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Banter Book Review: “Odd Man Rush” by Bill Keenan

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The story of a life lived out of a hockey bag - from Manhattan, to Harvard, and beyond

Image courtesy Bill Keenan

Bill Keenan’s dream is all-too-familiar to anyone who grew up watching hockey and decided they were going to pick up a stick and play. More than anything, Keenan wanted to play in the NHL. But, unlike the rest of us, he traveled far and wide to keep that dream alive.

Keenan’s “Odd Man Rush” is the story of a New York City kid who grew up loving hockey. His memoir details his sometimes hilarious, sometimes sobering odyssey through NCAA and professional European hockey. During his unique, yet familiar journey, Keenan crossed paths with his hero Adam Graves as well as Jonathan Quick, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Gilroy, Ted Donato, and other names that will register with hockey fans.

Keenan’s memoir, published in 2016, has received a lot of praise as an exceptionally funny hockey book. It seems like every third or fourth review on Amazon.com references the movie Slapshot. Make no mistake, this is a funny book, but Keenan also has a gift for writing from a place of vulnerability. He will surprise you when he shares the tempest of emotions he went through as a result of the injuries that threatened to derail his fragile dream.

That being said, you will still find yourself smirking your way through most of Keenan’s story. You’ll grow attached to the personalities he collided and commingled with in Europe — including Latvians who refuse to smile, a mono-syllabic Russian who gives concise instructions about getting him the puck, and a Floridian defenseman who parks in a space reserved for the fire department and spends his nights playing online poker.

You’ll also be exposed to the strange and wonderful world that is lower-tier European pro hockey.

“When the bus stops, a small boy emerges from the crowd of Herford fans and stomps through the snow towards our bus, stopping just a couple steps from my window. He cups his hands around his eyes and I rub the condensation off my window. As he puts his hands back at his side, we make eye contact. Clad in a big winter jacket with the Herford logo on it and wearing a New York Rangers winter hat, he looks about eight. I wonder if he feels the same way about this game as I did as an eight-year-old watching Game 7 of the ‘94 conference finals. I raise my left hand and give him a small wave. He remains still then removes the mitten from his right hand, and gives me the finger.”

At times, Keenan’s re-telling of locker room humor filled with braggadocio and tales of sexual conquests was distasteful, but it was always authentic. And really, authentic is a good way to describe much of the memoir. Keenan kept journals during his hockey adventure and didn’t pull any punches sharing stories and conversations about his coaches, teammates, and especially himself.

Like any good comic writer, Keenan routinely self-deprecates. For every jab that he throws at his old coach Ted Donato and the numerous eclectic, hygienically-challenged teammates he met along the way, he delivers himself an uppercut or two. He suffers no delusions of grandeur regarding his skill level. Keenan recollects how a few of his teammates were disgusted by how weak his skills in EA Sports’ NHL titles were. He even admits to posing dramatically before a faceoff to ensure that photographers get a good shot of him.

When I closed Keenan’s book I found myself surprised by how much it had resonated with me. You can’t help but get lost in the stories of the people that he met, far from home, who played a part in his life lived out of a hockey bag. You can feel his connection to those people, including those with whom he was incompatible, all these years later.

For that reason alone, Keenan’s book is worth a read. You don’t need to know who he is or to love hockey to find a reason to keep turning the pages. Because, at some point in the memoir, you’ll find something that hits close to home. You’ll find something in Keenan’s words that resonates. And, if you are a hockey fan, you’ll gain a great deal of perspective on the best game in the world and the people who play it.