Watching the Leafs game last night – or at least the small portion of it I actually watched – brought back some interesting memories.
Those memories were not of the “brush-with-greatness” players on the Leafs roster whose careers intersected tangentially with my older son. One Leaf d-man was Pad’s defence partner in junior varsity high school tournament hockey for a couple games (Pad’s high school coach offered him “$100 and all the Quiznos sandwiches he could eat” to forgo junior and play high school hockey full-time); another forward was a player he played against for a couple of seasons in the OJHL.
No, my memories were triggered by watching all those AHL callups on the Leafs getting a shot at the Big Time and how exciting it must be not just for them, but their families too. And that made me recall when Pad got called up from midget AAA to play a few games of junior A. I was excited, too.
The OJHL is a long, long way from the NHL. And the Mississauga Chargers, in a universe of junior A hockey teams, would be the planetary equal of Pluto. Is it really a planet? Is it really a junior A team? Hard to tell from here.
But they called and asked him to suit up for his first junior A hockey game in November 2009. It was a home game for the Chargers at Port Credit Arena against the Aurora Tigers, which had in its lineup the tallest, beefiest free-standing hockey player I had ever seen in person.
I was fairly convinced this young man would likely kill my young man and eat him and every time Pad was on the ice I waited for some form of physical disaster, which thankfully never happened. Whatever my boy’s shortcomings, physically looking after himself has never been an issue and it wasn’t that night, either.
At that point in his hockey career my guy just wanted the chance to play one more level up. Midget AAA was a path to junior A, which he hoped would lead to college hockey. I never once failed to believe in his drive, determination or his talent. I did worry that playing on the junior A equivalent of Pluto, he would not be spotted even by a Hubble Telescope.
The Marlies players on the Leafs have no such worries in downtown Toronto. They will be seen, and seen plenty, even if, like the Chargers that night in 2009, they also lost in a losing season.
However, it’s still a funny game, really.
Somewhere along the way the telescope actually found my kid and he has had two years of almost unconscionable amounts of fun playing university hockey in the toughest conference in Canada, while also getting an excellent education.
He has made friendships that will involve cigars, reunions, weddings, and beery man-hugs for the rest of his days. That may be the game’s greatest enduring gift.
The opportunity afforded him by the lowly Chargers led to other paths and doors that opened, generally by dint of his work ethic and refusal to listen to anyone who didn’t agree with his goal. It was never a straight line through three leagues and there were lots of mom tears. But there’s a lesson in there for any kids who might be reading along at home. If you define what he has as success, understand it comes with a price. Understand if you are not willing or able to pay that price, someone else will.
I’m sure that while some of those kids in the Leafs lineup last night were superstars every step of their careers, there are others who took a more circuitous and colourful route to the Big Leagues. All of them – even the stars – paid a price. And I bet every mom has cried, some especially last night.
As a parent, as a fan, I can’t begin to tell you how much I respect those guys who came up the hard way. Those are my type of guys.
A 200-foot-by-85-foot sheet of ice can be a lonely, unforgiving, violent place when the gate closes behind you. At that moment you put up or shut up. You can either play and you belong, or you can’t and everyone knows you’re a poseur.
As the beer commercial says, this Bud’s for all those kids last night who showed they have a chance to belong at the highest level of the game. And here’s one more for the moms and dads who were with them every step of the way.
NHL at the Air Canada Centre or junior A at Port Credit Arena, it doesn’t matter. If you’re on the ice, it’s the biggest game of your life.
It’s hockey, man.