WASHINGTON, DC - Every athlete, every kid, remembers the ride home.
Those of us who participated in youth hockey, in particular, understand this most intimate, time-honored ritual. It comes after each game, after you already have heard from coaches and teammates, after the final outcome has been recorded and the equipment has been stashed away.
Win or lose, you emerge from a locker room prepared for one final assessment. The trial is over, but the jury is still out … until you get in the car … until the ride home.
That's when a young athlete anticipates the approval he seeks the most. That's when he hears from his biggest fan, his harshest critic. That's when he hears from his dad. That's when bonds are created that last forever, rooted in love, thicker than water.
The impending ride is as predictable as the movie you see a hundred times over. You know it by heart. If prompted, you could recite your father's thoughts before they are delivered, chapter and verse. On some occasions, you may feel you exhausted your best efforts, left little room for second-guessing.
Other times - maybe more often than not – you know you things could have gone better.
And if there was the slightest room for improvement, if there were mistakes made or moments lost, you're riding home with the one person who can identify them.
As you leave the rink, the anticipation increases with every step across the parking lot. A young player is anxiously awaiting the feedback, the one-man jury is collecting his thoughts, calculating the response to what he just saw. Sometimes the dialogue is already engaged, sometimes the silence is deafening.
It’s often with age that we appreciate these moments, these trials of youth. In so many cases, it’s not the message we fail to cherish, it's the messenger.
Professional athletes at one time were amateur athletes, kids just like us. If you asked them as kids ,"Who is your hero?” they might name a professional athlete they want to emulate, a fireman, a police officer, maybe their favorite teacher, maybe a movie star.
But when you ask the question to many of them today, the answer is much more consistent, as consistent as that ride home. Like so many of us, their hero is their dad.
As kids, we lack a maturity to realize how lucky we are to be riding home with the person we admire most. Most of our dad’s have regular jobs. My dad is a journalist, not always the most enviable job and - these days at least - not always the most glamorous of occupations.
But his skills and proficiency with words aside, it isn’t his craft that makes him my superman. It’s his advice, his criticism, his personality, his humility, his strengths and flaws, his love and support. It's the time he spent with me, the times he told me without exception, “I'm proud of you.”
It's all those rides home.
This weekend, 17 heroes joined the Blues for a Dad’s Trip. The road swing through Carolina and Washington, D.C. afforded many of the Blues players the chance to re-visit those special moments, to re-live them now from a different perspective, to share the accomplishment of reaching the highest level of their sport with the person who helped them get there.
We asked some of the Blues and their fathers to recall the ride home, to share with us their memorable trips from the hockey rink to the house, to pass along the sentiments they absorbed from their dads that remain with them to this day.
On memorable rides home with his dad: “We were heading back from a game, and this was later in my career as a youth player, I think I was second year bantam, maybe. We were heading back from a big game and I think we won, and I had a broken arm. I ended up scoring a hat trick in the game. It was a pretty big game and we were on our way back and he just kind of broke down a little bit saying how proud he was of me. He just always encouraged me, even if I had a bad game, he never got down on me... ever. He always just lifted me back up. I think that’s why I’m so positive now.”
On the important of hearing his dad's feedback: “(The ride home) was very important in my development. Family has always been something that drives me and keeps me going and keeps me even-keel. (My dad) was the start of that.”
On encouraging his son: “All I was trying to do was try to give him an opportunity to pursue his dream. All he wanted to do was play in the NHL. That’s probably what I cherish the most. We made good decisions and I’d listen to my children. Some dads would say ‘no, that’s a pipe dream,’ but I went with him to help them pursue his dream."
On how it felt seeing T.J. score to start the Dad's Trip: “Surreal. I couldn’t have wrote a better script.”
On T.J. becoming who he is: “In my heart, I think he has so much more he’s going to do in his life. I really think he wants to play in the PGA. He’s a one or a two handicap, and I think he might do it, I really do, because he’s a driven man and we’re very proud of him, as I am with all my four children. He’s now a leader. He’s in charge of this family, and I’m looking forward to many more good things happening in his life.”
On any specific memories on the ride home that stood out: “Not a ton specifically. I think my parents were really supportive and my dad never played the game, so he’d have little suggestions, but they weren’t nitpicking this little thing or that little thing. To tell you the truth, the work ethic he instilled in me that’s now just a second nature thing for me, to lay it all on the line and give everything I had. Those rides home for me was a lot of times going from the hockey rink to the baseball field while trying to change in the back of the car, trying to get a bite to eat and moving onto the next thing that we had planned. Just trying to live life to the fullest, and that’s what I remember most from leaving the rink.”
On how important the encouragement from dad is: “It kept you going. Sports in general is not all roses and flowers. It’s something where there’s going to be down times, and how you manage those and live through them and come out on the other side better is important and it makes you grow as a person and as an athlete.”