In 1988, my cousin Jackie was very sick. She was in Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital having received a bone marrow transplant for Leukemia.
During the season, the Flames were in Toronto to play the Leafs. Flames Coach Terry Crisp was from St. Mary's, Ont. and had played for the local Lincolns Jr. B team with my dad and knew my uncle Gord, Jackie's dad, through the small town.
Before the game, Terry went to see Jackie in her hospital room and brought with him a stick signed by the whole team, adding his own before presenting it to her.
Receiving this stick really lifted her spirits and she felt an immediate kinship with the Flames. As I grew older, I thought about how in demand players are, especially with so many from Ontario, including the coach himself on that team - family, friends, Maple Leaf Gardens just before Christmas, hectic I'd bet. Needless to say, the visit made a tremendous impression on me as a very young boy, speaking volumes about character.
Later that 1988-89 season, Jackie lost her fight with cancer. She was like an older sister to me and we were great friends. I was simply devastated. My uncle Gord came by a few days after the funeral, stick in hand and, despite knowing what a ridiculous Maple Leaf fan I was, entrusted me with the stick, ordering me to cherish and protect it. In my mind as a 12-year-old, the Flames simply had to win the Cup now; it was personal.
Well, cherish the stick I did. I held onto it, so careful not to touch the autographs of Joel Otto or Doug Gilmour for fear of smudging the green marker, every night they played, in fact, some late ones since the Flames played out west.
Mom and Dad were very understanding. I told them that the Flames were going to win the Cup and Jackie was cheering along. I clutched that stick when Mike Vernon held onto a glove save that put all of himself, except a gloved puck into the back of the net. I would whisper Joey Mullen's name on the power play since I was holding one of his old sticks, now covered in the handwriting of his teammates. And I'll confess to almost – almost – dropping it when Lanny flew like a teenager around the forum.
It's been 20 years now. My uncle Gord has since passed; cancer as well. When I reflect on that incredible and talented team and think of Al MacInnis lifting the Conn Smythe and Lanny MacDonald getting his head rubbed while holding Stanley over his head, it still feels very personal, thrilling and maybe a bit sad.
I am watching a lot of playoff hockey again this year, but I'll admit I feel preoccupied with 1989.
Ryan Leslie, Waterloo, Ont.