Dana Gee, Vancouver Sun
What do most professional athletes do with their off-seasons?
Well, some play golf. Some host sports camps. Some work out and some just put their feet up and give their bruised and battered bodies a break.
When Surrey native Gary Nylund was a tough-guy blue-liner for the Chicago Blackhawks he spent three off-seasons as a member of another team, of sorts.
During the summers of 1987-90 he was a guitar player and occasional singer in the cover band Chicago 6.
While the band’s songbook was curated from familiar Motown, Beatles and classic rock catalogues, what set the Chicago 6 apart from any other bar band was the lineup consisting of pro athletes.
Representing the NHL was Nylund and fellow Blackhawks players: centre Troy Murray (saxophone) and winger Curt Fraser (guitar). The three other band members were members of the Super Bowl 20-winning Chicago Bears. Leading the NFL stars, singing and playing bass guitar was man-mountain defensive tackle Dan Hampton. Safety Dave Duerson blew trumpet and running back Walter “Sweetness” Payton played the drums.
“It was kind of cool in the sense that we didn’t have any common ground,” said Hampton when asked about the Chicago 6 coming together. “I grew up in the South, in Arkansas. There’s no hockey, I went to one hockey game in my life.”
Nylund, who retired in 1990 and became a firefighter in Delta, looks back on those years very fondly.
“I pinch myself. Those days in Chicago were fantastic,” said Nylund who played for Toronto, Chicago and the New York Islanders. “We were guests at the Playboy Club. We were treated fantastically, mostly because of the Super Bowl rings, but I didn’t care. It was great. It was a fun town to be in for those years.”
And it was un to be in a different kind of spotlight, a spotlight that didn’t involve flattening a forward as he rushed toward your goal.
“Am I thankful for it? You bet. It’s something I can talk about for the rest of my life,” said Nylund who has the interesting footnote of being the first player ever to go in free agency.
The Chicago 6 was formed back in 1987 when a magazine editor asked the guys to do a special gig.
That gig was a sold-out crowd of 10,000 at UIC Pavilion in Chicago.
“We weren’t exactly ‘in the pocket,’ let’s put it that way,” laughed Nylund, describing the loose nature of that first show.
Nerves by no means were limited to Nylund. Murray who is now a radio broadcaster in Chicago remembers that night being a queasy affair.
“Just before we went on stage we had a big bottle of Jack Daniels and we all took a bit shot and we all got together and did a huddle cheer and went out and played,” said Murray, who also made NHL stops in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Colorado. “We were all really nervous. You get out there the lights come on and you are on a stage thinking ‘what did I get myself into?’ But it all went great.”
What they got themselves into that night was more gigs. They got booked in bars, at special events and went on the road for shows in New York City and Puerto Rico.
“Anyone who is a professional athlete has a certain level of work ethic, so I knew they wouldn’t be hard to work with,” said Hampton who pointed out they built the band like you would build a team. “The really fun part of the band when we started was much like training camp. You put in the simple defences then you get more complex as go through.”
“We just meshed like we were playing on the same team,” said Murray.
A team, that included one of the greatest and most famous NFL players ever in Payton, who sadly succumbed to cancer in 1999.
“When you walked anywhere with Walter Payton, the place just stopped,” said Murray. “It was like Wayne Gretzky walking into a place in Edmonton, you know, back in his heyday.”
While Payton and his era of the Bears owned Chicago (Michael Jordan and the Bulls were just getting started) Nylund and company took a low-key, hockey-player-style approach to things.
“I have to tell the truth, I wasn’t a huge football fan, so I just treated Walter like my own teammate,” said Nylund. “I think he appreciated that. I think a lot of people use to kiss his bum just because of who he was. And because I really didn’t have that background, and the same with Curt and Troy, we just treated them like normal guys. I think that’s why they enjoyed being around us.”
Sure, they might have enjoyed being around the NHLers, but they were also kind of confused by them.
“Walter was always the one who was saying, ‘You guys are nuts. You guys fist fight,’” said Hampton, adding: “I had never been in a fistfight in my life. Nobody ever messed with me.”
And no one could ever catch Payton.
After three years, the band broke up when Nylund and Fraser were traded and Payton turned his eye toward car racing.
Nylund said he thought they would reunite at one point but sadly Payton was gone and Duerson, who was found to have suffered from CTE, took his own life in 2011.
Now, all these years later, Hampton is still playing with another version of the Chicago 6 and says there is always room on the stage for his old bandmates.
“I should go,” said Nylund as he sat in his guitar-filled music room in his house.
A winner of the medal of bravery as a firefighter, Nylund always has a guitar nearby and even on occasion gets to return to stage when he joins the band Odds on stage for Canucks Alumni fundraising gigs and special events.
“He’s good. He does his homework,” said Odds lead singer and guitar player Craig Northey. “He solos well.”
Nylund scoffs and does his best Canadian shrug when told of the Northey praise.
“I don’t want to screw them up, let them down. So that’s why I practise hard and get my part down. I don’t want to do more than my part,” said Nylund. “I want to do my part the best that I can. That’s how it works in a band and that’s how it works on a hockey team.”
NYLUND’S TOP FIVE
With experience in the pro-athlete band game, Gary Nylund has picked the five NHL players he would like as bandmates and the five songs they would have to play.
Keep in mind, this is completely wishful thinking.
Milan Lucic: drums. Reason: He always has his teammate’s back and he won’t let things get out of hand. Stays in the POCKET.
Patrick Kane: lead guitar. Pure talent and creativity
Daniel and Henrik Sedin: rhythm guitar and bass. Creative chemistry. Plus I’m a Canuck fan!
PK Subban: lead singer/front man. Talent, flair and showmanship. Plus this guy would love the attention!
Beatles: Hard Day’s Night. Reason: because every NHLer will have a number of these.
Brian Adams: Summer of 69. Because it has a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to. LOL.
The Tragically Hip: Courage. We could all use some of that.
Odds: It Falls Apart. Because they are my favourite band!
The Guess Who: Running Back to Saskatoon. Because it’s just soooo CANADIAN!
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