The Wannabe

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Sheldon Souray, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

You probably shouldn’t know my name. I’m just a small town kid from Alberta, Canada who couldn’t even make the PeeWee A team. Honestly, I wasn’t even B. I was PeeWee Double B. I didn’t get my first pair of new hockey skates until I was 13 years old, and yet here I am now, retiring from the NHL after 13 seasons. How the hell did that happen? I wish I had a heartwarming story for you. But like a lot of hockey stories, it all started with a brawl.

I had just turned 15 years old and I was still playing “house hockey” in Edmonton. Basically, if you don’t make it to AAA by 16, the NHL dream is over. I was the last player picked for the Midget AAA team. This is my first real taste of competitive hockey. Five games into the season, we are playing a notoriously tough team called the Lethbridge Hurricanes, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re stirring up shit right in warmups. As I’m skating around, one of their bigger guys crosses the red line and gives me a little bump.

Ok, buddy.

I do another lap, and he crosses the red line again and he gives me the ol’ fake windup like he’s going to crush me.

Oh ok, tough guy.

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I come around again and he’s giving me the stink eye, so I just absolutely clobber him. I mean, I beat the living shit out of this kid. The referees weren’t even on the ice yet, so the timekeepers come out of the box to pull me off of him. Everyone from both teams gets into a brawl, and after things finally settle down, the refs kick me and my teammate out of the game. Before it even started.

So we all go back into the locker room so the zamboni can clean the ice before the first period starts. My teammate and I change back into our street clothes and we’re standing outside the locker room. Well, this is a tiny rink south of Calgary. The two locker rooms are like 5 feet apart. So here comes Lethbridge strolling out of their room, chirping us. I’m still pissed because one of their guys sucker punched me in the pile when they were breaking up the fight. So I see him standing there and I’m like, “Hey, fucker, remember me?”

Things kicked off again. We fought their whole team 2-vs-15 in street clothes.

Now, this isn’t 1976. This is 1991. I’m not trying to make this sound like Slapshot. It was basically a big, dumb brawl in a hall (because we were big, dumb kids). Needless to say, the grownups weren’t exactly thrilled about it. The league ended up suspending me for the entire year. My dad wouldn’t talk to me for weeks. My mom was beside herself. I remember thinking, “Well, that was a good run. You like to ride your bike … Maybe you can get a job delivering newspapers?”

Then a few days later, I got a call that changed my life. It was a scout from the Rocky Mountain Hockey League, the home of the most rough and tumble hockey on the planet. “You’re suspended in Alberta,” he said. “But it’s totally legal to go play in British Columbia. I know a team that could use somebody like you. They’re called the Quesnel Millionaires.”

Even the name was straight out of a movie. You know that old joke about not wanting to join any club that would accept you as a member? I felt like a hockey fugitive. I was 15 years old and had barely ever left Alberta. Now someone wanted me to move nine hours away, on my own, to go up against 18, 19 year old giants. But what the hell else did I have to do? When I think about all the incredible places all around the world that hockey has taken me over the years, it’s crazy to think that none of it would have happened if I didn’t decide to pack a bag and head into the complete unknown of Quesnel. It’s even scarier to think that none of it would have happened if I didn’t start a fight in a hallway.

Souray Fight Pull

Three years and a lot of scraps later, I was drafted in the third round by the New Jersey Devils. I never had money before. Still, to this day, I can’t quite believe that I was paid to play hockey for a living. What a ridiculous, amazing job. The first thing I did when I signed my contract was pay my parents’ credit card bills and get them back to a zero balance. The second thing I did was go to a car dealership. I remember standing outside for 20 minutes before anyone came out to talk to me. Finally, the guy comes out and looks me up and down.

“How much for that Jeep over there?” I asked.

“Uh, well, that one’s $26,000. Why don’t I show you some of the other models, eh?”

The guy takes me over to the used lot. I was so pissed. I’m thinking, I’m gonna show this guy. I left and called up my mom.

“Hey mom, how do I get money out of the bank?”

I never had a checking account before. She explained that I had to go in and request a withdrawal. So I go in and I’m just like, “Hi, I’d like to withdraw $26,000.” I was prepared. I brought along a big backpack. The bank manager kind of looked at me funny, but I walked out of there with 26 grand in cash.

When I got to the car dealership — oh man, I was ready to show this guy who’s boss. So he comes out and I point to the shiny new ’95 Wrangler.

“I want that one.”

So we go into his office, and I’m thinking I’m the man. I’m filling out the paperwork like I know what I’m doing, and he’s clicking away on his little calculator. Finally, he slides over a little piece of paper and says, “Okey-dokey, with taxes, that will be $30,000.”

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I’m like, “Taxes?”

He’s like, “Taxes.”

I grab the backpack and run out the door.

“I’ll be right back.”

I had to run back to the bank. The teller is looking at me like I’m Pablo Escobar now.

“Hi, I need to withdraw $4,000, please.”

I went back to the dealership and got my Jeep Wrangler — still to this day the best car I ever owned. Not because it was the nicest or the fastest, but because of what it meant. Somehow, I had walked into magical situation and was able to make it. And I really mean magical. The amount of people who helped me from when I was a big, naive 15 year old kid, to a rookie in the NHL, to somehow playing in the league for 13 years … I get overwhelmed even trying to think of all the names. How could so many people be so decent to me?

There’s no way to possibly do this, but …

Lou Lamoriello: Thank you for pulling me into your office when I was an out-of-shape 20-year-old kid at his second New Jersey Devils training camp and saying, “If you ever embarrass this organization again by coming in overweight, you will never pull on a Devils sweater.” That was just the ass-kicking that I needed, and the tone you set for the Devils organization is why it is one of the most respected in hockey.

Scott Stevens: Thank you for being the most professional player I’ve ever witnessed. I still can’t believe you jumped in and fought Eric Lindros for me in a freaking preseason game my rookie year. I just wanted to prove to you that I had your back.  When I was traded to Montreal in 2000, it was a complete shock. I will never forget that you came to my hotel room and sat and bullshitted with me for hours until I had to leave for my flight out. You are the definition of what a captain should be.

Souray Stevens Pull USA

Chris Chelios: Thanks for always taking the piss out of me every time we played against you. It’s one thing when a player gives you a good chirp — it’s another level when one of your heroes growing up looks down at you during a faceoff, and with a perfect dry wit, says, “Hey, your laces are undone.”

Jacques Lemaire: Thanks for being the best coach I ever played for, and for developing a system that was so simple and brutally effective. 29 teams fucking hated the trap. But we won a lot of hockey games with it, and we didn’t have to go over it 100 times a day on the whiteboard. It was always black and white with you, which is the way it should be.

Ken Daneyko: What kind of guy gets called into the GM’s office and is told he’s being sent to down to the minors and replies, “No … No, I’m not.” Then goes out for practice and convinces the brass to send somebody else down instead. You’re a legend, King.

Dad: Thanks for telling me, when I wanted to quit hockey at 12 years old, “Okay, get a job.”

Mom: Thanks for putting up with me. And for explaining how banking works.

My billet families: Thanks for treating me like a son and brother.

Jarome Iginla: Thanks for the many awesome battles. I respected you as much as I hated you.

The people of Edmonton: Thanks for treating me so well even when things got ugly with management. All I ever wanted to do since I was a little boy was play for the Oilers. I wish it turned out better in the end, but you always made me feel at home.

Mobile technology: Thanks for being pretty basic for most of my career.

I could thank a million more people for making my life so special. I knew this had been coming for a long time, but when I woke up the first morning after officially announcing my retirement, I definitely had a heavy heart. It’s not the spotlight that I’m going to miss. It’s the moments of tedium spent with the boys. When I’m 70 years old and looking back on this wild life, I don’t think I’ll get nostalgic about skating out in front of 20,000 people, as cool as it was. But I will get a little misty for the times me and a few of the boys broke curfew after a terrible loss in Minnesota and sat around the hotel room with a case of beer, trying to solve the world’s problems.

It went fast. It was a blast. I can’t believe it happened.

I was just a wannabe who got to be. What a ride.

Story Time With Scott Gomez and Ken Daneyko

In Story Time, athletes share random stories from their career with little context. For this edition, we asked former New Jersey Devils teammates Scott Gomez and Ken Daneyko to each separately provide their versions of the same event. Warning: may contain adult language.

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