Alumni Q&A: Alan May
Popular ex-Caps enforcer will serve as assistant coach in AHL in 2008-09
Second, this guy loves the game and is still a terrfic fan of hockey and the NHL. That's why we were happy to hear he'll be serving as an assistant coach for the AHL's Norfolk Admirals this season. We had a chance to catch up with May last year, and here's what he had to say.
You had an interesting career path. You played maybe 30 or 40 games worth of junior hockey, and there were some gaps in between. Then you wound up in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. How did that all come about?
“It was kind of bizarre. I actually played Tier II junior hockey and didn’t get a scholarship, actually was held back from getting a scholarship. I played major junior but I was hurt all season. The year that I was done with major junior, Rick Dudley was just leaving the Atlantic Coast League to go to the IHL. He called every single junior hockey team in Canada at every level and asked, ‘Who are your 20-year-old guys who are ineligible to play next year who can play pro?’ I didn’t know that.
“He called me one day when I’m sitting with my father, and he asks me if I want to come to training camp where he has a team [Flint of the IHL]. He kind of misrepresented himself a little bit; he said he was a farm team for Buffalo, L.A. and the Rangers back in the day of unlimited contracts. He wants to know if I want to come. So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there. When do I need to be there?’
“So I get there, and there’s 150 guys trying out for this team. I led the training camp in scoring, led it in fights and majors. Preseason, the same thing. And he cut me. He said, ‘I want you to go play [in the Atlantic Coast League].’ I go, ‘Why’s that?’ And he said, ‘All these guys have contracts, you don’t. I can’t even afford to pay you a couple hundred bucks a week. You go down there and you’re going to be by the ocean. It’s a great place. I coached down there for five years.’
“So I go down and I’m about five hours from the ocean, in Winston-Salem. I ended up down there, and back then you got paid $250 a week and $35 a win. And we didn’t win a whole lot. But hockey was fun. The arena was sold out pretty much every game. It was fun to play there, and it was certainly fun to be a physical player.”
It started out as a five-team league and I think it went down to a four-team league. Did one of the teams fold or something?
“Yeah, it was funny. We were playing a team and their owner-general manager/coach disappeared with the bus while their team was on the road. Those guys were dispersed that weekend. Fortunately all the other teams were within a couple hours. So we all made the playoffs. I was lucky I made the playoffs every year I ever played.”
That’s unreal. So the next year you were in the AHL at Nova Scotia.
“What happened at the end of that [first] year [pro in Winston-Salem] was that I tore it up pretty good. [I was in] a lot of fights. It was a great place for me to play, really. They had the smallest rosters ever. It was nine forwards, four defensemen and two goalies. After a couple fights, you learned how to play defense. Because if your defenseman got in a fight, someone else would be back playing defense. At the end of that season I was getting ready to go down to Florida with some of my teammates, and a coach from another team called and asked if I wanted to play in the American Hockey League.
“[Prior to that] I couldn’t get a tryout, I got screwed out of a scholarship and I went and played four games in the American League and got three NHL tryouts and two contract offers out of those four games. So I was lucky and the next year I ended up with an NHL contract playing in the American League.”
And you wound up getting into a couple games with the Bruins.
“When I first played in the American League, the guy [who signed me] said, ‘You’ll be in the NHL next year by Christmas.’ It was true; I got games in with the Bruins before Christmas. Which was amazing, because back then we didn’t have the East Coast League and all those leagues. It was tough. You needed to have a pedigree and I didn’t have any back then. I was very fortunate to get those games.”
Those three games with the Bruins, what was that experience like and did you drop them at all in those three games?
“Every game. I fought every single game. My very first game was in St. Louis. I actually got called up when Cam Neely got injured and I was going to play on the top line in his spot. The Bruins had a pretty good system of call-ups back then. I got called up and all of a sudden Cam Neely had a miraculous recovery.
“So the coach [Terry O’Reilly] comes in after pre-game warm-ups and says, ‘You’re not going to play tonight.’ Just my luck.
“And then the best story of my whole career [happened]. We had an old NHL veteran, Willi Plett. He said, ‘How can you call this guy up and not play him?’ He goes, ‘My back’s hurt.’ He sat out intentionally. Terry O’Reilly was a good friend of his, and he forced him to put me in the lineup. Otherwise, I may never have played in an NHL game. I’ve never been able to thank him since then, but he went to bat for me and I was lucky.”
That’s astounding. That’s a fabulous story. Do you remember who you went with?
“It was Paul Cavallini.”
He was a Capital for a while.
“Yeah. He was trying to fight somebody. I only weighed 180 pounds then so I was trying to find a little guy that night. I did what I had to do. I was just happy to be in St. Louis. It was Spuds McKenzie night and I was a happy guy.”
You had three games with Edmonton the next year and you scored your first goal.
“I’m from Edmonton and the next year I got traded to Edmonton at the end of that season in a big trade and the next year I got called up. My very first game – I probably had about 300 people at the game – I scored the game-winner and had a huge fight. Life could have ended for me then and so could my hockey career. I was the happiest guy in the world.”
What do you remember about the goal?
“I couldn’t believe I had a breakaway in the NHL. I couldn’t believe that it went top shelf and I ended up scoring five-hole. I actually fanned on the shot because I was so nervous. I was looking at my sister and her friend behind the net when I was coming down on the breakaway thinking, ‘I’m on the ice and they’re in the stands with my old season tickets.’ I fanned [trying to go] top shelf and ended up going five-hole below the goalie’s stick. A very poor goal. I actually skated behind the net to make sure after the red light had gone on that the puck was really in the net, because I couldn’t believe it. It was so surreal.”
Who was the goalie?
So it was Calgary. Even better for an Edmonton boy.
“Yeah, I’ve scored on a few Hall of Famers. And it was a goal that put the Edmonton Oilers in first place in the NHL that night. It was awesome. It was incredible.”
The Caps got you from L.A. for a draft pick, and you wound up spending most of your NHL career here. You were a huge fan favorite then. What were your thoughts on coming to Washington?
“I was very lucky. I always consider myself a Washington Capital when people ask me where I played. I live in Dallas now, but I was so fortunate to come here at the right time. They got rid of a certain element of player and they wanted to bring in a new type of player, and I was one of those guys. We had decent playoff success and my whole experience here is phenomenal. I just wish it had never ended.
“I was asked if I wanted to be traded [in 1994], and I knew I was having problems with the coach here [Jim Schoenfeld] at the time. I don’t know what happened there. I just wish I would have played my whole career here. I would have played five games a year here forever just to be on this team. I loved it here.”
That’s when you got traded at the deadline and went to Dallas, where you finished up. You obviously did a lot of scrapping when you played. Tell me, who were the toughest guys, say the toughest three guys you ever fought against?
“I tell everyone that every single guy I fought was tough. It’s a very hard job and you don’t realize it’s tougher mentally and emotionally than it is physically. Joey Kocur was a guy that caused me anxiety, but I always had good luck with him. Dave Brown. And then Tie Domi was a tough guy, but the toughest thing about him was that he was stronger than all of us. He was shorter, and he had a better center of gravity. He was a small guy, but he was tough to fight against.
“I was fortunate that most guys weren’t the size of Donald Brashear back then. That era of guys came after I was out of here. I got real lucky that all the monsters came after I was done.”
What was Tim Hunter like to fight against?
“You know what? I was actually very intimidated to fight him the first time and I couldn’t believe I won the fight. We actually had the exact same fighting style, except I was younger and he was older. I don’t think he was scared of me, but I was scared of him. I had that ‘fighting for your life’ type of attitude when I fought him. It was a great fight. I couldn’t believe it. I was laughing and joking and as soon as the fight was over I was popping off by the bench. I loved it.”
Every kid who grows up in Canada dreams of playing in the NHL and thinks and hopes he is going to play in the NHL. But you weren’t drafted and you didn’t play much junior hockey. Your story is really a stunning one.
“There are so many guys who have great stories now but back then, my story was phenomenal. I always looked at myself as the world’s greatest hockey fan who actually had a front row seat. I had locker room access, I had access to the plane and the hotels. It was amazing. So many times I questioned myself as to whether I could play. I always believed that I could. The guys I skated with in Edmonton in the summers, I knew I was better than them. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. I always look back and think I was the luckiest guy to ever play the game.”
You set the Capitals’ record for penalty minutes in a season, but you contributed in other ways, too. There were guys in your role who had a goal or two and two or three assists, but you’d chip in with a half-dozen goals and 15 or so points.
“I always worked hard to be a better player, but at the same time when you look back, you need to concentrate on what you do. Perception is reality. The perception of me was that I was a fighter, a guy that had to fight, a guy that had to hit all the time. All the points were bonus points, because they really didn’t want that out of me. They wanted me to be physical and be a presence and stick up for my teammates. It’s a tough job, but I always gave myself credit for being a good skater and working hard every day.”
I also find it interesting that you came into pro hockey playing in the Atlantic Coast League and went out playing for Abilene of the Western Pro League.
“I did that on purpose actually, because I believe in the full circle. It was close to my home and I knew that I was coaching a team [in that league] the next year. It was close to my house and I just wanted to play hockey a little longer before I started coaching and to get to know what the people were like. You have to because otherwise you lose touch with what maybe a college hockey player who plays four years of college hockey goes through. There is a drastic difference with what they’re given and how they’re treated. That’s what I wanted to experience.
“And I always believed that I had to come full circle. I was never too proud. I was happy playing in the Atlantic Coast League. I just loved playing hockey. I still love playing hockey with my son, I still love playing men’s league hockey with my friends and I loved every game that I ever got to play in every league I ever got to play in.”
What was coaching like, and was it something that you always wanted to do or something that you said at some point, ‘I’d like to try that out?’
“I was actually told [to go into coaching] when I was done with my junior career. My coach was a legendary coach in Canada and he told me, ‘Quit playing and start coaching now.’ He said, ‘You’ve got a lot of character, you’re good with people and you seem like you’re relatively smart.
“But I just wanted to play hockey still; I wasn’t ready to do that. When the time came to coach, I loved it. I actually liked coaching better than I liked playing. But the problem at some of the minor league levels is that you’re not with good people. You end up with people who aren’t good people and aren’t willing to pay the players and take care of the players when they’re injured. Me, I’ve received every dollar I was ever supposed to receive and all my medical bills were paid. That’s the hardest part of coaching at that level.
“Just the coaching itself, coaching players and practicing and playing the games, was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. But it’s all the peripheral stuff at that very low level of the minor leagues that you don’t want to deal with.”
Your job on the ice is one of the hardest in professional sports. Several years after, do you feel that? When you wake up in the morning, do you feel that?
“Well, yeah. I’ve definitely had a lot of health problems. My body has been killing me. You don’t realize it when you’re playing. Technology is a lot better now. We didn’t take as good care of ourselves and we didn’t have the same type of treatment that players have today. Talking to guys I know who are done playing, they’ve got a lot of weird things going on with their bodies. I’m just trying to make sure I keep my weight down and maintain what I can.”
Give me your best memory from your days here in Washington, the best one on the ice and the best one off the ice.
“One of my greatest memories was [in 1989] when the preseason was over, the coaches called me in their office. I thought I was one of the best young guys they had at the time, but I wasn’t sure if they were getting ready to send me down to Baltimore or keep me here. And they told me that I’d be here for a long time. To me, those were the greatest memories, to be told you made it. And then to play on opening night in my very first season for the Caps against Philadelphia with a group of new players with a new attitude, younger guys who were physical and didn’t really care what people thought about their limitations, that was a real great memory.
“That first playoff series, and being able to get out of the division was phenomenal because I was the big mouth in the dressing room that used to put down all the old guys. I’d say, ‘You guys don’t know how to win. We’re going to teach you how.’ We went out and won the Patrick Division, got to the playoffs and went on to play in the conference finals against the Bruins. I always said we didn’t care what the expectations of others were; we had our own expectations.
“Off the ice there were a lot of memories. You grow up and you’re 12 years old, and then suddenly you you’re 23 or 24 and you’re hanging out with Dale Hunter, Rod Langway and Dino Ciccarelli.
“I guess one of my memories – it’s not a great memory but a good memory – is that Dino Ciccarelli campaigned to be my roommate the first year, and it was so I could help take care of him on the road in case anyone every tried to do anything [to him]. And Dino had kids, so he was used to going to bed around 10 o’clock every night. I was used to staying up until 3 or 4.
“Dino would try to shut the television off, but he was half my size and half my weight. One night I put him in a headlock when he shut my TV off. I basically crippled him because he was ‘off’ for the game the next day. I had kept the television on all night. He couldn’t do anything. So he never bothered me again. He’d put the covers over his head, he put a cover on his side of the lamp and he would never say anything to me about the television. Little things like that are fun to remember.”