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There's more than one meaning to the title of Eddie Olczyk's new autobiography. Beating the Odds refers to overcoming cancer, it ties in nicely to his many years in horse racing, and, key to hockey fans, it is a testament to his drive to succeed from unlikely beginnings.
“He was a kid from Chicago who was playing hockey when hockey wasn't really big in Chicago, and in the U.S. for that matter. He ended up being drafted [third] overall by the Blackhawks,” said Olczyk's co-writer, Perry Lefko. “Eddie came in there as this kid from Chicago with a ton of hype about him, and he had to prove himself not just to his fellow players, but anybody would look at him and say, 'You're just a kid from Chicago and you're getting all this hype.' But he did really well. So Beating the Odds has to do with not just the fact that he beat cancer, but the fact that he was a kid from Chicago that had the privilege to be drafted by the Hawks and to experience playing for his hometown team—no different than a kid from Toronto who gets to play for the Leafs or gets drafted by the Leafs, but that happens all the time.”
The Olczyk-Lefko team has its origins at the track rather than the rink. Lefko used to cover horse racing for the Toronto Sun in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Olczyk had thoroughbred horses with Leafs teammate and Leeman.
“We kept in touch over the years,” said Lefko. When Olczyk announced that he had stage 3 colon cancer, Lefko reached about a story for a horse racing publication.
Then when Olczyk was able to declare himself cancer-free, Lefko proposed a book. “We had discussed [a book] a few years before that; it just wasn't the right time,” said Lefko. “He said, 'Yeah, now is the right time. My wife and I want to do it.' It just went from there.”
Triumph Books, based in suburban Chicago, is the publisher. Lefko said it was an easy pitch to Triumph really, as Olczyk continues to have a high profile, calling both hockey and horse racing on NBC, and as a colour commentator with the Blackhawks. “They had tried before to get him to do it. I went down to Chicago, brought Eddie in to the publisher, and we made our pitch, and they were on it right away,” said Lefko. “It just make perfect sense. I wasn't going to approach a Canadian publisher.”
With a number of books under his belt with celebrity authors—football players Michael “Pinball” Clemons and Doug Flutie, curlers Colleen Jones and the late Sandra Schmirler, and wrestler Bret “Hitman” Hart, as well as a couple of books on the Breeders' Cup—Lefko knew what he wanted: someone who'd get out and promote the book.
That has certainly been Olczyk, who seems to have been everywhere, from NHL.com to NBC, telling his story—and Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life is not just a hockey book.
In a review in Publishers Weekly, the non-hockey aspect is singled out: “While Olczyk discusses the joys of his post-playing career nimbly, it's his unflinching account of his battle with cancer that truly stands out (in the afterword, his children tell their stories about living with their father through these hard times). Though an obvious must-read for hockey fans, this inspired account of a man battling cancer will appeal to a wider audience, as well.”
To work on the book, Lefko went to Chicago a few times, and they met in Buffalo and Toronto, as well as talking over the phone. “You really have to be next to that person talking to them, because if you're just talking to them over the phone you don't really get the same experience what they're actually saying. We set up a timetable and it was great,” said Lefko. “I have total admiration for him for allowing me to do this.”
There's lots of hockey talk, including difficulties with Mike Keenan, coach of the 1994 Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers, and Olczyk's stint coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins himself. “He's a very emotional person and discussing a lot of this stuff, he poured out his heart and his soul, and didn't leave anything that was mysterious. He was an open book,” said Lefko.
It was Olczyk's wife, Diana, that suggested the children should get to share their experiences. Lefko also peppers the book with pullout quotes from various people from Olczyk's life, including family, teammates, and people from the world of sports broadcasting. Lefko calls them “supplementary voices.”
Lefko has his own deeply personal experience with cancer. His sister, Robyn, died in 1984 of leukemia just 13 months after the diagnosis. She was 22. “This is always something that's been a huge part of my life, cancer, and I didn't know anything about leukemia when my sister was diagnosed with it. We didn't have anything even remotely close to that in my family. It's made me far more in tune with what cancer is. When Eddie was talking about certain things, I could relate to it having seen what my sister went through. I think that anybody that goes through cancer is brave and is a hero, and if they're fortunate enough to get cancer-free, that's great, but not everyone is not that fortunate.”
Therefore, Beating the Odds can also be a book to help others who are facing cancer themselves, whether it's themselves or someone they know. It doesn't have to be a private battle.
“[Beating the Odds] can resonate with hockey people, it can resonate with horse racing people, but the bigger arc is cancer, because it can affect anybody. Eddie never smoked, never drank, took good care of his body, and he got hit with cancer,” concluded Lefko. “What you learn from it, the physical and emotional things that he went through, but what he's trying to say is that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody, so go get yourself checked.”
My next book has been announced. It am working on the autobiography of pioneering wrestling radio host John Arezzi, who was also a promoter and a key figure in bringing lucha libre to the U.S. northeast. Arezzi was also involved in the New York Mets minor league system, and has been working in country music for decades now (as John Alexander). For more on the book, see the press release. We have not found a hockey link—yet.
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