Bill Keenan is not yet a household name for hockey fans, but that might soon change. He played Division 1 college hockey at Harvard, but injuries limited him to just six games. After that, Keenan headed overseas to play minor league hockey in Belgium, Germany and Sweden.
He retired in 2012 and soon started writing his autobiography entitled “Odd Man Rush: A Harvard Kid’s Hockey Odyssey from Central Park to Somewhere in Sweden–with Stops Along the Way” (reviewed here). It is a fun, humorous tale of a young man trying to make a comeback in a foreign land. Others have apparently found Keenan’s tale entertaining, too. “Odd Man Rush” is currently ranked 23rd overall in the Hockey Biographies category on Amazon.com.
Keenan is back in college, studying business, and is a contributor to Stan Fischler’s newsletter, “The Fischler Report.” I recently spoke with Keenan about writing his book, the highs and lows of his career, playing against a 10-year old Sidney Crosby and why he decided to retire. And if you haven’t read “Odd Man Rush” yet, don’t worry — this interview contains no spoilers.
Sal Barry: I thoroughly enjoyed “Odd Man Rush” and did not want it to end.
Bill Keenan: That’s probably the biggest compliment I could imagine. I know that feeling, certainly not with my own book, but with some of the books that I like a lot.
SB: I didn’t know who Bill Keenan was before I got a copy of your book. Why would someone want to read “Odd Man Rush?”
BK: A couple of reasons. Whether you played hockey or not, whether you played a sport or not, I think a lot of this is about your average kid. People will be able to relate to a lot of the stuff in my book. Like when you’re growing up and feel maybe you like something that your peers aren’t as interested in. Or maybe you found yourself in a situation where you’re the odd man out. I think we’ve all been in that situation.
It doesn’t have to be with sports. I tried to pick stories and anecdotes that were a little more out of the box than others, but something that a lot of people can relate to. As far as the hockey crowd goes, for the parents, if you’ve got a kid playing hockey, well, here’s the ride that you’re in for the next 15 years or however long he plays.
Honestly, there’s no moral. If you enjoy reading and want to have a couple of laughs, that’s all I was hoping to get out of it. I wanted to write a book that I would want to read and make it really informal. No one knows me from the guy they’re sitting next to, so I’m not concerned about trying to have an image. I think that makes it a little bit freer for me to tell it like I saw it.
SB: At what point did you decide that you wanted to write a book?
BK: It was about four months after my last game. I was back home in New York. Summer came and went, and during that time, I was still looking for jobs, trying to figure out what opportunities I might have. It’s hard to get a job, especially if you don’t know what you want to do. I spent a lot of time reading, because I had a lot of down time, and I was obviously drawn to hockey books, and thought that no one had done something like this for hockey, a memoir by someone who isn’t a Jeremy Roenick or a Bobby Orr.
SB: When writing a book, a lot of athletes have a co-writer or ghostwriter. But “Odd Man Rush” was all you.
BK: I certainly had people looking at it throughout the process. But if there’s a co-author, you’re never going to get the real person. And, if you’re Jeremy Roenick, you can find anybody to [co-]write your book. It’s not like I had that opportunity. Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed so a lot of it was fun for me.
SB: The level of detail in your book is amazing. How did you remember things so well?
BK: I knew that my experience in Europe was something I wasn’t going to forget; there was almost a heightened sense of what was going on at that time. I felt much more tuned in than just your average day. So I have pretty clear memories of a lot of games and a lot of stuff, for whatever reason, that kind of sticks out in my mind. Once a week or so, I would write down some stories. I wasn’t fleshing out everything. It was just enough so I could remember what key things stood out in my mind that were worth remembering.
SB: Your memories from childhood are pretty well detailed, too.
BK: For the earlier portion of the book, I physically went back to those places to jog my memory. I went back to the first rink I played at, which is Lasker Rink in Central Park, and tried to get a sense of what was going on there; to make sure I got the right details that distinguished it from any other place. It helps the reader get involved if you can really get just a couple points of reference that make it feel real.
SB: You played youth hockey with Rob Scremp and Jonathan Quick. What were they like back then?
BK: Rob Schremp was the be-all , end-all of kids born in 1986. He was on another level. Quick was really good; to have a teammate that would be in the Olympics, win the Stanley Cup, win the Conn Smythe Trophy, it’s still mind-boggling.
SB: Can you talk about your childhood game against Sidney Crosby? In your book, you said he scored seven goals and an assist?
BK: Something ridiculous like that. He was pretty much a one-man team. If he wasn’t the smallest kid on the ice, he was maybe one of the two or three smallest, and he was a year younger. And at that time, when you’re 10, 11 or 12 years old, that’s a huge difference. But it was like there was glue on his stick blade and you couldn’t get the puck away from him. Sometimes you’re playing against someone that has a command of the game that’s so far beyond anyone else. It’s not that much fun if you are not on that person’s team. But even when you watch Crosby today, anytime he has the puck, everyone else on the ice is dangerous too. There’s something about the way he plays that can make everyone around him better, which is the sign of an elite player.
SB: When you were a kid, what kind of player were you?
BK: Of course I liked scoring goals, but I think where I found myself to have a legitimate shot to keep playing wasn’t really as a goal scorer, but being hard-working, a good skater, and more of a playmaker. To try and set up teammates. I wasn’t the guy who had the most goals on the team, but I probably had two times as many assists as goals. I was much more excited about the offensive side. It’s not like I was knocking people over left and right. I was tall enough, but pretty skinny, so I kind of had to be scrappy.
SB: In your book, you talk a lot about your Harvard coach, former NHL player Ted Donato. Was he the toughest coach you had?
BK: Yeah, I’d say so. He was the most demanding because he played at the highest level. The one thing I don’t say [in my book] that I probably could have said was that when he coached me at Harvard, he was by far the best player on the ice. I think a lot of that period of time is colored by the injuries I had, which put a cloud over things. But the fact is, what I really respected about Donato was that he lives for hockey. That’s all he cares about, that’s all he wanted to do. And that’s what all of us wanted to do. We wanted to be like him, to play in the NHL. He’s an American, he went to Harvard, played on the Bruins. If you played hockey, that’s about as close to the dream as it gets. So he was definitely hard and demanding, but it was fun. How could you not listen to him? He made it, so he knows what he’s doing.
SB: You had an awful lot of injuries throughout your hockey career.
BK: Two back injuries, a hamstring injury, ankle and knee injuries. Everybody in sports goes through that. But injures were a big reason I decided to keep playing, because when you get injured, you can’t play, but all you want to do is play even more. It also, in a weird way, helps with the story, because it provides setbacks. It can’t all be smooth sailing. Some things have to knock you down. And then you’ve got to figure out a way back up.
SB: You explained, in pretty painful detail, about how awkward you used to be around girls. You don’t put yourself in a favorable light. Most athletes, when writing a book, either put themselves in a favorable light or they don’t say anything, but you took it in the opposite direction. Why did you get into that?
BK: First of all, that was the truth. I’m not trying to put myself into any light other than what was the real light. It’s a lot easier to relate to that perspective than it is to somebody who’s just the coolest thing in the world. That could be fun to see a little bit, but I’d rather read about someone where I could say, wow, that guy had trouble too. And I think all guys, to a certain extent, have been in similar positions and I think it is important to have somebody talk about it. When I was in college, living with 10 other guys, we were all in this position — some more than others — and it made me realize that it wasn’t just me. It’s part of the fun of being in college and growing up.
SB: Why did you decide to retire after playing four seasons in Europe?
BK: That’s the one question I was hoping you wouldn’t ask, because it’s the hardest one.
SB: You don’t have to answer.
BK: No, I think it is important. There’s a part of me that thought about keeping playing. I always wanted to play in the NHL, and I tried to keep the hope alive, even as far-fetched as it was.
The fact is, I was still 25, and that’s still young in the grand scheme of things. But when it comes to hockey, you’re old news if you haven’t gotten somewhere near the top. You’re kind of pushed aside for someone newer and younger.
The second part is, I feel like I reached some sort of fulfillment and had been able to play a decent amount of time without getting injured. Part of me thought maybe this is where I should leave this in the past and try to pursue something new because the real world doesn’t wait for you. When you’re 25 or 30, you have all sorts of time.
SB: Do you think you’ll write another book?
BK: Absolutely. This was one of the more fun things that I’ve done. As difficult as it was – not writing, but getting it in front of publishers – as hard as that is, now that the way that I see things, day to day life, I’m always trying to think about stories that would be entertaining to write and then read about. So I’m definitely interested to continue writing.
SB: What advice do you have for kids who play hockey?
BK: The biggest factor is finding the best competition and always being out of your comfort zone. A lot is dependent on the parents. I was lucky that I had parents who would drive me to all these rinks. It’s great to play in a league when you’re a little kid and score 100 goals. That builds confidence. But the second it gets to the point where you don’t feel like you’re pushing yourself, you need to seek out as good of competition that you can get. Play as many games as you can and be around as good competition as possible. ■