hockey

Brian Wins!

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1974 began with me clunk-stepping my way around the house. It was slow going but at least I could get about. Using the walls and furniture for support was no longer an option. I had to keep my knees locked when standing or walking. If they buckled even slightly down I went. I had to climb furniture to get up again. If I fell in a hallway with no furniture around I was stuck. Mom suggested putting a horn on the walker so I could honk for help. Dad fixed a bicycle horn to the walker. At the same time he attached a blue plastic bicycle basket to the top crossbar. This simple basket afforded me a lot of independence. I could do things like get something from the cupboard, drop it in the basket and take it to the kitchen table. It may not seem like much to an able-bodied person but after months of having to depend on other people to do everything for me except breathe I welcomed the freedom.

Dad pushed me around in a wheelchair when we went outside. All street curbs were square. If we were going down a sidewalk and we wanted to cross the street, we had to wheel down the sidewalk of the adjoining street to find a driveway to take us to street level, cross the street, go up an adjacent driveway to the sidewalk, go back up the street and continue down the sidewalk that we were on originally.

Dad and I wanted to see a hockey game at Fort William Gardens in January. Dad phoned the Gardens to find out how to get access for someone in a wheelchair. He was told that he had to wheel me in the back way where they herded the circus elephants, go under the stands and stay at ice level. When I heard this I said, “No.” Why couldn’t I go in the front doors like everyone else? Why shouldn’t I?

In February the doctors started another attempt to wean me off decadron. They lowered the dose as before but this time they replaced the decadron with prednisone. This regimen worked for me and by midsummer I was off all medication.

Prednisone: A synthetic corticosteroid medication used to reduce swelling and inflammation.

As the dose of the medications decreased my legs got stronger, my eye sight started to clear, my co-ordination, speech and swallowing improved, and I was expanding my chest again. My clunk-stepping was faster and I leaned less on the walker. I started to lift my walker and take two or three steps. I felt a wonderful sense of achievement because I knew in my head and heart I would walk again.

At long last it was time to put the walker aside and take a step without support. I was nervous. I remember standing beside the fridge in the kitchen. I held the walker beside me with my right hand and firmly grasped the counter with my left. Then I let go of the counter and walker. With my arms spread wide I stepped forward into Mom’s waiting arms. With daily practice that one step became two then three then four. I can’t adequately describe in words my sense of joy, freedom and accomplishment in taking that one first step.

I have always loved the rich character and ornate architecture of 19th and early 20th century buildings. But I am dismayed at how they were designed with only able-bodied people in mind. These buildings have been retrofitted to be wheelchair accessible. However they can never be as accessible for persons with mobility problems as modern buildings that are designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs. Even though I can walk, because of my mobility problems due to my poor balance, retrofitted buildings are harder for me to use. I should have started Grade 9 at Hillcrest High School in September of 1973. Because of my health I couldn’t go.

I should have started Grade 9 at Hillcrest High School in September of 1973. Because of my health I couldn’t go. My parents arranged with the local Board of Education for me to receive my high school education through the home schooling program set by the Ministry of Education in Toronto. I guess you could say my high school was 909 Yonge St. in Toronto. When asked I say, “Hillcrest,” to avoid explanation.

Academically I received a thorough high school education. What I missed out on was the social part of going to high school. When I attended LU I listened to my classmates talk about the parties and outings they had with their high school friends. I missed all of that.

The Ministry mailed the texts and materials to me. At home I wrote out the assignments onto a note pad of lined paper with a section at the top of each page for name, date, course and assignment number. I tore the pages off the pad, put them in the envelope provided and return them to the Ministry for marking.

At the time I started the high school correspondence courses my writing was reasonably legible although my hand was slow. Given my blurred eyesight my writing stayed on the lines of the page for the most part. But because of my poor vision I couldn’t read the books or instructions. Mom began reading the books to me. For three years we sat across from each other at the dining room table. She read course instructions, assignment questions, text books, short stories, novels and plays as I made notes. I best remember the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451 where a government tries to suppress the knowledge of its people through burning books. It was scary. Never had I imagined such a society could exist. I was inspired as I listened to The Miracle Worker, a play about the fortitude of a young woman, Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller, a deaf/blind girl, to read and write. Helen Keller became a personal hero as I learned about her resolve to conquer her disabilities just as I was trying to overcome mine. The correspondence courses didn’t start in September and finish in June. They went all year round which allowed me to work at my own pace.

On the other hand math was Dad’s domain. He read the math texts and course assignments to me. However it’s hard to read out an equation so the listener can understand. So Dad and I sat beside each other. I made notes as he read. When I needed to I held my magnifying glass over the equation or formula to read it for myself.

After the first year of study my eye sight began to clear, my hand was faster, my writing was more legible and it stayed on the lines more. Even the teacher who had been marking my assignments at the Ministry of Education in Toronto noticed the improvement.

Christmas of 1974 was a happier time than the last. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind I would live. I was getting steadily stronger, speaking more clearly, no longer incontinent and able to do more things for myself. The year 1975 would be a time I could look to the future once more. Brian wins!

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Then My Game Began – First Period – The Investigation

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16 Family portrait 1969My health steadily worsened and my parents’ anxiety increased over the next eight months as they took me to see one doctor after another in Thunder Bay. The doctors referred me to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. By October of 1972, one month after the Canada versus Soviet Union eight game hockey series – the 1972 Summit Series – I was back at Sick Kids. My friends and I talked about that series all summer. It was a good distraction for me from the worry of going back to see the doctors in Toronto.

Little was known about the Soviets. The cold war between the East and West was at its height and much secrecy existed between the two sides. At the time Canada playing hockey with the Soviets was a novelty to many Canadians. Everyone learned about the Soviet Union through the games. The whole series, especially the games in the USSR, was like a voyage into the unknown and the mystique sparked intrigue and national pride.

The first four games were in Canada and we were all glued to the TV each evening for every game. The Soviets won two and tied one. The remaining four games were played in Moscow. Because of the time difference they were telecast live in the afternoon. This meant we were at school and not in front of a TV. The games were also broadcast live on radio. One of the boys had a transistor radio in his pocket with an ear phone wire running up his sleeve. The play by play went from student to student up and down the rows for all the games. Not one teacher noticed.

On the afternoon of September 28th, the day of the eighth game, class ended just as the final minutes of the third period were ticking down. The score was tied. There was no overtime. Each team had the same number of wins. If this game ended in a tie the Soviets would take the series because they had scored more goals overall. Canada had to win.

I had just gone to my locker and was heading out the door when a crowd of kids surrounding the bicycle rack suddenly threw their arms in the air shouting, “Henderson scored!” Paul Henderson had scored the go-ahead goal with 34 seconds left in the final minute of play. I ran to the bicycle rack where we huddled around a small transistor radio as we held our breath listening to Foster Hewitt’s play by play of the final seconds. Canada won 6-5 and I wore a smile all the way home.

 

Then my game began:

Brian vs. Tumour

First Period. The Investigation. One month later I was still smiling from the historic goal when Mom, Dad, Catharine and I arrived in Toronto. I saw the doctors the next day who questioned me about my symptoms and did all the initial tests such as listen to my chest with a stethoscope. They wanted to run more tests on me as an inpatient. I was admitted to Sick Kids the following Wednesday.

After seeing the doctors we went to Woodbine race track with Pat, a family friend. Catharine and I called him Uncle Pat. Pat loved horses and everything to do with them. He spent most of his leisure time and money at Woodbine. There he met Frank “King” Clancy who was vice president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and former Leafs defenseman. Pat introduced us to the King and Catharine and I got his autograph. King Clancy turned to me and said, “Come to the Gardens on Saturday and I’ll give you a Team Canada autographed hockey stick.” I nearly fell over. I couldn’t wait. It’s all I thought about for two days.

Saturday morning came and Dad, Pat and I went to Maple Leaf Gardens. Dad said to the doorman, “We’re here to see Mr. Clancy.” Hearing this the doorman perked up and with a smile pointed out the way to where the King had gone. Any friend of the King’s was a friend of his. When we got to where the doorman said to go Dad was told, “Oh, he was just here, try …” This happened a few more times and each inquiry about Mr. Clancy brought a smile to that person’s face. He was obviously very well liked. Our quest to find King Clancy took us to the top of Maple Leaf Gardens where we knocked on the King’s office door. There he was at his desk. He invited us in and we talked for a bit. Then he asked, “Do you know what C.C.C.P. stands for?”

Hey, I knew everything a 13 year old could possibly know about that series. I piped up, “That’s Russian for U.S.S.R.”

He said, “Right, I never knew that.”

I really thought that King Clancy had gone to Moscow and back with the team not knowing what C.C.C.P. on the Soviet jerseys stood for.

The King took us downstairs around to the back of the Gardens where his car was parked. He opened the trunk and in it was a pile of autographed Team Canada hockey sticks. “Which one do you want?” he asked.

The choice was easy. “Henderson,” I said.

King Clancy rummaged through the pile and said, “Ah, here we are, Henderson,” and handed me the stick.

I marvelled at that hockey stick. It was obvious Paul Henderson had used it. There was a chip off the tip of the blade and the tape around it was worn. I read each autograph carefully – Ivan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden, Phil Esposito … Paul Henderson had signed his stick too. I knew the name of every player on that team and the whole team had signed it. Many of my hockey idols in the NHL were on team Canada. Now I had a hockey stick with all their autographs on it that belonged to Paul Henderson.  This was the ultimate hockey prize. Beaming with excitement I proudly showed off my stick to Dad and Pat.

As we walked back into the Gardens King Clancy asked me, “What hand shot are you?”

“Left,” I replied.

“That’s a right-handed stick. You can’t play hockey with that.”

Play hockey with it?! I had no intention of playing hockey with this stick.

Then King Clancy said, “Come back next week and I’ll give you a left-handed stick.”

Wow! I never made it back to Maple Leaf Gardens the following Saturday and I didn’t get a second autographed hockey stick. But I treasure the one I have. I met King Clancy a few more times in the following years and always found him very pleasant and personable. Although he was small in stature compared to today’s NHLers he was big in heart.

The following Monday I saw my first NHL game. Mom, Dad, Catharine and I sat at centre ice ten rows back. I had my first thrill of seeing in person the players I watched on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday. I felt the coolness off the ice, heard the slap of stick on puck and the players calling to each other. It was an experience wholly different in sound and atmosphere than from watching it on TV.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were in town. That night I discovered a phenomenon named Eddie Shack who played for the Penguins. The Toronto fans cheered for the Leafs as they headed for the Pittsburgh net and I cheered with them. Then I watched in disbelief as those same fans cheered Eddie on when he had the puck charging, like a freight train, for the Toronto goal. Never would I have thought I’d see the Leafs fans cheering for a player on the visiting team. I saw why someone coined the phrase “Clear the track here comes Shack.”

The Leafs won 4-3.

Next season Eddie Shack was traded to Toronto I think just so the Leafs fans could cheer him on as he charged toward the visiting team’s net. Eddie always looked like he was out on the ice having fun. He wore a big smile as he skated around the rink more like a big kid than a serious hockey player. He put a smile on my face as I watched. He said the fans came to be entertained. For that he earned the nick name “The Entertainer,” and he was as entertaining as he was colourful. The Leafs fans loved to see him play including me. I tuned into Hockey Night in Canada each Saturday as much to see Eddie Shack as to watch the Leafs play.

On Wednesday, two days after seeing my first NHL game, I was admitted to the Hospital for Sick Children to investigate the cause of my worsening symptoms. Did I have a brain tumour after all?