If any of Brian Kilrea’s teachers at Lady Evelyn and Glashan public schools or Lisgar Collegiate were still around, they wouldn’t believe it was their old student.
Imagine them walking into a bookstore on Bank Street and seeing a copy of They Call Me Killer on a shelf of bestsellers between A Journey: My Life in Politics by Tony Blair, Harperland: The Politics of Control by Lawrence Martin, and A Miracle in Waiting: Economics that Make Sense by Paul Hellyer.
Those educators could have believed young Brian would be become a pro hockey player, or even a coaching legend, but author?
“I wasn’t one for the books. … I wasn’t the greatest student,” Kilrea says with a laugh. “In class, I might have been sitting at a desk, but I was just waiting until 4 o’clock when I could be back on the ice. I’d be looking out the window, just hoping it wouldn’t snow.”
Then he begins a story that could make his next book. It was 1950, his first day of Grade 11 at Lisgar, and he noticed a new building constructed where the outdoor rink had been.
“I said to a friend, ‘Oh, look, they built a rink for us.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s for the basketball team. It’s a gym.'”
Shocked, Kilrea asked where they’d be playing hockey, and his friend said the hockey program was done.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m outta here.’ I had a locker just inside the first door and I dumped my books in the locker and never went inside the second door. I walked right to my father’s photo shop and told him I had just quit school.
“I told him there’s no use me being there … there’s no more hockey program. My father said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Well I worked for you in the summer and you haven’t replaced me have you? So you have me back.'”
Kilrea never spent another day at school, returning to work for his father and slipping over to the rink in St. Luke’s Park at Elgin and Gladstone to skate on his own when things were quiet at the shop.
It’s those kind of tales from Kilrea’s life that have Kilrea the storyteller busier than …well, since he stepped out from behind the Ottawa 67’s bench after the 2008-09 season. The book, co-authored with TSN’s James Duthie, not only has him on the move, it has become a hit both among those who know Kilrea and the few in Ottawa who don’t. It’s a book about hockey, for sure, but it’s also about life.
So if it’s Thursday, Kilrea is making an appearance on the A Channel’s Morning Show, then skipping over to The Newport Restaurant for the day’s first book signing, then onto familiar turf at Chances R restaurant for an evening session.
If it’s Friday, he’s at Local Heroes, not just to sign, but also to share a laugh with an old fan who has bought a copy of the book.
On Saturday, he’ll be at Britton’s on Bank Street at Fifth Avenue on the regularly scheduled “Author’s Day.”
Kilrea, who is giving his share of proceeds from the book to the teaching room at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario that bears his name, never wanted to be a lonely guy sitting at a restaurant or bookstore, flogging a book and hoping someone dropped by the table.
“I was dreading it,” he says. “It’s not me to look at people like, ‘Are you going to buy a book?’ I didn’t want it to be like that.”
He need not have worried about being lonely. Before his first night of signings at the Rideau View Country Club, his home course, Kilrea told his agent that, rather than return any of the unsold books, he’d buy the leftovers himself and give them to friends. At the end of the evening, he didn’t have to purchase a single book. He sold out. On top of that, the golf club sent a bonus of $500 to CHEO.
It was much the same at the Ottawa 67’s season opener, with fans keeping him busy in a corridor signing the books and swapping laughs. It has been that way everywhere he has gone, and the invitations for signings just keep coming.
The book is an easy read, full of stories that have been told over and over again with cold beer after 67’s home games or on the bus on road trips, stories about the characters who played for Kilrea or who helped him run the team for all of those years.
Once you read a couple of the stories, it’s easy to see why Kilrea never seems to grow old. He has often joked that there’s very little the “kids” — his word for 67’s players — could do that would surprise him because he himself had done just about it all.
There’s also lots of insight into how he became who he is. He gives readers the best and worst of the legendary Eddie Shore. He opens up on his highs and lows as a player and really, for the first time, goes public with some of what went wrong during his two years as an assistant coach with the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders and about turning down a chance to at least be considered as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He paints another side of Don Cherry, a side those who bash Cherry for some of the things he says on “Coach’s Corner” should know. As a person, Kilrea is about as uncomplicated as they come, and he has changed very little over the years. Nor have his stories. He tells them exactly the way he told them 25 and even 35 years ago.
Still, there’s a lot more to him than just hockey, cigars and cold beer.
Particularly poignant is a chapter on former 67’s forward Lance Galbraith. Kilrea wrote a letter to a judge saying he would take responsibility for the troubled teen if the judge would just give the kid another chance.
“There has been lot of times when someone suggested I do a book, and I just kind of put it off and never thought twice about it,” Kilrea says. “But, when James asked me this time, I said, ‘Sure, if you want to do it … and he is a friend … let’s do it.'”
Duthie made trip after trip back to Ottawa and spent many an hour in Kilrea’s rec room, armed with a recorder, pen and paper and let Kilrea go on and on. There’s no telling how many boxes of Molson Ex were required to keep the raconteur rolling. Then there were follow-up phone calls, plus the calls to follow up on the follow-ups.
Duthie did the first draft before unofficial editor-in-chief Bert O’Brien, who hasn’t forgot a thing over more than 40 years as Kilrea’s friend, gave it a once over.
“I’m happy with it,” Kilrea says.
The stories come easy for Kilrea. They always have, and he has a ton of them.
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