The kids stole glances over the backs of their folding chairs, waiting for the author to arrive and read them a story. A television camera perched to the side, ready to capture the entrance of the hometown hero. Soon, he stepped to the podium and introduced himself.
“I’m sure a lot of you wondered why a hockey player would be writing a children’s book,” Eric Fehr said.
It was a March evening in a bookstore outside Winnipeg, not far from where the Jets and Washington Capitals would play the next night at MTS Centre. Family members had trekked north from Fehr’s home town in Winkler, Manitoba, but the place was packed with others, too.
Fans from his junior days with the Brandon Wheat Kings, when he led the Western Hockey League in goals one year and everyone believed he could do the same in the NHL. Fans from his brief stint with the Jets, after he was shipped home via trade in 2011. Recent converts after Fehr re-signed with the team that traded him, the Capitals, and reinvented himself as a two-way center, anchoring their checking line.
Fehr had been many things — a right wing, a farmer, a carpenter and, most recently, the proud owner of 80 acres of rich Manitoba soil, “some of the best potato land in the entire country” — but being an author was new. So he kept it simple. He said hello, opened the book and began to read.
“The Bulliest Dozer,” he said, “by Eric Fehr.”
The idea started at home, when Fehr scolded someone to “quit being a bulldozer,” and soon that evolved into an anti-bullying tale featuring a wheelbarrow named Wobbles, a weed-whacker named Whippy, a teacher named Ms. Crane and the titular character, Bo Dozer. The story follows Bo, one student in a classroom of machines, who lashes out at his peers after falling over while practicing for a holiday-on-ice concert. He teases his friends, isolates himself, learns his lesson, learns to skate and becomes the star of the concert.
“They skated so perfectly,” Fehr read, “they could have been ice hockey players.”
Since the book was first published in October, he had been giving anti-bullying talks at libraries and sold T-shirts for charity. On the surface, the message is obvious. But it’s also a story about self-awareness and change. And in a non-bullying sense, that makes it a story about Eric Fehr.
He started out playing defense until his youth coach said Fehr showed too much offensive talent to sit on the blue line. So he switched to No. 16 and learned to play forward. Positions weren’t as important at that age, but scoring goals was fun.
Once he entered the professional world, drafted 18th overall by the Capitals in 2003, Fehr tried focusing harder on defensive-zone detail. In the American Hockey League, former coach Bruce Boudreau put Fehr onto a checking line, which Fehr later said built the groundwork for his current acumen. Still, his offensive numbers never reached the astronomic bar set in juniors, and Fehr’s most productive season came in 2009-10 for Washington’s Presidents’ Trophy team; the 21 goals and 39 points are still career highs.
“You have to adapt to survive,” he said. “I still think I have enough offensive upside in me that I could be a high-scoring winger, but I’d rather be a high-scoring centerman, a shutdown, high-scoring centerman.”
Along came Adam Oates, who saw an organization loaded with right-wingers and decided Fehr should try center. At first, Fehr felt “completely lost” in the faceoff circle, “literally just swinging the stick and hoping for the best at the beginning.”
“That almost worked to my advantage,” he continued, “because people had no idea what I was doing in the circle.”
But he began practicing harder at the dot, drilling techniques with forward Jay Beagle, asking questions of Nicklas Backstrom, reviewing video with defenseman John Carlson.
This season, he ranked 36th with a 52 percent win rate, famously winning 17 of 22 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in late January at Verizon Center, most against superstar Sidney Crosby. His offensive numbers remained steady, too. In 75 games during a contract year, Fehr registered 19 goals, two shy of his career-high.
“Now I watch him, it’s like he’s played center his whole life,” Beagle said. “There’s no way I’d be able to tell.”
Bo Dozer was supposed to be a maintainer, the machine Frank Fehr drove for a living, plowing the massive Manitoba snowstorms. He would return home around 10 or 11 p.m. and wake up Eric for chores.
“They couldn’t have everything for nothing,” Frank Fehr said.
He was standing along the outskirts of the bookstore, watching a line of autograph seekers wrap around the shelves. He seemed somewhat surprised his hockey-playing middle child had authored a children’s book, but not outright shocked. After all, Eric had plenty of interests outside of his chosen profession.
For instance, Fehr recently grew fascinated with woodwork, constructing shelves, desks and bedframes. He knew plenty of folks in the Winkler area, so finding someone to tend his land wasn’t tough. And now he gets free potatoes.
“There’s just something about going out there and seeing the land and knowing that it’s yours, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “I always wanted to, not necessarily farm, but I like the idea of farming. I don’t want to distance myself from that. I think it’s needed in the world and I think it’s something cool to be a part of.”
Frank Fehr also saw his son approach the brink of forced retirement during 2006-07, when a herniated disk sent Eric to specialists across the country. None could diagnose the problem. The pain got so bad, Fehr considered exploratory surgery.
Then there was the double shoulder operation in 2009 and a follow-up procedure in 2011. “It’s mostly ropes and metal anchors keeping things together,” Fehr said, and team trainers started calling him Steve Austin, as in “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
“I’ve definitely been sewn together a few times,” Fehr said, “but I feel now I’ve got a very good workout regimen, a very good routine to make sure everything’s working well and the way it should.”
Soon, the fans had emptied from the bookstore and only Fehr, his family and friends remained. He snapped a few more photos and left, walking past signs announcing the book reading. They had dinner reservations and an early bed time. He had a hockey game against the hometown team tomorrow.