By Tim Whyte
Part 1: The Boy
I used to write about a lot of “firsts” when I was on my first go-round with The Mighty Signal. Here and there, instead of writing about politics and government malfeasance, I’d switch gears and write about a slice of life.
You know. Baby’s first steps. Baby’s first birthday. First time we went ice skating together. First hockey game.
It started with our boy, Luc, born in 1995. And it continued with our girl, Brooke, born in 2001. I got a lot of mileage out of “dad” anecdotes, and it all came to a screeching halt when I left the paper in 2007.
Luc was 11. Brooke was 5.
Suddenly, for the first time in more than a dozen years, I didn’t have a column anymore.
Those little stories of “firsts” and slice-of-life experiences continued. I just wasn’t writing about them. The kids grew to appreciate the fact that I was no longer writing a column. In fact, when I told them I was returning to The Signal this past June, I picked up a distinct vibe from both kids, now 23 and 17 years old: “Dude. You’re not going to go back to writing columns about us, are you?”
I guess, as kids get older, they get a little more aware of how embarrassing Dad can be, especially if he tells stories about them in print.
Like this one:
In 2008, the year after I left the paper, we took a big trip to Quebec City, in the middle of February, when the city was socked in with snow and celebrating its annual winter festival.
Luc was playing youth hockey with the L.A. Jr. Kings at the time, and the team went to Quebec for the world’s biggest tournament of 12-year-old hockey players: The Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament.
It wasn’t so much just a hockey tournament. It was a life experience, for kids and parents alike.
The tournament, in hockey-mad Quebec, features over 100 teams from around the world. Each team played at least one game in Le Colisée, the former home of the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche). For the game featuring Luc’s team at Le Colisée, about 10,000 attended.
The Quebecois, they love their hockey. Even peewee hockey.
Luc’s team was coached by Nick Vachon, son of the legendary L.A. Kings hall-of-fame goalie Rogie Vachon. For the Quebec trip, Rogie — who’s revered with god-like status in Quebec — came along as a special guest coach.
Over the course of the tournament, our kids played 12 games in 10 days. They stayed not in a hotel with their moms and dads, but with local French-speaking “billet families” who fed the young hockey players, housed them and made sure they made it to the various rinks in time for their games, playing against opponents from all over the U.S., Canada, Russia and Europe.
Luc’s team played several Canadian teams, a Russian team, a Swiss team, U.S. powerhouses like Detroit Honeybaked, and the New York Jr. Rangers, who were coached by none other than Mark Messier.
The parents stayed in a fancy old hotel inside the walled city of Quebec — it’s the only fortressed city in North America, and the closest thing you’ll find to a European vibe on this continent. In between hockey games we ate great food, seized the opportunity to play a little outdoor pond hockey, drank good wine, and generally soaked up the local culture.
Part of that local culture is a dish called poutine. It’s simple, and really, really bad for you. Poutine consists of french fries, smothered in gravy, and topped with fresh white cheese curds.
Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
After each game, we would meet Luc in the lobby of the rink to catch up, see how he was doing, tell him “good game,” and so forth, before he would hop in the billet family’s minivan and we would go our separate ways, with Luc resting up for the next game and us looking for the next great restaurant or bar within walking distance of the hotel.
After about the fifth or sixth game, we noticed Luc smelled… well, RIPE.
“Dude,” I said, “You stink.”
My wife asked him if he had been showering at the billet family’s house.
His response — and I swear I am not making this up — was, “They didn’t tell me where the shower is.”
The boy, in his 12-year-old wisdom, apparently didn’t think to ask — or, even, to try to pantomime his question since his French was not so bien.
We later heard from his teammate who was staying at the same billet house (they paired the boys up) that Luc also had not been able to find his spare socks in his luggage, so, you know. Recycle.
“You’re coming back to the hotel with us and having a shower,” his mother told him.
We made arrangements to reunite him with the billets later, and took him to the fancy hotel. I swear the bellhop fainted when we walked by with Luc.
We got him up to the room and threw him into the bathroom to take a shower. About a half a minute later, he opened the door, stuck his head out and said:
“Hey, you guys are right. I DO stink. I smell like that cheese they put on poutine.”
Luc is basically grown up now. That 12-year-old who smelled like the cheese they put on poutine is now a junior at the University of Oklahoma, where he plays hockey for the Sooners (team motto: “Yes, OU has a hockey team!”) and double majors in criminology and psychology. Yeah, I’m proud.
There have been many more “firsts” and anecdotes that came between the poutine incident and now, and I suspect at some point I will resurrect a story or two from my boy’s past when the time feels right.
But, it occurs to me that I am now just as likely to be writing about “lasts” as I am “firsts.”
Sometime in the not so distant future, I’ll see my son play competitive hockey for the last time.
After all those years of youth hockey, all those miles of travel experiences, three years of highly competitive junior hockey, and now college hockey, and with all the injuries that came with it — concussions, broken collarbone, surgery for a torn hip labrum, surgery for a torn shoulder labrum, and most recently, a high ankle sprain — the time will come for the boy, with a university diploma in hand, to call it a day, retire to the beer league and move on to What’s Next.
It’ll be bittersweet, the end of that parental adventure of watching one’s child compete at the highest level he can reach. But I’m also looking forward to what the kid’s next adventures will hold, too.
At least now, he doesn’t forget to shower.
Next Week — Part 2: The Girl.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays.