Editor’s note: It’s almost Halloween, so it’s the perfect time to explore the spooky side of hockey. The following story appears in THN’s scariest edition ever: The Fear Issue. Grab a copy on newsstands today or order one here!
Ray Ferraro remembers coming home from practice one day in 1990 and seeing the light on his answering machine blinking. The message was from Ed Johnston, his GM with the Hartford Whalers. Things weren’t going well. It was mid-November and Ferraro had scored only two goals in his first 15 games. He had scored at least 20 goals in each of his five full NHL seasons to that point, including seasons of 41 and 30 goals.
But the blinking light and the message were a clear indication of what was coming and Ferraro knew it. He was getting traded, and before he returned Johnston’s call, he picked up a copy of The Hockey News that was on his kitchen table and began to desperately go through its pages.
“I looked through the league trying to figure out who would want me,” Ferraro recalled, “and I couldn’t come up with anybody.”
Almost a quarter of a century later, Ferraro’s vantage point allows him to see the game from a place where everything seems so easy. As a between-the-benches analyst for TSN, he’s far more comfortable in his abilities as a broadcaster than he ever was as an NHLer. He also has a front-row seat to the fear and uncertainty that can consume players. He can relate on an all-too-familiar level with the scorer who comes back to the bench muttering about a missed opportunity, questioning himself and wondering if this will be the time when he just can’t get out of this slump. He can see the fear in the eyes of the fourth-liners on two-way contracts and aging veterans who are hanging on by their fingertips. The ones who are playing scared are the guys who get rid of the puck as quickly as it lands on their sticks, since you can’t make a mistake if you don’t have the puck. They’re the ones who get it on their stick in the scoring zone, and yet somehow it all blows up.
There’s a lot of fear in the game of hockey. With players bigger, stronger and more physical than ever before, the fear of injury is omnipresent. Those who fight for a living go into every game knowing there’s a chance they’ll get punched in the face with someone’s bare knuckles. It’s not a wonderful way to live. For star players, however, if there’s anyone who should be immune to the fear of their place in the game, it should be them.
But it isn’t always. When Brett Hull was at the height of his talents and challenging Wayne Gretzky’s single-season record for goals, he was on top of the world. You’d think he’d wake up every morning gleefully thinking about how he was going to make some poor goalie’s life miserable that night. He might have had a goal or a hat trick the night before, but rather than brimming with confidence that he’d continue to score, Hull was wracked by insecurity.
“I wake up every day scared to death that I’ll never score again,” Hull said at the time. “I’ve never talked to Wayne (Gretzky) about it and I’ve never heard him mention it, but when he first started, he was so awesome he had to have that inner fear of failure, or he never would have done as well as he did. I can’t even sleep at night sometimes.”