The story starts with a beaver dam. Or what was once a beaver dam. Every year when winter would descend on the vast plains of southwestern Saskatchewan, the father of the house, a powerfully built man descended from the Cree and Chippewa peoples, would head out to Frenchman Creek, behind his modest ranch in a speck of a town called Val Marie (population 164).
Machete in hand, the father would proceed to chop up the dam as if he were hacking up a woodpile, freeing water to flood onto a patch of flat land, creating a makeshift skating rink for his hockey-loving sons.
Video: Bryan Trottier was mainstay on six Cup-winning teams
"We thought it was like that for every kid in Canada," Bryan Trottier said. "That was our ready-made Zamboni. My father would go out and break up the dam four or five times a year, and we'd [be in business]."
Frenchman Creek flows into the Milk River, not much more than a few rink lengths from the Montana border, in a town that is adjacent to Grasslands National Park and bills itself as the only place in all of Canada where one can see a black-tailed prairie dog, a black-footed ferret and a wild-plains bison.
This was where Bryan Trottier learned to skate. Sometimes he would skate on Frenchman Creek all the way to town, 12 meandering miles, over rough stretches with twigs and rocks and even dead animals frozen in the ice. It never occurred to him that this was anything unusual. You deal with it and skate on.
Games: 1,279 | Goals: 524 | Assists: 901 | Points: 1,425
It was also where Trottier first dreamed that maybe one day he would be good enough to play for the Val Marie Mustangs, the local town club. That he would wind up having an 18-year, Hall of Fame NHL career that would include six Stanley Cup championships (four straight with the New York Islanders from 1980-83 and two straight with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and '92), a Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie, an Art Ross Trophy as its top scorer and a Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player was a pretty good backup plan.
Not that Trottier was ever expecting any such acclaim.
"Right from the start, I just wanted to contribute somehow, whether it was by bumping somebody, making a pass or scoring a goal," Trottier says. "I liked to earn my pay every day."
Few players in NHL annals earned their pay more than Bryan Trottier, who, at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, was far from the biggest player. Nor did he have the most skill or the hardest shot. He was, rather, a player whose overall impact far transcended the sum of his individual talents.
"There were guys who got more attention and may have been more dynamic in certain areas, [but] Bryan was a tremendous all-around centerman," said Ken Morrow, a stout defenseman on the Islanders teams that won the Cup four times. The first of those championships came at 7:11 of overtime in Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final, when right wing Bobby Nystrom backhanded in a cross-ice pass from John Tonelli to give the Islanders a 4-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Trottier, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, had 29 points in 21 playoff games in the spring of 1980, but wasn't on the ice when Nystrom scored.
"I had nothing to do with it, but it's tough to top that instantaneous moment of being a champion for the first time," Trottier said.
From the start, Trottier forged his reputation on the ferocity of a frontiersman. Selected by the Islanders in the second round (No. 22) of the 1974 NHL Draft after a couple of standout years with the Swift Current Broncos and Lethbridge Broncos in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League, he was 19 years old when he showed up for his first NHL camp in 1975.
He recalls not scoring a single point in the entire exhibition season, and being wowed at how fast and strong and good everybody was. He wasn't at all sure he could measure up, and made it a point not to think about it. He just went full-out every second he was on the ice. He made it his mantra to hit somebody on every shift. Islanders coach Al Arbour noticed. So did general manager Bill Torrey.
Trottier remembers being in a makeshift locker room in training camp with 60 rookies, then 50, then 40. Cuts kept coming, and Trottier, the kid from Frenchman Creek, was still around. Then there were 20 rookies, then 10, then five. Neither Arbour nor Torrey gave him any kind of feedback.
"They didn't say one word to me the entire camp," Trottier said.
Finally, the season started. Bryan Trottier, No. 19, found himself centering a line between Clark Gillies and Billy Harris. The Islanders tied the Kansas City Scouts 1-1 in Trottier's first game. In Game 2, he had a hat trick and five points. Through his first 11 games, Trottier piled up 20 points, and soon the whole league was talking about the Islanders throwback teenager center, a two-way force who would be widely regarded as perhaps the best player in the league until Wayne Gretzky showed up.
"It's his poise that really stands out," Harris said during Trottier's rookie year. "He's always calm, regardless of the situation. And he's got tremendous hockey sense. He is, if there is such a thing, a natural-born center."
Trottier was on his way, and when Arbour paired him with Mike Bossy on one wing and Gillies on the other, he was at the center of the most dangerous line in the League. Trottier finished second in scoring to Guy Lafleur in 1977-78 with 123 points, and then moved up to first a year later, when he had 47 goals and 87 assists for 134 points and was a ludicrous plus-76 on his way to winning the Hart Trophy.
Still, Trottier never seemed impressed with his achievements, never carried himself as if he were a big star, embodying the lunch-pail ethos that was at the heart of the Islanders' dominance. He never forgot the Frenchman Creek days, nor the help he got from his teammate with the Swift Current Broncos, Dave "Tiger" Williams, who remains one of his closest friends. The NHL's all-time leader in penalty minutes (3,966), Williams may be known to the wider hockey world as the goon's goon, but Trottier -- universally known as "Trots" to his teammates -- knows another side of Williams, who didn't just befriend the 15-year-old Trottier, who was away from home for the first time. He protected him and taught him how to fight, the two of them sparring most every day after practice.
Indeed, it was Williams who might've rescued Trottier's career before it even started. Horribly homesick in his first year with Swift Current, Trottier was tired of getting roughed up and had come to almost hate hockey. He told his father, the dam-buster, that he wanted to quit and go back to school. Trottier's parents never pressured him, and Buzz Trottier told his son if he wanted to quit, he could, provided that he called the coach and told him.
Not very long after, Williams showed up at the Trottier door in Val Marie.
"You're coming back [to Swift Current] to play with me," Williams told him.
Trottier balked, but Williams, no more fond of losing arguments than fights, refused to take no for an answer. Soon Trottier, a 1997 Hall of Fame inductee, would emerge as a Broncos star, an Islanders draft choice and a man of championship pedigree, winning not just the four championships with the Islanders at the start of his career, but two more with the Penguins at the end.
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