I was three years old the first time I suited up and you and I were formally introduced.
Seriously, 3. 18 years ago. Man does that feel weird to say.
I cried too. Like, the ENTIRE time. My mom once told me that right then and there, they thought my hockey career had come to an abrupt end. Thank God it didn't. Thank God my parents put me back out a second time, otherwise I'm not sure where I would be today.
Growing up, the best memories of my life came at the rink. 7 AM Saturday morning practices, getting up at 6 to the smell of eggos in the toaster. Putting my equipment on on the living room couch (yes, I was a home dresser), pulling up to the rink, slapping on my skates and grabbing the stick covered in lime green tape. I tell you, those were the days.
I had the privilege of having my own dad coach me for a few of those years, and let me tell you, I think a few was more than enough for him - to anyone who has coached young hockey players before, the ego far trumps the talent, I can guarantee you that. But damn, were those years ever fun.
At 11, I won my first City Championship with the APHA Rangers. At 12, we lost in the finals. 13 and 14 I played AAA for the Winnipeg Monarchs, and between concussions and varied success on the ice, those were some of the toughest years of my life.
But I kept coming back. The love for the game wavered, by my commitment to it did not. What a weird time in life.
From grades 10-12 I played hockey at St Paul's High School. 3 Years, 3 city championships and one provincial title. In my grade 12 year I was named League MVP and #1 in the Winnipeg Sun's Annual Coaches' Poll. We lost the Provincial Final in overtime that season, and I didn't sleep for weeks.
Then that was it. My hockey career was done. I accepted a position with the University of Winnipeg Wesmen baseball team, and began a new endeavour in my athletic life. I had shoulder surgery, and I rehabbed it for 6 months straight. I played my freshman season and then summer ball in the Manitoba Junior Baseball League, and with each passing day my hockey career seemed further and further behind me - until suddenly it wasn't. In about my second game of my sophomore season, I tore everything in my shoulder for a second time. Rotator cuff, labrum, and my long-head bicep no longer attached to my shoulder. On my 19th birthday, the doctor told me I'd never play baseball again. 3 days later, I found myself on the roster on the MMJHL Twins, playing in my first game in a year and a half wearing a shoulder brace under my equipment. I scored my first shift.
You know, at the time I lost baseball it felt like the world was crashing in around me. Looking back on it, it may have just been the best worst thing that ever happened to me. I won Rookie of the Year in the league that year, and was named Captain for my next.
As my shoulder deteriorated, I booked a surgery for May following my second season so I could rehab it in time for my third and final. Over the course of that year, I added a broken foot, lost three teeth, dealt with vertigo, pulled muscles, took high sticks to the face, and separated that very same shoulder. In total, I only sat out 7 games. We lost in the first round of the playoffs.
3 days before my surgery, it got cancelled - my surgeon had to travel with the Jets to Las Vegas for the playoff run. They offered me August instead, but that would've meant I'd miss my whole last season while it healed, so I said no and tried to deal with the pain - I made it one game before it got hurt more. The pain became too much, so much that I wasn't even sleeping at night, so after game 4 out of 45 on the schedule, I made the difficult decision to hang up the skates - The end of my hockey playing days 2.0.
To be honest, I had moved on with my life. I was sad at how it ended, but I watched from afar as some of my best friends in the world enjoyed success on the ice I hadn't seen from them before. I was so happy for them, but a portion of me wished I was a part of it, so when the coach of the team contacted me and asked me to come back and play the last 8 games of the season and playoffs it was a no brainer, and when the doctor gave me the go-ahead, that's just what I did. I went from first line and captain when I left to third line centre upon my return wearing a brand new number, but it didn't matter one bit - I was playing again, and each time I stepped on the ice was one more time than I thought I was ever going to have. My role didn't matter because any role was better than none, and those who had been around all year deserved the things they got.
In my first game back, I scored in the first period. I added an assist, too, and with that I eclipsed the 100 career point mark in my 80th game - something I had set out to do many months ago, but never thought I would accomplish after hanging them up.
Unfortunately, we lost in the first round of the playoffs to the St James Canucks. Bittersweet, for sure. On one hand, it was the last game I'd ever play competitively, but on the other, selfishly, I was able to truly "age out" of a sport for the first time - it wasn't an injury that ended my playing days, and that was a moral victory for me having lost baseball the way I did and thinking hockey had followed suit. As we shook hands with the other team, I met many familiar faces of those I had played both hockey and baseball against my entire life. If we had to lose, I'm glad it was to them. I had about 10 friends in attendance, the crazy Argentinian girl who had been by my side for the last two seasons, and both my Dad and my Grandma Lorraine who had been my number one fan since I was about 11. My only regret was that my mom who was away on a business trip did not get to see my last game. I know she would've been there if she could, as she rarely missed many before. Well, that... and never fighting. Tough call.
That was a few days ago, and as I've sat and reflected upon my life leading up to this point, one thing has become very clear - I don't think I'll miss the game at all. As my body deteriorated, so too did my abilities. As I write this now, I'm still waiting on my shoulder surgery as well as looking into another I need on my wrist. I am covered in bruises and quite frankly exhausted. For me, this has been enough.
But man, am I ever going to miss what playing hockey meant. I'll miss the family involvement and looking up to the crowd and seeing those you care about most smiling back at you. I'll miss the conversations about coaches and line mates. I'll miss the competition, I'll miss the physical activity, and I'll miss the on-ice creativity. I'll miss the pregame speeches where the coach asks a room of hyped up 11 year olds if we are chickens or pigs, or the one's where the coach jokes about "Dad being out of town" when the head coach is away for work. I'll miss all of it, but most of all, I'll miss the dressing room. The inside jokes, the camaraderie, the jabs at one another, and the outrageous fines we gave out to the younger kids who hit the goalie in the mask with a puck or spilled a drink at a party the weekend before. That is what I'll miss the most.
I won't lie, individually I built a pretty solid resume of achievements, but nothing means more to me than the times I got to lift a trophy above my head with those around me. Honestly, even the times we didn't win, it was always the group that mattered most. My sister asked me the other day why we as hockey players put up with so much pain and injury yet keep going - I know now it was because of the responsibility we feel to those around us. The boys, man, that is always matters most.
So, hockey, as I bid adieu to my playing days with you, I want to take this chance to thank you for everything you have added to my life. Through the ups and downs, time and time again you showed what it took to take a group of egotistical strangers and form a family out of it, and many of those same people I met in the dressing room I know I will call brothers for the rest of my life. I wouldn't be the man I am today without you.
Dear hockey, thank you for everything that you are and everything you are not. We may not always have seen eye to eye, and I may have a slightly less pretty face from all the scars you have inflicted, but when I look back on our time together, I can honestly say I wouldn't change it for the world.
Looking forward to passing your magic along to the next generation.
D. MacDonald #8