I was 8 years old when my dad bought me a pair of second hand (maybe third hand) goalie pads. They came complete with stretched and worn legs straps, patches of hockey tape to cover the myriad of stuffing-spewing holes and they had the remarkable ability to absorb and hold onto water like a Shamwow. They were dragged out of Scott Fostey's garage, weathered and beaten but doctored up as best as possible before he gave them to me for Christmas in 1979.
Bar none, those ancient pads were the best present I have ever gotten.
I wore those pads for as long as they would last. You can see in the picture here how much tape they had around the feet and at the top of the right pad. I don't think I even noticed, I was so jacked just to have my own pads!
Along with the pads came my dad's passion for playing hockey. I'd been playing for a few years by then but had just recently tried my hand between the pipes and had gotten hooked on the role. Maybe it was the position or maybe it was the fact that putting on the pads seemed to please him and that wasn't always so easy for me to do. My brother Kevin was the natural athlete; he excelled at just about everything he tried but especially when it came to sports. For me, well let's just say I came from the same gene pool as Kev but sometimes I think I evolved from the shallow end.
But when I started playing goal I noticed that it got me more attention from dad because, if you haven't guessed yet, he was a goalie too.
Dad played in net as a kid and was still doing it well into his 50's. He started back in the days when you really had to be a bit crazy to stand in front of a slap shot because you had zero protection on your face. Dad's cheeks showed the evidence of his love for the game; they were as scarred and beaten as the pads I got in '79 and looked like they may have blocked as many pucks too.
He grew up in Winkler, MB and looked up to Terry Sawchuk and Glenn Hall. In an era when there were only 6 NHL teams in must have been near impossible to be discovered and eventually make it to the big time. If there were 30 NHL and 30 AHL teams back in the '50's then my dad would have had a real shot at it. He won Provincial tournaments and later, after joining the Air Force, continued to be a wall for his military teams too.
Even as a member of the Cold Lake "Coldtimers", his competitiveness was always there. I remember getting to play against him a couple times, once as a forward and I scored on him. I was giving it to him pretty good until the next time I planted my big ass in front of him as a screen he gave me the old goal-stick-in-the-gonads to move me and shut me up. It was all in fun but on the ice, "Billy" was fiery and ultra-competitive.
A couple of Christmases after 1979 I received new pads, an upgrade on the first pair for sure. I remember walking around in them at home, trying to break them in. My brother was only too happy to slash me with his stick "trying to help".
Dad had a meticulous work ethic that he tried to pass on to me but sometimes that proved to be a wedge between us - I was pretty darn good but I played for fun and I think he thought I was wasting an opportunity that he didn't have by not being as dedicated as he was. I say I was good but was I good enough? Beats me. I was told that I was scouted a couple of times, apparently Regina came to watch once as did a couple of Jr A teams. But growing up in North Eastern Alberta back then meant being pretty far off the beaten scouting track.
What I do know is that by the time I was 14 I hated playing. No that's not true; I loved playing but the attention from dad had grown from encouragement to something of an obsession. I remember playing in a tournament in Two Hills which we won and I had played a particularly strong string of games. The two hour drive back to Cold Lake should have been a time to revel in a moment of glory but instead it was an opportunity for him to explain what I'd done wrong on the few shots that did get by me.
When you look back on your own life I'm sure there are moments that you wish you could go back in time and change. My biggest regret is quitting hockey when I was in 8th grade. It would have been my first year of Bantam and as I know now, that's the level where the scouts really are out beating the bushes. But I quit and it wasn't because I didn't want to play anymore. The rebellious teen in me decided to stick it to the man and instead of talking to dad about how his hands-on teachings were making me feel, I just walked away. Some people in town were actually mad at me for quitting and when they asked why, I bold faced lied and told them that I didn't want to play anymore. I was a stupid 14-year-old kid who thought he knew everything but really didn't know squat.
There aren't many things in my life that I'd like a chance to have a mulligan for but that's the biggest one. It's the biggest mistake I'd made, maybe that I've ever made, and there aren't many days that go by at the rink where I'm not mentally kicking my own ass.
My love for the game never went away and I'm fortunate to be able to make a living now where I spend so much time at the rink. Hockey has changed a lot since I played and even more since dad played. But a clean sheet of ice, the chilling air inside the local small town arena or the cracking sounds of skate blades carving through the ice... those images and memories are as alive today as they were when I was 10 years old.
This morning, at about 4:30 AM, my dad passed away after a lengthy fight with cancer. It had been coming for a while now so it wasn't exactly out of the blue and yet, getting the call and being told that it was over... I'm still trying to get a handle on it.
My wife and I were in Cold Lake on Friday and we had a chance to see him and say our goodbyes knowing full well that it might be the last time we'd see him alive. My brother and his family were there yesterday and my mom was at his side when he finally passed.
If you're the religious type and have a prayer or two to spare, please offer one up for my mom. If religion isn't your bag, let me leave you with this one last thing; he wasn't always a perfect dad, which was fair because I know I was far from the perfect child, but I know that in his heart he was a good person who always had the best of intentions. If you knew him, think well of him over the next few days. I know I will.
Goodbye Dad, I love you.
In Memory of William Alexander Flaming
May 9, 1943 - March 21, 2010