Sport was the great connection for Scott Russell and his father

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My dad died the other day. He was 91 and enjoyed a long and good life.

I’m not the first guy to lose his father, nor will I be the last. But it still hurts because on the surface it seems that an intimate and living connection to the man I most respected has been severed forever.

There is, it seems to me, some common ground out there that spans the generational difference which often threatens to separate us.

It’s where we might have gone fishing or shared a simple game of catch. Maybe it’s the track where we went head-to-head for the very first time and ran a race. Perhaps it was the big rock we dared to jump off together into the deep, dark, lake.

It could have been the precious, once-a-year seats in the end blues at Maple Leaf Gardens. Or then again, it could have been the family couch in front of an old RCA Victor TV where Hockey Night in Canada unfolded in front of us.

Few rules

Maybe it was strolling through the University of Toronto campus in fall to get to the stadium when he was teaching at the medical school there. He took me to see the diminutive halfback Gerry Sternberg and the Varsity Blues defeat the Alberta Golden Bears to win the first Vanier Cup in 1965.

As I recall, in these favourite kind of places there were few, if any, rules and none which dictated that either of us was too old or too young to take part.

There weren’t many times that I actually arrived at that hallowed ground with my dad. He was a physician and seemingly worked around the clock. My memories of the phone ringing, calling him away and scuttling our plans are vivid, to say the least.

But on those all too rare occasions when we synched up it was more than sweet.

He’s left-handed and in his adulthood didn’t have a baseball glove to call his own. He borrowed one of mine and just out of the car, still wearing his lab coat having worked an overnight shift, he taught himself to throw right-handed and put plenty of mustard on it.

I was pretty sure he could do anything if he put his mind to it, such is my admiration for him.

He loved the water

Sometimes we would go sailing, because he enjoyed being out on the water. He even let me mind the tiller and keep us on course while he manned the sheets; it all seemed too complicated for me to fathom. But then, as always, he treated me as his equal as opposed to a junior member of the crew. 

My dad first caught onto skiing later in life and convinced me to follow suit when I was into my late teens and still dreaming of being an elite hockey player.

“Take up skiing because you can do it for a long, long, time,” he reckoned. “Be part of a team but also have a sport you can do all by yourself.”

I thought of him every time I went speeding down the hill at Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains, as I did at the outset of so many World Cup seasons. It brought me such joy to feel that youthful energy even though I was well into my sixties.   

Dad knew Team Canada would ultimately prevail over the Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series. (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

Showed me the Olympics

I have my dad to thank for that.

He first brought my attention to the Olympics when I was 10 years old. I wanted to be outside in the hot, summer sun riding my bike with my pals, but he dragged me into the living room to watch the equestrian final at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

Our TV was black-and-white and the horses that sped around the turf in front of a 100,000 people crammed into the stadium were almost ghost-like.

“They’re Canadians,” my dad marvelled. “And if you can believe it, I think they might win the gold medal!”

Jim Elder, Jim Day, and Tommy Gayford were indeed victorious that day. One of them rode a horse called Canadian Club. When they played our national anthem, I turned and looked at my dad and it was one of the few times I ever saw him cry.

I knew right then that this was something extremely important to him.

So was hockey’s Summit Series in 1972 against the Soviet Union. That first game where the Canadians got smoked by the Soviets, 7-3, in Montreal, had me both sad and angry. I thought the world might be coming to an end. 

“Don’t worry, Harry will get ’em going,” my father chuckled. He was referring to the Canadian coach Harry Sinden, who dad had seen play many times with the Oshawa Generals before he went on to win a world championship with the Whitby Dunlops. 

Dad was born in Oshawa and grew up in Whitby and therefore believed the Canadians were in good hands. He turned out to be right again

That’s the thing about dads like mine, I guess. They turn you into believers.   

Dads find the time

Generally, they’re the ones who hold our hands as we first venture into sport. They find the time to play the game, any game, and become our most valued teammates. 

For some reason, they just get it and they’re willing to pass it on. The impression you get is there’s no jealousy when it comes to dads and sport, only generosity.       

There were many Father’s Days that I never spent with my dad. He could have been out golfing, or he might have been watching me on TV as CBC broadcast football games, or show jumping from Spruce Meadows, or the FIFA World Cup of soccer. He didn’t know a lot about any of these things, but he appreciated how good the players were and that sport, any kind of sport, is loved by so many people around the world.

I distinctly remember the last time I took my father for a boat ride at the lake. While I steered he sat behind me and held onto his baseball cap, just enjoying the scenery. It was like old times.

He was well into his eighties by then but when we came into the dock he jumped up and expertly fended us off. He loved boats and always said they made him feel like a kid again. I figure they were his connection to the field of play. 

And in turn those fields of play were a big part of his connection to me. 

Something from my dad that I’ll never lose, even though he’s gone.



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