A Guy Like Me
CHAPTER 1 Humble Beginnings
We were survivors. I lived in the Evergreen Trailer Park in Edmonton, Alberta, with my parents, Howard and Marilyn, and my brothers, Jamie and Curtis, until I was five. My brothers and I shared a tiny bed, so there was never much chance to spread out. When my father changed jobs, we moved in with my dad’s mother, who lived out east in Port Dalhousie, Ontario. The move came just in time, too. Soon after we moved, a tornado hit the park area and leveled all the houses except ours. My dad had left behind a ’55 Chevy pickup truck, which he planned to, well, pick up a few months later. It was gone when we got back, and I always wondered who or what took it, the tornado or one of my mom’s brothers, who could have sold it for some extra cash.
Within a year, we packed up shop and moved again, this time to St. Catharines, Ontario, an industrial city about twelve miles from the US border, along the Niagara River. It was the place where I first went to school, and as I settled into the rhythm of my new life, I started to become very curious about my relatives. My parents always did a good job providing for us. They just never really talked much about family history, and they didn’t express a lot of emotion.
They always took care of us, but life at home was a little impersonal for us compared to some of our neighbors.
The family history was in my grandmother’s basement. My brothers and I would explore down there for hours, searching through the old boxes she had stacked in nearly every corner. My grandmother had raised five kids, and each of their stories was tucked away in those boxes. She had dozens of them full of toys, photos, and old sporting equipment. My great-uncle, Nick, had a bunch of used hockey equipment that was worn down to the core. There was an old canoe, some pads, a few sneakers. It was treasure after treasure. Most of all, I remember the pictures. My parents never told me about how they met or what it was like when they were dating, nor did I go out of my way to ask them. I found my answers in the basement. There were albums upon albums of pictures. I would sit there for hours going over every picture in every one of them, piecing them together to get a glimpse into my parents’ lives when they were just kids. Most pictures were of them hanging out with their friends. My dad had a big old beard and my mom had long black hair, the kind you would see on Pocahontas from the Disney movie. My parents didn’t have much back then, but from their smiles in those photos, they looked like they didn’t have a care in the world; they looked happy.
Although I never knew my parents’ whole story when I was growing up, I at least knew that there was a story. My mom’s parents met in Saskatchewan before moving to British Columbia. When they arrived in Quesnel, a tiny town in the province’s interior, they had to cut down trees to make room for the house that my grandfather, a domestic engineer, was building. I believe my grandpa still has the mark for felling the biggest tree on record. And that’s back when they used only a saw—none of the chainsaws and harnesses
people use these days. My grandpa built the house by hand, so my mom and her eight siblings—including two sets of twins—grew up with no electricity.
Dad was born into a Catholic family in St. Catharines, where my grandparents owned a grocery store that supplied a lot of the local shipping industry. But when my dad was thirteen, my grandad passed away, so my grandma sold the store and moved my dad, along with his three brothers and two sisters, to Bobby Orr’s hometown of Perry Sound, Ontario, where they opened a dairy business. Compared to people around them, my dad’s family was relatively well off. When my dad was twenty-one, he went on a trip to California, where he bought a car to drive around and tour the United States. By the time he made it up to British Columbia, he’d been gone for four months and had drained his money. My dad had a friend in B.C. who was dating my mom’s sister. My mom was eighteen when they met, and she already had a son, my brother Jamie, from a previous relationship. My dad met my mom, and they fell for each other quickly. They moved to Edmonton to join a construction business, and they’ve been inseparable ever since. They didn’t actually get married until I was five. I understood that it was a special day, but I didn’t really know why. There was a nice church and a reception with a lot of people. I remember dressing up in a suit for the big day—it might not have been so comfortable to wear, but I got a lot of compliments about that suit.
My dad was always quiet and reserved. He was like a worker bee: if there was a problem, he’d find a solution. When we moved to St. Catharines, he became a construction superintendent for the Charter Building Company. When I was growing up, he’d wake at 5:00 a.m. and wouldn’t get back until six thirty or seven in the evening. He worked a lot. Dad never smoked and didn’t drink much.
His main job in life was to make sure we had everything we needed, and we always did. Like a lot of people in his line of work, he went where the jobs were. If the job was in Toronto, he’d be up extra early, making the seventy-mile drive. He usually had three or four projects going on at once, so he was always on the move.
My parents had very distinctive mannerisms, especially when they were in serious thought. Whenever my dad would start thinking of his work, he’d take both his hands and start rubbing under his chin. He still does it all the time when he’s on the phone, like he’s trying to paint a picture for himself that he can’t actually see. My mom would open her mouth when she was concentrating. When she backed up the car and had to watch for obstacles, it looked like she was at the dentist, saying, “Ah.”
My dad also ran a strict household. When we misbehaved, we took our licking. My dad used to spank us with a hand, a belt, a wooden spoon—different things. One time, my neighbor ten houses down was picking on my brother Curt, so I gave the bully a good kick in the butt. I knew what was coming, but I did everything I could to give my dad a cooling-off period. I went into my room and, like I did every time, built the sturdiest barricade I could. I would move the dresser in my room up against the door, put my feet up against the dresser, and brace my back against the other wall. Waiting to take a lickin’ was the worst part of the whole ordeal. I later came to realize that it’s a lot like a hockey fight. A lot of the time, I would psych myself out so badly that the actual fight—or spanking, as a kid—was nothing compared to the torture I put myself through beforehand. One day, my mom was giving my brother Jamie and me a spanking for doing something bad. She was using a belt and I was taking the worse of it. But when she got to Jamie, he just stood there laughing at my mom. After a while, my mom gave up and let
us both be. I asked Jamie how the heck he was laughing while getting hit and he told me he had learned to time mom’s swing, so he could catch the belt before it whipped and stung him. Only Jamie could somehow get spanked and still manage to laugh in my mom’s face while it happened. It was priceless.
My parents were amazing, and they gave me a lot of things, but I don’t know where I got my height from (today I am six eight). My father is six feet and mom is five five. I was always big for my age. Hockey teams usually place racks in the hallways by the locker rooms where guys leave their hockey sticks on the way in and pick them up on the way out. The racks come in different sizes depending on the age—and, of course, the typical size—of the players involved. I can’t recall ever having hockey sticks that fit inside the stick racks my teams used. In juniors, college, even today—I’ve gotten used to balancing mine against the wall next to the rack.
I also don’t know where I got my interest in sports. When I was ten, Dad told me that he was a rower. But later, when I was exploring the photos in one of the boxes, I learned that he wasn’t exactly a rower—he was a coxswain. My dad had never operated a paddle. He’d been the one with the bullhorn, yelling instructions, shouting out number counts to keep the rowers in rhythm or just telling the team to “hurry up and row.” The coxswain is usually as small as possible, taking on as little weight as necessary, since he isn’t actually rowing. On the one hand, he’s an important guy, like the team quarterback; on the other, well, he doesn’t have athletic size or skills that translate into anything other than coaching or becoming hockey announcer Doc Emrick in another life. Those were the genes I had to work with.
But I also had something more valuable. My parents always supported my love of hockey. When they had the means to take a vacation
in the winter, they never went to a warm climate; instead they took me to a tournament, a camp, or just a game or practice that happened to be on the schedule. I always knew I had their support, even if they weren’t the types to make a big show of how much they were helping me.
In the summers, we would sometimes go to Snug Haven, a little resort cottage nestled on a beach in northern Ontario. It was awesome. It was right near where my dad had grown up, so he loved taking us for cruises on a little ten-foot aluminum boat with a small nine-horsepower engine, showing us around the rocks and trees that most tourists would never dare to navigate. He would show us his favorite beaches and fishing holes, as though he were sharing a secret with us. That place will always hold a special spot in my heart; I hope one day I can share more of those memories with my kids.
Growing up, I had a lot of friends, but I’m not sure I really had a lot of close friends. I didn’t delve into other people’s lives and I still don’t let people in very easily. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a group of really great friends whom I would have taken a bullet for. I was just a strange kid. I had a hard time connecting with people on a deeper level. I had no problem hanging out with guys and shooting the breeze, but when it came time to open up and let someone in, I just couldn’t do it. That made it hard when my friends would open up to me or confide something to me. I probably came off like a massive jerk to them, because whenever one of them tried to have a real talk with me about something important, I would change the subject as quickly as possible. It’s not that I was trying to be a bad friend; I honestly didn’t have the tools to deal with it.
I was clear about one thing, though: I hated bullying. I was the big kid, sort of popular, the kind of kid who could get away
with picking on other guys as a way of feeling better about myself or asserting myself into the hierarchy of the neighborhood. I saw others like that, and I told myself that I would never be that person. There was a kid in our area named Richard. He lived across the street from my school, and our moms were friends with each other. Richard was special, and the other kids saw him as an easy target because he was clumsy and couldn’t stick up for himself. One day after school around Christmastime, some of the other guys in the neighborhood were dragging him along on a sheet of ice. I put a stop to it quickly. The guys gave me a look that said, “Hey, what’s wrong? We’re just having a little fun.” But it wasn’t fun for Richard, and it just had to stop.
My younger brother, Curtis, wasn’t nearly my size. When Curt started high school, he had a broken leg and was in crutches. I was in my OAC year (grade thirteen), and I heard about someone giving him a hard time, kicking out his crutches and such. I happened to see it take place one day in the hallway, and let’s just say the kid never went near Curtis again. I also think he had to invest in some new underwear.
Today, when people look at guys who fight in the NHL, they often don’t understand that we are there to look after our teammates. Our actions are defensive: keeping the peace as much as causing trouble. If one of my guys takes a cheap shot, somebody needs to be there to stop it, so that doesn’t happen again. Somebody needs to look after the speedy thirty-goal scorer who might not be able to fend for himself in a scrap. Somebody needs to look out for guys like Richard.
I probably got that sense of sympathy from my mom. My mom was incredible. She was the one who cooked and put our food on the table. In fact, she really did everything in the house. Because my dad
worked so late, we never had a set family mealtime, except on holidays, so most of the time my mom would cook things in large pots, and we’d bring our plates downstairs and watch TV while we ate.
I was a good eater, but I was also a simple kid who liked his mashed potatoes and pork chops. And I had food allergies that drove me nuts. I was allergic to chocolate, fruit, shrimp, crab, lobster, even avocados. Every time I ate something I shouldn’t, I would get a rash on my face or across my chest. I told my mom I’d stay away from chocolate, but the evidence would be right in front of her. “Okay, where have you been?” she would ask. I couldn’t hide it. The problem was that fruit is really in everything. I wasn’t supersensitive to it, but it was just another item in a list of things I had to deal with. I also had pretty bad psoriasis that made me very self-conscious, and on top of that, I was colorblind. I couldn’t appreciate the green of a Christmas tree or the red of a Detroit hockey jersey. It helped that a puck is black and the ice is white, because color distinctions are typically lost on me.
Things could have been much different for me, too. When I was growing up, I discovered that before I was born, my mom had been pregnant with twins but that she lost one of us. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a sister or another brother. My parents never told me, so I honestly don’t know how I found out about it. But I did, and I told a friend. Not long after that, a guy came up to me and said, “Someone said you killed your brother.” It upset me so much at the time that I never asked about it again. My parents didn’t tell me about it, because they just didn’t volunteer a lot of information about certain things. I didn’t like to cause problems, and I recognized that it was an uncomfortable subject, so I just moved along, like I always did in those situations.
My mom was always the one who comforted me when I was in pain,
which happened a lot. I had terrible growing pains as a kid. My parents weren’t very tall, but I just sprouted. Between eighth and ninth grades, I grew six inches over the summer. The spurts would make my bones ache and I’d lie in bed crying until my mom would come in and coax me to sleep. She would rub my back and my knees and put hot towels on me. It would be agonizing for me just to fall asleep. I have stretch marks on my lower back from growing so fast that summer. To this day every time I shower after a game or practice, someone always asks if those scratches are from my wife. Regretfully, I have to tell them no, they’re just boring old stretch marks.
I might have been a big kid at school or on the street, but my brother Jamie was the biggest one at home. Jamie was five eleven, so I was taller, but he was really thick and muscular, built just like a door. I also knew how mean he could be, and I didn’t ever want to cross him at all. Jamie and I were playing a makeshift game of baseball in our backyard one day where he was hitting and I was catching. I was always the talker on whatever the field of play was, so when Jamie struck out, I started chirping him. He turned around and smacked me in the face with the stick he was using as a bat. I really wish he had struck out with that swing instead.
Jamie was a tough kid, and a troubled one. Maybe it was because he was the stepbrother and wasn’t sure how he fit in. He ran with the tough crowd and got kicked out of schools for fighting. I think he just felt he had to prove he wasn’t inferior. When we were kids, we would always count the presents under the tree at Christmas to make sure we all got the same number. Most of the time we really didn’t care, but if Jamie somehow got fewer gifts than we did, he really took it personally.
When I was eleven, my parents brought me back from a hockey tournament, and Jamie was nowhere to be found. The house was a
mess, too. We had a wood-burning fireplace, and Jamie had burned so much wood that the ashes were spilling out of the fireplace onto the floor. There was smoke in the basement, and the car in front of the house was smashed from what looked like a bad accident. That day, I really thought there was going to be a fistfight in our house. My dad and brother hashed out the details themselves, so we never found out the whole story, but I’m sure it wasn’t good.
Another time, my parents came to visit me at school and left Jamie and Curtis at home. My dad had just installed a new hot tub that fall and was waiting to use it once winter had passed. Well, Jamie and Curtis thought it would be a good idea to fill up the tub, use it once, and then drain it, so no one would know. The plan worked . . . except they never blew out the pipes. It’s simple physics after that: when water freezes, it expands, and boom, the hot tub was toast. I wish I could have seen the look on my dad’s face when he tried to fill the tub and realized what happened.
Sometimes I didn’t even know how or why my brother got into trouble. I’d get home from school one day and my mom would tell me, “Oh, Jamie’s done it again.” It bothered her, but she was a crutch for him. Throughout Jamie’s whole life, Mom always figured he’d get his life together, but years would go by and nothing would change. One day, he took me into the kitchen and told me he had something to show me. It looked like an ordinary pop can until he unscrewed it, revealing a stash of drugs. When I was a kid, I supported him because he was my brother, but after a while I lost patience with him and really reduced my conversations with him. I’ve made mistakes in my life, too—we all have—but I learned from them and started doing positive things. I think my mom always hoped that Jamie would find his own way of doing that, but for the longest time he didn’t.
Thank goodness we never had a knockdown fight. Jamie fought dirty. I remember he once came home all bloody. When I asked what happened, he said, “I got into a fight with the cabdriver and I bit his finger off.” A few years later, Jamie called me from a bar and asked me to pick him up. I showed up and he started yelling, “Okay, here we go! Here’s my backup!” He was lipping off to the whole bar, and I knew I had to get him out of there fast as the guys followed us out of the door. My brother didn’t mind finding trouble, and he didn’t mind bringing other people into that trouble.
But despite all the difficulties, I learned a lot of good lessons from Jamie over the years that helped me on and off the ice. When I was young, it was exciting to have a big brother who was a troublemaker. I got a kick out of his stories and his rebellious ways. Jamie is out west now. He has finally gotten his act together. He has a couple of kids and is a good welder.
Curtis was Jamie’s opposite. He was born two years after I was, the sweet younger brother you always wanted to have. He was constantly on my coattails, following me around, never causing trouble. In a way, we were polar opposites. I was athletic, and he liked to play video games. He tried some house league baseball, but he wasn’t very good, even though my mom always reminded me to make sure we included him in the games. He played the trombone and the guitar. And he liked to try to fix things. If we had a broken radio, Curt would unscrew it, take it apart, analyze it, spread the parts on the table, and try to put it together again. He did the same with engines, motorcycles, anything mechanical he could get his hands on. I was the future mechanical engineer. I should have been doing that. But Curt was our Mr. Fix-It. Growing up, we called Curt “Curtie Burtie,” a good name for a faithful sidekick. Today we call Curt “HoJu,” as in Howard Junior, because he bought my
parents’ house, and he works for the same company as my dad, as a construction foreman overseeing building operations.
Curt’s room was full of Star Trek posters and figurines. Mine definitely belonged to a young jock. I had a “No Fear” sign, a poster of Eric Lindros, a poster of Cindy Crawford—I wonder what team she played for—and a poster of Ray Bourque, who was definitely my favorite player.
My first taste of NHL hockey was in Buffalo. My dad’s boss, Don Ward, was and still is a Sabres’ season-ticket holder dating back to their original year, 1970, and my dad would sometimes drive me across the border to see the Sabres with Don’s tickets. It was only about thirty miles away. I didn’t grow up a Sabres fan, though. My team was the Boston Bruins, because my favorite player was Bourque. Yeah, my favorite guy wasn’t an enforcer like Bob Probert; it was Bourque. I played defense because when you’re really young, your coaches usually put the best players at forward. I wasn’t a very good player. I couldn’t skate very well, and I was constantly struggling to keep up, so I usually found myself playing defense.
At every level of competition, I was big for my age. I didn’t really care how tall I was or wasn’t, but at some point, some coach mentioned that tall guys were thought to be slow and awkward. That shook me. I wondered why and what it meant for me. I couldn’t help my size. I couldn’t control how tall I was. Sure, I could work on my skating, my shooting, my passing, but what was I supposed to do about my height? From that point on, I had it in my head that it was a good idea to downplay my size. If I reached six three and someone asked me my height, I’d tell them I was six two. I wasn’t sensitive about certain things, but I didn’t want to be kept off a team or lose my chance to get playing time because I was in the slow
and awkward category associated with tall players. The idea stuck with me and it took a long time for me to, well, outgrow it.
That’s why Bourque inspired me so much—he played defense the way I wanted to play it. He had a world of skill and could move the puck really well. To this day, he has more goals, assists, and points than any defenseman in league history. But he also took care of his own end as well as anyone. He was stocky, but he skated really well. He didn’t fight much, but people still gave him a ton of respect. He was a quiet guy, but he was also a great leader. He stuck it out through a lot of lean years in Boston when the team wasn’t very good. At the end of his career, the Bruins traded him to Colorado, where at least he would be on a contending team with a chance to win a Stanley Cup. In his last season, his Avalanche beat New Jersey in seven games, and Bourque finally skated around with the trophy after the final game of his career. Of all the times guys have skated around their rinks with the Stanley Cup after winning a title, I don’t think any moment was as widely appreciated as that one. That was my kind of player. Sorry, Sabres.