What a Stanley Cup win would mean for my Habs-fanatic father

This story isn’t about a die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan who tattooed the logo on his back or dyed the family poodle red. My father didn’t name his firstborn after Rocket Richard (thank goodness) or turn our basement into a Habs haven — he lived with three women, and we would never let him do that. So, before I lose all the readers out there who bleed blue, I assure you, this is really a story about perseverance and the power of a positive mindset.

Like most boys growing up in rural Ontario in the 1960s, my father Bill pursued the beloved Canadian pastime of ice hockey. The only problem was he wasn’t the strongest skater (sorry Dad). So, Bill chose to play goalie, securing him the most ice time and action, and as far as I’m concerned, the cooler equipment.

As long as he can remember, Bill has been a Habs fan. It wasn’t hard to cheer for a team that won the Stanley Cup five years in a row from 1956 to 1960. Besides he had to be different from his two brothers who chose to root for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. Being a Canadiens fan and growing up in the Greater Toronto Area had its challenges. For one, local cable television only played Maple Leafs’ games. If the Habs were playing the Leafs, then great, Bill would be there huddled around the black and white TV with his brothers. But if the Habs were playing any other team, he’d be out of luck.

In 1971 Ken Dryden had his NHL debut as the Canadiens’ goalie. My dad got a Ken Dryden stick that year, which not only featured the rookie’s name but was built to the same specs as Dryden’s. Ken Dryden is six foot three inches tall; my dad is a good seven inches shorter, but he insisted on having the same stick, nonetheless and it ended up serving him all through high school and college — until he would never play the sport again.

When my dad was on an intramural hockey team at Humber College in the fall of 1978, he started experiencing pain in his neck, something he passed off as a pinched nerve — nothing to be too concerned about. The following April, after weeks of sleeping on a lawn chair in the living room — because that was the only way he could dull the pain — his family pushed him to see his doctor. The doctor referred my dad to York Central Hospital (now Mackenzie Health) in Richmond Hill to see a neurologist, and his life as he knew it changed forever.

The neurologist sent Bill immediately to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. As my dad lay on the stretcher in the back of the ambulance, the sirens ringing in his ears, he didn’t know what to expect. He knew whatever he had was serious, indicated by the paramedics radioing to the Emergency Room that they had a possible cardiac arrest on their hands. Bill was a twenty-one-year-old business student who spent his weekends drinking with buddies and watching hockey. Little did he know he had a spinal tumor the size of a matchstick head, that if left untreated much longer, could leave him a quadriplegic.

The very next day he had spinal surgery to remove the tumor. Following this, he had twenty-five rounds of radiation to minimize what was left of it. He spent three months in the hospital rehabilitating with hydrotherapy and building up strength so he could teach himself how to walk again. On those tough nights, he took comfort in watching the Habs in his hospital room. Sometimes an orderly would join him, and they’d huddle around the twelve-inch television attached to his hospital bed, whispering Go Habs Go, so as not to disturb the other patients in the ward (who happened to be Leafs fans). That spring, in 1979, the Canadiens not only made it to the Stanley Cup finals, but they defeated the New York Rangers 4–1 to win the final game of the series, earning the cup.

Playing contact sports again was completely out of the question, Bill would never be the same. It took months for my father to gain the seventy pounds he had lost because of the radiation treatments. Months for him to relearn how to walk. But eventually, he did — thanks to a staircase his brother built him since their bungalow didn’t have stairs of its own to practice on. Eventually, he moved on with his life, even though he now carries this burden — a disability that continues to get progressively worse as he ages.

Since his surgery, Bill has had good days and bad days. He has gone from walking without assistance to using a cane, a walker, and now a wheelchair for longer distances. He must take daily medications to minimize muscle spasms, go for regular blood tests and neurology appointments, and engage in physical therapy. While he will never play a sport again himself, he did coach me and my sister in soccer throughout our childhood. He danced with us both at our grade eight graduations and proudly walked us down the aisle on each of our wedding days. Although he didn’t have the Habs haven in the basement, he watched most of the games down there. He saw his favourite team play at the Bell Centre in Montreal with his best friend, and he witnessed them beat the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre with me a few years back.

So, what would the Montreal Canadiens winning the Stanley cup mean for my dad? Well, he could boast to his younger brothers that his team beat theirs. He might tempt his two sons-in-law to swap their Maple Leafs jerseys for a Canadiens sweater next season (they are still licking their wounds after the Leafs first-round loss to Montreal). But mostly, it means he gets to celebrate a team that to this day, gets him through the tough days.

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Brianne Sommerville

I write news releases and speeches by day, articles and stories by night.