Tuesday, 22 September 2009

TBC: They Don't Play Hockey In Heaven

Teebz's Book Club is making up for lost time. Considering I took the summer off, my summer reading is now being caught up, and I'm hoping to have a third book finished by the end of the week. We'll see how that goes, but let's get to this book. They Don't Play Hockey In Heaven, written by Ken Baker and published by The Lyons Press in 2003, is a story that is as inspirational as it is informative. Ken Baker's journey back to hockey after eight years away from the game is not only an inspiration story about following one's dreams, but how to live one's life. Mr. Baker's journey is filled with peaks and valleys, the support of his wife, Brooke, his friends, and teammates, but it is a story about one man following his dream, despite how impossible or unattainable it seems.

Ken Baker, a lad from Buffalo, New York, was a highly-touted goaltender by the age of 17. He played in the World Under-17 Championships with players like Jeremy Roenick and Mike Modano, and led the Americans to a gold medal victory over the Canadians who featured goaltender Stephane Fiset. All three of those men would go on to play in the NHL, while Baker received offers to suit up for NCAA Division One teams. Baker accepted an offer from Colgate to play net for the Red Raiders, and it appeared all was well.

That is, however, until Baker started to notice that he was having trouble building any sort of muscle mass on the top half of his body. Some other rather startling symptoms began showing themselves, giving Baker more cause for concern: impotence, a build-up of flab despite his athletic endeavours, lethargy, and the occasional milky discharge from his nipples. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong, and it prompted him to visit Dr. Joshua Trabulus about these symptoms.

"A few days later, a battery of blood tests came back showing that I had 150 times the normal level of prolactin, a hormone that women secrete to produce breast milk. Then an image from an MRI confirmed it: A prolactin-secreting tumor had taken up residence a few inches behind my eyes. Trabulus explained that the more prolactin I produced, the less testosterone I produced. A normal man has a level of about ten nanograms per milliliter; a woman breast-feeding her children has a level of two hundred. My prolactin level was 1,578."
Baker was suffering from a condition called hyperprolactinemia as a result of the tumor. Surgery was scheduled, and, nine months later in July 1998, the tumor was removed except for a tiny piece. Drugs would help control the tumor's growth, but they affected him when he did strenuous workouts. As a result of the tumor's growth and its affecting his life, Ken Baker's professional hockey career died after he graduated from Colgate in 1992.

Now I could stop typing right here, and the man would still be a hero. He defeated cancer, and, albeit is still battling against it today, seems to have a pretty good hold on his life. Ken Baker is married to a wonderful woman named Brooke, has an amazing son named Jackson - seen here with dad at a Los Angeles Kings game in 2007 - and has his health. The story doesn't end there, though. We need to go back to 2001 where Ken Baker challenged himself and the institution of hockey, and proved that dreams can come true.

After deciding to go back to playing senior league hockey in Oakland, the fire was lit in Baker, and he wanted more. He was a successful writer for Us Weekly magazine, but "The Dream" had affected him. "The Dream" was a vivid scene that he had had while sleeping about playing professional hockey. At 30 years old, it was now or never, and, while it took some soul-searching and prodding from his closest friends and family, they convinced him to tryout with the WCHL's Bakersfield Condors.

He had nothing to lose if he didn't make the team. He just wanted to see if he was good enough to play in the professional ranks. After negotiating a deal with the Condors to be the third-string goaltender if he was good enough - including penning this book about his experience - Baker was kept as the third-string goaltender for the WCHL franchise. He had the support of the entire front office staff, but he still needed to prove that he belonged on the ice, and convincing the coach would be no easy task.

I'm not about to tell Ken Baker's story here. He tells it far better than I do as it is. I will say this: the cast of characters that he is around provide a number of laughs along with some frustration and anger. For anyone who has played the game, this will probably give you an idea of what it means to be good enough to make the team, but not good enough to play regularly. For anyone who hasn't played hockey, this will give you a real picture of what back-up goalies go through in a season.

Ken Baker has penned a brilliant story about life in minor-league hockey. His thoughts, his efforts, and his inspirational tale of fighting against the odds to realize his dream are chronicled well in this book, a sign of his excellent writing skills. They Don't Play Hockey In Heaven is truly one of the best hockey stories I have read to date amongst all the hockey books I have had the pleasure in reading, and Ken Baker's heartfelt, inspirational story deserves Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval.

There is one note I'd like to pass along about this book. Ken Baker doesn't censor anyone in this book. If a coach or player said it, it was added verbatim. Because of this, there are a number of instances where "locker room talk" is included in the story, so it may not be suitable for children or young teens. However, adults can probably relate directly to Mr. Baker's story, and I recommend They Don't Play Hockey In Heaven for anyone who has ever had what seems like an impossible dream.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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