Chapter One: My Original Team CHAPTER ONE MY ORIGINAL TEAM
To understand me, you have to know that hockey is not the most important thing in my life—family is.
I know how that must sound—like a bunch of cookie-cutter autobiographical rhetoric. Obviously, I love the game. It’s been central to so much of what and how I’ve lived. But almost every experience I’ve had in hockey connects back to my family or its influence, right from the very beginning.
In some ways, for me, hockey is simply an extension of family. I mean that literally.
I’m like a lot of people. I grew up wanting to be like my dad, and although he earned a living most of my childhood as a teacher, my earliest memory of him is as a professional hockey player.
When I first put on skates, at the age of three, our family was living in Portland, Oregon, and Dad was playing for the Portland Buckaroos, one of six teams in the Western Hockey League. Some of the WHL teams were affiliated with NHL teams; others, like the Buckaroos, were unaffiliated. Until 1967, there were only six NHL teams and the farthest west was in Chicago, so professional hockey in vast swaths of North America was about elite, professional leagues like the WHL.
I was in grade school when my dad retired from playing hockey and became a full-time teacher, but over the years I’ve come to learn everything there is to know about his career. He was a hockey lifer. He would go anywhere to play and he often did. He was chasing a dream. He was a hard-nosed defenseman who had 265 points in eleven seasons. He was the tough guy on every one of his teams. In an era of physical hockey, he was not the type of player you turned your back on. As my brother, Paul, likes to say: He played for keeps.
He was exactly what you might expect, and also exactly what you wouldn’t. At home, he was an attentive father and a patient teacher, and to say he was a supportive husband is an understatement. On the other side of things, one year with the Buckaroos, he led the league in penalty minutes. A reporter came to our house to do a feature on him and the guy seemed genuinely baffled to find a soft-spoken man with his wife and a bunch of mannerly kids. This was the home life of the Buckaroos’ tough guy? As much as Doug lived for hockey, he always put family first, and he had interests in life that went beyond the sport. After he retired from hockey, he got a master’s degree in education and taught kids with special needs.
DAD GREW UP IN THE prairie towns of eastern Alberta, where his father, Edmond, was a driller on oil rigs. It was a big family (Dad had four brothers and a sister) and they moved around a lot, to wherever the fields were plentiful. By the time he was fifteen, the family had moved four times, eventually ending up in Edmonton. The oil company my grandpa worked for, Regent Drilling, was operated by Paul Bowlen, whose son Pat would go on to own the NFL’s Denver Broncos.
One summer, Doug worked as a roughneck on the rigs, too, muscling 500-pound pipes as they swung by chains into fittings. He was only seventeen years old. It was dangerous, dirty, and grueling work; eight-hour shifts, seven days a week, with a day off only every third week.
He and his dad bunked together that summer in a farmhouse, sleeping in a little top-floor bedroom where the storm windows had been left on from the winter. Sometimes they worked the overnight shift and had to sleep during the days, which was challenging and somewhat less than restful as the searing prairie heat turned the sealed little dorm into an oven.
In every new home, one thing was consistent: Doug was among the best hockey players in his youth programs. When he was between fifteen and seventeen years old, playing at what was called the Midget level at that time, he competed with and against players including Johnny Bucyk and Norm Ullman, both future Hall of Famers.
Doug loved hockey but the family’s move to Edmonton brought him to the true love of his life, my mother, Mary-Jean Dea. Mom grew up in Edmonton. She had a pretty good life there but was no stranger to hardship—she lost her father when she was eight, and an uncle had died in World War II. Her dad, John Lorne Dea, was actually a goalie for the Edmonton Eskimos, an elite local hockey team. She lived with her mother, Alice, and grandmother Jen Styles in the family home, but also spent time on a farm in Innisfail, to the south, owned by some relatives. Dad’s younger brother Larry knew Mary-Jean and set them up on a date. Once they met, he courted her quickly. It didn’t hurt that, at sixteen years old, Mom was Miss Teen Edmonton. When they married, she was seventeen, and Dad twenty-one.
Newly married, Dad was hoping for a chance to go to the NHL Red Wings training camp, but that opportunity didn’t materialize. Instead, he signed for fifty dollars a week and lodging to play for the Nottingham Panthers of the British National League.
One big reason for the move: Mom was pregnant with my older brother, Paul, and the timing was a little controversial. It was clear Paul was conceived before the wedding, so to obscure that fact, Mom and Dad quickly got married in Edmonton, got on a boat to England, and had Paul there. Maybe that doesn’t seem like such an issue today, but at the time, 1957, they felt this was best.
These days, hockey in Great Britain might seem to be a strange idea, but there was a time when the sport was a big deal there. Great Britain was a founding member of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Though it hasn’t had a team qualify for the Olympics since 1948, Britain won the gold medal at the 1936 games, dramatically beating Canada 2–1 in the semifinal.
In the postwar period, the British National League was a six-team operation that attracted thousands of fans to its games. Two of the players on each roster had to be from Britain, but the rest could come from anywhere, so a lot of North American players went over. In the late summer of 1957, Dad, along with a number of other “imports,” did just that, taking the Queen Mary from New York to London. He always liked to remind the four of us—my brother, Paul, and my sisters, Mary-Kay and Jennifer—that we might want to think twice about ever giving our mother a hard time. She had made that transatlantic passage on a ship without stabilizers, one that was skirting a hurricane, while she was pregnant! She was tough. She refused to take any medication on that heaving weeklong journey to ease the morning sickness, which ended up being a good thing since what she would have been prescribed was Thalidomide, later shown to cause horrific birth defects.
It wasn’t easy playing in Britain. The rosters in the BNL contained only ten players plus a goalie. NHL rosters are much bigger, and even in the games I played where it felt like I was constantly on the ice, I would end up logging around twenty-five minutes. In the BNL, Doug would have been on the ice for more than thirty, maybe even forty minutes a game, especially as a defenseman. That’s a big difference. As hard as it must have been, all that extra ice time helped his overall game improve.
Dad played for one year with the Nottingham Panthers. He and my mom spent most of that time in Britain. With the pregnancy and then a newborn, they didn’t get a lot of chances to travel. But the Panthers team did make some trips: once for ten days to Germany, and a memorable trip to Czechoslovakia.
The players had heard that in those days of the Iron Curtain, the Czechs had a healthy appetite for any consumer goods from the West. Apparently, nylon stockings were a particularly hot commodity, so Doug and his teammates stocked up on them at fifty cents a pair before they left Britain.
When the team got to Czechoslovakia, they saw what appeared to be nylons featured in several store windows, but were in fact knockoffs called “sylons,” definitely not as good as the real thing. The players set up one of their hotel rooms as a kind of trading post for locals. They had to be careful who they trusted, but Doug managed to trade his haul of nylons for a crystal decanter, a movie camera, and a set of glasses that he still has.
He also took a new heavy winter coat to sell, which one man wanted to acquire, but the buyer was nervous about the transaction. He told Doug to take the coat out with him to a park, where the man would be. If Doug saw the fellow flick his cigarette, then he should put the coat in the open back window of his car—which he did.
It turned out all the cloak-and-dagger caution was for naught. The buyer was the Czech security official who’d been assigned as their minder. He was just waiting for an opportunity to carefully make his own acquisition from the visiting team.
The time in Britain went by quickly. Paul was born in January, in London, with the help of a midwife. Then they came back to North America to continue the hockey odyssey.
They started in Grand Forks, where Dad played for the University of North Dakota and took college courses. He also worked three jobs to make ends meet: cleaning a shop where the university’s newspaper was printed, pumping gas, and driving a semitruck loaded with ice cream on an eight-hour round-trip run between Grand Forks and Minot.
Mom and Dad wanted to get home, though, so after a year in North Dakota, they moved to Edmonton, and my sister Jenny was born. Dad enrolled at the University of Alberta and played two seasons of hockey for both the school and the Lacombe Rockets, a senior team in the Central Alberta Hockey League. He also signed a deal to teach in the Lacombe school system in his “spare time.” Doug never really lectured me about hard work, and he didn’t have to. Growing up and listening to his stories of those times, I understood viscerally about the cost of getting to where you wanted to go and never complaining about what it took to get there. It was hard to make excuses about not having enough time to get things done to a man whose days seemed to be twenty-five hours long.
During his second year playing with the Rockets, Dad pivoted again, this time to take advantage of what looked like his big break. One night, the Rockets played an exhibition game against the Detroit Red Wings’ top farm club, the Edmonton Flyers, and although Lacombe lost 3–2, Doug had a pretty good game. The Flyers’ coaching staff noticed and invited him to their September 1961 training camp in Detroit.
This was too good an opportunity to pass up. As important as finishing his education and getting the training for a teaching career was, he was still determined to pursue hockey as far as he could—something my mother fully supported, even though it was tough on her. It wasn’t just about chasing a dream, though: Hockey provided income for the growing family, and that was always the top priority.
Before heading off to the Wings’ training camp, he went up to my uncle Mike Dea’s cabin on Wabamun Lake for a few days of relaxation. My uncle Mike was an amazing guy. A schoolteacher with a kind soul, he’d spend hours a day showing kids how to water-ski. Doug was a pretty good water-skier, but my uncle introduced him to something new: letting the boat pull him along on a three-foot disk rather than skis. He figured it out, but in doing so, badly pulled a groin muscle.
Back then, training camps were long and designed to get players in shape for the season. Most players worked different jobs over the off-season and didn’t have the luxury of training and conditioning year-round. It was a time for players to get stronger, so it was unfortunate when a couple days into training camp the injury got worse. It didn’t help that, back then, teams worked out twice a day. The pain he endured just to play was excruciating. Still, in spite of it, he was performing well, and in the inter-squad matchups scored a few game-winning goals. The Red Wings had missed the playoffs the year before, and Gordie Howe noticed Doug’s play.
“Keep going, kid,” Howe told him. “We need some new players here.”
Eventually, he could barely skate due to his worsening injury and was forced to sit out three weeks. He endured a number of painful injections in some pretty indelicate spots. But he managed to get back on the ice, and he made the Flyers. He was officially a member of the Red Wings’ top minor league club.
He took a year off from his studies, and in his first season with the Flyers, played 63 games and had 34 points and the highest penalty minutes on his team by far. He then scored 7 goals in the playoffs to help Edmonton win the 1962 championship.
It was nearly the same story during his second season, except that he struck an unusual deal in which the team agreed he would play only home games, plus those in Calgary—which was just three hours away—so he could get back to finishing his degree at the University of Alberta. However, the aroma of competition proved irresistible, luring him to play more than he had planned, so he ended up playing 56 games and scoring 37 points, while still notching by far the most penalty minutes on the team.
Though it took him longer than he wanted, he got his degree. It’s amazing he did it at all. I had been born during his first season with the Flyers, meaning he now had three kids. On top of helping my mom out with us, playing hockey, and finishing school, he was working multiple jobs to support the family. My sister Mary-Kay was born in fall 1963, bringing the count to four.
The 1963–64 season was a challenging one for Doug, and the family. Dad was away a lot. Within Detroit’s system, he was moved from the Flyers to the Indianapolis Capitals. The team then became the Cincinnati Wings midway through the season, so he moved again. Finally, he was transferred to the Pittsburgh Hornets. All of this happened in quick succession. In the fall of 1963, Mom flew the family two thousand miles from Edmonton to meet him in Pittsburgh, but arrived just as Doug was heading out on a road trip and spent the next few days alone in a hotel room, with four kids—all of whom had the measles. There’s no question the sacrifices they both made were massive. It came down to their commitment to make it work, and the love and respect they had for each other.
Later that year, in early 1964, he was lent to the Portland Buckaroos of the Western Hockey League, and we moved with him. That’s where the hockey life started for me.
I REMEMBER GOING TO PRACTICE with Doug, sometimes at the Buckaroos’ home stadium, the Portland Memorial Coliseum, and sometimes at a rink in a shopping mall called Silver Skate, where the team practiced when they couldn’t get time in the arena.
Portland loved the Buckaroos. Long before the NBA’s Trail Blazers arrived and hours from the big college sports towns of Corvallis and Eugene, the Buckaroos were literally the only game in town. It wasn’t unusual for ten thousand people to fill the Coliseum to watch a game. Although the Portland fans were passionate, at the time there wasn’t much participatory youth hockey culture, so Doug started a summer program for kids at Silver Skate, which I joined at the age of three.
The program was open to almost anyone, and everybody who came was a beginner, but they weren’t all as little as me. Dad tells stories about the college football players at Portland State who came out wearing their big football shoulder pads.
Two years later, when I was five, I was playing on my first organized team, which was sponsored by a local roofing company. Mom used to drive me to the games because Dad was often on the road with the Buckaroos. But I remember a game we played when Dad came to watch, which was a treat, as was the discussion we had after—the first real discussion I ever had with Doug about hockey. We were in the car on the way home and he said: “Mark, you know, you’re a pretty good skater. When the puck goes down into the other team’s zone and into the corner, if you’re the first guy down there, you should go get it.”
“Uh-uh,” I told him, disagreeing. “The coach says I should go in front of the net.” I was respecting authority, in this case my coach’s, as Doug had taught me.
At that age, it was totally lost on me that I might be best served listening to my father—a professional hockey player—rather than my volunteer youth league coach, C. J. Lindsay, who was a very nice man, but whose primary hockey credential was that he sang the national anthem before Buckaroos games. Of course, there’s no point going to the net if your team doesn’t have the puck, and Dad must have been laughing inside. Doug’s hockey class began for me that day, and never stopped.
THOSE PORTLAND YEARS WERE WHERE the bond was formed with my original team: my siblings. The four of us—my brother, Paul; my older sister, Jenny; me; and my younger sister, Mary-Kay—are separated by a little more than five years.
We did everything together, and we were always outside. Our house was in the southwest part of town, out toward Beaverton, on four acres. We had horses, which were a passion of my dad’s dating back to his childhood. There was a barn out back and some bridle trails running through part of the property. It was no accident that we’d ended up on that sort of land.
When Doug was twelve, his family was living in Lloydminster on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, and he would walk into town every day and ask just about anyone he encountered if they had a horse for sale. All my dad had was fifty cents in his pocket, so even if the response was yes, the eventual answer was bound to be no.
One day, though, he approached an old guy in a wagon hitched to a few old nags, and posed his usual question.
“How much you got?” the guy asked.
“Fifty cents,” Doug told him, expecting the usual rejection.
My dad got his first horse that day, an old black gelding he named Midnight. What he didn’t learn until later was that the horse wasn’t the man’s to sell. It had wandered onto his property. Luckily, no one ever claimed it. Doug owned it lovingly for the three years he lived in Lloydminster. He once rode fifty-five miles on Midnight to visit an uncle on his farm in Heath. The trip took three days.
Around the same time, he became friendly with a man named Fred Howard, who tended horses on a big dairy farm. Doug would go and help him out, and became a skilled horseman, eventually getting good enough in the saddle to compete in local fairs on Howard’s horses. The deal was that Doug kept whatever he won riding English style, and Howard kept the money he won riding western style.
My first memory of chores was shoveling the stalls and working around the barns of our house in Portland. I loved caring for the animals. We had a Shetland pony and an Anglo-Arabian mare. My brother and sisters and I used to play this game with the horses that gave me my first real taste of teamwork and strategy. Paul and Jenny were one team, and Mary-Kay and I were the other. I was on the Shetland and Paul was on the Anglo-Arabian. We’d line up a hundred or so yards away from where our sisters were waiting, and then would gallop on our horses straight toward them. The point of the game was to collect your partner and race back to the start. The Anglo-Arabian was bigger and faster, so Paul usually beat me in the race to reach our sisters. But because the Shetland was closer to the ground, it was easier for me to collect Mary-Kay. We won our fair share. The game showed me there can be different systems or visions of winning, and you have to believe in yours. The race isn’t always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Or put another way, as I like to say, there are many ways to the one way.
A decade or so later, I would have the best seat in the house to witness confirmation of the theory. In a physical game, a skinny kid from Brantford, Ontario, Wayne Gretzky, proved that skill and hockey IQ can be just as effective as brute force.
In the summers, our family would go to a small vacation cabin we had near the base of Oregon’s Mount Hood, in the town of Rhododendron. It had three bedrooms and was made out of logs.
We hiked and fished and rode bikes. We played kick the can and every card and board game you could imagine. We stayed up late talking and laughing. We got up early raring to go and do it all again. The only other entertainment we had was a record player. We had a total of two choices: Abbey Road by the Beatles or Here I Am by Dionne Warwick. We wore them both out.
When Doug stopped playing for the Buckaroos and our family moved back to Edmonton, these summer trips to the cabin would bring us even closer together—literally.
It would be the six of us, my grandmother Alice, and our 80-pound Old English sheepdog, Tootie, packed into our red Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon. We looked like the opening scene from that TV show The Beverly Hillbillies with all our stuff lashed to the top of the car and hanging out in every direction. It was a two-day adventure over a thousand miles. And sometimes, a couple weeks after we got to the cabin and set up camp, or maybe later in the summer, we’d jump back in the car and go another thousand miles to visit friends from our Portland days, Jack and Mavis Robinson, who lived in Malibu.
On the way down from Edmonton to Oregon, every year we’d stop in Deep Creek, Montana, and stay at the same little motel, all seven of us—and Tootie—piled into one room. The place didn’t allow dogs, so sneaking our canine family member in was just another team-building exercise.
By that point, Doug was a schoolteacher with a modest salary, so we had to watch what we spent. One year, Mom and Dad came down to breakfast late to find we’d all ordered freshly squeezed orange juice. It nearly blew the budget for the entire trip. Needless to say, Doug was not happy.
Something we all learned early on was that when you’re close to people—especially when you’re physically that close, and for many hours at a time—conflict is inevitable. Actually, the companion to closeness is conflict. It’s unavoidable. Can you imagine how many disagreements seven people in one station wagon had on a seventeen-hour trip, about the radio alone?
But when it came to conflict, we had an ironclad rule: Get over it. You have a choice to either resolve your differences and live together productively, or you can ignore them and allow the toxin of resentment and anger to infect your relationships. When it comes down to it, these are the only two options.
That car was a rolling test tube that distilled patience, tolerance, understanding, and respect for other people’s space and points of view. We all know people who are unaware of the way they affect others, who are too loud, too demanding, too uncompromising. My parents wouldn’t let that happen with us. If they had, the windows might have exploded out of that Oldsmobile. Ultimately someone had to be in charge and that was always my parents. And one thing was certain: Once either Mom or Dad settled a disagreement, that was it. We knew not to argue, and they never contradicted each other.
I didn’t know it at the time, but dealing with those dynamics prepared me to be part of a team, where you travel and live with the same people for months on end. Long before I skated around with the Stanley Cup, I learned valuable lessons about getting along with others.
In a family, like any team, there are always going to be different personality types. Not everyone looks at a piece of art and has the same response. Not everyone hears the same message in a speech. Each person is a unique combination of their genetic wiring and life experiences. As a leader, you learn to accept and appreciate that each of your teammates might react differently to the same situation. With that knowledge, you can resolve any conflicts that arise from a place of understanding.
DURING THOSE SUMMERS IN THE cabin, Doug would drive on the weekends to the University of Portland, where he was working on his master’s. On Mondays, he’d come back to his own little laboratory at home, where he would test his coursework out on the four of us, and teach us at the same time. It all felt like fun and games, but there were lessons being learned.
One time, he took two wide glasses of water, both filled to exactly the same point. Then he emptied one of them into a new glass that was taller and skinnier. Then he asked us each to tell him which glass contained more water.
Of course, the correct and obvious answer is that they both had the same amount of water. But a seven-year-old might look at that second, taller glass, with a higher water level, and not be entirely sure, while a nine-year-old may understand what’s really going on immediately. The concept he was testing was called the “transfer of learning.” He was both teaching us and also getting a picture for himself of how children’s minds develop at different ages when it comes to abstract learning. He recognized a valuable corollary as well along the way: If you try to teach a person something before they are ready, it could not only be futile, but frustrating, and possibly diminish their self-image.
Dad thought very carefully about the way I developed. Although he steered me toward hockey from a young age, he also made sure my life was filled with all sorts of experiences—each with its own lessons to teach. Growing up, I didn’t only play hockey, I played soccer, baseball, lacrosse, and a lot of the time I just played outside the structure of organized sports. The balance in my life made me love hockey even more. When the season came and it was time to play the game, I would be ready to go and run toward it.
Those days in Portland and summers in the shadow of Mount Hood were in many ways laying the foundation of who I would become. It might surprise some people that so little of it had to do with hockey. But my obsession with the sport wasn’t far off. Just as every dwelling is more than simply a foundation, I was about to add some essential building blocks to what I had learned, and so much of it would happen on the ice.