HWAA: Celebrating Hockey Heroes

Celebrate Local Hockey Heroes Day isn’t until Sunday, but in case you hadn’t heard, there’s going to be NINE HOURS of hockey coverage on NBC and VERSUS that day. So, since I will be preoccupied most of Sunday, I decided that the celebration of my hockey heroes will have to start a little early.

Hockey Weekend Across America is officially underway today, and hopefully you’re wearing your favorite hockey jersey. I’m rocking my blue USA Nike swift jersey that was given to me by some of my former USA Hockey co-workers after my year as the Brian Fishman Intern in Colorado Springs. Putting it on brings back a flood of memories from one of the most exciting years of my life.

One of the greatest memories of that year was being part of the inaugural Hockey Weekend Across America. My favorite day of HWAA has always been “Celebrate Local Hockey Heroes Day” because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of them out there and they don’t always get the credit they deserve. There are heroes from all walks of life, from Terry Pegula spending his own money to give Penn State its own men’s and women’s NCAA Division I ice hockey, to NASCAR’s Joey Logano who designed and donated sleds to the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team and other disabled hockey players, to Wayne Gretzky for energizing the U.S. as a hockey nation just by stepping on the ice. Then there are the everyday people who make the game great in their own area. It’s hockey moms and dads, coaches, referees, scorekeepers, volunteers, Zamboni drivers and it even might be the kid down the block.

Working in hockey, particularly in my year as an intern and now as a writer, I have gotten to talk to hockey people from all different backgrounds. The one thing every single hockey hero possesses is a passion for the game and a desire to help others.

If you are a fan of hockey, who got you interested in the sport? If you played, who took you to the rink or who taught you how to skate? If someone helped you discover and become passionate about hockey, they’re heroes to me, and I’m sure they are to you. So don’t let this weekend pass without calling up or meeting up with your hockey hero and telling them just how much they mean to you. It’s pretty easy to do and all it takes is saying thank you.

After the jump, my tribute to my hockey hero.

It took me three seconds to think about who my hockey hero was. In fact, it may not have even taken that much time. It’s simple, it’s maybe even a little bit cliche, but without this person, maybe I never discover the game and my life would be utterly different. I was lucky.

My hockey hero is my dad, Chuck Peters, a paramedic for the Chicago Fire Department and an assistant coach for the Marist High School hockey team and a certifiable hockey nut.

Chuck got into the game all on his own. The oldest of four, my grandfather told Dad that if he wanted to play hockey, he was going to have to find a way to pay for it himself. My grandfather was a blue collar guy and baseball was his game of choice, with three other kids to care for, hockey didn’t sound too feasible. So in his mid-teens, my dad worked part-time, saved up and bought all of his own hockey equipment and helped form a hockey club at his high school. It was basically, a practice-only team with a few games scattered throughout the season. Despite a partial scholarship offer from then Division I University of Illinois at Chicago, Dad went to Chicago State University and played club hockey there for a few years. Self-taught, self-financed and self-motivated. That takes a love of the game.

My dad never pressured me into hockey, though the table hockey set I had at around age four probably was a subtle hint. (That thing was awesome, by the way. It featured the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers and playing on that little table game is one of my first hockey-related memories.)

A friend of our family, Mr. Bauer, had a backyard rink that he had been putting up since his kids were young. It was a perfect sized sheet for a 5-year-old kid to take his first strides. One winter morning, my dad took me over there. We had no skates that would fit me, but luckily a neighbor let me borrow a pair of Bobby Hull “Golden Jets.” I remember looking at them and thinking, these don’t look like hockey skates, but they worked.

Like most kids, I was frustrated that I couldn’t fly around the ice right away. Dad was still able to coax me out there, bundled up in such a way that makes Randy from “A Christmas Story” look under-dressed. Armed with one of my dad’s cut-down Christian sticks and the Golden Jets, I just skated, pushed a few pucks around and fell a ton.

I’d like to tell you I was hooked right away, but that would be a bit of a tall tale. I cried when I fell, I cried when my toes felt like they were going to fall off from the cold and I actually didn’t get back on the ice for around a year. Again, no pressure from my dad.

Eventually, I realized that I wanted to try playing after going to a friend’s skating party. I have a feeling my dad was excited. He signed me up for a “learn to play” session at what used to be known as Saints Spectrum Ice Arena in Bridgeview, Ill., widely known throughout Chicagoland as it’s coldest indoor rink. We bought all of my equipment, a lot of it from Play it Again Sports, but my skates were brand new, a pair of Bauer Chargers. Last, but not least, I got the first jersey to call my own. A blue Chicago Hawks hockey club light-mesh piece of fabric. On the back, Number 7. I think every Chicago kid wanted Chelios’s number in 1992.

After “learn-to-play” there were only two seasons the rest of my hockey-playing career that Chuck Peters wasn’t a coach on my team. That’s right. I was the coach’s son for much of my life. Sure, it can be difficult sometimes. You have to deal with teammates thinking you’re being favored or feeling a sense of needing to prove something. Luckily, Dad usually treated me just like everyone else.

I am the oldest of four kids, and for a while my mom stayed at home with us, so my in addition to coaching, my dad was working up to three side jobs on top of his full-time gig as a Chicago paramedic. I always wondered how he did that. Fact of the matter was, he wanted to give us better opportunities than he had. His hard work gave both me and my brother, a goaltender, the chance to play hockey.

I was never very good. A little guy who didn’t like getting hit and wasn’t going to score a lot of goals, but I got better every year. A lot of that was thanks to my dad’s encouragement and tough love (without ever going over the top). The other great part of having your dad as a coach? You get to share all of the great moments with him right away. You instantly know his reaction to something you just did (which can sometimes be a bad thing, like when, as a high school sophomore, you have colorful words for a ref and earn yourself a 10-minute timeout in the sin bin.)

When I was in eighth grade, my dad was named the head coach of the JV team at Mt. Carmel High School. He was there for three years, meaning I played for him as a freshman and sophomore. I quit playing hockey during my junior season at Mt. Carmel. I still regret it, because I think I was just being a dumb kid, not that I was ever going anywhere past high school hockey.

I have a feeling my dad might have been a bit disappointed that I quit, too, but he never said as much. It also may not have been a coincidence that my last year of hockey was just the first I wasn’t playing for my dad in high school. For some reason, it just wasn’t as fun anymore. One of my favorite things when my dad was my high school coach were the car rides home. A lot of the times they were instructional, sometimes they were naggy, but every time was great. My dad was talking to me like I was an adult.

Even though I quit, I never stopped loving the game. How could I with my dad as passionate as ever about hockey? Even after my brother and I stopped playing, he was still coaching. I believe he’s coached at every level from Mite to high school in Illinois. You should see the number of “Coach Chuck” jackets this guy has in his basement. So hockey was never far from our family. We watched it, we talked about it, we just enjoyed it together.

That’s probably why I decided to sign up for an internship with the Iowa State hockey team my junior year of college. I filmed all of the games for the team, produced a TV show for the team on the student cable channel and in my second year started doing internet broadcasts of every game. Those two years at Iowa State helped me realize that I wanted to be in hockey full time.

It was actually at the urging of my parents, particularly my dad, that I made a real push for the Brian Fishman Internship at USA Hockey. Me? Work there? Sounded impossible. Not to my parents. So I worked hard my senior year at Iowa State and applied.

Going backwards a bit for a second, after I scored my first ever goal in youth hockey, the first thing I wanted to do was skate to the bench and high-five my dad. I remember getting back to the bench and running down to my dad at the other end. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on his face. As memorable a high-five as there’s ever been.

The day I got the call from USA Hockey that I was the 2007-08 Fishman Intern, the first thing I wanted to do was run upstairs and high-five my dad. As I hung up, I ran up the stairs and yelled, “Dad… I got it!” As we met at the top of the stairs, he had the same look on his face from when I scored my first goal. It was equal parts pride and excitement. Easily one of my favorite memories of my dad and one that I won’t soon forget.

What he may not have really realized at that point was that it was all because of him. The passion for the game that he helped instill in me at a young age took me from being a hockey fan to making it my career. So when I say that my dad’s gentle nudge to get me on that ice sheet in Ray Bauer’s back yard changed my life, I mean it. As an adult, everything I’ve done professionally has involved hockey.

In addition to getting me involved in hockey, like I said, my dad is still coaching. On top of serving as an assistant for Marist High School’s varsity boy’s hockey team, he has been a volunteer coach at the Mt. Greenwood Park Learn-to-Skate for the last 12 years or so. Every Saturday morning in the winter months, my dad is out there teaching local kids the same things he taught me on Mr. Bauer’s backyard rink. I’d venture to say in the nearly 20 years of being a hockey coach, Coach Chuck has probably taught around 1,000 kids, maybe more, how to play in his various coaching roles. He does it because he has a passion for the game and a desire to help people.

I haven’t had a single phone conversation in the last five years with my dad where hockey doesn’t come up. He reads this blog, gives me his thoughts sometimes or just offers words of encouragement. We’re extremely close and hockey is a big part of our relationship.

So, Dad, THANK YOU. Without your love for the game, your love for me and your hard work to provide for our family, I might not be able to have done all the things I have been able to so far. You’re a hockey hero in my book, and I know there are plenty more former players who agree. Keep doing what you love, because you’re great at it.

Saying thank you is easy to do, so please remember this weekend to thank your local hockey hero. It will mean a lot to them and you’ll find it means a lot to you, too. I’d love to hear your stories as well, so please let us know about your hockey hero in the comments and over on the United States of Hockey discussion page on Facebook.

HAPPY HOCKEY WEEKEND ACROSS AMERICA EVERYONE! Watch it. Play it. Live it.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in Grow the Game, Hockey Weekend Across America, NHL, USA Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to HWAA: Celebrating Hockey Heroes

  1. Matt Gajtka says:

    Chris, this is a great story. I feel like I can relate more to your dad because I was the first person in my family to take a liking to hockey. I just started watching the Penguins in 1997-98 and decided the next fall to learn how to skate and eventually start playing.

    Because of this, I’m not really sure who my hockey hero is. Might be Jaromir Jagr, who captivated the 13-year-old version of myself with his talent and inspired me to put a hockey net on the basketball court in my family’s backyard. That’s really where I learned to love the game.

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