THANK YOU, CAPTAINJustin Bourne salutes the leadership of Bill Guerin

 

by Justin Bourne

 

Bill Guerin walked into the room where all the rookies were waiting to hear the next day’s itinerary.

 

 

“Everybody has to be at the bar in an hour, 3-beer minimum.  Everything is on Comrie and me. You better show up.”

 

Huh. That was a bit of a bomb, coming from the captain of the team I was trying out for, the night before I had to play my first exhibition game of camp in September, 2007.

 

There are a couple of crucial things you need to do well to make any team, let alone have any chance at a future in the sport of hockey. The obvious one is to play well. The less talked about and less important one is to be a positive part of the dressing room. 

 

I know it sounds high-schoolish, but you can get crucified in a hockey dressing room if you aren’t on your guard. This can make things rather uncomfortable, as I can attest, having been one of two non-drinkers on my junior hockey team. As a result, I had to learn to have a pretty sharp tongue. I went from being a survivor in that dressing room to somebody you needed to survive. Hey, the best defense is a good offense.

 

But that wasn’t exactly an option at an NHL training camp. I wasn’t in a position to tell Miroslav Satan that yellow laces stopped being acceptable the same year we started taking the previous layer of tape off our sticks before putting a fresh layer on.

 

And Bill Guerin was the man in that Islanders locker room, because he transcended the need for player approval. In my experience, the biggest jerks are always the pros in their first few years, the guys who carry themselves like they think they deserve the change in lifestyle the game has afforded them. Bill didn’t have to prove himself; he was past that part.

 

And the more I think about it, the more Guerin sticks out in my mind.  Everyday, us lowly rookies took to our stalls in the dressing room and looked down until it was time to practice. And everyday, there was Bill, cruising around the room, shaking some nervous pup’s hand, talking and joking with the type of kids who, in that dressing room, were the equivalent of your high school’s Dungeons and Dragons club (but significantly tougher).

 

Billy’s an immensely likable character. He seems to love the game in the same way that Brett Favre exudes that obvious passion for playing. This past summer, 10 months after camp, I ran into him at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Huntington.  Arm-in-sling from his recent shoulder surgery, the captain greeted me like an old friend.  He introduced me to his dad, and invited myself and my girlfriend Brianna to go boating with him and his wife. I wasn’t even sure the guy would remember me.

 

But that was 10 months later. Back to September, 2007.

 

“Everybody has to be at the bar in an hour, 3-beer minimum.  Everything is on Comrie and me. You better show up.”

 

Let the battle begin.

 

Shoulder Devil: “Go! Drink on Bill’s tab. Do something stupid. Punch Andy Sutton. Make a memory.”

 

Shoulder Angel: “Think about your future. You need to be at your best tomorrow. You have a huge opportunity here”!

 

Shoulder Devil:  “Punch. Sutton. If you live, best story ever.”

 

That guy always gets the last word.

 

Of course, I didn’t actually punch Andy Sutton. I did, however, enjoy my Guerin-imposed team minimum before tucking into bed a wee bit later than I would have liked. Sleep when you’re dead, right?

 

I was lucky enough to get to know the captain fairly well while I was there. He had organized a little outing for some of the veteran players and alumni. As luck would have it, my father Bob happens to be one of those, and apparently it’s nice to play golf in multiples of four. Enter me.

 

I don’t know who paid for the round, but I get the impression whoever it was doesn’t check their bank balance before they swipe for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. The golf provided me another opportunity on one of the first days of camp to mingle with some of the Isles guys and find out who was like what, while trying to not have anyone notice that I was like nervous.

 

After the round it had been settled that Bill’s group had won, so another group was on the hook for dinner and drinks. Nothing was too serious that day, especially after 18 holes and a couple casuals. We had an exchange that I particularly enjoyed. Keep in mind that in the middle of 16 hockey guys talking, this was light-hearted and fully tongue-in-cheek:

 

Me: “Four kids, wow, that must get expensive.”

 

Bill: “Well Justin, not to be a d–k, but I’m kinda rich.”

 

Me: “Ahhhh, rrright.”

 

When the guys weren’t looking, he snuck his card to the waitress and paid for everybody’s dinner and drinks.  He didn’t actually want the free dinner; he just wanted some fuel to abuse the losers with.

 

But it’s not the money that Bill was generous with at camp that’s important, it was his time. He didn’t have to waste his time on kids who were clearly not going to be teammates that year. The Islanders are chock-full of young guys who needed to see what leading is all about, and what class looks like.

 

I’m glad he now gets the chance to play for the Cup, because for the rebuilding Islanders, Bill Guerin provided the ultimate example.

 

 

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