How I Blew the Chance at Every Canadian Kid’s Dream
I was lucky enough to grow up an only child. A lot of people tend to think differently about that fate, but I feel it afforded me several opportunities I may not have otherwise enjoyed.
Along with getting all of the birthday and Christmas presents and not having to share any food with my siblings, it also meant that after a lot of pleading, I got to be a goalie in ice hockey; quite literally the most expensive position any kid could play in any sport.
There was no family lineage or expectation to follow in anyone’s footsteps. If my dad had his way I would have played soccer, but I couldn’t handle all that running.
My buddies and I would play street hockey, mini stick hockey, trade hockey cards, watch hockey movies and pretty much lived and breathed the sport.
However, because my parents knew nothing about it, I wasn’t allowed to play the real version.
They thought hockey consisted of body checking and fighting and blood right from the get-go. Once my best buddy’s dad – who also happened to be our community club team’s coach – explained this was not the case over a few rum and coke’s, I was all signed up and ready to go.
And I sucked. Real bad.
When the opportunity arose, I decided to try goalie, using our team’s community club equipment. Lo and behold, I loved it and was pretty damn good.
Like I said, good thing I was an only child.
Before long, making the NHL became my dream, along with just about every other kid on every other team in every other town in Canada.
Real original, Gav.
Unlike a lot of Canadian kids, my parents weren’t able to coach me growing up in my sport of choice. My mom had grown up in a poor family with three sisters where any extra curricular activities were an afterthought and my dad grew up in England in the swingin’ sixties and seventies – not exactly a hockey hotbed.
Nonetheless, they were more than willing to do whatever they could to make my outlandish hockey dream a reality. All the equipment, the countless 1-on-1 lessons and the fees just to play at the highest level; not to mention the endless travel and hotel rooms were totally unaffordable for my parents, both of whom were on respectable but not outrageous salaries.
That’s not even the biggest sacrifice they made for me. The time was the big one.
My parents were the type that; although they could barely tell a blue line from a fourth line, were eager to learn and supported the hell out of me. They were the parents that watched every single practice and game – not because they were critiquing the coaches, they just wanted to support me.
And they did. Every. Damn. Day.
Minus 40? They were firing up the minivan.
Plus 25 and sunny? They were in a cold, dingy rink, watching me in summer camp, which probably cost a thousand bucks.
Every team I made a team – they celebrated with me.
Every time I got cut or lost a big game – they were a shoulder to cry on and always ready with a one-liner to make me feel better.
Throughout my childhood, no one ever accused me of taking things too lightly. I put a lot of pressure on myself in every endeavour, and all this support meant that I applied even more internal pressure to succeed for all my parents had done.
Some would say that just getting drafted to the Western Hockey League was a massive accomplishment unto itself. I would tend to agree, since draft day was one of the most exciting and rewarding of my life.
I remember the jubilation I felt running to the school’s payphone to call my parents when I saw my name come up in computer class (come on, it was draft day!).
Fourth round, 60th overall to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
You can imagine that when the time came to decide on what to do with my future, we didn’t take an international move to the west coast at the tender age of 16 lightly.
The Seattle Thunderbirds brass had come calling; and they brought out the big guns to schmooze us.
The team’s general manager and several other high paid front office personnel came to town with money to burn.
Dinner at a high-end restaurant? Check.
Drinks and a big old steak for my dad? Check.
Pumping my tires for three hours straight? Check.
There was a lot of back and forth between the three of us and in the end, my ultimate, triumphant statement to my mom’s final plea at staying home for one more year was, “You can’t hold me back, mom.”
But mom always knows best…
Fast-forward to November 2005, and things had been going really well for me on the ice. I was the 18-year old backup goalie in my second season with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
It turns out I was actually making a name for myself. It was my NHL draft year and I had been drawing some interest from teams like Toronto and Tampa Bay after a decent rookie season and a hot start to my sophomore year.
I was chasing down the starter’s job with a vengeance – on paper at least.
I had been in net for two massive wins against our archrivals from Portland, winning both in dramatic fashion: one in overtime, one in a shootout.
I was living the dream. I got to play the sport I loved, travel around Western Canada and had a legitimate shot at the big leagues and big money.
I was finally going to be able to honour my parents for all the time and money put into a pipe dream. This would feel like WHL draft day on steroids.
I was on top of the world. This should have been the first sign there was trouble on the horizon.
Never too high, never too low. Too bad I learned that after the fact.
Although things looked good on the ice, the following account had been a long-time coming.
I had been playing well, but I really didn’t know why. I had no idea what separated a good performance from a bad one and my mental state was so fragile that I could go from ‘the penthouse to the outhouse’ with one misstep.
On this particular November night, we were playing a Friday night road game in Spokane, Washington against the lowly Chiefs.
The Chiefs were atrocious that year, so there wasn’t much to get excited about. I felt confident to the point of cockiness, like I was owed something more than I was getting. I was coming off a shutout of the Regina Pats.
Like I said; not too high, not too low.
No matter how bad they were, Spokane was always a tough trip from Seattle. The five-hour drive wasn’t long enough to go the day before and stay overnight, but just long enough to make your legs feel like cinder blocks when you got off the bus two hours before game time.
It was a divisional game for us, so we knew they’d pack the place; which meant over six thousand drunken American college fans would be going crazy with every hit, fight and goal.
The rink in ‘Spoke’ was one of the worst for opposing goalies. Every goal, the horn would go off and their goal song would blast out of the speakers.
But that happens at every rink. Wanna know the worst part?
The worst part was that after the dust settled and the game was back on, they had this massive gong that they pounded – one for every goal.
They didn’t allow you to forget about the goal and move on because you had a fucking gong pounding in the back of your head.
So, as the game wore on, things were going pretty well actually. I was bumbling my way through another game with my head in the clouds and no idea how to ‘focus’ or be sure I was ‘on my game’.
It was the third period, and we were up 3-1. I was playing good enough against a terrible team.
They were pushing to get back in the game and got a goal early in the period. I could feel things slipping away.
Where was the mojo I had in the Portland games? Had I somehow lost it on the way to Spokane?
Then it happened; a moment that I’ll never forget until the day I die.
A guy named Judd Blackwater, who actually ended up having a cup of coffee in a few pro leagues, came down the sideboards on my right.
At the time, he was a fourth line rookie, just fighting for ice time. He may have had a goal or two behind his name, but not much to write home about.
I was half with it, following him. I remember our defenseman being right with the burly forward. I could only see about half of his red jersey with the big S on the front.
Before I knew it, the puck was off his stick. Next thing I knew, I was crumpled by my post, trying to make up for the fact I had no idea the shot was coming. I prayed I had somehow held it between my pads.
Then I saw his arms go in the air with a surprised look on his face.
Then I heard the goal horn.
Then I heard the roar of the crowd.
It was right then as I watched them celebrate and my defenseman skate by me, his face full of disgust and confusion – that I realized what had just happened.
That was the exact moment where I thought; possibly out loud,
“This is it for me. I’m done.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but its one of those thoughts you would give everything to take back. But it’s a thought, you can’t really control what pops into your head.
And this exploded onto the scene.
I tried to fight it. I tried to push it down.
“Forget about it, Gav. Forget it. Move on,” I pleaded with myself
The more I tried to forget about the goal and that demonizing thought, the more it consumed me.
The music kept blaring and the fans kept cheering.
The thought stuck in my head as the teams lined up at centre ice for the face-off. Then, just as I was settling back in, trying to forget the nightmare that had just unfolded – the gong.
I was also struggling at the time. To be honest, I didn’t really care about hockey. It was no fun going to the rink anymore. This small, seemingly insignificant moment had broken any semblance of mental fortitude I had left.
All that I cared about my whole life was doing what I was told. So many people had sacrificed so much for me to be there, and the pressure that I placed on myself was starting to mount.
I was also young and in love. I had met a girl back home the previous summer and fallen head over heels, like any clueless teenager does. All I cared about most nights was getting home from the rink so I could ignore my amazing billet family and talk to her on the phone in my room.
Thinking back on it now, I think it was the release that I needed from the pressure cooker I had created in my head.
My girlfriend didn’t care much about hockey, so we never really talked about it. This was exactly what I wanted, because I took everything so seriously when I was at the rink.
We’d talk about nothing at all for hours on end, as my billets would wonder what the hell I was doing. Their kids were young and easily influenced and I was not setting a good example.
I was acting like a complete tool.
The coaches and my teammates were starting to notice. It was my second year in the league and I had been given the line, “You’re an 18-year old now (even though I was still 17). Time to act like a veteran on this team. You have to set an example for the young guys.”
The older guys treated me like shit as a rookie and I had no idea how to ‘act like a veteran’ and ‘set an example’ for the young guys. I played twelve games my first year and I still didn’t play on most nights when a lot of our young guys did.
Honestly, I didn’t give a shit about anyone on the team other than my small group of buddies and I was even pushing them away with my endless hours on the old rotary phone in my room.
We ended up losing the game in a shootout on that fateful night in Spokane, with me allowing all three shooters to score. The series of events that followed would spell the end of my Western Hockey League career and any chance I had at making the pros.
A couple games previous, our all-star starting goalie sprained his ankle (hence, why I played two games in a row). Due to the mechanics of the position and the severity of the sprain, this was a pretty substantial injury.
I remember when the goalie coach told me that ‘Bridgey’ was injured; I gave a celebratory “Yes!” as if to show him I wanted the chance to play. How he didn’t know it was complete bullshit is beyond me.
But that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?
Deep down I knew I wasn’t ready for it, especially after that unfortunate goal in Spokane.
As the newly anointed starter, I went on an epic losing streak going into Christmas break – something to the tune of 10 games in a row. The first loss in that string was the loss in Spokane.
Even our call-up goalie who had never seen the ice in a junior game got a win during that streak.
That thought – “This is it for me. I’m done.” kept creeping back in.
“Whatever. Forget about it Gav. Move on.”
I just wanted to see my girlfriend again. I just wanted to be anywhere but on the ice.
Things went from bad to worse in my head. Instead of grinding through a tough time and working on my game, I went into no-fucks-given mode and couldn’t care less about anything.
I quit trying in practice. I stopped preparing for games as I had in the past.
Working hard and beating the shit out of myself mentally wasn’t working. May as well try something different. I basically just shut ‘er down.
I was lost, confused and found myself with nowhere to hide.
I came home for the Christmas break, went out drinking with my buddies and hung out with my girlfriend almost every day and night.
I barely even made time for my parents and support system – who had sacrificed so much for me to be in Seattle, in the short few days I was at home.
I distinctly remember being at a house party (I could still tell you whose it was, but I won’t expose them) and yelling out, “I’m on a ten-game losing streak – woo!” before taking a shot of tequila.
This wasn’t me. This wasn’t the Gavin that grew up playing mini sticks and following the rules. What had this game done to me?
I knew that I’d most likely still be the guy after Christmas break at least until our starter was back. The timeline on his return was right around the ominous trade deadline in mid-January. Depending on the starter’s condition, the general manager may have to make a move to bring in a more seasoned goaltender.
Our first game back from Christmas break was against the middling Kamloops Blazers and the head coach called me into his office mere hours after I got back into town.
“Gav, I know things haven’t been going well lately. I hope you took some time over the holidays to get your head right. I’d take Gavin McHale with his head in the game any night over [their goalie].”
Our head coach hadn’t spoken to me personally in what felt like years. This must be serious.
As expected, I shit the bed again, got pulled in favour of the call-up and we lost a squeaker 4-3.
Now’s where the fun starts.
New Year’s Eve is a historic night in both Seattle and Portland, because it’s when the T-Birds travel down the highway to meet the Winterhawks and play in front of 10,000+ fans in what could be called the biggest rivalry game in the league.
Even though I was scared shitless to play, when I found out the coaches were starting our call-up midget AAA goalie over me, I felt like I had to be mad.
I had to show the world that I wanted to play and overtly prove how mad I was.
I messed around playing cards with my buddies the whole way to Portland, being blatantly obnoxious as guys tried to nap and prepare for the game.
I clearly didn’t give a shit while in the dressing room, joking around and playing our beloved warm-up game called ‘sewer ball’ with a reckless abandon.
I wanted to everyone to know I was just fine not starting. They couldn’t get me down.
As had been the way it was all season, things didn’t go very well early in the game and Portland was taking it to us.
Our 16-year-old starter got pulled during a terrible second period by our entire team and I went into the net with a point to prove.
I was mad and wanted to show the world. I decided that now was the time to do it – during a game in front of 10,000+ fans that hated me simply because of the jersey I was wearing.
With our goalie having been yanked, things were already getting out of hand. I think it was 6-2 for Portland when I entered the game, and whenever the score got lopsided between Seattle and Portland, things were bound to get a little silly. Add in the emotion that comes with a New Years Eve tilt and tonight would be no different.
One thing led to another and I found myself just a few feet from a full out line brawl.
The entirety of what had happened during that half season dawned on me and I did something I had never done before. I decided to actively pursue a fight, attempting to pull an opposing player off my teammate.
The video below demonstrates the absolute shitshow that ensued. Mom, don’t press play (she’s still never seen this video and refuses to do so).
Not the way I’d like to be remembered…
“You didn’t see it, did you?” I said in a nasally voice to my mom as she answered the phone with a little New Year’s cheer.
I was at the back of the bus on the way home from Portland, a broken nose, two black eyes and not much left of my ego.
“What’s wrong Gav? You sound awful.”
“I got in a fight and broke my nose.” I still remember falling to the ice and watching the white stripe on my jersey quickly turn red through my watering eyes.
“You… you whaaaat!?!?!”
She turned away from the phone, whispering to my dad and their friends what she had just heard me say.
As she returned to the phone, I could tell she was getting choked up. “Gavin, that’s not like you. What were you thinking?”
Add it to the growing list of items where I’d let my parents and biggest supporters down. I had just ruined my mom’s New Year’s Eve after ruining her Christmas with my complete indifference in any family activities.
Once again, I wasn’t acting like myself and this whole thing just kept spiraling out of control. I’d now be on the shelf for at least a week with a concussion, meaning even more time to sit and stew about what was going horribly wrong.
Fast forward ten days and we were back at the beginning of the whole mess – in Spokane to play the Chiefs. My broken nose, slight concussion and generally broken face were just starting to heal and our starter was back from injury so I didn’t play that night; an overtime win for the team.
The two points meant we’d have a “happy bus” back to Seattle; meaning we were allowed to joke around and have fun. The last thing on our minds was tomorrow’s trade deadline. Things were looking up for the T-Birds!
As the rookies were loading the bus, our General Manager was on the phone just outside. With the deadline looming, I eased the tension by joking that one of my buddies (the future team captain) was on the block, getting traded as we sat there and watched.
Boy, was I wrong about that one.
After the five-hour bus ride, we got back to our practice rink at about 3AM. This was pretty normal and although we hadn’t slept much (if at all), we still had to unpack our gear. As I was hanging my gear in my stall, the coach called me into his office.
“Oh shit.” Immediate panic set in.
Never good. Especially on deadline day.
When I walked in, the entire coaching staff and management were in the office looking tired and subdued.
I was immediately informed I had been traded to the Lethbridge Hurricanes in what turned out to be a blockbuster deal at the time.
Two others and myself had been dealt for three players, making it a massive six-player swap, including some pretty promising NHL prospects.
I was scared shitless.
I was confused.
I was excited at the new opportunity and the change of scenery.
I didn’t know what I was, so I pulled out my flip phone with the blue screen and I called my dad from the parking lot. It was about 4AM on the west coast so it was around 6AM at home.
A second late night phone call home in just over a week couldn’t be good.
“Dad. Hey. It’s Gav.”
“Oh.. Hi buddy. You’re sounding better. What’s Up? What time is it?”
“It’s 4AM here. I just found out I got traded.”
Well that woke him up.
“You what? You got traded!?!?”
“Yeah. Me, Farmer and Fads got dealt to Lethbridge. I have to go pack my stuff up and get on the road as soon as possible. I think it will be good for me. They’re other goalie is only 16 years old so I should get a chance to play.”
My dad was always a gentleman around his family, but he and my mom swore – a lot more now that I was getting older.
But my dad NEVER said the word ‘fuck’ in front of my mom or I.
After some more back-and-forth, he finally came out with it.
“Gav, just don’t fuck this one up too.”
I can still hear the raw emotion in his voice as he said those words. I can still picture myself sitting in my little Saturn in the parking lot of our practice rink in Kirkland, Washington; looking out at the rain hitting the windshield and letting those words hit me like a ton of bricks.
I don’t even know what I said after that, but the raw, guttural reaction from my dad punched me back into reality.
I would have a chance to prove myself somewhere else, but if I didn’t figure my shit out nothing would change.
He was so right it hurt.
As mad as I was when he said that, I wish I could go back in time and actually take that advice.
Because, guess what? I managed to fuck it up again.
Once in Lethbridge, my relationship started falling apart and we were sort of ‘on-again-off-again’ for awhile.
I can remember my first team party consisted of me crying after a few too many drinks and calling her to tell her I loved her.
Gotta love first impressions.
To be honest, I have blacked out most of that experience from my memory because I hated it so much. I almost quit the team at least three times, and that’s the only time my parents have ever given me bad advice in my life.
They told me to stick it out because I had committed to something. In theory, they were right. But I should have told those coaches where to shove it.
After a tumultuous two months in what turned out to be the worst franchise and group of teammates I ever played with, the season finally came to an end in the first round of the playoffs.
Since the end of the 05-06 season, I’ve certainly had success in hockey.
I turned things around that summer. I got a full-time job, broke up with my girlfriend and hit the gym hard.
I was named co-MVP of the Lloydminster Bobcats the very next season and finished my junior career by winning a provincial championship with the Portage Terriers, the most storied franchise in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
I was able to secure a scholarship to my hometown University of Manitoba and played there for two years before deciding to call it quits and focus on school.
I finished up my serious playing career with four years of senior hockey, a glorified beer league that allows fighting and hitting for guys who just refuse to give up the dream.
But it wasn’t until 2016, two full years removed from any serious hockey and over ten years removed from that fateful night in Spokane and my last real shot at the pros, that I finally learned to love the game again.
I never realized it, but all the experiences and the nasty turn of events had made me hate the game I grew up loving. There were times that the last place on Earth I wanted to be was the rink.
And until I accepted that fact and consciously moved past it, I could never let those horrible moments go.
I would watch NHL games and see my former teammates and friends playing in Madison Square Garden on a Saturday night. I couldn’t help but think, “That could have been me.”
I also could barely stand to watch games with my dad, knowing that he wished it was me having that success. He wished it was me on the TV screen. He knew it could have been me, and I blew it.
I wasn’t the ‘last cut’.
It wasn’t because of ‘politics’.
I just fucked it up.
And it hurt. It still hurts, but I’m moving past it.
What led to all this?
Was I unprepared for the pressure that would surely come with success?
Was I too young and immature for all the responsibility that goes with becoming a pro athlete?
Was it my infatuation with my girlfriend?
Was this a coming-of-age experience that I needed to go through to become a better person?
The answer is probably some combination of all-of-the-above.
This whole mess was my fault, and it’s time to take full responsibility for it.
To my parents and everyone who supported me, I am truly sorry.
To my teammates, I hope you can understand that that guy wasn’t me. I’m better than that, and given the chance I’d love to take you for a beer and show you.
And to all of those who made it. Good on ya. I hope you get everything you ever wanted, because you deserve it. I know how hard it is to get over the hump, because I couldn’t.
What did I learn from this experience?
I learned that relationships are the most important thing you can have, and being likable is the easiest thing you can do to propel yourself forward in business and in life.
I learned that no one gives a shit if you’re not happy when you’re part of a team. Don’t show up with problems. Show up with solutions.
I learned that being a parent is the toughest job on Earth; and even though I’m not yet a parent, I hope I can manage tough situations with half the grace my parents did.
I learned that while you don’t always need to respect the person for who they are, you have to respect the position they’re in. They’re usually there for a reason.
Without even knowing it until recently, hockey has taught me everything I now know to be true in life.
How you do one thing is how you do everything.
Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans.
This experience has driven me to get to this point in my career and will continue to drive me well beyond where I think I can go.
The pain of losing something I was so close to will continue to drive me until I die. I never want to feel like I’ve let someone down again in my life.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes you just can’t get that fucking gong to stop ringing in your ears.
But you have to show up every day and do what you know is right, because that’s the only thing you can control.
Let the chips fall where they may, but I never want to leave myself wondering “what if?” again.
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