Speech impediment didn’t stop Dave Taylor from success
For Dave Taylor, the story of a King working to overcome a debilitating speech impediment is more than a movie plot.
It’s his life.
The former Kings captain, like the English monarch portrayed by Colin Firth in the critically acclaimed “The King’s Speech,” is a stutterer.
And like King George VI of Britain, who confronted his speech disorder before taking over the throne in 1937, Taylor has subjugated his stammer to the point where few are probably even aware of it.
“I’ve really made some good strides and I’m proud of that fact,” Taylor says. “I was able to take something that really controlled me and turn it to where I had most of the control.”
Taylor, 55, overcame his stutter to make public speeches and forge a career as an NHL executive. The former Kings general manager is director of player personnel for the St. Louis Blues.
But it was not an easy road.
“As long back as I can remember, I stuttered,” Taylor says during an interview at his Tarzana home. “I always dreaded having to speak in class. I was probably ashamed of it, so more often than not, I wouldn’t say anything. Everybody said I was a quiet kid, but a lot of the time I was just afraid to speak.”
His reticence hardly thwarted his rise to hockey stardom.
NHL success is measured by milestones of 400 lifetime goals, 600 assists and 1,000 games played. Taylor, defying long odds as a 15th-round draft pick, qualified in all three categories, spending his entire 17-year career with the Kings. Along with Marcel Dionne and Charlie Simmer, he was part of the vaunted Triple Crown Line of the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
But the miner’s son from Levack, Canada, also was a respected defender and a late-in-his-career grinder who dug pucks out of corners and fed them to the stars.
“Old Reliable,” the late Jim Murray dubbed Taylor, noting in a 1994 column, “On the ice, he seldom made a mistake or busted up his own team’s play. Dave Taylor on skates was like Joe DiMaggio in center field. When the ball came down, so to speak, he was under it. He was where he was supposed to be.”
Off the ice, though, Taylor was far less comfortable, especially when confronted with microphones and reporters.
“Whether it was in college or when I got to L.A.,” he says, “I always found the interviews very difficult.”
But that was only a part of it.
For fear that he might freeze up and not be able to enunciate the words, Taylor says, “I hated using the telephone.”
When ordering a pizza, he would ask his wife to call.
And in restaurants on the road with the Kings, Taylor says, “I’d just order the same thing the guy before me ordered because I didn’t want to say anything different.”
Taylor’s wife, Beth, notes that she didn’t initially realize the depth of her husband’s anxiety.
“He managed to get around it,” she says. “I think my parents made a snide comment, ‘Does he know how to talk himself?’ And I always said it was because he was really shy. It never really occurred to me that it was a speech impediment. He always just seemed excruciatingly shy.
“To me, it was never really that much of an issue. It became more of an issue when he tried to do interviews.”
One in particular brought the matter to a head.
Interviewed on television between periods of a game, Taylor “stumbled 10 or 12 times,” his wife says. “And I remember talking to him afterward and he said, ‘That’s it. I really need to call somebody because I can’t be doing that.’ ”
A friend recommended Vivian Sheehan, a Santa Monica-based speech therapist best known for her work with stutterers at the UCLA Speech Psychology Center.
Taylor’s wife made the call to set up an appointment.
“It was an educational process,” Taylor says of his work with Sheehan and her husband Joseph, a UCLA psychology professor and stutterer. “They used to tell me, ‘Hey, you are what you are. Some people wear glasses. You stutter. It’s not a big deal.’ ”
In group therapy, Taylor learned that he was not alone.
“Nobody could speak,” he says. “Nobody could say their own name. It was interesting to see that obviously you’re not the only one that has this problem.”
After working with the Sheehans for about two years, Taylor says he grew so comfortable that they asked him to speak at a national convention of stutterers. Later, when the Kings retired his number in 1995, he addressed a full house at the Forum. At his alma mater, Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., he gave a speech when he was awarded an honorary doctorate.
And, no longer afraid to speak on the phone, he served nine years as general manager of the Kings, earning recognition from the Hockey News in 2001 as NHL executive of the year.
“I didn’t know he’d be confident enough to do all that,” Beth Taylor says. “It was a very hard challenge, probably more so than anybody ever realized.”
A film about a stuttering king might raise awareness.
“I think it’s uncomfortable for everybody that watches it,” Taylor says of “The King’s Speech,” having seen it Friday night. “A person unable to give a speech or even talk, I know exactly how they feel. To have a block like that, it’s agonizing.”
Even now, Taylor says, he’s not entirely comfortable.
“You never get rid of stuttering,” he says. “You’re never cured. I still have problems today, but I’m better.”
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