Sunday, January 22, 2012

NHL Alumni Interview with Bernie Parent

Bernie Parent at the 2012 Winter Classic
(Photo - Wikipedia)

There was no shortage of storylines in the weeks leading up to the NHL Alumni game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers at the NHL’s 2012 Bridgestone Winter Classic. Two of the greatest captains in the history of the league, Bob Clarke and Mark Messier, were about to face off in the outdoor game at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia. Eric Lindros and John Leclair were reuniting as two-thirds of the famed ‘Legion of Doom’ line and the recently retired Mark Recchi joined his former Flyers teammates in the historic game. The man that stole the show though and captured the hearts of a new generation of hockey fans was Hall of Famer and hockey legend Bernie Parent.

During Parent’s playing career, the common phrase amongst hockey fans in Philadelphia was, “Only the Lord save more” and that still rings true today. At 66-years young, Bernie was perfect during his time on the ice in the Alumni game - his first game since an eye injury ended his career in 1979. After several busy weeks preparing for the Winter Classic, the two-time Stanley Cup champion, motivational speaker and author of Journey Through Risk and Fear, shared his thoughts on the event, facing fear and finding your passion in life, as well as the transition to life after hockey in our recent interview.

“It wasn’t one of those situations where I was going in to play the whole game, but it was nice to give the people one more chance to see me with my equipment on and perform for about five minutes,” Bernie said of taking part in the 2012 Winter Classic. “Having said that though, every day, two weeks prior to the game, the pressure was building up.”

“This was the first time in about 30 years that I had been on the ice and I only had about eight practises,” he continued. “Although it was an Alumni game, you have 45,000 people there and you want to do well for those five minutes and wave to the crowd. There was pressure and I didn’t think it would be that way, but when you live on the edge and you do the things you are supposed to do, the rewards are so fantastic - I felt so good!”

Although it had been many years since he last took to the ice to defend his crease from opposition forwards, he still had the instincts and the moves. Bernie not only posted a perfect save percentage, he also looked great in doing so. He made an impressive sliding save early in the game and he also stopped former New York Rangers 40-goal scorer Ron Duguay on a breakaway.

“You do things in a game like this when you have so many people watching that you don’t do in practise,” he said of his performance. “Needless to say, I was a little bit sore the next day.”

One of the more difficult aspects of making the transition to life after hockey is not being around the guys any more. The shared experience of playing in the NHL, life on the road and being together during the quiet moments in the dressing room, provides many memories that last a lifetime. Bernie enjoyed being in the room again, getting ready to take to the ice with some of the greatest Flyers players.

“You sit down and look around,” he said. “The Flyers did it right! We had guys from our team in ‘74, Lindros and Propp - so many guys. There were some awesome hockey players in the room. The beauty of it is, once you play for the Flyers, you become a member of the family. For that moment that you are in the dressing room with the boys, you are a family. That is very special. There are things in life that money cannot buy and that feeling of being part of the family is one of those things.”

In a conversation with Lanny McDonald last year, we spoke about the journey through the NHL, Stanley Cup victories, having your number retired and being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. As Lanny pointed out, being enshrined in the Hall of Fame and having your number retired is not something you expect when you embark on a career as a professional hockey player, but it is a tremendous feeling when it does occur.

Like McDonald, Bernie Parent accomplished a great deal during his career. A two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Flyers in 1974 and 1975, he won back-to-back Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies in those same years. He won an incredible 47 games in 1974, posting a 1.89 goals against average, and he continued his dominance in 1975 with 44 wins and a 2.03 GAA. The Flyers honoured him by retiring the #1 he made famous during his outstanding career and he entered the Hall of Fame in 1984. I asked Bernie the same question I posed to Lanny; do you ever look back on your career, amazed at all that you have accomplished?

“Yeah, of course you do,” he acknowledged. “But if I can take you back a bit - I discuss this in my book, Journey Through Risk and Fear, and I do a lot of speaking engagements about this topic too. When I was a kid and I was 17, I was drafted by the Boston Bruins. During the summer, we were celebrating with my family and my friends; everything was fine until September came. Then I realized that I would have to go to Niagara Falls to play Junior because that was the farm team of the Bruins at the time. Wow! When you are talking about taking risks and facing fear, I had to leave home and leave behind the security of my parents, my house and my friends. I picked up my suitcase and got on the train to Niagara Falls and I didn’t even speak any English.”

“I often ask myself the question, why did I go to Niagara Falls? I could never answer that question for a long time, but now I know why I went,” he said. “My purpose as a kid was to make it to the National Hockey League and win the Stanley Cup. When you have a purpose, you will overcome a lot of obstacles to get there. It was the first time I was introduced to risk and fear.”

As we discussed finding your purpose and passion in life, as well as overcoming fear, Bernie and I spoke about aiming for the stars. I try to live by this motto, “dream big and reach for the stars - even if you do not reach your ultimate goal, you are farther along on your journey in life than when you began.” The Hall of Fame goaltender and inspirational speaker agreed and explained that many people do not reach their goals because they feel things may not work out for them, so they do not even try.

“A big percentage of people constantly say ‘I’m too old, I’m too small, I’m not smart enough’ - whatever their reason,” he said. “My philosophy has always been try and give it all you have! If it doesn’t work out then learn from it and move on. Why assume things are not going to work out?”

With all that he did accomplish in the league, his career started out very differently from how it ended. After being drafted by the Boston Bruins, he was left unprotected in the 1967 expansion draft and became a member of the newly formed Philadelphia Flyers organization. He struggled at times in Boston and Philadelphia, and it was not until a trade to Toronto in 1971, when he found himself backing up Jacques Plante - another future Hall of Famer, that his career began to take off. By the time he returned to the Flyers and became their number one goaltender in 1974, he was a new man. It was not long before the fans in Philadelphia were saying, “Only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent!”

“If you look back to the early part of my career, in Junior I went to Niagara Falls, then I went to Boston and ended up with the Flyers,” he reminisced. “I got traded to Toronto, so I was moving around quite a bit and I was wondering what was going to happen to my career. I felt at the time that I had reached rock bottom and little did I know that I was going to spend two years with Plante in Toronto. I watched the way he practised. I watched him in the games - how he would anticipate the shots, whether it was a left-hand shot, a right-hand shot, stuff like that. Finally, one day I asked him ‘can you teach me your knowledge?’ Plante at the time, I think he was 43 or 44 years old, said ‘Of course!’”

“That man changed my career, he really did,” Bernie recalled. “Plante was a very creative person, he’s the one that came out with the mask and thank God he refused to listen to the criticism because today everybody is wearing a mask. He was also the first one to come out behind the net to play the puck. Being around a goaltender like that and a man that was a great teacher, it turned out to be just fantastic for me and he turned my career around.”

The Flyers teams of the 1970’s are one of the legendary teams in the history of the game. They are often referred to as the Broad Street Bullies. Having said that though, lost in the reputation of being a tough team to play against, perhaps the toughest in the history of the league, there was a tremendous amount of talent on their rosters. They did not win back-to-back Stanley Cups by accident.

“If you look at the Flyers, three of those guys made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame,” Bernie said. “Phil Esposito had it right and I heard him say this quite a few times, you can have all the toughness you want in the world, but you have to have talent to win the Stanley Cup - and we did. We had the right ingredients and the right combination of chemistry on the Flyers.”

“If you don’t have chemistry, it’s like an eight-cylinder engine that is only running on six - you are going to move forward but it’s not going to go well, so it is very important. Keith Allen (the Flyers GM) did a tremendous job to bring the right players to the team and of course, we had one of the greatest leaders who played in the NHL in Bob Clarke. When you look at all the winning teams, it doesn’t matter what sport you are talking about, you’ve got to have that great leadership because if you don’t, you are not going to win. Last but not least, we also had a great coach in Fred Shero. He was another person that was very, very creative and guided the team to two Stanley Cups.”

When hockey fans look back at the 1970’s and the great teams of that decade, which teams come to their minds first? Parent’s Philadelphia Flyers certainly do, as well as the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens. Those three teams captured every Stanley Cup during the decade - Montreal won six, while the Flyers and Boston each won the Cup twice. One of the great up and coming teams of that era that faced off against Parent in the 1975 Final, but seldom gets mentioned, is the Buffalo Sabres.

“Isn’t it funny how the world is? People only remember the winners,” Bernie said. “I remember with the Flyers, when Ron Hextall was our goalie and we played against Edmonton in the Finals. We took the Oilers to seven games and lost 3-1 I think. The reason I mention this, is that when we won in 1973-74 and 1974-75, we had parades in Philly with over two million people. It has nothing to do with the people, I am just making a point, we took Edmonton to seven games and we came back and there was nothing going on and yet, we had gone to a seventh game in the Finals.”

“So, when you go back and look at Buffalo, that’s what happened. They had a great line with the French Connection (Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert), which was one of the greatest lines that played in the NHL I believe - great hockey players! But I think that the reason that we beat them was that our overall team was better than theirs. That’s how we overcame that talented line.”

Whether a player took to the ice in the NHL for 100 games or 1,000, whether he won a Stanley Cup or not, making the transition to life after hockey is never easy. It is a whole new chapter, where many wonderful opportunities await them if they can embrace the change. I asked Bernie what the transition to life after hockey was like for him. Was it more difficult to move on when an injury ends your career and you cannot retire on your own terms?

“Retiring on your own terms? Actually, I don’t think that exists. You just get too freaking old and you can’t play any more,” he said with a laugh.

“I'll tell you what you miss when you stop playing,” Bernie continued. “You realize that you must move on in life, but when we played in the Alumni game in front of all those people, it is such a good, natural high that you can’t get in the world of business. I don’t care if guys are making millions and millions, once it stops, you really miss that - it’s a big part of your life. You have to face it and you don’t want to dwell on it. It’s a big part of your life that is missing, but you have to move on.”

“You have to learn how to put your career behind you because if you don’t, you’re going to suffer. It’s going to resurface and you are going to miss it. That’s the way sports are, that is the way life is - you are always talking about the past. Once in a while, you jump into the present. It takes work to readjust to what your new life has to offer. Of course, you cannot replace the thousands of people cheering, but you have to sit down and ask yourself, what is your passion now? What would you really like to do with the rest of your life? By asking yourself those questions, you don’t forget your past but you start concentrating on what you would really love to do right now. Once you find that answer, you will find your purpose and you will move towards that future. When you look back on your hockey career, instead of wishing that you were there again, you are grateful for the opportunity and you move forward.”

Since he left the NHL, Bernie has been active with many speaking engagements, motivating and inspiring his audience to embrace change and find the passion and purpose in their life. He shares the lessons he has learnt from his own experiences - the importance of working together as a team and facing fear head on when taking on a new challenge. In his book, Journey Through Risk and Fear, he tells his own story of facing fear and overcoming the obstacles that try to hold us back from reaching our ultimate goals in life. By sharing his own story, his hope is to guide others to success on their own journey.

“People have asked me many times, why write a book and how did you choose the title? I’ll tell you exactly what I have told them. I see so many people today struggling to make their mortgage payments, struggling to put food on the table. They can’t be afraid to take risks. Let’s face it, if you are going to take risks, then fear comes in because you have to let go of some of the things that you are doing. Once fear comes in, most people back away and they miss out on great opportunities. This is the message I share with people.”

“Amazingly, last June, I gave a talk to about 250 seniors in high school about this topic. I asked the kids, what is your purpose? About 90 to 95% of them had no clue. One of the kids asked ‘How do you define purpose?’ I told him to go home and find out what you would love to do. Not for your parents, brothers, sisters or friends, but just for you. Everybody has a passion for something and once you really find out what you would love to do for the rest of your life, then you have found your purpose. If more people would realize the power behind this, there would be less people struggling in life.”

“Purpose can mean many things, but I always tell people that if you are tired of the results in your life, week after week, month after month and year after year, you have to change what you are doing. Whatever you are doing is creating the same results. That’s another good question people should ask themselves - what has to change?”

“If you are going to change, then you have to face risks and that is when fear can come in. Opportunities will knock on your door. I always finish my talks by telling people this - there will be many times in life when you are sitting on your couch and someone knocks on the door. You get off your couch and answer the door and there is nothing but fear looking you in the eyes. That is when you have to march forward, towards your purpose. Unless you have purpose, you are going to close the door and you will not do anything about it.”

As we concluded our conversation, Bernie inspired me once more by saying, “Once you know what you want to do, then that is when the magic happens!”

Finding our passion and purpose can lead us to the next great chapter of our lives, much as it led Bernie to the NHL and continues to guide him to this day. A two-time Stanley Cup champion and an honoured member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, he continues to inspire others every day. It is fitting, but not surprising, that in his appearance at the Winter Classic he stopped every shot he faced. He overcame any fear he may have had and rose to the challenge - after all, only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent!

You can learn more about Bernie’s career, his book, speaking engagements and much more at and you can follow him on Twitter at

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