“I never thought of Terry Ryan’s hockey career as memorable until I picked up a copy of his soon-to-be-published book, Tales of a First-Round Nothing: My Life as an NHL Footnote…The book is an honest, poignant and often funny look at the life of a player on the fringe.” – Pat Hickey, Montreal Gazette
Tales of a First-Round Nothing was first on my summer reading list, recommended by my good friend Chris Morrison. Chris is a graduate of the OHL and CIS who went on to play Senior hockey in Newfoundland with the book’s author, Terry Ryan. In 1995, Ryan was a first-round NHL draft pick. Despite that, he ended up playing eight games in the Show. Chris told me about how important the Senior League is for Newfoundlanders and said that Ryan was a popular and interesting lad and that I should read his book. Had it not have been for Chris, I never would have picked it up. As Pat Hickey similarly iterated in the review snippet above, Ryan and his hockey career were quite irrelevant in my mind—lots of guys don’t last in the NHL for a variety of reasons.
I had trouble deciding whether or not his book makes a worthy contribution to scholarly literature on hockey. It was a leisurely read, not an academic one. But Ron McLean is quoted on the cover as stating that “TR lingers merrily like a sustained piano chord,” and I agree with him. I concluded that anyone who takes the time to share their life experience with others is making some sort of contribution and Ryan’s life has certainly been unique and he has a knack for story-telling. With that said, from an academic perspective, I would say that his book was sort of well-written, sort of funny, and sort of insightful. I guess it’s a matter of what you expect to get out of a book; my masculinity and ice hockey studies normally stop me from taking a story for face value. I’ll provide a brief overview of the book and then offer some notes on Ryan’s writing style and life experiences that some might consider out of line.
The book is a thoughtful collection of his memories and meanderings about ice hockey and life. He chronicles his experiences of growing up in Newfoundland, playing Junior hockey on the West coast and at various professional levels, and many tales involving alcohol, sex, friendship, family, and being active once your body can no longer keep up. What I like best about the book is that it tells the story of the majority in a world where we hear so much about the celebrity minority. It’s a rare appreciative glimpse into what happens when the NHL doesn’t work out as planned, which is the case for most Canadian ice hockey players and we often overlook that. In that sense, the book is a must-read.
Ryan’s writing style was inconsistent to me. I’m glad he didn’t opt for a co-author, however (such as Kirstie McLellan Day, who co-wrote books with Theo Fleury, Ron McLean, and Bob Probert), because I felt that his own voice came through in his writing, which I liked. I found it to be a representative mix of the voice of a seasoned writer, a Newfoundlander, and a stereotypical hockey player. He stated in the book that he had considered pursuing English if hockey didn’t work out and he does now hold a degree in English and Folklore from Memorial University, so I appreciated his ability to express himself crisply and intellectually at times. I wish he would have stuck with that style throughout instead of combining it with the other two, but I suppose he wouldn’t have been true to himself in doing so.
I especially enjoyed his eccentric detail. For example, the first time he tried to fight Tie Domi, he wrote that he stumbled over the boards onto the ice and “fell more awkwardly than a rhinoceros on a slip-and-slide in the rain” (p.83). The frequency and randomness of these clever lines was amusing; I wish I could come up with this stuff myself.
The substance of the book, for me, was the nature of his anecdotes and what they tell us about what it means to be a male ice hockey player. I lingered on the moments in which Ryan would share outlandish stories. He sometimes acknowledged that others may view them as problematic, but he had a way of normalizing them as the boys having fun or as a routine part of life as a hockey player. At the risk of divulging too many spoilers, highlights for me included losing his virginity in front of nearly 200 people, a wild night in a mini home with a stripper, and knocking out his own teeth with a hammer. Ryan makes clear that his goal was always to have a good story and he never hurt anyone. In fact, he also acknowledges that many experiences have brought him to tears, that he has a fear of heights, that he loves his wife and children, and that he once wrote a poem to read in a wedding speech—so there are layers to him. I don’t think he’s a bad person, let alone a striking example of the dark side of participating in men’s ice hockey. But I think he does unknowingly show readers what is considered a wild yet not entirely abnormal experience within male ice hockey culture.
I’m pretty quick to criticize hockey players who party a lot and sleep around—and I would judge anyone who knocked out their own teeth with a hammer—but I think that, right and wrong aside, the possibly questionable nature of Ryan’s behaviour is more lost on him than he claims. His unwavering pursuit of good stories especially merits some analysis in order to figure out what it says about expectations surrounding masculinity and hockey culture (see my related posts about the Junior and Major Midget AAA levels). I appreciate his honesty and some of his anecdotes were hilarious to me, but the normalization process behind his stories intrigued me and went completely unaddressed in the book, although I recognize that wasn’t his goal. Nonetheless, what constitutes unacceptable behaviour for male ice hockey players and how does it become downplayed?
This review barely does the book justice, but these points are the ones that stayed with me. It was an easy summer read that was relatively well-written, relatively funny, and relatively insightful, but it’s not for you if you’re looking for robust and meaningful fodder on the state of ice hockey and society. It definitely portrayed the life of a Canadian who, like so many others, lives for hockey but never quite made it as a pro. I think that this fact alone makes the book worth reading since Ryan’s position is common and yet consistently taken for granted while the stars and up-and-comers get the bulk of our attention. All things considered, I give it three stars out of five.