Some of the best hours of my son’s youth hockey years were spent in the car, just dad and lad, driving through the woods that gave rise to the legend of the New Jersey Devil, up the Adirondack Northway to Lake Placid, or to a rink in a shore town that preferred the bustle of a summer crowd but was content with the hot chocolate and fresh donuts of a pre-sunrise hockey family. Some of them stand out vividly — getting stopped for speeding after his first high school scrimmage, all of us a bit excited; the very long and quiet ride home after his first medal game loss and the quietly elated ride the following year, medal in one hand and video player in the other, a glimpse of the young man he’d become, riding shotgun with me through a landscape that could have been western Canada as easily as it was upstate New York.
As my car gave way to the team bus in high school, it was his music choices, his inside jokes with teammates, his own thoughts on those treks up and down the New Jersey Turnpike — the stuff of Simon and Garfunkel songs — that let him grow as an adult and a teammate and a friend. Whether you’re playing a high school sport, covering longer distances in minor league hockey or baseball, working hard in a band looking for your break between poor paying gigs, you’ve spent more hours getting to and from those golden moments than actually enjoying them. Much as Robert Pirsig wrote, it’s important to enjoy and benefit from the journey. At the beginning of each youth hockey season, I tell my team’s parents to relish every minute in the car with their players, as they are precious hours for directionless conversation and fun, yet they will stand out long after the scores and opponents and rinks are forgotten.
Two years ago, the tragic accident involving the Humboldt Broncos team bus, in northeastern Saskatchewan, hit home for anyone who has been on one of those long roads to a rink. We woke up to a small town tragedy that echoed loudly through rinks around the world. The parts of the game that are about emotion, courage, and metered time suddenly switched places with those that revolve around friendship and laughter and finding ways to pass the time. Walk through your hockey network and you find someone with a tie to western Canada fairly quickly; everyone knows someone who woke up that morning and thought back to a bus ride in juniors or Tier I or college hockey or just sharing a late night ride to a beer league game.
We all had a collective shudder. We all feel collective pain when a hockey family suffers like this, no matter the crest on the front of the jersey.
The ensuing fundraiser crossed the million dollar mark in under a day, and eventually raised over C$15 million through GoFundMe, with another $200,000 via merchandise sales at Violent Gentlemen. And in the weeks that followed, hockey families around the world had their own yellow ribbon moment, leaving sticks outside in a display of solidarity.
We were all on the same team.
My pair of well-worn and humble twigs never made it outside, not out of disrespect for those who lost their lives, but because it cut to the heart of what I have felt as an invited member of the hockey community. It was simply too emotional for me. As one of the only pieces of equipment that doesn’t directly touch your body, sticks are the easiest to share, yet the most personal — length, blade curve, lie, flex, tape on the knob end and tape on the blade. The myriad ways to make a stick identifiable are nearly as countable as the identities that hold them dear. As tribute to the sport’s humble beginnings, a stick still channels a willow tree, chosen for resiliency and strength and grace under pressure. Even $200 worth of carbon fiber with materials science that makes a Lamborghini jealous is still a “twig.” It’s a stick. It’s what you find in your yard, and on your porch.
My son started using wooden sticks in high school, and I followed his lead, using a Sher-Wood stick when I coach. Heft, the feel, the sting of a sharply received pass or the whip of a hard shot make the game simpler and so much more tactile for me. And it’s become (along with the grey hair and the carbohydrate loving body) something of my trademark on the ice. I’m old school in every way.
Up there with tape and the occasional skate lace, sticks are the one thing that you borrow when needed. “Snapped my twig” is met with “Take mine from the corner.” The ensuing conversations about flex, kickpoint and whether the borrowed stick makes up for Rob’s stone hands construct a verbal contract to convey temporary ownership of the most personal and expensive thing you own in the game. It’s the “take mine” that gets me. It’s the sense of camaraderie that invited me into the sport and has been a second, ever changing but loyal family for almost twenty years. On hockey players’ porches and decks and garage aprons, sticks were left out for those Humboldt Broncos players, “in case they need one.” Unlike Ken Baker I’m not sure if hockey is played in heaven, and if so, who plays equipment guy. That role falls to the global village of hockey players and fans and families making sure that the Humboldt players, current and past, always have a well cared-for twig to make them feel at home.
Eight months after the accident, the Humboldt Broncos were back on the ice. The jersey numbers of the players who were killed have been retired, a way to carve out a special space for their memory over time. With two years of history, of histrionics, of global outrage and outbreak, of gnashing of teeth over differences, I hope we can take the lesson of good from the events and subsequent healing in Canada. We should create time and space for memories and love, and the only thing blocked should be a one timer from the point. We’re all on the same team, and it shouldn’t take the tragedy of an accident or a tragedy — Humboldt or Kobe Bryant or Covid-19 — for us all to put the crest on the front over the name on the back.