We Come with Thankful Hearts

A ‘thankful’ post in November? Come at me with your accusations of “cliché!” but I’m about to throw down some real sentiment right now so put on your emotional reading glasses and get ready to scroll hard cuz I’m making no apologies.

A few months ago I spent an evening chatting with this guy. The context of the conversation matters little other than to say I’d never met him before and this was our first exchange. Armed with virtually no knowledge of my interests and hobbies, this man resolutely declared, “I can’t stand people who are obsessed with sports. Sports are meaningless.”

Okay, so maybe context does matter a little bit. This dude was a CrossFit trainer (bless him), so he obviously knew nothing about what it means to be obsessed with something.

WE’VE GOT AMRAP SNATCHES AND BURPEES ON THE WOD BOARD TODAY, GUYS. LET’S GO TO WAR!

WE’VE GOT AMRAP SNATCHES AND BURPEES ON THE WOD BOARD TODAY, GUYS. LET’S GO TO WAR!

The only weights we’re lifting around here.

The only weights we’re lifting around here.

But I digress…

Instead of schooling him on all the reasons why sports – hockey in particular – matter to me, I smiled my charming smile and ate the rest of my tacos in silence.

Had I given a few cares about this person understanding me, maybe I would have told him the following:

As a child, living in Manhattan Beach with 10 siblings in his grandmother’s tiny house, having little money and an unscrupulous father who’d perfected the disappearing act, my dad discovered hockey.

He’d watched his two older brothers play street hockey with homemade sticks in a local volleyball court and decided he wanted to be part of the action. After rallying his neighborhood friends, he took to the streets and began organizing mini hockey tournaments of his own.

“Grandma Wilda had a cement slab in the backyard and it was perfect for two-on-two hockey. We would play all hours of the day and night. I started organizing a league of about four to six two-man teams. My friends used to call the house and ask, ‘Mrs. Gleason, do you know what time my game is?’ My mom says she used to empty my pockets before washing my pants and they were always full of notes, results, standings and schedules for games that were going on in our backyard.”

Organizing these tournaments was a full-time gig and unbeknownst to him at the time, helped keep my dad focused on something outside the weight of his family situation. Back then, a ten year old’s time was valuable and he relished in the purpose putting together these games gave him and his friends.

Shawnze Dad 2

If you look closely, there’s a hand-drawn crown in purple magic marker on the front of his “sweater.”

While this band of buddies competed furiously in two-on-two battles in my great-grandmother’s backyard, the Los Angeles Kings were growing accustomed to being the new team in town. It didn’t take long for the Kings to gain a devoted fan in a little boy from Manhattan Beach who enthusiastically absorbed every moment he could:

“I can remember listening to games at night on an AM clock radio [my brother] Tom and I got for Christmas one year, and every night we would go to bed listening to either Jiggs McDonald call the Kings or Vin Scully call the Dodgers.”

As none are ever fully protected from the menace of outside influences, change was on the horizon and soon the landscape of my father’s world would change dramatically.

About four months before Marcel Dionne packed his bags to move to Los Angeles, my 11-year old father and his family packed their bags and moved to Downey, an up and coming suburb 15 miles south-east of downtown LA and a world away from Manhattan Beach. He would later describe this move as, “one of the single most traumatizing things that ever happened to me. I missed my friends, I missed playing hockey and I missed being an important person in my old life.”

After death and divorce, moving is considered the most stressful life event for children. Moving into a strange home with a new step-father he’d only met a few times was indeed stressful. But finding himself in a new school and living in an unknown neighborhood with no friends was a punch to the gut. With little time to adjust, he clung to the one thing that was familiar:

“My mom knew I missed my friends from Manhattan Beach so every once in a while she would drive out there and we would pick up four or five of my friends and bring them to Downey. Sometimes we would rent time at the ice rink in Norwalk and I would organize a big hockey game for whoever could skate. Once word got out, two different groups of kids – who had their own hockey friends – combined with me and I organized a three-team ice hockey league. Two teams would play every Saturday and someone from the third team would referee.”

Like baseball for Scotty Smalls in The Sandlot, hockey helped my dad find common ground with the boys his age and ultimately helped him make good friends – a game-changer for any new kid in town.

In October, 1975, Dad’s older brother Richard got four tickets to see the Kings play the Washington Capitals at the Forum. With his friend Eddie and younger brother Tom in tow, a grinning 12 year-old boy marched up to the gates for the game, anticipation churning in his chest.

He loved how the Forum smelled, the briskness of the air, the way the ice almost blinded you as it glowed frosty white. Because money was tight, attending games was rare and he felt like a King sitting up top in the Colonnade section. Sometimes he’d peak over the railing to the seats below, dreaming about what it would be like to watch a game in the Loge section.

As they approached the entrance this time though, Richard discovered that he’d left the tickets at home. He and Tom ran to the car and raced back to Downey to fetch them while dad and Eddie sat on the curb in front of the Forum, waiting.

They could hear the in-game announcer call out the starting lines for each team. With no sign of Richard, the game started and then progressed and more than once they heard the goal horn sound accompanied by the rambunctious cheering of the home crowd.

Each ring of the buzzer panged their hearts as they anxiously waited out front. Had they been near a television or had access to a radio, they would have heard this:

Richard finally returned and the four of them hurriedly took their seats in the middle of a 6-0 Kings lead over the Capitals. They had missed most of the action. They had missed a hat trick. They had missed history being made.

Though the Kings won that game, a little cloud accompanied the experience, foreshadowing his next 37 years of fandom. My dad didn’t know what he was getting himself into all those years ago. He had no way of knowing the cycle of anticipation and disappointment that came with the territory of being a sports fan. But it didn’t matter. Hockey was the balm for a fragmented family dynamic. Hockey gave him purpose and kept him out of trouble. It fostered (and still fosters) meaningful relationships and memorable experiences where there may have been none.

And though it brought heartache, it brought immeasurable joy too.

Thirty-six years after missing Dionne’s first hat trick, my dad had the pleasure of meeting Marcel and told him the story of the forgotten tickets. Dionne laughed, handed my pops his business card and said, “Dat is a great stor-ee. If you ever come to Buffalo, we must play golf togedder.”

Thirty-seven years after sitting on that curb, my dad found himself standing in the Loge section of Staples Center, his wife and three children in tow, counting down the remaining 10 seconds on the clock with 18,118 people, about to witness his team win their first Stanley Cup.

“Watching the Kings win the Stanley Cup in person with my family was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I had so much emotion invested in [the Kings] for 40 years and to see them win with my kids by my side was an incredible, almost spiritual experience. You see, I never knew how to be a dad. No one ever taught me. I kind of went into fatherhood remembering that hurt and how I felt going to sporting events by myself. As a kid, I missed out on doing things I was passionate about with my dad. As an adult, I figured if I could do some of that stuff with my own kids and have them share some of that same passion, it would be the coolest feeling and would more than make up for the past. Witnessing the Kings win it all with my family, with tears in my eyes, what more could I ask for?”

I’m thankful for hockey because of the role it played in enriching my dad’s otherwise gloomy childhood. I’m thankful for hockey because it has been one of the platforms by which my father has learned to be a father. I’ve had more meaningful conversations with him sitting in traffic to and from Staples Center, or on post-game phone calls than at any Daddy-daughter dance we ever went to.

I’m thankful for hockey because it represents comfort and familiarity and has broken down emotional barriers inside my father put there by years of neglect and anger at the past. I’m thankful for hockey because I know that every game I get to be part of strengthens my relationship with him and adds another brick to the childhood house he’s still rebuilding. Hockey is a covalent bond in the chemistry of my family and without them, I wonder if I’d like it as much.

This might have been too heavy an explanation for the CrossFit coach and he may forever believe that sports are meaningless. But that’s not the case in my family. And oh how thankful I am for that.

#WeAreAllThankful

After hearing a female Kings fan shriek, “C’mon Kopi, make a goal!” in 2010, Shawnze rolled up her sleeves and set out to rebrand the notion of lady hockey fan in the streets and Late Romantic Era classical music devotee in the sheets. She has a Masters Degree in Sports Management (no really, it’s a thing) which means she’s really good at paying for things she’ll never use, and credits her dad’s lucky red shorts (and Trevor Lewis) for the success of the Kings’ Cup run in 2012. You can follow Shawnze Kopitar on Twitter @ShawnzeKopitar.
  • Planeoldguy

    Great story, thanks for sharing it.