ST. LOUIS -- You get jaded sometimes in this business, you forget how lucky you are to do what you do for a living.
But this time of year always rejuvenates my love for the game.
It always reminds me why when I was 9 years old, I dreamed of covering the NHL while my pals wanted to play in it. I was the weird kid who did play-by-play during street hockey games (in French and English).
Being an NHL journalist has been my life’s sole journey for as long as I can remember. I have a Grade 8 scrapbook in which I wrote game recaps for each game of the 1986 Stanley Cup finals between Montreal and Calgary.
It was always going to be my living, one way or another.
Through my work at The Canadian Press, The Score, Sportsnet, "Hockey Night In Canada" and today both for ESPN.com and TSN, I’ve been able to live out my dream.
But sometimes, like when I’m covering a soul-sucking lockout or stressing out over the smallest of transactions around the trade deadline, I ask myself if I’ve lost my passion for this.
Then the playoffs come. This time of year always brings out the young hockey-playing boy who grew up in Northern Ontario wearing a Guy Lafleur jersey, my dad cheering on the Habs, my late mother the Maple Leafs. My sister Denyse, as well as my best friend growing up, Claude Breton, loved Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers, and a boy I really didn’t like, he loved the Nordiques.
Oh, the verbal jabs. All spring long.
The NHL playoffs, nothing beats it.
I remember in spring 1985, I was in Grade 7, Peter Stastny scored in overtime of the deciding game of the Adams Division finals with the Habs -- slipping a rebound past Steve Penney -- I swore for the first time in my life in front of my parents, which did not go well (my mother studied to be a Catholic nun before she met my dad and got swayed away from that life; good thing for me, right?).
I was crying myself to sleep that night, wishing with all my heart Peter Stastny had never defected to North America to play for those rascally Nordiques.
I’ll never forget my dad coming into my bedroom with what I thought would be a stern lecture, but instead he wrapped his arms around me and said, "Don’t worry Pierrot, the Habs will win the Cup next year, I promise."
Somehow that comforted me. And somehow, 13 months later, the Canadiens did just that, thanks to a rookie goalie named Patrick Roy.
I think of my mother during the NHL playoffs more than any other time of the year. She was a huge hockey fan. She inherited the love of the Leafs from her Irish-born father. The fight for the remote control in the ’80s in our house was a little fierce, given the divided Montreal-Toronto loyalties. Oh, but she loved her Leafs. Dougie Gilmour almost did it for her in spring 1993.
My mother died in June 1998 at the age of 55 from ALS. One of the last times I ever saw her -- she was struggling to talk, the disease crippling her vocal cords -- she managed to joke that she hoped the Leafs would win a Cup in my lifetime, at least. She also made me promise to marry the girl I was dating at the time. If you’re reading this, Mom, I did (and you’ve got three grandchildren; the boy is a meathead, just like me).
Oh, and Mom, the Leafs finally made the playoffs again.
The playoffs, the memories ...
Today, I don’t have a favorite team. When you work in this business, you quickly shed your fan passions. It becomes work, even though it’s a great job. As I always say, I cheer for the people in the NHL who phone me back for an interview. Ha.
But I remain a fan of the game. Sure, there are too many teams and there shouldn’t be hockey played in June, but the NHL playoffs still rock.
Somewhere in Chicago, there’s a 9-year-old wearing his Jonathan Toews jersey to school today telling everyone who wants to hear that his Blackhawks are going to win the Stanley Cup this year. He might very well be right. But what he’ll remember most 20 years from now is watching the games with Mom and Dad and his closest buddies.
Nothing beats the NHL playoffs.