Letter to My Younger Self

Kid, I’m from the future. I’m you, 50 years from now. You’re looking at me like, “You? The guy with the mustache and all the scars? What the heck happened to me?”

Well …

  • The disco era. That will inspire the mustache.
  • 18 seasons in the NHL. That will give you the scars.

Now I know you’re thinking — that’s impossible. There’s no way. You’re 10 years old, and you just watched Jean Beliveau lift the Stanley Cup on Hockey Night in Canada on your black and white TV in 1966. It seemed like the broadcast was coming from the moon. It didn’t seem real. You tell your parents you want to be Jean Beliveau, but it’s like you’re saying you want to be Superman.

And you — you’re just kid on a farm in Saskatchewan in the ’60s. Life is so simple. There’s precisely one TV channel. You’ve never even seen a “hockey card.” There’s an actual siren that goes off at 9 p.m. in your tiny town that warns all the kids to go home.

When you tell people how you learned to skate later in life, they’ll think you’re messing with them. They’re not going to believe how your handyman father would clear off the frozen creek across from your house after a snowstorm. You know how he walks out there at twilight with a big machete and floods the creek by chopping up a beaver dam? That’s not a normal thing. Other kids’ dads have Zambonis, or at least a hose. Your dad has a machete and some Canadian know-how. Thanks, Mr. Beaver.

Out on that creek is where you’re going to develop your style, skating over the lumps and frozen twigs. Your game won’t necessarily be pretty, but it’ll be perfect for the era you’re coming up in. Let me tell you about that era.

Do you like to fight? Of course not. You’re a shy kid. You love math and art and singing with your dad’s band. But you’re going to have to fight if you want to make it. Luckily, you’re going to meet the perfect person (and I honestly mean the single perfect  person) to teach you those skills when you move away from home to join the Swift Current Broncos at age 15. His name is “Tiger” Williams. Guess how he earned the nickname? During a game, he took exception to a penalty called against him. So he punched the referee. He was five years old. And the referee was his own older brother.

Stay close to this crazy guy. Tiger, in addition to being the NHL’s all-time penalty minutes leader, will be one of your life-long best friends. And he’s going to teach you some valuable lessons. He’s going to literally teach you how to fight. In fact, you and him are going to scrap almost every day after practice, like boxers training for a title bout. He’ll teach you the importance of leverage, and how to protect yourself. But he’s going to teach you how to fight in a much deeper sense as well.

Because, kid, I hate to tell you this, but you’re going to have some tough times when you’re 15 and 16 years old and away from home for the first time. You’re going to want to quit hockey and go back to the farm more times than you can count. Major Juniors will start out pretty brutal. You’re going to get your two front teeth knocked out. You’re going to get ragdolled in a few fights.

But listen: This is going to sound too unbelievable to wrap your head around, but it’s true. Whatever you do, hang in there. Because it’s going to click for you at 17, and you’re going to be drafted by the New York Islanders in ’74, and I swear to God, you’re going to win six Stanley Cups.

Look, I know …

I know you’re thinking that this is all a joke. You’re not a phenom. You’re a pretty good skater, pretty good passer, pretty good shooter. But you’re the kid that coaches always shrug at. “Well … he’s a little too small.”

So how? How the hell does this happen?

The best way I explain it is this. At your first Islanders training camp in ’75, you’re going to walk into the locker room and see Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, J.P. Parise. Grown men. Grizzled NHL vets. The guys from TV. Half the team is going to be smoking cigarettes in the “smoking section” in the corner of the room. And you’re just a kid.

You’re not going to score a single goal the entire training camp.

But you’re also not going to miss a single body check. You’re going to hit everything that moves. At the end of training camp, even though you couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with a shot because you were so nervous, your coach Al Arbour is going to pull you aside and say, “You know what? We’re gonna keep you around, kid.”

You’ll never leave.

It’s a lesson for life, Bryan. It’s never going to be pretty. It’s never going to happen the way you plan it. Sometimes you just have to go out to the beaver dam with a machete and start chopping wood.

Those Islanders teams will embody that spirit. On nights when you’re all playing like dogs and nothing is going right, Bob Nystrom will say, “I’m gonna go out there and drive to the net 20 times until I deflect a puck. And I’m gonna take 20 minutes in penalties and drive the other team nuts.”

You’ll start to win by any means necessary.

In 1980, you’re going to lift the Stanley Cup for the first time. I don’t want to spoil too much of that run for you, but here’s what’s so incredible about it: Even now, 35 years later, you’re going to remember every single detail of it, from the moment the game-winning goal hits the back of the net to the moment you go to bed that night. The weight of the Cup. The way the engraved names on its rings felt on your fingertips. The way the champagne tasted. The awful smell of the jerseys. If you think you know how fun it will be, multiply that by 100. But it’s not just about fun. It touches parts of your soul that you cannot imagine. It’s not about you. It’s about your teammates. It’s about everyone who got you to that moment.

Think about your family and the long car rides in the snowstorms. Think about the motel rooms. Think about how they always found a way to scrape together the money to buy equipment. You’ll realize that Jean Beliveau isn’t a superhero. He’s just a man. And that’s what makes the feeling of lifting the Cup so overwhelming.

Kid, let me repeat: It will not be easy. You can’t imagine the sacrifice, actually. The best way I can describe it is this:

After you win the Cup, you’ll be sitting in a restaurant having dinner with your mom and dad. This guy a few tables over will keep looking at you. Mom and dad will be oblivious, but you’ll think, I guess he wants an autograph.

You’ve got two black eyes. Stitches. Fat lip. After a while, the guy will walk over with a napkin.

“Excuse me, sir,” he says. “I think I recognize you. Are you a boxer?”

That’s what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. But after you win your second, then third, then fourth in a row, people will naturally start to take it for granted. Teams will hate seeing you win. Fans will hate seeing you win. You will break your nose so many times that your taste buds will start to go. You’ll have to force vegetables down your throat at dinner in order to get your team-mandated amount of ‘roughage’ (The Islanders are very progressive with nutrition, relatively speaking, for the time period). But hold on to that Cup with all your might. Do whatever it takes to get the fifth.

Because if you don’t, you’ll never forget it.

All things end, Bryan. Even dynasties.

In 1990, you’ll sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. You’ll be brought there for one reason — to get Mario Lemieux and a young, talented Penguins team to the next level. To make them understand what it takes.

The day you land in Pittsburgh and get to your hotel, your agent will call you and drop a bombshell. “Hey, Bryan, little problem. Mario has a degenerative back condition. He needs surgery. He’s going to miss the first half of the season.”

Then you’re going to do something that may seem a little crazy to you right now. You’re going to drive over to the hospital and tell the front desk attendant, “Hi, I need to see Mr. Lemieux.”

She’ll say, “Um, sir, there’s no Mr. Lemieux here.”

And you’ll say, “Oh yes there is. He must be under a different name. I play for the Penguins, ma’am.”

She will look at you like you’re an alien, but eventually you’ll talk your way to Mario’s room, where he’ll be recovering from surgery with his wife by his side.

You’ll walk in, introduce yourself, and say, with a straight face, “Listen Mario, you have to get healthy right away.”

And he’ll look at you like, Yeah, of course I want to get healthy, you lunatic. I just had surgery.

But you’ll say, “No, really, you have to get healthy. We’re going to do this. We’re going to win the Stanley Cup.”

Like I said, I know this seems a bit extreme. But you need to let him know you care. You need to let him know how much it means to you.

Your coach in Pittsburgh will be “Badger” Bob Johnson. Appreciate this man, because your time with him will be cut prematurely short. He’ll be the most positive human being you’ll ever meet. He will make you realize, perhaps for the first time, that you’re playing a kid’s game for a living. That every day at the rink is a good day, no matter what.

You’ll lose a game 7-1, and Badger will come into the locker room and say, “Well boys, eight goals tonight. But we scored the prettiest one. See you at practice tomorrow.”

First thing the next morning, he’ll say to Kevin Stevens, “Kev! You’re an animal! I wanna hear you roar like a lion!”

And Kevin will roar like a lion.

Hockey will be fun. When you go out on the road, Kevin will overtip every single waitress and doorman and cab driver. When they look at him in disbelief at the wad of bills, he’ll say the same line every time.

“Ah, come on, buy yourself a hot dog!”

You’ll cry with laughter around this guy. You can learn a lot from the way Kevin disarms everyone and treats them the exact same way — from the general manager to the equipment guys.

When Mario returns after missing 50 games, you’re going to witness pure greatness. Pure grace on ice. He’ll be one of the most generous and straightforward people you’ll ever meet in the game. He will be your Jean Beliveau.

He’s quiet for a superstar, but when he speaks up, you’ll be able to hear a pin drop. Before a critical playoff game that year, you’ll feel the nerves in the room. Something will need to be said.

Then Mario will stand up, look around the room, and say, simply, “Come on, boys. Let’s go.”

And the room will go absolutely nuts. You will feel like a kid again. In that moment, you will know it: They have what it takes. And you’ll win back-to-back Cups with the Penguins.

Pretty cool, huh? One small thing, though. There’s this thing in the future called YouTube. I know this is hard to wrap your head around, since you currently only have one TV channel, but hear me out. Watch what you say on the ice, kid. You’re going to be so hyped up to beat the Minnesota North Stars in the ‘91 Finals that you’re going to try to get in a guy’s head.

His name is Brian Bellows.

You have nothing against the guy. It’s just gamesmanship. But you’re … well, you’re going to use some salty language. You’re going to call him a superstar, among other things.

I know you’re thinking, Okay? No big deal. You can’t hear what the guys are saying on the bench.

Well, in ’91, they’re going to have a hot mic on you and your buddy Kevin Stevens.

Someone is going to save that tape in an archive somewhere.

Then by the mid-2000s, something called YouTube will exist, which will allow pretty much all of recorded human history to be watched by anyone, at any time.

By the late-2000s, this clip will have circulated quite a bit. You’ll go into an elementary school in Minnesota to talk to the kids, and a third grader will yell out, in his little voice …

“Hey Bellows! You’re a superstar, Bellows!”

And you’ll shoot the teacher a nervous glance, praying this kid doesn’t finish your now-semi-famous rant.

So remember, kid: there’s always a mic somewhere. Be careful.

A final word of advice from the future: Enjoy all of it. Even some of the crap. Don’t buy that convertible Fiat. Don’t wear that orange open-collared suit. And please be nice to your little sister — your goalie out on the creek. When you pick her off in the shoulder with a slap shot, remember that she’s six years old and wearing nothing but a winter coat for protection.

Your future self,