(Photo credit: Sasha Davis)
A/n: While I feel it breaks the narrative a bit to tell you what’s coming, I believe that the warning is more important. This story includes some details of a child’s battle with cancer, and includes a picture of him in the hospital. As fond as I am of this story, and would love to share it with you, please care for yourself if this topic is a difficult one.
It was sometime in 1996.
That’s about as specific as I can get.
I was 16 years old and had grown up running around in the baking hot desert sun, occasionally burning the bottoms of my feet on the hard, dry sand. Barefoot without regard for the endless stretches of cacti around me.
And somehow, someone somewhere said out loud at some point, “Hey, I know! Let’s build an ice rink in that place that regularly gets to be 114 degrees!” I suppose the thought might have been that the promise of an ice-filled building would obviously draw the crowds in droves, but…yeah. Really?
I vaguely remember the jokes. I vaguely recall the absolute dismissal. I certainly can point to the moment they doomed themselves forever when they called the team the Phoenix Coyotes. There are people in the rest of the state, you know? While I would never draw parallels between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for rivalry…sometimes it felt like that.
(I’m born and bred Tucsonan. Despite having lived there for four years, I legitimately hate the Phoenix-metro area and resent even having to fly in there to visit friends. I mean, I wouldn’t be happy living in Tucson any longer either, but that’s just to do with the oppressive summer heat as opposed to the sheer awfulness of the dirt, the asphalt, and the horrible, horrible traffic that comes from living in the valley. There’s some bias there, is what I’m saying.)
So, I have these vague sorts of memories of hockey coming to the desert, and the sheer ridiculousness of it.
But there is another vague memory I have, and it’s my favorite.
It was some weekend afternoon, I think. It might have been a weekday night, I really couldn’t say. I was flipping around the approximately ten channels we got through the giant antenna attached to our roof. Entirely on accident I found a game. I don’t know if you ever watched hockey on TV in the 90s but it was…not good. Despite the grainy quality, despite the total inability to see the puck (I’m pretty sure I wasn’t aware there was a puck), I was intrigued.
Here is what I remember of that game: the Chicago Blackhawks were playing, there was a fight. I couldn’t tell you who else was playing, much less who won.
I know it was the Blackhawks, I know there was a fight.
I also know I was completely enchanted.
I come from a working-middle class, down home, hippies and hillbillies kind of family – Kansas up one side, Mississippi down the other. We rooted for the Dallas Cowboys (the Phoenix Cardinals weren’t worth anybody’s time), full stop. If there was a football game on, we watched it. If the Cowboys weren’t playing, we rooted for whoever would do the most good for the Cowboys’ standings.
I didn’t get to watch a lot of hockey, is the take-away here. I had no one to talk about it with, and since we’d only had internet for about a year and Google wouldn’t even be born for another two after that, the internet as an outlet for my new love was…not even a thought.
I held on for a few more years. I moved to that wasteland two hours north of my beloved hometown when I was 22, and what little remained of my interest in hockey suffered a slow and barely-noticed death. Despite now living within a few miles of the new arena, I had been consumed by the relentless derision of hockey in the desert that surrounded me, and without anyone to shore up my love, it withered and died.
That’s how you abandon hockey for a decade.
The path back, on the other hand, is a little more complicated.
If you have ever gone to my About page (or glanced to the left) you’ve seen the picture that represents me here on the site. It’s one of the very few pictures of me that isn’t from when I was 19, a very obvious and silly selfie, nor includes my children. (When you’re the one behind the camera it’s unlikely you’ll have a lot of pictures of yourself, is the lesson here.)
But more to the point in my bringing it up: it’s a bit of a misleading picture. That is an image of a 29 year old mother of a newborn and 14 month old toddler, smiling without a care in the world on a beautiful day in early March.
And I am certainly not all of those things any more.
It is almost precisely five years later, give or take a couple days. Those tiny children are now five and six years respectively, and the elder has recently started reading my email over my shoulder. It’s very weird when your children start reading, in case you wondered.
And where I didn’t even glance up at the hockey highlights on the TV in the waiting room of the pediatrician’s office in 2010, I currently have the Center Ice package.
Do you know how much hockey I get to watch? I get to watch ALL the hockey.
How I got from there to here and what it has to do with that five year old picture of me is where the complicated part comes in. Holding open the door for all that complication is another picture of me: this one from March, again, but 2013.
It’s remarkable how three years and your child’s fight with brain cancer can change you, isn’t it?
On October 1st of 2012, my life came to a screeching halt while I stood next to my husband as a very kind pediatric neuro-oncologist scrolled down through an MRI of my child’s brain, and I watched the monster of my nightmares appear. Posterior fossa. Fourth ventricle. Hydrocephalus.
On October 5th, they took it out.
Then everything blurs over in the rush of treatment. We were living in fast forward – recovery, treatment plan, sign on for this study, have this surgery, two months of radiation, have a birthday, have another surgery, have another birthday, start chemo…finish chemo. There was a lot of awful in between starting chemo and finishing.
He finished chemotherapy at the end of March 2013 – the 20th, in fact – just a couple weeks after that picture was taken. Six months from discovery to finish. Before we’d even fully processed the reality of brain cancer in our three year old, it was all over (and he’d turned four). Nothing was left but recovering: letting his body get back to normal, letting his immune system recover, his hair grow back in, his stamina and strength return.
Nothing to do but sit around and watch a whole lot of television for a few months.
If you’re a hockey fan, you’ve already figured out the end of this story.
The 2012-2013 season is rather more appropriately called the 2013 season. What should have been a typical start to the season in October was instead the general nightmare of any sports fan. The man everybody loves to boo was presiding over yet another lockout. Beloved players were out of the country playing wherever they were wanted, Jonathan Toews was looking even more serious than usual, and Sidney Crosby was showing up at street hockey games when not wearing the hell out of a suit while trying to look like he wasn’t grinding his teeth in close proximity to Bettman. The guys who hadn’t left were pulling together private practices, seemingly every man in the league doing what he could to keep his edge, keep his training, keep his feet on the ice until the lockout ended and everybody could go back to work.
I, of course, was spending every day at the hospital with my three year old while he had radiation. My lockout was not like your lockout, and I was not paying attention.
The circle of friends I socialized with online were, however, and they talked about it. A lot.
When the season finally got its terribly late start, my twitter feed EXPLODED. We were just trying to survive our first week of chemo, but it meant I was sitting by a hospital bed for eight hours a day, and that left a lot of time for Twitter. There was no way I could have missed it. I looked around my little world on the internet, bemused, recalling that forever-ago day I first watched the Chicago Blackhawks play.
Finally, I started to pay attention. Suddenly I had women on all sides chatting casually about hockey. It was eye-opening in the best ways. I felt like I’d found my home.
I began consuming everything made available to me – player bios, team summaries, stats, rule changes, the hilarious and embarrassing promotional videos the teams’ PR people cooked up, and the oughta-be-illegal photo-shoots of the league’s hottest players.
Hockey, when surrounded by women, is a full-package experience. If you haven’t picked a favorite team yet, they will woo you to theirs. If you can’t even name three of the players, they will teach you – with stats, funny interviews, trade history, and a carefully cultivated collection of scoring highlights and mullet-free pictures.
The Blackhawks were off to a record setting start to their truncated season. Given my general leanings to be fond of them as the first team I ever cared about, it’s unsurprising that a lot of my focus fell to them. The oft-cited and long-running story of Kane-and-Toews was entertaining all on its own, but then I actually got to watch them play.
My mind was blown.
I’d also had the misfortune to miss the beginning of Crosby’s career, but similarly (more-so, let’s be honest) there was no lack in coverage to get me caught up. I badly needed a distraction, and the NHL gave it to me in the form of a player who moves on ice like he’s made of magic.
March 30th was probably the day that cemented not just my return to following hockey, but ensured a deep and abiding love forever. (It sucks that Crosby had to take a puck to the face to do it.) Chemo was officially over. We were done. My schedule was free of hospital visits for the very near future, and I had nothing to keep my attention apart from making sure the children ate. And bathed. Quite without realizing it, I found myself consumed by the progress of the Penguins without Crosby and concerned for his well-being, alongside watching in awe as the Blackhawks marched their way steadily toward the playoffs.
It was a pretty spectacular time to come back to hockey, all things considered.
I’m not going to talk about Game 1 because everybody and their brother and probably Aunt Martha has talked about Game 1. By the time it was over I was laying half-off the couch moaning, “For the love of god, someone score. Anybody. I don’t care. There’s six more games. I just wanna go to beeeeeeeed.”
I live in Colorado. I felt awful for the folks back east. But that was a damned fine game. There are worse ways to fall back in love with hockey. I’ve not regretted it yet.
It’s been two years since I came back. Hockey isn’t perfect, it doesn’t take a whole lot of clicking around here on The Other Half to see how very aware of that we are, but I have met some of the most amazing women because of hockey. I’ve found a place for my passion of the game that is welcoming and educational. I’ve settled on the Penguins as my favorite team (though admittedly only because “Crosby” apparently isn’t an acceptable answer to, “what’s your favorite team?” no matter how true it is). And I’ve found a place where I can mix some yelling about that stupid fucking call in with some sobbing over that horrible, season-ending injury, and get a lot of support when it’s time to scan my kid’s brain again for the third time this year to make sure he’s still tumor free, and I’m stressing myself sick.
A/n: As I was trying to figure out how exactly to wrap this article up, the Penguins blew a four-goal lead to the Oilers with ten minutes left in the game. The O I L E R S. I do not even have the words. Why must you betray me so, hockey?
How about we leave it here: from the March that called me back on the ice, to this one. I was bald in 2013 in support of my bald child, while we watched hockey together and recovered from the kind of hell no family should ever have to know.
I’m bald again in 2015 in honor of a different child who lost her fight last August. I’m still watching hockey with my boys – how the Pens recovered this game I have no idea, but good job, guys – and scheduling the next MRI during intermissions. (Middle of the playoffs, which is a bit of a blessing.)
Hockey and cancer, cancer and hockey. Round and round we go.
I’m still struggling to accept the lack of hair this time, there’s a lot of grief tied up in its absence. So instead of a bald picture, I’ll close with this one. Hazel’s favorite colors were pink and purple, so before I had St. Baldrick’s shave it off in her honor, I dyed it to look like bubblegum.
I’m gonna go watch the Hawks and Yotes duke it out in Phoenix, now. Because hockey. And also delicious, glorious irony.
(Editor’s Note: This article was written on March 12th, The Penguins beat the Oilers and the Blackhawks beat the Coyotes that night.)
Pediatric cancer is severely underfunded by millions of dollars every year. You can help find a cure by donating to these amazing foundations:
Tanner Seebaum Foundation – Another beautiful young man I was honored to get to know before he lost his fight. This foundation directly funds research into the cancer that took Hazel and Tanner, and threatens Gus.
Alex’s Lemonade Stan Foundation – You can also support this foundation by ordering freckled lemonade at Red Robin restaurant.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – I think just about everybody knows about this one.