In 1997, John Vanbiesbrouck was the leading goaltender in the NHL’s Eastern Conference All-Star game and in 1998 he represented team USA at the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. John played his first NHL game at the age of eighteen with the New York Rangers and recorded his 300th NHL win on December 27th 1997, becoming the 15th goaltender in NHL history to reach that milestone. Although life appeared to be smooth on the surface, the Vanbiesbrouck home experienced significant anxiety, with the suicide of John’s older brother as well as the challenges his wife Rosalinde faced raising three sons including a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. This is their story:
John: Hi my name is John Vanbiesbrouck and this is my wife Rosalinde. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. It was fun growing up in Detroit, despite what you hear about Detroit, it was a great place. I grew up with two brothers and two parents that were immigrants from other countries. My father is from Belgium and that’s where we get the long last name of Vanbiesbrouck, all thirteen letters of it. And my mother is from Italy. And they both didn’t speak English when they came over to the country. I never got the chance to learn Italian or Belgian because the common language in our family became English.
I grew up and did all kinds of stuff. I was an altar boy and we went to church on the weekends and had lots of fun with a lot of friends. But at an early age I took a liking to a sport called hockey, but I also liked baseball too. And we played a lot of games together and eventually my brothers who were both older than me found a home for me and that was in the net because they always wanted to beat me up which eventually led to shooting things at me. I guess that’s where the goalie in me came out.
Rosalinde: I come from Sault St. Marie, which is a small town in northern Ontario, Canada. And my parents are both also from out of the country. They’re both from England. And I grew up knowing that winter meant walking through tunnels, that’s what the streets became. And that they cut the snow banks down periodically through the winter because they got to be ten feet and more. So some of you can possibly relate to that. And that summer brought in the animals and we had bears in our backyard and moose sometimes and police escorts on the way to school if the bears got out of hand. It was an exciting way to grow up.
John: Well, hockey became something that everybody played in the streets and backyards. Eventually midgets, which is the age of 15- to 16-year-olds, became a very serious time in my life because we went and played in tournaments. And in this one tournament in particular, they lost my jersey and it had our names on the back and I had to wear the name of our other goalie on the back of my jersey and I went on and I had a great tournament. We knew that all the scouts were there from hockey teams and from colleges all around.
What happened subsequently is that the Toronto Marlies, which is an Ontario hockey league team, they drafted in the fourth round this other goalie and it wasn’t me. This person who was the general manager of the Sault St Marie Greyhounds at the time, picked up on it and said “No, no. This guy’s got a looong name. I know who he is.” And he invited me to training camp. I went to training camp that year for the Sault Greyhounds and I made the team.
And I was so naïve at the time and it was interesting because I was actually pitching in a baseball game when my mother showed up at the game and she almost interrupted the game and I was like “What are you doing?! I’m pitching. Don’t interrupt me right now.” And she said “No, no. This fellow called from Sault St. Marie and he wants you to go to training camp there.” And I was totally excited about it, but I did want to go to college. My brothers were both in college at the time and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. Also, I was seriously considering playing baseball. I mean I loved baseball.
At that time, my freshman year in high school, I had a really good year. And the coach came up to me at that time and said “Well, you know that you’re going to have stop playing hockey if you want to play baseball.” And I said “Well, they don’t conflict. I mean the seasons, you know, one’s in the winter, one’s in the summer.” And he said “No. If you want to play baseball, you’ve got to make a dedication to baseball.”
So, I quit playing baseball and stuck solely to hockey. And off to training camp I went, to this place called Sault St. Marie. Way up, right above northern Michigan. And I’ll tell you, it is the great white north. I made the team and we had a real good year.
That year I was eighteen years old. After that year I got drafted by the New York Rangers in the fifth round. So all of a sudden, I was this kid pitching in this baseball game to going up and playing one year in the Ontario hockey league and then all of a sudden I was drafted by a professional hockey team. Boy I thought, things were really moving for me. I came back, played my second year at the Sault Greyhounds and at that time I was having a pretty good year and there was a rash of injuries with the New York Rangers and I was called up. So, eighteen years old and I played my first NHL game. What a pinnacle I thought that was. We won the game 2-1. And I thought “Boy, I’m just doing it here!”
They sent me back to Junior, back to the great white north, for reasons I really didn’t understand. But you know I accomplished something at that time but I didn’t understand. I mean the next day they sent me back down and back to Sault St. Marie. I was in my final year in Sault St. Marie, that I met Rosalinde. I was 19-years old at the time and I definitely wondered why I got sent back to Sault St Marie and now I know!
Rosalinde: Well, I might be Canadian and hockey may be our national sport, but I didn’t particularly care for it and I knew nothing about it, even though Wayne Gretzky…that’s where he played. And that’s about all I knew about hockey—his name. But I met John and he was American. That’s the first thing that made him strange. He had an accent and he dressed differently than the Canadian guys. And he had a big space between his teeth. He wore big glasses. He had a mustache. All those things were against him, but he was a nice guy. He talked to me, he was kind to me. Eventually he won me over. Mutual friends set us up. And how could I not like him. He actually saved me from being arrested one night with false I.D. And that was the beginning of the story.
John: And what a story it is. And after that, I had to wait. I wanted actually, the following year to ask for Ros’s hand in marriage. I asked her, but I didn’t have the courage to ask her dad. But eventually I did and we had to wait for three years for Ros to finish school. So we had a long distance relationship, which was very difficult. She was at school at a Canadian university and I was in New York. I was in New York, living it up. With a great career, that was surging.
At that time, there were good things happening. It was interesting to find out that when we eventually got married in 1986, the Rangers almost made the Stanley Cup final. You know, I really felt that I played a big part in that. And then we were married that summer. And for the next few years, we really thought that we had everything going our way.
Rosalinde: It was like living a dream. It was like a fairy tale. We spent the first seven years of our marriage there, dropped in the vicinity of New York at twenty-two years old and John making a considerable amount of money for our age. It was amazing, we had our own home, we had some nice cars, we had a nice lifestyle, and we were invited to fancy parties. Life was great. Everything was very entertaining and we were having a good time.
And then our first child was born and our second child was born. Well that’s when I knew that there were some difficulties with our first child because I had a comparison. We’ll get more into that at a later time, but really, what more could a young couple ask for. Then after the third child was born, during those years I felt that there was some kind of void in my life. And I approached John and said “You know, our parents gave us a base. They baptized us and they took us to church and they gave us that base.” We had taken care of the baptism for the kids, but we weren’t modeling for them that life or taking them to church. And John—it was like it was falling on dead ears. There was no response.
And I dragged him to a few Bible studies at friends’ homes and even to some marriage encounters, watching videos together. But we had no communication as a result of those. No change, no results or responses. It was still going nowhere, but I still felt a void. I don’t think John felt that void that I did.
John: Basically, I thought everything was great. And all those seven years, when our children were born I thought that things were very busy. We had lots to do. My schedule was busy with games to play and places to go. And Ros was left home. I didn’t really realize it at the time that, you know it wasn’t much of a problem. I mean that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re married right? Leave your kids at home with your wife and go off and try to be as successful as you possibly can because you’re the breadwinner.
Well, one day we were on a vacation and heading back from a place in the far east end of Long Island in East Hampton and Ros, she said to me “I think that we should go to church on Sunday and restate to God that we want him to be in our lives and model to our children how important that was to us growing up.” And I’m driving this fancy Range Rover at the time. And I’m going down and I’m thinking “How crazy is…what is she talking about? I have a tee time standing every Sunday morning and I have all these things that we can do.”
But at that time I was totally against it and I was totally against these marriage encounters where once, it was the first one we went to was at a team mate of ours, I walked in the room and I thought it was great: dinner and then we walked into the family room and I saw a Bible sitting on the chair and I stopped and went “Uh oh, this wasn’t in the picture! I thought we were just going to talk about our marriages and what our kids do and you know, who threw up on who this week and stuff like that.” And I became scared. I really did. I felt chills and I didn’t want to be there and it was a scary feeling for me.