have a rope hidden under a pile of clothes in my car. I decided a jump from 80′ might not kill me so I decided to hang myself from the same height.”
“I woke up this past Monday dripping in sweat. This was going to be the day. But after reading your article for the 50th time it is my goal to be an example of strength rather than becoming a statistic. Especially since I’m going to be a father.”
I immediately got McIlrath in touch with Corey Bricknell, a former hockey player who started an organization with other former players called “Fighting the Truth”. FTT is an organization built to help players, whether former or still playing, deal with mental illness and the trials and tribulations of professional hockey. They had reached out to me after reading my article as well and I’m proud to say that I’ve joined their organization in helping create awareness.
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. I applaud Todd McIlrath and think so highly of him for his decision to get help. As I’m writing this, he is in a treatment center in Michigan surrounded by his no doubt loving family and there is not one damn thing he should be ashamed of either. I hope you’re doing well right now Todd, I’m thinking about you tonight. Thank you for telling your story. I know you’ve helped someone.
Depression isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of being strong for too long. It’s time to end the stigma.
Feel free to follow me on twitter: @MarchHockey or like the facebook page: www.facebook.com/marchhockey as I continue to add stories to this growing series dedicated to creating awareness of mental illness in the hockey community.
At the height of the Cold War, one could say that everything in the public was scrutinized more than necessary. There was a hint of secrecy and in other words a terrifying sense of immediate nuclear destruction that could tear the world apart in an instant.
Sport had its own Cold War and in particular, hockey.
And if there’s two things on this planet that really turn my crank, it’s history and hockey.
In the 1980s, Communism in the Soviet Union was in full swing yet slowly starting to die. A win in the sporting world equaled a win for the whole country and in extreme aspects, a win for Communism. Sport was used as propaganda for the nation and the Red Army team were the country’s main idols. It came as no surprise when former Soviet Army general Viktor Tikhonov lead one of the best and one of the most feared hockey teams in the game. Feared because they had the Iron Curtain hanging over their shoulder and the KGB watching every move.
Without beating around the bush, Tikhonov was hard. One could point out that on the ice and behind the bench, he ruled his team like a Dictator would his country. After all, maybe he did see his team as a country looking to invade and capture foreign land. His time as a general led him to create very unorthodox coaching styles. Players would have to train 11 months out of the year, away from their familiars and live in
the provided barracks; no doubt a salute to life in the army. Slava Fetisov, who captained the Red Army squad, was trained so hard that it has been said he could skate backwards as fast as any Western player could forward. How’s that for conditioning.
Former Soviet Union coach and credited as the god-father of Russian hockey, Anatoli Tarasov was once quoted as saying: “A hockey player must have the wisdom of a chess player, the accuracy of a sniper and the rhythm of a musician.” You could, quite frankly, describe Tikhonov’s team in that exact way. Of course, playing together for 11 months out of the year will definitely bring talent together at outrageous circumstances but the stickhandling, skating, and overall look of hockey the Soviets gave to it pushed the sport ahead 20 years in time.
Tikhonov’s methods were built around the strategies of the game. Working down angles. Being able to have that Gretzky instinct of knowing exactly where your teammates were with the puck. God forbid if you didn’t have a clue. He learned his ways of course pig-backing from tactics that were put in place by Tarasov. Practices would leave you barely making it back to the locker rooms and passing out from exhaustion on the ice. They both expected everything from you.
While they demanded your best, Tikhonov and in a much broader sense, the Soviet Union would give their stars players nothing in return. Most didn’t receive big cheques; they were a pittance at best and then shunned after their big wins. After all, it wasn’t a win for the team, it was a win for Communism and the country! Every game was an Olympic style event with less fanfare.
That’s where the defection of Russian players started to take place. The players knew deep down how they were being treated wasn’t right but they couldn’t speak up for fear of being sent to isolation in Siberia to put it bluntly. Nobody in their right mind liked the coaching style but they did what had to be done.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed.
Tikhonov had some of the BEST players under his wing. However with the threat of the NHL coming in and making offers now that they could entice players to the West, Tikhonov cut Pavel Bure, Valeri Zelepukin, Evgeny Davydov, and Vladimir Konstantinov in 1991 because he knew they’d be gone in an instant. It would save him the trouble. Those names should be familiar to you by now.
While Tarasov and Tikhonov were hockey dictators in their coaching ways, we would not have the style or innovation of the game that we do today. As I mentioned earlier, they helped push the game 20 years ahead of its time. Nobody had seen what they did with stick on these shores before. Some players described it as ballet on ice.
Sony Pictures is releasing a documentary on the entire squad entitled “Red Army”. I urge you to check it out and give it a watch. I can’t wait to see it myself.
Kevin Saurette has a been a huge part of the Belfast Giants line up since joining the squad in the 2012-2013 season. The 34 year old from Winnipeg, Manitoba has experienced almost every kind of league there is in the hockey world. From lacing them up with the Regina Pats in the WHL, to grinding it out at the University of Manitoba, then making a name for himself in the AHL, ECHL before jumping across the pond. Before landing in Ireland, Saurette spent 5 years in Germany between three different teams. It was quite an honour and pleasure to ask some questions about his lengthy career. He gives a great explanation of the EIHL.
March Hockey: You’ve played in North America, Europe and now the past three seasons in the UK, what if any, is the biggest difference of the game between these three places?
Kevin Saurette:In North America the ice surface is smaller so the game is very quick and you have very little time to make decisions on the ice. It is also a younger league than overseas as most of the players are fresh out of junior or college and are trying to make the N.H.L
In Europe, the game is more about skating and creating plays with skilled passing and puck movement. With the bigger ice you have more time to get your head up and make a play. It is also less physical as you cannot afford to go for the big hit and risk taking yourself out of the play.
In the U.K., the style of game is a mixture between Europe and North America. Most of the arenas have olympic ice so there is room to make plays and skate but with many of the imports coming from North America, there is also a rugged and tough aspect to the game. In my opinion, the EIHL is an underrated league when compared to other European leagues but it does seem that the secret is out. More and more high quality players are signing here every season and hopefully this will continue.
MH: Spending five years in Germany, was the language barrier ever an issue on the ice? Or is the “language” of hockey fairly universal?
KS:I think the language of hockey is universal but you do definitely run into some language barriers your first few years in Europe. My first year in Germany the coach never spoke one word of English so that was something to get used to. I was also captain for a few years in Germany when my German speaking was not that great. There was many times where the ref was explaining a penalty or play and I had no idea what he was telling me. I then had to go back to the bench and basically lie to the coach about what the ref had told me. It was pretty ridiculous at times ha.
MH: Belfast has kept pretty much the same squad as last year. With a couple games already been played, is the same togetherness that captured the league still there?
KS:For sure, we have a great group in Belfast. We all get a long and have a lot of laughs together. We also all want to win and there is no selfishness on the team. That was one of the biggest reasons why we were so successful last season. We all wanted to win for each other. The new guys we have signed have fit in well and look great on the ice so hopefully we can duplicate the same success we had last year.
MH: You’re a veteran and a natural leader with the Giants. What do you use as a motivation factor to get not only yourself but some of the other lads going, especially ones that are new to the team AND country?
KS:On this team, there is not much need to try and motivate others. We have a very experienced group that all know how to play the game and how to get themselves ready for games. For myself, I just try to work hard every shift and try to have fun while doing it. We are lucky to be able to play hockey as a profession and I think sometimes we as players forget that.
MH: What’s your pre-game routine look like?
KS: My pre-game routine is pretty simple:
Spaghetti for lunch, grab a nap, Get to the rink 2 1/2 hours before the game, have a coffee, tape my sticks, play two touch, bike and stretch and then go out for warm up. It has changed through the years but now it is more about staying loose and having some fun.
MH: If you could watch any two teams, from anywhere and any era, who would it be and why?
KS:It would be great to see the 1987 Team Canada team who beat the soviets in the Canada Cup finals play the 2014 Team Canada, who just won Olympic Gold in Sochi. It would be very interesting to see how much the game has changed in twenty years. The players today are machines and that Sochi team, in my opinion, is the best team the hockey world has ever seen. However, in 1987, the two best players in the history of the game,Gretzky and Lemieux, were in their primes and played on a line together. They couldn’t be stopped then but I wonder how they would do against today’s best defenceman.
I don’t know why I decided to take on this topic. I’ve spent the better part of a couple weeks thinking about it. Maybe it’s because I’ve been researching mental illness a whole lot or maybe it’s because Theo Fleury’s biography is on my nightstand staring at me, begging to be read one more time. It could be the recent suicide of Slovakian player Miroslav Hlinka. Either way, I think it’s an important piece to look at.
Hockey is a tough sport. It’s one of the toughest sports (arguably the toughest) out there physically. Everyone can see that. Nobody ever thinks of how the sport can affect your brain. I’m not just talking about the fights where getting popped in the head a few times a night can obviously do damage. I’m talking about the hundreds of ups and downs one goes through their career. Not only on them but on their families as well.
Not everything in life is sunshine and rainbows especially in this sport. Don’t get me wrong, there has been progress made. Gone are the days of partying hard with the boys, breaking curfew and showing up to the ice still hammered. Instead we’ve replaced it for the most part with rigorous training schedules, perfect diets, and the always on the go lifestyle.
From the moment we see our kids lace up their skates for the first time, we expect the NHL dream. Some parents more than others jump into that dream with both feet and become an increasingly volatile whirlwind of mental anguish. I’ve seen parents get mad at their kids for not scoring more, not skating fast enough, not playing the body, telling them they’ll never make it and more. It’s bad enough that these kids will get reprimanded from their coaches but to take it from someone who supposedly loves them is hard on the ol’ self esteem.
Let’s say your kid shrugs off your words and hey, low and behold he actually has some talent. He gets drafted by a Major Junior team and the offers from NCAA teams in the United States come flooding in. All would be well and good if the stress of not knowing which route to take while dealing with full days of school, possibly a part time job and social life were easy. Don’t forget about the millions of people who will chime in to offer their advice. What do you do? Yes, there are counselors now who are ready, willing and able to help decide which path to take but you know what’s still sitting in the back of little Johnny Hockey’s mind eating at him? The fact that you told him he could never make it.
He’s not going to stand for that though! He’s going to prove you wrong! He decides to take the major junior route and play four solid years while hoping he trains hard enough, eats the right foods and does everything by the book to get onto an NHL team. His dilemma? Well, what happens if he doesn’t and you were right. That thought eats at him every single second of every hour. It starts to interfere with his play, so much so that Johnny Hockey has decided to turn himself into a little enforcer and start fighting in games to get his anger out.
Between games he starts to withdraw and isolate himself. Teammates notice but chalk it up to him just “being Johnny” or over exhaustion. Coaches notice and just shrug it off, telling him to just suck it up and get out there.
So now we’ve got a skillful, angry and depressed enforcer of a player. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were still the 80s/90s. The age of the enforcer is quickly dying in today’s game. Players are being taught more to use their skill and take on more of a role. How does this effect little Johnny Hockey? Well, the first round of the draft was promising when he first started. The rounds are coming and going. He’s finally taken in the last round to….it doesn’t even matter what team, it was the last round.
Of course, getting drafted to the NHL alone no matter what round is a great achievement. However not to our little Johnny. He feels that he’s now a failure and will never see the big time. Starts withdrawing more. Maybe he takes up drinking; maybe cocaine. He moves back to his hometown now that his junior career is over with nothing to fall back on. Spends his days in bed.
The phone rings. It’s a semi pro team willing to give him a shot. Happy days! Gladly accepting, little Johnny packs up his gear and heads out to his new team.
In middle of nowhere, Europe.
Okay, so it’s not THAT bad. He’s playing hockey for a living!
Yeah, that’s what you think.
The team promised him they were a professional organization. The team also promised him a bi-weekly wage. It’s been a month and he has still to see any of it. The team promised him a fully furnished apartment. It’s a table, stove, fridge and a mattress on the floor; going to have to fill in the rest yourself. His roommate however is another fellow import. At least he’ll have somebody to communicate in his own language with. Good luck with anybody else.
Little Johnny shakes his head but sucks it up. He’s a professional hockey player and damn it, at least he has that going for him.
The team promised him that they would travel by plane. 18 hour train rides later seem to contradict that fact. Well, at least he can rest on his off day. Good luck as the coach has scheduled a practice and oh look at that, you got a game that night.
Frustrated, little Johnny crosschecks the wrong European in the first period of his second professional game. Gloves get dropped and Mr. European catches Johnny with a left hook, sending Johnny to the ground head first knocking him out cold. Concussed, he skates off the ice and gets sent to the team doctor. Doctor thinks he’s alright to play even though he’s slurring his words and seeing double. Coach yells at him to take the next shift because after all they need this win. The coach’s job is on the line.
Johnny deals with this year in and year out. Plays everywhere from mainland Europe, to Midwest USA, to the UK, and finally ending in Quebec, Canada. He racks up the penalty minutes on his fight card not really caring about his point total because, what’s the point? It’s not like he’s going to make it back to the show. His wife, fed up with the constant travelling and seeing her husband get beaten to a bloody pulp every night, threatens divorce. Nobody remembers the talent he once possessed. Night in and night out he’s beaten and bruised up all the while thinking, “what am I even doing this for?”
Finally Johnny realizes he’s getting too old for this. He’s only 33 but his body feels like that of a 70 year old. He’s in the locker room one night thinking about hanging them up. He’s caught with sudden anxiety. What is he going to do after this?! He never went to college or never held a job for more than a few months. Hockey is all he knows; where does he turn?
This is where my story ends and my thinking began. Where do the minor, professional, semi-professional hockey players go when the game is gone? Yes, plenty turn to coaching, opening up hockey schools and whatnot but what if you’re not one of the lucky ones to do so? It’s a daunting and scary thought. You’ve lived out of a suitcase for 10-15 years of your life and you’ve most likely not saved very much. Where do you turn?
There’s not many resources there for the players when they leave the game. A lot don’t know what to do with themselves as it’s all they’ve ever known. It’s almost like a soldier in the military getting back to civilian life.
Now what about all of the medical injuries and diagnoses you’ve captured over the years? Most leagues don’t have a pension plan or medical coverage when you’re done with the game. It’s a very important piece to understanding the life of a semi-pro athlete and what they deal with once the glory fades.
If I had the money, I would start up a foundation where players could go to help them with the transition of coming back into the real world so to speak. Just as there are some players who can’t handle not making it (see Terry Trafford), there’s some who can’t deal with never playing again. They need to be caught before something turns ugly.
Mental illness is a big topic in the life of a hockey player. Once things start to slow down and they take a step back to look at their life, that’s when everything comes spiralling out of control. I’ve read it in way too many player biographies. We’re getting better with the NHL’s Hockey Talks campaign but it needs to more than once a year. It’s important to know that it’s okay to ask for help.
I know this article was a long one. I just want people to think of the other story of the coin with our hockey heroes. They’re people just like us and some of them even live pay cheque to pay cheque just like you. They’re not as different as you think.