When I was growing up, our family life often revolved around the game of hockey. Every winter, my father would make a skating rink in our back yard. My sisters and brothers, all nine of us, learned to skate, twirl and shoot a puck on that bumpy make-shift ice.
My Dad loved watching our winter performances. He was always a constant presence, keeping vigil by the snow banks that framed the rink. Now that my siblings and I are all hockey parents ourselves, we often reminisce about my father and his love of the game.
In today’s column, I’d like to share one of my favorite hockey stories, a winter remembrance that has become a family classic.
The story is written from the perspective of Timmy, my youngest brother. I hope this reflection reminds you that a father’s love is one of God’s greatest gifts.
Back in the winter of 1969, when I was a little boy, my dad and I made an ice-skating rink in our backyard. Set against the frozen Minnesota moonlight, I held a garden hose with mittened hands, the water freezing on its way to the ground.
My dad stood by, a six-foot-four giant in a puffy down jacket.
“It’s like heaven out here,” he said, the smoke from his cigarette melding with the smell of hardening ice.
I looked upward, following Dad’s gaze to a starlit sky. My toes were numb, curling inside my boots. My water-soaked mittens were growing a thin coat of ice.
“Heaven?” I asked. I didn’t know what he meant.
The winter weeks passed while Dad and I spent many nights skating together on that homemade rink. While wind chills dipped well below zero, Dad taught me how to grip a hockey stick and how to “slap shoot” a puck. Beneath a snowy firmament, Dad and I would glide around a makeshift net made of shovels and sheets, the metal blades of our skates etching lines on the ice.
“C’mon. Shoot it! Go for a breakaway! Don’t hit the goal post!” Dad would shout, his voice echoing against the snow banks.
He was loud and gruff. But at the end of every evening, as we gathered up equipment, Dad would quiet himself, lifting his eyes to the sky.
I knew that Dad stored the Lord in his heart, but he seldom used words to express his faith. This nightly reflection was a prayer of sorts, his way of showing me that God was important.
One night, I got tired of waiting for him to finish up his intercessions. I was cold and Mom had hot chocolate waiting for us in the kitchen.
“It’ll feel like heaven when we get inside,” I yelled, trying to pry him away from his winter worship.
Dad pulled off my stocking cap and started tickling me. We laughed all the way to the kitchen door.
Winter after winter, Dad was at my side, helping me to perfect the game. He taught me how to speed skate around orange construction cones, how to pass a puck, how to guard a goal post.
By the time I made captain of our high school hockey team, Dad was content to watch me from the sides of a new indoor arena.
At the state tournament, as I scored a goal, the standing room only crowd began to clap and cheer.
But I skated past the crowded bleachers, racing my way to the goal post. There, behind the plexi-glass, dad stood alone. I tapped the glass with my stick. Dad gave me thumbs up.
“Heaven!” he shouted.
As my high school years came to a close, I signed scholarship papers to attend Providence College in Rhode Island. The school was miles away from Minnesota.
It was an honor to wear the Providence uniform. I made a lot of new friends and played against the best hockey teams in the country.
Every week, I’d write Dad, sending him team programs and newspaper clippings. The truth was, I get homesick whenever I skated in unfamiliar arenas. The space behind the plexi-glass was always empty.
Then one Friday night, back in March of 1985, Providence played Michigan State, a national championship game.
Before the game, as I laced up my skates, my coach told me I had a visitor waiting outside the locker room. It was my dad.
“Hey,” I said, greeting him with a friendly punch in the arm.
“Not too bad a drive from Minnesota,” my father quipped.
Standing in my skates, suited up in shoulder pads and thick breezers, I suddenly realized I was looking down on him.
He lingered fro a while, trying to put his thoughts into words.
“The good Lord is proud of you,” he said, patting me on the back. It was seldom that I heard Dad talk like this.
“The good Lord is proud of you too,” I replied.
The game began. As I skated past the cheering crowds, I searched for Dad behind the goal post, but found him sitting with my mom in the bleachers, right behind the players’ bench.
As our eyes met, Dad pointed to a banner posted high above the rink-it spanned the entire arena.
Intended to highlight the superior skill and strength of the opposing team, the banner read: Welcome to Heaven.”
I laughed to myself as the referee dropped the puck to begin the opening face-off.
The crowd roared. Minute by minute, Providence maintained a two point lead with Michigan State. With five minutes left in the game, our team scored a goal.
Looking up toward the bleachers where Dad was sitting, I expected to see him give me thumbs up. Instead, I saw the team chaplain and a doctor huddled over him. There was a look of shock on my moms face.
As an ambulance pulled up in front of an entryway that overlooked the goalpost, my coach ushered me through the jammed crowd.
Dad died 15 minutes after I arrived at the hospital.
While the team chaplain comforted my mom, I slipped away to a large lobby window. Still c lad in my skates and uniform, I watched a snow shower blanket the city. I began to recount the last few hours.
How fitting it seemed that a “Welcome to Heaven” banner had decorated the arena where Dad had passed away.
I was certain that eternity was now within his reach, a reward for teaching me about the love of God.
He taught me about this love, not with well-spoken words, but in the time he spent with me. Throughout the years, Dad had stood by my side, like an ever-present heavenly father, teaching me how to perfect the game of life.
How to share laughter.
How to offer the gift of presence.
How to pray without uttering a sound.
As I stood there, a passage from Matthew’s gospel came to mind: “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Matthew 3:2.
I understood a little better that the love between a father and a son is a bit of heaven on earth.
It’s been over twenty five years since that night in Michigan. Now, I have three little boys of my own.
This past winter, my youngest son and I made an ice skating rink in our backyard. As he held the garden hose with his small mittened hands, I stood by, dressed in a puffy down jacket.
Though wind chills dipped well below zero, I looked upward and smiled.
“It’s like heaven out here” I said softly.
Excerpted from MOMENTS OF GRACE: STORIES OF ORDINARY PEOPLE AND AN EXTRAORDINARY GOD, by Nancy Jo Sullivan. Copyright 2000 by Nancy Jo Sullivan.
Used by permission of Waterbrook Multnomah, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.