Four Pretty Good Hockey Stories


My job was to smack the side of the TV.

And then, like magic, Ray Bourque and the Boston Bruins would appear.

Man, he was so good. I could have watched him all night. But I was just a young kid, and I had to go to sleep. My parents would only let me watch the first two periods.

Before they would send me to bed, though, they’d have me stand beside the TV and smack the hell out of it. I was the youngest kid in my family, so it was my job to hit the TV when the image got fuzzy. In the ’80s, you didn’t call your cable company when something went wrong. You just gave the TV a beating and somehow the picture would eventually come back. So I’d stand there next to the old Zenith/Magnavox in our living room in Bolton, Massachusetts, watching the Bruins and smacking the set. That’s where my love for hockey began.

Now, 30 years later, I do color commentary for the Nashville Predators radio broadcasts. I don’t know if there’s anybody out there who has to smack their radio so they can hear me better, but I can sympathize if there is.

It’s the moments that happened between then and now that I want to tell you about, though. And since I’m going to do my best to not bore you. I’m just going to give you four of my favorite memories — just some stories and impressions I picked up during my 17-year NHL career.

We’ve got Joe Thornton eating doughnuts. We’ve got the ’09 Penguins locker room. We’ve even got P.K. Subban’s first goal.

These are my unfiltered (and slightly-edited) Pretty Good Hockey Stories™.

Ray Bourque Can Sing

We have to start in Boston. When I was drafted, in 1993, I didn’t even know the draft was happening. I was at home, just helping my mom around the house. The phone rang, and I had to run across the room to yank it off the wall.

“Hi, Hal. This is Joe Lyons from Bruins. We’ve uh … we’ve just taken you in the eighth round of the draft.”

I honestly had no idea what was going on. I’d only just graduated from high school. I think I asked my mom to come over and talk to him. Nowadays, with all the fuss around the NHL draft, it’s kind of hard to explain, but back then, I was just completely caught off guard. Like, O.K., I guess I’m going to be in the NHL now?

Yeah … no.

I ending up having to play for four years at Providence College before I finally got my chance with the Bruins.

Steve Babineau

Man, my rookie camp in ’97 was tough. I was 6′ 7″, and every single guy trying to make a name for himself wanted to get a piece of me. I felt like I was getting into a scrap every day. I met my mother for dinner one night during camp, and she saw the black eye and the bloody knuckles. It was a … new experience for both of us. She knew I was going for it, and she was right out there with me.

Camps have changed a lot, but even back then we had the VO2 max test. Which — for those fortunate enough to not know — is an exercise that basically tests how fit you are by pushing you to your limit.

It sucks. In Boston, we did our test on a stationary bike. And, O.K., I have to tell a quick story about the bike. In 2000, when Mike Keenan was our coach, we did all our testing in camp. I rode for about 13 minutes and I think I scored around 50 on the bike, which was below average. Right after I finished, this lanky, blonde-haired kid came in. It was a 21-year-old Joe Thornton. He sat on the bike … with a doughnut in his mouth … kind of smirking at me while he ate it. And he took his time eating that thing, too. Then he rode for about eight minutes and scored a 65. Which was really, really good.

And now that doughnut-eating kid is on his way to the Hall of Fame.

But my best memory of Bruins camps? Definitely when I finally made the team. Because after I was told I was going to be a Bruin — for real — and we were all getting ready for the team picture, Ray Bourque came up to me while I was looking in the mirror. He had a big smile on his face, and he was singing, “Loooooks like you made iiiiiit! Loooooks like you made iiiiiit!” to the tune of that Barry Manilow classic.

So, yeah, Ray Bourque sang to me.

Thank You, Sid, May I Have Another?

The first thing that struck me about Sidney Crosby was his size.

He was … small. I wanted to dominate and overpower him. When we matched up, I wanted him to feel every ounce of my strength. I was still with the Bruins in 2005 when I played him for the first time. He was tearing up the league and I thought, All right, kid, you haven’t played me yet.

First shift, I get him in the corner and I lean on him, and he doesn’t move. It’s like I’m pushing against a brick wall. And then he slips right off me, and he’s gone. I tried it again and again and again. Then sometime in the second period I realized: I’m doing exactly what he wants. He wants me to lean on him, so he can slip off me. He wants me to try to bully him, because he can’t be bullied. He’s too strong.

So the next shift I get out there, and I think, O.K., I’m going to force him to his backhand every time. That’s what I would do to guys I couldn’t handle, because everyone is weaker on their back hand; it makes it harder for them to pass. But Sid would fire pinpoint backhand passes 30 or 40 feet across the ice. It was like he was playing a different sport.

How?! This guy is only 19. I don’t get it.

Then I became teammates with him in 2007, and it all made sense. I saw his work ethic, his leadership and his passion for the game — nobody loves hockey more than Sid. And I saw his skill up close. His vision, his speed and — yeah, he’s got thighs like tree trunks — I saw why I couldn’t move him on the ice.

Keith Srakocic/AP Images

When we lost the 2008 Cup Finals to the Red Wings in six games, it was tough, and I think that was a turning point for the franchise. There was this NHL ad that ran on TV in the offseason that year, with a picture of our bench right after the Cup loss, and Sid steps out of it and says, “I never want to be in this photograph again.”

That sort of summed up the mood for the entire following season. I saw this … change in all of our young guys. Sid, Geno (Evgeni Malkin), Flower (Mark-Andre Fleury), they all came to camp with an extra gear. That was the best feeling — knowing everyone in the room believed in the cause. That’s not going to happen again; we won’t let it.

Soon enough I realized that you can believe all you want, but s*** still happens. We struggled in the early part of that season. Call it a hangover (I don’t believe in that) or whatever you want, but it took us a while to get going in the 2008–09 season. And for me, personally, it was hard. I was a healthy scratch for 10 or so games. My contract was up at the end of the year, too. I sort of thought that might be it for me. Who was going to sign an aging, big-bodied defenseman who’d been sitting in the press box?

I went to Ray Shero, our GM at the time, nearly every day asking for a trade. It was a miserable time in my life. But I should have known how fast things can change.

In February, our coach was relieved of his duties and Dan Bylsma came in. I remember hearing the news and then — just a few hours after taking over — Bylsma called a team meeting.

Right after the meeting, Dan pulled me aside, “Hal, are you ready to play?”

I said, “Of course.”

“Good,” he said.

That was it. We found our game right away. And that belief that was always there felt more and more important every week as we got closer to the Finals again. When we did get there, it was just different than the year before. There was this level of focus and determination that came from the pressure of being back. You see, pressure isn’t always bad, or good. It just is. And if you have guys who can handle it — who can manipulate it — then it’s powerful.

Sid and Geno used it to be forces, and we leaned on them. They were on a different planet every game. But even though we had great players like them, it takes a team … it takes a city. The fans in Pittsburgh were great. And who does everyone remember from Game 7? Max Talbot, of course. Depth was crucial, and we had it, and Coach Bylsma did a great job using it.

I watched Sid lift the Cup. Then, a few minutes later, I was skating around with it over my head.

And when I handed it off, I thought about a million things — but I remember realizing how unique everyone’s story was. Sid and I couldn’t have been more different, but like the whole team, we came together to deliver something great to the city of Pittsburgh.

I’ll be forever thankful to the people in that dressing room.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Big Market Syndrome

There’s been a lot made recently of the way “big-market media” handles its players. I’ve played in Boston, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Nashville and Philadelphia — I know what it means to play in a big market.

When I was with the Leafs for the 2006–07 season, we had a pretty good team. We missed the playoffs by one point. Our second-leading scorer on defense was Bryan McCabe. He was a great player and a really important part of our dressing room. But the media gave him a hard time. Every night, it seemed, they would pick on him. And Bryan didn’t get too phased by it, but I was hearing this stuff and seeing it on TV and thinking, Bryan? Bryan McCabe?

Bryan just came to work every day and did his job and was one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. But to the media, he wasn’t that, and they couldn’t appreciate what he meant to our room. It was … mind boggling.

And look, I understand — I work in media now. I’ve seen the other side. There’s nothing inherently wrong with criticism, but sometimes the media does so much more harm than good and for no reason. I use that McCabe story as an example because it made no sense to me back then — and it still doesn’t.

So when guys like Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall come out and talk about the impact of negative media attention, I think it’s worth listening.

It’s not just the media, either, in these markets.

Francois Lacasse/NHLI/Getty Images

During my second year in Montreal, back in the 2010–11 season, Carey Price had just burst onto the scene. He was only 23 years old during that preseason. He spent the whole summer and camp working harder than anyone on the team to get in shape and improve his game. We had an exhibition game in September, our first one of the year, against the Bruins.

So when guys like Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall come out and talk about the impact of negative media attention, I think it’s worth listening.

Carey had a rough night — it happens. Even he is human. But the Habs fans were all over him. They were booing, cheering for his mistakes, giving the backup goalie a round of applause — they were out for blood. It was our first exhibition game of the year. Nobody was more disappointed than Carey. But when the game ended, I was furious. Not at him … at our fans.

So I got in front of the cameras in the locker room and called out the fans. I told them they were ignorant for doing what they did. I told them they weren’t helping the team, and they had no business doing that. I really thought — after I said all that — that I would be a dead man walking in Montreal.

But you know what? The fans actually liked it.

And the media called me a good teammate for standing up for Carey.

I ended up having a great relationship with the media and fans in Montreal. Sometimes, each of them can send you mixed signals. But they care — and that’s the beauty of playing in a city like that.

P.K. and a New Generation of Hockey

I was so excited to play the Penguins in the 2010 playoffs. I was with Montreal, and I had won the Cup in Pittsburgh the year before. I had played with Sid the last couple of seasons, and I felt like I knew how to give him a hard time.

Then, before Game 1, our coach, Jacques Martin, put P.K. Subban in the lineup — our rookie defenseman who had only played four NHL games to that point.

So we’re a shift or two into the game. Things are going O.K., and I can see the line changes happening and realize P.K. is about to go on with Sid. He hops on, and the first thing I hear is P.K.

“Hey! Sid! I got you all night, baby! It’s you and me! All night! I’m going to be right there, man! Let’s go!”

He’s chirping at Sid all the way up and down the ice the entire shift.

And I was thinking, Kid, shut the f*** up! Don’t wake him up! Don’t try to get in his head — you can’t win, man.

Those first few minutes, there wasn’t a moment that went by without P.K. saying something to one of their guys — or him trying to antagonize their star players. About two minutes into the game, a Penguins player came up to me, like, “You’re going to get the kid killed if you don’t shut him up.”

But before I could saying anything to P.K., he scored. Just 4:30 into a best-of-seven against the Stanley Cup champs, he scored. It was his first NHL goal.

Francois Lacasse/NHLI/Getty Images

And then I sort of began to understand.

P.K. is going to be P.K. — no matter what.

I didn’t like the bow-and-arrow down-the-ice celebration. I didn’t like all the flash — I was a fossil and I guess I’ve come around a bit since then — but it didn’t matter what I liked. Or what I thought, really. P.K. Subban is an excellent hockey player, and he has brought so much to the game — we should be thankful. I think he learned some of the lessons — sometimes the hard way — that I tried to teach him, and I learned plenty of things from him, too.

Now I get to watch him every night in Nashville, and it’s awesome. The players here, they let him do his thing, and that’s when P.K. is at his best. Just let him be, and watch your team go up the standings.

It’s been really fun to watch this team grow. And to watch the game of hockey grow.

People always ask me: What’s the biggest difference between hockey now and 20-something years ago?

That’s a really hard question to answer. But, the one thing I really notice from up in the booth is the willingness to let guys make mistakes. Some of the moves I see defensemen make in their own end — Pat Burns would have benched me for 40 minutes if I did that. But now, guys are allowed to be creative and show some flair.

And, I mean, that’s why I used to smack the TV in the first place — so we wouldn’t miss a second of that skill and speed. These guys are the best in the world.