It’s NOT The Blood ON The Ice…It’s The Blood IN The Ice
HOCKEY…FAMILY…two words of six letters each, both ending in “y”. Many people would say “hockey” and “family” have little else in common, but I beg to differ…and strongly so. For me, hockey is all about family…in so many ways and at so many levels. There are those that see the “violence” of hockey and would swear up and down that hockey is not a family sport.
To those of us that are members of the family of hockey – even adopted kids like me – there is no sport on Earth that is as much about FAMILY as HOCKEY. So many people see the “blood ON the ice”, while we see the blood IN the ice…in the pondwater coursing through the veins of every hockey player…at every level…the families that support(ed) them from “Mites” to “The Show” and the brothers and sisters we all see in the locker rooms and across the face-off dots. “The Room” is filled with far more than a wealth of talented individuals; it is teaming with brothers and (more recently) sisters who are not related by blood but bonded by the blood they have chosen to share by becoming a TEAM.
To a degree, even the “enemies” checking us into the boards in the heat of on ice battle are brothers and sisters once we step off the pond (natural or man-made). True hockey players know not only where their teammates come from but the path they travelled to get to the level at which they are currently playing. My great friend, Mark Strobel, played against one of my all time favorite players…Ian Moran. Strobes could tell me where Ian played his high school hockey as well as juniors…though they never shared the same locker room. In fact, my wife had an interesting experience when she was in high school. Her [much] younger brother was already so well known in the local hockey community that the players on her high school varsity team asked her if she was related to him. When they discovered that she was his sister…she immediately became “part of the family” to them and not just a girl in their science class. It is a FAMILY in HOCKEY – brothers and sisters who have chosen to be so out of honour and respect for one another – TEAMmate and/or opponent. The handshake line says it all.
As I prepared to pen this article, a number of these brothers and a sister welcomed me into the family of hockey by very graciously granting me not only their precious time but also a window into their history, their experiences, their philosophies, and their families. Being so grateful at being so graciously “adopted” into the FAMILY OF HOCKEY, I want to take this opportunity to thank my friends – whom I consider brothers and sister forevermore – for granting me such tremendous gifts. Thank you to (in no particular order) Mark Strobel, Bernie Nicholls, Jim Craig, Tatjana “Tiki” Tikhonov, Viktor Tikhonov, Tom Sagissor, and Ryan Walter for the gift of their time and the wealth of insight and information they offered to me…without which, this would be nothing but speculative opinion and puff.
When I originally conceived this article, I expected to find many elements of the stories of my newfound brothers and sister to be identical in nature. While I did find a great number of similarities, I also discovered variances I did not – but perhaps should have – anticipated. The variances I discovered not only make perfect sense (as many of them can be attributed to geography), but the stories – and wealth of learning I achieved – also warmed my soul.
I expected to find that ice time was always at a premium and difficult to come by. Growing up in the far west suburbs of Chicago – where that was certainly the norm – I, therefor, expected that to be universally true. While that did hold true for some, it was not as “universal” as I had expected. For Ryan Walter and Jim Craig, ice time came at such a premium that they often had to awaken in the “wee hours,” practicing anywhere from 3:30am to 5:30am. Growing up in the “Twin Cities” region of Minnesota, Mark Strobel and Tom Sagissor had the blessing of outdoor rinks every six or seven blocks. Of course, that meant they played on outdoor rinks from Mites through Bantams. Bernie Nicholls grew up in “small town” Canada. His father flooded the yard and built a rink right there at home. Viktor and Tiki Tikhonov had the tremendous benefit of having a father (the late Vasili Tikhonov) that worked for the San Jose Sharks. They could get on the ice at the “Shark Tank” whenever the team was in town – indoors and an NHL quality ice sheet to boot! In fact, Tiki told me she skipped school dances (including the prom) to spend more time on the ice. That is dedication and commitment…and a FAMILY tradition – handed down from grandfather (famed Olympic coach and, sadly, late) Viktor, to father, Vasili, to both Tiki and her brother Viktor. Hockey tradition -- no different than blood – in many ways life-blood itself, courses through their veins (and those of all in the FAMILY OF HOCKEY).
Another commonality I expected to find throughout my interviews was the family commitment of the entire household when there was an aspiring hockey player (or more than one) at home. My expectations were borne out…and then some. Whenever possible, and almost entirely across the board, moms and dads were the chief drivers – shuttling sons and daughters to tryouts, practices, camps, games and tournaments (both in town and even hours away). Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning had the blessing of parents so dedicated to his aspirations and dreams that they drove him from Spokane, Washington to Calgary, Alberta just to increase the level of competition he would face. Those same moms and dads would often pack up the entire family for road trips to out of town tournaments – truly a “family affair.” In the case of Jim Craig, it is well-documented the influence his mother had on his Olympic aspirations and inspirational gold medal achievement. Bernie Nicholls’ cousin – Craig Stamp – talked Bernie’s father into allowing Bernie to go to Wichita (in Southern Ontario) to play junior hockey at 16 years old. FAMILY! Not just those “in the house” got involved…but the extended family as well. Tom Sagissor travelled from Hastings, Minnesota to Montreal, Quebec at the age of 17 to pursue his hockey dreams. It was Tom’s father that started the hockey program at home in Hastings. Hockey is in the bloodstream – not only through family heritage and bloodlines, but also through the sacrificial support that is necessary in order to build hockey people. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, cousins, coaches, teammates (who become brothers and sisters)…HOCKEY is such a FAMILY.
The bonds that develop in “The Room” and on the ice are so powerful that I found – universally – that those bonds started on day one for all those I spoke with in conducting my research. In the words of Bernie Nicholls, “There are no cliques on successful teams. There is nothing better than watching your ‘brothers’ come up and develop.” Jim Craig went on to say that, “You don’t develop hockey players…you develop men”. As for Tom Sagissor, winning a National Championship in college at the University of Wisconsin in 1990, made the entire squad “brothers forever.” Strobes, another Badger alumnus, standout defenseman, team captain, and treasured friend (pronounced “brother”) told me that even those that “clashed” were still FAMILY from day one on. FAMILY!
Even opponents were, and are, often considered to be “extended family” members. For example, Jim Craig spent ten years coaching alongside one of his Russian opponents from the “Miracle On Ice”. That shared history and bond of pondwater blood is that strong. Bernie Nicholls even told me that it was by no means unusual to go out for a beer with an opponent he had fought in a game earlier that same night! My friend Diane Bourne, who is a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning family, told me of a game between the Bolts and the Blackhawks – after which she was seen hanging out, carrying on, and even hugging Blackhawks fans and personnel. Some of her Lightning supporters were in shock and completely aghast. To Diane and to me, her behavior was all perfectly normal. While we may be enemies on the ice, we are all FAMILY the moment the contest is over. Diane’s anecdote (thank you, Diane) illustrates the entire point of this article perfectly. As Ryan Walter said to me, “That’s the hockey way.”
From Bernie’s yard-rink and watching HNIC (Hockey Night In Canada) on the only channel they got as he was growing up (was any other channel needed?) to Viktor Tikhonov having to be dragged off the ice – and literally physically dragged home on a sled by his mother – at age 3…from the Strobel twins (Mark and Mike) playing boot hockey, high school hockey, and college hockey together (for “The Dean of College Hockey” – Jeff Sauer) to Tatjana Tikhonov skipping those school dances and prom itself in order to get more ice time. You just don’t find more dedicated athletes – and more committed families – than you do in the sport of hockey. From Strobes’ fantastic depiction of Duluth, Minnesota…”You can smell hockey in the air…” to the band of brothers formed by winning the National Championship for Tom Sagissor – The Stanley Cup for Ryan Walter. It is NOT the blood “on” the ice but the blood bonded within the ice that defines hockey to this adopted son and brother.
Written by Steven Nels Fossedal
Written by Steven Nels Fossedal
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