Former Blackhawk and TV analyst details on- and off-ice battles in new book "Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and Life"
To a generation of young fans who don't quite grasp his hair restoration billboards, Eddie Olczyk is the ultimate TV companion. He expertly analyzes the Blackhawks most of the time, with NBC some of the time, deploying humor, candor and an active telestrator. When he freezes the screen, it is an instant tutorial. He was born to do this, except he also did something else.
"Did you ever play?"
Eddie O hears that on occasion, and the answer is absolutely in the affirmative. A local lad drafted by his beloved Blackhawks, Olczyk excelled for 16 National Hockey League seasons, scoring 342 goals in 1,031 games with six different teams. He was not the spare fourth liner who absorbed while observing from the bench.
But, there is another dimension to the man that resounds in his new autobiography, "Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and Life" (Available now from Triumph Books). Neither a drinker nor a smoker, Eddie nevertheless was bodychecked two years ago by a foe with no conscience, colon cancer. He missed assignments, leaving all of hockey a man short, and he was missed. What's worse, there existed no clock to inform when his penalty would end, or if, or how.
Still, Olczyk used his platform and celebrity to perform what amounted to a public service. As Pat Foley, his Hall of Fame play-by-play partner expressed in a powerful forward, Eddie O saved lives. If you had a colonoscopy upon learning of his fight, you were not alone. Even while tormented by a dozen chemotherapies, Olczyk taught, especially to older generations who watched him before they heard him. Instead of wondering "why me?", he implored us with "why not?" Why not take one day for a screening exam?
Thankfully, Eddie O is healthy and humbled, all the better to chronicle his careers in concert with Perry Lefko, a decorated Canadian author who - this is not breaking news - first met Olczyk at a racetrack. Eddie is a savant around four legged athletes too. NBC doesn't reroute him to the Kentucky Derby during the Stanley Cup playoffs because he's just another pretty face.
He was a hotshot kid, though, and in 1984 became the first American prospect drafted in the first round by his hometown team. The Blackhawks selected him third overall, but only after trading up from their sixth spot. The Los Angeles Kings chose the defenseman they wanted, plus Tom Glavine, who opted to become a star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves.
The Blackhawks had targeted Olczyk all along, and if memory serves, teammates did not greet him with a red carpet. "Some people might have felt the fanfare for me was over the top," he suggests. But Eddie won everybody over in a jiffy, as he did wherever he went after Chicago. He was a hit in Toronto with the Maple Leafs and in Winnipeg with the Jets. Eddie could not only light up goalies, but locker rooms.
With the New York Rangers, Eddie encountered Coach Mike Keenan, an apostle of creative tension. Possessing the only vote that counted, he nominated Olczyk as the team pinata. Eddie was a frequent healthy scratch, but he took the high road, where there's always less traffic. Fellow players loved his adamantine disposition, but he still suited up for only 37 regular season games, short of the cutoff to have one's name engraved on the Stanley Cup. When the Rangers won it after 54 years, teammates petitioned the NHL to have Olczyk included.
Besides all the stories in this book, there are numerous breakouts quoting Olczyk's support cast: wife Diana, their four children, parents, guys he played with and against. John McDonough, the Blackhawks President/CEO who promised Eddie his seat in the broadcast booth would be ready when he was healthy, speaks. So do Mike "Doc" Emrick, NBC's Hall of Fame announcer who considers Eddie O more a brother than a sidekick, and Dr. Michael Terry, the Blackhawks Head Team Physician and point man collaborating Olczyk's steps to recovery.
"Behind the Bench, Briefly" is a chapter entailing another entry on Olczyk's resume. He coached the Pittsburgh Penguins. Mario Lemieux was on the way out, Sidney Crosby on his way in. Eddie's shift was short. But he got off the mat, and took to the airwaves, believing "the job is to tell people why things happen and what will happen."
A lot has happened to Olczyk, above all that glorious phone call. He was clean, cancer free. He faced a must-win, and he won.