Minnesota Wild star Zach Parise did not play Tuesday night against the San Jose Sharks, for a reason that too many of us have dealt with: a seriously ill parent. In this case, Parise was at the side of his father, former NHL star J.P. Parise, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in February and was not doing well.
"It's hard to watch," Zach Parise told the Minnesota Star Tribune. "It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life...(the organization has) been really supportive about it, but the hard part about it is you try to go to the rink and forget about stuff, but the hard part is … this was kind of our thing.”
The scourge of cancer touches all of us in one form or other, and it's hardly news the disease afflicts wonderful and not-so-great people at the same rate. But, for me at least, the Parises are a little more special, if only because I've found both to be exceedingly decent human beings and ambassadors for the game in my personal experiences with them.
Here's what I mean: early in my career at THN, I picked up the phone one day in 2003 and Zach was at the other end of the line. He was at the University of North Dakota at the time, and was doing research for a paper, so he called looking for THN's annual visor survey information. Now, we get a lot of phone calls at THN, but rarely do we get a young star calling us for something other than a pre-arranged interview; to say most are scholastically incurious is an understatement. However, Zach was very pleasant and genuinely engaging as we spoke, and I left the call thinking, "there's a smart and normal kid".
Fast-forward a few years later. I received my first chance to speak with J.P., and as someone who had watched the elder Parise play for the North Stars, Islanders, and, perhaps most famously, on Team Canada's 1972 Summit Series team, I had a high degree of reverence for him before the call began. But when he answered the ring and we began speaking, I was floored: J.P. was talking about me as if I were the star. He'd been a lifelong reader of THN, he said, and he loved my writing. I was beyond flattered, and thought his willingness to shift the discussion away from himself said a lot about his comfort with who he was and how lucky he was to have played the game he loved for a living. He didn't need any more good luck in his life, and it was clear he was always happy to discuss things other than his achievements.
Not every former athlete is so gracious in his retirement years. More than a few athletes of his stature have no clue how to remain grounded, but J.P. does. However, the best glimpse I got into the essence of him came after that, when we spoke again in 2012 for an oral history of the legendary Summit Series squad. We were just wrapping up our conversation and I was asking him how he wanted to be described in a short bio we were planning (but later dropped) for each Summit Series member at the end of the oral history feature; very politely, he made a request:
"Sometimes people write that I'm Zach's father, and don't get me wrong, I'm very proud of that," J.P. said, "but I'm also Jordan's dad. So if you don't mind, please put down that I'm Zach and Jordan's dad. Thanks."
It was such a simple statement, but it said everything about what meant the most to J.P.. And although he and Zach are suffering tremendously at the moment, I'd bet it would make both happy to know I'll never think of Jean-Paul Parise as a stick-swinging referee menace playing the Soviets in 1972, or even the star player I admired as a kid who made my day with a few kind compliments about my work covering the game he loved.
When I think of J.P. Parise, I'll always remember him as the man who made that request over the phone.
Best wishes to both men, and all who know them. If any family deserves a miracle, it's the Parises.