In One Night Only: Conversations with the NHL’s One-Game Wonders, Ken Reid interviewed forty players whose entire NHL history could be summed up in one single regulation game. Players were on the ice for a few minutes or for the entire game, but never set their skates on NHL ice again. In spite of the similarities among player stories, Reid wrote them so that they seemed new, with often a tease of a revelation at the beginning which he only explained as the story progressed.
Almost all the players had the same story about how they found their way onto NHL ice. Due to an injury, NHL teams found themselves in desperate need of a certain player position. Associated pro leagues or farm teams would get the call to send a certain player to “the Show”, hockeyspeak for an NHL game. Players would sometimes have to race to the airport to get to the game the next day, or even later that same night.
In spite of the momentous importance of being called up to play one’s first NHL game, I noticed that for most of the players, the experience was often lacking in excitement. They were too caught up in the whirlwind of finding their way to the venue, the pregame practice and getting settled in with the team. Players had no time to be awestruck, and the majority of them revealed that now–decades later, mind–they never give their sole NHL game another thought. Some players had sleepless nights before the game. That is understandable; with the sudden opportunity to prove oneself in the biggest league of all, they didn’t want to blow their chance. While some players believed that their first game–not yet knowing that it was their only game–might be the NHL break they had long dreamed of if they played well, some of them were aware that it was likely their only shot on NHL ice and didn’t want to make a fool of themselves. So many player stories were filled with interior monologues that incorporated some version of “Just don’t screw this up!”
I was not aware of how low pro hockey salaries were in the fifties and sixties and was thus surprised to read that players such as one-game Montreal Canadiens goalie Len Broderick opted to work as a chartered accountant instead of getting “battered and banged up for $8,000 a year.”. Other pro leagues even paid more money than the NHL, thus for some guys the certainty of a hockey career in those leagues meant more to them than the uncertainty of being in (and maybe back out of) the NHL.
Reid ended his player profiles by asking them if their quest for hockey greatness was worth it if they knew they were going to play only one NHL game. All of the players Reid interviewed had retired from professional play and had years of reflection to draw upon. Only a small minority felt that they were unfairly looked over or still had voids in their life. Almost all of them were grateful to have had the chance to play their single game, especially those players who were around when the NHL was comprised of only six teams and opportunities to play were more limited. It was quite touching to read how these brief NHL appearances changed their lives. Some players were given opportunities in hockey that were far more gratifying, like playing in other pro or overseas leagues, or in coaching or management. The final profile was devoted to the most famous NHL one-gamer of all: Don Cherry. In spite of his tough-guy persona his story was rather sentimental and full of appreciation for the game and its players.