For Dad

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If you could see my room right now, you’d be embarrassed for me, too.

There are posters of Sidney Crosby all over the walls. Even one of those life-size ones. I’d stand up beside it every day when I was little, hoping that one day I’d be as tall as number 87. I passed him when I was 12 years old, I think. And, even though those posters have been there forever and I’m probably too old to have them in my room anymore … they stay up. Because it’s Sid.

I’m from Ajax, Ontario, where just about everyone is a Leafs fan — my dad included. But me, I grew up watching Sid take over the league and score the most important goal of all time at the Olympics in Vancouver. I was so drawn to him as a player that I became a Pens fan. And as a Pittsburgh fan living just outside Toronto, there was a sacred pilgrimage I had to make with my dad. In 2014, we went down to the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh to watch a playoff game. I had seen the Pens in Toronto a couple of times before, but to be there —  in Pittsburgh — with Sid, Geno and Letang right in front of me ... it was just incredible.

It’s what I imagine hockey heaven is like.

To experience it all with my dad, too, was the best. The best. I’m not sure I could count all the hours we’ve spent together on our way to and from rinks. Those rides with your dad are a hockey tradition, no matter where you’re from. I remember the good ones, the bad ones after a tough loss, and all those in between. I even remember some of our first. 

When I was six years old, I had Saturday morning games at the Ajax Community Centre, which wasn’t too far from our house. So at 6:30, Dad would pop into my room.

“You wanna go to the rink early? Shoot some pucks?”

Courtesy of Brandon Coe

I’d always say yes. And thinking back on it now, maybe he was even more excited to go do that than I was. I’d run downstairs, wolf down some Honey Nut Cheerios at our kitchen table, and then suit up in the hallway, trying not to wake Mom. It was usually the dead of winter, so it was pitch black outside still and cold enough that the wind would sting your face. Dad and I would run over to his Chrysler 300, pop the trunk, toss our sticks and bags in, and then turn the heat on as high as it would go. 

Five minutes later we’d be at the rink. Just the two of us. Hours before my team would get there for our game. The lights would come on right at seven and we’d hop on the ice. And there is nothing — nothing — like a fresh sheet of ice in the morning. Those first few minutes … I still remember that feeling. It’s just perfect. Not really sure how to describe it.

If you know, you know. 

He’d always make sure I was having as much fun as possible. Hockey gets pretty intense pretty quick for a lot of kids in Canada. I know it now, and he knew it then. So we’d shoot a bunch, chase each other around. He’d time me doing laps.

Man, it was really the most fun.

Out there, on that ice, time didn’t exist.

And now, I’m constantly being reminded of time. 

I’ve been thinking about it since September 2016, when I was in grade 10 my parents sat me down in the living room one day after school. The way they’d said my name when they told me they wanted to talk … I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know if it was about me, or Mom, or Dad — I just knew it was bad. Dad told me he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I didn’t know what that meant. I was 15. But when he said the word cancer, alarm bells just started going off in my head. I didn’t want to be without my dad. Ever. I wanted more time.

I didn’t want to be without my dad. Ever. I wanted more time.

I found out that multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that never really goes away. It’s something that you can fight, that you can beat into remission, but it’s always sort of … there. It’s debilitating, and to watch my dad start to get weaker as he began the battle it was just really hard. Everyday tasks like going up the stairs or driving became an exhausting ordeal for him. He spent time in and out of hospital over the next few months. Seeing him in a gown, on a bed — it just made me sick to my stomach. I could tell just by his face, by the way he spoke, that he wasn’t quite himself.

It’s impossible to put into words how you feel when you see someone you love in a position like that. I just wanted to hug him and heal him. I just wanted to get him out of there. But every day, when Mom and I went to see him, we were the only ones allowed to leave. He never could.

About seven months after his diagnosis, in April 2017, I was drafted by the North Bay Battalion in the OHL. They play just three hours away from Ajax, so I knew I’d be able to see my dad quite a bit.

I had been the third pick in the draft, and I thought that if I kept on my trajectory, I’d have a chance to make it to the NHL.

When I was younger … it’s not that it wasn’t my dream to make it to the NHL, it’s more that I just didn’t think about it. I wasn’t seven or eight years old and talking about playing for the Pens or Leafs, or anything like that. My dad and I went to see a bunch of Oshawa Generals games, so I’d always thought about playing in the OHL. But my game had kept progressing before I got to North Bay, and I knew that if I kept getting better there was a chance I could make it to the show.

Dad had always talked about me playing in the NHL. He never put any pressure on me to make it, or pushed me to go a certain direction. It was small things like when we’d be at a Leafs game and he’d say, “Well, if you keep working, that could be you out there.”

I think I always knew, deep down, that he wanted to see me in the NHL, even if I didn’t fully realize it.

So when he got sick, his dream became my dream.

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Even though it was hard not to miss my parents when I was in North Bay, I found a new competitive edge. Every time I stepped on the ice, I left it all out there. For my dad. For me. And he fought in his own way, too. Even when he wasn’t feeling his best — and when he wasn’t in the hospital he’d drive up to see me play whenever he could. Mom would come with him, and if he wasn’t feeling great after the game, she’d do the drive back. I’d see him after games and I could tell he wasn’t himself. He was tired and there were bags under his eyes, but he was there. He was there.

He was diagnosed before my OHL career started, and I think he’s only missed 30 games so far.

That’s all the motivation I need to do an extra rep of anything.

My family, we’re a team. I’m an only child, so it’s been the three of us my whole life. We look out for one another. My mom plays a huge role in that, too. She’s been a rock for both me and my dad the last few years. I think I’m a big, tough hockey player, but I still cuddle up to Mom on the couch sometimes when I’m feeling the weight of everything. She’s my best friend. That’s what moms are for.

We battled together as a group to try to help my dad as best we could. And in the summer of 2019, he actually got news from his doctor that his cancer was in remission. He went for checkups, but he didn’t need any treatments for a few months, and it helped raise his spirits so much — it raised all our spirits.

I brought that positive energy into this season — the most important season of my career so far, my draft year.

Being away from my parents while my dad was battling cancer hasn’t been easy. But I do think it’s been worth it. This past year, I worked extremely hard to up my game, and it led to my name being mentioned in some NHL draft rankings. I hadn’t really let myself think about those lists before, because I didn’t want to jinx anything. But when I was chosen for the CHL Top Prospects game in January, I knew I’d have a serious chance to hear my name called at the draft.

I’ve pictured that moment. I saw myself in Montreal with Mom and Dad, hearing my name called and hugging them before walking up on stage to join an NHL club. I’ve wanted so badly for it to come true. But 2020 changed everything. And I know, having to wait a few more months to do a virtual NHL draft is nothing compared to what so many are going through around the world, I understand that.

But COVID-19 isn’t the only thing that my family has had to deal with this year.

Dad’s cancer came back.

It’s been even tougher on his body this time around.

When our season was canceled last March, I went back home to spend time with him. His cancer had returned in January, but he was still at home and going through treatments as an outpatient. But things got worse in April, and he had to spend a month in the hospital. At the time, case numbers for COVID-19 were so high in Ontario that visitors weren’t allowed. I didn’t see Dad for a month. Instead, we’d FaceTime and talk about my training, or my draft prep.

But there’s no replacement for spending time with your dad.

Courtesy of Brandon Coe

I’ve been able to see him more regularly this last year — both at home and in the hospital — and I haven’t taken a single second around him for granted. And the truth is, I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen to him. He’s home now right now, and he will be for the draft, but he’s been in and out of hospital all year. My parents keep a lot of the details between themselves and the doctors so I don’t worry too much. I know he’s going in sometime soon for a multiweek process to try and remove as much of the cancer as possible. It’s pretty bad right now.

When I’ve visited him in the hospital recently, I make it a point to keep it light. We talk about hockey and my new puppy, Cooper. I do my best to be there for Dad, to be as positive as possible. That’s the most important thing.

But I wish I had the courage to tell him how much he means to me. I haven’t been able to say that yet. That’s one reason I’m writing this.

I’ve tried. I really have. I just wish it didn’t make us both tear up right away.

If I could get past the tears, I’d tell him he’s the strongest, bravest person I’ve ever met in my life. I’d tell him he’s raised me to be the man I am today. I would thank him for everything that he's done for me. And how, even with everything that he’s going through, he just continues to be a strong and loving father for me, and how I can’t thank him enough for that. I would tell him how he’s the toughest competitor in the world. I’d tell him he motivates me to be as strong as he is.

I wish I could tell him that in all those hours we spent together driving to see my hero Sidney Crosby, I didn’t realize that my real hero was in the seat beside me all along.

Dad, you are my hero. I love you so much.

Dad, you are my hero. I love you so much.

I wish I could go back to that fresh sheet of ice at seven in the morning. I’d tell that version of myself how lucky he is that he has that guy as his dad.

I know that I wouldn’t be here, with a chance to be drafted by an NHL team, if it weren’t for my parents. If I could go on stage — if there even were a stage — I’d take them up there with me.

That’s my team, forever.

So when the moment comes, and I hear my name, and we’re all watching in front of a screen in our living room in Ajax, I know it will be perfect. It doesn’t matter that I won’t get to go onstage in a jersey. It doesn’t matter that I won’t get to experience draft weekend. It doesn’t matter that it won’t be in front of a packed stadium.

I just know that I’ll be with Mom and Dad.

And that is all that matters.