Tom Laidlaw’s hockey instincts weren’t much help when he was dropped into an isolated part of Fiji and thrown together with 17 other contestants on “Survivor: Island of the Idols,” the new version of the long-running CBS reality TV show that tests social skills and endurance under harsh conditions.
If someone angered him during a 10-year NHL career that included stints with the New York Rangers and the Kings, Laidlaw had a perfect outlet for his emotions. “You get mad, you go hit somebody,” he said.
But hip-checking an opponent wasn’t a good option on “Survivor,” in which castaways form alliances before competition ratchets up to a cut-throat level for the title of Sole Survivor and a $1-million prize. The new season will begin Wednesday.
“Out there, we had to deal with a lot of different personalities and backgrounds, and if you do something like get into an argument, then you’re putting a target on your back,” Laidlaw said. “So, it’s like you accept the fact that people are going to be different and that’s it. I felt like I was prepared and I really enjoyed playing the game. It was a blast. I probably enjoyed it more than I realized I was going to.”
Laidlaw’s easy-going nature made him a leader during his hockey career, and he was respected as a rugged defenseman who patrolled the ice with a snarl.
He contributed 45 points and 156 penalty minutes in 195 games with the Kings over four seasons, a term that ended when a back injury kept him off the ice and the team bought him out.
He was with the Kings long enough to figure in two footnotes in their history: He came to Los Angeles with Bobby Carpenter in the monumental and stunning trade that sent Marcel Dionne to New York in 1987, and he had an assist on the play in which Wayne Gretzky earned his 1,850th point and tied Gordie Howe’s scoring record on Oct. 15, 1989.
When his playing career ended, Laidlaw made a smooth transition to becoming an agent, first with a big agency and then on his own. He also formed Post Game Strategies, which helps former athletes create business opportunities.
But he was looking for something more meaningful that would require physical and emotional investment. In a turnaround from his younger years, he ramped up his workouts to incorporate a pre-dawn march before he goes to the gym.
“So my whole routine is that instead of getting home at 3:30 in the morning like the old days, I get up at 3:30 in the morning now,” said Laidlaw, who lives in Connecticut. “I make my bed perfect. I can’t leave my room until my bed is made perfectly.”
He also started a website that promotes what he calls the “True Grit Life,” which is based on making the most of every minute and inspiring those around you to do the same, and began a podcast. He does a lot of motivational speaking and plans to publish a book.
Some of his coaches tried to inspire him to make that kind of commitment while he still wore pads and skates but he had to reach that point himself. “I always had a certain level of discipline in some things, but you live life all-out,” he said. “I tell a lot of stories in the book about the mistakes I made in the past and the things I learned from them.
“Part of the life is I just don’t look back now. We all make mistakes in life and do things differently but I say to myself, ‘I don’t want to look at myself as a guy that used to play hockey, played in the National Hockey League, that now does other things.’ I look at myself as a man that happened to play in the National Hockey League in the past, and that’s in the past. I loved it, it was a dream come true. I’m proud of myself that I worked to accomplish a goal. But I’m looking forward now and I don’t look behind.”
His route to “Survivor” was indirect. He was approached by the NHL a few years ago when the league tried to place a couple of players on the show “Amazing Race,” but that didn’t work out. “They couldn’t find somebody that qualified to get on the show with me in my age group,” he said, “so it shifted and we talked about ‘Survivor’ and they had me send in a video to show my wonderful personality.”
Not to mention his great modesty. “Yeah, my modesty, too,” he said with a laugh during a recent phone conversation. “And then we were flown out to California for casting and it went from there.”
Laidlaw was the senior member of the group. “I know I’m getting older but I don’t want to live like I’m getting older,” he said. “This is terrible advertising for AARP, but they sent me a card in the mail and I threw the card away right away. And that’s part of why I wanted to go on ‘Survivor.’
“It’s important to me that I didn’t want to go on ‘Survivor’ and play like I was a 60-year-old. I turned 61 when I was out there. I wanted to play like a player. I didn’t want to be using my age as an excuse to be treated differently. I wanted to go out there and live like I was fit and mentally sharp, and that was important to me.”
He prepared diligently to flex his muscles and his mind. Among his mental tests was learning and reciting a poem, which he found easy until his trainer had him ride a bike or otherwise elevate his heart rate. Sometimes, the trainer would bait him verbally. “It made me realize how much my mind was affected by my body and my body was affected by my mind,” he said.
Laidlaw isn’t allowed to reveal the results, and he’s curious to see what gets on the air from the hundreds of hours the contestants were filmed.
“I didn’t find the game hard,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong: You’re sleeping out in the dirt and I normally bring in around 3,000 or 3,500 calories a day and out there I think we were getting around 300 calories a day. And the game is always being played. The social game is a big part of it. I don’t want to push that it was easy, but it was something that I really enjoyed.”