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Thinking about a book, and a brother, at Christmas

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The inside cover of the book is inscribed with the following words - “To: Kenny. From: Mom and Dad, Christmas 1973.”

I always thought it was odd that the best gift I ever received was from Mom and Dad, but was clearly in handwriting that belonged to my older brother, Jim. But things were a little muddled in my 11-year-old mind at the time.

About a month before that, I woke up one night to hear my father having a heart attack. I watched from my bedroom door as my father clutched his chest and struggled for breath in front of my mother, who was crying on the couch. It turned out he had pericarditis, an inflammation around his heart. I remember hearing the humming of the heart machines when I would call him at the hospital.

Dad was on the disabled list for almost three months that year. I wondered to myself what kind of Christmas my five siblings and I were going to have, but woke up on Christmas morning of 1973 to a living room overrun with gifts of all shapes and sizes. There were more gifts there than I had ever seen in my life.

Two of them stand out. One of them was an air hockey game that my friends and I enjoyed playing for years. The motor simply wore out after years of use and ultimately ended up meeting the same fate that almost every other childhood toy does when it was tossed on the scrap heap.

The other was the book. It was called Brian McFarlane’s Hockey Annual and it was a compendium of true and fictional stories by writers with names like Peter Gzowski, Gary Lautens, Bob Dunn and Norm MacLean. It had cartoons and puzzles and jokes about hockey. One of them was about King Clancy, who got into a verbal war with a fan one night. “If you were my husband I would feed you poison.” To which Clancy replied, “Lady, if I was married to you, I’d gladly take it.”

There were wonderful stories about the Stanley Cup and Bobby Orr and Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe and Dave Keon. I learned from that book that the icing rule was introduced in 1932 because the New York Americans lobbed the puck down the ice 87 times in one game against the Boston Bruins. I learned that if you rub your thumbnail down the length of your blade and it shaves some of your nail off, your skates are sharp. I learned the Stanley Cup was originally worth about 50 bucks and that ‘One-Eyed’ Frank McGee scored 14 goals in one playoff game in 1905. The NHL record book was reproduced in the back pages and I devoured every one of them.

Prior to getting that book, I was what is known today as a “reluctant reader.” But after receiving Brian McFarlane’s Hockey Annual, I couldn’t get enough of the written word. I consumed that tome cover to cover hundreds of times, used the information in it for class projects and speeches and because of it, became a student of hockey history. I swear there were passages from that book that I could recite verbatim. From there, I picked up every other hockey book I could find and read each one voraciously.

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And now, when I look back almost 30 years later, I can trace my chosen profession back to that one book. Becoming a reader made me want to write and wanting to write, combined with my passion for hockey, led me to journalism school at Carleton University and a career in hockey journalism. I’d call it a job, but it rarely ever feels as though I’m working. I’ve covered Stanley Cup finals, World Junior Championships and Olympics and travelled the world, in large part because of the seeds that book sowed in 1973. I still own it, in fact. Actually, I’ve already passed it down to my 13-year-old son Lukas, and he vows to keep it for his son.

Which gets me back to my brother, Jim. He’s 59 years old now and lives in Thunder Bay, Ont. I’ve often wondered why life never seemed to be as kind to him as he was to me and my four sisters that Christmas. He was working at a low-wage job as an orderly in a hospital that year and he thought nothing, absolutely nothing, of taking whatever money he had and using it to lavish my sisters and me with presents during a Christmas that was looking very, very bleak. Jim never married, but he probably would have made a great dad. He always worked hard to make ends meet, with varying degrees of success. He is a survivor and one of the most spiritual people I know. He is also my hero.

An act of selflessness that resonates three decades later will certainly continue to do so for years to come. It took me a little while to figure out it was you, Jim. But I’ve known for a long time and I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever thanked you enough for what you did for Christmas in 1973.

Well I am now. I love you.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.

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