September 13, 2017
By Vernon Fiddler
I’m retiring today.
I know, I know. I really thought I was going to play longer than Jagr, too. But here we are.
I’m going to get to how an undrafted kid from Alberta played almost 900 games in the NHL — and also how Joffrey Lupul is terrible at impressions — but first I want to tell you about a really bad day in the Fiddler household.
It was August 9, 1988. I was eight years old and enjoying the summer in Edmonton. I had just come home to eat some lunch after running around with my friends all morning. Like usual in our house, the radio was on. And that was when I heard it. Wayne Gretzky was getting traded to L.A.
You have to understand — to a kid growing up in Edmonton in the ’80’s, Wayne wasn’t just a hockey player, he wasn’t even a god … he was bigger than that. He was Wayne.
At first, I just couldn’t believe it. I looked over to a box of cereal we had on the counter, and right there on the front was number 99. How could he be leaving? He’s right there.
Hockey was everything to me. We lived at the end of the road in a cul-de-sac and I used to play hockey in the street all summer. When winter came around I used to pester my parents, Bob and Patricia, for the two weeks before the first day of hockey sign-ups so that I could play.
My parents were always there to support me and my brother, Hoakey, and my sister, Bobbi, in anything we ever did. My mom was at home with us most days and my dad ran a car dealership. They taught me about hard work, dedication and how to raise a family. They always believed in me. I wouldn’t be the man — let alone hockey player — that I am today without them.
I know, I know. I really thought I was going to play longer than Jagr, too. But here we are are.
At the time, I didn’t realize how much my mom was sacrificing to help make my dreams come true. She drove countless miles in the car with me, which is something I will cherish for the rest of my life.
My dad was the most positive influence a kid could hope for. To him, every game I played was a good one. It didn’t matter if that wasn’t the case — that’s the way he saw me.
And now that I’m the father of both a hockey player (my son, Blake) and a figure skater (my daughter, Bella), I see the world the same way that my parents saw it for me, Hoakey and Bobbi. As a parent, your children are perfect, and that’s the main thing my father and mother taught me through their actions and countless sacrifices.
My whole family pushed me to follow my goal of becoming a professional hockey player. Their persistence helped get me to a tryout with the Kelowna Rockets in 1997. I hadn’t been drafted, and I hadn’t been heavily recruited — I was just invited to be an extra body at training camp. But I wound up making the team. Bruce, Gavin and Annie Hamilton ran that team, and Peter Anholt was the coach. My career wouldn’t be the same without those four people. They took a chance on me. The experience of making Kelowna that way prepared me for not getting selected in the 1998 NHL draft.
My dream seemed pretty much dead after that. I figured I would go to college in Alberta and maybe play hockey and get a degree. But in my fourth and final year of junior hockey, I was traded to Medicine Hat. I played there for just one season and had two pretty good teammates in Jay Bouwmeester and Joffrey Lupul.
Loops actually ended up being my roommate that season. He was a talented young player, but he still had a long way to go as far as being a good wingman and roommate. Let me explain.
Our coach, Rick Carriere, would sometimes call our billet homes on the nights before games to make sure that we were following curfew. One time when my girlfriend (who’s now my wife) was in town I took her into the city to stay at a hotel and enjoy a night out. (I don’t care what they say, downtown Medicine Hat is cool.) So before I left I told Loops that if Coach called, he should just tell him that I was sleeping. And of course, Coach called.
“Hey Loops, you and Fidds in for the night?”
“Yep. No problems here.”
“Alright, put Fidds on. I want to talk to him.”
“Uh, he’s … asleep already coach.”
“I don’t care, wake him up.”
“Yeah … O.K., one sec.”
At that point, Loops did what I can only describe as a “legend” move — he pretended to be me. In the sleepiest Fidds voice he could muster.
It didn’t work.
“Shut the f*** up, Loops,” Coach said. “Where the hell is Fidds?”
I heard about the whole thing the next day. The good news for us was that Coach thought it was as funny as we did. Loops turned out to be a better hockey player than he was an impressionist, thankfully.
And playing on a line with me that year, he helped my game a lot. I had a good season and found myself on an ECHL contract in another hockey town a few months later.
Well, not technically a hockey town. It was Roanoke, Virginia. The hockey culture there wasn’t quite the same as in rural Alberta … but I liked it. I played for the Roanoke Express, and one of my teammates was a guy named Rick Kowalsky. He was a real ECHL veteran. Rick’s nickname was “Killer,” but I never asked why. (I didn’t want to know.) He took me under his wing on the ice and in the dressing room, and he and his wife were great to me. I knew that if I was lucky enough to get to play hockey for a living I wanted to be the same type of veteran as Rick.
When my chance in the NHL came with Nashville in 2002, Ray Shero, David Poile, Barry Trotz and Brent Peterson really helped me become the player I wanted to be — I’ll always be thankful to them. They didn’t let anybody slip through the cracks there. It didn’t matter if you were a first-round draft pick or an undrafted kid playing in Virginia.
In fact, they paid close enough attention to their players in Roanoke that they signed me to an NHL contract that May. I went to training camp a few months later not expecting much. I just knew that I was going to work hard every day and hope that I could earn the respect of NHL regulars like Brent Gilchrist, Clark Wilm and Kiimo Timonen.
Rick’s nickname was “Killer,” but I never asked why.
The Predators sent me down to Milwaukee before the season, but Nashville got off to a terrible start in 2002–03 and immediately started to shuffle their lineup. After only seven games the coach in Milwaukee, Peter Horachek, called me into his office and said, “The big boys are calling for you.”
Six months earlier, I had been playing in the ECHL and making $425 a week. Now I was actually going to be putting on an NHL sweater.
I ran straight to my phone and called my parents. To this day I either get a lump in my throat or shed a tear when I think about that call. That was when I was able to tell them that their boy — the one in whom they had invested everything — was living his dream.
To be honest, if I had only gotten into one game, just being able to have that call with them … it would’ve been enough.
My first game in the NHL, I played about seven minutes and won half my draws — it was blur. I know we lost 6–5 in overtime, but it didn’t matter … I was in the show. I was up and down between the AHL and Nashville like a yo-yo that year.
That Milwaukee team was special. Guys like Darren Haydar, Scottie Upshall, Greg Zanon and Wade Flaherty made that one of the best locker rooms I’ve ever been in. We won the Calder Cup that year, and a lot of that was because of Shero and Poile. They care about their players, top to bottom.
Even now the Predators organization still gets the most out of it’s players. You think the Viktor Arvidsson’s and Roman Josi’s of the world just happen by accident? No chance.
When my contract ended in Nashville in 2009, I suddenly realized that I had spent the previous eight years playing hockey in Virginia, Wisconsin and Tennessee — so why not Arizona and Texas next? I signed with the Coyotes, and then with the Stars two years later. And let me say this right now: Sure, Dallas may be a Cowboys town, but y’all better believe they like their Stars. I know there are some guys who are reading this now who visited Dallas with other teams and thought it would be fun to play there. In my five years there, it became a hockey destination for players.
As a player in Dallas, you’re not getting noticed there every night when you’re out for dinner, but when you do run into Stars fans they’re always polite and supportive, and you can tell they want to know more about you. That attitude made it a great place to raise my kids. And the sacrifices that they, and my wife, have made over my career … I can’t repay them for that. My kids have absorbed the southern way of living. My son, Blake, who is 10 years old, calls everyone sir and ma’am, and holds doors and pulls out chairs — that’s Texas taught.
The Stars organization is truly world class. I will always be thankful to everyone I met there. Tom Gaglardi is such a passionate owner, and it’s great as a player knowing that the person at the top is fully invested. From Joe Nieuwendyk, who signed in me 2011, to Glen Gulutzan, Willie Desjardins and Lindy Ruff, the coaches I played for, to some of the great teammates I had, including Stéphane Robidas, Brenden Morrow and Jamie Benn, the Stars are great franchise.
If I had only gotten into one game, just being able to have that call with them … it would’ve been enough.
The relationship I have with the team and city is why Dallas will continue to be our home. I’m excited to get to know the area even more. And more important, I’m going to continue to work here with my foundation, Fidd’s Kids. My wife, Chrissy, and I set it up a few years back to help kids in Dallas who were battling cancer, and to get them tickets to see Stars games. I’ve met a lot of great children throughout our time there and was honored to be in a position to brighten their days.
One of those kids was a little girl named Chloe. She’s 10 now and has had to battle leukemia twice. That’s a lot for a little girl to go through, but she’s tough — she’s fighter. And during her fight, she became a huge supporter of my career.
When I signed with New Jersey in the summer of 2016, I thought that the Devils were going to be my last team. But around the trade deadline, I found out that David Poile was still watching me. He and Ray Shero, the two men who launched my pro career, worked it out for me to be traded back to Nashville, where everything had begun for me.
My family was overwhelmed. To come full circle, and to go to a team that was really coming together, was special for us. The Predators had an easy group to fit into. We were so tight, and that was a big reason why we were able to have success. We were winning games down the stretch, and during the last week of the regular season we played in Dallas.
I wasn’t in the lineup that night, which gave me a chance to meet with Chloe again. She was still my biggest fan — and she wanted to let me know. It was cool, and it kind of connected my time with the Stars to my time with the Predators.
The Cup run that that followed was the perfect way to finish my career. Even though we didn’t quite get the job done, it was an amazing few months. And to be honest, it was just icing on the cake — my whole career was. That call to my parents in 2002? That was the highlight of my career.
All the people I’ve mentioned in this story helped a kid, who almost missed his chance, make it to the NHL.
Those people, and this game, have given me so much. And I hope — more than anything — that I’ve been able to give something back.