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“Wake up, wake up bud.” Dad’s voice is always gentle but eager. He can’t wait to hit the ice. Sometimes it drives Mom nuts. She’s a morning person like him but she’s all about relaxing with a cup of coffee and the paper after a long week of work. But Dad? No chance. Practice is at 8 a.m. and that means it's when nobody else will be on the ice. The rink is open for maintenance, which means free ice. Dad always makes sure we get the first practice of the morning. But when you’re 11 years old, sleep is the only thing on your my mind.
“Mikey, Mikey wake up!” I sit up as Dad flicks the light in my room.
“Dad! Come on!” I rub my eyes, turn over onto my stomach and bury my head in the pillow. As if this ever works.
Dad already has his strategy and starts to tickle me. I can smell coffee, Dad’s probably on his second cup.
“Alright, alright, I’m up!”
“Put on your equipment. We’ll get your skates and pads on when we’re at the arena.”
I mumble and grunt as I put my equipment on except my leg pads like Dad says and I’m about to drop back on the bed.
“Let’s go Mikey!”
He points at the table where there’s a glass of orange juice. I drink it fast and start to wake up.
“We’ll stop at Tim’s on the way.”
We’re on the road before 6:30. I like it that so much of the world is still asleep. There’s hardly any cars on the street. There’s light snow falling and it reminds me of cake frosting over the fields. Dad passes through the Tim’s drive-thru and gets me an egg and croissant sandwich, my favourite. The Leafs are playing Buffalo tonight and that’s what we talk about on the way to the rink.
The rink is freezing. We’re the only ones there. The heaters above the stands aren’t on yet. My goalie pads feel heavy at first but I’m wide awake now. I try not to shiver.
“Start skating Mikey! Start skating!” Dad calls from the bench carrying a milk crate full of pucks. “You’ll stop shivering when you start moving!” He always says that, and he’s always right. I start doing laps around the ice and I begin to warm up. Dad dumps the pucks onto the ice and the clatter echoes through the empty arena, something I always find kind of cool for some reason.
I skate into the crease and snow it up by grinding my skates against the blue paint so I won’t slip-and-slide on the fresh ice. “Look alive Mikey!” Dad has his own skates on now. He fires a puck from the blue line and I knock it aside with my blocking glove. He skates closer and this time flicks a wrist shot at my leg pad which I stop easily. Dad does this to give me a ‘feel for the puck’ as he always says. A few shots later and he brings on the dekes and slap shots. Now it’s serious.
He’s 43 but man can he move, faster than some of the guys in the pros I swear. Dad played right wing in Junior A and the OHL back in the day. He would have turned pro if he hadn’t damaged his knee. He put me on skates when I was age two. That’s the age Gretzky started, he’d say. He and Mom say I hated it at first. It wasn’t until they put me in net when I was five that I started to take to the game. The equipment always looked cool to me, I felt like a superhero.
“Stand tall!” Dad says after putting one past me. I flopped down too early on it. “Don’t commit right away! Wait me out.” We work on my timing. I take one off the head and my ears ring a little. “You okay Mikey?”
“I’m good.” I give my mask a tap with my glove. Dad continues to take shots. Teammates start to show up with their parents and join in. Dad pushes me hard, but he makes me want to be better. Watching him on the ice makes me love the game. It’s like he’s passing on the thing he loves to me.
I turn aside a shot against the Prince Albert Raiders. It’s my second year with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League and my first year as their starting goalie. We’re battling to hold down a 3-2 lead, the crowd is going wild. I never figured Seattle for such a hockey town.