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In Our Own Backyard...The playing field of life is often difficult

My lower back is sore, I've got a knot between my shoulder blades, both knees are stiff, and my eyes are aching in their sockets. Four straight days of hockey have a way of taking their toll -- and I wasn't even on the ice.

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My lower back is sore, I've got a knot between my shoulder blades, both knees are stiff, and my eyes are aching in their sockets. Four straight days of hockey have a way of taking their toll -- and I wasn't even on the ice.

I joined my son in Rochester last Thursday for the Tier III Junior Hockey National Tournament (the state-side version of the Canadian Junior Hockey League playoffs that our own Minnesota Wilderness will participate in beginning this Friday).

The reason we were there was because the Helena Bighorns -- the team based in the community where my son lives -- were competing. He's been a big follower of the team for several winters, and my husband and I had the opportunity to watch them play when we were in Helena visiting. It was great, fast-paced hockey, and with a season record of 50-2-2 in the balance, we found it impossible to stay away when they advanced to national competition in Minnesota.

But there was more.

Besides a stellar record and high hopes for a national championship, there was a human side to the drama as well.

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At approximately 4 a.m. the morning of the Bighorns' first-round playoff game back in Helena, one of the team members received a call from the coaches informing him that one of his fellow players, Wyatt Winfield, had just died after being involved in a car accident. They told him there would be a team meeting later that morning to discuss the loss.

Since that team member was the unofficial designee to pass along any news relating to the team, he was the first to be notified. He wisely decided to simply tell the rest there was going to be a team meeting of great importance they needed to attend.

And so, the young Junior Hockey players learned of the tragedy all together -- and seemingly overnight, they grew old beyond their years.

To a man, they voted to go ahead with that night's playoff game and dedicate it to Wyatt. Not only did they win that one, but they went all the way to the championship of their division. Along the way, Wyatt's mom and dad were their soul mates, their inspiration, their counselors and their biggest supporters.

The first day of the national championships, the Rochester Post-Bulletin printed a story about this gutsy little team and told of how they were playing with heavy hearts because of the sudden and tragic loss of their teammate and friend.

All of this emotion and adrenalin was circulating around the hockey arena the first night of last Thursday's national playoffs. Wyatt's jersey hung in the Bighorns' player box, and they wore his number 15 on their jerseys. They played fiercely and courageously, winning twice before falling in the semifinal competition.

But the win/loss record, the shots on goal and the Bighorns' total points are not what any of us who were there will remember. Instead, we'll remember how a group of young men rallied to embrace the memory of a teammate.

It's a scenario that has likely played itself out in dozens of different ways in dozens of different communities after a team has suffered some sort of tragedy in their collective lives. When my son was a student at Cloquet High School, two members of his hockey team lost parents in fairly short succession. It was the first taste of unexpected loss that many of them had ever experienced. And as they filed into the respective funeral visitations, they seemed oddly changed.

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And whether you're a fan of sports or not, that sort of personal tragedy has a way of bringing folks together in an otherwise unlikely way. All of us who were there to support the team at last weekend's tournament found ourselves drawn to one another, though most of us had never met before -- the parents of the Swedish player who travelled 23 hours on an airplane to watch him play; the grandparents who drove from Chicago to support their grandson, a player from North Pole, Alaska; the single mom who flew in from Washington because she was concerned about how her son, one of the goalies, was coping with the tragedy; the three-generation family from Rapid City, whose little girls led cheers for their brother and the rest of the team; the host mom who drove 14 hours straight to support the two players who stayed at her house; the elderly gentleman from Owatonna whose granddaughter was dating a member of the team.

By the end of that first game, we were all on a first-name basis. We were sharing life stories, photos and email addresses, rattling cow bells and whooping and hollering for the team, all the while thinking of the one player who was no longer there. And with that special sort of drama that sometime happens at sporting events, most of us shed a few tears as well when it was all over.

But the tears were not for the team's defeat in double overtime after such a hard-fought semifinal. They weren't for the earlier-than-hoped for end to such a remarkable season, or for those players who will now be moving on. They were for all that the shared experience stood for -- a young man whose life was cut short in his prime, the players who had never before experienced the death of a peer, and for the grateful realization that despite these losses, life most assuredly goes on.

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