Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Broken-Hearted Son's Thank You to Mike Russo and the Game of Hockey


This is a tough one to write.

My dad and I bonded over hockey. We mutually liked other sports and other teams, but hockey, in its various formal Minnesota iterations, was our "Wanna go have a catch, dad?" sport. Neither of us was very good at playing hockey, although we did - and I have wonderful memories of playing pond hockey over at the Edgcumbe Rec Center park in the winters - but he dutifully took me to countless practices, games and tournaments until my abilities crested relative to my age group.

But we watched a lot of hockey together. My parents shared North Stars season tickets with a couple other couples during a period that happened to coincide with my formative years both in terms of hockey appreciation and critical father-son bonding time. My mother eventually tired of going at about the time that my desire to go was peaking, which worked out well for me. As a result I have a wealth of memories of going to games, wearing my Ciccarelli jersey, holding my dad's hand walking into Met Center, wondering aloud if Dino would score that night, if Meloche/Beaupre/Casey/Takko would play well, if Plett would get in a fight. For a kid from Minnesota with the hockey bug growing up in the 80s, there can be no finer amalgamation of memories.

My father was an alumnus of the U, and so we were a Gophers family. We also had Gopher pigskin season tickets for a number of years, but both of my parents tired of that experience (the Dome and a lot of losing will do that to you) so those tickets also fell to me, but with my buddy, Pete Mayer, as my #2.

Gopher hockey was the thing.

We went to countless games at the old barn, my dad and me. Obstructed-view seats, Goldy entertaining from his perch above the goal line, Pitlick, Stauber, Olimb, Hankinson, Bischoff, Klatt, Snuggerud, Gernander and Woog... And then into the new building and Lucia and championships and that list of Gopher standouts.

We also did the high school hockey tournament together for many years. My school did not have a hockey program back then (and only sort of does now - which basically means it still does not have one). But I recall games at the old Civic Center with the clear boards, and Met Center, and cracking jokes and the wonderful atmosphere of the tournament, and in those collected memories, my dad is right there next to me, a beer and a hot dog for sustenance, showing his kid how to cheer, how to harangue the opposition, the refs and even your own team, when warranted.

I loved every minute of it.

After the North Stars left and I moved away to college and beyond, our immediate, in-person shared experiences with hockey came less-frequently (although we did manage to go to at least one Gopher game every time I would come home during the season). But the conversations continued. Dad and I talked daily, sometimes multiple times per day, just to catch up, share a funny story, BS with each other. We never had a period where we could not speak to each other - me in the throes of adolescence, him in some kind of male discomfiture with emotions - we always communicated just fine. So hockey never represented that surrogate context of a relationship for us that I think some fathers and sons go through.

Instead hockey was something simpler and therefore, for us, more powerful. We were just fans: of the same thing at the same time, and on the same level. I am also a musician, and, while my dad enjoyed music, I understand it on a different level than he did. And, when that's the case, there is a deference from the one who is more the lay person to the one with more expertise that qualifies and confines the interaction on that topic. But, with hockey, we were just a couple of fans watching and talking about the game.

My dad was my best friend until I met my wife, and was still my best friend, albeit obviously of a non-spousal type, after that. Hockey was where we hung out and did our thing. We had the same syntax and dialect when talking about hockey, distinct from even the syntax and dialect we used when talking about other things. It was comfortable, easy to fall back into when the season came around again, familiar, ours.

Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago. If you know anything about the pancreatic flavor of cancer, you know it is particularly nasty. But, despite that, we got four more years with dad.

Over the past four years, his hockey consumption declined from watching most Wild games and all Gopher games and discussing them in detail with me the next day during our general daily chat, to trying to watch some Wild or Gopher games, and then our general chats. And, more recently, as the cancer started gaining momentum, our conversations became less-frequent and were held primarily in the context of Mike Russo, of the Star-Tribune.

"Hey," dad would say, by way of greeting. "I see Russo thinks the Wild's power play is a disaster. What do you think?"

Or, "I heard Nanne on the radio saying the Wild could get one of those outdoor games in a year or two. What does Russo have to say about that?"

The lightning rod for our shared hockey experience shifted from both of us watching the same game and then talking about it, to me watching the game in New York and him falling asleep in Minnesota during the first period but then both of us reading Russo and then talking about it. It was just easier for him to read or talk about hockey via Russo than it was to stay up late for those late starts in Vancouver, Calgary or Anaheim.

Last year I wanted to try to get to one more game with my dad. We had gone to the Wild's inaugural season home opener (3-3 tie vs. Philly) together, me flying back to Minnesota and us scoring tickets right before the game, plus a few other Wild games, the World Cup of Hockey and the World Juniors in Buffalo over the years. But the Wild has been my primary hockey team since they were born (with the Gophers in a close second). The lockout, however, put a major crimp in that plan, as dad's health began to wane while Fehr and Bettman were beating their chests at each other. The moment the lockout ended, which coincided with dad receiving a pretty grim update on his prognosis, I talked to him about me coming into the Twin Cities to go to a Wild game and he thought that would be fun, but needed to hold off on picking a date as he awaited the decision about his treatment. What I didn't know was that my wonderful wife was herself conspiring - with my dad - to get me there to go to a game with him. And her partner in crime was Mike Russo, who put her in touch with someone with the Wild who would help find tickets to buy (that were selling out like hot cakes) to the game that would work best for dad and me. She took me out to dinner and unveiled her plan, which also included greasing the skids with my boss at work to make sure I could take a couple days off - she's good, ain't she? - in the form of a narrative weaved around the email trail she had blazed on this journey. I was stunned and humbled and moved to tears.

I had to drive through a blizzard to fly out of Pittsburgh to get there, but I did, and everything from that point on was perfect. It was the 2-1 OT win against Nashville, with Setoguchi netting the game winner from the slot. I wanted to take in and remember everything from the game, from walking in the building, to the sounds and smells of the game, and I did. I've got them tucked away in my memory in a pretty little file that I will only open when I really need it. That game now means the world to me.

Because that was the last game dad and I would see together.

Dad died Friday afternoon, at home, in peace, surrounded by his family. And I now have a gaping hole in my heart and soul because he is gone. I have yet to be able to reconcile that I will never again get to see a game with him, or pick up the phone and shoot the shit with him about the game last night. From where I sit tonight, it feels like I will never be able to reconcile that loss.

But I am comforted by the memories. This incredible, rich body of memories that I have of nights spent next to him watching hockey, that is mine alone.

And I am grateful. I am grateful for my wife, Emily, for understanding how much that facet of my relationship with my dad meant to both of us to the point that she went to such ends to continuously facilitate it.

And I am grateful for Mike Russo. He does his job so well; but, in my case, he also became the glue that held my hockey relationship with my dad together. I cannot fully explain what his being that glue means to me. But it is huge. Because I would give a lot to answer the phone right now and have dad say "So, what does Russo think about your Wild's chances this season?"

And I am grateful for hockey. I don't think God cares who scores a touchdown, hits a home run, or wins the Cup. If you do, that's great. It's just not my bag. I do not ascribe any meta-physical or spiritual significance to the execution or the consumption of sports. And, in my case, I do not need to, since hockey allowed my dad - my best friend - and me to connect in a perfect, simple, shared experience for so many years.

I will be a hockey fan for the rest of my life. Because it is the best damn sport in the world. But also because it's a way to keep the memory of my dad alive.

I will miss you, dad, and think about you every time I go to a game, every time I watch a game. I'm really not looking forward to those moments when I'll be watching a game, or reading Russo's article or blog, and reflexively reach for the phone to call you to dissect, or joke, or just chat - and remember that you're not there. I'm guessing those moments will be a kick in the stomach. But, with the season drawing near, I know those moments are coming. And, if they allow me a chance to be that much closer to you, and the memory of you, again, I will welcome them.


Anonymous said...

Damn, NiNY, my deepest condolences. You've crafted a loving and moving tribute to the relationship you and your dad shared. Very touching. So sorry for your loss.

From Russo's former editor.

Anonymous said...

This is what sports is about, thank you for reminding us.

Rob Wilkins said...

My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. I want you to know that your post was very moving and inspiring.

God Bless

Mankato, Minnesota

Scott Drain said...

One of the best tributes to a Father I've ever read. My wife and I are sorry for your loss. Know also that many boys and men wish they had or could have a relationship with their Dad like you.

Scott Drain

Wild Road Tripper said...

Sorry to hear of your dad's passing. He can rest in peace knowing that he taught you well.

My condolences to your family, as well.


Anonymous said...

Nick, so very sorry for your loss. What an outstanding tribute to your Dad and the relationship you shared. A father couldn't ask for more from a son. Know that I pray for your dad and for comfort to you and your family.


KathyOD said...

I'm really sorry for your loss but happy that you have wonderful memories of a good man. I can tell you that it isn't just fathers and sons who bond over hockey, but fathers and daughters as well.

My husband coached our 3 girls from youth hockey thru high school. He passed away unexpectedly a few years ago, but the many hours they spent playing hockey with their Dad will never be forgotten.

BTW, a few months before he died, someone gave him a really expensive bottle of champagne, which he wanted to save for a special occasion. He said "We'll open this when the B's win the Stanley Cup". In 2011, when they were about to present the Cup to Zdeno Chara, we popped open that bottle and toasted their Dad along with the Bruins and felt as if he was celebrating with us.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing your amazing story and journey with the world.

Finding that connection, that tie-together, it's an amazing gift.

I am sure your father is looking down with admiration...and anticipation for the upcoming season.

Anonymous said...

I'm in tears and thank-you for sharing. God Bless you and your family. God Bless your father who is waiting to reard Russo's preseason predictions from center ice in heaven.
Mark from Victoria MN

Anonymous said...

Sorry about your Dad Nick but thanks for sharing a part of him with us. I'd like to write more but I've got to go call my Dad.


Anonymous said...

A tremendous tribute to your father, and to the father of your kids. I found myself reflecting as both father, and son.

May it give you strength in knowing that he is always just a prayer away.

God Bless, MN

Nick in New York said...

Thank you, all, for your support.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful Story!

I think a lot of people can relate.


Anonymous said...

As a Father and hockey fan I was very touched by your tribute to your Father. Our family has been Wild season ticket holders since day 1 and las tyear i took my oldest grandaughter to her first Wild game. While it is nice when they win, the time i spend at the game with my wife, sons, daughter or granddaughter is priceless time. Your relationship with your Father was very special and thanks for sharing in a way that we all can put things in perspective about our relationship with our loved ones. I am truly sorry for your loss.

Dampland said...


Wonderful blog, as always, and thank you for reminding us about the things that really matter.

ClutterPuck said...

WOW!!! Thank you for sharing this part of your life. One of my favorite things about sports is how it brings people together. I hope you're able to enjoy this season.