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Hockey and family ties that bind

by Ryan Johnson / Vancouver Canucks

This past weekend Ryan Johnson acted as guest editor for The Province newspaper's monthly supplement. In addition to assisting with story ideas he also wrote the following column.

Here's the story . . .

For a kid growing up in Thunder Bay, Ont., my upbringing was what one might expect. Being one of four children — three boys and a girl — more hours were spent weekly being carted between hockey arenas in our family station wagon than were spent in the comfort of our own home.

What at the time seemed completely normal now seems like an incredible test of patience and sacrifice that my parents endured. Never mind the expense of four children playing and practicing nightly, but trying to manage meals, homework and everyday life must have felt like a neverending race. So, fittingly, it was through the great Canadian pastime that many of our morals, values and lessons were taught to us.

My father Jim, a lawyer by trade, was a passionate hockey fan from a young age. He played at the university level, but found his true calling in not just coaching, but building programs and arenas that would help change the lives of Thunder Bay kids for decades to come.

The Thunder Bay Minor Hockey Program, Lakehead University Thunderwolves, and the Thunder Bay Tournament Centre were just a few of his accomplishments that stemmed from his passion for the sport and what it could do for the people of our city. But it wasn’t about how good of a hockey player one could become, it was how good of a person one could become through the game of hockey.

My Dad and I were very different people, yet very much the same. Where he enjoyed discussing politics, I enjoyed talking horses. Where he liked to build with a hammer and nails, I wanted to create with a guitar. But through our differences, there was always respect, and the courtesy to listen and learn about each other’s loves.

Thankfully, hockey brought us a common ground that we could watch, play and discuss for days at a time. From the earliest of memories, along with family and friends, it was the one constant for us. I loved the afternoons of games on the outdoor rink in the backyard with my brothers and friends, but dreaded the evenings of skating figure eights around the garbage cans. I longed for the games at the community centre with the older kids, but wondered why I was stickhandling around pylons after the game.

As I got older, I slowly started to come to some realizations. Every discussion we had on the hockey rink had nothing at all to do with the game itself. Hockey was just the canvas that my father used that could pertain to all areas of life in general.

I can’t explain how lucky I am to be able to say that my mentor, leader and best friend just happened to be my father. After battling cancer courageously, he passed away on June 7, 2008. Not a day goes by that I don’t reflect on or refer to his guidance, and amazingly still find myself digesting or understanding new lessons from years ago. I can only hope that in sharing a few of these, you are able to relate to them in your own way with your father/mother or son/daughter.


After being drafted in the second round by the Florida Panthers as a 17-year-old, my focus was quickly directed on what I could accomplish, the opportunity I had just been given, and not on what being drafted entitled me to. Throw in the fact that I was poised to leave home for the first time to become a freshman at the University of North Dakota, and obviously there was a lot running through my mind.

As the days quickly came closer for me to leave, the thought — “Am I ready for this?” — came even quicker. Sensing some hesitation in my body language, my father approached me in my room while I had my head in my hands. He asked me a couple of simple questions that I will never forget. “Where do you think the best musician in the world is right now? What do you think the smartest scientist in the world is doing?” As I mustered some sort of reply, my Dad interrupted with a response that relieved me of any hesitation from that point on. “They are not playing to sold-out stadiums around the world, or sitting in labs finding the cure for cancer. They are sitting somewhere flipping burgers or scrubbing toilets because they didn’t have the courage to put themselves out there. They weren’t brave enough to succeed if it meant facing some failure, and for that, they will live with regret for the rest of their lives.” He proceeded to pat me on the back and leave me to my thoughts.

It quickly registered that the safe and easy thing to do would be to stay at home another year, play junior hockey for a second season, and be comfortable in the surroundings of my family and friends. But I was not in search of safe and easy things for my life. Early the next morning I left for what would be two of the greatest years of my young life.

Control What You Can Control

My oldest brother Greg played 13 seasons in the NHL. Unfortunately, he was forced into retirement because of a heart ailment known as Cardio Myopythy. As a precaution, my whole family was advised to run the gamut of testing to make sure we didn’t have the same condition.

After a slight irregularity in my basic testing was reported, I was advised to attend the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in order to be able to be cleared to start the season with the St. Louis Blues. The doctors concluded I was fine, but needed to go through one last procedure before being cleared. It was a simulated heart attack that would determine how quickly my heart would recover from any irregularities in the beating of the heart.

As much as I was assured the test would go fine, they did warn against possible risks of putting the heart through such a test. We all know what that means. As much as I tried to downplay the situation, my father knew how not only the procedure could affect me, but what the result of it might mean for the rest of my career and future. He was on the first flight out of Thunder Bay to be with me at the Mayo.

As we sat in a tiny Italian restaurant the night before the procedure, it was hard not to think of the what-ifs. I could see in my Dad’s eyes that he wasn’t even sure I should be going through this test all. Nonetheless, we discussed what I might do if I was advised to end my career and move on. I thought the obvious thing would be to go back to school and finish my university education that had escaped me because of the fact I turned pro after two years.

His response caught me a little of guard. He emphatically stated, “Why would you waste your time going back to school? Look what you have accomplished by making it to the NHL. You had no blueprint to follow. The only reason you made it there was because you made a decision in your mind that that’s what you wanted, and you did everything you possibly could to get there. If you apply that to any other endeavour in life, you’ll be just as successful.”

I look at most success stories in sports, business, entrepreneurialship, etc, and there really isn’t a blueprint for success. The one common denominator is that they all had the willingness to work, and to sacrifice regardless of the hand they were dealt. I survived the procedure and received the results I was hoping for. I said bye to my Dad at the airport, and returned to St. Louis to continue to do the little things that allowed me to have the greatest job in the world.

Me or We

I don’t have enough fingers to possibly count how many times I, or any professional athlete for that matter, has gone into what most would call a slump. It is as natural a part of the game as tying your skates or taping your stick.

To the surprise of most, the duration or severity of these struggles often lies not in how one sees themselves, but how they see others. Odd, I know, but my father taught me at a young age the old-school cliché that a person’s true character shines true when they are down and out. To take it a step further, as my professional journey progressed, it was made clear to me that I could have my greatest influence on others when I was not at my best.

There are two different roads one can travel when things aren’t going their way. One: Hang their head in hopes that everyone knows they aren’t happy with themselves. In doing so, creating a negative energy that can become contagious and draw attention to their displeasure. Misery does indeed love company. Or, two: They can direct their attention to a teammate or co-worker that might be having a tough time as well. Encouraging them as if they were the most important conversation you will have that day. Odds are, the two will dig themselves out of a hole together, rather than dig a deeper hole.

In the summer of 2007, my sister was to be married. As my Dad continued to weaken due to his chemotherapy sessions, the question of whether the wedding should go on was in all of our minds. Of course, Dad would not allow a thought of any postponement to exist. As the wedding ceremony began and moved through the evening, he sensed a hesitation of smiles and celebration due to his condition.

When it came time for Dad and my mother Judy to speak about my sister and brother-in-law, he took the time to challenge all who had been invited. He asked anyone who felt sorry for him, or thought of this as a mournful occasion, to please get up and go home. People instantly sat up straighter in there seats. Tears turned to smiles. He promised he would be the first person to the dance floor and the last to leave the festivities. He was right.

In the toughest of times, my father saw solutions, not problems.

A Better Man

I spend part of my off-season back in Thunder Bay. I have a small lake house that is about 20 minutes from town, that feels like 20 hours from civilization.

It was maybe my Dad’s favourite place in the world. It was there we spent many hours piddling around doing odd and ends, sipping wine and arguing over the music being played, and breaking bread over the hockey season that was, and the one that would soon be.

Soon after his passing, a tree was planted in his memory on the crest of a grassy knoll that overlooks the water. A bench sits in front of the tree with a view through a split of trees that offers the best of sunsets every evening. His presence can be felt everywhere through the water, sun and land.

Like any great teacher-student relationship, that student usually must achieve his final triumph without his/her mentor. So this is how I have digested the events of our family’s loss. I am convinced that somehow, someway, the 32 years of our journey together, will culminate into one final moment — that moment being the day I can take Lord Stanley’s Cup back to that grassy knoll on Oliver Lake in Thunder Bay.

There I will sit surrounded by his presence in the water, sun and land, and know that he is proud. Not proud of the fact that I am sitting with the Stanley Cup, but the person I became in my pursuit of it.

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