I usually dedicate a post to my dad every year on the anniversary of his death. Usually because I’m sad on that day, and writing something about him seems like good therapy. Today I felt like moving it to his birthday. After all it’s a milestone birthday. This isn’t the best story. It’s not the worst either, it’s just the memory that popped into my head most recently, and I felt like sharing.
I’d tell you the date, but I don’t remember, and can’t find it in my archives, but it was in the last year of my father’s life, and I really want to say that it was in the last few months. Of course, none of us knew at the time, as my father died of a heart attack quite suddenly at the age of 76. 3 days before my son was born (BUT THAT’S ANOTHER CRAZY STORY). This not-so-crazy story involves my father being invited to go skating. It doesn’t sound like a big deal on the surface, but it was to him. Ryerson University in Toronto had invited him and a select group of others, I believe season ticket holders, to be some of the first to skate on their new hockey rink at Maple Leaf Gardens (where for my readers who aren’t from here, is where the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL team had played for decades before they finally moved to their new facility at The Air Canada Centre, leaving Maple Leaf Gardens to be turned into a huge grocery store, but also finally the home of a smaller arena which is where Ryerson plays their hockey games.)
Why was my dad invited to skate on this new rink? Another incredibly long story for another time, but my father was a great hockey player. A goaltender whose teams twice won the provincial championships when he was a kid. He played some junior hockey, and then went to Ryerson where they won the provincial championship. Unfortunately the NHL only had 6 teams at the time, so while he was an elite player, he wasn’t elite enough for that, so he went to England to play professional hockey there, only to have the league fold just as he arrived. That kind of squashed that particular set of dreams, but goalies didn’t wear masks in those days, so no professional hockey meant less pucks to the face and teeth for my dad. There’s always an upside.
Some of his earlier notoriety came with some perks down the road. 50th anniversary celebrations for the championships he won as a kid. Small towns don’t forget that kind of stuff. Ryerson inducted the provincial championship team (who also were undefeated… I left that out) into the Ryerson Sports Hall Of Fame. Then a couple of years later inducted my dad, who the same year actually played soccer for them and also won the championship, and was the Ryerson Athlete of the Year that year. So he was kind of a big deal there. After these HOF honours and being a naturally friendly/chatty guy who probably expressed interest in the new arena etc, he was invited to go for a skate before it opened to the public. He invited my sister and I to skate as well.
My dad was stoked about this skate. I wasn’t. I was excited that he was excited, but I was not excited about my old man (literally and figuratively) going skating. My old man didn’t think he was an old man. To be fair, you wouldn’t have thought so either if you knew him. He played about 20 years younger than his actual age. He was well-kept although not fashion forward, so if he ever gave his age away, he did so with his polite, old school country boy charm. He was always ready to have a conversation with a random stranger and was never sloppy. His athletic prowess continued into his golf game where he was killing 280 yard drives up until the day he died. He had no reason not to be excited about going skating.
I fucking dreaded it. I’m not gonna lie. I’d been skating with my wife a few months earlier. We were at some public skate at the arena where the Toronto Maple Leafs have their practices. We had seen this old guy with no helmet and 70’s skates get on the ice, and after a couple of laps he had fallen, and I didn’t see it, but there was blood and he needed to be attended to. I’m sure he was probably fine, but he didn’t look like he should have been out there. That was my instinct. My other instinct is that my father shouldn’t be out there either. I asked my mom one time when the last time she figured he’d actually gone skating. She didn’t think it had been that long ago, but when she described the circumstances under which he’d gone, I dated it back at least 25 years. When asked if she was concerned, she gave me a dirty look and assured me that he was gonna fly around that ice like Brian Orser.
Finally I confronted my dad about it. Subtly, I didn’t want to rain on any parades, I just wanted to let him know that I was concerned. He told me he would be smart about it, and if he thought he needed help, he’d hold the boards. I remember my wife who is the most safety conscious person I know, asking if he would wear a helmet, and urging me to urge him to get one. This man didn’t even wear a helmet when playing hockey at a fairly high level. There’s no way he’s wearing one for a skate.
The day came. My family came downtown and we ate at a pub that was down the street from where I worked. My dad never drank a drop of alcohol in his life practically, but I used to take him to this place before we would go to football games. He liked that they served Bangers n Mash because it reminded him of his time in England, so now we had to go there all the time. He’d gotten his skates sharpened. His 50-year-old goalie skates. Yes, those ones. We laced up and were ready to go. My dad, sister and I got out onto the ice, while my mom looked on. We took some pictures. Mine on my shitty Blackberry camera, so they are awful quality, but it’s better than nothing, although now I’d kill for some great photos of that moment. My dad stood by the boards and smiled and we got our photos done. When it came time to skate, it was kinda funny and sad at the same moment. My dad’s skating skills which had been dormant for decades, did not magically appear, allowing him to zip around the ice like I’m sure he thought he could. He really hung on to those boards and moved really slowly. He put on a brave face, but it was painful little dose of reality for him. He wasn’t often reminded that he was an old man, which I’d say is extremely fortunate, but time caught up with him on this night. My mom too. She really couldn’t believe that he didn’t just start skating like back in the day. The main thing for me is that there were no injuries and we were able to share that memory with him. It meant a lot to him, and none of us had any clue how close to the end it really was.
He and I changed our skates in the men’s change room. Without everyone around, I thought I’d ask him how he thought it went. He told me how he was surprised how wobbly he felt out there. I didn’t want him to feel bad, but I did give him shit. In a funny way though. I had to let him know just how old he was, and that he shouldn’t let the fact that he’s so fucking handsome cloud his judgement when it comes to his personal safety etc. He laughed like he always did when I gave him shit. Like I will when my son gets to the point where he thinks he’s smarter than me. These kids are swimming around in your balls one minute, and the next thing you know they’re trying to tell you what’s what. It’s the circle of life.
What I love about this story is the amount of (occasionally irrational) confidence my parents have always displayed. I don’t often recall either of them communicating any sort of self-doubt to me. They both have always had the built-in belief that they were going to be successful in whatever challenge or endeavour that they took on. That’s one of the best things they ever passed on to my sister and I. Now that my father is no longer with us, I look at that as the last time that he could have chickened out of something, but he didn’t. He was gonna skate around that rink with his old legs, and it wasn’t even gonna be an issue in his mind. I love that that’s how he went out.