Barry Beck: From NHL All-Star to Hong Kong national team coach
Despite having retired from the NHL in 1990, Barry Beck is still so beloved by New York Rangers fans that every time the team passes too much on a power play, you will inevitably hear a fan yell out, “Shoot the puck, Barry!” What many fans don’t know is that Beck is still very active in hockey as a coach for the Hong Kong national team. Very early one morning in New York time, and very late one evening in Hong Kong time, we caught up with the legendary NHL defenseman.
You were an All-Star defenseman for the New York Rangers. How did you get into coaching?
I retired from the Rangers in 1987 due to shoulder complications, and it was a tough transition. I was depressed and disappointed. The seven shoulder separations and subsequent surgeries took their toll on me physically and mentally, and I needed time away from hockey. Three years later, Wayne Gretzky called and asked me to come join the Los Angeles Kings, so my rights were traded to LA. I played a half-season there, but I wasn’t the same player. I had lost a step. I even wore a helmet for the first time. The game seemed to have passed me by. I wasn’t playing much, so I asked to be traded. Rogie Vachon of the Kings said they were unable to trade me, so I retired again. I wasn’t even there long enough to go to the Playboy Mansion. Now that hurt! A few years later, I was asked to help coach a Pee Wee team in Osoyoos, British Columbia, where I was living, and I found myself enjoying the game again. Kids have a way of putting everything into perspective. I think I knew then that it was time to start giving back. It was a new lease on life for me.
What spurred your move to Hong Kong to coach abroad?
Seven years ago, I received a call from a friend who had just returned from a hockey tournament in Hong Kong. He told me that a businessman in Hong Kong, Mr. Thomas Wu, was looking to start a hockey academy and would I be interested in discussing the possibilities. I grew up in Vancouver, which has a large Asian population, so I thought I would at least come and see what their vision was. After our meetings in January of 2007, where the temperature was around 25 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), I thought this could be a new beginning for me. There are a lot of hockey coaches in Canada, but there were no former NHL players here in China. Hong Kong is also part of the S.A.R Special Administrative Region, so it is quite different than Mainland China. It reminds me more of being in downtown Vancouver. I have been the coach and general manager of the Academy for the past seven years, and I am now a permanent resident of Hong Kong. I also coach the Hong Kong Men’s National Team.
What is the hockey culture like in Asia?
The culture of all of Southeast Asia is very diverse. It was something that attracted me to visiting this part of the world. China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have different cultures and cuisine. The temperature is also usually warm and humid, so for someone who has sustained multiple injuries, it sure beats the cold of North America. The Chinese are very close to their families and make sure their parents are well taken care of. This often means that elders stay and live with their children, making the family unit strong and survivable. Grandparents have loving relationships with their grandchildren, not just on holidays. As far as the hockey culture goes, there are certainly major differences. There is a 12-hour difference to the East coast, so live games are hard to watch at 8:00 in the morning. Kids follow the NHL through social media in the same way that they communicate the hockey culture here. There is a strong western influence in Hong Kong, unlike other parts of China, so the hockey culture is expanding quickly through social media.
Do you find it easier or harder to work with players who didn’t grow up with North American hockey?
The adult players have jobs and aren’t going to play in the NHL for now. They can only commit themselves for a certain amount of time. The mental part of the game is one area that they must improve on. There is a bright future for our younger players. The hardest part as a coach is that you take some things for granted as a former player. You think players should have that natural instinct to make good decisions on the ice. This is the technical side of coaching where you need patience. We lack sufficient ice time to practice, so it is an uphill battle that is constantly being waged. As a coach, you have to come up with new resources and formulas to teach. I enjoy that part, because you are always learning as a coach. Every practice and game, I see something I have never seen before.
Is the language barrier a problem for you as a coach?
It’s not a problem as English is spoken often. Cantonese is the preferred language of Hong Kong, so every coach should learn how to yell in it (laughs). Mandarin is the official language of China, and our Chinese coaches help me with that. The kids do the rest.
Has the experience been fulfilling for you?
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and people have been good to me. There are some things that get me going though. If I have to take the MTR, queuing up for the train can be an experience. People don’t like anyone getting ahead of them, and they don’t always follow the rules. I make a point of reminding them! They also wait in front of the elevator doors so when the door opens they will try and rush in the door without letting you out first. I don’t accept that, so now I stand at the front of the elevator like a linebacker. If you want to rush in, you’re going to be taken down like Dick Butkus. I can only attribute this to the fact that time is money in Hong Kong.
What is your long-term goal coaching abroad?
Long term, we need proper training facilities to be able to develop quality hockey players. They need ice time, and Hong Kong has the most expensive ice in the world. The hockey rinks that we use are in malls, so it’s commercial use first and hockey later on. This is great for shopping, but not so good for hockey. Most venues have been good to us, but the prices keep rising. We do the best with what we have. If you want to be a player bad enough, you will find a way to get better and stronger. You don’t need a coach to do 1000 push ups a day. You only need the heart of a lion.
Do you miss life in the US and Canada?
I do miss New York and Canada, as I only have time to visit once a year. I have a 15-year-old son back in Canada, and have missed a large part of his life while I have been here. It is the sacrifice that many coaches make as they love the game, even at the cost of not seeing loved ones. Ranger fans keep me updated on the team’s progress: good or bad. That’s New York!
You are still absolutely beloved by Rangers fans, even though you haven’t played in New York for over two decades. Do you ever come across fans abroad that recognize you?
Yes, that can be quite funny at times. I ran into some Ranger fans in Thailand that asked me to join them for dinner. It was three hours of Ranger banter. It is always an honor for me to be associated with the Rangers, and I’m always approachable. After hearing, “Hey Barry, how you doin’!” and “Shoot the puck, Barry!” 25 times in a New York accent, well, let’s just say the tequila helped! I even found myself saying it hours later.
You still hear fans yell “Shoot the puck, Barry!” at games over thirty years later. How did that come about?
When I first heard about “Shoot the puck, Barry!” I didn’t know what was going on. Then I watched a taped game and listened to the Rangers announcers Jim Gordon and Bill “The Big Whistle” Chadwick. When I first met Bill after being traded to the Rangers, I said to him “Hey, you got a New York accent!” He said, “That’s because I’m from New York!”
Once I learned Bill’s history—he lost sight in one eye while playing hockey, and he became a Hall of Fame referee—I knew why New York fans loved him so much. He told me after a game that I had a hard shot and had to start using it more. So I did. When I had the puck, on broadcasts he would yell, “Shoot the puck, Barry! Shoot the puck”
I’d see him after games, especially on the road, and I would always tell him, “I’m shooting, Bill! I’m shooting” You got to start telling the other players, “Pass the puck to Barry! Pass the puck1” He laughed, and said, “No, I like ‘Shoot the puck, Barry!’ better.” I have to thank him for making me somewhat famous. Jim Gordon and Bill Chadwick were not only announcers, but entertainers as well. They were way ahead of their time. They are missed by fans and players alike and are legends at the Garden. I’m glad I could be a small part of it
What is the biggest difference between the NHL today and your era?
The biggest difference is of course the money. Average players make millions of dollars now. When I broke into the league, I appreciated the players that came before me and went out of my way to tell them that. I don’t think today’s players feel the same. Most of us didn’t wear helmets, so there was a constant risk of injury. I had so many concussions that I don’t even remember them (laughs)! Playing hurt was normal. Someone else was always ready to take your spot. This doesn’t help when the players reach their golden years. Some guys from my era will struggle financially and find it hard to get out of bed in the morning because of injuries. They usually can tell you what city they were in and which body part they hurt while there. When you’re younger, it is a small price to pay for fulfilling your dream of playing in the NHL. As the years go by, you’re no different than anyone else. You at least get to sign a few hockey cards still to rekindle the memories.
Are their characteristics from the game in your era that you still wish existed today?
When I played, you didn’t communicate with the other teams before games or during the season, because it was like war. Big men playing full contact try to hurt and punish each other. It is part of the game. Now players do commercials together and enjoy family outings, as there is much more player movement now than when I played. There was no free agency, so you stayed with the same team for years unless you were traded. The NHL has a product that they have to sell and promote. It is all about entertainment. Every team has community programs that focus on development. Every team should be active in their community. I would also like to see a league game played without helmets to see how the players would react. I think there would be a lot of respect. Most likely, players would be late for warm-ups. They would be fighting for mirror space in the locker room.
You were the captain of the Rangers while you were there. Are there leadership traits that you can teach to your students?
Being Captain of one of the six original teams is a big honor, especially for the Rangers. Not to downplay the other Captains in their own right, but Madison Square Garden is an exhilarating building. The adrenalin and crowd are what you dream of as a kid growing up on the school grounds playing ball hockey. Every athlete loves playing in New York, because it is the big stage. You better be good; if not you will hear about it quickly. It could be a thrown bagel in the ear! That’s if you’re lucky! The main element I try to pass on is respect. You can teach all of the x’s and o’s you want, but without respect, there is nothing.
What was it like to play for Herb Brooks?
I loved playing for Herb. People think there was conflict between us, because I threw a garbage can at him over a disagreement. There really wasn’t. He changed the game for me and made me a better player. His system included all five players attacking with puck possession. I enjoyed that style. You had to skate hard, as we often did in practice. If we lost a couple in a row, he would push a few buttons to shake things up. The coach is responsible for the team winning at the professional level. If not, he won’t have a job very long. Coaches have different methods for each player. He will address them individually and also as a team. You have to know your personnel. Herb was consumed with hockey. It was hard to get close to him and that’s the way he wanted it. He had his reasons. He knew he had to be tough to get results, and I respect that. We had some good runs while he was in New York. I miss him. I’m still in contact with his son Danny. We had some good times while Herb was there.
Is the story of how you got traded to the Rangers true?
If you mean the story of Don Cherry and his dog Blue, it’s true. While I was with the Colorado Rockies, coach Don Cherry’ had a dog named Blue that waddled into our locker room. Blue came in and, you know how those dogs do it, he rubbed his butt on the floor, right in front of my locker, in the area I used to do push-ups. So I gave Blue a little whack with my stick, and he ran yelping back to Don’s office. Don came in and asked who did it, but we looked around and said we didn’t know. The next day, I got traded to New York. Don loved that dog more than any player. There was talk of me being traded, as they wanted to move the team to New Jersey, but I said I wouldn’t go because we had a good young team in Colorado. Maybe that was the icing on the cake. Since then, I’ve owned my own bull terrier, but I named him Dino as blue was reserved for Don only!
Is there anything else you would like hockey fans back home to know?
I would like to thank Ranger fans that have kept in touch with me through social media. I live half way around the world, and I lose touch with friends and family at times. I guess what I miss the most is the players I played with and the feeling of being part of a team. You go through a lot of battles together and have to support one another. It is a good feeling. You have to care of one another to win and that means busting a few heads at times and going out for cocktails when you need to, but you do it as a team. You also learn early to help others in need, as you didn’t make it to the NHL by yourself. You had a lot of help along the way. There are thousands of kids that have the same dream as you. This is common amongst hockey players, many of whom are from the working class. Humility is a trait found in almost every player. If you are arrogant, you will get a lesson in hockey etiquette by a teammate at your next practice or even before. You won’t have to wait for the enforcer. Anyone will gladly help you out!!