This Team Is Ruining My Life (But I Love Them)
How I Became a Professional Hockey Fan
Foreword by Jeff Marek
My First Scar
The Jump to North America
First & Only
Game of Bounces
Welcome to YouTube
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Tea & Truculence
“We’re Gonna Make You a Star”
Bring Your Lawyer
“EBs” & Flows
The Golden Day
Until the Final Buzzer
Dougie Effing Hamilton
Your Head in Your Own Boat
My Day as a Senator
Story Time with Smitty
You Have to Know the Game
Sidney Crosby’s Pants
Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?
Use Your Head
Infiltrating Suit Country
My First Game
About the Author
Foreword by Jeff Marek
It’s November 20, 2018, and I’m sitting in the Lotus room at the Sportsnet hockey studios, on the 10th floor of the CBC building in downtown Toronto. This is where we watch games while we work and throw it around about hockey: the rumours, the gossip, who’s getting traded or punted — all of it grist for the mill in the Lotus. But best of all, this is where we share stories — most not suitable for broadcast.
Everybody has either a story or, at the very least, a thought about Dangle. It’s impossible to hear his name and just shrug. When people ask me about Steve, the conversation usually goes something like this: Steve Dangle? Yeah, I know him. He’s a nice bunch of guys.
Tonight, I’m working with NHLer turned beloved hockey analyst Colby Armstrong. He remembers Dangle from his playing days with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I first saw him on one of his now-famous LFRs (I don’t even know that that means) when I was playing with the Leafs. I loved to surf the net, especially YouTube. I’d go down massive rabbit holes, and one night I came across this video.
Why not give it a click?
This kid popped up in his decked-out Leafs bedroom, going absolutely bananas over how embarrassing it was that we got beat by Nashville. I was laying on the couch, watching this kid as he just ripped us apart, losing it Leafs super-fan style.
I yelled to my wife, “Hey, you gotta check out this Leafs fan,” as I was dying laughing. “This guy’s an animal.”
When I got past how crazy and hardcore of a Leafs fan he was, I was actually pretty amazed at the style of video. I had never seen a style like that before. It was so good. I learned later it’s called jump cuts. I wasn’t even mad he was destroying us; I was impressed at how good the video was.
But when I first met him, he was quieter than I thought he’d be — maybe I was expecting the guy from the video. Now I work with Steve at Sportsnet. How funny is that?
Like many of you, I first “met” Steve on YouTube; although, “saw” is a better way to put it. Actually, to say I first “experienced” Steve on YouTube might be even better. It was 2008, and one of his videos was linked on Greg Wyshynski’s highly popular and influential Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo Sports. I hadn’t seen anything like it before.
Part of me was stunned.
What is this?
And who is this guy?
Steve is a fan talking — and at times screaming — to himself and his alter ego, Hat Guy, call and response style. But these are more than just fan videos, and Steve is more than just a fan.
These are open letters to hockey fans about how Steve feels about his team. Part of it even seems like therapy. Steve is the fan who has to get it all out.
I love it.
There’s a rule in our industry: no cheering in the press box. But there’s no rule about cheering on from your bedroom. Steve was, and still is, the epitome of the “fan journalist.” To many people in the broadcast and print world, those two words form a dichotomy, but in the new era of media currency, it’s become more and more accepted and commonplace. It represents a refreshing change in many ways: being honest about your bias.
More than anyone else, I point to Steve when I talk to young people who want to break into hockey media. His is the way you do it.
When I started at the Fan 590 in 1995, the only way to get in was to catch a break. Somebody had to hire you and, generally, you had to go to small-town Canada to learn how to work in broadcasting. Maybe you came back, but you probably didn’t. This industry gives you a reason and opportunity to quit just about every day. But today, you don’t need to wait for someone to wave a magic wand over your head and hire you. You can just do it yourself. That’s what Steve did.
Sure, he had some internships and caught some breaks along the way, but Steve got in because he used everything around him. Every bit of technology and every marketing platform — he was on it, and he stayed on it, consistently cranking out videos and keeping his name in the mix. Steve was consistent. He started and never stopped.
Want to be a broadcaster? Start a podcast, start making videos, write a blog. This has been my message to people looking for a way in. Build a body of work, and they will find you. They found Steve.
Steve tapped on the hockey world’s shoulder for years, and when it turned around, he knew what to say.
Jeff Marek, 2018
My First Scar
Do you have hockey scars? I have only one, though I don’t recall getting it.
I was about three and playing ball hockey in the driveway with the neighbour kids. As my mom remembers it, I ran inside crying and bleeding from the corner of my left eye. The game must have gotten crazy, or maybe it was just because I was a motor-mouthed hyperactive kid who hadn’t developed proper balancing skills yet: I had apparently ran into the brick corner of our garage.
My mom patched me up, the tears soon stopped, and I started to run back outside.
“Where are you going?” my mom asked.
I yelled back, “I gotta finish the game!”
It’s what Don Cherry would call a “Good Ol’ Canadian Boy” moment — but sadly, I don’t have one that relates to actual ice.
I never played the game.
Although I did fantasize about scoring the Stanley Cup–winning goal (and I still do), it never really bothered me that I didn’t play “real” hockey because deep down, I knew I wasn’t destined to be a star athlete. I wanted something different.
In Anchorman, there’s a scene where Ron Burgundy comes on the TV at a bar, and a biker shouts, “Hey, everybody! Shut the hell up! Ron Burgundy’s on!” That is exactly the way Don Cherry and Ron MacLean were treated at my house during my childhood. I remember watching “Coach’s Corner” as a kid — whether it was with my parents, aunts, uncles, and other family members, the reaction was the same.
Ron and Don would appear on the TV during the first intermission and yell and scream at each other. There’s no way I understood what the hell they were talking about; what I was paying attention to, even at the age of four or five, was how the adults reacted.
From one rant to another, my family would go from laughing at Ron and Don to laughing with them. That was fascinating to me. Every Saturday, Ron and Don had the attention of millions around the country. More importantly from my little perspective, they had the attention of every adult in my house. As a kid, all you want is for adults to pay attention to you and take you seriously. So to me, that was just as incredible as any Doug Gilmour goal, any Wendel Clark hit, or any Felix Potvin flashy glove save.
Fast forward about a quarter of a century to spring 2017, and I’m sitting in a restaurant in Whitby, Ontario, with three friends. I look up and Ron and Don are talking about Jarome Iginla on “Coach’s Corner.” At least that’s what I assumed they were talking about because the sound was off.
A few minutes later, I looked down at my phone. I had text messages from 17 different people, missed calls, voicemails, and a bunch of notifications.
I’m not even kidding when I say my first thought was that somebody had died.
“OMG CALL ME RIGHT NOW!” my wife messaged me. About a dozen messages from others were some variation of “HOLY SHIT!!!”
Ron MacLean had said my name on “Coach’s Corner” live on Hockey Night in Canada. Apparently, he had seen a video that I had made for Sportsnet about how Jarome Iginla should have been named one of the NHL’s top 100 players of all time.
“We’ve never met Steve Dangle, but he said he should have been one of the 100,” Ron said.
“Who?” Don interrupted.
“Steve Dangle. He’s on Hockey Central every weeknight,” Ron explained.
Don then went off about how ludicrous it was that Evgeni Malkin wasn’t one of the top 100 either, but I had got what I needed.
So how the hell did it happen?
Whether you’re a fan of mine, you can’t stand me, or you have no idea who the hell I am, I want to give you my sincerest thanks for picking up this book. Time is precious and every single day there are new ways for us to spend it. The fact that you would choose to spend some time reading this book or listening to my manic hockey rants is truly an honour.
I love reading books or hearing stories from hockey broadcasters about how they got to where they are. Most of them, however, tend to be older — in their 50s, 60s, 70s — and are accomplished individuals who have led interesting lives.
While I don’t have the profile of those guys, and I haven’t been on national television for three decades, and, in fact, I only started writing this book at the ripe age of 29, just three short years after moving out of my parents’ house, I’m in the thick of it right now, trying to establish myself in sports media — an industry that appears to be shrinking by the day.
If you are looking to pursue a career in sports, broadcasting, or anything else for that matter, my hope is that you will find the stories of me desperately trying over and over again to get my foot in the sports broadcasting door relatable and proof that you should never give up. I’ll also tell you all of the dumb mistakes I’ve made while trying to stick said foot in said door. Hopefully you’ll read about my silly mistakes and learn from them. If nothing else, hopefully you’ll laugh.
And if you’re not looking to work in sports media, I hope this gives you an idea of what people are going through right now as they try to establish their own career and identity. You may even relate to many of the stories in this book; even though industries and technology change, humans are still just human . . .
Some of us just yell louder than others.
The Jump to North America
My family’s story begins outside of Canada, which makes it extremely Canadian.
More than 100 years ago, my great-grandfather on my dad’s side was an orphan in England. Because we don’t know who his parents were, there’s a natural mystery about his origin. The rumour within the family is that he’s a royal bastard — not a bad-guy bastard, a literal bastard. It goes like this: King Edward VII had a child with a chambermaid and that child is my great-grandfather. Look, I’m just relaying the story my family told me, OK?
Obviously we couldn’t prove that. Photos of my grandpa as a young man look quite a bit like King George V’s son, King George VI, but that’s hardly evidence.
However, my great-grandfather did attend an expensive naval academy, despite growing up in an orphanage. Who paid for that? I was even able to find a record of him on a naval ship in 1911. At 18 years old, he was the youngest member of the crew.
But it doesn’t really matter who his parents were. He made a life for himself, married my great-grandmother, and started a family that included my grandpa. That’s all that matters.
My grandmother on my dad’s side has an interesting story, too. Her family lived on the island of Guernsey. While technically one of the British Channel Islands, it’s actually right off the coast of France. In fact, most of the streets have French names. Before she began losing her memory, my grandma also recounted that her family had Norwegian ancestry and potentially a bit of Irish, but she wasn’t sure.
Her family had money. My aunt said she heard someone in the family line had invented something to do with milk cartons. My grandmother’s father owned a hotel in Guernsey called The Swan. The problem with him, however, was that he was a royal bastard in the bad-guy sense. He was a playboy and a gambler. By the time my grandmother was a young child, her father had racked up such terrible gambling debt that he was left with two options: send his children, including my grandmother, to a workhouse or sell off the hotels. His wife, my great-grandmother, refused to let her children be sent away, so bye-bye, hotel.
He abandoned his family, never to be seen again.
From a very young age, my grandmother proved she was not to be messed with. She was at school one day with a painful ear infection. For some reason, one of her teachers grabbed her harshly by the ear. My grandma hauled off and headbutted this lady right in her chest, like she was Zinedine Zidane at the World Cup.
While some of my distant family was in Guernsey as the Germans occupied the Channel Islands during the Second World War, my great-grandmother had brought her children to mainland England years before. There is a story of my grandmother, in her mid-teens, running around with two large pails of water during the Blitz to help put out countless fires from the bombings. The next day, with her adrenaline gone, she couldn’t lift them at all.
My grandpa, proving to be no chicken himself, enlisted in the navy one day in 1942, when he was just 17. In case you’re not the biggest history buff, that’s smack dab in the middle of the Second World War. Think about what you were doing at 17.
“How old are you?” the man at the office asked.
“Eighteen,” my grandpa lied.
“Right, sure you are,” said the man, continuing to fill out the paperwork.
Soon after, my grandpa was on a Royal Navy ship bound for the southwest coast of Italy. He was a signalman, first class.
On my grandpa’s ship’s approach to the beaches of Salerno, it was hit by a depth charge, an anti-ship missile. He was wounded in the back during the attack.
Once he managed to swim and drag himself to shore, Grandpa was rescued by American troops who had already reached the beach.
“We got a limey,” the Americans told their medics as they brought my grandpa in to get looked at.
In the shock of the moment, my grandpa thought they said they were going to cut his leg off. He started fighting them as hard as he could. When they managed to wrestle him to the table, they told him they were only going to cut his pants off.
“Oh, OK.” I’ve always loved the way my grandpa tells that story.
To this day, over three-quarters of a century later, my grandpa still has a chunk of metal about the size of a loonie stuck in his back, less than an inch away from his spine. They never removed it because they were too worried about potentially paralyzing him. Decades later, it was the cause of a few awkward conversations at airport security.
After my grandpa was fully healed, he was told to report to Scotland for training for a secret mission. That mission ended up being D-Day, which I’m proud to say my grandpa participated in.
After the war, my grandparents married and decided to move to Canada to live in Scarborough, a suburb just outside of Toronto.
My grandma, a brilliant woman fluent in French, German, and Flemish, worked in communications throughout mainland Europe during the war. She found a job doing similar work for Bell Canada. My grandpa found a government job with the province. One of the jobs he had was as a television repairman.
Together, they had three children: my dad was born first, followed by my two aunts.
Then there’s the Italian side of my family.
My nonni both came from a small Italian town called Monteleone, in the province of Foggia, in the Puglia region. If you can’t be bothered to google it, it’s right around the Achilles tendon of the boot.
They both came from generations of farmers. My mom’s parents were just young children during the Second World War, but my nonna’s mom and several other family members were arrested during a riot in 1942.
As the story goes, all the men were off at war. Meanwhile, the women of Monteleone were at home, angry and starving. One day, several women were arrested when they tried to stop an officer who was confiscating a pot of their corn flour. The women were thrown into a warehouse where they discovered large rations of food. The fascist-appointed politicians in charge had been hoarding the food.
The three women set fire to the warehouse and broke free. When the townsfolk, my family included, discovered what happened, they formed an angry mob outside of the Carabinieri’s office, armed with clubs and pitchforks. About 180 people were arrested or detained that day.
Years later, with the war over and my nonna and nonno in their late teens, they made their way to a place where a large number of the town’s population had immigrated: Toronto. It’s not an uncommon story: my grandparents left with very little money but a strong family and community connection in town.
My nonno worked as a machinist for Canada Bread. A job like that comes with perks, like fresh bread for your family each day. My nonna worked as a seamstress in Toronto’s garment district on Spadina Avenue. It was piece work, meaning she basically had to fight off her own coworkers for pieces of fabric to sew.
Before my nonno died of cancer when my mom was just 12 years old, my nonni had four children: my three uncles and their little sister, my mom.
My mom’s oldest brother, my godfather Lenny, was the athlete of the year at his high school and captain of the wrestling team. The second oldest brother, Rocky, allegedly fought off five guys at once as a teenager. The third brother, Dom, has about half a foot on both of them, and his muscles got him into the Toronto Sun as the Sunshine Boy many years ago. (I’d say that he’d be embarrassed that I put this tidbit in a book, but he’s had the picture proudly displayed in his house for as long as I can remember.)
When that same uncle was younger, he used to make a backyard ice rink by flooding the tomato garden in the winter. And in the spring, when he left his hockey sticks in the backyard, my nonno would saw off the blades and use them as tomato-plant stakes. It’s like they were trying to jam as many Italian-Canadian stereotypes into one situation as possible.
These family tales might not seem important to my weird little hockey story, but they are. Without my grandparents taking the risks they did to move to this country, it’s unlikely I would have grown up to be a hockey fan. In fact, I wouldn’t have grown up at all because my parents would never have met.
Despite the potentially intimidating trio of brothers, my dad still had the nerve to show up at their house and start dating my mom.
My dad had long rocker hair and played the drums. Now over 60 years of age, he still plays in a metal band and beats those drums like they’re the Ottawa Senators in the playoffs and his sticks are Gary Roberts.
One day, Dad went to his best friend Mike’s house. When he showed up, Mike’s younger sister and her friend, a tall, athletic brunette, were getting ready to go dancing with their fake IDs. Guess who that friend with the fake ID was. That’s right — my mom.
The moment they laid eyes on each other, they said, “Let’s make a hockey blogger together.” True romance.
After a few years of dating, my parents were married in 1985, and they moved to a house in east Scarborough, near the Pickering border. For those of you who can only navigate Toronto using Drake lyrics, that’s about a five minute drive east of Morningside.
My mom worked as a secretary at the Yellow Pages not too far west of their new home. Knowing how she drives, however, the drive probably took her somewhere between 45 minutes and five days. My dad worked in Toronto for a company called Cadillac Fairview, which owns several buildings right in the downtown core. He worked as a maintenance operator, fixing fans, air conditioners, and so on.
After three years of peaceful marital bliss, during an ice storm on the night of March 12, 1988, my mom gave birth to a 7 pound, 12 ounce bundle of joy at Scarborough Centenary Hospital. The doctor said I was the first baby he had ever seen born in a Leafs jersey. I’m surprised the doctors weren’t more alarmed by that — not because my mom gave birth to a fully clothed baby but because the Leafs sucked in the ’80s.
“Are you Steven?” my dad asked, the first time he held me.
Just then, I opened my eyes, and that was that. Thank goodness I did, too. Dad wanted to name me Keith.
My parents say I hardly ever cried, and when I did, you could barely even hear me. I guess I figured I’d save my tears for the lifetime of heartache that comes with Leafs fandom.
My childhood was full of Berenstain Bears stories, Disney books, and more. My parents read to me often and instilled a love of reading, storytelling, and imagination at a very young age. The side effect: I wouldn’t shut up.
When I was a toddler, I went to daycare at the YMCA by the Scarborough Town Centre. They put me with kids who were a year older than me because I was yapping circles around the other three-year-olds, who were still learning to talk.
When I was three years old, a monumental event changed my family’s lives forever and shaped who I am today.
In the few days prior, Mom told Nonna that she wasn’t feeling well. Nonna was concerned because the symptoms my mom described matched the way she felt just before she gave birth. This was especially concerning because it was July and my sister wasn’t due to be born until November.
One day, my dad called my mom at work like he always did, but she wasn’t there. She had gone into labour and was taken to the hospital. My grandpa drove over to pick my dad up from work and rushed him to the hospital.
With my dad at my mom’s bedside, my sister was born at 24 weeks, about four months premature, weighing 1.5 pounds. There’s a good chance you have a jar of peanut butter in your house right now that weighs more than my sister did when she was born.
As soon as she came into this world, doctors rushed her away to another room. She was given a 50/50 chance to live.
Rachel spent most of the first four months of her life in an incubator with tubes up her nose. The hospital had tiny diapers specifically made for premature babies, but they had to cut hers in half. Generally speaking, in the event of premature birth, doctors hope that the baby makes it to at least 30 weeks before being born. By then, the organs they need to survive will have been developed enough. Rachel was born about a month and a half earlier than that. She was born with blood on the brain and some brain damage and had a lot of difficulty breathing.
Some of my earliest childhood memories involve visiting Rachel in the hospital. I remember the big bins full of powder blue hospital gowns we all had to wear to get into the ward. I remember my parents being concerned their excitable toddler son would start poking at things or trip over a cord or something.
At the time, I thought everything that was happening was normal. All kids get bedtime stories, all kids love the Ninja Turtles, and all babies spend the first four months of their lives in the hospital.
After about four months, thanks to the incredible efforts of the doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital and Sick Kids, my sister came home.
The struggle wasn’t over, though. I was a quiet baby who slept all night and ate to my heart’s content. Rachel was a whole different experience. She came home at just 4.5 pounds and even lost weight in the first couple of weeks she was home.
For the next few years, Rachel did not sleep properly, so neither did my parents. Feeding her was a struggle; it would often take up to an hour and she would sometimes stop breathing in the middle of it.
At about one year old, my sister was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that inhibits your motor function. My dad doesn’t like admitting it, but he had a hard time accepting this information and angrily rejected what the doctor said at first. Much later, at seven, Rachel was also diagnosed with autism, although the symptoms had always been there.
Time has made me appreciate the gravity of the things I grew up with and accepted as normal. I’m older now than my mom was when my sister was born. I can’t imagine the constant anxiety and dread my parents lived with every day, just trying to keep their daughter alive while raising a son at the same time.
Today, Rachel is happy. She still lives at home and will require care for the rest of her life. She can walk around a little bit, but for journeys of any distance longer than car-to-house, she needs a wheelchair. She can’t read, she can’t write, and her speech is limited. My parents and I can understand what she’s trying to say, but others are usually confused.
Rachel can sing as loud as anybody I’ve ever met; those tiny lungs aren’t tiny anymore. She knows the entire script of both Toy Story and The Lion King, right down to the sound effects. I know because she recites everyone’s lines five seconds before they do.
She can spell her name. She can use a spoon and fork. She can smile and laugh. She gives great hugs and knows I’m her brother. She’s tough. My parents worked very hard to give Rachel and me the best lives possible.
To add to the stress of my sister’s health concerns, my dad was already in constant physical pain. Prior to my sister’s birth, my dad picked something up awkwardly and injured his back while at work one day. He was in a great deal of pain and when he woke up the next day, he could barely move.
Well, that sucks, but it happens. Sometimes you wrench your back a bit, right? He’ll be better in a jiffy.
Days pass, still not better. Weeks pass, still not better. He went on disability from work. He saw a specialist and they said he was fine. He saw a different specialist months later and they told him he was fine, too.
He finally returned to work, still in agony but able to do a few things. Ironically, returning to work saved him.
The nephew of a co-worker was a kinesiologist and had chiropractic credentials. After well over a year of living in constant agony, my dad was sitting in this man’s office explaining his symptoms, with tears in his eyes.
The man stared at Dad for a few seconds.
“Well, I can tell you one part of the problem just by looking at you,” he said.
My dad lit up. “What?”
“Your hip’s out.”
My dad had been misdiagnosed and had been living with his hip out of its socket for the past 15 months. About a week later, with some muscle, a leather wallet, and what I can only imagine was the entire dictionary of curse words, they crudely jammed my dad’s hip back into place.
Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of dad’s recovery. His back was weak and injured for years afterward — it’s probably healthier now in his 60s than it was when he was in his mid-30s. As he often says, one of the worst parts about the whole experience was that he couldn’t pick up his toddler son, me.
I’ve learned you can’t put a price on loving parents and you’re probably not going to fully appreciate what they have done for you until you’re a little older.
When Rachel was born, my mom didn’t want her son’s entire summer to be spent visiting the hospital. My mom lost a lot of blood during childbirth and despite Nonna’s protests, Mom and Dad brought me to the Toronto Zoo while Rachel was still in the hospital — all in an effort to make life seem normal. Needless to say, my mom struggled and didn’t have a great time. She didn’t have to do that for me, but she wanted to because she cared.
All of this played a part in my upbringing.
The hardships my family endured had lasting effects on me and my development, and they all contributed to the person I am today.
I never felt neglected or unloved as a kid, though my sister definitely required more attention than I did. It’s probably normal for older siblings, especially ones who were previously an only child, to get jealous when a newborn baby comes around, and I was no different.
My parents were always home with me, but I often had to entertain myself. I was obsessed with action figures. One Christmas I remember getting Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage action figures from my aunts and uncles. I used to make all of my toys wrestle each other, even the non-wrestling ones. “It’s Dr. Peter Venkman of the Ghostbusters versus Raphael from the Ninja Turtles for the World Heavyweight Championship!”
Toys were lots of fun, but they had nothing on attention.
I began school shortly after my sister was born. My friend Adam Rodricks, who has been my friend since kindergarten, swears up and down that one morning in senior kindergarten I pulled my pants down during “O Canada.” According to his memory, I didn’t wait very long. “O Ca-na—” Bang! Full moon! Right there! Yeah, I probably got into pretty big trouble for that one.
And although attention-seeking would be a theme throughout my school years — “Steven talks a lot in class; Steven is disruptive; Steven needs to pay more attention,” they’d say — it didn’t stop at school. One time, when a physiotherapist came by the house to work with Rachel’s strength and flexibility, I must have felt like I was being ignored. I had this coffee mug–sized roly-poly toy that was made of thick, hard plastic. When I decided I was fed up, I sent the roly-poly flying across the room.
My mom was mortified. “He never does this,” she told the physiotherapist truthfully.
The physiotherapist wasn’t even phased. They told Mom that they saw this sort of thing all the time. Siblings of newborns crave attention. Siblings of newborns who require even more attention than normal crave it even more.
Mom might have been right that I had never done that with roly-poly toys. But when the Leafs lost? Oh, I would rip the little Leafs jersey off my back and whip it across the room. “This is why we shouldn’t let him stay up to watch the end of the game,” my mom would say.
I didn’t just want any kind of attention, though. Sure, there was the occasional meltdown where I whipped my roly-poly around like I was Doug Flutie, but I knew the difference between good attention and bad attention. One form of good attention: laughter.
Cartoons and kid shows were great as a four- or five-year-old, but what I was interested in was what made my parents laugh.
The creators of kids cartoons are pretty aware that parents get stuck watching them, so they often throw in a little subtle adult humour that most kids don’t even understand. Bugs Bunny and Animaniacs were full of those moments.
The stuff that made my parents laugh was fascinating to me. I wanted their attention, and I’d get it by making them laugh. I would ask why the joke was funny but because it was usually inappropriate, I’d be told, “Ah, you’re a little too young for that.”
So at school, I would just repeat the stuff that made my parents laugh. Although the kids would straight up say, “I don’t get it,” I’d get laughs from the teachers, and that was good enough for me. They probably weren’t even laughing at the joke — they were laughing at this little five-year-old with a goofy haircut telling jokes he didn’t even understand.
Another reason I constantly clowned around was to entertain my sister. She cried a lot as a child. Imagine how frustrating and confusing it would be to not be able to communicate what you wanted or how you felt. That’s what she struggled with every day as a kid. Sometimes she would scream and bawl her eyes out when she had to get on and off the school bus in front of our house. Transitions have always been a very upsetting thing for her.
With my parents beat from work and no sleep, I always took on entertaining Rachel and making her happy as my job. It was the one thing I could really contribute to the family back then. She loved when I did pratfalls. Sometimes I would grab her hand and pretend like she was smacking me in the face. I would sing songs with her, play little games with her. There’s a photo of her in a baby carrier after I had dumped all of our toys on her and she’s laughing her face off. The most foolproof way to make someone stop crying: make them laugh.
Steve, what on earth does this have to do with your stupid video blog?
Look, this is all part of my story.
To this day, my instinct is still: “Hey, everyone! Hey! No! Don’t cry! Don’t be sad! Look over here! Isn’t this funny? Why feel sad when you can watch me jump off this thing and probably hurt myself?” All that childhood practice came in handy for covering the 2014–15 Leafs — but we’ll get to that later.
Apart from playing with toys and craving attention, one thing I’ve always loved for whatever reason is hockey.
I don’t remember exactly how it all started. My parents definitely didn’t force hockey on me. All I remember is my dad saying something like, “Our team is the Toronto Maple Leafs,” and from day one I was just like, “Yeah! Alright! I’m in! Stanley Cups every year, let’s go!”
One of my first-ever hockey memories is the 1993 playoffs: the Leafs versus the L.A. Kings. I had just turned five. I remember being really confused, because to me, the Leafs were the best team in the world, but the Kings had Wayne Gretzky, who was the best player in the world. I distinctly remember thinking this, which means I already knew about Wayne Gretzky, which means I already knew about hockey, which means I was already a fan before that. I’ve literally been a hockey fan since before I can remember.
My uncles were a big influence on my development as a puck head. They were all big Leafs fans themselves. In fact, two of my mom’s brothers were season seat holders during the ’80s. Unfortunately they sold their seats just before the Gilmour era, when the Leafs finally got good.
My uncle Lenny is the biggest memorabilia collector in the family. The room I shoot all my YouTube videos in now is just an ongoing effort to rival his office, but I’m still not even close. He has a chair from Maple Leaf Gardens and an old Leafs jersey signed by dozens of former players.
Here’s how hardcore he was with his collecting: remember when Kraft Dinner used to have hockey cards that you could cut out from the back of boxes? My uncle hates cheese, but he used to buy the boxes with the cards he still needed, cut out the card, and throw the macaroni and cheese away. I remember hearing that as a kid and thinking, Dude I want mac and cheese! Give it to me!
My own collecting exploits started when my dad’s sister, Sharon, got married. My new uncle Anthony bought me an enormous box of hockey cards for my birthday. It was probably just a standard box, but to this little kid, it seemed like thousands of cards. From then on, I was hooked.
My parents didn’t buy me more giant collectors’ boxes of hockey cards, so I hunted down all the other hockey cards I could get my hands on. McDonald’s hockey cards were huge. I also ate my weight in fish sticks. Know why? In the ’90s, boxes of Captain Highliner fish sticks used to have hockey cards in them. I had Patrick Roy with the Habs, Ron Hextall with the Nordiques — still a thing at the time — and Johnny Bower, who somehow had a card despite having been retired many years before that. Of course, my most treasured card of the bunch was the Leafs goalie at the time: Felix Potvin.
Alright, let’s address this.
A lot of people roll their eyes when I tell them Felix Potvin was my favourite Leaf growing up. Most kids at my school idolized Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour. Look, I loved those players when I was a kid, too. But they weren’t Felix Potvin.
First of all, Potvin had the most style out of any goalie in the league. After ditching the boring Dominik Hasek–style bucket and cage he had as a rookie, Potvin switched to an actual goalie mask. And what a goalie mask! Everyone knew the cool Felix Potvin mask. I didn’t even know what the design was supposed to look like, I just knew it looked badass. Between that and his big blue goalie pads, I thought he looked like a superhero.
And that’s exactly what Potvin was. To me, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, and Dave Andreychuk might score, what, one goal a game, if they’re lucky? Maybe two or three? Felix Potvin would be called on to make 30, 35, or 40-plus spectacular saves per game. By the early ’90s, goalies had only been actual in-shape athletes for like 10 years, so they were still flailing and flopping around, making desperation saves every shift. Whether it was a two-pad stack or flashing the blue leather, I thought Felix Potvin was the Leafs’ MVP.
It’s funny because Gilmour’s 127-point performance in 1992–93 is arguably the greatest season any Leaf has ever had. But I’m five years old, dude. Don’t talk to me about stats; I still wear Velcro shoes.
The first hockey game I ever went to was on February 5, 1994, when I was five. That was actually Don Cherry’s 60th birthday, and, as I would find out years later, my future wife’s sixth birthday. The Toronto Maple Leafs were hosting the Detroit Red Wings at Maple Leaf Gardens.
My uncle Dom brought me. Mom had to take care of my sister and my dad was working nights at the time. The tickets were $32 each — a huge bargain compared to today’s prices, where you might get nosebleeds for triple that.
My dad knew he couldn’t go to the game, but he still wanted to contribute, so he helped me make a sign.
It read: “Pluck the Red Wings.”
The word pluck wasn’t in my vocabulary yet, so I asked what it meant. My dad explained that when you pull out feathers, it’s called plucking.
“Oh. OK!” I accepted it.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager when I looked at the sign and — Hey, wait a minute . . .
I don’t remember a whole lot about the game; I vaguely remember looking down at the ice hoping to see Felix Potvin. My most vivid memory is of two guys sitting in front of my uncle and me. My uncle told them it was my first Leafs game, so they gave me a little commemorative plastic hockey stick that I still have to this day. Maybe they wanted to make my first game special or maybe they thought my “Pluck the Red Wings” sign was hilarious.
Perhaps as foreshadowing for the rest of my life, the Leafs lost that night.
Ray Sheppard scored two goals in the first period to give Detroit the 2–0 lead, but Doug Gilmour brought the Leafs back within one before the intermission.
Kent Manderville took a five-minute checking-from-behind penalty to put the Leafs down a man, and the Red Wings made them pay with a Steve Chiasson power play goal.
Nikolai Borschevsky scored for Toronto, and Gilmour got his second of the game to tie it up at three, but Sergei Fedorov’s unassisted second-period goal proved to be the game winner: 4–3, Detroit. Felix Potvin made 34 saves for the Leafs so it wasn’t his fault, nor was anything ever.
I fell asleep in Uncle Dom’s truck after the game and woke up back at my nonna’s house to wait for my dad to pick me up. My nonna’s house had the typical Italian setup: nice kitchen upstairs that never got used, busted kitchen downstairs you used for everything. It’s a Joe Avati joke, but it’s true.
The rest of the basement was filled with old pictures of family and shrines to the Virgin Mary. Being the enormous sports fan that my uncle is, there were also framed newspaper clippings from the Toronto Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series wins. I plan on doing the same for the Leafs one day, just . . . still waiting.
. . .
Another person who fostered my love of sports was my neighbour Brian.
One summer day when I was six, a few months after attending my first hockey game, I was playing ball hockey in the driveway by myself. Really I was just taking shots on the little net I had gotten for Christmas.
Across the street, there was this kid I had never seen before just sitting on the edge of his driveway, staring at me. I didn’t go say hi because I didn’t know if I was allowed. He’s across the street. I can’t cross the street. Can I yell across the street? Is that allowed? I don’t know, I’m six.
Finally, he came over and said hi.
Brian was an older, bigger kid, 10 going on 11. His family was from Jamaica, had lived in New York for a while, and had just moved across the street from me in Scarborough.
We took turns trying to shoot a tennis ball past each other. Is it weird that I remember he won 11–10? Looking back, he was definitely letting me score on purpose, but I thought I was the best hockey player West Hill had ever seen.
Hockey, and more directly Brian, even helped me discover my balls.
One day, my dad and Brian were taking shots on me from down the driveway as I flailed around, imitating my best Felix Potvin.
“Big glove save!” I’d declare in my announcer’s voice, triumphantly holding up the tennis ball I had just caught in my dad’s old baseball glove.
Dad had a better concept of take it easy on him, he’s just a kid than Brian, who, being a kid himself, didn’t quite have that nailed down.
I’m in the net; I’m ready. I look to the left, Dad has the ball. He passes it over to Brian. He shoots!
Oh, I made the save alright. Right in the Ball-schevskies.
Oh my God. What’s happening to me? Am I dying? Am I dead? This must be what dying feels like.
I didn’t know that kind of pain even existed. Every bump, bruise, scrape, or cut I had ever gotten had nothing on this. I would have been crying more if I could actually make the sound leave my chest, but I was paralyzed.
“What happened?” Mom asked after I stumbled inside.
Through shocked tears, I said, “The ball hit me.”
“Where?” she asked.
“I . . . I think my stomach,” I blubbered. I was six and barely understood what balls were, OK? And I felt like barfing up my vital organs, so I figured it was my stomach. I learned a lot that day.
Brian put up with the little kid across the street and was like an older brother to me. He was always willing to teach me a lesson in driveway hockey and, especially, basketball.
Brian’s parents installed a basketball pole and net beside their driveway. I remember watching them install it like it was the event of the season. I had seen basketball nets attached above garage doors and basketball nets with wheels that you could dunk on until it tipped over, but I had never seen a net connected to a metal pole in the front lawn.
Our game of choice was 21. The basic rules are that you take turns, shooting until you miss, until one of you hits 21. Brian was older and really good at basketball, while I was younger and stunk. Although I think my age had little to do with it; if I hopped in a time machine right now and challenged 11-year-old Brian to a game of 21, he’d still destroy me. Most games, I’d just be happy to hit double digits. No wonder I’ve survived being a Leafs fan for this long; I know what it’s like to never give up hope for a constantly losing cause.
And that win finally came. Once. One lousy, little time.
Brian threw up brick after brick; I got red hot and just narrowly beat him. Finally, after years of trying, I had finally beat him at 21. I went nuts, jumping up and down, thrilled, until I saw the look on Brian’s face.
I lost the next game 21–0. Swish, swish, swish. I don’t think I even shot the ball.
He wasn’t going to let that little boy beat him ever again.
Another figure in my life who helped nourish my love of sports, especially hockey, was my second grade teacher, Mr. Coady. For reference, I was eight years old in grade two. Over two decades later, I still remember what I learned. You really can’t put a price on a good teacher.
Part of the reason why I loved Mr. Coady so much was because he was the first male teacher I ever had. I liked the women who taught me, of course, but at that age, Mr. Coady was my first male authority figure who wasn’t my own father. My grandpa was there, as well as my uncles, but not for six hours a day, five days a week.
Mr. Coady was one of the most colourful and animated teachers at St. Brendan Catholic School on Centennial Road in east Scarborough. He had also been there for a long time. So long, in fact, that he was once the teacher and floor hockey coach for a former student named Kris Draper. By the time I had reached second grade, Kris Draper was an up-and-coming centre for the Detroit Red Wings.
Bless Mr. Coady’s heart, though — the man was a Montreal Canadiens fan. This was a frequent point of contention for my young self. As it turned out, that was a point of contention for Kris Draper as well.
As Mr. Coady recounted, Draper had a Leafs jacket he would wear to school, which Mr. Coady would make him hang in the hallway because “inappropriate attire was not allowed in the classroom.”
Mr. Coady did the same thing with Kris Draper and his classmates that he did with me and my classmates: used hockey as a teaching tool. Now that was how you grabbed the attention of the eight-year-old me. It still works today, actually.
Our class was always covered in hockey memorabilia. I knew when my day came for show-and-tell, I wanted to do something hockey related. April 27, 1996, was my assigned show-and-tell day. Did I remember? You bet I didn’t. But I remember the lesson I learned.
When it was my turn to go up, despite having nothing prepared, I defaulted to hockey. I knew that Kris Draper and the Detroit Red Wings had played Game 5 of their first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets the night before. This was a huge deal, not just because of Draper and not just because it was the playoffs, but because if the Jets had lost, it would have been their last game in Winnipeg before moving to Phoenix.
Oh man. Did the Jets lose last night? Come on, they must have. The Wings are so good and I can’t believe the Jets even made the playoffs. Alright cool. I got this.
I got up in front of the class.
“Last night,” I started, “the Detroit Red Wings eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 of their . . .”
“No, they didn’t,” Mr. Coady interrupted.
I was worse off than a deer in headlights. There were deer in the forest who saw me through the window that morning and to this day still use my reaction as a saying. “I thought I heard a wolf and I just froze, you know? I was like a Steve at show-and-tell!” Lesson learned: don’t just randomly make up the outcome of hockey games. I would have taken a lower case l if I had just admitted that I forgot it was my turn, but, instead, I capitalized it.
One month later on May 29, 1996, something happened to Kris Draper that got the entire class talking.
Almost every student in the class was a Leafs fan, but the Buds, who used to be in the Western Conference — I know, right? — had been eliminated in the first round by the St. Louis Blues.
Because the Leafs were already out, and because Mr. Coady spoke about Kris Draper every time Detroit did something, a lot of students became part-time fans of the Red Wings. It certainly helped that their series with the Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 Western Conference Final was a bloody rivalry for the ages.
In Game 6, Colorado’s designated rat, Claude Lemieux, decked Kris Draper from behind, mangling his face and rendering him half-conscious. As Draper recounted in a March 2017 article for The Player’s Tribune, he had a broken orbital bone, broken cheekbone, broken nose, and broken jaw. He literally had a broken face.
Detroit was eliminated that night, but when everyone got to school the next morning, all we could talk about was the hit. Almost everyone had seen it, either live that night or in the highlights the next morning before the school bus came.
Right away, Mr. Coady had the entire class write get-well letters to Kris Draper, so he could read them while he recovered. In mine, I told Mr. Draper (I think that’s what I called him) not to let “Clud” Lemieux get him down. I thought “Clud” was an insult. It sounded like something Bugs Bunny would have called Yosemite Sam. Listen, I was eight.
One day, my parents bought me a pack of hockey cards at the convenience store up the street. I opened it and bang — right there — Kris Draper. I was surprised. Even eight-year-old me was like, Wow, this guy has a card? He had 10 career goals coming into this season. Whatever — that’s awesome!
I brought the card in to school for a not-made-up-on-the-spot show-and-tell, and Mr. Coady ended up putting it on our school’s wall of fame outside the principal’s office.
In the dying days of the school year, a commotion arose in the hallway. Mr. Coady stepped out. Kids started looking at each other and whispering. A few moments later, Mr. Coady walked back into the classroom with none other than Kris Draper.
Wow. A real live NHL player! I had never met an actual NHL player before. The biggest celebrities I had ever met were the children’s rock band Kideo at one of my dad’s work Christmas parties. But this guy? Holy cow! He’s a hockey player!
Our school’s principal, Mr. Fitzpatrick, asked Mr. Coady something before walking over to me.
What did I do? Am I in trouble? So help me if you stop me from meeting a real live NHL player, I will use every Power Rangers move I’ve ever seen on your crotch!
Mr. Fitzpatrick stooped down to talk to me.
“Mr. Coady mentioned you had a card,” he said.
“Oh!” I said. “Yeah! It’s on the wall of fame.”
“Great. Thank you!” Mr. Fitzpatrick bolted out of the room.
Kris Draper spoke to all the students from the rocking chair at the front of the classroom. It was basically a media scrum full of seven- and eight-year-olds and he was answering all the questions. I was way too shy to ask anything.
He still had his goatee from the playoffs. I can’t imagine it would have been comfortable to shave with a broken face. Looking back at pictures, his jaw still seemed a bit swollen. It’s amazing that he came to our class at all, never mind that it was only about one month after the hit.
Mr. Fitzpatrick re-entered the room with a stack of paper. He had taken the card off the wall, photocopied it, neatly cut all the photocopies into individual cards, and handed them out to all the students. He must have printed about a hundred, so that every kid in the second grade could get their very own Kris Draper autograph.
Half of me was over the moon happy that I was finally going to get an autograph from an NHL player. The other half of me was like, Mr. Fitzpatrick better give me back my card . . .
Draper came over to my desk and signed my photocopy of the card. I still have the photographic evidence. We were standing in front of a presentation board with a National Geographic pamphlet on a bird called the blue-footed booby. It is absolutely a real bird — google it. It’s a bird with blue feet called a booby. It exists and that’s its name.
For some reason, I was wearing a baseball jersey with a Chicago Bulls logo on it. Why? I have no idea. I’d love to say it was a cheeky nod to Michael Jordan’s brief stint in baseball, but I wasn’t that smart. Where did my parents even buy this? Did they even buy it? Where did this come from?
These are all questions I ask now. At the time, I was just excited to meet a famous hockey player.
. . .
When NHL players weren’t visiting my class, I was obsessed with the classroom computer. I always wanted to play the dinky little game on it, probably Oregon Trail. Even typing was mind-blowing. Computers in classrooms was a fairly new thing, and I definitely didn’t have a computer at home.
My neighbour Brian was helping on that end, though.
Most of the kids at my school talked about the cool video game systems that they had. Kids were playing Super Mario Bros. on Super Nintendo or Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Genesis. I didn’t have any of that.
Brian did, though. I was over at his house all the time. I used to beg him to play NHL 96 on Super Nintendo. I specifically remember one time he beat me 33–3. You ever take a video game beating so bad, you remember it over two decades later?
One day, Brian brought this big garbage bag to my house. Because he already had the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, Brian gave me his old original Nintendo and over a dozen games.
Santa who? Brian literally just walked across the street with a big bag of everything I’ve ever wanted. My parents let me keep it and I played it obsessively. Super Mario one and three, WWF Steel Cage Challenge, Tecmo World Wrestling, Double Dragon — you name it, I played it. At some point, my parents brought me to the local pawn shop and we got cheap copies of hockey games called Blades of Steel and another one that was literally just called Ice Hockey. The game’s release date was in January 1988, so it was older than I was. The USSR was still a team you could use. But I didn’t care about that! I was thrilled.
Video games were life. They also became a great tool for my parents because if I was acting up, all they had to do was threaten to take my Nintendo away. One time, they took it away for an entire week — I swear, it felt like six years.
Luckily enough, my sister loved to watch me play video games. It was like a movie for her. She would get upset when I died because it interrupted her movie. I would provide commentary, too. Unfortunately, some of that commentary involved bad words. The problem was that Rachel would repeat these words. Luckily, she understood that they were basement words she could use only with Steven. But when she did slip up, I would just blame it on Dad, like how you blame a fart on a dog. Hey, I rode in the back of the car while my dad drove — don’t think I wasn’t listening.
Then came Christmas 1998. I was 10.
My godmother Jo-Anne had just inherited some money from her father. She was generous enough to get me my very own computer.
I was blown away. Who just buys a kid a computer? I couldn’t possibly thank her enough. We didn’t even have internet at the house. Why would we? We didn’t even have a computer! The space on the computer’s hard drive: four gigabytes. You’re probably carrying a phone in your pocket with at least four times that space right now. You might even be reading this book on it! But to me, it was everything.
The computer came with a free encyclopedia on CD-ROM, and since I didn’t have internet, I used to read articles on it all the time. The entry for “hockey” had a video in it from an actual NHL game. I was living in the future!
One winter, Brian and his family were nice enough to get me a present. They delivered it several weeks before Christmas, so it was in my house for a while. We were the type of family who had our Christmas tree up right at the beginning of December, so under the tree it sat. And sat. And sat.
I eventually did what any kid does: try to figure out what the gift was.
When my parents weren’t looking, I squeezed the gift like I was testing out a piece of fruit. Hmm, it feels like there’s a box inside. It’s about the size of a book, but it’s definitely not a book. Wait — is this a PC game?
Then my parents would enter the room and I would jump up or pretend to be asleep.
Days went by and I was so positive I knew what it was. If I just move the paper a bit, I’m sure that’s fine, right?
I moved the paper with my finger, millimetre by millimetre. I was like the murderer from “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
One day, I went a little too far. I pushed the paper more than I meant to, at least that’s what I told myself, and I saw it. It was the tiniest flash of orange. I knew right away that it was a Philadelphia Flyers jersey.
NHL 99! I screamed internally. Eric Lindros was on the cover that year.
It might have been December 23 when I did that, but it could have just as easily been July. I spent every day before Christmas practicing my fake astonishment for Christmas morning. “Wow! NHL 99? I had no idea! How could I possibly have known?”
The NHL video game franchise really next-levelled my hockey fandom. Not only did I play it every single day, but it taught me the game as well. Sure, real life hockey doesn’t have blocky players and glitch goals — unless you’re Alex Ovechkin — but I got to know ...