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‘Ball Four’ meets hockey; slap shots abound

Odd Man Rush: A Harvard Kid’s Hockey Odyssey From Central Park To Somewhere In Sweden – With Stops Along the Way

By Bill Keenan

Sports Publishing

279 pages, $24.99

By Gene Warner

We all have dreams. Bill Keenan’s was a bit different.

He dreamed of launching his hockey career on a frozen pond in a small Canadian town, not at Lasker Rink, a frozen-over outdoor swimming pool in New York City’s Central Park.

Young Keenan spent hours saying the words “abooot” and “ooot” in front of his bathroom mirror. Before his first-ever game, scheduled for 6:30 a.m., he donned his shin, elbow and shoulder pads – the night before. He even walked around his first-grade classroom with Loonies and Toonies in his pocket, demanding that his teachers call him “Guy.”

Even if he was cursed by growing up in Manhattan rather than Manitoba, William Howard Keenan III wanted to be a hockey player, eventually a pro. And he decided to write a book about chasing that dream.

This is a thoroughly entertaining, lighthearted romp through youth and junior hockey, a not-so-stellar career at Division I Harvard and then a globe-trotting three-year odyssey playing professional hockey in Belgium, Germany and Sweden.

Keenan is a wise guy who’s doesn’t take himself too seriously, a breezy writer and a phrase turner who takes the reader inside the locker room and the rink. This is a towel-snapping hockey travelogue, complete with players firing wadded balls of tape and ice shavings from their skate blades at each other. There also are more than occasional references to foul language, drinking and girl chasing, all part of the non-PG version of amateur and low-rung professional hockey.

The author doesn’t do fiction.

This book, of course, isn’t for everyone. It’s really not for most people. But if you love good flippant, self-deprecating, “Ball Four”-type prose and/or an inner glimpse of low-level pro sports– especially hockey – this book is a winner.

And no matter what your literary taste, Keenan will keep you chuckling.

Like his second “game” ever, at age 6, when his team’s roster grew to nine players, including one girl.

“I thought it was embarrassing that my right-winger had on double runners until I found out my left-winger was wearing figure skates. Neither one was the girl.”

Keenan never made it to “The Show,” but he rubbed shoulder pads with the likes of plenty of NHL stars on his hockey journey, including Sidney Crosby, Chris Drury, Sean Avery, “Jonny” Quick and Evgeni Malkin.

As the book moves to Harvard and then Europe, the prose gets a little raunchy, always staying irreverent. Like the girl he met at one college party, built like an NFL guard, with “a face that lets you know God has his off days too.”

There’s a lot of biting sarcasm here. Sometimes you’re not sure whether the author is mocking an institution or the stereotyped view of it. Like his description of a fancy social club (like a fraternity) at Harvard: “Sure, there were some guys who draped cashmere sweaters over their shoulders, wore monogrammed Oxford shirts and used the word ‘whom’ in conversation.”

Above all, this book is Keenan’s love letter to the game of hockey. It’s not primarily the on-ice battles he savored. It was the off-ice camaraderie, all the high jinks, pranks and off-color stories that allowed each player – no matter his nationality, background or skill level – to believe he truly belonged to something.

As he laments after one injury-filled season that left him on the sidelines, “It’s funny, though – that unmistakable odor of the hockey locker room only really smells good to a player when he knows he contributed to it.”

One day, while playing in Sweden, after lacing his right skate, Keenan scans the locker room and senses his losing battle with his hockey mortality.

“It’s this familiarity with everything – the characters, the humor, the smell – this sameness that is tied up and perpetuates the pursuit of my dream. But sometimes I feel I’m stuck – like being in this environment, surrounded by my teammates playing the game we love, is the only way to feel good about myself … I know eventually whether I want to or not, my time will be up, and it won’t be the general manager who takes my pants from my stall, but rather the hockey gods.”

Gene Warner is a semiretired Buffalo News reporter, a former assistant hockey coach and a longtime Ivy League hockey fan.