With another hockey season under way, I recall how cleverly my father used his passion for the game to teach me about life. Hockey was always a big part of his life. Dad wore his first pair of skates at the age of 3; he played and coached many years, perhaps most notably in the Buffalo municipal hockey leagues in the 1950s.
His uncles had professional hockey stints in the NHL with Boston and New York in the 1930s and 1940s, and he had grown up watching them play, learning the finer points of the game, and becoming, I was told, quite a high-caliber hockey player himself.
This resulted in an invitation tryout for the then AHL Springfield Indians. Later, Dad laughingly claimed that he skipped the training camp to get married, and that officially ended his hockey career.
In the 1970s, hockey popularity in Western New York reached a fever pitch with the NHL expansion that included our hometown Buffalo Sabres. New hockey arenas seemed to appear overnight and scores of young kids, and adults, turned out to play the game.
I laced up my skates for the first time as a 13-year-old; a late bloomer by today’s athletic standards. But in a very short period of time, I learned to love the game with the same passion as Dad.
Regardless of my own ambition and skill level, I have been astonished at the way my father used this simple game to teach me about life. During many early morning practice commutes, he spoke endlessly about perseverance, work ethic, sacrifice and teamwork. He taught me that my team was a way to contribute what I had learned, to apply myself to make a difference for the team’s benefit, not my own. Playing hockey was great fun, but at the core, my place on the team was to bring another dimension to all of the other players.
Dad truly believed then, as he does today, that a man’s most worthy accomplishment is measured by the elevation of somebody else, and not by his own individual achievement. He often shared this sage advice before and after games and practices.
He reminded me that assists were as vitally important as goals, and working harder to help my teammates succeed would always be the differentiator. He once told me that you can have all the natural athletic ability in the world, but unless you expend the effort to elevate your team, talent alone won’t make the grade.
He taught me through hockey that life doesn’t revolve around me, or what I can get selfishly from others. It is more about what I need to do, and how I need to change myself, to be able to give to others.
As a “hockey dad” now, my visits to the hockey rink are no less enjoyable. I pass on Dad’s advice every chance I get to my son. The physical part of hockey has long passed my father by, but our hockey experience remains the legacy by which he taught me life’s finer points about sacrifice, contribution, confidence and self-worth.
I greatly love and respect my father, whose only purpose for me through hockey was an expectation of learning how to sacrifice and serve, have fun and make unforgettable memories with him along the way.
Like my Dad, it is my hope that my hockey-playing son will develop the same character by slapping a silly puck around with a bunch of his peers, too.