If you follow my twitter feed these past few weeks, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in tweets regarding the Stanley Cup playoffs. I’m a passionate hockey fan. A good friend once joked, “You’re the only person who gets excited for hockey highlights in November.” That is a very true observation. I owe all of that to my step-dad!
When I was 5, our neighbors would freeze their backyard in to a rink complete with small boards and two nets. I was out there every day on double runner skates until I had to hop the fence home. I loved every minute of it. My parents saw my enthusiasm and signed me up for the local team in Park Ridge. Somehow I made the traveling team in my first year as a Mite – hockey league names are funny. Hockey at this stage isn’t graceful or exciting. You're basically watching a cluster of sofa padded children skate in a mob around the rink, chasing a puck that may or may not go in the net. I still remember my very first goal. We were playing the Naperville Sabers; every team had the colors of a pro team just in case you thought real hockey might breakout. I was standing about 5 feet from the net when the puck drifted to me. The goalie fell. I fell. But during my fall, I somehow knocked the puck in. That was 35 years ago and I can still see it today.
After that first season, my step-dad decided I should try playing with a more competitive team and we went to Glenview for tryouts. I made the team and learned from a hockey legend, Wally Kormylo. Wally excelled at teaching young kids how to skate and play the game. He coached Gretzky and many other legends over the years. I just read this article honoring him and got tears. I was lucky enough when I coached a few years to be around him. The man embodies everything great about youth sports. My parents would trade off taking me to practice at ungodly early hours five to six days a week and travel to parts unknown in the Midwest for tournaments. My dad LOVED hockey probably more than me and every practice or game always had insight and advice – sometimes a little too much.
When I was a Squirt, told you the hockey names were funny, I played for a team in Deerfield that went undefeated in league play. We had such a blast and our Coach taught us an important lesson – reckless abandon. Because we played with heart and within our roles, we excelled. We lost a game for the Northern Illinois title and were obviously upset. Our magical season had a blemish but Coach Chris wouldn’t allow us to lose focus. We went on to win the state championship easily. It was that season I saw my Dad on skates for the first and only time. After seven years of hockey, I learned my Dad couldn’t skate. He knew the game but had never played. Standing on the ice at twelve I was stunned. I promptly checked him in to the boards and teased him throughout that father son game. You can see I’ve always been an antagonist.
I played with those kids for a number of years to the point where we all knew the system and making a blind pass to a spot wasn’t blind because you knew someone would be there. It was a true team and we all loved to play hockey! My roles over the years on different teams changed – scorer, forward, defense, and enforcer. Enforcer may sound silly, but no one ever touched our goalie and didn’t pay.
My grandfather didn’t make it to many games. He was a Cubs fan. One game in Oak Park, that he did attend, I had gotten a penalty. I deserved it, but as the kid came to complain I told him something he didn’t like about his mother. It made him punch me in the mask with his padded gloves. I embellished a fall and he got a penalty too. Coach wasn’t pleased but when he asked what I was thinking I said, “I know it was a dumb penalty, but I figured if I get him to we wouldn’t be shorthanded.” He didn’t have much to say to an 11 year old who had put all that together. My grandfather having seen his only grandson get punched wasn’t pleased and wanted to do “something” about it. My parents calmed him and said I’d probably encouraged it. After the game, he asked me what happened and I explained. His old world ways understood and I think he knew I was no pushover. Whether I led the team in goals or penalty minutes, I couldn’t get enough of the game.
In the fourth grade my grammar school started offering language classes – French or Spanish. I asked to take French. When they asked why? I told them, “One day I will play for the Montreal Canadians and when I get a goal or a penalty (probably more likely) they will announce it in French. I want to understand the announcer when they say my name.” The teachers apparently thought this was an absurd reason and I was put in the Spanish class. I never did play for the Montreal Canadians – I believe this was the beginning of the end to my professional hockey career - not being all of 4’11 and 80 lbs, at the time.
Throughout high school I played and my parents were always there watching even if my earlier team success wasn’t being repeated. Somehow they found money, when times were tight, to send me to hockey camps in Ohio or Minnesota. Growing up I never got a Nintendo or Sega, but I never wanted for hockey equipment.
With the Hawks battling for their second Stanley Cup in 4 years, I wish Dad were here to talk hockey during every playoff game. He took me to the “Old Stadium” in the 300 level and introduced me to the joy of hockey in person. From the goals to the fights to chanting “Detroit Sucks!,” I learned the game and I learned about life. Hockey was my “thing” and I can’t thank my family more for the sacrifices they made to make that happen.
When I go in to a rink today, the smell, feeling, sounds take me back to that frozen backyard where it all began. I feel as if my Dad may be right around the corner bringing me my skates from just getting sharpened or asking to re-tape my stick. I know that won’t happen but I always hold out a little hope. Lacing up my skates and stepping on the ice today – the mind remembers everything but the feet are a little slower. Thankfully the hands can find the top corner with the puck like riding a bike. So when I go crazy on twitter or you see me stop by a TV in November to watch a highlight, it’s me finding a little part of my youth and remembering my Dad who we lost six years ago.
Thank you Dad!
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org