• Patrick Hat Trick

    Turns out, Patrick Kane didn’t have to grow a full beard – or even a scrawny mustache. He didn’t have to bulk up. He didn’t have to stop ordering ice cream with chocolate sauce after every meal or taking long naps or playing video games.

    Kane, the top draft pick in the National Hockey league last year and a 20-year-old who still looks like he’d mow your lawn for a couple bucks or babysit if he had a free night, is a full-fledged, full-grown star.
    Monday night, Kane had three goals and an assist to help the Chicago Blackhawks clinch their playoff series against Vancouver and advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 14 years.
    A year ago, I stood with his parents in Kane’s bedroom in Buffalo, N.Y., looking at his trophies and pictures on his wall. I looked at the jerseys and the blankets and the posters and hockey cards. I leaned on his bed to get a better view of some stuff framed behind it.
    And then I ate baked spaghetti at the family’s favorite restaurant and drove through a blizzard to London, Ontario, Patrick’s last stop on the junior hockey circuit before the big-time.
    It is where, I believe, I came to fully appreciate the relative wholesomeness of the sport compared to others, which may sound a bit odd when you are talking about a group of men whose vast majority are missing their front teeth and sport scars that would make hardened felons blush.
    Watching Kane pose after Tuesday’s thrilling victory with his three pucks, I knew that his parents were beaming. And not because their prodigy had fulfilled their every dream, but because their boy – 18 when he was drafted by the Hawks last season – was fulfilling his.
    Patrick’s father, Pat Sr., whom his friends and family refer to by his childhood nickname, “Tiki,” owned an auto dealership in Buffalo until one day while on his cellphone with his wife Donna.
    “Patrick just scored,” she told her husband from a game when Patrick was competing in Detroit for one of the top junior programs in hockey. “Oh wait, he just scored again.”
    “My heart is breaking,” said Tiki, describing the oft-repeated scene. “What am I doing?”
    So he quit a job and sold a business that had consumed him.
    “Our goal was to be No. 1 in sales and I don’t know if that [competitiveness] rubbed off on Patrick but it was very important to us,” he said. “But I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
    Though Patrick was more than dedicated to his sport, this was not a kid wearing skates by age four. At four, he spent a year refusing to wear anything but a Batman cape and hood. At six, he learned to skate. Just skate. No stick for a year until he could handle himself on the ice.
    By 10, the other kids were asking Patrick for his autograph.
    Still, they continually questioned the kid’s toughness. He was tiny, even smaller compared to the older kids with whom he consistently competed. But he excelled because he learned to evade the checks, to be more agile, to become a gifted passer and an even more gifted scorer.
    He also grew up with three younger sisters, and that will toughen up anybody.
    “I always tried to get my sisters to play hockey,” he said. “I remember one time they said ‘OK, we’ll play hockey with you, but only if you play dolls with us.’ It worked like that with my sisters.”
    His dad had taken his son to Buffalo Sabres games from the time he was two, sitting along the glass with Patrick propped on his lap.
    “I’d sit right on the glass,” Patrick recalled, “and I could see everything right in front of me, all the players. I got to see the ice, see what those guys were doing. I went to so many games when I was little that you fall in love with the great players. We’d go to warm-ups and see what the great ones did, how they stick handled and stuff like that, just to learn.”
    Only once did the son rebel against his father’s “enthusiasm.”
    “He’d definitely get on me if I wasn’t playing up to my potential,” Patrick recalled. “I remember one time when I was in Detroit, the coach was really tough on me, a real big motivator and if I didn’t have a good shift, he’d be all over me.

    “Looking back on it, it was really good for me because he’d get the best out of me. But I remember one time, he ripped me too hard after a game or something and I kind of went to my dad upset, and said ‘It would be nice for you to be my dad now instead of giving me advice.’ That was it. And it’s been like that ever since.”

    When Patrick left home for junior hockey as the great ones do — 14 years old but looking like eight according to those who knew him — Donna Kane’s little boy couldn’t stand it.

    “I remember the first night I was crying and called my mom and said, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” he said. “But give her credit. She said later she wanted to turn around and come get me, but she decided to keep going and let me gut it out for a bit and see where I was after a couple weeks. And after a couple weeks, I was fine.”

    In the meantime, his parents drove the five hours to Detroit at least once every week to see him play and he’d come home for weekend visits briefer than the drive.

    Hockey players stay with “billet” families (the phrase comes from the practice of lodging military personnel in private homes), and Patrick had surrogate moms and dads and siblings in Detroit and Ontario.

    When he woke up one night in London in horrible pain from a horribly infected wisdom tooth, it was Sylvie Richer, his billet mom, who sat up with him.

    “He was just a gem, we just absolutely adored him,” Richer said.

    I saw Pat Sr. and two of Patrick’s sisters after a Hawks’ game I was covering for the Tribune recently. I asked him how Patrick’s mouth was after his son had severed off his front teeth in a collision with teammate Jonathan Toews several days earlier.

    Patrick has a habit of taking his mouth guard out on the ice and letting it dangle from his mouth. A bad habit, evidently, as he was doing that when he ran into Toews.

    His father shook his head. And how about Donna, I asked? How does she handle it when her son gets clobbered?

    “She’s very strong in front of him, then she’ll walk away and collapse,” said Pat Sr., acting out his wife’s body language as he sunk into a corner, his head in his hands and a smile peeking out.

    A year ago, Patrick lived in the basement of Stan Bowman, who was in the Hawks’ front office and is the son of Scotty, famed Stanley Cup coach and now Senior Advisor to the Hawks. Kane’s parents were making the car payments on his Jeep Wrangler.

    His parents came to nearly every game.

    “I think it was even tougher on me when Patrick left home because I was the one who took him to the rink,” Pat Sr. said. “When I’d go to Chicago practices, Patrick would say, ‘Dad, why do you want to go to practice?’ But he doesn’t understand how much I enjoy just watching him skate.”

    After Kane was drafted, then-Blackhawks’ coach Denis Savard joked to me, “When I was 18, I didn’t know how to make toast.”

    And at 5-feet-10, 175 pounds, Patrick Kane still looks like your little nephew.

    “But my thought on that,” said Donna, “is that if Patrick was 6-4, 200 pounds, he wouldn’t be the player he is today.”

    The player he is today is a playoff hero.

    The player he is today, is all grown up.

  • Eating Brownies, Listening to Fogelberg

    Most days it is my computer that beckons to me like an only friend. And then other days, like today, it is a pan of brownies. Make that two pans of brownies. Two pyrexes of my mother’s brownie recipe that I brought to a friend for Mother’s Day, but are now back in my house because she did not want her family to gorge themselves on the leftovers.

    No, much better that my family/I gorge.

    I’m wondering when this became acceptable to send back unused fattening desserts with the guests who brought them. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law and I perform this dance all the time, nearly coming to blows over who will be stuck with the excess birthday cake, cookies and whatever else we will be cursing the next morning.

    “I don’t want them in my house,” one of us will yell at the other until the nearest male simply takes it out to the car while the women are still arguing. It’s always a gracious way to end any gathering.

    Being a woman, I have spent considerable time pondering the direction of my life and wondering whether I’ll do it underweight or overweight.

    I ate almost nothing for two days after the financially motivated dissolution with my former employer (just trying out different ways to say “laid off”) and thought this might be a bright spot to unemployment.

    Then the trauma gave way to depression and somewhere on the way to resurgence, I found my appetite and then some. So now I’m wondering if Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers or someone might consider a deal like Hyundai’s, which allows you to return their car if you lose your job within the year.

    Like maybe if you gain more than 10 pounds after you lose your job, they’ll come to your house and weight you in private.

    You know, just some kind of gesture.

    So desperate am I for inspiration that I recently stopped my spin class at the ‘Y’ in mid-spin to ask what song was playing on the instructor’s iPod. So for a few days, Dan Fogelberg’s 1975 hit “Part of the Plan,” was my new anthem.

    I especially like the part in the chorus when he says, well sings, that I should “cry when you have to.”  I’m pretty sure he was talking about some ugly break-up with a girlfriend and not losing your job as a sportswriter, but that’s not really important right now.

    What is important is that I’m eating brownies and watching the end of “Dancing with the Stars” and not at the Blackhawks’ game right now.

  • Motherhood II

    Storytelling, I have decided, is sort of the verbal hieroglyphics of a family, the color added to the commentary; the explanation for the picture of your brother dressed as a princess at age four long after everyone has forgotten it ever happened.

    After a couple dozen re-tellings, stories take the place of actual memories. They fill in all the gaps.

    My mother was a fabulous storyteller. So good that at some point, she simply took over my father’s own childhood stories, which were clearly lacking, and told them herself.

    She’d recall detail from 50 years earlier, what she was wearing, the precise dialogue, the emotions she was feeling at the time. But if there was any chance at injecting humor into a story, which was pretty much always, you never knew where the facts left off and the improv took over.

    As a true child of the Depression, she told us of her father Morris, a loving,  hard-working housepainter, and her mother Bess, a woman scarred from her own abandonment as a baby, moving from apartment to apartment on the West Side of Chicago, to escape landlords after rent money often gambled away by her mother.

    But even this my mother would recount without a trace of melancholy. Like the roller skates she rented for seven cents an hour with her best friend Rhea – “I paid four cents and she paid three,” my mom would explain, “because Rhea was really poor. Her father was on relief.”

    It was my grandfather Morris who would take my mother, his youngest of three girls, for a canoe ride on the lagoon. “He bought me a sailor suit,” my mother would recall lovingly. “And then we’d row out to the middle of the lagoon, I would throw up over the side and then we’d row back.”

    There was also the one about her goldfish, which swam round and round in its bowl on the kitchen window sill until one day, with a hot summer sun pouring in, “it jumped out,” my mom said, “and committed suicide.”

    “Committed suicide?” I asked.

    “It was the Depression,” she’d say with perfect timing.

    She told these stories even as her short-term memory faded. The dress she was wearing when, while playing stickball, the neighborhood bully pushed her down, imbedding gravel in her knee. The Chinese doll — her only toy ever, she said, I think to inject the story with some added color — given to her by her beloved older sister Pearl. The game she played under her mother’s dinette, the tablecloth concealing her grown-up, make-believe life in “Chi-Town.”

    They were her memories, but somewhere along the line they became mine, as clear in my mind as if I lived them myself. And yet why couldn’t I remember the final words she spoke that made sense? The last time she looked at me and knew it was me. For a while, I beat myself up for not having the good sense to ask her more questions while she was still able to answer them.

    Like how did she make her brownies so light and cakey? How did she always know the right thing to say to make us feel better?

    How were we supposed to fill in the gaps without her?

    I miss my mom today.

    Seniority always rules on Mother’s Day. You may be a mother, but your mother or mother-in-law is still the guest of honor. And if her mother is still around and at the party, she is the queen.

    This is how it should be. You are your parents’ children until they are gone. And then you are the adults.

    Thank God for my mother-in-law, because I am no more ready to be guest of honor at that party than I am to be queen.

    But I think I’m finally comfortable in the storyteller role, able to conveniently make up details to fill in the gaps whenever necessary. And thinking of my mom every time I do it.

    I never knew her father Morris, but it was his humor that everyone remembers. And it was our grandfather who surely passed it on to my mother and her sisters, a trait imbedded in me and my siblings and my children, a gene I pray will sustain my grandchildren and their grandchildren for generations to come.

    “Did I tell you about the time my father came into our apartment dragging a long rope over his shoulder?” my mother said, and of course, I pretended she hadn’t.

    “I was so excited I couldn’t stand it,” she began. “He kept pulling and pulling on the rope. ‘Daddy, daddy, what is it? What is it?’ And then finally, at the end of the rope, was an adorable, scrawny little puppy. I named him Spot.”

    “Spot?” I would say. “That was the best you could come up with?”

    “It was the Depression,” she would reply, seemingly the perfect answer for anything. “What did I know? Can I finish the story?”

    “Sure,” I said.

    ” ‘Oh daddy, I love him, I love him,’ I said, and I was so excited I jumped up with the one roller skate and stepped on the dog,” she said calmly. “And that was the end of Spot.”

    “What do you mean, the end of Spot?” I asked, horrified. “You killed the dog?”

    “Well,” she said, reconsidering, “he was never really the same after that.”

    I loved my mom.

    It will be two years in August since we lost her. But they’re still her stories.

    And still her Mother’s Day.

  • Motherhood I

    Wild thoughts go through your head when you’re pregnant, scary thoughts like, ‘Why should I cave in to societal pressures and not sprinkle pretzels on top of my pie a la mode?’

    Once you have the child, other fears take over, many irrational. When my daughter Amanda was born nearly 14 years ago, I was seized by one in particular. Awakened in a sweat in the middle of the night, it plagued me.

    What would I do if her hair grew to a length where it became necessary for some sort of accessory or other apparatus?

    Thankfully, by the age of two she wouldn’t let me near her hair. But at one point when she was four and her bangs weren’t long enough to keep in a ponytail, I suggested a double pony and, being four, she went along with it, resulting in kind of a Carrie Fisher, Star Wars look I believe they’re still talking about at Banner Day Camp.

    When my son Alec came along nearly three years later, I figured it would be a snap. No hair anxiety. And I could at least appear much more competent.

    So I went to work. When he was three, I dissected his throw.

    “He’s throwing fine,” my husband said. “Leave him alone.”

    But I didn’t care for his follow-through and the little hitch in his stride.

    “He isn’t hitching,” my husband said. “He just got big-boy underpants. LEAVE HIM ALONE.”

    But I persisted. And by age eight, he was still so conflicted by my earlier attempts at coaching that it took him approximately five minutes to release the ball, which often traveled the length of his leg.

    “YOUR fault,” my husband would say, pointing at me.

    This pretty much sums up motherhood for me.

    Blame and guilt.

    But I joke, of course.

    I look at my daughter now, about to graduate eighth grade and so achingly close to adulthood, and all I can see is that scene in my bedroom not long after taking ownership from the hospital. Just her and me, the first real time we were alone after my husband returned to work and visitors left, a moment so frightening that I truly wasn’t sure if I could do it solo.

    I remember thinking I was not normal, that the baby is supposed to come out and fall into your arms and you are supposed to be crazy in love without a second thought. You are not supposed to look at this person like the stranger she is, someone whose painful sounding cries confound you and turn you inside out.

    I stuck in a cassette tape that someone had bought us with all the songs featuring her name. “Hey Amanda,” the man sang, “sing along with me. Shake, shake, shake it, like a monkey in a tree.”

    And so I shook, shook, shook it, singing and dancing around the room with my new dance partner, losing all previous traces of cool and self-consciousness. She was a new toy for me, and I for her, and we were feeling each other out. She wanted to cry, I’m sure of it, but she picked an ideal time to stop.

    I laid her on our bed in just her diaper, and for the first time really looked at my baby, inhaled her, kissed her deliciously soft skin up one side and down the other, shed my fears and fell, at that precise moment, madly and passionately and forever in love with my daughter.

    I look at my sweet Alec, whose heart beats inside my own, who seems to feel my joy and my pain and I, his, more acutely than anyone. I remember the first day of kindergarten, when the children were asked to stand and introduce themselves to the class, the teacher leading the way by standing and saying, “Hello, my name is Mrs. Singer.”

    And I remember her pointing to Alec, and my shy little boy taking his turn first, bravely getting out of his chair and proudly announcing, “Hello, my name is Mrs. Singer.”

    The adults giggled and Alec blushed and then he slapped his forehead and said, “I always do that.”

    What a sport. What a kid.

    What an amazing thing motherhood is.

  • Gate 3 ½

    Most people, most normal people, would describe this past weekend in Chicago as one of the most exciting and successful in this city’s recent sports history.

    Two overachieving teams in the Blackhawks and the Bulls extended their respective playoff series in dramatic fashion with two victories at the United Center within about 17 hours of each other.
    My family and I were fortunate to attend both.
    I wanted to throw up.
    First, I should explain, it’s weird for most sportswriters to attend athletic events as fans. At least most sportswriters I know. We’re impatient. We hate our seats. We don’t know how to cheer or for whom to root, even when it’s painfully obvious like when one team is wearing CHICAGO across their chests. And by the time we relax enough to behave like regular fans, the game is over.
    I was in a suite for the Hawks’ game Saturday night, which is totally cool no matter who you are and not something I will ever take for granted. That said, I missed three of the Hawks’ five goals. I couldn’t bring myself to wave a red towel. And I felt as if I crashed a party, too nervous to eat too much lest someone throw me out.
    I realize I need help.
    Sunday was worse. Now four days after L-Day (that’s layoff for future reference), I arrived at the Bulls game right at tipoff due to sleepy children and rainy day traffic.
    Generously, I had been offered a credential which would allow me to say “Hi” to my former colleagues, Bulls employees and a few friends courtside. I entered Gate 3 ½ — the press entrance at the United Center named for its original designation at Chicago Stadium — long after media members had passed through and was immediately surrounded by a gaggle of clowns stumbling through.
    For those of you who didn’t know me as a child, this part was extremely traumatic for me. So was the part where I picked up my press pass and another old friend issuing it asked gently what she should write under “Affiliation.”
    “Tribune?” she asked softly.
    “No,” I said even softer.
    “How about Bulls?” I offered.
    She shook her head and scrawled “Ind.”
    “Independent,” she explained, and off I went up to the 300 section looking – and feeling — like a visitor from Indiana.
    Just as I was the night before at the Hawks’ game, I was distracted.  I found myself squinting toward the press section, picking out my buddies. I saw K.C. and Brian and Sam. I found Rick and Fred.
    Even with my Ind. credential, I was, for the first time in my professional life, an outsider. I felt like a loser skulking around at halftime. I took off my credential and held it because it didn’t feel right to be wearing it as I approached the press table.
    The guys hugged me and I hugged them back, my tears spilling onto their sports jackets.
    This is going to be harder than I thought.
    Would I rather work than leisurely attend a game with my family? Technically, no. And yet I wanted nothing more than to be down there with them, enjoying the early game and lessened deadline pressure, chronicling this wonderful time in Chicago sports.
    Back up in the 300s, the fans went wild as the Bulls and Celtics entered their second overtime. A child above us chose to show her joy by screaming at roughly the same pitch as a dog whistle, only this excruciatingly painful to humans.
    I slunk down in my seat, looking like an alien who did not realize the game was exciting.
    After the Bulls’ victory, as my buddies made their way to the post-game press conference, I left with my family and the masses, wondering if it was a first that the crowd roared as they marched through the concourses.
    The sound carried us out of the building.
    And very far away.