By Tim Whyte
From the moment I started stick-handling in my back yard, imitating my father, shooting pucks past an imaginary goalie, I knew I was in love with you.
My parents made a target for me in the garage — a giant piece of remnant carpet, with an empty plastic milk jug hanging from a string. I destroyed quite a few milk jugs, but I also left a lot of puck marks on the side of the refrigerator in the garage.
I imagined myself, breaking down the wing at the Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens, with the Stanley Cup on the line, roofing a wrist shot that was in the net before the goalie saw it… and the crowd goes wild.
But not every 6-year-old’s dream comes true.
After my years of youth hockey, and a decade off the ice for a detour through high school football and getting a college education, I was back on the ice, headed for the adult recreational leagues. The beer leagues, where a championship means a week’s worth of bragging rights and not much more. But I continued to play for the love of the game.
A hat trick in the beer league felt just as sweet as if it was in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Adulthood beckoned. A career, one that had nothing to do with skates and sticks and pucks.
And then, my son developed that same love. He started out like I did. By age 4, he had taken his first skating lessons, then begged us to let him join a team with older kids. His mom balked at first, then said OK, and she stressed out every time he stepped on the ice with those bigger boys. Soon he was a 6-year-old, perfecting his craft, stickhandling and shooting in the back yard, often firing errant pucks into the neighbor’s yard.
The neighbors were troupers. They’d just toss those pucks back over the wall.
Fortunately, no one ever got hurt.
My son lived and breathed the sport that had been handed down through three generations, from my dad, to me, to him.
And he was better than I ever was. Much better.
Eleven years of youth travel hockey, experiences that took us throughout North America in search of that next championship banner to hang from the rafters of our home rink. His teams won more than their fair share of them, and quite a few times he got to be the hero, the kid who had the puck on his stick in those final closing moments, with a championship on the line.
And he delivered.
Then after high school, three years of junior hockey, at a highly competitive level. It was physical hockey, with grueling 50-game schedules in a 30-team, 20-and-under league that spanned from the Midwest to the Rockies to the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, featuring players from around the world pursuing their own hockey dreams. His last year of juniors, he was captain of a team that won the regular-season league championship for that entire 30-team league.
Then four years of college hockey, again at a highly competitive level, at a university known much more for its football team than its hockey team.
It all took a physical toll on my boy. Hip surgery. Shoulder surgery. Broken collarbone, which never actually completely healed. Bloody faces. Stitches.
And, in addition to the various nagging injuries of a full-contact sport — the bumps, bruises, sprains and pulled muscles that don’t even warrant a mention — there were the concussions. Oh, the concussions. Scary stuff. Probably more than a responsible parent should have allowed.
But the boy loved the game. Still does.
After all these years — 20 of them — two weeks ago I watched my son play competitive hockey in person, for the last time. It was a road game in an electric environment against a hated crosstown college rival, in an arena packed with screaming, hostile fans.
Luc thrives on that.
His team came up just a little short. But my boy acquitted himself well, valiantly logging extra minutes on the ice and playing multiple positions because his team was depleted by injuries.
He left everything he had on that sheet of ice in Edmond, Oklahoma.
Of course I was proud.
I never made it to the NHL. Neither did my son, who is immensely more talented at the game than I ever was. And this year, as he graduates from the University of Oklahoma, at age 24, he’s finally hitting the end of the competitive line.
Calling it a career. Hanging it up. He will continue playing, but like me, the stakes will now be bragging rights among friends at the bar after a rec league game.
It’s bittersweet. How could it not be? But like me all those years ago, he has other dreams to pursue now. Adulthood beckons. Exciting career opportunities await, off the ice. It doesn’t mean he loves the game any less.
Hockey, we owe you a lot, my boy and me.
We will both, whatever we do in life, always be that 6-year-old kid… puck on the stick… overtime in game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, clock about to expire…
Five. Four. Three. Two. One… Top shelf, the goalie’s water bottle exploding as the puck rips into the net… he shoots…
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.