A promise to the people of Fort McMurray

The tragedy unfolding in Fort McMurray, AB is hitting Scottie Upshall and others in the NHL close to home, but there is hope with the outreach the area has received.

On Nov. 30, 2015 I had flown into Toronto from Wolfville, N.S. after a matinee edition of Rogers Hometown Hockey.

I headed immediately to Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital to check on my 93-year-old father who lay in ICU after having aspirated (choked and suffocated on his own spit) that day.

Dad had been in for surgery and aspiration is a common threat for the elderly. Dad was done. The next morning we removed life support, and at twenty to midnight I flicked off the room lights. His heart rate immediately slipped from 92 beats per minute to 60. He had been gasping for air for close to 12 hours, and it was as if the lights going out allowed him to take a break from the effort he had been making.

I will never forget the way he fought hour after hour for those last breaths. He looked like Paula Radcliffe the great marathon runner from England, who has a hitch in her gait that makes her head rock like a horse communicating discomfort.

Fort McMurray Fire Relief: Help support those affected by the Fort McMurray fires. You can make a contribution at redcross.ca or by texting FIRES to 45678 to donate $10.

Dad died five minutes after the lights went out. I do not have a picture of that passing anywhere, but it is burned in my mind.

One of the last great visits my father enjoyed was from a life-long friend named Louise Jenkins. Louise and her late husband Skip were friends of my Mom and Dad. They shared Cape Breton roots. Louise became a nurse in California, but she always stayed in touch with my folks. Mom died in 2008 and Louise was especially careful to check on Dad thereafter. She really wanted to see my Dad last year. He was slipping a little bit on those phone calls.

Her son, Kim, arranged a visit in the summer of 2015 to my home in Oakville. I don’t have pictures of that either — and yet, I do. That’s the difference between sight and vision. I’ll never see a photo of Louise and Dad chatting on the patio, but I will always picture it in my mind. A vision.

Kim Jenkins lives in Fort McMurray. He was a pillar of the education system there for years working as a school superintendent and he hosted me for a few beers, an Oil Barons hockey game and a tour of Keyano College when we were in Fort McMurray for Rogers Hometown Hockey on Nov.23, 2014. Kim also drove me around to explain the growth of the city.

I had never been to Fort McMurray despite growing up in Red Deer, Alberta. I suppose, like most folks, I envisioned the Oil Sands. I greatly admire that project. Most pools of oil and gas in Alberta are small, so it took brilliant engineering, geology and financing to make the project happen. It’s actually a magical undertaking, but the pictures of it rarely conjure a kingdom.

The city of Fort McMurray blew me away. Nestled in the Wood Buffalo region, it’s blanketed with boreal forest, and the heart of the city lies in a valley, at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. There is a sports complex, at MacDonald Island Park, which reminded me of a miniature Sochi Olympic cluster.

After the Sunday night show, I spoke Monday at Father Mercredi High School. The speech was arranged by a mutual friend, Shawn Kennedy, a teacher at Father Merc as it’s known. Shawn’s Dad is Mike Kennedy, a wonderful hockey player from Charlottetown, PEI., who led the Jr. A Abbies in scoring in 2000-01. Mike is now a police officer. His Uncle Gary is a firefighter. Our worst days are first responders’ every day. Our prayers are with the ones working in Northern Alberta right now.

Shawn’s grandfather is Forbes Kennedy, who played more than a decade in the NHL. Hockey brought us together, and through Shawn I discovered the best story I can tell to describe what will happen in Fort McMurray.

One of Shawn’s students at Father Mercredi was chosen to help Tara Slone and I present the three stars on our Sunday Hometown Hockey telecast. His name is Carter Carlson. Tara and I asked him a few questions before going on TV. Tara’s Dad Eric Slone incidentally had his house burn to the ground seven years ago in Ferguson’s Cove, Nova Scotia, so she’s also been feeling great empathy for the plight of Fort Mac.

I kept asking Carter about his Dad, and whether or not some of his father’s hockey lessons had rubbed off. What I did not know was that Carter’s father had died three weeks earlier. Carter never said a word. Somebody overhearing our conversation finally whispered in my ear. Carter was terrific.

Carter introduced me at the school visit the following morning. He’s currently at hockey tryouts for Team Alberta to play in the Canada Games. I think about him all the time. I wonder how Carter imagines his Dad. I wonder how Carter’s parents shaped such a courageous and gracious kid. At my age, I think a lot. I’m 56 and that’s the window where you lose your parents, your career is at a crossroads and you cherish friends more. I’m always dwelling it seems.

Then it hit me, as I watch these homes in Fort McMurray being devastated: A house is also a dwelling.

I promise on the memory of my dying dad, and by the example of the unforgettable Carter Carson, no matter what is destroyed or lost in Fort McMurray, you will have your dwelling, forever.

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