By Gregory Ryan
The game is bigger now, but it will never be bigger than a small boy's dreams.
I almost spit out my Cap'n Crunch at the breakfast table when my dad told me he'd signed me up. From that moment on I thought of almost nothing else. For an eight-year-old boy growing up in Toronto in the fall of 1967, it was understandable.
I'd been tearing up the rink at our school for a couple of years already. On our street I thought I was road hockey's answer to Bobby Orr. The garage door looked like it had been used to stop cannon balls. Most vertical surfaces in our house bore the scars of a hockey-mad kid. Of course, Saturday nights were spent in the den with my dad watching the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada. But all of that was a mere prelude to the glory to come.
I was going to play house league hockey!
That's where men suited up and clashed just like titans on frozen oceans. Well, not quite... but it was where future stars were born. I wanted to be Bobby Orr. I wanted to be Dave Keon. They were my heroes long before the Great One and Sidney Crosby came along. But they all had to start somewhere and, in hockey, that's house league.
Unlike titans, nobody had to try out for house league. If you could put one skate in front of the other you'd have a good chance of being a star. The kids who could barely stand on skates played goal.
House league also had dressing rooms, benches, nets, blue lines, red lines, referees, penalties and fans. Just like the Leafs. But more important than all of those things, the key to a boy's happiness, fulfillment and self-esteem: team sweaters with matching socks! Putting them on for the first time would be a thrill I'd never forget. However, that moment didn't come off quite the way I'd hoped.
Saturday morning my dad drove us to the sports store to buy hockey gear. Seeing all those shelves full of helmets and pads was exciting to say the least. I walked out of there with all the stuff I needed: a helmet, gloves, shoulder pads, elbow pads, kneepads and hockey pants. Actual Maple Leaf Blue hockey pants! My dad explained to me why the jockstrap was a must. I couldn't wait to add my new team sweater and show my stuff to the world.
I had only one month to practice before the season began. Would the school rink be ready in time? Then one morning there it was. They'd put up the boards and flooded it overnight. The ice was so clear you could see the frozen grass underneath.
Shortly after my first day on the ice kids started showing up to play every morning. We'd go at it and then it was off to class. The school day took forever; much of it was spent in a trance staring out the windows at the rink. Getting through the day without a detention would get you back on the ice by 3:35 p.m. On the weekends, we'd spend all day on the ice, tossing our sticks in the centre, choosing teams and playing every game for the Stanley Cup. I'd be late for dinner, trudging home in my skates on feet that were numb from being tied up in those skates for eight hours in sub-zero temperatures.
The never-ending month finally passed.
I woke up during the night before my opening game — my big day — feeling funny. I had a strange taste in my mouth. I spent the next few hours throwing up with guttural cries my mom later described as "quite a performance." She nursed me through it. At some point, I fell asleep.
By the time I got up, the night was a vague memory. It was early and no one was awake yet. I felt just fine, excited as heck despite my overnight stand at the toilet bowl. I took my equipment out of the closet, put on my pads, stepped into my hockey pants and went downstairs to the den. (In a couple of hours, I'd be playing my first game in my brand new uniform.)
All I remember about the next few minutes are two things: Mom saying something like "Don't worry Sport, You'll be all set for next week." That and crushing disappointment.
She said I had the flu and I was too sick to play. There'd be no house league this day. No referees' whistles or cheers from the crowd. And no new sweater. Not for another week at least.
Over the years I'd often remind my dad about what he did for me that day, how he made sure at least part of my dream came true.
I spent the day in bed and was sick one more time. At some point I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, on the end of my bed sat a bag. Inside I found a brand new hockey sweater and socks! They were white with blue stripes. Leaf colours! The team logo read "Simpson's Cartage." On the back was number 14. My dad had not only gone to the arena to get my new uniform, but he made sure it had the number of my hockey hero on the back!
The following week I finally made my debut. I even scored a goal in my very first house league game. It was a great season and we ended up league champs.
I continued playing organized hockey for many years, and have lots of great memories. But none will ever compare to that first season when I got to live my dream, had a dad around to make things happen, and wore the coolest team sweater I ever had.