Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

What if?

The death of Wade Belak has hit home in the WHL, where he once played with the Saskatoon Blades.  The grown man who is lost to us now was once an eager teenager working towards being drafted by the NHL, just like today’s junior players.  For those of us who live in a hockey town in the Dub, you cannot help but think what if that was one of our players? What if something like that were to happen to one of the Portland Winterhawks? I truly hope changes are on the way in the NHL that will help prevent any future tragedies like this and we never have to answer that question. But since I know some of the Winterhawks personally, I couldn’t help but think: what would I do to keep them safe from harm? And what advice would I give them so something like this never happens to them?

Put family first: Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Joe Morrow told the media in the post-draft news blitz that “family comes first, hockey is second.” If you’ve ever talked to Sven Bartschi, you know that even though he’s far from home, his family is clearly a huge part of his life. Most junior players, when asked, will tell you that their hero is one or both of their parents, and/or a sibling.  So here’s the deal: no matter how far you sail the boat from the harbor, always remember to take the anchor. You never know when you might need it.

Well, ok put your family and yourself first: Normally, I find selfishness to be a complete turn off but in this instance I will make an exception, with good reason. We all know I’m no expert, but it seems to me that one of the reasons players get lost along the way and don’t seek help or self-medicate with substances of one sort or another is the “man up” culture that pervades hockey. There are times to go along with it and man up, like when you get clocked by a puck and need stitches and you need to go back out and play in Game 7 of the playoffs. And there are times when it is ok to say the heck with that and ask for help. Think about it this way: your mental and emotional fitness are an equally important part of being at the top of your game. Just like working with a trainer to get physically fit or changing your diet, you need to take care of your mental health. If that means asking for help, do it, no matter how hard it is or how afraid you are of what other people think. It’s your life and you have the right to protect it at all costs.

Choose your friends well: Get to know the people you choose as friends, spouse, partner, whatever, inside and out. Check references if you must. One thing I love about the Winterhawks is their loyalty to one another, without question. Most of the fights that Riley Boychuk, Brad Ross or Brett Ponich start are in defense of their teammates or linemates. And from what I can tell, they all stay friends after they’ve left here. That boys, is friendship. It’s not as easy to find once you are out in the real world, but it’s worth the time and effort to choose your support system well. It’s like your parents have probably told you a thousand times: real friends help you themselves or they give you a ride to someone who can. And just so we’re clear, “Friends on Facebook” don’t count as friends.

The second time around the block is a way better ride:  I discovered hockey when I was 12, on a television, which I was watching when I lived in Arizona. I didn’t watch a live hockey game until I moved to New York City at 26 and went to a Rangers game at the Garden. And I didn’t start blogging about hockey until I was 41. Do I regret not making it my job or hobby sooner? Sure, but I have a second chance and I’m taking it. And I assure you it’s way better this time around. ‘Tis true, there is nothing like hearing fans chant your name at a sold out Saturday game,going top shelf for the game winning goal at the buzzer, or lifting the Stanley Cup.  But that doesn’t mean the second act can’t come pretty darn close. Here’s the deal: I’ve never played hockey in my life, so I can assure you that some of the greatest, most exhilirating hockey-related moments in your life may very well be found off the ice. Like say, the 10th row above the players’ bench at the Rose Garden in the third period of Game 2 of the WHL Championship Series. Or how about this: Guy Boucher had to quit playing due to illness and Dan Bylsma wasn’t exactly the Sidney Crosby of his day, but both have found scorching success behind the bench, just as they were approaching 40. Cam Neely never won a Stanley Cup as a player. Not once. And this summer, he finally lifted it for the first time, as the Bruins’ President. So you see, everything happens for a reason and there is life after hockey. And it can be just as beautiful as your playing days. You just have to see the beauty that can be before it happens. Kinda like when you’re in junior and you want to get drafted.. you have to believe it’s possible to make it real.

And if that doesn’t work, there’s always this: Joe told me recently that he regards Portland like a second home.  Likewise, we regard the players who call our city home as one of our own. And that’s how I know this for sure: no matter where you go from here and no matter what you do, Portland will be behind you all the way. Period. Exclamation point.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com