• By: Dave Gross

Dad’s love for hockey never wavered

There were plenty of things to admire about my dad.

A steady and – when-required – stern hand as father to three animated, overly clever and bedlam-seeking boys; dedicated engineer for seemingly thousands of decades at Domtar; solid provider; incredibly wise man with finances; supportive when needed; not-so-supportive when justified; motivator; stand-up guy; fair-to-middlin’ tennis player; middlin’ golfer; less-than-middlin’ cook (still have nightmares concerning that salmon casserole); and great and knowledgeable fan of the game of hockey.

That last nugget I’ll get into today. (If we tackle all the above, we’ll be here all day and this tidy, little column’s going to turn into War and Peace or The Stand).

To catch everyone up, dad passed away two years ago next month. He’d been in ill health for a number of years, but it still counted as a jolt. Still does.

Hell. He was dad. He was there. He was ‘always.’

In deep do-do, in need of financial advice or facing a tough go? Dad was a quick 514 call away. Perpetually.

I think about him quite a bit.

Still ask him for advice when need be. He’s up there and he’s smiling (sometimes grimacing to be completely accurate). Usually he gives me a nod and suggests with a kind look: ‘Just get on with it.’

He was my hero when I was a young one, a roadblock in my teens (parental disagreements as a teen? Shocking), an economic savior in my 20s and 30s and kind of a mix of all three in the last few decades. But, like I wrote above, he was ‘always.’

It’s difficult to define our relationship in the end; to pigeon-hole it so to speak. Fortunately, I had and have two older brothers sporting a bit more wisdom and context about dad and I open my ears when they speak.

In fact, the middle one of us gave the eulogy at dad’s funeral and it was high-octane, higher-power stuff. Beautifully composed and relayed, it still resonates.

What also continues to resonate is hockey. As my nephew used to shout constantly to his dad many years ago as a child: “Hockey! Hockey! Hockey!” “Hockey, dad!” “Hockey, dad!” Hockey all the time baby.

And that was the life in Town of Mount Royal (TMR) too. We didn’t just grow up with the game, we grew up in the game.

Mind you, this was during a time when hockey was a bit more affordable. That top Sherwood stick might run you $4 but that was about it.

So dad got us into the game early. I played house league up until I was 14 or 15. The kids were getting rather large at that point. I wasn’t. I also wasn’t very good. There are “five-tool” players in baseball, I was a “one-tool” hockey kid, and I’m still trying to figure out what that one tool was.

During these trials, dad would coach. I’m pretty sure he was behind the bench for 3-4 years of my ‘experiment.’ This included Sunday mornings in the middle of February on the outdoor rinks of TMR’s centre.

Brutal cold. And brutal winds. As kids we’d layer up with two pairs of long underwear under our gear before hitting the ice. Dad would be perched back of the bench, pork-pie hat and way-too-feeble leather gloves on to fend off the chill.

It was way-too early in the day and way-too bitter, but he was there.

One year, as a last kick at excellence, I tried out for the high school hockey team (LCC) but quickly knew my time was up when – during speed drills – the backup goaltender, donning full gear, was whipping past me.

Meantime the middle one of us was really getting my goat. While I was sucking wind, he was lining up with the senior boy’s team playing on a line with Kevin Wilson. Who’s Kevin Wilson? Well son, that’s Tom Wilson’s (Washington Capitals) dad. Same style of play too. But I digress.

Safe to say, middle brother was kickin’ ass on the brotherly rival scale.

So then. Having failed so magnificently at playing the game, I decided to seek other avenues.

One Christmas dad waved us boys down to the basement.

And there sat my legacy.

A brand-new table hockey game, complete with Habs-versus-Leafs metallic skaters, without helmets. My fast fingers, deception and cockiness would come in handy here.

I took on all comers and throttled, and I mean throttled, my siblings and dad when challenged. It was like duelling with a weaponless opponent. (Editor’s note: May be a bit exuberant here).

Point being – dad didn’t leave anyone out from the game he loved. And I loved table hockey. Almost every night, freshly home from work, dad would ask ‘who’s up for a quick game?’ And down we’d rumble to the centre of my universe. This while mom prepared dinner (most likely not salmon casserole).

Then there was . . . wait for it – Hockey Night in Canada. A weekly tradition that started at a very young age.

Saturday night. Eight p.m. Crank it up.

But in order to fully partake, one must choose a favourite team. Back then there was no Arizona, Anaheim, or Carolina to choose from (he’s joking here, right?). It was basically down to a pair. Theeee pair – Habs or Leafs?

I picked . . . Boston.

This irked dad. His team was Toronto. Rumour had it that he knew Ted (Teeder) Kennedy, the great Leaf, from years ago.

And there was no chance on Montreal (middle brother’s team) or Detroit (eldest brother’s team).

The B’s were young and improving and carried a modestly improving blueliner wearing #4.

Dad though took it in stride. In fact next Christmas there was the Bruins’ home-white sweater with #4 stitched on the back.

To go even one better, one summer I was sent to Bobby Orr-Mike Walton Hockey School in Orillia, Ont.

Then there were tickets. Tickets to the Montreal Forum. Tickets to see my Bruins face Montreal. Some were in the heavens; some were rink side. Pure heaven regardless.

Years passed, as they tend to do, and eventually I left TMR and Montreal and the table-hockey circuit and Forum behind for Toronto and U of T. Dad stayed in Montreal, even during tough political times. He had no interest in leaving.

I journeyed to Toronto and university and eventually stayed, finding my way to Seneca College and the radio-television program.

Being in Toronto during this time was, umm, challenging for a hockey fan. The Leafs were at the tale-end of the Harold Ballard Era and outside of Wendel Clark were Godawfully God-awful.

My disdain for dad’s team grew. Despite finishing bottom-of-the-table year after year, the Leafs and their parade of faithful clogged the radio talk shows with: “Hey, it’s Gino from Markham! Leafs are God’s team brother!”


Good thing God has a sense of humour.

Leaving Toronto several years later was tough. I loved and love that city. But a television job along Georgian Bay beckoned and I ended up living in Owen Sound, Ont., for almost 10 years.

The Leafs were up and down but dad’s sturdy faith never waned.

I would trek back to TMR now and again. Wintertime Saturday night’s were still the same – HNIC on the telly and grumbling and mumbling from the chair next to mine.

Loading up the moving van and relocating to Ottawa some 20 years ago brought me closer to my home city . . . and the grumbling and mumbling. The Leafs weren’t getting any better, and outside of a brief run of success in the mid-1990s, it was Square 1 again.

Still, dad was resolute. Unwavering. His love of the Leafs never lessened, and his love of the game followed suit.

That love he passed on to me. For that I’m grateful.

He really was a great dad.

A parent who gives a gift of his own great affection and devotion can be no less.

Thank you . . . even though that salmon casserole needed a bit of work.


Photo: Courtesy Sportsnet