He skated towards the bench after scoring his third goal of the opening period and could not help but notice the look of disappointment on his father’s face. The words whispered into his ear would change the face of American ice hockey history. “Son, you have a gift, and God wants you to share that gift with your team mates. When you step back onto the ice I want you to remember this, one assist, one goal and repeat.” The boy looked up at his dad and mouthed, “yes father.”
His parents met just after the birth of mother. They lived next-door to each other in one of those cold northern towns where everybody knows everything about each other. His grandfather was the pastor of their small-town's only church; her father was the town’s most important merchant. The other boys would tease father when he took time to play with the newborn girl. To the boy, that little girl was an angel and he never cared too much what others thought about him anyway.
Grandfather had introduced the game to father at a very early age, but father cut his hockey career short when grandfather became ill forcing his returned home to help tend to the church.
The boy's parents were engaged on Christmas Eve, which was also his mother’s 18th birthday. A long engagement was not required, the bond between his parents had developed very early and the entire congregation, the town, and his grandparents knew their marriage was inevitable. His parents married on Valentine’s Day and he was born on Christmas Day of the same year.
The Grandfathers gave him his first pair of skates on his 2nd birthday. “If he can walk, he can skate!” The grandfathers told his worried mother.
The grandfathers watched the father teach him how to skate. Both gentlemen would pass before the next holiday season, but father would never forget the happiness on their faces when they watched the boy on ice. The merchant grandfather provided a trust that allowed the town’s indoor rink to be operated year-round, but the boy always preferred the big open ice of the back-yard pond.
Father was the easy choice to replace grandfather at the church and it had become obvious to all that the boy was born to skate. For two years, father kept the stick out of his hands. The boy skated and imagined what he would do with the stick and puck. The Stanley Cup Final was played out in the boy's mind every frozen afternoon on that pond.
On his 4th birthday he got his first stick and a single puck. He learned quickly that digging that puck out of the snow was not the most enjoyable part of his time on the ice. His father would skate with him every night until the pond ice thinned. By that spring he became the master of the puck.
His father’s time as a parent coach was quickly cut short. Everybody that seen him play as a young child knew what was to come. He had a gift, and he had the drive to cultivate it. By age seven, he had his own key to the rink. Spectators from two counties over would come watch his team’s games.
He left home for junior hockey the day after his 16th birthday. Living away from home and the support group of his community was not easy at first. It got tougher at the first practice.
His father’s words were engraved in his consciousness, “one assist, one goal.” The junior coach was not amused. “Finish!” the coach screamed. At the end of practice scrimmage, he assisted, then scored, in shift after shift. The coach was furious. “Stop him!” he screamed at his blueliners. "We can’t," the 20 year-old defensive leader told the coach. “We can’t,” he repeated to the coach again.
The junior coach and team quickly caught onto the concept. The young boy had something that they had never seen before. The ability to do anything he wanted on the ice. He played as if the game was in slow motion.
Opposing coaches gave up on trying to stop him and concentrated on trying to hurt him. Sometimes he considered his special gift a curse.
NHL scouts took an interest in him when he was a pee-wee. Every team was following his progress through the junior level. By the time his draft year came along, every hockey fan in the world knew his name. Winning the gold at the World Juniors may have played a part in that.
In the end, it would not matter which team drafted him. He really became the property of the hockey nation, and played for a world of hockey fans.
Many anticipated it would take an adjustment period before he would make in impact on the NHL game. That period lasted all of twenty-six seconds. His no-look pass literally ricocheted off his line- mate’s blade and into the back of the net. His father just smiled. One assist, one goal, one assist, one goal.
Who is he? I don’t know. Maybe today he is just another snot-nosed toddler on his backyard pond, or maybe he is still in the womb. As a hockey nation, we deserve the joy and opportunity to follow the career of an American ice hockey super-star, an American Gretzky, the American Gift.