What happens when a young player's NHL dream gets derailed by injuries and takes an unexpected detour through the lower levels of the European minor leagues? When is it time to let go of one dream in order to chase another?
Bill Keenan was once that young player who came to such a crossroads, and in 2016 he wrote the book "Odd Man Rush" about his experience. He later wrote the screenplay and now his intercontinental hockey journey – which began in the bright lights and big city of New York in the early 1990s and came to an end in northern Sweden two decades later – is set to become a feature film of the same name.
The movie Odd Man Rush, starring Jack Mulhern as "Bobby Sanders" (aka Bill Keenan) and featuring cameos from hockey royalty such as Gretzky and Lemieux – in the form of Wayne's son Trevor and Mario's daughter Alexa – will be available digitally and on demand on Sept. 1. "Slap Shot is never going to be replaced and thank god for that," Keenan said. "I just want some kid on a team bus to say, 'Hey, let’s put on Odd Man Rush.' If there’s one guy who knows this movie exists, it’s a win for me."
Here's how the movie is described in the press kit: "When Bobby Sanders' Harvard hockey career ends with more surgeries than goals, he scores a spot on the fringes of pro hockey in the European minor leagues, ultimately landing in northern Sweden after being traded for a washer-dryer combo. But Bobby’s relationship with the Swedish checkout girl at the local market forces him to confront the reality of his childhood dream before the hockey gods intervene. Odd Man Rush is a comical coming-of-age story set in the quirky world of European minor league hockey. The film chronicles the hijinks of Sanders, a hockey-obsessed kid from New York City, who dreams of playing in the NHL."
Keenan's hockey odyssey began like so many others. He became enthralled with the game as a youngster and followed his passion – and his talent, as it turned out – almost to the ends of the Earth. Born and raised in New York City, he grew up a Rangers fan and was an impressionable eight-year-old when the team won the Stanley Cup for the first time in more than a half a century in 1994. From that point on, there was no turning back.
"The thought of playing in the NHL came on my radar when I was five years old and watching Adam Graves," said Keenan, who took his NHL aspirations to Harvard in 2005 before injuries and harsh reality set in. "Probably when I got to Harvard is when I realized it was going to be really tough to make it. (NCAA hockey) was a whole other level and it was still quite a ways from the NHL. As you get a bit older you get a better understanding of the talent you need to have. Hard work goes a long way but it wasn’t going to take me to Madison Square Garden."
The talent hurdle was one obstacle, but injuries were another and they dictated the direction of Keenan's hockey career. He graduated from Harvard in 2009, but had been limited to a total of six games over the 2005-06 and '06-07 seasons.
"It was my back," Keenan said. "When I was a sophomore at Harvard, I had two back surgeries and the injuries and rehab basically put me on the shelf for almost three years. It was a nerve issue, which isn't like a broken bone that heals. Backs and concussions are the two injuries you can’t see.
"It was difficult. With your teammates, there’s only so much empathy that goes around. It was difficult on a number of levels. I flat-out couldn’t skate. I just wanted to find a way to end the game on the ice, which is why I wanted to play afterwards. It wasn't a route to the NHL as much as being able to play a season."
So, after a less than satisfying college career and his NHL dream all but dead, Keenan headed off to Europe in 2010.
"I'd be shocked if you've heard of any of the teams I played on," said Keenan, who fulfilled his goal-scoring promise during two seasons in Germany and Sweden. "It was success in a big-fish-in-a-small-pond sort of scenario. But the fact I was on a pond at all, that’s what really mattered to me. I still wanted to play and the European minors was one of the places that you can go play. It’s a hockey purgatory. Some of the players are still holding on to the dream and the rest are over the hill and holding on at the other end.
"For me, it was a way to continue playing. It was a ton of fun, you're 24, you're in Europe, you have a lot of time on your hands and you're doing what you love. It was fun on and off the ice. I could pay for beers after the game on Friday night and that’s about it."
And that's when the idea to write a book came about. "Three months after I quit, I was 25 and I got to play that last season," Keenan said. "I was actually planning to play another year and move up. But it occurred to me, 'Am I hooked on this drug of hockey?' You can trap yourself in the game. My gut said it was time to move on, even though I wasn’t fully over it. I realized after a couple of months of not watching hockey and pretending it didn’t exist, I liked writing.
"I wasn’t any sort of writer growing up, I was the first guy to try to watch a movie or read the Cliff's Notes so I didn’t have to read a book. The writing actually came on in college on Sundays, after you go out with the guys, you’d get emails from guys on the team. I was trying to do that except I wanted chronicle the whole experience. That’s how it started, it was thinking, 'How can I entertain myself and go back to the dressing room not physically because that's over, but through words?' "
The result was the book "Odd Man Rush," which met with critical and sales success, and the possibility of turning it into a movie soon followed. "I wrote the first script and tried to send it to (former NHL team owner and movie producer) Howard and Karen Baldwin, not knowing their email addresses," Keenan said. "I guessed at it. One of the emails landed in their inbox.
"I didn’t know what I was doing. I had just started working a job in finance back in New York. Someone caught wind that I wrote a book about hockey and this woman made a comment like, 'Who's playing you in the movie?' Just her saying that made me think, 'What if I wrote a movie?' It took me four or five months and then I sent it to the Baldwins. From the get-go, they kept me involved from start to finish."
Being on hand for the making of the movie – which is set during his final season in Sweden – was a surreal experience for Keenan. "There’s no question working on something that you created and embodied is like looking at yourself in the mirror, you see some good stuff and you see the shortcomings," he said. "It’s a very conflicted feeling, there’s nothing about it that’s starstruck. I was so excited to be in the moment that I was just trying to enjoy and contribute. It's like hockey, you don’t want to be on the ice and looking around at the play, you've got to participate."
As for the end result, Keenan stays true to his "humble hockey player" roots.
"I want to be realistic about it," he said. "What makes a movie intriguing to me, I want to be entertained for 90 minutes. It was important to capture the realness and authenticity as best we could and it helped to have hockey people involved.
"It’s not some huge message. The movies that are forgettable are the ones that try to be too 'This is the way to do things.' I hope there's some realness to the conflict that people undergo as they lose the true essence of yourself. That struggle between the demands of reality and the pursuit of something you are so passionate about. I didn’t want to wrap it up, it’s not some happy ending, I don’t have any answers. It’s more to entertain, a couple laughs, some thoughtfulness. And hopefully, one or two lines that are memorable. That’s what I hoped for."