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THE MOTHERLAND

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

When Milan Lucic is on your side, off the ice or on, whether in black-and-gold, black-and-silver, orange, navy blue and white or, nowadays, red and white, Canadian flag or Serbian, he's all in.

"Oh, yeah," confesses the Flames' don't-mess-with-us winger. "I cheer - hard - for (Novak) Djokovic whenever I turn on the TV and he's on the tennis court.

"All the basketball teams, the soccer teams from back there …" he paused with a soft chuckle of support, "… I've got their backs."

 

 

And Lucic, known as someone not to be trifled with, is a handy guy to have in your corner.

In the three-boy household on East 49th St., in the working-class Champlain Heights/Killarney neighbourhood of East Vancouver during Milan's growing-up years, mom Snežana and dad Dobrivoje (Dobro) made certain Jovan (who would go on to become a professional soccer goalkeeper), Milan and Nikola understood and practiced the family customs; stayed true to their lineage.

"When I was a young guy, I was brought up Serbian, even though I'm born in Canada," Lucic explains. "It's a big part of my life, my heritage - the culture.

"I spoke the language growing up, celebrated Serbian Easter, Serbian Christmas, Family Saint Day. All of that.

"That was important to my parents, so it's important to me.

"My wife has been fantastic about sharing it with me, embracing that part of my life."

 

 

Which is why this past summer's family vacation junket, with Brittany and kids Valentina, Nikolina and the youngest, Milan Jr. - a lengthy 10,330-kilometre journey between the Lucic home base of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Serbian capital Belgrade - resonated so strongly.

"I've only been over there three times in my life. In '98, the first time as a family, for a full month,'' Lucic recalls of that inaugural trip. "I was 10. We got to see where my dad is from, then went up the coast, then on to Belgrade.

"In 2014, my brother actually got married in Belgrade.

 

 

"This year, obviously because we had a long summer, my wife and I talked about taking a family trip there with our kids. The more we discussed it, the more we thought it was a great idea.

"My older brother (Jovan) lives there and has two children. We're a year apart, we share so many things - the same friends in high school, played hockey on the same team every second year. We're close as brothers but far apart in terms of being able to get together.

"I hadn't met my brother's second daughter, who's two years old now, until this last trip. So having that opportunity was cool.

"Kids really are amazing. My kids and his kids played like old friends. Even though his don't speak English and mine don't speak Serbian they still found a way to have a good time together."

 

Milan and daughter Valentina inside Saint Sava Hram Church, Belgrade

 

During their stay in Serbia, the Lucic brood took in Belgrade's major sights: the massive Byzantine-style Sveti Sava Hram Orthodox church, located on the Vračar plateau; Kalamegdan Fortress, built in 279 B.C., as well as, in an athletic vein, the Partisan Belgrade multi-sport club, where centre Vlade Divac, now GM of the Sacramento Kings, honed his craft before becoming the first man born outside the U.S. to play in more than 1,000 NBA games.

 

Milan at Partizan Belgrade Club, where NBA star Vlade Divac began his hoops career

 

Central in Lucic's thoughts during the journey, naturally, was his hard-working father, a longshoreman by trade. Dobro, who had such an influence on his hockey-playing son, died, aged 59, back in 2015.

"My dad emigrated to Canada in '84," explains Lucic. "His sister arrived before he did, moving to Winnipeg, and then her husband ended up transferring to Vancouver because of work.

"So he came to visit my dad in Vancouver. At the old Serbian Hall, on Hastings, there was a dance or a party and he met my mom.

"She'd come over with her grandparents back in '69, when she was two years old.

"Anyway, he ended up staying. They ended up marrying and raising a family."

Dobro's move predated the break-up of Yugoslavia and the war that followed.

"Honestly, I had a lot of good feedback on that (ESPN) 30 for 30 on Vlade Divac" - Once Brothers, a detailed account of how the Yugoslav Wars ripped apart the close friendship of basketball stars Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović, on opposite sides of the conflict, before Petrovich was killed in a car crash.

"I think a lot of people in this part of the world don't understand the dynamics of that part of the world. So many parts of the world go through disputes but I think that shined more of a light for the West on what went down.

"For my dad, coming over when he did, I guess it was kind of good timing because back in his day you had to do your time in the army, so you never know what could've happened if he hadn't come to Canada."

For all of us, no matter where our roots are forged, there is comfort to be found in the time-honoured ways and traditions that formed our upbringing.

Milan Lucic is no exception.

"We just had a great time over there," he says of the summer trip. "Sightseeing, relaxing and seeing family. To share that with my wife and kids is really important.

"I really do wish I could go back more often.

"Obviously in our job, though, playing so many games during the season or preparing in the summers to get ready for the next season, there's not a lot of time, as well as living on the west coast it's not the closest flight.

"But I'll have enough time to visit more often when I'm done playing."

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