He spent the final month of his life in an oxygen tent in the den. I wasn't allowed to visit him.
In some respects, I'm grateful for that: The image of Dean that I'll always carry with me is that of a curly-haired kid, stronger and taller than most, who watched out for his little brother.
After he died, I continued to go to the basement each day and practice my shots. I was just seven and I couldn't fully comprehend his death. I talked to him before going to sleep as though he still occupied the bunk bed above me, told him how I could now hit the corners with my eyes closed. I figured he would come back, somehow.
In late October, the Parks and Recreation crew arrived at the playground to ready the rinks. There was talk that, because of a dearth of eligible kids, Desnoyer Park wouldn't be able to put together a Bantam team that year. The coach, who had given my parents Dean's hockey jersey—the Bantam equivalent of retiring his number—asked me if I would play. By the rules, I was two years too young, he said, but if I were willing to try out, the coach was willing to bend the rules.
I wanted nothing more than to play with the big kids. But I caught a cold and lost my voice. I recovered from the cold, but my voice didn't. My worried parents sent me to the doctors for a series of tests. An otolaryngologist thought that one of my vocal cords was partially paralyzed, perhaps from a mild case of polio. What seems more likely to me now, and was recently confirmed by my doctor, is that I had had a delayed psychological reaction to Dean's death, maybe after being told continually to keep quiet lest I disturb him.
Still voiceless in December, I tried out for the team. But my lift shots had gone the way of my voice. And shooting on hard, fast, outdoor ice was far different from shooting off of a concrete floor. When I drew the puck back, it would slide off my stick. I would flick my wrists, now as strong as a 10-year-old's, but the puck would dribble away. My timing was terrible. Still, I could deke the goalie five times out of six, so I made the team.
My diminutive presence wasn't readily accepted by some of my larger teammates. On the ice I was able to get around the bullies using speed and finesse, which irritated them more. Off the ice, I was pushed into snow banks, had my skates stolen and was taunted as a sympathy case. I couldn't even lift, they said.
By late December, we were ready to play our first game, against South St. Anthony. I was to center the third line, displacing a kid five years my senior. After the warmup, we all stepped over the boards and into the snowbank that was our bench. While going over the boards, the stick of the kid I had displaced struck me flush in the nose, breaking it. I spent the next four hours in the hospital emergency room.
The next week, with two black eyes, a nose the size of an orange and still voiceless, I was again installed as center on the third line. This time we were to play Linwood Park, one of the best neighborhoods in St. Paul. That team had complete uniforms, and some of its skaters had intimidating emblems on their jerseys that read: TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS' HOCKEY SCHOOL.
We played 12-minute running-time periods, with two breaks to shovel the ice. Some 30 minutes into the game, the score was tied 2-2, though Desnoyer Park was lucky to be in the game. Our coach believed in a straight rotation, so with a couple minutes left to play, the third line took the ice. We faced off in Linwood's zone to the left of the goalie. I got the puck back to my leftwinger in the slot, who whiffed on a shot. I skated out toward the blue line to retrieve the puck, turned and shot. The puck took off on a wobbly flight toward the goal, first passing through a defender's legs, then rising as though it had wings. It passed just under the armpit of a defenseman, bounced off the goalie's shoulder and into the goal. My teammates, including the guy who had broken my nose, scurried onto the ice for the customary pile-on. We won the game, 3-2.