Nine years ago I had the honor of working with the great folks at Triumph Books on my first book, 100 Things Blackhawks Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. Since the first edition the Blackhawks have won two more Stanley Cup championships and I’ve updated the book twice.
Triumph Books published Eddie Olczyk’s personal journey in the game and through illness. We’re thrilled to share this excerpt from Edzo’s book with you.
This excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life by Eddie Olczyk with Perry Lefko is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or www.triumphbooks.com/EddieOlczyk.
I HAD A LOT OF CONFIDENCE going into that first training camp with the Hawks. There was a lot of attention on me from the media and I definitely felt the pressure. I was both nervous and excited. The Hawks were coming off a disappointing season, so I had to grow up pretty quickly. It was like, “I’m playing for my hometown team and I can’t screw this up.”
I was mentally tough at that point, but this was no dream. There were guys trying to kick my ass and take my job or keep their job. That’s when you realize this is a business. Everybody is friendly and most hockey guys are the greatest guys in the world, but when some 18-year-old punk from Chicago is coming in trying to take your job, that’s a different story.
From day one I always felt like I had 36,000 eyeballs on me every night because I was a Chicago guy. I wanted to do so well for so many people, which was no easy task.
After our first preseason game, our head coach, Orval Tessier, told the media I was going to be a great player, referencing my play in the Olympics and Canada Cup. “If he can play that well against the best in the world, he can play for the Chicago Blackhawks,” he said.
I learned very quickly that the trainers on a hockey team are the lifeline of a player. They are overworked and underpaid, but they are the best. If you are good to those guys, you are golden forever. I loved those guys my whole career, every one of them.
I had told Hawks medical trainer Skip Thayer during training camp about this dream I had when I was younger. In the dream, I was late arriving to the arena for the first game and security at the players’ entrance wouldn’t let me in because they didn’t know who I was. I would eventually wake up in a cold sweat. I had this dream hundreds of times. On my way to the arena for the actual game, there was a traffic jam. I was driving my father’s car, which had broken windshield wipers. When I arrived at the Stadium, the person at the security entrance prevented me from going in to park. When I told him I was Eddie Olczyk, he said Eddie Olczyk had already arrived.
I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I told him I had already played four preseason games and that I was late for my first game in the show. I was beginning to panic and I told the security person to call the Hawks dressing room. Eventually, they let me in. My nightmare had actually come true. I was thinking I was a psychic.
As I was walking, stunned, by the training room, I saw Skip and he said, “Hey, kid, did you have any trouble getting in?”
At that point, I knew Skip had pranked me. Nothing is sacred in a locker room.
I began the season playing right wing on a line with center Tommy Lysiak and left wing Darryl Sutter. I told Tommy that I wrote a letter to him when I was 15 telling him I was a fan of his and that I wanted to play in the NHL. He sent me back a photo of himself that he signed, “To Eddie O, maybe we could play together, Tommy Lysiak.” Sure enough, three years later, I was playing on a line with him in my first game. What are the chances of that? To me, that’s an incredible story.
When I told him the story, in typical Tommy fashion, he said, “How many other players did you send letters to?” Sadly, Tommy passed away on May 30, 2016. It happened during the Stanley Cup Final between Pittsburgh and San Jose. I travelled to Georgia to pay my respects to his wife, Melinda, and their entire family.
That first game, which was against Detroit, felt different than anything I had experienced to that point. It was a game I had dreamed about my whole life and then all of a sudden here I was, putting on that sweater with my name on the back and walking up those stairs to the ice level and the crowd is going crazy. It was like, man, you’ve arrived. I thought about my folks, who were there at the game along with my brothers. You have all these people watching you.
Being on the ice and seeing the crowd through the glass was totally different compared to how I had seen the game as a spectator. It was surreal. We won 7–3 and I scored. Every young hockey player dreams of scoring their first NHL goal so they can keep the puck and talk about it after their career and provide the details. Here’s how mine happened: Troy Murray passed the pack to Dave Feamster, who shot it from the point. I was cruising in front of the net and the puck hit the end boards and came back out. Red Wings goalie Greg Stefan turned and was out of his net and I put it home while I was getting knocked down on my ass.The crowd went nuts chanting my name, “Edd-ie, Edd-ie.” I could never have imagined that would happen. It was pretty special. I remember they used to do that for goalie Tony Esposito—“To-ny, To-ny”—when he made a great save. I remember thinking I must have done something right for the fans to chant my name.
I remember raising my right arm and pumping my fist in the air. I couldn’t believe it: I had scored a goal in my first NHL game.
After the game I was pulled in every direction by the media. The late broadcaster Tim Weigel, who was a legend in Chicago, did an interview with me from the bottom of the stairs. I had a shiner and stitches in my cheek from the preseason and I couldn’t believe this was all happening.
Every game I played, whether it was good or bad, there was hometown pressure. It’s just the way it was. There was no doubt some of my teammates, particularly the older guys, were not happy with the attention I was receiving, but it wasn’t like I asked for it. This was a story that had never happened before. Think of a kid from Toronto playing for the Maple Leafs, that kind of stuff is pretty normal. Same thing with a kid from Massachusetts playing for the Bruins. This had never happened before in the first round with the Hawks. I wasn’t the first native of Chicago to play for the Hawks, but I was the first one selected so high in the draft. I’ll always be proud to say where I’m from and this was just something that became part of my NHL learning curve. I definitely had to earn the respect in the locker room.
I always tried to answer my fan mail, something I still do today. When I was with the Olympic team, I received a letter from Kenny Albert, whose father, Marv, is a broadcast legend, and I sent him back an autographed photo. Who knew years later we’d both be working for NBC on hockey broadcasts?