By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – I knew it was coming, but not exactly when.
Cancer does that – it doesn’t let you know when it will take a loved one from you, even when the inevitable is pending.
This is a personal story – mine – about how I recently lost the man who introduced me to the sport of hockey to this disease, as cursed as it is.
John Koutroumpis, in my opinion, was hockey’s biggest and best fan, but on Oct. 12th, 2017, cancer finally ended his daily pursuit and review of hockey news and happenings.
Before that date, my weekly conversations with him always entailed going over my recent coverage of the Carolina Hurricanes, then reviewing the trials and tribulations of his beloved Boston Bruins before wrapping up talking about the local side, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I can’t have those conversations with him anymore – at least not over the phone.
I vividly remember when I first stepped onto the ice at the Aurora Community Centre back in 1976.
It was the beginning of house league play, during an introductory stick-and-puck style ice time session that assessed all the five and six-year-olds playing that year.
The volunteer coaches, other kids’ dads, didn’t have to take long to assess the skills of the stocky Greek kid who stepped onto the ice.
They just needed to look at him in the bright yellow helmet and cage with red/blue/white gloves and wearing blue jeans as he landed on his ass to realize he needed a chair to lean on.
That’s how and when I finally learned to skate.
My father proudly watched it happen while sitting in the stands.
He was born and raised in Piraeus, Greece in 1941, an active youngster and teen who swam a lot and played soccer with his friends while following his favorite pro team, AEK Athens.
AEK wore black and gold, and that’s how he eventually became a fan of the Bruins after emigrating to Canada at 19 years old and learning about this incredible sport.
He never learned to skate; though he tried.
Instead, he provided the opportunity for his son to do so, even if he started later than most kids did.
He owned a restaurant in the hockey town that Aurora was, right by the arena, and knew many people in town whose kids played.
There was no trouble in scrounging up some of the basic equipment needed – the used old-school skates (exposed blades) from Vic’s Shoe Repair Shop, the hand-me-down helmet, cage and gloves from his waitress Maggie – taken from her son Ron’s outgrown equipment supply – and the new jock and ‘Playmaker’ wood hockey stick from Canadian Tire.
For many parents, buying a whole equipment package and not knowing whether your child would like the sport provided some trepidation.
After that first day, after only 15-20 minutes pushing around that chair, I was skating freely on my own and ready to go.
Dad made a trip to the Aurora Minor Hockey used equipment sale and back to Canadian Tire and set me on my way to a youth/minor hockey playing career that progressed from house league squads to rep/travel teams that eventually culminated in celebrating a minor midget All-Ontario championship.
A junior, nor college hockey career was not in my plans.
Though I could have tried and toiled to do so, my focus was on my academics and a career in sports which I eventually followed through on.
All due to my dad introducing me to hockey.
It was an education in and of itself that afforded me the opportunity to learn discipline and commitment at a young age.
I was up at 5 a.m. with half my equipment on and ready to hit the ice in sub-zero temped rinks following a ride in the middle of Canadian winter in our Oldsmobile Cutlass with the AM radio playing the latest 70s hits while we talked.
Time in the car was the most precious father-son interaction we kept for years – from short 15-minute in-town trips to longer hours-plus jaunts to other towns and tournaments – in blinding snow and less treacherous weather elements.
Playing hockey over the years allowed me to visit dozens of small Ontario towns – Schomberg, Keswick, Thornton, Creemore, Beaverton, Brighton, Emo, Blind River, Fort Frances to name a few – as well as bigger ones – Brampton, Mississauga, Belleville, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Parry Sound, Sudbury, Oshawa, Kingston and more.
An invaluable series of lessons in geography, sociology, and culture.
Traveling those distances with my dad taught me about the fabric of being Canadian and playing the national sport (the winter one), and created lasting memories I possess and hang onto in his now permanent absence.
As happy as I am to recall them, they’re now accompanied with tears – both sad and joyful ones.
I learned a lot from hockey thanks to my dad, and I apply that knowledge to what I see in today’s young and veteran NHL players who I’m privileged to cover.
Many come from towns and rinks I played in – a connection that others may not have – which allows me to ask different questions and have deep-rooted conversations about.
It surprises the rookies and impresses the older guys when I can talk about something closer to their upbringing than the typical hockey-speak interviews of the day.
Those ‘inside scoop’ encounters were speaking points with my dad on a weekly basis for the past seven years, including the last 18 months during which treatment of prostate cancer was also a part of those talks.
My dad was a conduit of hockey knowledge, a space he continually filled reading newspapers, hockey magazines and record books.
He could recall all NHL trades, transactions, and happenings with photographic-memory precision, and made sure to cut out all pictures, articles and stats about my games that we could look back on and talk about 40 years later.
I developed the same desire to learn about hockey history and appreciate it as Dad did.
We hadn’t gone to the Hockey Hall of Fame nor a Leafs game in decades – an annual set of trips we would make a goal of taking during my youth hockey days, before college and living in the U.S. changed that routine.
Feeling nostalgic and finding the opportunity to do so, we did both when I visited my parents two years ago – a trip to the Hall before the Leafs faced off against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was a great day, and one that took place six months before Dad got the news in 2016.
After his diagnosis – Stage-2 with some metastatic tumor development in bones in his lower back – the radiation treatment, hormone therapy, and oral chemotherapy helped this energetic 75-year-old maintain a positive mindset to keep living life with cancer the way he always did – with passion.
Our weekly hockey talks and catching up on life took place as they always did.
That continued until this past September when his energy level greatly diminished and necessitated a trip to the hospital and three days of testing to verify the worst possible news.
The cancer had spread to his liver and to the point that his doctor and oncologist said that further treatment would not help.
It was only a matter of time, and palliative/hospice care was recommended.
My parents didn’t ask how long.
Dad was adamant in not spending his days in a hospital.
Fortunately, he was able to receive treatment at home with my mother taking care of many of his needs along with help from nurses checking in every few days, and the doctor coming every other week.
I drove the 16-hour leg from Holly Springs, North Carolina through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York to cross the border via the Peace Bridge from Buffalo to Fort Erie, and on to my parents’ house in Barrie.
I got there at midnight and just wanted to embrace my dad and tell him how much I loved him.
I did just that, and for the next week, I spent time with both my parents, watching them live the ‘new normal’.
Being who my dad was, he was still as vibrant as he could be in his condition.
Lots of soccer and hockey games played on the TV when he was awake, and our hockey sports talks continued while I was there.
All things considered, it was as good a week, spending time with both my parents, helping them in whatever way I could during such a trying period of our lives.
We talked about the more serious issues ahead, and the damned inevitable happening.
That’s how my family works – confronting the issues, but understanding and feeling the emotion of it all each in our own way.
I never saw my dad cry, though I’m sure he did.
He showed strength that my mother and I knew was his way in trying to make our individual tearful moments less painful.
It provided some solace as I eventually hugged him to return to North Carolina, wondering how long it would be before I would see him again.
The last time I talked to him followed Carolina’s season-opening win over the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 7.
Our last hockey talk took place that Sunday.
Dad sounded lively talking about the highlights he watched on SportsNet with my tidbits of what happened behind the scenes adding to the conversation.
Though I made a short call a few days later, there wasn’t much new to talk about and we figured we’d catch up the following weekend.
Another 16-plus hour drive North ensued.
All the thoughts of my father and I driving in the car to hockey practices, games, and tournaments in dozens of rinks all flooded back through my mind while taking care of funeral arrangements with my mother and brother.
My last interaction with Dad was by his casket as I kissed him, told him I loved him, and how much I appreciated everything he ever did for me and our family, and that we’d be okay.
I lay a picture beside him of the two of us standing outside RBC (now PNC) Arena, taken when my parents visited Raleigh seven years ago.
Our relationship with hockey will carry on, regardless of the weekly phone conversations that cancer took away from us.
While the Hurricanes and Islanders face off in their ‘Hockey Fights Cancer’ game on Sunday, I’m back in Barrie for Dad’s 40-day memorial.
We’ll connect and I’ll be sure to reflect on a hockey moment or two with him.
Cancer may have taken his body, but not his soul, nor the passion for hockey that we both shared together.
Rest in peace Dad, and know that the fight against cancer will continue in your name with the hope that others will be able to carry on their love of hockey together as we did.
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport