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Jim Lang with Relentless. Courtesy Jim Lang
When Jim Lang's agent approached him about working with Bryan Berard, under a tight timeline, Lang wasn't sold immediately. He'd met Berard when the defenceman played in Toronto with the Leafs, and was aware in broad terms of his story—Number one draft pick, Calder Trophy winner, hurt in a game, loses an eye, eventually comes back but never to the same heights. First, Lang wanted to talk to Berard again.
It didn't take long to know he wanted to write Berard's autobiography.
“I knew right away when we started talking,” recalled Lang. “After that first conversation, I contacted Brian Wood, my agent, and said, 'This is going to be great, and he's going to be easy to work with.' And every day I talked to him, I liked him more than the day before.”
The end result is Relentless: My Life in Hockey and the Power of Perseverance, which came out in the fall of 2019, alongside another book from Simon & Schuster that Lang worked on, Max Domi's No Days Off: My Life with Type 1 Diabetes and Journey to the NHL.
Relentless is like watching a speedy skater, like Berard, at work—it zooms by. “There's a lot in it, but it doesn't take forever to read it. ... It's got a pace to it,” said Lang.
It starts off in really the only place it could, with the injury that cost Berard the use of his right eye in 2000. “He's known for that. Everyone, when they say Bryan Berard, they think of that eye injury,” explained Lang. “Let's just start with that and work our way through the timeline of his life and delve deeper into the injury and things that happened in the hospital room in the 48 hours after that injury that most people never would have known.”
Then it loops into a traditional biography, from his early days in a big, working-class family in Rhode Island, into his hockey life, including bucking the NCAA for the Ontario Hockey League. Ottawa Senators fans will lament him as the one that got away, a Number One draft pick that ended up playing for the Islanders and being named the NHL's top rookie. Berard talks about many things that don't always come up in hockey books, like learning to pay bills and how to become a responsible adult. He gets to the Leafs ... and everything changes.
It was a tricky line for Lang to walk, as the reader feels for Berard, but it never becomes a crying circle of sadness. “I was waiting for him to sort of go on a bitter diatribe tangent, and he never did,” said Lang, who credited Berard's grounded family life for keeping it real. “He wasn't raised in a family where if something bad happens it's the end of the world.”
That determination is exemplified in the first chapter, Berard in the hospital bed.
“My career is over,” I said. “I’m never going to play in the NHL again.”
My mom turned to me, a stern look on her face. “‘Never’ does not exist in our family’s vocabulary.”
Lang was moved by the exchange, but can chuckle at it too. Bryan's mother has “that thick Rhode Island accent, which is almost like the Good Will Hunting accent, when she says 'Never' it's 'Nevah doesn't exist in our vocabulary.'”
Though there are no secondary quotes in the book, Lang talked to many who knew Bryan, and would loop back to get more information from Berard. “To a man, they all enjoyed either coaching Bryan or playing with Bryan. Bryan was the kind of guy that fit into a locker room. He was just that kind of personality. Guys that played with him in junior, they would tease him about his Rhode Island accent, but he never got upset about that, because to Bryan, that's all part of being on a team, is talking smack with each other and teasing each other.”
The “What If?” aspect came up with his colleagues, but not Berard himself, said Lang. “Paul Maurice mentioned it and a lot of other guys mentioned it, had he not hurt his eye and kept going the way he was going, especially with the team they were building in Toronto with the Leafs after he being traded from the Islanders, that was a theme for a lot of them. He did this for so many years after the eye injury with one eye, what if? There's no way to know because it happened. Because of his skating ability, his ability to pass the puck and jump into the offensive zone, he could have been a special player and who knows how many years he could have played and what kind of numbers he could have put up if he had those two healthy eyes for the whole run of his career.”
Instead, Berard's message of carrying on through adversity is the end result, and he's not shy about detailing his visits to doctors, whether physical or mental. From that perspective, it's not your typical old-school hockey book, and he talks about previously taboo subjects like depression and mental health, as well as steroids, which he used to get back in shape after being idle recovering from the eye injury. Berard was also scammed out of oodles of money by an unscroupulous financial adviser.
“He was very insistent that [a mental health discussion was] in there, because of what happened to Wade Belak when he was on Battle of the Blades and how shook they were when that happened,” Lang said of Belak's suicide. “Some mental health issues in his own family through the years. Then when everything happened, his own need to see therapy, after everything that happened with his eye, the end of his career, the end of his money, he was very open and honest. He had anger, and he said, 'I've got to do something.' He had no shame in saying, 'Hey, I went to someone and this woman helped me,' and he's in a completely different mindset now and headspace, and a better place now. I'll agree that a guy of his caliber, a guy that won the Calder Trophy, who was a player of that caliber to come out that he had mental health issues and needed help and sought help, maybe that might help someone else who reads this book.”
A morning show host on 105.9 The Region in Markham, Ontario, Lang's got more in the works for next year, but can't reveal who he's working with quite yet.
For now, fans of Lang's work will have to get the Berard and Domi releases, and his previous books with Wendel Clark, Tie Domi and Bob McKenzie.
He and Berard still text regularly.
“It's genuine, you know what I mean? It's not being phony because I helped him write a book. He's kind of like that, if he becomes your friend, he's your friend for life,” said Lang. “There's a real honesty about Bryan Berard and there really is nothing phony about him. If he's got something to say, he's going to say, and he's not just saying it for the sake of talking, it's because it means something, good or bad.”
Bryan Berard. (c) Getty Images
There's a new book out, in French, from Steve Bégin, the veteran winger who played 524 NHL games in Calgary, Montreal Dallas, Boston and Nashville. It is titled Steve Bégin : ténacité, courage, leadership and was written by Luc Gelinas. Éditions Hurtubise is the publisher.
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