My faith in professional team sports has been waning, as documented in this column before. There is a false illusion us sports fans buy into: men being paid millions of dollars are part of an admirable, righteous brotherhood.
If I was paid to play a game I’ve loved since boyhood, I would pretend to have brotherly love for my teammates with the same passion. I would pretend that I like them, and that there is a holy sense of intangible comradery even if there isn’t. Who wouldn’t?
The only sport that has been immune to my cynicism is hockey. I still follow hockey religously. This isn’t exclusively because I find it entertaining. Every professional sport has a level of entertainment value, which is why they are such lucrative businesses.
As a sport, hockey is a thinking man’s game played with a working man’s haste. As entertainment, hockey is a drama in which the characters don’t overshadow the plot.
Instead, the characters act as humans who happen to be caught in the turbulence of a compelling drama. Perhaps this is the reason why I find myself drawing parallels between hockey and life. The hockey brotherhood is real.
Last Friday (Nov. 7), I took my half-brother Brandon to a Springfield Falcons minor league hockey game downtown at the MassMutual Center. It was just his second time ever attending a hockey game. It was the first Falcons game I had attended in years, something I did weekly as a young boy. This time I was rather unimpressed.
“Let’s go Falcons!” Brandon would bellow without pause, whether other fans were joining in or not. So far this year, the average attendance at Falcons home games has been well under 3,000 fans. In a sloppy 6-4 victory, my brother jumped to his feet all six times the goal horn erupted over a lacking crowd volume.
He jumped up and down as Falcons defenseman Hubert Labrie threw some vicious punches against the helmet of an opponent during the second period. During breaks in the action Brandon would pat me on the shoulder and smile at me.
Attending games was a ritual for me throughout my early childhood during weekend visits with my father. This was back when the Falcons played before sellout crowds at the old Springfield Civic Center. In fact, once my father bought a ticket for the very last seat in the house. I sat on his lap in the nosebleeds to witness future NHL mainstays like Danny Briere and Shane Doan in action.
Hockey players were my role models, second only to my father as male figures I glorified. Brandon doesn’t think of hockey players as role models. In fact, he probably doesn’t think about role models much at all. Whether it has been conscious or not, however, Brandon and I have been lifelong role models to each other. I’m just a prototypical older brother. To me he’s a metaphorical hockey player.
Hockey is a sport where a player will toil through a broken rib, separated shoulder, punctured lung, and torn cartilage to be with his brothers, as Patrice Bergeron did in the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals for the Boston Bruins.
A bruise here and there, black eyes, stitches—they’re all negligible compared to the feeling of standing up for your brothers out on the ice. Brandon has never laced up hockey skates and stepped onto the ice in his life and probably never will. Still, you could say he’s a lot like Patrice Bergeron.
Brandon was born premature with DiGeorge syndrome, which is characterized by partial deletion of the brain’s 22nd chromosome. In Brandon’s case, it was also associated with truncus arteriosis, a rare congenital heart disease.
Since birth, Brandon has had four open-heart surgeries, the last of which required breaking all of his ribs. His heart could have failed him many times by now, but that just wouldn’t happen to Brandon. He’s tougher than that.
When we watch hockey on TV or attend a game in person, he doesn’t have a full grasp of hybrid icing, or offside rules. He enjoys watching a good fight, but doesn’t understand why players are given penalties. To me, however, he has proven to have hockey player grit.
Perhaps Brandon has always been destined to be a metaphorical hockey player. When he was just a five-year-old, we were playing street hockey with a boy my age, Eric, one of the only other kids in an elderly populated new mobile home park. Brandon’s two front teeth were knocked out when he got too close to the backswing of Eric’s wooden stick on a slap shot.
Brandon cried and cried, long after I went to get help. He did not grin about his need for dental work like hockey players due after a good scrap, but he still spit blood like one. He still looked like a hockey player.
About a year ago, Brandon was staying over at my Living Center apartment with me one night. “Ty,” he muttered to me lying in my dark room. “I don’t remember what my father looks like anymore,” he said.
Never had I heard Brandon sound so broken. He had always been upset by being recognized as a special needs student and by the fact that he wasn’t considered “normal” He used to say he missed his father. This time he told me instead that he didn’t miss his awful father, but instead that he barely remembers him at all, and that he hates him.
When our mother divorced Brandon’s father and remarried, his father shortly after opted to give up visitation rights to see Brandon. The truth is, Brandon is still the happiest person I’ve ever known, despite a severe disability, the social stigma of having special needs, and having a biological father who doesn’t want him. That’s hockey player toughness if I have ever seen it.
I’m the only male role model my half-brother has had to look up to for the full duration of his 19 years of life thus far. “Isn’t it weird that we have different dads?” He always asks this. He often feels alienated by the fact that I am so close with my father who I have never even lived with, and he doesn’t know his anymore.
Still, he never tells anyone we are half-brothers. Instead he simply refers to us as brothers. Half of our brotherhood is biological, the other half an unspoken agreement like the one hockey teammates have.
It is likely that when my mother and stepfather die someday, it will be my responsibility to take care of Brandon. That’s what teammates do.
He’s not looking up to me, and I’m not looking up to him. It seems as if we are instead looking out for each other. If life plants a few cheap shots on Brandon, I’ll step in and drop the gloves.
Anytime I feel like my life is roughing me up a bit, I remind myself that Brandon has been displaying more of that hockey player toughness his whole life than I ever could, stepping in for me when I need to realize life isn’t so bad. Everyone absorbs a few hits in between goals. Everyone needs help battling away when play is jammed into the corners. That’s just the way life is.
As Canadian variety show host Red Green used to advise, “Keep your stick on the ice.”