It hangs on the wall, suspended by two cheap metal hinges, a hockey stick which upon first glance appears as nondescript as the hinges themselves. It’s a simple, wooden stick; undoubtedly plucked from a bargain bin somewhere, bereft of any manufacturer’s name or even the slightest hint of quality craftsmanship.
And it is among my most prized possessions.
It was Christmas of 1993 when the stick first came into my possession. A gift from my father, who knew it was the one gift his son, smack in the throes of the teen angst years, might actually appreciate. When the presents had all been opened, he got up and wordlessly went to the garage, returning with the stick. â€œThought you might like this,â€ was all he said before heading to the kitchen to make the annual Christmas phone calls.
The stick was hand-painted in a white matte; only the blade revealed the original yellow-brown wood shade. Halfway up the shaft, there was stenciled in a team logo and the words â€œToronto Maple Leafsâ€. Nothing fancy, and certainly not what one would refer to as “official.” Running the length of the shaft were numerous signatures written in blue ink, the only “official” or “authentic” part of the entire stick.
Now, I have to admit that I didn’t think of it as anything special at the time. As a Leafs fan it was a cool gift, for sure, but I was by no means into collecting merchandise or memorabilia beyond hockey cards. Yet a part of me felt there was something meaningful in this gift â€“ I wasn’t sure what, exactly â€“ but the teenage years being what they are, I tucked those thoughts away and maintained an air of what I thought was cool indifference, but would later come to learn was nothing more than naive ignorance.
For years, that stick rested in a corner of the room, forgotten behind the door, collecting dust. The Leafs would go on to lose in the conference finals for a second year in a row, a lockout would cancel half a season, and the Leafs would miss the playoffs two of the next three seasons thereafter.
By the time I left for university, the stick had been nearly forgotten in the years since my father had first given it to me. On a final sweep of my bedroom, to be sure I had not left anything I would need behind, the stick caught my eye for the first time in what seemed like ages. Not fully knowing why, I grabbed it and tossed it into the truck. And for the briefest of moments, I could have sworn I caught a little twinkle in my father’s eye as I did so.
Over the years possessions would come and go, as material items do. But that stick would remain with me, through two degrees, multiple jobs, cities and towns and countless moves. It wasn’t so much because it had any sort of perceived monetary value â€“ I was by no means a collector so I never really thought of it in those terms â€“ but there was a certain meaning embedded in that stick. A feeling I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time, but strong enough to make me want to hang onto it, unlike other countless Christmas gifts eventually found homes via yard sales or the landfill (as happens with time) over the years.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling this story, why I would open this window to my life on a website dedicated to analysis and discussion of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s not just that the stick happens to bear the logo of the Maple Leafs, or a number of signatures of former players. There’s more to it than that.
Sport is not just about wins and losses, or corporate revenues, or even a means of entertainment. It is, indeed, more than â€œjust a gameâ€; it is a bonding experience, where friends â€“ where family members â€“ are brought together via a shared love for, a shared connection with, their favorite team. For my father and I, it was hockey; in particular, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Dad and I were never close. He was a man’s man, raised on the farm, who earned everything he had with his own two hands. I, on the other hand, was the spoiled little artsy kid, who would rather get lost in a book or a video game than get his hands dirty, and certainly didn’t appreciate the sacrifices made to give myself and my brother a better life than my father had growing up. My father didn’t understand me, and I didn’t want to understand him. And yet, through all the tension, all the arguments and resentment, hockey was the one arena in which we didn’t fight, the one subject on which we could communicate with one another, be it going to a game or watching at home in the living room, discussing players and games of present and past.
It was years later before I would realize why it was that stick meant so much to me, what those feelings I had been too young too understand were all about. The stick wasn’t merely some piece of merchandise that carried an association with the team, or particular memories of the season (1992-93) in which it was signed. Rather, it was symbolic of those times Dad and I could relate to one another, those rare instances where we could share in something together, and feel the warmth of familial happiness â€“ something so common for many fathers and sons but rare for us â€“ while doing so.
As time moved forward, the experiences and harsh realities of the real world would lead me to begin to realize why my father was the way he was when I was growing up, and the lessons he was trying to instill in his sons. Often, I would feel a pang of regret for what seemed like such a waste of the years past. But then I would look at the stick, suspended as always on the wall, and all those feelings would melt away, replaced by those warm memories of hockey games in front of the fireplace, or occasionally in the stands. And then one day, out of the blue, it hit me: This is the gift he gave to you. The man knew.
It’s a tricky dynamic, that which exists between fathers and sons. The weight of expectation, based on a life’s experience and borne of love, can be difficult to bear when opposing personalities are involved, and neither is equipped or willing to understand the other’s perspective. The weight can crush some relationships, damaging them forever â€“ or it can ultimately prove to make them stronger.
Fortunately, for Dad and I, this story has a happy ending, as the latter would ultimately prevail. The memories carried by that stick, and the life lessons learned along the way, were enough to carry me back to my hometown, and slowly we began to form a bond which, at long last, extended well beyond the realm of sport. There were no grandiose speeches; in fact, nothing was verbalized – Dad’s not the sort – we simply found the ability to look each other in the eye and know we’re stronger for it. Part of it was missing each other, but the greater part of it was those few memories we both held onto, and the belief that what existed within those moments could â€“ no, should â€“ be able to extend beyond the sixty minutes of a hockey game, if we so desired.
A relationship nearly lost between father and son was saved, one could say, by a simple bargain-bin hockey stick, one painted white with a team logo added, and signed by members of the 1992-93 Toronto Maple Leafs.
A short while ago, I stopped in to visit my parents. I was discussing some Leafs tickets I had for my father and brother, when my father turned to me and asked, â€œdo you still have that hockey stick I gave you all those years ago, the one signed by the team?â€
“I’ve had that stick for 17 years, Dad. Longer than just about anything else. It’s one of my favorite things.â€
â€œGood,â€ he replied, pausing as an all-too-familiar twinkle appeared in his eye.
â€œThat’s what I always hoped it would be.â€
Here’s wishing a safe and happy holiday season to you and your loved ones.