Jamie McLennan looks at life in the NHL from The Best Seat in the House

During his 11 year-long NHL career, former Calgary Flame Jamie McLennan played backup to some of the greatest professional goaltenders of his generation. Playing behind the likes of Grant Fuhr, Ron Hextall and Miikka Kiprusoff meant one thing: he didn’t often see a lot of playing time. McLennan, however, is philosophical about his time spent riding the bench. He has collected his observations and stories about life in hockey and turned them into a new book, The Best Seat in the House.

Co-authored by sports journalist Ian Mendes, the book is an irreverent look at professional hockey on the bench, on the ice and in the dressing room. Now working as a commentator for TSN, McLennan holds little back in detailing the sometimes strange, and often comedic, situations he found himself in as a professional goaltender.After his playing career with the Calgary Flames ended, Jamie McLennan become part of the organization’s coaching staff. He is now involved with broadcasting.

Photo by Karry Taylor

McLennan recently sat down with Calgary Journal reporter Karry Taylor to talk about his first foray into the world of writing.

This book gives a different view of the NHL than fans normally see. Why did you decide to write it?

The objective was to give people a little glimpse behind the curtain. When players deal with the media, they are usually very careful of what they say. I just wanted to take people into the dressing room and onto the bench, and to let them see that NHL players are just regular guys.

You talk a lot about friendships in this book. What is the nature of friendships built around hockey that make them so special?

You form life-long bonds because you spend a lot of time together in a short span. You are close with 23 guys in a dressing room for nine months. You go through wars together — literally some games are an absolute battle. They have your back, and you have theirs. Those bonds are formed and turn into friendships. You don’t just go to the rink and hang out with the guys. You take an interest in their lives. Eventually everyone goes off in his own direction. But you can always look back on it and the times that you shared together.

How did you deal with being on the road — not just travelling to games, but also bouncing between the minor leagues and the NHL, as well as being traded?

I was a guy who bounced around a lot. It was tough because I never really felt like I had a lot of roots. I spent one or two years with the same organization, and then I moved on. That is the toughest thing because, talking about friendships, you are close with your teammates and then you move on to the next team. It was hard on me. But it’s hard on a player’s family too. When you have success, it’s great. But if you don’t do well, and you get sent to the minors or get traded, it’s frustrating. People say things to your family, and that is tough to deal with. But I viewed it as I was playing a game that I loved and I was getting paid for it. I was very fortunate. I was one of the few who got to play professional hockey for a very long time.

There is a wonderful story in the book about you having your picture taken with Grant Fuhr when you were 12 years old. What was it like to later become his teammate?

I grew up watching Grant Fuhr and the Oilers. I have my picture taken with him and then — fast forward 12 years — I am his goalie partner in the NHL. It was surreal. He was an amazing goaltender, but he’s an even better person. To play with one of my idols was a dream come true. He’s a hall of famer, and one of the best goaltenders of all time. I respect him very much. He and I have maintained a friendship to this day.

If you had to pick one highlight of your professional hockey career, what would it be?

I could say a million things, but one that really stands out is the memory of winning my first game in the NHL. Everyone remembers their first girlfriend, their first kiss, their first anything. I was playing for the New York Islanders and I started a game against the Calgary Flames. Five minutes in, a guy named Joe Nieuwendyk scored on me and I remember thinking ‘I don’t know if I can play in this league.’ Eventually, I settled down and things went well.

During your career, you played backup to some of the biggest names in the NHL and that meant that you didn’t often get the chance to start a lot of games. What is the role of the backup goaltender?

It’s a very important role on a number of different levels. A team’s starter is going to play a lot of the games. You might get to start only once every three weeks. But you have to stay sharp for when you do get in. That is the hockey side. But it’s not just the games you do get to play; it’s the intangibles that you bring to the table — your attitude, work ethic and leadership. A lot of the time you are out on the ice early for practices and you stay later than everybody else. You take the high and hard shots when they don’t want to take those shots on Kipursoff or Luongo. You sense if it’s tense in the dressing room, and try to calm it down. Or if it’s too loose in the dressing room, you say ‘guys, we need to knuckle down.’ And you have to have a great relationship with your starter. Your starter can’t feel threatened. He needs to feel supported. Those are the types of things that a backup does.

How can you sum up your experience playing in Calgary?

I loved it. I played for six different NHL organizations, but I always consider myself a former Flames. When you spend a lot time on both sides of an organization, both as a player and a coach, you make life-long friends. I love the city. I grew up in Edmonton, and played junior hockey in Lethbridge. Calgary is in the middle, and all of my friends seemed to have moved here. So Calgary is always going to be home to for me.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca 

Editor’s note: questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Correction: Miikka Kiprusoff’s name was incorrectly spelt. The Calgary Journal regrets this error.