My grandfather died this morning, August 21, 2014, at 11:30am. He was 92-years old, and had been in the hospital for ten days.
My grandfather spent his adult life working as an engineer in Montreal. He was the project manager for the Rogers Pass project through the Rocky Mountains, and on the Churchill Falls dam… two of Canada’s largest engineering projects. He also built the leaning tower at the ‘Big Owe’ (Olympic Stadium in Montreal… although he didn’t talk about that one a lot). There was also the Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine Bridge-Tunnel, and a bunch of other projects around the world.
He was also a star hockey player when he was younger… he and his youngest brother were two of the best players in Ontario while they played.
When I graduated college, and started working at a technology newspaper in Ottawa, we’d have long conversations about business stuff, and tech stuff… but mostly we talked about his projects and hockey.
…we spent a lot of time talking about a lot of stuff… but, mostly, after family, it was hockey. I wrote this in 2010 after he started having mini-strokes, and his health began to noticeably deteriorate:
When I was a kid my grandfather had season tickets at The Forum in Montreal. When my brother and I went up for a visit we’d get dressed up and go sit behind Ken Dryden. Ken Fucking Dryden. I watched Guy Lafleur skate. Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard… each game my grandfather would make a point of pointing out Yvan Cournoyer’s nickname was “The Roadrunner”. I still have some of the ticket stubs, and at least one program. I was born, like my grandfather before me and his father before him, a Habs Fan.
But then, between 1989 and 1993, a few things happened:
1. I moved to Ottawa
2. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in ’93 based almost entirely on their defence and goaltending;
3. Ottawa was awarded an NHL franchise
Now, Montreal didn’t really start sucking (relative to their previous 100 years as a franchise) for a few years… four words: Rejean Houle & Mario Tremblay. But I was living in Ottawa when the Senators had their inaugural season — in fact I had moved to Ottawa in time to sign the petition (twice) that was submitted to the NHL — and tickets to see the Senators play were cheap and plentiful because the Senators really, really did suck. In fact they set a record in their first year for the fewest wins in an NHL season, only ten in an 84 game season. So the Canadiens would come to town and I’d go watch them take advantage of Brad Marsh and his Half-A-Knee and poor Peter Sidorkiewicz, one of the only pro-goaltenders to ever lose 46 games in a single season (if you can find another one let me know).
Ottawa sucked so bad, for so long, they managed to get a high first round draft pick every year. So by 1995 the Senators were starting to get interesting… Alexei Yashin still wasn’t a total prick, Radek Bonk, Pavol Demetria, Martin Straka, Alexandre Daigle and Daniel Alfredsson were the best young players in the NHL. And then, right at this critical juncture in my career as a Hockey Fan the unthinkable happened…
Mario Tremblay, rookie coach and former player for the Canadiens, lost his fucking mind and let his goaltender, Patrick Roy, be humiliated by the Detroit Red Wings. And when Saint Patrick — the greatest athlete to ever play his position, one of the Top Five Hockey Players of All Freaking Time and the only touchstone to the Canadiens’ 1986 and 1993 Stanley Cups — was finally pulled from the game, he left the bench and immediately told the team owners directly that he would never play for the Canadiens again. He was traded to the Colorado Avalanche a week later, where he won two more Stanley Cups.
Enough was enough. I still watched the Canadiens on television, I watched their “Smurf Line” get decimated by the Philadelphia Flyers and screamed at those fucking Refs for letting it happen. But their management was inept and no changes were coming anytime soon, and the Senators were just looking so new and pretty and shiny and fast and so, so, so talented. And Chris Phillips, Sammi Salo, Wade Redden, Ron Tugnutt, Andreas Dackell, Sergei Zholtok and Steve Duchense along with Yashin, Daigle, Bonk and Alfredsson took the Senators into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the very first time where they took the second place Buffalo Sabres to the seventh game… well holy puck on a stick I was hooked.
My grandfather and I, when we were both living in Ottawa, would go see the Canadiens play at the Corel Centre whenever we could. One of the Papers I worked for gave me access to Season Tickets, so I would take him. And sit next to him, and tell him about the players, like he had with me thirty years before.
Then I moved to Toronto… but now I’m back, and we’ve been a few times over the past three years. The last one was at Christmas. I think it finally hit him that I was serious about taking for the Senators, so he’s been calling me every time the Senators lose… about ten minutes after the game ends my phone rings… Redden is too slow, Spezza can’t play hockey, the coach is a fool. For the first few months, up until a week ago actually, it was aggravating and a huge pain in the ass. I don’t like being held responsible for the decisions of a team I don’t own. But I think I’m starting to understand what he’s doing. It takes me some time sometimes.
The grandson of a Finn decides they’re going to cheer for Team Sweden in the IIHF World Championships. The grandson of a Manchester United fan pulls on an Orange shirt and starts taking for Liverpool FC. Now, that’s kind of cool as long as Liverpool FC and Team Sweden suck wind… but picture that persons grandfather when Liverpool FC beats the shit out of ManU every year for four years. Or Team Sweden schools Team Finland for the Gold Medal four years running. Because that’s what Ottawa has been doing to Montreal during the regular season for the past four or five years. The Senators have been in the playoffs ten straight years, while the Canadiens are lucky to have a little hope left in the last game of the regular season.
Hockey isn’t ‘just’ a sport. Or, at least, Sports are not trivial. Sports mean something because of what the participants put into those Sports. In Game Five against the Senators, a Buffalo Sabre named Chris Drury was hit directly in the face with a slapshot. Read that again. A frozen rubber disk flying at 90mph hit this man in his unprotected face. He took eleven stitches in his mouth, his face swelled up like a George Romero nightmare and his jaw was most likely broken, but he Came Back And Played In That Game. Sports define the people who ‘play’ them until those ‘players’ can define the Sport. Hockey put Chris Drury into that position, but Chris Drury defined what Hockey means.
More importantly, Sports define relationships. My family are not “talkers”. We do not “open up”, we barely “communicate”. When I was growing up I would follow my grandfather until he needed me. When we stayed with him on weekends he would take my brother and myself to a French Catholic church, one with no English subtitles for the Anglophone grand kids. Then it was off Visiting his friends, another two hours where Luc and I couldn’t speak.
But then, if the weather was good and the season was right, he would take us to the Pond and he’d strap magazines to my legs, hand me a baseball glove as a trapper, his boots became the goalposts and he’d skate circles around anyone else who wanted to play. And, occasionally, he’d tap my leg with his stick and say “nice save”. And, on at least a few occasions, he’d say “well, look at Mr. Dryden.” Holy Good Fucking Christ Did I Live For Those Moments.
I played, for one season, as a goalie for a few Men’s/Farmer Leagues around my home town and in a weekly high school game. My single mom, with no financial support, had no hope of getting her two sons into organized hockey, but I finally managed to “borrow” some equipment when I was sixteen. I wanted to prove something. And I was actually pretty good. My grandfather played, up in North Bay, and he was fantastic. He was the leagues leading scorer Every Fucking Year He Played. I’ve seen some of the clippings my mom has found in various archives. My grandfather, and his youngest brother, were written about in newspapers all across Northern Ontario and Western Quebec. Before the War he was scouted, Scouted, by the Canadiens… men from Montreal went to see my grandfather play hockey. After WW2 my grandfather played for the University of Ottawa Gee Gee’s, where he continued to break scoring records.
About eighteen months ago my grandfather started having mini-strokes. He’s 86. Until the strokes he was actually very involved in following the Senators. He read both Ottawa daily Newspapers everyday, he watched every televised game and he could name and talk about all of the players. He even met and had lunch with Jacques Martin while Jacques was still the Senators’ head coach. He could speak, with authority, about most of the players and the prospects for the season ahead. The Senators, he would say, reminded him — a little — of the Canadiens from the Glory Years with their speed and potential. But then the strokes started coming. And age is not kind to the Mind. As the Mind ages it retreats to what is habitual because recall becomes impossible. And what is habitual, for my grandfather, is the Canadiens. Watching Guy Lafleaur and Ken Dryden and Maurice Richard and The Roadrunner all coached by Scottie Bowman. Les Glorieux.
And here’s his oldest grandson wearing a Senators sweater. Of course he’s going to call me every time the Senators lose or screw up or there’s an unflattering column in the paper. And of course he’ll get upset, because he sees something taking something away from him… or maybe even someone. Sports define who we are, and what I’m seeing right now is making me realize just how close I am to not having him anymore. I’m also seeing that for the past few months — as I’ve being dealing with my recovery — I’ve been misinterpreting his phone calls.
So… Sports define relationships, but they can also redefine them as well. The Senators are playing for The Stanley Cup for the first time and, even if he’s cheering for an American team because they’re not the Senators, I will be sitting in his living room watching the games with my grandfather.
…and we did. And, from what I can remember, he was very relieved when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup that year. We didn’t watch a lot of hockey together after that season… most of that was my fault. I started a new family in 2009. My girlfriend (and now wife), and her son, spent a lot of hockey time with me… I started taking him to games in Ottawa, including his very first one, and we’d sit on my couch and I’d let him stay up for the first period, just like my grandfather did with me when I was a child.
Andrew has decided he wants to be a fan of the St. Louis Blues, Habs, and Senators. During the playoffs, if it wasn’t a school night, I’d let Andrew stay up for a whole game.
Then Victor was borne… and we’ve been watching hockey together pretty much since then. My wife and I recently took Victor (named after my grandfather) to his first NHL game, also in Ottawa. He’s undecided so far.
…my grandfather won’t have a chance to meet his latest great-grandson. But he met and loved Andrew, and Little Victor, and my wife Diane… and he was proud of me. For some reason. I know that.