Odd Man Rush: A Harvard Kid’s Hockey Odyssey from Central Park to Somewhere in Sweden with Stops along the Way
By Bill Keenan
New York City native Bill Keenan’s hockey journey began when he was five years old in Central Park and took him all the way to Europe.
Keenan gives an inside look at the life of a hockey player in his very engrossing work, “Odd Man Rush.”
From playing in youth leagues in New Jersey and Long Island to Harvard University to Europe, the book is full of behind-the-scenes accounts of what goes on among teammates in the locker room and the relationships among coaches and players.
Keenan, like most New York kids in the early 1990s, idolized the Rangers and their many stars, including Adam Graves, who writes the forward for “Odd Man Rush.”
Graves said of the game, “Hockey took me from a small town in Canada to New York City and the bright lights of Madison Square Garden; it took Billy from an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to small towns in the European countryside. We are living proof that no matter where you come from, or where you are going, our great sport is the same, and so are the characters you are lucky enough to play with along the way.”
Keenan wrote of Graves, “Graves could do it all: score goals, pester opponents, stick up for teammates, and come through when his teammates and the entire city of New York were counting on him. What he lacked in skill, he made up for with grit…Adam Graves was a god. And he had hockey hair. Once I got my footing on the ice with the help of a few hard wraps of tape around my ankles, I emulated Graves on every level, from his skating style, to his manner of celebrating his goals, to his mullet.”
There is also a great passage in the book about going to a summer hockey camp Graves conducted in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario.
Keenan writes of playing in a youth league in Central Park in which winning wasn’t everything and how much that infuriated him. At that point, he joined elite youth leagues in Long Island and New Jersey.
A lot of these stories are relatable to parents of kids in youth sports and the sacrifices made, such as being ready for 6:30 a.m. games.
During his time in youth hockey, he played with future stars Jonathan Quick and Sidney Crosby,
Keenan then goes into great detail about life as a college hockey player at Harvard under coach Ted Donato. There are also entertaining stories from off the ice, such as being part of a fraternity and trying to date girls on campus.
Here is a description of what a practice at Harvard was like: “As soon as we got pucks involved, a typical practice went something like this: Player loses a tooth from a hit; player skates off ice with tooth in hand; coach calls him selfish because lines are now eneven; player who inflicted the damage has his father who’s a dentist fix the tooth; player who inflicted damage enters dental school five years later.”
Keenan described what united the players at Harvard. “Hockey was what mattered most to all of us. It was our shared passion for the game that created a deep understanding of one another’s hardships on and off the ice. However, we were each other’s greatest competition. If one guy was in the lineup, that meant he took the spot of someone else. It wasn’t personal; it was just the way things worked. As strong as our bonds were, having success on the ice was always at the expense of someone else.”
There are great stories of players Keenan encountered during his time in college who achieved fame later. He spent time in study hall with a basketball player that gained some fame, Jeremy Lin, and worked out with the New York Rangers at a rink in Los Angeles, along with future Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, who had just arrived to the United States from Russia.
One of the scariest aspects of Keenan’s time at Harvard was getting over a back injury and how he feared he may not be able to live a full life.
It looked like his hockey career was over, and Keenan wrote of how that affected him, “It was devastating to contemplate a life without hockey. I could survive without it but I couldn’t live without it. The game was my sustenance and without it, I starved. The mental suffering was almost worse than the physical pain, and I coped with it by further alienating those around me. I lost any interest in my classes and shut myself off from everybody.”
Keenan was able to play his senior year at Harvard, but his future in hockey was uncertain. A friend of his said he played in Europe and that Keenan should pursue opportunities there.
The stories about playing in European minor leagues in Belgium, Germany, and Sweden are some of the most engrossing, emotional, and entertaining parts of the book.
Keenan deals with being homesick, a team cutting him after a brutal injury, abusive coaches, and bad living conditions in Belgium.
Hockey in Europe is far different than in the United States and Canada, as Keenan shows when talking about the business side of it: “Professional hockey in Europe is a volatile business especially at the lower levels – it’s common for a few teams to fold midseason due to the loss of a sponsor’s financial support. Our jersey is essentially a billboard, covered with the logos of Neuwied’s (Germany) local radio and television stations, Medicon (the team’s exercise facility), as well as many of the city’s restaurants and bars.”
Keenan played in Europe from 2009 to 2012 and no longer plays hockey. He is currently pursuing his MBA at Columbia Business School and lives in New York City.
Keenan flourishes when describing what being a hockey player does for him.
“There’s something inherently supernatural about hockey and I’m not going to try and spew up some revolutionary thoughts here. Think about it: Humans have feet and toes made for walking on solid ground. In my equipment, I was a few inches taller and more than a few pounds heavier. In skates, I could reach speeds not even Olympic runners could achieve. Every time I suited up, my gear became an extension of my body. Off the ice, I was just another scrawny kid with a bag of putrid equipment I hauled around, but that always changed when I put it on, taking on a new identity.”
One interesting aspect is how many things were constant for Keenan in all the stops on his hockey journey, such as the composition of the team.
“I didn’t realize it until I got to junior hockey, but hockey teams are the perfect size – somewhere between twenty and twenty-five guys, bigger than a basketball squad but smaller than a football team. With that number, you generally get a mix of personalities that complement each other perfectly. Inevitably you’ve got the meathead who doesn’t own a shirt with sleeves; the showboat who celebrates every goal (even in practice); the guy who always plays dirty; the guy(s) who always acts dirty; the self-proclaimed ladies’ man; the quiet guy who always comes up with a good line at the right moment; the other quiet guy who never comes up with a good line ever; the loud guy who pumps up the team before games; the quiet, humble guy who scores the big goals; the guy who messes up all the drills in practice; and then there’s the guy who over-thinks the whole thing and needs to write a book about it.”
The player who wrote the book is obviously Keenan, and it’s a must for any hockey fan.