Lessons from My Father
- Friday, June 17, 2005
The juggler comes closest to our hearts when he misses the ball.
-- Richard J. Needham
Ever since I was knee-high to a referee, I've been crazy about sports. I grew up in Canada where the national religion is ice hockey; where children and adults alike attend weekly (and sometimes daily) services at their local arena and never complain about the length of the sermon. Each winter morning I could be found strapping on ice skates, tripping down the road making sparks fly all the way to the outdoor rink. There, from the time I was three years old, I learned to play hockey with the big boys. I learned to stickhandle with the best of them. To fire the puck with utmost accuracy. I also mastered the art of gliding effortlessly across a frozen sheet of ice, sometimes on my back, often crashing headfirst into the boards and waking up the following Wednesday, wearing a bewildered expression.
Maybe it's the result of getting hit with a puck one too many times, but I miss those days.
Back then Saturday night was bath night. We would file into the tub from the eldest to the youngest to scrub a week's worth of play from our bodies. This was one of those times when it didn't pay off to be the youngest of five. By the time it was my turn the water was rather murky, to say the least, and so I couldn't wait to get to the living room and gather around the Philco radio for hockey night in Canada. Ah, how I loved the roar of the crowd. The tension of overtime. Players' names that brought visions of grandeur: Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovilich, Bobby Orr, Phil Callaway. It's true, I imagined the announcer, his voice rushed with excitement: "It's Callaway, blazing down the ice ... splitting the defense ... he shoots ... he scores! Oh my, I have not seen anything this exciting since the Allies invaded Normandy!"
Certain that this was my calling, I pursued my dream with everything I had.
Before long I was playing with real teams in real arenas with real helmets to protect our really hard heads. Each Saturday morning we took to the ice in an empty building while the rest of the world slept. Occasionally I would look up into the bleachers to discover that today they weren't quite so empty. That Dad was there. Somehow after a long week, he had summoned the energy to haul himself out of bed just to watch me play. Dad seemed to think I displayed more talent than the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers combined, and he would tell the world this, hollering loudly when I scored (twice that year) and clapping his big leather gloves together.
I wanted desperately to hear those gloves smack, and I couldn't wait to play professionally. I would fly Mom and Dad to the games. Buy them front row seats right behind the players. They could help the coach make important decisions.
We won only one game that year (the other team's goalie didn't show up), but Dad always encouraged me.
"Son," he would say as we walked home from the rink, Dad lugging my heavy equipment, me carrying my hockey stick, "you're not the first one to walk into a brick wall." Then he would recount historical failures: Thomas Edison struck out in his first two thousand attempts to invent the light bulb; Henry Ford went broke five times before finally succeeding in creating a car.
"But, Dad," I said, "Our Ford Meteor won't start. That's why we're walking."
"Son," he'd answer, undaunted, "never mind about that. You just be like a postage stamp. You stick to it till you get there."
In tenth grade, we stuck to it, posting our first winning season and earning the adulation of a few hundred teenage girls. It was a milestone year for me. In fact, something occurred that changed my dreams for good.
It happened like this.
Late March. The championship game. An event of such magnitude in our small town that a crowd of millions, or at least a few hundred, packed our small arena to watch the stars come out. Peering in nervous anticipation through a crack in the locker room door, I had the distinct feeling that this would be my night. The years of stickhandling were about to pay off. Those who had paid the scalpers twenty-five cents would not be disappointed.
But as the game progressed, my dream began to fade. In fact, as the clock ran down to the final minute, the dream had all the makings of a nightmare. We were behind 3-2 as I climbed over the boards. The final buzzer was about to sound. The fat lady was about to sing. We needed a miracle. We needed Phil Callaway.
And so I took a pass from the corner and skillfully rifled the puck past a sprawling goalie. The red goal light came on. The girls went wild. The game was tied. And I was a hero. I had scored the goal of my dreams.
Only one goal could top it. The overtime goal.
As I sat in the dressing room waiting for the ice to be cleared I eased open the locker room door for a peek at the crowd. Prepare yourselves, you lucky people. Tonight destiny is on my side. Tonight will be my night. You will remember me for years to come. Last week when I missed the open net, you chanted my name reassuringly:
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