A Boy’s Happiest Memory

It was Saturday afternoon, October 17, 1971.  I was 10 years old, just a skinny, freckle-faced Irish looking kid (red hair and all), sitting at the kitchen table of our London, Ontario home.  Mom was there, preparing something for dinner when my father came in carrying my jacket.  ”Come on Pat, we’re going for a drive.”

“Where are we going, Dad?”

“You’ll see.”  I looked at Mom for a clue, but all she did was smile.  She knew what was up, and it made her happy.  Dad and I kissed her good-bye then hurried out the door.

I sat there squirming in the front seat of our Ford Country Squire station wagon, a car perfect for the five kids and boxer dog of an Irish-French Canadian family of seven.  This day, though, it was just me and Dad—Dennis to folks in the adult world.

As we drove out of the city, I peppered my father with impatient questions about where we were going and what we were doing, but would not give in.

“Aw, come on, Dad!  What’s going on?  Where are we going?”  I whined.  Finally, after 20 minutes of torture, he smiled, reached slowly and surely into his inside coat pocket, and drew out what appeared to be two tickets with a blue and white logo with a maple leaf. The text read:

October 17, 1971, 8:00p.m.

Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Ontario

Toronto Maple Leafs verses the New York Rangers.

I could hardly believe my eyes.  This was the greatest thing ever!  As a 10 year-old kid, watching an NHL hockey game—live—in Toronto, at Maple Leaf Gardens, alone with my Dad, was the greatest thing I could imagine.   Hockey was my life; I lived, ate, dreamt, talked, and played hockey—ice hockey, pond hockey, road hockey, floor hockey, table hockey, and mini-sticks hockey.

I read hockey books, hockey magazines, traded hockey cards.  Every Saturday night, we watched Hockey Night in Canada on TV; my Dad and mom in their chairs, me and my brothers laying on the floor, bouncing, rolling, hitting and play fighting— reacting to whatever happened on the screen.

I recall that one report card read, “If Patrick paid as much attention to his school work as he does to hockey….”

Going to an NHL hockey game with my Dad was elevated to a sacred event.  In a family of five children, alone time with Dad was at a premium and this outing made for a time of grace.

A strength of heart passed between us that night as we hurtled down dark Highway 401 toward Toronto.  In the depths of my young boy’s heart, a stability, a foundation of being, grew from the connection between my father and I.

There are many things a boy is afraid of when he’s growing up; the world can seem a scary place. But in those moments when my father was present to me, when he turned to me and reflected his love for me, especially through our mutual love of hockey, I knew I was all right—better than that, I knew I was loved beyond telling.

Dad drove to the western edge of Toronto and we took the subway downtown. We got off the subway down the street from the Gardens and we were swept along by the hordes of fans. Yet, I felt safe by my father’s side. I marveled at his confidence among the mass and how to get around the metropolis of Toronto.

Inside the Gardens, Dad walked me along hallways full of big black and white framed pictures of famous Leaf players, such as Lyle Conacher, Toe Blake, Davie Keon, George Armstrong, Bobby Baun, Tim Horton, many of them holding the Stanley Cup above their heads.

In the corridors, men in suits talked confidently, among themselves. Dad  leaned over to me, pointed a finger, and said, “See that guy?  He was a star when I was your age.”  I was awed.

We made our way to our seats and I couldn’t get over the colors: the red of the pipes in the net, the white of the ice, and the crisp blues of the uniforms of the Leafs and the Rangers. As the players skated around during the warm-up, I pointed out to my Dad all the players I knew—and I knew most of them. “Hey Dad, look, there’s Jean Ratelle.  Brad Park. Vic Hadfield.  And look! There’s Jacques Plante, and Bernie Parent!”   They were goaltenders and I was a goalie too. On the Leafs side were players like Ron Ellis, Dave Keon, Paul Henderson, Bruce Gamble, and Norm Ullman, all of them stars in my eyes.

I don’t remember who won the game, or even if it was a good one.  It doesn’t matter. All that matters was that I was with my Dad during a magical moment of my life, sharing with him the greatest game in the world.

My childhood wasn’t perfect.  My father had a highly stressful job in the insurance business and he liked his golf, which made me feel like I didn’t see him as much as I wanted or needed.

But, as I look back on this day in 1971, I remember how much it meant to me and how the message was received in the depths of my heart; my father loved me then, as he does now.  It was the happiest day of my young life.

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