The Montreal Gazette had a review copy of the autobiography of John Scott, star of the 2016 NHL All-Star Game. The sports editor offered it to me, and I read it during the week. Here are my thoughts on it, and excerpts from my favourite parts of it.
For the first 170 of its 215 pages, John Scott’s autobiography is pretty run-of-the-mill. But then, that’s kind of the point.
If you don’t remember the story that led to this guy becoming famous, he retells it as of Page 171. Spurred by a joke that was eventually traced to a suggestion in a podcast, fans began voting en masse for Scott, then a journeyman enforcer playing for the Arizona Coyotes, to go to the National Hockey League All-Star Game. Not because he was a big star with a lot of talent, but because he wasn’t. Fans had earlier tried and failed with something like this with the Vancouver Canucks’ Rory Fitzpatrick. (And for the 2015 game, a more positive-minded campaign from Latvia sent Zemgus Girgensons to the top of the all-star ballot.) But this time, the online trolls were successful in voting Scott in as the team captain for the Pacific Division at the 2016 all-star game.
It’s largely what happened after that announcement that made him a story, and turned him from an also-ran NHL nobody into an unlikely hero. The team, and the league, tried to convince him to decline the invitation. He was then traded to the Montreal Canadiens in a deal that made little sense, and Scott was immediately sent to the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin explained that he was forced to take Scott in the deal, without giving details.
Despite everything, Scott went to the game, where he became a media star and fan favourite. He scored two goals in the semifinal and was a write-in winner as MVP of the event, with the prize being a new car.
Scott played only a single meaningless NHL game with the Canadiens after that, the team having already been eliminated from playoff contention. After the 2015-16 season, he retired from professional hockey.
Scott’s take on the all-star game, and some entertaining highlights from his career (including missing his first NHL game because he didn’t have his passport) are already public thanks to two pieces in the Players Tribune: One at the time of the all-star game and another from December when he announced his retirement. That’s all in the book as well, along with information about how he grew up, the course of his career and, because there are so few of them, descriptions of all five of his NHL goals.
But since the book is told chronologically, it’s a long wait until you get to the part that made him famous. Scott begins with his childhood, playing hockey on a backyard rink in St. Catharines, Ont. He talks about going to Michigan Tech University and playing college hockey there, meeting his wife there, signing a professional contract and playing for what would become seven NHL teams.
Co-authored by Sports Illustrated’s Brian Cazeneuve, the book is very matter-of-fact about the events of Scott’s life, his feelings and opinions. You won’t see adjective-laden scene-setting descriptions. Rather, it’s short and simple sentences relating the things that happened. Like you’d expect from a guy whose university education was in engineering. But the style leads to some passages being kind of boring, when he goes off on a tangent that makes you wonder what the point is.
I was fascinated by the John Scott story when it happened. About a regular guy being bullied by people he’d never met, and turning into a superstar just by being a decent person. About someone who, when people talk about the most talented players faking injuries in order to get out of the all-star game, was just so excited for the chance to go.
But at the same time, Scott would never have been at the all-star game if not for the heartless lulz of NHL fans. The only way to prevent another case like this is to change the rule to prevent someone like him from getting to the game in the first place. Maybe you can make the argument that Scott represents a type of player that’s necessary for the game, or you can accept that he’s a Cinderella story and not think about it too much. But the people who are happy with what happened to him are also the ones who thought he shouldn’t have been invited, myself included.
Scott is far from perfect. He’s a goon who was suspended more than once by the NHL, and he has a DUI on his criminal record (something he called the worst mistake of his life). But he’s a smart guy, and his heart seems to be in the right place, so you can’t help but root for the guy.
We don’t learn much more than we already did about the all-star game and leadup to it. Scott won’t say which NHL official brought up his daughters to try to convince him not to go. But we get more detail of the conversation, which really makes the league look bad. And we get some indication of the petty things the NHL tried to dictate, like the jersey he wore and even changing the skills competition he would play in.
But the book ends on a positive note, about how great the experience was, about his brief time with the Canadiens and about the early plans to maybe make a movie out of his experience.
Even though I already know what the plot would be, it’s a movie I’d like to see.
Excerpts from John Scott’s A Guy Like Me
On his beginnings in hockey:
I played defense because when you’re really young, your coaches usually put the best players at forward. I wasn’t a very good player. I couldn’t skate very well, and I was constantly struggling to keep up, so I usually found myself playing defense.
At every level of competition, I was big for my age. I didn’t really care how tall I was or wasn’t, but at some point, some coach mentioned that tall guys were thought to be slow and awkward. That shook me. I wondered why and what it meant for me. … From that point on, I had it in my head that it was a good idea to downplay my size.
On his DUI conviction, which led to a month in jail:
I was just bawling the whole day. I didn’t want to see anyone or be seen by anyone. I was so embarrassed by what I’d done, by how I’d embarrassed other people and by how I had taken this great chance to use hockey to help me get through college and just messed it up. I was an idiot! An idiot! Nobody has ever been as hard on me as I was on myself right after that happened.
On his first date with Danielle, now his wife:
She had just broken up with that boyfriend. Jackpot! I was very sorry and sympathetic. Jackpot! It was a terrible thing to have to go through. Jackpot! Really a shame. JACKPOT!
I bought these massive, caveman steaks from Walmart and tried to cook them on my stove. I overcooked them like crazy. Danielle, would you like some shoe leather with your mashed potatoes? … Of course, afterward, I finished her portion of meat. She was a good sport about it. I wanted to rent a movie, but I didn’t know what she liked. I had gone into the movie store that day and said “Just give me anything.” So for our first date we ended up watching a soccer movie called Green Street Hooligans. Good one, John. Very romantic.
On fighting in the NHL:
There are many people who ask why hockey players fight in the first place, whether it serves a purpose in the game, and whether it will always be in the game. Those are not short answers.
Fighting has always been in the game. Everyone is used to it. Almost everyone who has played the game understands that it serves a purpose. Even people who would like to see it eliminated and feel that it is better to ban it than keep it, acknowledge that the reasons to keep it do exist. If you know hockey, you can see the difference between those times when there is a tough guy in the game and when there isn’t. … I know when I’m not playing, the players on the other team who like to agitate are worse. When I’m in the game, they behave.
When the other team has a fighter and yours doesn’t, it’s like knowing the school bully is going to confront you in the yard during recess and try to take your lunch money. But it’s more than that. Imagine that the same bully wants to take the same lunch money from yoru classmates or your teammates. Somebody has to stand up and make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s the enforcer.
I played roughly the same number of NHL games at home (144) as on the road (142) but I had twice as many penalty minutes on the road (363) as I did at home (181). … When a guy’s playing at home in front of his home fans, he wants to please those fans, so he’s more likely to take a run at one of our guys. It was usually the job of an enforcer to try to neutralize that.
Fighting won’t ever lose its purpose in the game. Whether it will actually stay in, I’m not sure.
On his first NHL goal (with the Minnesota Wild):
That’s right, I scored. Sweet! Mark it down. It’s in the books. It was against Carolina. We were losing, 3-0 … Michael Leighton was in goal for Carolina and he left a big juicy rebound in front of the net for me. Leighton was out of position. I didn’t have anybody on me and I just shoved it in the net. It was the easiest first goal you can probably write up, but I didn’t care. I was so pumped that I tried to hug a guy on the other team, but he pushed me away. So my celebrating technique needed work.
I scored a goal, and nobody could take that away from me. Once you get that taste, you want to do it again. I may be big, and I didn’t score many goals, but I promised myself that I would remember each one.
On the deaths of NHL enforcers, including Derek Boogard, who he played with in Minnesota and who mentored him in his early NHL days:
I’d go into different rinks and see the players wearing the patches on their shoulders and the stickers on their helmets with the numbers of the guys who passed away, and it was terrible. You knew these guys. You grew this bond with them. And you’d think, Crap, these guys are gone.
On being traded for the first time:
On the one hand, it’s exciting — you’re going to a new team that wants your services. But it’s never good to get traded, because the team that knows you best just decided they don’t want you anymore. I’ve always invested my heart and soul into my job. I know that hockey’s a business. I get that. But i’ve been traded twice, and both times I’ve broken down, cried, and taken it as an indictment of me as a person. I think, Why don’t these people want me? Why don’t they respect what I do? I just don’t know what else I can give them. It’s hard for me to stomach.
When he was playing in juniors, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner used to tap his stick against the sideboards eighty-eight times during the singing of O Canada, or one for each time his teammates thought he was missing a screw or two.
A lot of players insist on not shaving once the postseason starts, since it’s bad luck to cut off any facial hair. Why? Because the New York Islanders started it as a gag in the early ’80s after getting bounced in some tough playoff series in the ’70s. … The Islanders won the Stanley Cup four years in a row, and hey, it had to be the beards, not the five Hall of Famers they had on their team. Nope, beards!
My superstitions? None. Seriously, give me a stick that doesn’t have holes in it. Give me a number between one and a hundred. Give me a left skate and a right skate. Other than that, I’m good.
On being suspended for the first time in the NHL, then with the Buffalo Sabres:
It was the right call, and I had to own up to this one. We were playing the Bruins, another rival. As we were skating through center ice, I hit Bruins forward Loui Eriksson and knocked him to the ice. I did my best to keep my elbow down and hit him with a shoulder check, but I definitely caught his head and gave him a concussion.
I told myself to be honest, no matter which direction the conversation took. I tried stating my case to [Brendan Shanahan, NHL director of player safety], realizing that the suspension was coming. Then I made a mistake near the end of the hearing. He asked me a simple question: Would you like to be Loui Eriksson right now? Of course he was asking about the aftereffects of the concussion. I didn’t quite hear the question that way. “Yeah,” I told him. “He makes, what, seven million dollars and his team’s at the top of the division. If you told me I could play like that, I’d love to be Loui Eriksson.” If Shanahan had had gloves at that moment, he’d have dropped them. “You think this is some kind of joke?” he said. No, I was in a no-win situation answering a question that didn’t have a right answer. I really wanted to have that one back. The league suspended me for seven games.
On his second NHL goal, also with the Sabres:
I ripped a twenty-footer past [Leafs’ Jonathan] Bernier and this time hugged only the players on my own team. I must have been getting used to it.
(Scott’s three other goals, including a 150-foot empty-netter against the Colorado Avalanche after his team had already scored two empty-netters, came with the San Jose Sharks.)
On the NHL’s attempts to get him out of the all-star game:
One night I received a surprising text from the Coyotes’ PR guy, Rich Nairn. I know the message wasn’t his idea — Rich is a good guy. But he sent a text that basically said, “Hey, John, we drafted this. We’re going to release it and say it’s from you. Is this okay?” I read the statement. It said thank you to the fans and also told them specifically not to vote for me, but for other, more deserving guys on the team. It said that I did not deserve to be an all-star. I read it and said, “No, it’s not okay.” Just because I didn’t think the voting would ultimately get me to the All-Star Game, I still wanted to go. … So instead, I wrote my own statement asking people to vote for my teammates, but I held off on saying that I didn’t want their vote.
One day, as it was becoming clear that I would be voted into the All-Star Game and I intended to go, I got a call from someone at the league. Let’s call him Dick. … Dick just kept guilting me, saying things like “You think Shane Doan is happy you’re taking his spot when this could be his last shot at playing in the All-Star Game?”
It was exhausting. After a while, I started thinking that maybe Dick was right. Maybe I didn’t belong in this game. Dick kept trying different angles, too. He’d say things like, “You know it’s a speed game. We don’t want you to embarrass yourself. Do you think you’d do well?”
As intense as the conversation was, it had been respectful until Dick crossed a very important line. “You think of your children, when they grow up, they’re going to be proud of this decision?” Dick asked.
And that’s when I snapped.
I said, “You know what, you’re a piece of shit.”
“Excuse me?” Dick said.
“You’re being a piece of shit right now. If this has any bearing on what my children think of me when I’m older, then I’m doing a bad job. And I think the fact that you’re bringing that up to me really pisses me off.”
The two of them calmed down and backpedalled, Scott writes, and when Scott called this nameless high-ranking official the next day and said he still wanted to go, there was no argument. (By the way, his recounting of a discussion with commissioner Gary Bettman later in the book seems to suggest it wasn’t Bettman he was having a conversation with.)
On the NHL changing his choice for all-star skills competition:
[Patrick] Kane and I went into the captains’ meeting and picked who would go in which challenge for the West. I remembered Ray Bourque hitting four targets without a miss in the accuracy contest one year, and I was psyched to put myself in that event. I was going to shoot at the targets, just as my idol had done years ago. Kaner and I wrote the lineups on the board and walked out of the room. Before we could leave for the day, another NHL guy came up to me and said, “Oh, we had to take you out of the target competition. Corey Perry’s wrist is a little sore and he can’t do hardest shot.”
“Guys,” I responded, “do what you want.”
On his jersey for the skills competition:
The league said I couldn’t wear a Montreal Canadiens jersey, but they also said that I wasn’t allowed to wear a Phoenix Coyotes jersey. Instead, I was given an All-Star Game jersey with an NHL crest on the front. I didn’t want to wear that. I tried to argue to let me wear the IceCaps jersey. I had it with me, and it made more sense to me than wearing anything else. Instead, I was made to stand out with the stock NHL jersey, as though I didn’t have a team or I didn’t belong. I know I was probably being a little sensitive, but it really ticked me off.
On NBC analyst and former NHL coach Mike Milbury:
When [host Liam] McHugh went to Milbury to as his opinion, he said he liked the Central’s chances against us because the Pacific was playing with one less man.
Right after that, the camera panned to me, and I mouthed a few choice words for Mike. There was a ten-second delay on the coverage in our room. The guys saw clearly what I said. I think the network was able to bleep the reaction out of the telecast in those few seconds. It was good for them and for me, but I still wanted to put Milbury through the boards. He also said my main responsibility during the game was to “take short shifts.” I still don’t know what I did to that guy for him to have such an issue with me. I guess I will never know. I’d love to have a chat with him about it one day.
I did a TV interview later about the movie and was asked who should play me in it. I suggested Mike Milbury if he lost some weight, but in a perfect world it would be Liev Schreiber.
On playing his final game with the Canadiens:
I’m glad I went. It was special. Not a lot of people get to say they played for the Montreal Canadiens, even if it was for one game. Everyone treated me like gold. They have a great organization. … I played nine minutes in the game, took a high-sticking penalty in the third period, and shed a tear once I got back to the room. This was a one-game call-up, and I recognized that there was a chance this would be my last chance to play a pro hockey game. … After all that happened over the previous few months, it really felt as though this would be my last chance. But somehow, the game of hockey still needed me to step up.