It was like something out of The Godfather.
Just as I was all alone in my dark hotel room, the phone rang.
I had just arrived in Nashville for the 2016 All-Star Game. After I landed, I went out with a few of the guys. We hung out on Broadway at the honky-tonk bars and had a blast.
I was lovin’ it.
I had been traded under some pretty suspicious circumstances two weeks earlier, and my life had been turned upside down, but hey, I was an All-Star. I was reunited with some of my old Sharks buddies. My wife was about to have twins. All the drama was behind me. In my mind, it was all good.
But just as I get back to my hotel room to lie down and watch TV, the phone rings. Not my cell phone. The hotel room phone with the loud, old-school brrrrrring.
Cue the mafioso music.
I pick up, and a mysterious voice says, “Hello, John. Mister Bettman would like to meet with you.”
I’m like, “What?”
“He’s coming to your hotel right now.”
“Be downstairs in five minutes.”
Rick Diamond/Getty Images
I’m not exaggerating. I put my shoes back on and walked to the elevator. I was laughing to myself like, Am I about to get whacked?
I’d had zero contact with the commissioner since I was mysteriously traded from Arizona to Montreal and then immediately demoted to the St. John’s IceCaps in Newfoundland — literally the farthest point east in North America.
But earlier that day, after I published my article on The Players’ Tribune that merely stated the facts of what had happened to me, a few guys in the league texted me stuff like, “Are you out of your mind?”
I had violated some sort of code, apparently.
But that was cool with me, because I also had more than 100 texts from guys around the league that basically said, Hell yeah, buddy. Plus, I had already been sent to Newfoundland, so what more could they really do?
“We’re sorry, John. Crazy coincidence, but you’ve been traded to the Reykjavik Hellhounds.”
When I got down to the lobby, Mr. Bettman was waiting for me. He smiled and shook my hand and was extremely nice. Nothing like Don Corleone. We sat down and he smiled again and said, “Listen, John, we’re happy to have you here.”
A little shocked, I said, “Ah, O.K.”
“We really support this.”
It was like he was trying to smooth things over, but also like he was trying to feel me out.
At the end of our friendly conversation, he said, “So, are we O.K.?”
It was like he was nervous that I was going to cause a scene or something. And that’s when it dawned on me. Wait a second, does the commissioner think I’m like a pro wrestling bad guy?
Look, I get it. I’m six-foot-eight. Five or six times a season, I might have to beat the shit out of somebody for being a dick to one of my teammates. When the average hockey fan sees me on TV, they probably think I’m a huge prick in real life. And that’s totally understandable. But I had always assumed that everybody around the game realized that what we do out there is just a job. In some ways, it’s almost an act, to be honest.
But it was like everyone thought I was really this crazy person.
I just smiled and told Mr. Bettman, “Oh yeah, we’re O.K.”
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports
I just wanted the whole thing to be over with. As far as I was concerned, I was there to have fun. The next and last time I spoke to him was two nights later when he was presenting our Pacific Division team with the huge Publisher’s Clearing House–type check for $1 million for winning the All-Star three-on-three tournament.
I skated up to accept it, and Gary was smiling, and I was smiling, and then he goes, “So, are we still O.K.?”
It was almost like he was worried I was going to Hulk Hogan the check — just tear it straight down the middle and suplex him for the crowd.
I just kept grinning, thinking, Dude, you do realize that I would trade all of this away if I could go back to playing for the Coyotes and living in Arizona with my pregnant wife and kids, right?
The entire weekend felt like a dream, but that was by far the most surreal moment. All I could do was laugh.
When I had published my side of the story, my intent was not to throw the NHL under the bus or to make some big statement. I just wanted people to understand that I wasn’t some big goon who was holding the All-Star Game hostage.
Something that had started out as a joke on the Internet ended up turning into kind of a nightmare for me and my family. But we held our heads high, stuck with it, and then, somehow, it ended up becoming a fairytale.
That weekend in Nashville was simply amazing. People talk about goose bumps all the time as a figure of speech, but I legit had goose bumps a dozen times over the course of that game. It felt like the entire building was on my side. The best part of the experience was that my daughters were there to feel all the good energy. For one day, their dad was a superstar.
To top it all off, my wife gave birth a few days later to twin daughters back home in Michigan. It was incredible. But the thing most people don’t realize is that our story went on after the cameras went away, and it was pretty complicated. A week after the twins were born, I was back in Newfoundland, playing for St. John’s. My wife was stuck at home 2,000 miles away in Michigan with a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and twin babies. She was in survival mode until I could get back home at the end of the season. When she had the energy, she would set up FaceTime on the computer so I could talk to my girls and see our new babies. But most of the time I was on a bus or at practice, just wondering how they were doing.
It was not fun for anybody. We knew it was going to be hard, but it was harder than any of us had imagined — harder than anything we’ve ever gone through or done together.
I lived by myself. I’d go to practice, do my thing and then go eat by myself and head back to my little apartment. It was a very lonely existence. My teammates were in their early 20s, and their free time was pretty much dedicated to Call of Duty. All of a sudden, I was the grizzled old guy complaining about the weird electronic music in the locker room.
On the ice, I was getting challenged to fight. I guess guys figured that if they got a lucky shot in on me, maybe they’d make a name for themselves. I had to beat up two or three kids before everybody realized, Hey, you know what? Let’s leave the old man alone.
I saw a lot of me in them. At least a much younger me.
It was like life was coming full circle. I came up riding the same old rickety buses and eating the same crappy food on the AHL circuit after I graduated from Michigan Tech. I had gone from a no-name enforcer to an Internet meme to a hero in two weeks. Then in the span of two days, I had gone from a hero to a 33-year-old minor leaguer. It was pretty wild.
One day, I was the talk of hockey, and everyone loved me, and I was getting texts from Mike Babcock (Mike Babcock!) telling me that he watched the All-Star Game with his wife and she had shed a tear watching me accept the MVP award. The next day, I was sent back to the edge of the earth.
Usually at this point, in a story like this one, this is where guys tell you, “And that’s when I realized how much I had taken my life in the NHL for granted.” But to be completely honest, I had never taken it for granted. I was an undrafted defenseman who wasn’t a naturally gifted hockey player. I was never, ever, in a million years, supposed to make it — let alone play for 10 years. Not only did I appreciate every little thing, from the delicious food we got on the plane rides to the nice hotels to the nights out with the guys, most of the time, I was thinking: This is so nuts. I can’t believe this is my life. When is somebody going to come along and take this away?
Yeah, I worked my tail off. I had guys coming in to take my job every year. But for the most part, it was freaking awesome. I’ll never forget this one night when I was with San Jose, and we had just lost a game. We sucked. It was one of those off nights. So we were all sitting on the plane waiting to the take off for the next city, and everyone was moping. It was silent. Bad vibes.
Then Jumbo Joe Thornton walks onto the plane, and halfway down the aisle, he stops dead in his tracks. He’s looking around at everyone. Then he just shakes his head. I thought he was going to tear into us.
But he just goes, “What the f***, boys? What’s everyone so sad about? You never lost a game before? We’re in the NHL. Get over it. We’ll win the next one, eh? Let’s realize where we’re at here. Come on.”
Everybody just started laughing. You can’t say it in front of the media, especially when you lose, but it’s so true. When that awesome meal cart comes rolling down the aisle, and the boys all are laughing about something stupid that happened that day, everybody on that plane, deep down inside, is thinking the same thing: This is nuts. I can’t believe I get to do this for a living.
I appreciated every second of it.
Sam Hodgson/The New York Times/Redux
But when I got back to St. John’s, all of that was gone. My daughters were halfway across the country. My poor wife probably wanted to kill me. One night, I was sitting all alone in a dark hotel room and my wife was too exhausted to put the girls on FaceTime, and I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.
That’s when I knew.
For the past decade, my wife and I have moved our stuff from storage unit to storage unit. I’ve played for seven different teams. I’ve been traded twice, and both times we had a newborn on the way. (I cried both times, too. Don’t judge me.) I’ve learned to never trust a thing a coach or GM says (even the good ones). I’ve learned that this game has consequences, even for the guys who I thought were absolutely invincible, like my buddy Derek Boogaard.
For my wife and I, the biggest constant in our lives during the season has been our cell phones. They’re the only things we’ve taken with us from city to city. Because all our photos are on them. We haven’t really had a steady home, but we have thousands of memories of a life less traveled stored on our phones.
Scrolling through the photos, seeing all the faces of friends and teammates, and all the cities, it hits you right in the heart: Damn, we were lucky.
For all the bullshit and all the moving around, the fact is that I was being paid millions of dollars to play a game. I made unbelievable friends. I became a national news story. I apparently caused so much of a shitstorm simply by being me that I had an official NHL rule named after me.
That’s right, hockey fans. Thanks to me, you will never have another John Scott in the All-Star Game again. I gotta say, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It has been a hell of a ride. But I’m done. I am officially retired, as of today.
I scored five goals. I had four kids. And I had one hell of a good time over the years. By my count, I only had 43 fights in the NHL. I only really lost one clean, in my humble opinion. Congratulations, Justin Johnson. You caught me with the left hook. What can I say? Good job.
Can I just make a final confession, though? I don’t care what people remember about me as a hockey player, but please remember this one thing: I didn’t love to fight. The actual 30 seconds of fighting was fine. Your adrenaline takes over and the competition of battling at such a high level is actually enjoyable. The problem is all the anticipation of having to drop the gloves with another very skilled individual who can hurt you. The waiting is what drives you crazy. It’s not very easy on your psyche, especially once you have a family.
Barry Gutierrez/AP Images
My first few years in the league, when I knew I might have to drop the gloves against a team, I couldn’t sleep the night before the game. During the first period, I’d be so worked up on the bench that I’d be shaking with nerves. I just wanted to go out there and get it over it as quickly as possible.
Yes, I do think fighting has a place in the game, and that enforcers keep some of the bullshit in check and the stars safe from serious injury (just ask Johnny Gaudreau right now).
And look, I’m not a saint. The first few fights of a season, I would really try to beat someone up. Especially when I got to a new team, I wanted to set a tone.
But after that, you just want to do your job and go home without incident. You’re like a bouncer. If you’re doing your job right, there is no fight. The misconception some people have is that enforcers are these bloodthirsty lunatics who love to brawl every night.
I wished I could have scored goals. I mean, scoring is a lot of fun. But that’s not me. I’m not as good at that as the other guys. What I do have is a natural protective instinct. I was born with size, and I was good at punching guys in the face. I didn’t love it, but I was good at it, and I was happy to do whatever it took to protect my teammates.
The hockey world has an interesting relationship with violence. I just wish everyone would be more honest about the whole thing. My entire career, I’d always have a little meeting with the coach before the season. Those are always hilarious when you’re an enforcer. It’s so awkward because the coach never wants to say, “Hey man, we need you to fight. Go out there and beat the shit out of people, alright?”
So they would kind of dance around it for 10 minutes. They’re usually like, “You know, uh … we brought ya in here for a reason. O.K.? We expect, uh … certain things. We know what kinda player you are.”
It would’ve been so refreshing to have a coach just be honest and say, “Listen, if anybody messes with our stars, I want you to go out there and beat the piss out of somebody. I don’t wanna have to tap you on the shoulder. I don’t wanna to have to say anything. I just want you to play hockey. Welcome to the team. Let’s have fun.”
Instead, everybody tap-dances around everything. Maybe that’s why enforcers have become almost like a parody. Maybe that’s why I was voted to the All-Star Game. I don’t know. What I do know is that 99% of the so-called enforcers I have met in this league are much different people off the ice. They are much more interesting and intelligent than most people realize. A lot of them suffer for their job. A lot of them walk around terrified of the next fight. But they push through it, one day at a time.
They’re definitely not jokes.
I just hope that people remember me as more than a fighter. In fact, I hope they remember me as more than a hockey player and a good teammate. If I had this on my tombstone, I would be happy:
Here lies John Scott.
He tried not to be a dick.
And he was a good dad.
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
For the immediate future, I’m working on my second career as a stay-at-home dad, and I feel like a rookie in a lot of ways. The major challenge most mornings is trying to coax a breakfast order out of my girls. It runs the gamut from cereal to yogurt with granola, and if it’s my oldest, she’ll ask for oatmeal with chopped pears, blueberries, cinnamon and agave. (Which she only gets made if dad is in a good mood.)
I know every Disney character now. Doc McStuffins. Sheriff Callie. The Octonauts. You can test me. I’m an expert. The first month or so, this was driving me slowly insane, but now I’m pretty well adjusted. I’ve let go and embraced it.
On Tuesdays, I take my oldest girls to dance class. I’m usually the only dad in attendance. It’s probably quite a sight for the moms. This big, hairy 6-foot-8 guy standing around the dance studio, waving to his little princesses every five seconds.
The highlight for me, though, is most definitely Pizza Day. Every Friday, my oldest daughter has a special pizza lunch at her school, and we come along to the party. Last Friday, we were eating our pizza when one of the other kids walked up to the table all shy and said, “Um … Mr. Scott, can I have your autograph?”
My daughters still can’t get used to it. Whenever someone recognizes me, they always look at me like, Why does that kid want you to write your name down? You’re just … Dad. I don’t get it.
I guess on some level they are absolutely right.
You know, I still get chirped by people on the Internet. They’ll say, “You’re just a joke. You only scored five goals in your NHL career.”
What can I say?
You’re damn right I did.