October 8, 2009

Interview With The Author: Sheldon Kannegiesser

This is Sheldon Kannegiesser. In the 1970s he was a stay at home defenseman best remembered with the Los Angeles Kings.

He wasn't the flashiest defender on the ice, but he was a steady and reliable performer who the coach could count on day in and day out.

To the fans, he is simply remembered as "the guy with the big name."

Kannegiesser retired from pro hockey in 1978. He's remained in California ever since, raising his two boys and pursuing several business interests.

His latest undertaking is his own, and very unique, book. It is an autobiography of sorts, written entirely in poetry! It is called Warriors of Winter: Rhymes of a Blueliner Balladeer.

Buy The Book: Warriors of Winter.com

I recently had the chance to sit down with Sheldon and discuss his hockey career and his book.

HBR: You will forever be known in NHL circles as the guy with the big name. Does this ever bother you?

SK: Being known as the biggest name in hockey isn’t so bad. After all look at Orr…only 3 letters in his last name and Howe…only 4 letters. I tell people that not only was I once voted the best dressed player in the NHL, but that I was the biggest name in hockey with the weakest shot.

HBR: You were a solid NHL defenseman for nearly 400 games in the 1970s. Describe yourself as a player. What contemporary player would you compare yourself to?

SK: Honestly Joe, after living in Southern California for so many years, I haven’t really stayed that close in touch with the game. If there’s a defenseman playing today that finds himself embarrassed after a game if the opposition scores more than 2 goals on your team, then I’d say he’d be my guy. My focus was to make as few mistakes as possible, clear the puck as quickly as possible out of our end with an accurate pass and to hold the redline as much as possible (not the blueline) so that the center iceman couldn’t throw the puck into our end. The ultimate goal being to keep the puck in their end of the rink more than ours. If you can do that, you’ll win your share of games.

HBR: You have just released your own book, an autobiographical collection of memories with a twist - you wrote it in poetry. What made you decide to write Rhymes of a Blueliner Balladeer in poetry?

SK: Writing the type of poetry I write (Robert Service style) is not just something you can turn on and off. I believe it takes a special gift to do it well and I feel blessed to have the talent. The famous poems written by Service, such as “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” and the “Spell of the Yukon,” are Canadian classics. My thought process was to write a work that was distinctively Canadian. What is more Canadian than hockey, dressed up in the rhyme and rhythm of one of Canada’s most famous poets, Robert Service, and written by someone who actually played the game at the NHL level? The thought of accomplishing this smelled of Canadian bacon, maple syrup and missing front teeth. I had to do it! It is my hope that one day my poems such as “The Fearless John Hock and Mighty Michael McKey,” along with “The Series of 72,” will become Canadian classics. I believe the style of poetry I write has become a lost art and hopefully my book can revive an interest in this style of writing.

HBR: Have you always been a poet? A writer?

SK: No, in fact, I didn’t start writing until the age of forty. I tell a true story in the preface of my book about a good friend of mine, Stan Barrett, a Hollywood stunt man, who first turned me on to Robert Service. He recited one of Service’s poems to me at lunch one day and I became hooked. Over the years I would sit and read poems by Service and would find myself intrigued by his use of words and descriptive. Then one day I was sitting contemplating some spiritual issues on the concept of “time and chance” and before I knew it I was writing a very intense poem of the same title. To my amazement, it flowed with the rhyme and rhythm of a Service poem. I subsequently went on to write many poems with a more spiritual and theological theme, probing the deeper questions of life. That book is almost complete and is titled, “Cut to the Core”! The key for much of my writing is to imagine a picture in my mind of the thought or theme I’m trying to convey. I then use my pen as a paint brush, describing in detail not only what I see, but how that image touches the senses and emotion.

HBR: Would you say Robert Service is as big an idol as any hockey figure in your life?

SK: I would say that at my age I don’t have any idols. Like in my poem, “Who’s Pants are you Wearing?” I believe that we all put our pants on one leg at a time. Some have different gifts than others but we all have the capability to be the best we can be at whatever endeavor we decide to pursue. I guess the key is finding that one thing you have a natural gift for and commit to mastering it. Ahhh, but beware, we are all subject to the fickle finger of time and chance. Bobby Orr, probably the greatest player to ever lace on a pair of skates saw his career end early due to knee injuries. Great entrepreneurs have been wiped out over night as a result of an unforeseen change in the economic climate. Even Stanley Cups have been won on the lucky bounce of a puck. I admire special talents in individuals, but it’s character that counts and that’s something that is molded by adversity.

HBR: If there is one word that can sum up your book it would be fun. That is quickly evident in the very first poem "The Fearless John Hock and The Mighty Michael McKey," a poem that could easily become an epic piece in Canadian literature. This is a fictional poem of how hockey got it's name, but is it based on anyone or any events in particular?

SK: No, it is not. This poem is a good example of what playing without a helmet will do to you! The key to so many of my poems is finding a theme or direction that I can take a poem that is unique and will make it special. In this instance I came up with the idea of breaking up the word “Hockey” and then came up with two fictitious names like Hock and McKey. The next step was envisioning these two Canadian lumberjack types and a bar in the frozen regions of the Canadian Northland where a fight breaks out. Like virtually all of my poems, once I have concept, then all I need is a great first line and I find the poems then write themselves, line by line. In fact, I’m usually amazed at how just the right word is always there to complete my rhyme and maintain the integrity of the theme.

HBR: "Glory Days" and "The Iron Lung" are examples of poems in the book about days long gone by. Was hockey better back then than it is now? How is it so and how is it not?

SK: If I could somehow turn back the clock on this body of mine and play one more season in the NHL I could better answer that question. I hear lots of things like the guys are much bigger and faster today (bigger but probably not faster). Then I hear things like; the players were more skilled in my day (maybe, maybe not). What I do know is the following: Growing up as a kid we listened to NHL games on the radio. There were only six teams so it was easy to keep track of players. And without television you listened to these games with your imagination and it made those guys seem like mythical gods to me. Then as an NHL player, we didn’t wear helmets. I think that added a unique touch to the game as it visually personalized the players more as opposed to what might be called a more robotic look today. Finally, I’m not entirely in agreement with some of the rule changes we see today. For example, allowing the two line pass creates lazy forwards. Detroit plays old school, where the entire team moves up the ice and back together. In the playoffs last season you never saw Detroit outnumbered in there end of the rink because everyone was back. I’ve always believed the best offense is a good defense. Coaches who try to use the two line pass to their advantage will win occasionally but lose mostly. The other two rules which are problematic are the stick slashing rule and interference in front of the net. In my day slashing meant slashing the body, the stick was always fair game. If a guy is breaking around me then a two hander to the shaft of his stick to knock off the puck was a smart play. Today when you touch someone’s stick they drop it and start calling for a penalty. Bad news! Further, when a forward would stand in front of the goaltender and screen him, it was fair to wrap your stick around a guy’s midsection and pry him away from the front of the net. Today they’ll call you for interference. So instead, goalies and defensemen are giving cheap shots to the forward in front with punches, high sticks and ankle slashes to get them out of there and that needs to stop.

HBR: I love the poem "Shoulder to Shoulder With The Big M" where you describe the moment you realized you really could play in the National Hockey League. How important was that moment to your career?

SK: First, I’m really glad you like that poem. Frank was a big powerful man and could skate like the wind. As the poem says, going shoulder to shoulder with him, not only in a physical powerful struggle, but being able to stay with him stride for stride, taxed me to the limit. When it was over, I came to the realization that I can skate and bump with the best of them, and as I say in the poem, it helped me turn a corner in my own mind because I then knew I belonged.

HBR: You dedicate poems to people you idolized, played with and played against. "Donuts" for Tim Horton, "Standing Orrvation" for Bobby Orr, and "Here's Howe" for Gordie Howe. Who did you idolize as a kid. Once you met your idols in person and even played with them, did your feelings towards these guys ever change?

SK: My favorites players growing up were Tim Horton, Carl Brewer and Andy Bathgate. As a kid I looked up to them as these godlike men. As a man, playing with and against them, I realized they were just a bunch of grown up kids. They were all great guys, had a great sense of humor and like I said, were still just kids at heart playing the game they loved.

HBR: You also write about some real crazy characters you've met. "Kamikaze Cal" and "Wrong Way Nipper" and "The Mighty Hutch" and "The Ballad of Bugsy Watson" to name a few. Tell us the funniest story you have from your days in hockey.

SK: Well the funniest story that comes to mind was when I was playing in Pittsburgh in the early seventies. The poem in my book entitled, “My Big Chance” pretty much tells it exactly the way it happened. I wasn’t getting along with our coach Red Kelly and was benched for approximately twenty-three games straight. It just so happens we lost all of those games anyway so I didn’t miss much. Although I keep telling myself that if I had played, maybe we could have picked up at least one tie. So we’re playing the Vancouver Canucks, there’s a minute left to play in the game, and we’re down 6 to 1. Red yells at me to get out on the ice, and I yell back, “Red, do you want me to tie it or win it”! Of course the entire bench broke into laughter as I hurdled the boards and into the action. Just then one of the Vancouver players crossed over on my side of the ice carrying the puck with his head down. I could throw a pretty good hip check and started cutting hard to nail him at center ice. He saw me at the last moment and dropped to his knees as I soared over his head, clearing the boards and destroying an ESPN television camera which was set up in the penalty box. I landed on my head amid sparks, smoke and broken glass while simultaneously my skates ripped the shirt off the timekeeper sitting in the box. When I finally got my bearings and started back for the ice, Joe Friday, the referee was standing in front of me and said: “Go back and sit down you’ve got two minutes for elbowing. The worst part was that night on the late sports in Pittsburgh, they replayed the event not once but three times.

HBR: You talk about the one and only Tiger Williams in "He Could Bite A Wall." What does Tiger have to say about this ode? I'm guessing Tiger does not read a lot of poetry.

SK: Tiger might surprise you; he’s a really smart guy. The fact is Tiger hasn’t seen the poem yet. In fact, the only player I’ve written about in the book that’s received a copy is Bryan “Bugsy” Watson, another really smart guy. He liked it so much that he ordered twelve copies and I charged him full price. He needs to pay me back for all the welts he put on my head when I played against him.

HBR: You've been southern California ever since retiring, pursuing business ventures. Do you still keep in touch with former teammates? Do you still hit the ice at all?

SK: The answers to those questions are no and no. I’ve been busy over the years raising my two boys who are now thirty-two and twenty-six and chasing business ventures which I never tire of. Currently I’m working on syndicating multi-family dwellings in both the United States and Canada as well as promoting my book across Canada through speaking engagements and book signings.

HBR: I think my favorite poem in the book is actually a set of 8 connected poems about the 1972 Summit Series. You never played in the "The Series of '72" but obviously it had a big impact in your life. Tell us how important it was to you.

SK: I was playing in Pittsburgh at the time and like every Canadian was shocked that we didn’t win eight games straight. It’s a strange dichotomy how the Series on one hand left every Canadian with a good dose of humility, yet on the other hand provided the entire country with a sense of pride unequaled in Canadian history. This particular poem took me a month to write. It’s approximately twenty pages long with pictures from the Series scattered throughout the poem. It was such a momentous event in Canadian history that my struggle was finding a unique way to tell the story. Then one day it hit me. Personify the country of Canada talking about its game and in particular the Series of 72. Once I had that concept, then it came down to finding the right opening line or in this case versus. Once I arrived there, then it was back to my old formula of letting the poem write itself, line by line. Overall, the difficulty in writing this book was putting actual events to rhyme and rhythm. When your developing a poem like “The Fearless John Hock and The Mighty Michael Mckey,” since its fiction, you can move it in several directions until you find the best way to make it work. Not so with the Series of 72. In fact, I’m still amazed at the final result. It almost feels like it was written somewhere before in another cosmos and delivered to me.

HBR: I always ask this question when talking about '72. Where were you when Henderson scored?

SK: I haven’t a clue. Since all my poems are committed to memory and I can recite them at will, maybe I’ve used up all the free space in my grey matter. I’ll need to order a new hard drive.

HBR: A pretty serious poem in your book is "Running on Empty," where you discuss your strong faith in God. You have always been a religious person. How common is that in the hockey world? Is it hard to be devoted to God while playing pro hockey, with the extensive travel and all? Did you ever feel any discrimination or ill feelings because you were "different" this way?

SK: I’ve actually not always been a religious person. In fact I wouldn’t consider myself religious at all if the definition of that is based on a system of ethics or ritual. Christianity is viewed by many as just another system of rules and regulations that may in some way please or appease their definition of God. In fact Christianity says there’s nothing mankind can do to earn favor with God and that is why it’s called a gospel of grace. It’s important for me to clarify this issue in an age where Christianity is as much misunderstood and maligned as at any time in history.

Over the past 30 years, any credible scientist, physicist, cosmologist or biologist including numerous Noble Prize winners now view Darwinism as junk science. Advances in understanding the complexities of creation and the universe we live in reveal the innumerable factors needed to underwrite the reality of life as we know it to be so complex and out of the reach of pure chance, as to be laughable. 21st Century science has proclaimed intelligence behind creation!

Life has meaning and God has a plan and a purpose. We can speculate as to what that is, however, if he can design it, then he can provide a manual or in this case a thesis on who he is, what his purpose is and why we are here. The bible clearly lays it out and it’s a simple truth! When tested against the great philosophical and theological questions of the ages only Christianity provides the answers, gives meaning to mankind’s existence and clearly sets forth Gods purpose. Simply stated in scripture, “God’s purpose is to demonstrate before all creation for eternity the riches of his love, mercy and grace to undeserving men.”

Remember, this is God’s revealed truth, like it or not. And like it we should for the only responsibility left to man is to believe in the one whose sacrifice paved the way for all mankind to be reconciled to God. Remember if God is to put on display his infinite love and mercy, the flip side of that is there must be something unworthy enough to be shown mercy to. The good news is that Gods purpose and plan is to show mercy and love to us for eternity. Not a bad deal, especially when you think that you don’t have to do anything to earn your way… it a free gift just by believing in Christ as your savior. So in summation, religious I’m not, solidly grounded in faith and clear logic I am.

I realize that was long winded, however, as I mentioned earlier, people are embarrassed about their faith today as a result of many, and in particular those in the media, who would look at individuals with faith as those walking blindly. Further they condescend on people of faith as if there was a void in their intellectual capacity. In fact the opposite is true. For anyone to think that the beauty and complexities of life are a result of pure accident leaving mankind void of hope, purpose or meaning, are minds that can’t scratch below the surface. By the way, have you ever noticed that these people are always angry… why is that?

In answer to your other questions: no I didn’t feel discriminated against in hockey; I’ve found that when you get people alone they really are thirsty for truth and meaning. Hockey players are no different than anyone else. In regard to being an athlete and a Christian, I found the many hours sitting on airplanes and in airports as well as hotel rooms, provided ample time for me to read. My favorite topics were theology and economics. I don’t have a number but I can tell you that there are hundreds of guys in the NHL who’ve come to faith in Christ over the years. I just happen to be more vocal. After all… I am a poet!

HBR: Thanks Sheldon!


Ana March 13, 2010 at 5:22 PM  

It has been a great encouragement to read the interview.
I am sure we can all think of so many high profile people who have publicly declared that they would give everything they had to have peace, or to be loved.
In his interview, Sheldon breaths not only peace and confidence but deep joy in the God who loves him!
thank you!
Ana Vincent

Anonymous,  November 27, 2011 at 5:37 AM  

I knew Sheldon when I was a boy growing up in the same town, North Bay, Ontario, Canda, and going to the same school. He was a fine guy and an outstanding player even at that time, as was his brother, Gord. I too know Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, and give my full support to what Sheldon has said in this interview about being a Christian. It makes all the difference in the world.

Graham Dalziel

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