Sunday, April 08, 2018

The Boys on the Bus

If you’re a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, you remember the documentary about them in the 80’s called, “The Boys on The Bus!”.  It chronicled a year of following the team around as they went from a low point to the highest of highs in winning the Stanley Cup.  It was a great film in that it showed the inside look at the many personalities that make up a hockey team.  Sure hockey is a team sport and we do for the most part, cheer for the logo on the front, but we all like to see the inside look into these athletes and in some ways relate to them on a human level.  Goodness knows we certainly couldn’t relate to them on a physical level.  The Boys on The Bus was an appropriate title, because it speaks volumes to the sanctity that is the team bus, and how the bus itself is an exercise in team bonding that even Tony Robbins couldn’t manage. There’s something magical about that first bus ride with a new roster in the fall.  Some kids nervous as it is their first time playing rep, the vets who sit in the back and rule their roost, and the coaches using bus behaviour as a possible measuring stick of team cohesiveness.  When you're going to a different town to play and you don't know a soul, the place of refuge, is the bus.

I’ve heard it called may things in my time; the iron lung, Sparky’s Speedster, the pig, the yellow submarine, and so on.  I’ve had the privilege of being able to sit back while driven places by drivers named ETA Norm, Rocket Mike, and Mister Mike.  One of the best memories was of Mister Mike and I coming back from a tourney where the bus had issues and our ETA was moved from midnight to 4AM.  Everyone, and I mean everyone was asleep except Mike and I.  He was an older retired fellow from Ireland and to pass the time and keep ourselves awake, Mike taught me the words to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and we filled the air with our voices as we drove through the darkness.  It still remains one of my favorite hockey memories to this day.

There’s nothing special about the buses themselves unless you have a generous team manager or team willing to lend you one of their super coaches, which are a definite step up from the modified school buses I’ve ridden (nothing says iron sides like riding on a foam seat for 10 hours when the expiration on the foam is about 2 hours).  Adventures on the bus are another thing as well.  I’ve been in those bad boys when the heater blew leaving the bus about as cold inside as outside, or the time a spark plug lodged loose and yours truly crawled underneath to not only find the problem, but also thread it back into place and tighten it, all at 2AM in the morning on a dark highway.  One could write a book about the adventures on a bus.  They are part and parcel of the sporting experience.

After this weekend’s tragedy involving the Humdboldt Broncos, we are left with many questions, heavy hearts, and much sorrow, particularly those who have ridden the bus to get to a game.  No one ever expects that to happen and I pray it never happens again.  Why do we feel such closeness to these young men whom we never met?  Quite simple really.  We feel for the parents who let their kids play sports knowing full well that injury is part of sports, and really hoping injuries are never too serious.  We feel for the young lives of these young men who were living out their hockey dreams in a time of such innocence.  Those of us in the coaching fraternity feel for the coaches who take on a monumental task of not only producing good players but also excellent human beings.  We feel for the statiscian, team announcer, and driver, who may not feel they are part of the team per se, but are as valued as anyone else.  Most of all, because this was a team from a small town, we all feel like they were members of our small town due to the closeness of not only the hockey community, but from that small town feeling most Canadians have ingrained into their DNA.  We can all relate and we all know we can all help in whatever way we can.
Leaving some sticks out for the boys to play

I sit here this evening still numb from two days ago and I really should be preparing to teach tomorrow, but I just can’t.  The pain is too much right now. As one who lost their dad to a MVA just a little over a year ago, I know all too well the pain those families are feeling right now after receiving the phone call no one wants to hear.  It shakes you to the core of your being and life is never the same.

To close, my utmost prayers are to the community of Humboldt and the players families.  I would also like to thank all first responders who have given so much these last few days.  Bless each and every one of you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, like many others have done these last two days, I’m going outside to leave some hockey sticks out for the boys in case they drop by and need one.


Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Letter to my Dad

Today is a sad day for me.  Exactly one year ago today, I woke up, got ready for work, went to work, then proceeded to drive home after picking up my daughter.  As we sat there, my phone rang with my uncle's number.  "He never calls me, so what's up?", was my original thought.  Well, in about a minute (it all seems like such a blur now), my aunt informed me that my Dad was killed in a motor vehicle accident.  Those of you who have lost a parent know exactly what happens.  You are left in a state of shock, disbelief, and an overwhelming sense of despair and sadness.  It is a sadness and pain you may have never felt before in your life and it is something that you will never forget either.  This past year has been a tough one for me and my two sisters, Mavis and Elsa.  Losing a parent is insanely hard, but we have all been surrounded by many great friends and family and have felt great support and love through this past year.   

Those of you who know me for my sports writing (like this blog) and know me from either coaching with me, being coached by me, or being a team mate, want to ask the obvious question?  What sport did your dad enjoy the most? 
Wearing my "Big Bay" style hockey gloves.
I bet he was a big hockey 
fan.  Well, to be quite honest with you, my dad wasn't a big sports fan, and his involvement with hockey was primarily through my involvement.  As a teenager so into sports, I have to admit that sometimes I drug my dad into the sports world a little too much.  However, he was a willing participant even if the cost of my sports probably cost him a lot.  He once told me he'd rather be picking me up at the rink rather than the police station so sports were good for me to be involved in.

My dad grew up in Northern Alberta near the town of Lac La Biche and in particular, he was born and raised in a place called, Big Bay (the nearest railroad station is listed as Barnegat as it says on my dad's birth certificate).  Dad was a pretty smart kid.  He would never say it, but consider this.  He didn't start school until he was 10 years old and spoke very little English (Cree was his first language).  In spite of this, he did 6 grades in 4 years, and probably would have went further, but as was the case for many 14 year old's who stood 6'1" and weighed close to 200lbs, he went to work.  One highlight of his time in school though, was his time playing baseball for the school team.  He played first base, could throw a ball a mile, and he could hit it a ton.  I'd say he was a 3-tool player from what I gathered, and he did all he could to teach me the basics of playing ball.  I often remember standing in the yard with my dad and sister playing catch and dad encouraging us both.  My sister was a pretty good ballplayer when we were kids and she and I played one season together and we both did pretty well.  I think we were both happy to get our ball uniforms and our dad was pretty proud to see our names on the back knowing he gave us both our start in the sport. 

Uncle Archie's company sponsored many sports teams
and some of them went to to win National titles.
However, my dad didn't always have the time to sit and watch sports and before I was born he would often go and visit his cousin, Archie, who was a sports nut and loved to watch hockey.  It drove my dad nuts because Archie wouldn't talk to him while the game was on.  Archie, who I called Uncle Archie, who tell me years later, that my dad would leave his place frustrated as Uncle Archie wasn't good company.  He thought it was absolutely hilarious, that my dad's son, would totally emulate his behaviour once I grew up and started watching sports of my own.  To hear my dad tell the story was a treat as  my dad was an excellent storyteller and had a memory like an elephant. 

Well, I soon began playing sports and when we made our move from the province of my birth (Alberta) to my adopted and forever hometown of Fort St. James, BC, the best thing in the world happened; I got to play hockey.  I was a late starter at 9 and the other kids on the ice started much younger, but my dad listened carefully as my coach said I should get new skates, so that weekend off we went to Beck's Hardware and my dad carefully laid out a small ransom, so I could get a brand new pair of molded Lange skates (I'm wearing them in the picture to the right). 
Me as a PeeWee wearing my beloved Lange Skates
My coach also told my dad that I should go to public skating and just skate as much as I could, so my dad, for the next 4 consecutive winters, would drive me to the old Fort Forum, give me a dollar and say he'd pick me up at 8:10 precisely (public skating went from 6:00-8:00).  When you consider that admission was 25 cents,
 a large pop was 35 cents and a bag of ships was 25 cents, my Friday nights were awesome growing up.  As I skated lap after lap chasing dreams of being the next Lafleur (and later on chasing the cute girls around the ice), a strange thing happened.  I got better and better on the ice and I actually became a hockey player.  Through it all, there were my parents helping me every step of the way.  Driving me to practices, games, footing the bills for fees, equipment, and doing all they could to help their hockey mad son.  My dad though sometimes used this to his advantage when he told me splitting and packing firewood and hauling water would make me stronger and a better player (Yes, my dad was Dallas Eakins before there was a Dallas Eakins), and it did. 

Whatever sport I played (and I played a lot of them), Dad was always there to help me along the way, and he like me cheered for the Oilers, Eskimos, Expos and Blue Jays.  It was our common theme and we would chat about who was good (Gretzky, Coffey, Warren Moon, Gary Carter, Josh Donaldson), who was bad (Carson, Pocklington, Vernon Wells), and who we totally disagreed on (Hall, and too many to mention).  As I got older and moved away from home, our calls were often about the Oilers and the Blue Jays and it was good for me to chat with him about sports. 
Dad with his Sportsnet-Focused pair!
After our daughter was born there was more talk about her, but my dad laughed when he held his 
grand daughter on his knee while Sportsnet was on TV, and she turned and intently watched the highlights playing on the screen, and all at six months of age.  He smiled a sly smile, pointed at her and said, "I can tell this is your kid!", and he went into his story of Uncle Archie watching sports once again all the while laughing at his pride and joy, his grand daughter.    
I can't tell you now, just how much I miss those phone calls, especially now with the Oilers having a player like Connor McDavid.  His brilliant play reminded Dad and I so much about the Gretzky days, and how I saw the Oilers win 4 out of their 5 cups while watching with my dad.  That was the topic most discussed on our last year of calls.  It seems trivial to others, and to some they might wonder why of all the things I miss, that stands out the most.  Well, to me, my dad was also my coach in sports and life.  He coached me very hard in the game of life, but he also loved me harder.  You see, my dad was not what you would call overly affectionate, but I always knew he had my best interests in mind.  Like a good coach, he knew when to push me hard (doing adult chores as a child), and when to loosen the grip (letting me go skiing when I had time off for Christmas break).  Those phone calls were just a way of asking my dad advice and to check in and see how my life was going.  As I get older, I reflect on how our relationship that went from hotheaded prima dona me, to one where I enjoyed being around my dad more than just about anyone else.  I wanted to please him, to show him that he did a good job raising me, and that I was someone he could be proud of.  Those calls were my affirmation.  My rewards.   

That begs the question I put forward earlier, was my dad a hockey nut and a sports fan.  Not necessarily.  However, he was one of my biggest fans, and he was a coach unlike any other I have had in my life, and what you see today when you see me, is the reflection of that. 

I miss you Dad, and I will always Love you! 
Your Son