October 27, 2009

Interview With Brett Henning

I recently sat down with Brett Henning, former hockey star turned author. We talked about hockey, family and his new book 7 Pre-Game Habits of Pro Hockey Players. Here's the interview.

When you were growing up with the Islanders, how often would you get on the ice with the players?

Looking back it feels like I lived at the rink. From the age of about 8 to 13 I would bug my dad every home weekend, especially if they were practicing at the Nassau Coliseum. I even remember taking "sick" days from school when the Penguins or Los Angeles would come into town. Still not sure if my mom caught on to that one. Ha. But yeah I would sit up in the stands, grabbing every puck shot over the boards, until the very end of practice. Then I would rush down, throw on my helmet and gloves, and skate to the bench while the injured and scratched players would skate extra. As soon as they broke off to individual groups to practice faceoffs, point shots, or play two pass I would jump on the ice. You can't believe how much a 12 year old's confidence can grow scoring on an NHL goalie.(Must have been hard to make that believable.) Everyone was truly really great both on the ice and off it, even though I'm sure they were a little annoyed to see me bouncing around in the locker room all the time.

Which Islanders players were the most fun for the kids? Were any of the players best to steer clear of?

There were definitely a few guys that were more fun and I knew I could always mess around with. Mic Vukota, Pat Flatley, Glenn Healy, and Rich Pilon come to mind. I think that they were so busy pulling pranks on each other that they were more than happy to have another person join the fray. Even if I was only 12 years old, I was probably on the same wavelength as their after practice jokes. Ha. I would sit in the TV room and try to blend into the corner and after a while I think they forgot I was in there. I definitely learned a few things during that time. It was great because even away from the rink I remember playing pond hockey in front of Pat Flatley's house or doing a school report where I interviewed Glenn Healy. I guess some could say that I was the coach's kid and that this was forced behavior but I can honestly say that they seemed happy to do it and had a good time themselves.

There were never any guys that I stayed away from. I can honestly say that they all treated me great. Some guys would hang out for a half hour, teaching me how to pass or something and I would feel guilty. The young guys were almost always serious but they still would acknowledge my presence and try to ask a few questions. I think a few of the guys were probably annoyed at my everlasting presence but I tried to stay out of everyone's way as much as I could and if they were they never showed it.

Did you get to meet a lot of players from other teams?

Yeah all the time. There was a hallway that was closed off at both ends. The Islander locker room and visitor locker room were at the opposite ends. My dad must have told me countless times to stay close to the Islander locker room or at least on the Islander's half of the hallway but when Mario Lemieux and Jagr are taping their stick at the same time I would kind of become mesmerized and drift down toward them . I will never forget when St. Louis came into town. I was out in the hallway in my usual spot probably playing mini hockey against the wall or something and Brett Hull comes up to me. He thought it was cool that we shared the same name and actually brought me into the St. Louis locker room. He propped me up on the stretching table in the middle of their locker room and all the players were peppering me with questions while they got dressed. That was unbelievable.

What do you think of the Islanders current plight? Will they be moved to KC or somewhere else?

Living in California I'm kind of distanced from it but it's sad to think that the Islanders could actually move. I think it's a veiled threat for leverage but the fact that it's come to that, says something about the state of the team. New York fans are very passionate about their teams and I know a lot people that live and die by the Islanders. To me nothing is better then an Islander vs. Ranger game. The electricity in the building is crazy. I once saw a whole section going at it in the upper deck. Not even exaggerating. But saying that, it's also tough for any fan base to go through some of the rough years that Islanders have had and not come out feeling dejected. I really feel bad for the alumni in this situation because many of them have made Long Island their home.

Out of all the players you played with in the USA Hockey Development program, who surprised you for making the NHL, and for not making the NHL?

That's a great question. As a kid you always have your eye on the great players in your area or have at least heard rumors about some kid half a country away that scored so many points in a season. With being a part of the Inaugural USA National Development Program, it was kind of weird because you were staring across the locker room at most of these same players that you heard about or played against in summer all star leagues. Some of the players like David Legwand choose to play in the CHL but that year we tremendous talent, especially at D. I wasn't necessarily surprised by some of my teammates making the NHL but the impact some have made and are still making has surprised me. The name that keeps popping into my mind is John-Michael Liles. He was a 1980(my age) but I believe he started off the season playing for the younger team. He always had great talent and could see the ice well which makes him so good on the powerplay now, but at that time he was really small for a D. I could be wrong but I don't remember him weighing more than 160 pounds.

The players that surprised me not making the NHL were mostly because of injuries. You know career ending injuries are out there but you never think it will happen to you or a friend. Both of my close buddies on that team-Pat Aufeiro and Matt Doman--were severely hampered by injuries and eventually had to retire because of them. Pat was a very gifted offensive defenseman who was a one man breakout and Matt was a true leader. I guess it happens all the time, especially in hockey but the old cliche of being young and thinking you're invincible rings true when thinking about that time.

When you played with Team USA at the 2000 WJC, you played with some great future talent. Can you make a comment about each of the following players:

- Rick Dipietro

He stood on his head that tournament. Rick was part of the National Development Team in Ann Arbor so I knew him pretty well. He is very confident in his ability and that tournament everything seemed to click for him.

- Jordan Leopold

Jordan also played at the NDTP. He is a great heads up player. Always made the right play and was always in the right position defensively. He had a few injury problems while I played with him (concussions and shoulder if I remember correctly) so it's great to see the kind of career he's put together. One of the nicest guys out there.

- Brooks Orpik

Brooks is from the Buffalo area and with me being from Long Island I grew up playing with him on all the USA Hockey summer teams. He is a beast. Very strong and when he wants to move you from the front of the net there's not much you can do. He was very quiet when I played with him and let his on-ice play do the talking.

- Dany Heatley

I remember Heatley really taking over the power play. He was so big and had such good hands that it was tough to stop him. I remember thinking that he created room out on the ice unlike any player that I had every seen other than maybe Scott Gomez. He also had a great shot.

- Marian Gaborik

I don't remember him doing much against our team. I definitely remember being out against him a few times though because his speed was unreal. He would leave you in the dust instantly. It was like he had Top Gun afterburners.

At Notre Dame you played with future NHLers Ben Simon and Brett Lebda. Why did you choose Notre Dame?

Other than watching Rudy as a kid I didn't know too much about Notre Dame. When I first visited I was really taken aback by the spirit of the campus and the overall beauty of it. It also didn't hurt that my mom is a huge Catholic and really liked that aspect of the school. I was fortunate enough to play about 2 and a half seasons at Notre Dame before being injured. It's funny because you go to an ND home game, take a look around and realize it's not a rink. What I mean by that is its a rink inside of a big domed athletic facility. The stands are temporary on all but one side and during football weekends they shove hundreds of alumni into the other side. If a puck flies over the boards you have a chance of taking out Joe Montana. I guess what I'm getting at is it's not the best facility in the CCHA.(They're getting a 20 million dollar upgrade over the next couple of years.) Compared to where some of my friends went including BU, Minnesota, and Wisconsin it wasn't a big hockey school. But despite all that I would have made the same decision again. The campus is beautiful, the academics are really strong, and I've met some of my greatest friends through my experience there. At that time we were building a great hockey fan base and I think really laying the path for what they have been able to accomplish the past couple of years.

Who was the coach at the time?

Dave Poulin was my coach when I was there. He's a really great guy and taught me a lot about the game and life afterward. I played center and at the end of most practices we would work on face-offs. It's very humbling to get your butt handed to you by your 45 year old coach in a warm-up suit. I think his forearms were carved out of steel.

I was injured my junior year so during my senior year I wanted to be around the team as much as possible. Coach made me sort of a glorified assistant coach. I could hang out with the guys but I also wore a headset up in the press box. I got to see a different side of the coaches sitting in on those closed door meetings.

It's interesting because the coach there now-Jeff Jackson-was my coach at the National Development team and also during my World Junior experience. He's an unbelievable coach. Very smart and well prepared X's and O's wise.

How was the college experience for you?

The college experience was great for me. I don't remember who said it, but it was someone in the Islander locker room that said "college was fun. Where else do you get to hang out with 10,000 to 40,000 kids your same age?" And I agree completely. It's sort of like a self contained environment run by kids. Everyone is kind of on the same page. You could have played in front of a packed house on Friday night but come Sunday you had to bare down and join the study group with a lot of the same people that cheered you on. It's not so much the academics but the people you interact with that shape your experience. At Notre Dame they force you into a dorm environment as an athlete for the first 3 years which I believe only helps the situation. The football games there are something truly special to be around.

Clear up this misconception about US college athletes - do athletes have an easier course load than regular students?

Guys are always exaggerating saying that so and so took underwater basket weaving or bean bag theory but I can tell you that at Notre Dame there were no exceptions. In fact when I was there the football team lost a few top recruits due to grades. I will say that we did have a tutoring program for athletes that I took full advantage of for calculus. Once they started adding the letters into the equations it was all downhill for me. Ha. But yeah everyone at Notre Dame had to take school very seriously. No one wanted to get the phone call from Father Al who was our team's advisor at mid-terms asking about a below average mark. And at Notre Dame as an athlete you couldn't live off campus if you had a 2.7 GPA or under. That lit a fire under a lot of guys too. One of the coolest things that I always tell people is that I played with a guy who is actually a rocket scientist for NASA now. But then again my non-athlete girlfriend edits most of what I write.

College sports is HUGE business down in the States. Should US college athletes be better compensated?

This is a tricky one. For the most part getting a good education and getting to play the sport that you love should be enough. When you say that sports is HUGE business down here in the states, it definitely is. Football and basketball make schools a ton of money. But for the most part I'm not sure how big of a money maker college hockey really is. I personally always felt that the entire Notre Dame sports' program would clam up money wise if the football team didn't make that big bowl game and get the guaranteed 4 million dollar or so payday. I could be wrong but that's how it felt. I feel football and basketball are the lifeblood of a lot of schools. If you started to pay certain athletes like Tim Tebow who probably makes Florida over 10 million a year then it would hurt the sports at the bottom of the totem pole. I don't think that hockey is at the bottom of the totem pole money wise for any school and it wouldn't really affect college hockey too much but the NCAA is trying to foster a sportsmanship mentality over all else. Paying college athletes, I believe completely, goes against this thinking.

You have recently finished your first book - 7 Pre-Game Habits of Pro Hockey Players - What made you decide to write this book?

Initially I didn't sit down with the intention of writing a book. And it's one of those things where if I was assigned this as a school project-write a 240 page book-I probably would have laughed to myself and said yeah right. But it happened that I had a lot of time due to getting laid off and I really couldn't watch one more Youtube hockey fight or episode of Rescue Me so I sat down to write a long email to a friend that's a coach. It ended up being a looooooot longer than I expected. I had a number of experiences since getting injured that were a little unconventional such as living in Australia for a year. Plus being a self help nerd and reading a lot of those types of books I felt gave me information and knowledge that would have really helped me when I was playing. I had a bunch of these aha moments and wanted to write them down.

Are you planning on writing more books?

Not at the present moment. I really enjoyed the writing process and I believe that there is a ton of information in this book that can help players, coaches, and parents but I want to wait and see how this is received before I put something else together. But you never know. Maybe I can switch fields and write a travel guide on beach hockey in Brazil or something.

Tell us more about your company Score 100 Goals

The idea behind Score100goals is to dream big. Really big. As I mentioned before I'm kind of a self help geek and looking around, including at myself in the mirror I realized that a lot of people have these big dreams growing up. And then because of thousands of reasons-time, self esteem, money, weight, education, etc-you lose these dreams and become satisfied with just reacting to life's circumstances. I want to help people realize that despite every reason the critical voice in your head tells you why somethings not possible, you can quiet that voice to dream big and have big goals. And I realize that it's pretty easy to say and believe me I have a tough time pounding it into my thick skull a lot of the time, but I think it's the most important thing a person can do. The company name--Score100goals--refers to, kind of the 4 minute mile or Mt. Everest of hockey. In that, there used to be talk of "maybe this is the season where we see a 100 goal scorer." Now we talk about players hitting 50 goals in a season. To even mention 100 goals in a season seems impossible. But why not. Kids should be growing up thinking that they're the player that's going to score 100 goals in a future season. And if you're a goalie, or a defenseman, or 50 years old playing at 11 pm to an empty arena-then take your individual dream and have it come alive.

The Score100goals products (New shooter tutor and Scoring System, iPhone/iPod touch game correlating with the shooter tutor, and now the book 7 Pre-Game Habits of a Pro Hockey Player) are meant to improve a players performance and help them reach the highest levels in hockey. I would like to continue adding unique products that will help players on the ice but also get the philosophy across of dreaming big. So I hope that a kid playing hockey hears this and grows up to get his picture in the Hall of Fame holding a puck that says 100 on it. Or even more importantly a kid playing hockey hears this and maybe doesn't make the NHL but grows up and cures cancer because he dreamed big. That would be cool.

What are your future goals in hockey?

My future goals in hockey are to grow Score100goals big enough so that it has the means to reach every hockey player, parent, and coach in the world.(As an example of above, I have to fight with my critical voice saying that's too big a goal as I wrote that last sentence.) I want to help them reach their dreams and goals. And hopefully this will give Score100goals the financial means to help grow the game of hockey by donating to other like minded organizations and people.

Be sure to check out Brett Henning's new book 7 Pre-Game Habits of Pro Hockey Players. He also has the following YouTube podcast to view:


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