When my wife and I heard that Roger Neilson was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, we were saddened because we really enjoyed his spunk (and flashy ties). Like us, Roger was a born-again Christian and that shared faith was refreshing to see in a sport regarded as something less than holy amongst many of our peers. When we met Roger some months before, I was proud to have him sign my pocket Bible, along with Adam Burt, Jody Hull, and John Vanbiesbrouck.
Roger's signature somehow meant more, though. He always was gracious on TV and radio and though he had a wonderful sense of humor, he never once indulged in slinging mud at the Flyers or Bob Clarke for his awkward dismissal in 2000. Instead he said, "It's too bad it ended that way. Bobby and I are still great friends today. One disagreement in three or four years of a relationship — it's bound to happen." (From http://www.thestar.com/Ob...tuary/NtoS/article/107797
In November of 2002, my wife and I watched with delight as Roger was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. She and I had visited the Hall twice that year, in January (during a trip to Montreal) and in June (during an HNA Tournament). It was special to see Roger become a member of the Hall (see my avatar!).
On May 21 of this year, my wife Mary followed Roger into the Church Triumphant when she, too, succumbed to cancer at the too-young age of 31 after a courageous two-year fight. Our first "big" (read: "expensive" ) date was the Flyers-Nordiques game on January 21, 1995 in the old Spectrum. Mark Recchi was body-checked all over the ice that night, just eight games before his trade to Montreal for John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, and Gilbert Dionne. My wife and I had a great time despite the 3-1 loss. Our mutual love for the Flyers was cemented that day, as the August 12, 1994 start of the Major League Baseball strike had killed my love for that sport. Hockey became #1 in my life for the first time since the early 1980's. Little League will do that -- you like what you play. Hockey was not something that was available to me then.
Forgive me for this rambling blog. I cannot express enough what losing my wife means. She was also my best friend. We watched the Flyers every night and TiVo'd whenever we were not around so that we could watch the game the next day.
We each had favorite players. My all-time favorite is Clarkie while Mary's all-time favorite player was Ron Hextall. Any and all criticisms of Hexy were met with sharp criticism (in fact, Les Bowen and Hockeybuzz's own Tim Panaccio were often rebuked for their newspaper reporting and subsequent appearances on 'Daily News Live' on Comcast Sportsnet, although Ed Moran eventually took over as the Daily News reporter/target of ire). She was as fierce in defending her husband and friends as she was her favorite Flyers (Dan McGillis ran a close second to Hexy).
Mary felt that the recent NHL had been too self-serving. Too many owners wanted money from new clubs joining no matter the effect on the product while she scoffed at frivolous and radical rules changes (notably, the shootout). However, when it came to talking sports, Mary defended hockey against the American sports nuts that dismiss the ice game like it was the WWE. She was the NHL's big sister. No one outside the "NHL family" could rag on the league, but she'd be free to tell you why the success of the 1970's and 1980's were undone by the late 1990's and 2000's.
In 2001, a group of posters from the old ESPN message boards got together. Unbeknownst to five of them, three of us were related: my brother, my wife, and me. When it was decided to get together for a game in Philadelphia on January 18th, the eight of us met at the Holiday Inn at Packer and 10th. We then were treated to a 7-1 blowout at the hands of the NJ Devils. Ugh. We had fun despite the score, as our group was made up of four fans from South Jersey, one from Quakertown, PA, one from California, one from Alaska, and one from Vermont. The Holiday Inn was very hospitable and the staff was intrigued to hear that we were all from various places around the US. The next year, we got together (less the fan from California) in viciously cold Montreal to see the Flyers come from behind to win 5-3. Oleg Petrov had the hat trick for the Habs that night.
In October of 2001, my brother and I joined a local hockey team in the Hockey North America (HNA) league. My wife was our most consistent and vocal fan. Like a real Philly fan, we heard it from Mary when we were lackadaisical and we got cheers when we played well. Last weekend, my team went to Toronto for the HNA Championship Tournament. My gracious teammates had patches made that acknowledged my wife’s illness and she died soon after they were ordered. They presented the patches to me before our first game and I was floored by their classy move. After tying our first game and losing our second, we needed a win to get into the playoff round. With a mere 3.5 seconds left to play, the score was 3-3. We pulled the goalie for the win because a tie would eliminate us and put the puck in the net just before the buzzer and celebrated like we won the Stanley Cup. We then went on to win the Semi-Final in Overtime. We then had 15 minutes to get ready for the Championship game, which we also won in Overtime. The magical weekend was sealed with a team trophy that the team let me receive from the HNA President. I skated it around the rink like the Stanley Cup and pointed to Heaven. I then picked up our 4 year-old son and skated him around for a lap. He said he was so proud of me and my team and that mommy must be so happy. I am sure she is.
So, when the puck drops in September during the preseason, the Delaware Valley will be without a vocal, vibrant, and beautiful woman who fought cancer as hard as she would have verbally sparred with anyone denigrating the NHL, the Flyers, or the Phantoms. Our son and I will carry on the tradition of rooting on the Flyers, but something tells me the cheers will not be as energetic and the yelling at the refs will not be as passionate for a while. Our love obviously goes beyond hockey, but hockey was certainly a part of our love and life together. I wanted to commemorate her and thank you, Eklund, for this opportunity to do so.
Special thanks to Bill Meltzer for editing this blog. I always suspected he was classy. Now, I know