Meet the Maple Leafs prospect who writes children’s books

Hockey Central at Noon discussion on the Toronto Maple Leafs work ethic being visibly better this season, they just simply lack talent, meaning they've looked good losing.

When Zach Hyman first laced up a pair of skates as a four-year-old, he was hooked on hockey almost immediately. But the Toronto native was never as single-minded as some puck-obsessed kids.

“I loved books growing up,” says Hyman, now 23, explaining how it is that he ended up both a children’s book author and a right-winger with the Toronto Marlies.

Selected by the Florida Panthers in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL entry draft, Hyman chose to play at the University of Michigan. This summer, the Panthers traded his rights to the Leafs, who signed the Hobey Baker Award finalist to a two-year entry-level deal. He attended his first NHL training camp with the Leafs before joining the Marlies to start the season.

Hyman’s first book, The Bambino and Me, was published last year. It tells the story of a Yankees fan who, like the young Roch Carrier in The Hockey Sweater, grudgingly dons the uniform of a rival team—in this kid’s case, a Red Sox jersey. The book is set in the Babe Ruth era of baseball, and the Bambino himself makes an appearance at a crucial moment in the young boy’s life.

His latest book, Hockey Hero, tells the story of a kid with a stutter who is too scared to play on his brother’s hockey team. The boy’s grandfather happens to be a Hall of Famer who trains him on a frozen pond, teaching him a few skills that end up coming in handy.

Sportsnet spoke with Hyman about his books, and what it’s like to juggle a pro hockey career with a writing gig on the side.

Did you always want to be a writer?
Writing’s always been a passion of mine. I didn’t necessarily plan on it, but I always knew that I enjoy writing—I enjoy the process of it. And as a kid I always liked to read. I won a short-story competition in Grade 7. My teacher said the story was really good, so I wanted to keep working on it.

That story was the basis for your new book, Hockey Hero. How much did the story change between when you wrote it—when you were just a kid—and the finished version?
The premise stayed the same. But I did change a bunch of different things—just the way it flowed, because my writing in Grade 7 obviously isn’t the same as my writing now. [Laughs.] Throughout high school I was editing it, but the overall storyline was the same.

How did you go from winning a short-story contest to getting a publishing deal?
We contacted Random House—I had a lot of help from my dad and my mom—and sent them my script. I told them my story: that I was a hockey player, that I was going to a Division I school and that I was drafted. They thought it was really cool, so they asked me to send over the script. And then they called me back and said, “We loved the script. We’d love to work with you." It was an awesome experience.

Where do you get your ideas?
It just comes to you. You get an idea, and that springs into more ideas. I take some stuff from my life, but I like to write to make the story entertaining and fun and jump off the page, because I'm writing for kids.

What elements of these books were taken from your personal experience?
In the hockey book there’s the element of brotherly love. I’m the oldest of five boys—that’s also a reason I write children’s books. I have so many younger brothers and they all liked it when I was writing. I had a really strong relationship with my grandfather. He was a big Babe Ruth fan. He and my dad always talked to me about Babe Ruth growing up. My third book is an adventure book between a boy and his grandfather, and the inspiration behind that was my relationship with my grandfather.

Will that book be sports-themed, too?
No, the third one’s a departure from sports, but the fourth one is a basketball book. I thought it would be cool to go off the map a bit with this next one.

Do your Marlies teammates know you're a published author?
They do now. They’re starting to ask questions about it. It’s cool.

With your hockey career, how do you find the time to write?
I write all the time—not necessarily always children’s stuff. My handwriting’s not good, so I’m always with a laptop. [Laughs.] I’m pretty busy with hockey, but in my spare time I enjoy it. It’s not like a job for me, it’s more a way to alleviate pressure and stress.

In both of your books, the main characters are underdogs. What is it about underdog stories that you think kids can relate to?
In all my books I try to go off the theme of believing in yourself and making your dreams come true. A lot of the quotes in The Bambino and Me are actual quotes from Babe Ruth. He was such an inspirational figure. I think in the hockey book, the main character is even more of an underdog, with the situation he's in in that book. I definitely like an underdog story—I think it’s relatable in a lot of senses to what a lot of kids go through. I write my books as a way to interact with kids in the community and promote reading. My books are my way of showing that if you believe in yourself, you can make your dreams come true. That’s the message I try to convey.