The Niagara Falls Review

The dead end kid and me

- Steve Ludzik

Rick Dudley, former NHL warrior and general manager of three different big league franchises, called him “the toughest human being I have ever known.” Dud is not one to toss superlativ­es around needlessly, and added: “You’ve got to remember, he was not an average man. He was void of pain, and he could play the game.”

No. 13 was the greatest secret never to play in the NHL. This is Andy Bezeau, No. 13, and this is his story.

Bezeau, the dead end kid, learned quick and early to stand up for himself. It was a quality that held him in good sted on an August evening in 1989.

“I’ll be back tomorrow, line ‘em up, Mr. Laforge,” said the dead end kid, refusing to accept the sour news that he had just been cut from the Niagara Falls Thunder training camp by the ruling general, Battling Bill Laforge, a five-star heavy who liked his players lean and mean, but the kid was only 5-foot-9 inches tall he wouldn’t last the season, thought the coach.

Andy Bezeau

“Did you hear me? I’m coming back tomorrow,” the dead end kid shouted, as the hulking Laforge shook his head and walked away. The burly bench boss was not in the habit of repeating himself, nor having freshly cut rookies chirp back to him.

Laforge turned and resumed his dreadful duties of cutting another dozen hockey hopefuls and sending them packing back home and to reality, their hockey hopes hijacked.

A desperate Bezeau did not want to go back. He would not go quietly into the night.

The only thing that he feared was failure. He had nowhere to go. He slept on a park bench that night. The dead end kid bused, walked and thumbed his way from Saint John, N.B. to Niagara Falls, hockey bag slung over his shoulder.

He was 18 years old, and he did not want to return home.

“The only guy who ever knocked me out was my father,” says a serious Bezeau of his harddrinki­ng father. This was not the Brady Bunch.

Showing up for camp the next day, Bezeau did what he had to do get attention. and the fox-like Laforge, his hockey senses on red alert, liked the kid’s guts.

“The first exhibition game I played, Laforge whispers in my ear, ‘Can you fight kid?’” said Bezeau.

A quizzical question answered just by peeking at his puss. Four front teeth missing courtesy of a brick during a 3 a.m. scuffle, a nose devoid of cartilage and a constant black eye. His thick hands were broken so many times they pointed east, west, north and south. All these goodies capped by a Shemp Howard haircut, told you this was not the captain of the debating team.

Upon signing his contract with the Thunder a proud, but sheepish, Bezeau leaned into coach Laforge and whispered that he had a pending court date, back in Saint John with the possibilit­y of incarcerat­ion. Laforge, himself a expert in such judicial matters, took care of it.

I saw Bezeau play a couple of games in the Falls and made a mental note. Always a crowd favourite, he recorded 20 goals his rookie year, tangled with the super heavyweigh­ts, often giving up six inches and 40 pounds.

If he lost, which happened rarely, he was coming back for seconds and maybe thirds, he could not be stopped. I lost track of the kid for four years and ran into him as I started my coaching career at the bottom in the old Colonial League.

Bezeau was skating for the Brantford Smoke, and I was shocked to see how far his game had dipped, he skated, but without urgency or desire. His once churning legs and whirling dervish style were almost gone, the fire he once owned was but a flame now.

He resembled a pitbull that was tired of being pushed to fight every night, by coaches who used him.

After witnessing a disgracefu­l annihilati­on perpetrate­d on my nice natured Muskegon lads by a very good, but vicious Thunder Bay squad, I was almost in a state of shock during the 60 minutes of carnage, the ice at one point was littered with bodies strewn across the frozen landscape all wearing Muskegon Fury jerseys.

The paramedics were worked to exhaustion by a steady stream of my guys being carted of the ice ten toes up. To make it more worrisome, we were in our barn and being cuffed around like cuddly cubs. The following weekend we were scheduled to make a 13-hour bus trip to the frozen tundra of Thunder Bay and I knew that I would be lucky to have enough players to start a gin rummy tournament. We were in deep trouble, but Bezeau would make us bullet proof, the deal was made for the dead end kid and I traded three players. I immediatel­y received a call from South Carolina. Rick Vaive and Marcel Dionne, who were running the ECHL club and had the privilege of having Bezeau for 36 games. The two NHL legends in stereo pounced on me: “You just signed your death certificat­e as a coach. He’s out of his mind ... are you?”

“Rick Vaive told me to throw my skates in the garbage and be a taxi driver,” remembers Bez. Showing up prior to the game in London on a Tuesday night, I almost walked by him baggy jeans, work boots and a jean jacket. His appearance was so dishevelle­d that he looked like he just made a break from a chain gang while the warden had a cat nap.

“I hope you didn’t sell the farm to get me,” the Bez mumbled. He looked like a bum, actually a bum’s bum. He had lost respect for the game, himself and the people who treated him like a hired gun. What had happened to the dead end kid, who left his mark on Niagara Falls and countless foes?

The trade for Bezeau that season, jump started our club the minute he entered the room. His new teammates, at first leery of this storied bad guy, found out quickly the playing field was now even. No longer the hunted, we now were the hunters. One man does make a difference, folks. I told him to cut the clown show, get back on the rails, and get serious and while he was at it get a hair cut and a suit.

The dead end kid cleaned up nice. He became my favourite player that I’ve coached and wont he know that till he reads this paper.

His famous No. 13 was bad luck for everyone who opposed him, the sight of this human dynamo barreling in on the forecheck, leaping and bounding over any and all, playing like he was afraid to be sent home. This heat seeking missile, left chunks of himself in tank towns From Erie, Pa. to the United Kingdom. It did not matter if there were 500 fans calling for his scalp in Johnstown or 15,000 at the Palace of Auburn Hills humming in unison “Bbbbbzzzzz­zzzzzz.”

“There was no one like him. Ask anyone who played just one game against the guy,” says former teammate Darren Banks.

He was noted for time in the sin bin, but he learned after a while he could play. I took the dead end kid to Detroit and the IHL, where his buzzsaw-like play attracted a lot of attention from referees, opposing players and fans.

“He was a terrific teammate,” said Banks.

When I moved to Tampa Bay and the big cat jungle of the NHL, I brought the Bez with me, his dreams of making the show now realized. Bezeau would finally get his pot of gold which he more than deserved. But it was not to be. In a exhibition game slugfest with Islanders thugster Steve Webb, Bezeau always the street fighter, always on the attack, always swinging, always going for broke, fractured his elbow on Webb’s noggin. As the Bez exited the ice, few in the Tampa Bay crowd cared or knew that this was the end of the Bez. He performed in 19 IHL games the following season, and left the squad over a contract issue and a coach who pushed him to fight. He jumped on a plane went overseas to London. He was finished and he knew it, but he was looking for a last payday, and sadly was shanghied by a deceitful GM who thought he could monkey with the dead end kids money, a rather large and uncalculat­ed gamble.

He got his money but was escorted out of the country “by bobbies” of the law. At 29, he was finished, no press conference, no send off, no cushy management job. No one competed harder or laid it on the line like Andy Bezeau.

He found odd jobs until a 40-foot fall off a scaffold almost killed him. He would battle back again. The dead end kid was a survivor. Today, Andy Bezeau is the owner of Express Hockey in Saint John, a thriving hockey skills camp. He has done very well for himself. He is married to Michelle, his gorgeous wife of 12 years and they have three children and one bulldog. Steve Ludzik is a former National League Hockey player and coach, OHL player and coach, and a proud alumnus of the Niagara Falls Flyers. Since retiring from profession­al ho0ckey, he has carved out a successful career as an author and a broadcaste­r.

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