The ocean is such a wide expanse. If anyone has ever stood out at the edge of a very long pier and just stared awhile, one would see just how far the color blue goes. There are so many metaphors as to how this relates to hockey. However, eight years ago the hockey world and my personal world met in a way that nobody could ever foresee. Sadly it was probably a year before when everything had begun to head in an unexpected direction.
My father was an integral part of my life up until about eight months before the 2004-05 lockout. It was a cold January afternoon where everything changed. The prognosis was bad. When they say your dad has four major arteries blocked at a level over 50%, there is cause for serious concern. What the doctors told us next was more horrifying. Honestly, he was a man who loved his candy, food, and salt. Nobody expected a 5-10 year life expectancy as a best case scenario. That was the best anyone could hope for and this was coming from Newark Beth Isreal Medical Center. They are one of the better heart hospitals in the state.
At the time, writing was becoming less of a hobby and more of a work experience for me. It was still quite enjoyable as I had taken time off for my father’s surgery which was dubbed a success. The hockey world and personal world both took a hit when it was revealed later that January that Scott Stevens would be out at least the rest of the regular season with post concussion syndrome. It was unknown at the time if our favorite player would be back for the playoffs. That was the last time we saw #4 lace up the skates for the New Jersey Devils as it would turn out.
Meanwhile, my father’s recovery was a muddled one much like our hockey team’s play in the second half of the 2003-04 NHL season. New Jersey slugged through it at around a .500 clip and made the playoffs as a six seed. In the weeks and months following the surgery, there were many highs and lows. It was a lot like a hockey season in so many ways. While the New Jersey Devils bowed out meekly to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games, it was thought that Stevens would be back next year and everything would be fine. Surely we would be proven wrong in more ways than one.
Amazingly, the doctors marveled at how fast my dad had recovered. By June, he was able to return to work with only a slight medical restriction. This was a guy who had actually had “six bypass surgery” (it turned out they found two more arteries that were significantly blocked). There were so many people amazed that Merck did a local story about how one of their employees recovered so quickly. The summer was fun because we developed this bright idea of remodeling the rec room downstairs. In a few short months, the major work was done. Almost overnight, there was a room that did not look like a dungeon from a 1970’s horror movie.
During that time, the lockout would begin much like it did this year but there was little real talk from either side. My dad knew there would be lost games and he felt terrible knowing I had just received my hockey credentials. He was so proud and anyone could tell from his voice. His son was covering his favorite sport. When games started to be axed, he was not even phased. October turned into November and though there was no NHL, everything was alright.
A cold “November Rain” settled in on an otherwise late November Saturday near Thanksgiving. It was like any other day. Relatives were heading in the next week and a possibility of my oldest brother coming home from Afghanistan. Everything seemed great and then 4:30 happened. My dad was sitting downstairs in the cellar on his normal stoop. Basically the stoop was a small stool I made many years ago. He grabbed his chest, muttered a couple words, and immediately lay motionless. Within a minute or two, my father was blue on the cellar floor.
(“Funeral For A Friend” — Elton John)
There was little we could do but call 911 and start CPR. Anyone who can be CPR certified really should be. Within three minutes, it seemed like half of Rahway was on our little dead end. The paramedics continued the work I had started with the paddles as well. Honestly, none of this was much of a surprise. It just wasn’t. As they rushed my father to the hospital, there was a brief moment where there was faint pulse. However, at 6:02 pm, my father was pronounced dead at Rahway Hospital. He was just 63 years old.
Some of what followed is still a numbed memory. It turned out a catastrophic heart attack was ultimately what killed my dad. Basically a blood vessel ruptured and caused his heart to give out. Part of me died that night and yet something changed. It was hard to explain at the time. There are no easy answers when a loved one dies and not everyone copes in the same way. The wake and even the funeral to a lesser extent was almost a blur. It was very cold for November as the hot water tank exploded the night before the funeral. Strangely, one of my hockey sticks was found cracked in half. No one could explain it. The eulogy was a microcosm of my father’s life along with a few jokes sprinkled in. He had a sense of humor that was dry yet good like a talented comedian would possess.
(“Love Between A Father And His Son” — Elton John)
Yet none of that mattered when the hockey season was ultimately canceled in February of 2005. My mother later acknowledged my dad died of a broken heart without his favorite sport. Honestly that was probably part of it. His love of the game was what he bestowed upon me thirty years earlier. I owe everything I have done and ever will do in hockey to my father. Without him, none of these things are possible. There is truly no love greater, than a love between a father and his son.
This was the man who worked two and three jobs just so I could buy the latest hockey equipment. He was also the man who took me to practice at 7am after working 18 straight hours. He did it without hesitation and never complained once. I forget how many games I thought he had not made it to, only to find out he was there all along. It was that way from when I started playing at six until when I stopped playing competitively in my early twenties.
There was so much he did for me and now he was gone. I went through a gradual transformation that saw me drop a ton of weight and at least try to become even half the person he was. The last several years have been full of what feels like constant change but the last year and a half have finally been a bit more stable. My writing has taken me to many places I never thought I would ever go. From drafts to awards shows and everything between, there has just been so much. Interviewing hockey players, including our idol Scott Stevens put the warmest smile on my face knowing he was watching from somewhere.
It will be eight years on Tuesday that he passed away and yet this time of year, it still feels like yesterday. With another lockout upon us, the feeling is amplified and exacerbated in many ways. Every November 20th is special in its own way but this one is a more true reminder of that day gone by in 2004 when everything, for a few moments, truly stood still. They say nothing in life ever comes easy and thankfully memories serve as a great teacher in this adventure filled journey.
The first lockout broke my heart. The second lockout is a much different animal. While the kids fight for the ever shrinking pie which hopefully does not get to zero this year, there is one prevailing thought. Just what the hell are you fighting for anyway? It is clear the two sides just want to take the Thanksgiving holiday off to be thankful when it comes to their decreased relevance. I do wonder what my father would think of all of this. He used to say “all politicians are jerks”. There is a possibility that the NHL and NHLPA are just grammar school kids at this juncture.
Somehow my father’s favorite poem explains the lockout succinctly along with how I felt after the passing of my dad. This one also happens to be a favorite of someone I love very much. This explains the lockout in some ways for a segment of the hockey fan segment as a topping or a cherry to the sundae. Here is “Funeral Blues“ from W.H. Auden.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
In the spirit of taking the most literal translation, one could make a metaphor and apply the true meaning of the poem to whatever your sounding board is. The NHL and NHLPA could take some notes here. Hockey is the first love for many sports fans, particularly that league they call the National Hockey League. There are so many who feel a disconnect with a sport that has loved them so little yet they love so much more. The articles will pour in from so many angles for the next two days to two weeks but in the end, the damage is still being done.
Every day that there is no agreement, more dollars are being lost from so many fronts. For some of us, that love of hockey is like a love between a father and his son but now it is amended. That modification includes everything but the “No Hockey League”. The reality is sometimes the hardest part. Letting go is the first step in feeling better. Will many come back? Yes. Will some stay away for a long while? Yes. Time heals most wounds. It does not completely mend things either. This lockout is not about the fans, the owners, or the players. It is really about who loves the game most that is willing to sacrifice to save it.
Again we come back to the love between a father and his son. The father will do most anything for their child but sometimes they will let go just a bit to let the child see the error of his or her ways. If one wanted to cross an intervention with the crossroads, this would be that time. There are Donald Fehr and Steven Fehr on one side and Bill Daly along with Gary Bettman on the other plus a few extras from each side of the equation. Allegedly there are factions of owners and players that seem destined to bring this party to the brink of oblivion but is there anyone truly willing to bring this back at all costs? So far, the answer has been obviously a resounding no. What time does that 11th hour of urgency come? Does anyone care? These are all questions that do not have clear answers.
Granted, they will meet on Monday and who knows how the negotiations will proceed. The one thing I do know is that the last lockout was painful enough. Losing another season would feel like another kick in the gut. However, it could not be any worse. Hockey needs a break in the worst way before they become even more irrelevant.
Lastly we go back to the true significance of an article. To my father, there are so many things I wish I had said. It has been eight years on Tuesday yet still feels like I can see you laughing at the kitchen table. You were the best friend and father a child could ever ask for. Thank you for most importantly being the person I will always look up to and of course for being Dad.