EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - CIRCA 1990: Steve Yzerman #19 of the Detroit Redwings skates against the New Jersey Devils during an NHL Hockey game circa 1990 at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Yzerman's playing career went from 1983-2006. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
One of my fondest memories as a child was returning to Michigan for the holidays. I learned very quickly that there was no PASS or Channel 50 to catch Detroit Red Wings games in Chicagoland. To a sports crazed seven-year-old, it was quite the adjustment.
Baseball was my first love, but hockey was right behind. We didn’t have CBC or the ingrained culture of hockey like Michigan, but I had dedicated family members who would mail the Free Press and News articles of my favorite players. It was the closest I could get.
Christmas of 1987 was a bittersweet one for me. I was a sports crazed kid trapped in the Windy City, where the Old English D and Winged Wheel were met with sneers and taunts. I missed my family and friends–and also really missed the comfort of sports.
So when my parents told me we were headed back to Michigan for Christmas, I was relieved. It was like an early gift. I might even get to watch a few Red Wings games.
But I also had my eye on a game that I prayed would find its way under my Grandmother’s Christmas Tree: Coleco’s NHL Stanley Cup Hockey. Boy, would that one soften the sting of the move that was but a month old.
This was the holy grail of table top hockey games, coming with a cool looking scoreboard that also let you drop the puck down a slot in the middle of the square scoreboard for the face-off. It hovered over the game and I actually felt like a big shot when I played on one of the boards at a friend’s house.
Though it came with the plastic iteration of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, it was the pint-sized replica of Lord Stanley’s Cup that really put it over the top for me.
I begged and pleaded. I dropped hints like crazy. I even had my then three-year-old brother, who was far less annoying than me, mention to anyone who would listen that “we’d” like that game for Christmas.
I was on my best behavior those first few weeks of December, I let Santa know on numerous occasions what my number one choice was, and on that four-and-a-half hour car ride to Detroit, I reminded my parents again that it was at the top of my list.
I remember after the festivities of Christmas Eve, I laid in bed wondering if it would be there the next morning. When dawn broke, I rushed down the stairs where my dad intercepted me.
“Wait for your mother,” he cautioned. “No opening presents until then.” A new tradition started as Dad went to the stove and made hot cocoa from scratch and tossed the Free Press sports page my way. It bought some time as I ramped up my excitement with pure sugar and sports snippets My grandmother (who always called my idol Steve why-zer-man) was already bustling about and my mom finally appeared. As if I’d been cooped up in the penalty box, I dashed to the living room and scanned beneath the tree.
I may have only been in first grade but I knew my dimensions–not one wrapped gift fit the description.
I honestly don’t remember much else than the cocoa not tasing as sweet. I desperately hid my disappointment behind the mug, and after the final gift had been opened, I leaned back against the leg of one of the chairs in the room.
My dad caught my eye and pointed to where the front door was. There was a clothes tree where we hung our coats and hats and then directly across from it was the closet.
“What’s over there?” he asked, pointing to something hiding in the shadows of that small enclosure. I walked over and my heart leapt into my throat. Leaning against the wall and wrapped in comic book paper was one final gift. Addressed to me from Santa, I took a deep breath.
“Well open it!” my grandmother laughed.
I only tore off a corner and saw the NHL logo, and from there, comic paper flew in a frenzy. In all its glory there it was: Shiny, brand new, complete with the Cup. I wouldn’t get the Red Wings for months afterward, but I didn’t care. The Flyers and Islanders would be more than enough.
We set up shop in the basement on the sprawling table my late Grandfather had built, and for the remainder of that day, and trip, I challenged anyone who would take up my offer to play. The real thrill, though, was watching the Red Wings games on the tiny black and white television on the counter while I fired the puck on the game like Yzerman, Gerard Gallant, or Petr Klima.
Though it was nearly 35 years ago, the moment is frozen in my memory and one that I cherish.
Our world can be a complicated one, and we’ve all certainly seen that in the last few years. But as I’ve grown older, the lessons mined from that moment aren’t lost on me. The generosity, the element of surprise, the happiness others had in that room seeing the joy on my face.
I don’t often say much beyond hockey here, but that memory serves as a reminder to me to try and do those little things for others. Things are certainly odd right now, but there’s always that chance to brighten someone else’s day. Not just one day a year, but every day as well.
That game may be long gone, but the memory is still as fresh as ever.
All the best to you and your’s this holiday season.
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