For almost two decades now I have been part of a group that gathers at 6 a.m. twice a week for an hour of pick-up hockey. No refs, no fans, no face-offs. Just 60 minutes of skating, shooting, celebrating and enjoying what we consider to be the greatest game on earth.
In his book “Open Ice: Reflections and Confessions of a Hockey Lifer,” former Sports Illustrated hockey writer Jack Falla recounts telling a friend that he’d soon be headed to the National Hockey League draft. His friend wondered why.
Falla replied: “I go to see my friends. Hockey is the only tribe I belong to.”
His descriptor is an apt one for our morning skate, a special place composed of fierce competitors and loyal friends.
Last fall, Dan Chappell, one of our long-time participants and a man who spent 35 years as an athletic trainer and teacher at East Kentwood High School, was going through chemotherapy. He couldn’t play for a period of several months. I emailed him and told him he’d be missed.
He replied: “I very much miss hockey. Not because of my stats but the group of guys. Please give everyone my best and it’s OK to tell anyone who asked about me. I am looking forward to playing as soon as possible.”
I went back and re-read that email on the day, August 14, that I found out Dan had passed away because of the cancer he so valiantly fought.
What jumped out at me on that re-read was Dan’s comment, “Not because of my stats but the group of guys.”
As Falla said: “I go to see my friends.”
Before Dan died, his hockey friends collected some thoughts and reflections for him.
One person wrote: “I appreciated talking about sports injuries, high school athletics and teaching. Mostly though I appreciated talking about our families. I consider you a great friend and confidant.”
Another reflected on Dan’s life and legacy at East Kentwood.
“I often see you at Kentwood Ice Arena when I officiate. Sometimes that’s in person … But even when you’re not there, I see you on the wall in the lobby where you’re photographed with dozens of teams over the years. Both make me think of all the kids you got to know over the years as an athletic trainer and teacher, the way you befriended and helped them, and the things you did that made a positive difference for students, players and coaches in many sports and settings.”
Many Memories and a Deep Sense of Loss
Such sentiments were also a recurring theme on Dan’s Facebook page as people tagged him in their memories of his life and their deep sense of loss at his passing.
One such example: “Tough day at Kentwood. We lost a great man today, Dan Chappell. As most of you know Chap was the trainer at EK. Trainers are special as they look after our kids when they are injured. How many Kentwood kids did he help over the years? Our community owes you for taking care of our kids.”
Another person wrote: “He taught me a lot of athletic training things, but he also taught me so much more … We worked our butts off and laughed the entire time with Chap. I think anyone who worked with him had the same sentiments. One of the great ones.”
C.S. Lewis once said: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry … This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
Dan was no ordinary person, and many of us know how fortunate we were to have been able to play with him.
In Dan’s email reply to me last fall, he had concluded by saying: “Thanks for noticing my absence.”
He meant morning hockey of course. But now his words have a deeper pathos. Indeed, across West Michigan, Dan’s absence is being felt, in deep and visceral ways, and will be for many years to come.
As one of our hockey group members said: “My hockey brother, thank you for being you. Thank you for your constant presence in the hockey group. It is not the same without you. Your absence is felt every week. We love you and promise to think of you often.”
And so shall it be. RIP friend.