Celebrating a friend, hockey bonds

The friendships hockey creates, on and off the ice, give those involved plenty of reasons to smile. Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

Most nights when I was playing juvenile hockey in Essex, Ontario, Tim Queen would pick me up on the way to practice.

I could usually hear Tim's car, an Oldsmobile of a bluish hue, before I could see it. The Olds rumbled.

He lived in Cottam, a few miles away from my parents' home in Northridge, hamlets connected by Highway 3. When he pulled in the driveway, you could usually hear the vibration from the stereo system in the car.

I'm sure we listened to different things, but for some reason all I remember is AC/DC: "Whole Lotta Rosie," "TNT," "Highway To Hell." You know it, right? The speakers in the back -- they may well have been installed by Tim himself -- constantly throbbing.

Maybe we chatted on the way to practice, but given the volume that's not likely.

If memory serves, we practiced Tuesday nights, often after the local Junior C team, the Essex 73s, finished playing its home games. We would drop our gear in the cinder block dressing room of the old arena and climb to the top of the often-crowded stands to watch the end of the game.

By the time we took the ice, the building would be empty.

Tim was cool, me less so. He was a good hockey player, me less so.

But I always looked forward to the rides, a step up in my eyes from my parents' Ford Granada with its 8-track. And Tim was easygoing, gregarious, quick to laugh. We were teenage boys playing small-town hockey sharing experiences that were as unique as they were universal.

Then years passed.

I was in Detroit in late 2006 working on a story on Jiri Fischer of the Detroit Red Wings after his near-death experience in the fall of 2005, and then I took the train from Windsor to Toronto for Hall of Fame weekend.

As the Via train made to depart the Windsor station on that Friday morning, a man approached. "You don't know who I am, do you?" he asked. Nope.

It was Tim Queen. He was en route to Toronto with another former schoolmate from Essex, Dana Glen Allen, to catch the Leafs game the next night. Turns out Tim's nephew was Kyle Wellwood, who was playing for the Maple Leafs, who was also from the Windsor area.

We chatted a bit.

I had actually been in to see Kyle Wellwood's dad in the Windsor suburb of Tecumseh for a story I was working on about the Wellwoods. Small world, right?

As the train was pulling into Toronto I asked where the boys were staying, what their plans were. I mentioned that the hockey writers generally gathered at a downtown place called Upfront and that they were welcome to join us. Later that night, they did.

It was typical of Hall of Fame weekends as writers, old friends, gathered from around the continent. Al Strachan was there, our good friend Pierre LeBrun, Eric Duhatschek, Tim Wharnsby and David Shoalts. Seemingly a cast of thousands.

As is usually the case when this group gathers, there was lots of good-natured banter, storytelling, perhaps even some off-key karaoke.

In some ways I suppose our unruly mob was a window onto a different world for Tim and Dana. They were hockey guys through and through. and here they were rubbing shoulders with figures they saw on "Hockey Night in Canada" or on TSN or other sports programs, or read on the Internet or in national newspapers.

Not surprisingly, the boys from Essex fit in perfectly, the common bond of the game making it so. It was a titanic evening. Even the irascible Strachan was his charming best, agreeing to pose for pictures with the two Essex lads who were thrilled at spending time with the Hall of Fame writer.

At one point, Allen leaned over and said above the din, "You know what? You have a great life."

I agreed. How could I not?

I've thought about that night often over the years. About the randomness of running into Tim Queen and Dana Allen, their connection to the Wellwood family, and the game that had bound us earlier in our lives and then again as adults.

Mostly I would think about Dana's keen observation of our lives as people who cover the game for a living.

If Dana Allen had made the same comment to every person there that night, would anyone have answered differently? I would guess not. Yet there was something, if not momentous then certainly meaningful, about giving pause to consider our collective good fortune.

I've thought about that night a lot more often these past few days.

Tim Queen died last Sunday. He was 51. We hadn't spoken since that night at Upfront.

I knew he'd been sick for some time. I spoke of it with NHL referee Dan O'Halloran, who is also from Essex, during the playoffs a couple of years back, both of us getting some details on Tim's illness from family and friends.

I reached out at one point, got a phone number, but never connected.

So I am left with the memory of that night at Upfront, of those rides down Highway 3 with the windows rattling to the music. There's a picture on Facebook that shows Dana Allen and Tim Queen at the Hockey Hall of Fame, which I'm pretty sure was taken that weekend in Toronto.

There are other pictures there that clearly illustrate the pride he felt for his nephew's success. There's the family with the Memorial Cup, which Kyle's younger brother Eric won in back-to-back seasons with the Windsor Spitfires in 2009 and 2010. There's another pic of a framed lineup card noting Eric Wellwood's first NHL game back in 2010 with the Philadelphia Flyers.

There are pictures of other family gatherings, including his son Ty a college student in London, Ontario. Lawn chairs, sunglasses, a convertible, cold beer.

Did he have an inkling that long-ago weekend in Toronto what lay ahead for him? I wish I'd worked harder to share with him the kind of impact our raucous night in Toronto had on me, how I spoke of it often to my colleagues, sharing with them Dana's simple observation about the life we lead.

I'm told there was a gathering in Tim's honor at the pond in Cottam last week. That sounds about perfect.

So, here's to Tim Queen. Thanks for the rides. And the rest.

Rest easy.