Guerin used Olympic disappointment as motivation
Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk were packing to go to the 1992 Albertville Olympics when the phone rang in their room. The call was for Guerin. His life was about to change.
"They called me up and cut me," Guerin told NHL.com. "I don't know what the reason was."
Guerin chose not to sign with the New Jersey Devils after his second season at Boston College because he wanted to try to make the Olympic team, because playing for the United States meant that much to him.
Three days after he was cut, Guerin signed with the Devils, who selected him with the fifth pick in the 1989 NHL Draft. He was immediately shipped to Utica, N.Y., to play for New Jersey's American Hockey League affiliate. His coach there was Herb Brooks, one of the few people who could truly sympathize with Guerin and his close-but-no-cigar Olympic bid.
Brooks was cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic team one week before the Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. He made it his mission to get back to the Olympics in whatever capacity to make up for the crushing blow, to prove he could do it. He got there as a coach in 1980 and helped make a miracle come true.
Guerin wasn't sure if he ever would get another Olympic chance, let alone have a chance to make history. Professionals were allowed to go to the Olympics at that time, but NHL players were not participating and Guerin was working his way to the NHL, the final destination on his long journey up from the ponds of Wilbraham, Mass.
So Guerin gave up on his Olympic dream and instead carried the pain of getting cut into his pro career, where he would meet up with several players who made the 1992 U.S. squad, guys he knew well from Massachusetts: Tkachuk, Ted Drury, Ted Donato, Steve Heinze, Shawn McEachern, Marty McInnis and Scott Young.
"I carried that with me for a long time, I mean a long time," Guerin said. "It did motivate me. I wanted to outperform every player that made that team over me to show them that they made a mistake."
Guerin proved it was a mistake, one USA Hockey would never make again.
Four years after getting cut from the Olympic team, Guerin helped the U.S. win the gold medal at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. Two years later he represented the United States in the Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and in 2002 he won a silver medal in Salt Lake City. He played in the World Cup again in 2004 and returned to the Olympics in 2006.
Guerin said the pain from getting cut in 1992 "still burns a little bit," but he won't feel it Monday when he is inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame along with teammate and close friend Doug Weight, as well as Cindy Curley, Ron Mason and Peter Karmanos.
"Every chance I had to put on the U.S. jersey was an amazing experience," said Guerin, who also played in the IIHF World Junior Championship in 1989 and 1990. "I don't want to say I appreciated it more than anyone else, but I appreciated it more within myself because it was taken away from me once. The first time that I got to play in the Olympics meant so much to me. It meant so much that I finally made that team, that I finally had my chance.
"I loved playing for the U.S. I loved it. I just thought it was the greatest thing."
The guys he played with loved having him in all of those tournaments.
"One of the greatest teammates on the planet," Jeremy Roenick said.
John LeClair, Mike Modano, Mike Richter and Tkachuk said virtually the same thing. When told of the comments, Guerin was near tears.
"It gives me chills," he said. "That's all I ever wanted. Looking back on my career, if I had the respect of my teammates like I respected them, and if they felt I was a good teammate, that means everything. It makes everything you did worth it if those guys thought you were a good teammate. I believe there was a bond created there that will last a lifetime."
Guerin was part of the glue that bonded that group, arguably the greatest generation of American players.
He was the comic relief off the ice and the power forward on it. There wasn't anything Guerin wouldn't say off the ice or anything he wouldn't do on the ice.
"There was no ego in him. There was no 'me' in him," Roenick said. "He was all about being with the boys. He was all about everybody pulling one way. He was all about being a leader, being fierce. He was always that guy that made you laugh, that guy that was playing practical jokes when the time was right. But when the time was to play, Billy was one of the fiercest competitors and strongest competitors that I ever played with or against.
"He thought of his teammates and his team before he thought of himself. He epitomizes to me what a true teammate is."
Guerin loved his role, especially when it came to tournaments with the national team. There were times when he would go fight the toughest guy on the other team, and other times when he would have the boys in the dressing room howling with laughter as he impersonated Brooks, something Tkachuk said Guerin did before a game at the 2002 Olympics.
"Herb liked to get animated a little bit," Tkachuk said. "He'd be like, 'Come on guys, on the penalty kill you have to bend your knees, bend your knees,' And he would actually do it, show us in the locker room or in the dorm we were at. He'd be doing it. So one day in the locker room before one of the games Billy is facing me and a couple of guys, the door behind him is open, and the goofy guy Billy is he starts going, 'Bend your knees, bend your knees.' He started pretending to be Herb, going down and bending his knees.
"Well, all of a sudden Herb walks in and Billy doesn't see him, so he keeps doing it. Our faces change a little bit and he looks at me and goes, 'Walt, he's right behind me, right?' I'm like, 'Yup,' and we just started dying laughing. Thankfully Herb got a big kick out of it too. We were laughing so hard."
Guerin said he isn't certain why he fell into that role as part-comedian, part-tough guy, part-scorer, but thinks it has something to do with his ability to never take anybody too seriously no matter how big of a star they are. He also thinks he understood the role players as much as the stars because he broke into the NHL as a third- or fourth-liner and worked his way up to be a top-six power forward.
Modano said everybody in the dressing room was fair game for Guerin, and never would he hold back.
"Maybe it's because I'm dumb enough to say some of the things that cross my mind, but it worked," Guerin said, laughing. "The times were stressful. I mean, we were in big tournaments, there was a lot of pressure that we put on ourselves, but we had some world-class players, some legendary players and sometimes you need a little icebreaker. But I always remember that they also relied on me to perform on the ice."
He did that part well too.
"He was the kind of player that when he was on the ice you were completely calm and confident because this was a guy who rarely made mistakes and performed so well," USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said.
Guerin had eight points, including five goals, in 16 career games in the Olympics. He had six points on two goals and four assists in 12 World Cup games. His best performance came in the 2002 Olympics, when he had four goals in six games.
He had 856 points and 1,660 penalty minutes in 1,263 NHL games during an 18-year career. He won the Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1995 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, when he was acquired before the NHL Trade Deadline and found a home on Sidney Crosby's right wing.
"This is a guy who got cut from the '92 Olympic team and that could have gone either way," Tkachuk said. "He went out and proved to everybody that he was going to be a solid player.
"You will not hear anybody say anything bad about Billy Guerin unless it's Billy Guerin himself. He's a funny, guy, just a good person to be around, and he had an unbelievable career."
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer | Follow on Twitter at: @drosennhl