On December 10, 2011, the Winnipeg Jets played in Detroit, taking on the Red Wings in the early game of the Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader. The Jets would go on to get hammered 7-1. I know this because I watched the game. I watched while sitting in a darkened hospital room in rural Manitoba, listening to my father occasionally snore in a morphine-induced sleep.
As the game came to its sad conclusion, and the post-game recaps and interviews started, I realized that those snores I had previously heard every minute or two had stopped. My father, at age 64, was dead. While I do not place all the blame for his death at the feet of the Winnipeg Jets, I do not believe it was a coincidence that their atrocious play that night gave him the motivation to finally shuffle off this mortal coil.
My father was never a Jets fan. Not in their first incarnation, nor the current team. He was a Habs fan, start to finish. Mainly to tweak the nose of his own father – a Leafs fan. When the Jets returned, and their first home opponent was named – the Montreal Canadiens – I was disappointed. I wanted to take dad and share the moment with him. There would be a second game, though – December 22. I set that date aside, planning on taking my dad, a man of modest means, to see his favorite team.
In October, though, the results came back. The pain in dad’s arm (which finally prompted him to see a doctor) was bone cancer. There were tumors in each lung. The lymph nodes in his chest were cancerous. Other bones were showing signs of cancer.
Stage IV lung cancer has a median survival rate of eight months.
I knew that time was short. It was bad enough that I knew he would likely never meet the grandchild my wife and I were expecting in early March. Now, I just wanted one last memory to share with him. You see, back in April 2008, my wife had a conference in Montreal. We, along with our year-old child and my father (who was visiting) made the drive from Toronto. The hotel was near the Bell Centre, so we all took a stroll to see it.
The streets surrounding the Bell Centre were filled with people. The Habs were to take on the Flyers in game one in a second round series. Habs fans had rioted when the team beat Boston, so there was also a very visible police presence – on foot, on horses, in cars. Overall, though, the mood was jovial and optimistic. What struck me most, however, was that - unlike Toronto - there were no scalpers. Not a single person yelling about buying and selling tickets. It didn’t matter. Seriously – can you imagine the price of a playoff ticket in Montreal? I knew they would be well out of my price range.
My dear wife – bless her heart – had no knowledge of such matters, and insisted I ask around about a ticket. If it wasn’t too costly, she said, I should take my dad. What choice did I have? I started looking. I noticed one particularly sketchy looking gentleman in a white Canadiens jersey just watching the crowd.
"You know where I could get tickets?" I asked.
The man, in his mid-fifties, balding and grey, with a healthy Molson muscle glanced around the area. In accented English re replied "I have tickets. $75 each." Seventy-five dollars?!?! I told my wife who looked at me with the stern resolve only a wife can give her husband and said "Oh, Yaw, you have to get them."
With that, the man escorted me to the bank machine conveniently located mere steps from his perch and we traded cash for tickets. Turns out, the tickets were up near the rafters, behind the Flyers net. For my dad and I, though, it didn’t matter. We were at a playoff game in Montreal.
And what a game! Alex Kovalev scored the tying goal with 29 seconds left and over 20,000 people roared their approval. As overtime started, dad and I were still on our way back to our seats following our intermission cigarette. We stopped at an entrance to watch the puck drop, and it was a good thing we did. A mere 48 seconds into OT, Tom Kostopoulos beat Martin Biron and the Bell Centre got even louder.
Now, with my father staring Death straight in the eye, I wanted that moment again. Montreal would be in Winnipeg December 22, I had tickets, and I didn’t need to cover the game. All I needed was for dad to hang on.
By late November, his condition had worsened. He was admitted to hospital as the pain in his hips and legs was too great for him to remain mobile. Rather than spending his last days with his family in Winnipeg, he spent them in a rural hospital room.
We all knew what was coming. My dad only had one question – "Will it hurt?" This, from a guy who had been sucking up the pain of bone cancer for the last month, to the point where he couldn’t get out of his car when he went to the hospital. No, the doctor told him, they would see that it wouldn’t. And it didn’t. The staff made absolutely sure of that. The dose of morphine increased steadily over the next two weeks, until dad’s body finally gave in.
I took my daughter to the game on December 22. Got her a jersey "just like dad’s!" Fed her popcorn and juice. Plugged her ears when it got too loud (which was often). Built a new memory. And wished I could have shared this one last game with my father.
October 8, 1947 – December 10, 2011