Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good Guys of the Week

The Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks set off on a six-game, 12-day road trip on Nov. 18 -- to, in order, Phoenix, Dallas, Toronto, San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles. (Who thinks of these itineraries? Magellan?) In between a Saturday night date with the Maple Leafs and a Tuesday noon flight to San Jose , the players were going to have their one day off on the trip, a Sunday, back home with family in Chicago .

But the day before they played Toronto , the players learned that Stan Tallon, the father of Chicago general manager Dale Tallon, had died after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease in a rural Ontario town, Gravenhurst, two hours north of Toronto . The director of team services, Tony Ommen, told the captains that he could try to arrange a team trip to the Sunday night wake in Gravenhurst if they wanted to go. But if they did, of course, they'd be giving up their only day off on a grueling trip in a two-week period. It was a day most of the players had plans to do something, if only to watch football on TV, sleep all day, Christmas-shop, hang with family.

"Guys like their time off, that's for sure,'' Patrick Sharp, an assistant captain, said via cell phone. "But this was something, when we got together, we felt we had to do. Dale's a part of us.''

The team meeting was brief and to the point, and there was no objection from a single player: The players would stay over in Toronto, surrender the day off, and bus up to the wake in mid-afternoon on country roads with a fresh blanket of snow. Ommen arranged two buses, one for the coaches and staff, and one for the 23 players on the trip. In all, about 50 members of the Blackhawk traveling party made it to the W.J. Cavill Funeral Home in Gravenhurst, and when they walked quietly through the side door of the place, Dale Tallon couldn't believe his eyes. He tried to say something.

"I couldn't talk,'' he said. "I just started bawling.''

The players and staff all filed past the open casket and paid their respects to the family, including Tallon's 80-year-old mom, whose mood brightened tremendously. She knew the players from watching the games on satellite TV. Now here they were, her heroes! She had a little crush on the big star, Patrick Kane, whom her son had drafted first overall last year. "Patrick Kane!'' she said, and hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Mrs. Tallon,'' Sharp said.

"Ooooh,'' she said. "I enjoy watching you play.''

And then the players sat respectfully among the townspeople for a while, and then they went into a side room to look at the photo display of Stan Tallon's family, which could have been any hockey family in Canada, with shots of Dale as a tyke and moving up through the years 'til he thrilled the family by making the NHL. Before the players left, Dale Tallon told them how touched the family was that they'd make this trip for him.

Last week, Dale Tallon tried to explain why this happened. "I think hockey's unique,'' he said. "In every Canadian town, the hockey rink seems to be the center of the community. Families do so much for their kids and sacrifice for them so they can play. You rise up through different levels, but you never forget how you got there. With these kids on our team, I scouted, recruited and drafted so many of them. Watching them walk through that door made me feel so good about the type of people -- not just the kind of players -- we drafted. I hear so many people talking negatively about the youth of today, but don't underestimate these kids. They're good kids. My mother is there. Her husband of 59 years is laying in a casket next to her. And these kids walked in and she was just on Cloud Nine ...'' And then Dale Tallon got a little misty over the phone.

"I've played for different teams in juniors and the pros,'' said the 26-year-old Sharp, from the Ontario hockey hotbed of Thunder Bay . "And you walk into every locker room and you become brothers. Maybe it's rare in pro sports, but it's not rare in hockey, I don't think. We're all in this together. It goes back to growing up in hockey. My older brother played, I played, and my parents made huge sacrifices to drive us everywhere we had to go. Everyone in this game knows how much family means.''

Said Ommen: "The culture of hockey revolves around family.''

The team boarded the buses to return to Toronto and the charter flight home. But on the way out of town, as happens with two dozen premier athletes who have not eaten in some time, the players saw a McDonald's. They got the buses to stop. Inside, as the Chicago Blackhawks walked en masse into a sleepy McDonald's in rural Canada long after the dinner crowd was gone, a teenage kid behind the register figured out who he was looking at. "Coooooool!'' he said.

"So on the wall there's this big billboard,'' Sharp said. "I guess McDonald's in Canada has hockey cards, and we're looking at this, and there's [teammates] Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, looking at this. They had cards in this McDonald's series. We all had no idea. So a few of the guys bought the Happy Meals, or whatever, trying to get their cards.''

A couple of weeks have passed. The Blackhawks lost all three games on the last leg of the trip, but no one was blaming the Gravenhurst detour. I asked Sharp if the team had any regrets about attending the wake.

"None,'' he said. "No complaints. We were where we should have been. We'd do it again, 100 times.''

And that's my good news story of the week. Be proud, Canada . You've raised some nice boys.

 

Thanks Win S.

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