Yesterday was bookended by hockey for my two daughters, a six a.m. practice for Mia and a seven-twenty p.m. game for Zoe. I coached both, skating with Mia’s team and handling the offensive door on the bench for Zoe’s team.
In between, I wrote and edited my book for parents who want a map of the future but are overwhelmed due to early challenges for their child. In drafting the closing section, a call to greatness for parents, I drew from a letter my father wrote thirty-one years ago, just after Thanksgiving. Parts of that letter have been my personal rallying cry for decades.
That Thanksgiving of 1989, my parents had come to the Boston area to my sister and brother-in-law’s home. Their first daughter, my niece, was a toddler. I joined them too as it was just an hour for me to get there from Providence, where I had a short break from my studies at Brown University and my hockey practices. My father was flustered when he and my mother arrived from their long drive from Ithaca. He seemed agitated about misplacing his glasses.
My father loved ice hockey. He never played but he doctored the Cornell men’s team for twenty-five years. Before almost every game, he put his nose in the locker room and shouted, “Good luck, give ‘em hell!” And, the players responded, “Thank you, Doc.” And, with that ritual, he felt like a member of the Cornell hockey family.
He wrote a letter to the team the week after Thanksgiving because it would be the first Cornell vs. Harvard game that he would miss since Cornell first beat Harvard in 1962. He shared, “Hockey has been a passion for me, consuming fall and winter months. I love the game because of the speed, the grace, the emotion. I love you kids who play it.”
He explained that he would miss the game for neurosurgery to remove his own brain tumor. He had diagnosed this tumor that week after realizing his timing was off when making left turns when driving. His visual field was reduced when looking to the left. He did not want sympathy and went on to encourage the team:
“I know from long years’ exposure to hockey, that hockey games are won on the ice. They are won by hard work in the corners, in front of the net. They are won by fierce forechecking, by concentration and intensity. They are won by getting to the puck first. They are won by playing both ends of the ice and by just plain damn hard work. It means not giving up on any loose puck, always trying to get to the puck first.”
Facing the uncertainty of surgery, he urged the team to carry on, to do their work. He went into surgery “with my eyes wide open, hoping for a cure.” He got time, fourteen months to spend with all of us, his family, and while he lost some of the visual-spatial skills that had been his livelihood, his language and social skills remained so he could do the important work of saying goodbye.
As I was a college student at the time of his illness, the words of this letter and a personal one he wrote to us in his immediate family the night before his surgery became resources that I drew upon when nothing else made sense. I had lots of time to embody “the speed, the grace, the emotion” at hockey practice for two hours most days of the winter season. That season and the next, hockey alternately meant everything and nothing to me. It was cathartic to have reliable vigorous exercise, supportive to have a team sport and teammates with whom to practice, play, and hang out. I poured my heart into the game and left it all out on the ice. Sometimes, when frustrated, I walked away from the rink feeling like none of it mattered.
I was twenty when my father wrote that letter. He died when I was twenty-one, months before I graduated from college. One of my nieces, who was six then, used to come watch my college hockey games when Brown played against Cornell. She and her younger brothers grew up playing hockey, and she now coaches hockey and teaches at a prep school. I am a mother to two daughters who play hockey. I help coach. Other family members still play hockey recreationally, and those in Ithaca watch the Cornell games in ordinary winters.
The hockey legacy is strong thirty-one years later in my extended family, and that spirit of hard work persists on and off the ice. As my father closes the letter, “Work hard in the corners. Good luck. Give ‘em hell.”