Ice hockey is so much more than a sport to many around the globe. It is a lifestyle, it is family, it is a tradition, and it is an escape from reality. Hockey has been all of those for me during this roller coaster called life. That last quality, an escape from reality, has been the most important to me over the past seven years.
The game is a great tool for numerous things, but it has been monumental as an outlet for dealing with loss and grief. When I lost my father to cancer in Sep. 2012, it was there to help. When I lost my partner of nearly 10 years this past April, it was still there, helping me through every horrible moment of my new reality. For this, I am forever grateful.
Love of the Game Starts Early
My love affair with this amazing game began at a very young age. My parents instilled a love of hockey in my older sister and me long before we had any clue about the real world and its hardships. Mom and Dad went on dates to the old Chicago Stadium to watch Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita play for the Chicago Blackhawks. They became season ticket holders after they married in 1969 and never wavered from their love of the game or the Blackhawks.
There were plenty of trips to the “Old Barn” to see the Blackhawks play as a kid. I have vivid memories of walking up the stairs and through what we hoped was water to get to our seats in the rafters. You could feel the vibrations through the red wooden seats when one of my childhood heroes, Dirk Graham or Steve Larmer, lit the lamp and sent the building into bedlam.
I will never forget how excited I was in the third grade when the family got cable television, and I finally could see the Blackhawks from the comfort of our living room couch. Of course, we only had that luxury for road games, but seeing those red sweaters on television was a treat.
The upgrade also meant fewer nights during the year when Dad would blast the game on the radio. We still listened to all the home games, and, by we, I mean the rest of us, did not have much of a choice. Living in a three-bedroom apartment, when Dad put the game on in the living room, I could hear it in my bedroom through a closed door. To be honest, I loved it, and it is why hearing the sounds of hockey and the vivid descriptions coming through the car radio still makes me smile well into my adulthood.
In 2007, I became a season ticket holder myself. The sense of pride I felt when I took my father to a Blackhawks game for the first time on my dime was overwhelming. The New York Islanders were in town, but more importantly, the 1961 Stanley Cup-winning team was being honored that night. This was a team I grew up hearing stories of and, at that time, was the last championship team in franchise history. My father could still recite the entire roster from that season, and watching him see his childhood heroes reunited brought a special feeling of warmth.
The entire night Dad kept insisting that he pay for the ticket. I kept telling him that he had been taking me to games my whole life, and it was my turn to return the favor. Later that night, while I was hanging up my coat, I found a $20 bill in my coat pocket.
A Championship Team & a Championship Woman
The start of 2009 wasn’t a good one for me. I was laid off from my lucrative job in January and struggled to find my path in life. That summer, I met Jill, a beautiful and sweet woman full of life and love. We began dating at the end of August, and it quickly became “the real thing.” She was my soulmate, and I was hers, and it took very little time for both of us to realize that.
Jill was everything I looked for in a companion; she was funny, smart, caring, loved music and hockey. She grew up in Bloomington, MN, as a Minnesota North Stars fan, but after moving to Chicago and with the Stars heading to Dallas, she became a Blackhawks fan.
On Oct. 12, 2009, I took Jill to a Blackhawks game for the first time. It was the second home game of the season against the Calgary Flames. The Blackhawks went down 5-0 before the game was even 12 minutes old.
During a stoppage in play, I joked that if the Blackhawks lost the first game, I took someone to, then it would be a long time before I asked them back. She calmly smiled and told me that there was plenty of time left and the Blackhawks were going to stage a comeback.
John Madden brought some life into the United Center when he got the Blackhawks on the board late in the first period. The second period saw goals from Patrick Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, and Dave Bolland to cut the deficit down to a single goal. Patrick Sharp tied the game early in the third period before Brent Seabrook completed the epic comeback just 26 seconds into overtime.
I realized two things that night: the 2009-10 Blackhawks were a special team and Jill was an equally special woman.
Jill and I were together on June 9, 2010, when Kane ended the longest active Stanley Cup drought with his overtime goal from an impossible angle. Moments after the win and before Jonathan Toews was handed the greatest trophy in all of sports; I stepped outside to make a phone call. I called my Dad. He had been waiting for this day for 49 years. Although our conversation was brief, it was special. Little did we know, that would be the last Stanley Cup title he would be able to enjoy.
When the following season began, I started my own blog for fun. Jill was the one who encouraged me to do it. She always told me that I should start writing down the things I say during games because others would enjoy them. She must have been on to something because I am still working on my craft eight years later.
Death Rears Its Ugly Head
In Nov. 2011, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. Less than a year later, on Sep. 21, 2012, just days after I took over Second City Hockey for SB Nation, he lost his battle. The loss was catastrophic, and our family was now without its leader. He was the man who took care of everything and never asked for anything in return. Even though I was 33 years old, I became a man for the first time when my dad died.
The day he passed, I spent the afternoon going through his bedroom to pick out a suit for his funeral. My father was not a very sentimental guy. It was rare for him to hang onto things that weren’t racing or concert t-shirts. However, while cleaning out his bureau, I found the ticket stub from the game against the Islanders. I don’t know why he decided to save it, but I sat down on his bed and had a very ugly cry with that stub in my hand. I put it in his casket for his memorial service, along with a racing shirt and a pack of Chicago Cubs baseball cards. I still have my stub, and it is one of my most prized possessions.
Two things kept me focused and my head on straight in the weeks and months that followed: hockey and Jill. My new role as the site manager for Second City Hockey gave me the outlet for my creativity while filling up my spare time.
Then the amazing, lockout-shortened season of 2013 began. I got the perfect season to distract me from my grief and help with the healing. The cherry on top of that amazing run was getting press credentials for the Stanley Cup Final versus the Boston Bruins.
I don’t think there was anyone prouder of me sitting in the press box for that series than Jill. Her love, support, and encouragement got me there. While it was an exciting time with a whirlwind of emotions, grief and sadness still reared their ugly heads.
Game 1 of the series is not to be forgotten by Blackhawks fans. Andrew Shaw’s shin pads won the game during the third overtime session, sending the tired United Center faithful home very happy.
As I waited for the press elevator to take me down to the basement for the postgame scrum, I reached into my pocket for my cell phone. I instinctively started to call Dad, and just before I hit the send button, I remembered he wasn’t there to answer. It was a sobering moment, but I knew he was proud of me even if he wasn’t there to tell me.
Somehow, Life Carries On
In the summer of 2014, I quit my full-time day job to take a writing job. This would have been a hard sell with my dad. Boysen men worked for a living and poured their hearts and souls into their jobs. Not sure if convincing him that leaving a steady job with insurance for a gamble would have been easy, but thankfully I never had to have that conversation. Meanwhile, Jill was still my biggest cheerleader and made my decision easier.
That following June, the Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. I was at Game 6 to see them clinch the championship as a fan. Next to me was my mother wearing a necklace that contained some of my father’s ashes, given to her by Jill. We had come full circle.
In April 2017, I lost that full-time writing job and struggled to figure out what was next. Jill encouraged me to continue to chase down my dreams. That is when I reached out to The Hockey Writers and began writing here. With my new duties came credentials for both the Chicago Wolves and Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League.
I also reached out to a good friend who had been scouting for the past few years, and he gave me some great advice on how to get started. After dozens of emails and phone calls, I landed a scouting job with the Kenai River Brown Bears in the North American Hockey League.
Covering two AHL teams and scouting in the Chicago area for junior players meant many long hours at the rink and away from Jill and our two pugs. Although she told me she missed me many times, Jill never discouraged me from working. She was more excited than I was to tell people about my travels, who I got to interview, or what former NHL star sat next to me in the press box.
The Unthinkable Turns Life Upside Down
On March 7, at our annual Blackhawks birthday game, I noticed a yellow tint in Jill’s eyes. Long story short, we went to the hospital for tests on March 20, not knowing that she would never come home. On the afternoon of April 17, Jill died from complications of liver and kidney failure. The loss is devastating, and I feel the pain every second of every day.
Hockey was again there to help during the initial stages of grief. When I was finally ready to get back to the rink after over a month of being away, the Wolves were in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. I showed up for Game 5 of the first-round series against the Grand Rapids Griffins, and the love I was shown was astonishing.
Lindsey Willhite and his entire media relations staff with the Wolves were fantastic throughout this entire horrible ordeal. Play-by-play man Jason Shaver, with whom I developed a friendship over the season, was one of the first to reach out with words of encouragement.
Even Bob Kaser, longtime broadcaster and vice president of community relations for the Griffins, was very supportive. After sending me a few messages on Twitter, he spoke to me both before and after Game 5, giving me his condolences and offering his support from himself and the team. This was a man I met just a handful of times in the press box, and he was treating me as if Jill and I were old friends. It was truly heartfelt and comforting.
I received hundreds of messages from colleagues and readers. Some of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in person, but the majority were from folks with who I have never interacted with. It was and still is overwhelming how the hockey community rallies around one of its own when they are down and out.
The Wolves made it all the way to the Calder Cup Final and kept playing into June. Covering their run was not only a great experience professionally, but it gave me reasons to get out of the house and focus on something besides how awful reality had become. I was building relationships and working on my craft while dealing with the loss of my soul mate, best friend, and biggest fan.
It will be a couple of months before I start getting back to the rink regularly, but I plan on doing so. Jill wanted me to carve out a living from the game of hockey, so I will keep grinding and working hard at it. It is what I want, and it is what she wanted for me.
I am over 100 days sober because of a promise I made to her. Everything I do from here on out will be to make her proud. There will be a hole in my heart that will never heal for the rest of my days, but hockey will continue to provide temporary relief from the pain, and I am forever indebted to the game for that very reason.
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.