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'THERE'S NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT'

Life at the rink and the road can put stress on a family, but for the growing number of Flames dads, they've learned to cherish moments at home more than ever before

by GEORGE JOHNSON @NHLFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Playing in the NHL is a life-long dream come true for those that make it. It's an honour, one achieved through years of hard work and dedication to their craft. However, one thing even better than being a professional hockey player is being a dad. We talked to some of our players and GM this season about the demands of the job, the Christmas season, and being away often on the road, like the current four-game road trip the team just returned from.

"My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say:
'You're tearing up the grass.' 'We're not raising grass,' dad would reply. 'We're raising boys.'" 

- Major League Hall-of-Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew

 
There are moments, cameo-keepsake snapshots, in the lives of any parent that never age, never fade, never lose their power to enthral and amaze.

"We're in the hospital, she's born and right away the nurses give Charlie to Steph," Travis Hamonic is remembering last year, only days before the family unit grew to four with the birth of Henry.

"They wanted them to do skin-to-skin.

"For like … an hour. Maybe it was only half-hour. An eternity, it seemed, anyway.

"I mean, it was killing me.

"I remember snapping all these pictures and video and thinking: 'I just want to hold my little girl in my arms …'

"When they finally did give her to me … it's just indescribable. I started crying right away. I cried when she arrived. I cried when I held her.

"I did a lot of crying that day.

"I know when I'm an old guy, I'll probably have forgotten a lot of things. But that … that moment, having her in my arms for the first time, will stay ingrained in my mind. Always."

Parenthood and the game.

Professional hockey is - no faint-dead-away surprise here - a demanding lifestyle on everyone in the family, particularly during a season.
Parenting, it's often noted, is not only the most important job anyone will ever undertake, but also the one with absolutely no training.

No guidebook. 

No practice time. 

No video to break down and learn from.

 

 

"Being away as much as we are is the hardest part, hands down," says centre Derek Ryan, father of two, echoing a familiar theme. "Especially here in the Western Conference, you're on the road for longer periods of time.

"I've missed Halloween for three years running now. And, hey, I like trick-or-treating.

"Just those little things as a parent you look forward to. Our kids are young enough now that if you push the birthday back or forward a day or two and they don't know the difference. 

"Soon, though, they will.

"Even when we're home, our schedules are so crazy. When you're not playing games or at practice, you're trying to recover physically.

"You're tired. You try and give them the attention they want and deserve.

"So it's tough during a season to find a lot of time to actually be a dad."

Mikael Backlund is one of the newest first-time father recruits, daughter Tillie less than a year old.

"When we were in the hospital room, just me, Frida and Tillie, it's like the outside world didn't even exist,'' marvels the 12-year Flame. "That was pretty cool. I mean, you hear about that moment from other people, and then you get to experience it, and it's more than you'd imagined.

"I have three nephews and a niece so I've been around small kids for the last few years. It's different when she's your own, obviously, but I feel comfortable around them and I think that's helped."

 

 

Hamonic completely understands the feeling.

"When I'm at home, I definitely forget about everything else. I try to spend every second of the day with her. Little things she says throughout the day, funny things she does, they stick with you as much as the milestone moments.

"Something as simple as when she runs up and gives you a kiss. Those things, when you're gone for a week, a week-and-a-half at a time, you miss."

With new additions to both households, this past Christmas season took on extra special meaning. 

"Charlie's only 19 months but she knew what was going on, about the gifts,'' says Hamonic. "Super-aware of leaving cookies out for Santa Claus. First thing she asked when she woke up in the morning was to go check on the cookies.

"She was amazed to find out Santa had eaten two and a half cookies.

"My son was only three weeks old at the time but to spend the first one together as a family, the four of us … you can't put it into words. It's amazing how Charlie's taken on her role as big sister, still being kind of a baby herself. She's got no problem coming up to us anywhere in the house to tell us Henry's crying. She's right in there when we're changing his diaper or giving him a bath, giving him tons of kisses, high fives, hugs.

"It going to be such a neat dynamic as parents, for Steph and I, watching them grow together.

"We all had matching plaid pajamas, which was fun.

"It's a blessing. You talk about Christmas, and the things that surround it but at the root of it is us as a family; what it means to us as a Catholic family. To look back on Christmas, such a big day in our faith and in our family, just how fortunate we are is not lost on us, believe me."

GM Brad Treliving's girls Ryann and Reese are older, of course, but that doesn't make it any easier.

"To me, making sure I get enough time with them is still the biggest challenge. We all understand, it's what we signed up for, but that doesn't make it any easier as time passes.

"I remember one year going out to my daughter's soccer game. And I'm like: 'Well, that was great!' Turns out it was her last game. I'd missed the whole year.

"So my life is centred on two things: Work and my kids' events. Those are the things I try to hit."

 

 

Ryan and better half Bonnie have been together since his days playing junior.

"I got pretty lucky,'' says Ryan. "I found Bonnie early on. She's traveled the whole road with me that everyone likes to talk about, around Europe and all that. Through the ups and down. Zane, almost six years old now, was born in Austria.

"My wife does it all. Takes Zane to school and hockey. Takes August to pre-school.

"There isn't enough said about our wives and the huge part they play in allowing us to do what we do."

The dynamics of fatherhood hits home for all chosen, naturally. For some, though, the resonance is different. When Travis Hamonic was 10, his dad Gerald died after suffering a massive heart-attack.

"At the end of my life, I'll be judged on what kind of person I was, what kind of father I was," he says.

"I want my kids to be able to look back at me as fondly as I look back on what I remember, what I feel and what I know my dad was.

"The relationship I had with my dad was so special. I know the impact he had on my life.

"I know it sucks to think about these things but I didn't have my dad for a heckuva long time. And I feel like you never know what the world will bring so you try to make as positive an impact on them as you can; to build that relationship up; having that father-daughter, and pretty soon father-son foundation, is really important to me.

"It's the best part of my life, best part of my day, being a dad. It's changed my life in every single possible way - for the better.

"I've said this before, when I leave the rink, I leave behind everything this game encompasses. When I go home, I'm just dad."

The responsibilities inherent in being a parent, Hamonic believes, help sharpen viewpoint, balance.

"When you're younger, you go home from the rink and probably let things affect you more than you should, or is good for you,'' he reckons.

"Now, I just don't have the time. I come home and Charlie's buzzing around the house, loves my attention.

"I think in life, when you try not to get too wrapped in anything, it helps. Look, I love my job, I take it super-seriously. Anyone who knows me even a little bit will tell you that.

"But things get put in perspective when you're a dad."

Parenting and pro hockey.

Challenging? Sometimes, yes.

But fulfilling and beneficial? Beyond all measure.

"There's nothing more important, in my opinion, than being a mom or a dad,'' says Ryan emphatically.

"My kids are small, but watching them start to make their own decisions, start to spread their wings, that's such a fun, rewarding time, for all of us.

"What we do for a living is great, we're extremely lucky to be in this game and we're all grateful for what it gives us, but money, fame, those things are fleeting. 

"Kids, a family, they really are what makes for a full, happy life."

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