Sportsnet magazine Big Read: Long road home

Sportsnet magazine

The white van rolls through a grey Missouri morning, past muddy fields marked with dying red leaves and bare brown branches—a speck along the interstate, one of hundreds, heading southeast toward St. Louis. Jeff Christian’s hands wrap around the wheel, swaying with each dip and turn. His round face is marked with scars, under his chin, on his cheek, and up where his hairline used to be. His nose once curved left like a hockey stick, the product of wayward elbows and intended fists. Today it’s perfectly straight, the work of a plastic surgeon in Arizona.

Each wound on his six-foot-two frame is a chapter from a 24-year journey across North America and Europe, through hockey’s junior and minor-pro leagues. He’s played for 23 different teams, chasing his dream of becoming an NHL star. He’s passed a puck to Mario Lemieux, exchanged punches with Rick Tocchet, scored a goal for Canada, replaced two rows of teeth, and been on 30-hour bus trips. He packed his life in a suitcase, playing a game that became a life. Until, that is, the road crumbled beneath him.

Ryan, his nine-year-old daughter, sits behind him in one of the captain’s seats in the second row, staring at the fields as rain streams down the window. She wears a Princess and the Frog T-shirt, jeans with pink flower squiggles and shoes that light up when she walks. Her hair used to be long and light brown. Today it’s short, curly and blond.

Jeff slams his foot on the gas. “Oh!” he shouts, exposing his fake front teeth with a goofy grin. “Feel that power!”

His wife, Dorie, jolts forward in the far back seat. “Ryan, your dad is crazy,” she smiles.

Ryan shakes her head. “I know,” she giggles.

It’s Oct. 12, 2011. 8:30 a.m. The Christians are less than 30 minutes into a nine-hour drive from Blue Springs, a Kansas City suburb they’ve lived in for less than two months, to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.—the world’s premier facility for treating pediatric cancer. They are 616 days into the toughest road trip of their lives.

Looking back, 41-year-old Jeff Christian can’t recall learning to skate as a three-year-old on the ice rink next to the Dofasco steel plant in Hamilton, Ont. But something started there. And at the Glanbrook arena, where he played minor hockey for the Rangers. And in the summer months when Jeff and his five brothers bashed sticks on the driveway in tattered jerseys, wearing their jocks over their track pants to elicit honks from passing cars.

His passion for the game grew on the rink his dad built next to their farmhouse in Mount Hope, Ont. Gord Christian put spotlights up so his boys could play long after the sun quit.? It developed during drives to away games in Tillsonburg, Penetanguishene and Huntsville, with his teammates packed into the back seat and his mother, Dianne, at the wheel.

His will was forged as he worked the fields for a local farmer as a 12-year-old, adding muscle to his preteen frame. And training as a boxer at a Hamilton gym to develop grit, while playing Jr. C hockey. He became a hulk with soft hands.

That’s where dreams begin. But those blurs of hope and youthful naïveté aren’t fully understood until he’s drafted. First to major junior and the London Knights. There are fans and autographs and rising expectations. Then a trip to the NHL draft in Montreal with whispers that he’ll go high, his parents in the stands. He’s 17.

“With the 23rd pick of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft, the New Jersey Devils take Jeff Christian of the London Knights.”

And that’s where dreams get difficult.

Christian returned to junior, where he clashed with his coach. He asked for a trade and the Knights shipped him to Owen Sound. He scored a goal in his first game against London, and flipped the puck at his old coach on the bench. He took that brash confidence to the Devils’ training camp in 1990. But New Jersey sent him packing to the minor league affiliate in Utica, N.Y. In the first drill at practice with the Utica Devils, Christian skated the wrong way. A piercing whistle stopped the rookie in his stride. Tom McVie, the coach, hollered and his teammates snickered. “Nice move, Jughead,” one quipped. The name stuck. A few weeks later, he stopped at McDonald’s before a morning practice, which just happened to be the first bag skate of the year. Partway through the gruelling no-pucks marathon, Christian doubled over, puking his hash browns onto the ice. “Take a breather,” a teammate said. “Coach won’t mind.” Christian headed to the bench. “Where are you going?” McVie shouted. “Get back on the line!”

Christian spent the next four years toiling in the Devils system—a power forward in an organization shifting its focus to small bodies and speed. He asked New Jersey to assign him to the old International Hockey League’s Cincinnati Cyclones. He stayed there for 36 games, notching just 17 points, before asking to be reassigned again. He ended up back home, playing out the remainder of the season with the short-lived Hamilton Canucks of the American Hockey League. In 1993, he grasped for a faltering dream with the Albany River Rats, shining with 34 goals and 77 points. At 23, Christian had already lived on the road for five years—moving seven times. By the time his contract with New Jersey expired in 1994, he had only played two NHL games.

HE BOUGHT THE 1998 GMC SAFARI EXPLORER LIMITED SPECIAL EDITION van for a couple thousand dollars at a used car auction a day before the family hit the road for Memphis, with a car dealer’s licence he picked up to generate extra income. The odometer reads 136,000 miles of someone else’s life. It has a TV, VCR, tan leather seats with built-in heaters, wood panelling, rows of white lights lining the roof, a radio that rarely works and windows that go down but not up. Dorie thinks it’s tacky. Ryan thinks it’s awesome. They’ve streamed along the interstate for nearly two hours. The van rumbles over a grey steel bridge above the wide Missouri River. Dorie sits typing a legal brief on her laptop, a freelance business she started a couple years ago.

Ryan carefully colours in a sketchbook. Art is her favourite subject. She’s a wizard with markers, but even better with paint. “Dad, what do you think of my castle?” she asks, flopping the drawing over his shoulder. “Oh nice, Bubs,” he says, glancing at the purple palace. Her notebook is full of them. She’s learned to navigate her markers through the swerves of a road trip. She perfected the craft in cold hockey rinks, sitting next to her mom as she cheered Jeff on. Ryan knows how precious her gift is. The effects of chemotherapy once left her unable to colour between the lines.

Christian held Matthew Barnaby close, twirling in circles in front of thousands of cheering fans. He did everything he could to stick with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who’d signed him to a two-way contract for three years in the 1994 pre-season. “Christian and Barnaby,” the announcer roared. “Showtime, here at the Auditorium!” Christian led the dance, guiding Barnaby with superior strength. “If you’re not scoring, you better be fighting,” Jeff’s dad always said. “You’ve got to get on the game sheet.” The dance twirled to its end. He flashed a victorious grin.

Christian didn’t stick. But life was fine with the Cleveland Lumberjacks—a $100,000 salary, a bachelor pad, a 1969 Skylark, hats-only hot tub parties, more women than any 20-something man could handle. Yes, life was good in Cleveland, but it would never be enough.

He took a detour in 1996, when his grandfather suffered a stroke and was breathing out his final days. Bill Wilkovesky used to take his young grandson on long fishing trips, where they’d reel in the silence for hours. The trips are among Christian’s happiest memories. There was no hockey talk, no discussions of what he’d have to do to make it. Now, Christian found himself sitting next to his grandfather—lying on his back, fading away. Barely coherent, he turned to Christian and whispered three words: “Play your game.” He rolled his head back and the room went quiet.

Those words stayed with Christian. He recalled them a year later, sitting on the bench next to Mario Lemieux, as close to greatness as he’d ever been. During a stoppage in play he shuffled in close to the ‘Magnificent One,’ leaning into him. Perplexed, Lemieux turned and said: “What are you doing?” Christian had been called up from the Lumberjacks in the final year of his contract. If ever he had a chance, this was it. “My agent told me to sit close to you so I can get on TV,” Christian told the legend. They looked up to the screen at centre ice, where 20-foot versions of themselves stood side-by-side, and laughed.

A few games later, on March 5, Christian streaked down the right side wearing No. 72 for the Penguins—the number his father wore as a tight end for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the late 1960s. He slipped past the New Jersey Devils defence, took a cross-ice pass and snapped the puck between the legs of a sprawling Martin Brodeur—the crowd erupted. “His first NHL goal,” the play-by-play announcer roared. “Jeff Christian is having a career year in the minors, and now he’s being rewarded!” It had been almost a decade since he pulled an NHL jersey over his head as the 23rd pick of the draft. His mother cried when she heard the news. He can’t recall his father’s reaction.

In total, Christian played 15 games with the Penguins. It was enough to secure a one-year deal with the Phoenix Coyotes for $140,000. During the pre-season, Christian thought he was a lock for the team.? But well after midnight, a few days before the 1997–98 season began, he dozed off as the team bus rolled home from the airport. Bobby Smith, the team’s GM, woke him up. The words were a butt-end through his heart. “We’re sending you down in the morning,” Smith said.

JEFF GETS SERIOUS FOR A MOMENT IN THE VAN. He’s able to joke through the worst of times, a coping mechanism he’s learned along the road—keep talking, keep laughing, keep moving. But now, as the van chugs on, he’s remembering what it was like to play through constant rejection. “You’re not good enough,” Jeff says. “That’s what they’re telling you.” He remembers each trip to the coach’s office, each rehearsed apology, each “maybe next time.” He knew rejection well. Gord Christian was a tough, hard-nosed man who was difficult to impress. “He was a ‘You better do better next time,’ or ‘You’re embarrassing me’ kind of guy,” Christian says. “I don’t know if he ever said that, but that’s how it felt—like you weren’t living up to his expectations. In reality, nobody could.”

Gord Christian died of a heart attack on Sept. 23, 2008. He was chopping wood outside his cottage in Cochrane, Ont., where he had lived alone since his marriage dissolved. He kept no phone, and told his family they could check in with him once a week at the local lodge.

Jeff’s brother picked him up at the airport in Buffalo. As they drove 11 hours north to Cochrane, Jeff thought back to when he finally stood up to his dad. “I can’t talk to you about hockey anymore,” he said. “You make me feel like I’m not good enough.” His dad knew what it took to be a pro—no one could strip him of those Ti-Cats days. But he could never praise his son. “I think he did care,” says Jeff. “He just grew up in that era where he couldn’t express that.”

Ryan looks up from her book. “He had no phone,” she says, repeating the story she’s heard many times before. At nine, she’s baffled that a grown man would crave isolation.

After a dismal stint in Vegas and a championship season in Houston, Christian found his way back to Cleveland in 1999. A little older and wiser, Christian turned from consummate Casanova to hopeless romantic. She was beautiful, with blond curls and a contagious smile. And she was smart—just 25, and in her final year of law school. It was supposed to be a passing flirtation: a glance exchanged, a number given. But she didn’t call him for a month. When she did, he was hers. Even Europe couldn’t keep them apart. After a season in Cleveland, Christian went to Germany to revive his career on a new continent. But?? he quickly realized he couldn’t live without Dorie Turnipseed. And she couldn’t live without him. She left behind her career in law to be with the “funniest man” she’d ever met. Her mother wasn’t thrilled. She made Dorie book a two-way flight, but the lovestruck lawyer never used the? return ticket. “I wanted a new adventure,” she says. “He makes everything into a good time. It was exactly what I needed.”

They spent five years in Europe, moving across Germany from Krefeld to Düsseldorf and then to Hannover, before winding up in Sheffield, England. It was fun, at times, but not a vacation. In Düsseldorf, they lived in a converted horse barn. Ryan was born in Germany, in January 2002. Managing the new addition in a foreign place was difficult. After a year in England, the adventure was over. The British league could release players whenever it wanted, and the pay was half his usual salary. “I’d had enough at the end,” says Dorie. “You’re always ready to go home.”

The next season, Christian found himself lying in the back of a bus on a 30-hour road trip, missing four teeth and a chunk of his chin, gashed out by a hockey stick in Arizona. He felt each bump in the road through the haze of painkillers, and wondered how much more he could take. He was stuck on a bus while his daughter was growing up. He was making around $900 a week as a top player with the Youngstown SteelHounds—an expansion team in Ohio in the double-A minor pro Central Hockey League. He’d earn another $500 a week through the summer for his duties as the team’s assistant coach. He was on the road for three weeks at a time, travelling across America with a bus full of fading dreams. The young balanced on hope. The aged teetered on extinction.

Dorie worked in a law office and took care of Ryan. She endured the single-parent nature of a hockey wife’s life, unwilling to take the game away from Jeff. “You can only play hockey for so long,” she says.?? Dianne, his mother, begged him to quit. “It’s enough,” she’d say. “It’s enough already.” But when the owners declined to renew his deal, he signed a guaranteed contract—a rarity in the CHL—with the Tulsa Oilers.

The Christians packed their lives into an SUV once more, with a cooler of goldfish between the seats. Ryan sat in the back with their two dogs. They drove south for Oklahoma, where the hockey ended and the circus began. The Tulsa crowd oozed disdain for their own team. One old man in a wheelchair wouldn’t shut up. “Christian, you suck,” he’d yell at every game. “Go eat a donut! You suck.”

The van moves south down the I-55. “You’re not fat, daddy,” Ryan says, looking up from her book. She leans forward and touches him on the shoulder. “Ah, thanks, Bubs,” he says, glancing at her in the rear-view mirror with a smile. She looks back at her book, Judy Moody Gets Famous!, and keeps reading. It’s 199 pages. She started it early in the week and is almost done. There are still hours of road between the Christians and St. Jude. But the moments of silence are brief in this van. When she’s not reading, Ryan’s just as talkative as her dad. There’s always a horse to spot, a joke to make.

TWO YEARS IN TULSA WERE TWO YEARS TOO MANY. The move to Missouri was an easy decision. They arrived in Blue Springs for the first time in 2009. Ryan was a hit in her second grade class. She made fast friends and adored her teacher. She played soccer and had sleepover parties. Dorie continued to do freelance legal research and writing. Jeff settled into his role as player and assistant coach with the Missouri Mavericks, leading his team in points.

The headaches started early in the new year. Ryan came home from school complaining of the pain like any kid might. They persisted day after day. She stayed home from school on the morning of Feb. 4. Jeff was at practice when the equipment manager’s wife ran into the rink: “Ryan’s in the hospital,” she said.

Dorie had gone into her room at 11 a.m. and found her unconscious. She tried to wake her up, but Ryan didn’t move. She had suffered a massive seizure.

Jeff ripped his equipment off and rushed to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. The doctors stabilized Ryan and kept her sedated. They ran tests to determine what had caused the seizures that left her unresponsive. During the process she suffered several small ones, and a temporary brain injury—she didn’t know her name, she couldn’t speak. The doctors said the seizures were caused by high blood pressure. Tests showed an increase in the levels of a hormone produced in the adrenal gland.

Nine days later, a doctor pulled Jeff aside. He explained that a CT scan revealed a 4-cm-by-6-cm tumour on one of her adrenal glands. It had grown into the vein that drains the gland and was snaking its way toward her heart. “Listen,” the doctor told Jeff. “It’s cancer. It’s 100 percent cancer. And it might be too late already.”

During a four-hour operation, surgeons managed to remove the tumour and biopsied a small part of the liver, where the cancer had spread. Tiny spots were also found in her lungs. She was diagnosed with Stage IV adrenal cortical carcinoma—a rare and aggressive form of cancer. If she didn’t undergo intense chemotherapy, the spots could grow and spread rapidly.

An ambulance took Dorie and Ryan the 500 miles to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis on Feb. 26. Ryan faced eight rounds of chemo treatment over the next six months. Two IV lines delivered the chemotherapy drugs into her system for five days straight. She also took oral medication five times a day, and had shots in her stomach to thin her blood. The chemo caused her blood cell count to crash. She’d recover, and go through it all again every three to four weeks.

Dorie held Ryan through the tears. They’d cuddle in the hospital bed and stream Jeff’s games over the Internet. They tuned in on March 5. As the clock ticked down on the Mavericks 6–1 win, the crowd of 5,800 started chanting her name: “We—love—Ryan. We—love—Ryan.”

Jeff spent the rest of the season flying back and forth between Kansas City and Memphis. His team’s health insurance coverage was essential now. He’d be a free agent at the end of the season. Between periods he’d check his cellphone for updates from Dorie. He did his best to keep his composure on the ice. “I wanted to play as much as I could,” he says. “But there were times when I couldn’t skate.” He was still the team’s leading scorer and their assistant coach. But little of that mattered now. More than once, in the middle of the packed arena, he looked down at his skates and cried.

As the rounds of chemo continued, Ryan’s weight dropped below 50 lb., and her long hair fell out. Jeff and Dorie spent the summer by her side. By the end of August, the spots on Ryan’s lungs were gone. Ryan was free to leave the hospital, but had to return regularly for checkups.

The Mavericks offered Jeff a job as a coach, but not as a player. He’d have to take a pay cut, and there was no insurance. Then the Mississippi River Kings, a CHL team based about 20 minutes from St. Jude, offered him a one-year contract.

The family returned to Blue Springs in early September and packed their lives into boxes again. Jeff rented a 26-foot moving truck and towed his Yellow Skylark behind it. Phoebe, the family dog, sat next to him, with the cooler of fish between the seats. Dorie drove their Ford Escape, pulling Gord Christian’s old fishing boat. Ryan and Cooper (their other dog) rode with Dorie. They drove across Missouri—move No. 17 as a couple— with their lives in tow.

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A couple hours from the Arkansas border and the Elvis billboard signs are growing more frequent. Dorie is now sitting in the middle row, next to Ryan, who is watching a Barbie video on the tiny TV in the overhead wood panelling. “She had such a huge smile,” she says, thinking back to Ryan’s first day in class after six months of chemo. She was pale and scrawny, with no hair. It didn’t matter. “She was just so excited to go.”

The third grade in Southaven, a suburb of Memphis, was supposed to be a new start for Ryan. She was on heavy doses of medication, but the most difficult parts of her treatment were done. Still, there were after-effects. Usually one of the brightest kids in her class, she now had trouble keeping up. She had trouble fitting in. Often, Ryan came home crying. “I have no friends,” she said. She longed for Blue Springs and the friends she left there. “It was heart-wrenching,” Dorie says. “You wanted to see her do so well, and she was trying hard, but it wasn’t working.” As a Michigan girl, Dorie was tired of the South. The fans in Mississippi were just as harsh as the Oklahoma crowds. They taunted their players—”Hey Christian, eat another cookie.” Ryan was still on medication, including an increased dosage of steroids. Dorie bore the brunt of her moody and irritated eight-year-old, who sometimes lashed out at her.

Jeff, meanwhile, was lost on the ice. He just didn’t care. “That’s when I knew enough was enough,” he says. He scored only 14 goals and 39 points in 52 games. The coach sent him a text message: “Sorry, looks like we’re going to have to waive you. Call me if you have any questions.”

THE FIELDS TURN WHITE IN SOUTHERN MISSOURI, where cotton stretches into a dark blue sky. Dorie fumbles with Ryan’s medication. The pills inside the container, a single month’s prescription, are worth $5,000—partially covered by the family’s $1,500-a-month insurance policy. St. Jude has covered the rest of their expenses—a bill that’s nearly $3 million.

An old friend in Evansville, Ind., offered to pick Jeff up off waivers for the final 15 games of the season. Dorie told him to go. “Let’s do it,” she said. “Let’s finish this off the right way.” In the final game, away in Bloomington, Christian stood alone at centre ice. He had the last shot in the overtime shootout. He nudged the puck forward. The goalie revealed a fraction of a flinch. Jeff Christian flicked the puck off his stick. For the 545th time in his 24-year professional career, he scored. And that was it. He had played 1,357 games as a pro, 18 of which were in the NHL.

The gas gauge dips perilously low at the exact time all parties have to use the bathroom. Jeff pulls into a QuikTrip gas station. “Please keep your seat belts fastened until we make a full and complete stop at the gate,” he says in a flight attendant tone, pulling up next to a pump.

“You’re going to make your wife walk in the rain?” Dorie asks, hopeful for a chivalrous act. “No,” he says, with a slick smile. “She can run.”

Dorie scoffs, and Ryan laughs, and they dash into the QuikTrip together.

AFTER THE SEASON ENDED LAST SPRING, the doctors at St. Jude found another spot in Ryan’s lungs. She was put on a new chemotherapy pill. The Evansville Icemen offered Jeff a new contract. He said no.

The family packed up their Ford Escape and hit the road for the summer visiting friends and family across the States and Canada.? They arrived back in Blue Springs in August. It was where Ryan had been happiest. It was the place she dreamed of through seven months of chemotherapy.

Jeff looks in the rear-view mirror, and says the only thing he cares about these days is the little girl in the back seat. “We want stability for her. We want this to be home. Enough is enough.”

A few months ago, Jeff and Dorie agreed a sibling was the best gift they could give Ryan. She always wanted to be a big sister. And it was the best gift they could give themselves. The new teammate, a girl, is scheduled to arrive in March. Jeff is slowly finding work as an agent for minor league hockey players, while Dorie continues researching and writing legal documents.?

The Memphis lights are blurred by pounding rain. They are moments away from the gates of St. Jude—the patron saint of lost causes. It’s been nine hours since they left Blue Springs. It’s been one month since they last made the trip, learning that two new specks had developed in Ryan’s lungs. It’s one day until they find out that those two spots have grown, and the chemo dosage is increased. “We don’t dwell on it,” Jeff says. “As a family we can’t. We just keep moving forward.” It could be years before this road trip ends. But then, that’s never stopped them before.

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