Coping with grief through hockey

Robin Short rshort@thetelegram.com
Published on May 11, 2013
Rod Churchill lost his son, Matthew, in a hit and run accident
Rhonda Hayward photo

They are men of different backgrounds — one is a Mountie, the other a geoscientist — and both live in two very different places.

Mike Ryan and his family have been out west for years now, after getting transferred to Calgary with the RCMP. But Rod Churchill is still down on Bauline Line, and you probably wouldn’t blast him out of there.

Churchill has been a board member on the St. John’s Minor Hockey Association since 2003, so he’s known Ryan at least that long.

Probably longer, for Mike’s only son, Andrew, played in the Caps’ system.

But the connection runs much deeper than that, one that’s rooted so far into the soul most of us cannot understand.

It’s a club, really, suggests Rod Churchill with a halfhearted smile. But a club in which no one hopes or wants to be a member.

 

 

In late summer 2003, cancer took Andrew Ryan. He was 12, and a Caps’ peewee B all-star player.

Matthew Churchill was a bit older, but he also played in St. John’s minor. He was a house league player who probably typified what minor hockey’s all about — wanting to win, sure, but more about having a bit of fun and hanging out with the boys.

On March 28, nearly two years and seven months to the day that Andrew Ryan died, Matthew Churchill was heinously knocked down and killed in a hit-and-run incident.

He was 15.

In the years since, the Andrew Ryan Memorial peewee tournament has become a popular year-end event on the Caps’ minor hockey association’s calendar, and Rod Churchill, now the association’s vice-president, sets up camp at Twin Rinks for the three days of the tournament each spring.

This year, the Ryan tournament generated $34,000, which goes to the Children’s Wish Foundation.

It’s the 10th and, sadly, final tournament, however. Nearly $150,000 has been donated to Children’s Wish during that time.

It’s not that the event has lost its lustre, or the fact the Ryan family now lives in Alberta. It’s just that tournament organizers have been around since Day 1, and a few of them would like to move on, understandably so.

“I’m sure we could find other people to help run it,” Rod Churchill says over a coffee at Starbucks. “But there was a level of trust from Day 1, with guys like Jack Casey and Tim Power and Ray Rossiter, the original group.

“The (Ryan) family doesn’t just want to just pass this off to someone else because the last thing they want is bad news or something coming out of the tournament. They didn’t feel comfortable handing it off.”

Rod had every intention of sticking around, and will continue to be around as a Caps’ executive member and coach in the midget ranks.

It’s the midget age group, the 15- and 16-year-olds, that Churchill likes mentoring. They’re still kids, of course, but old enough you can carry on with them, he says.

“After the first two weekends, I’ll know all 130 midget kids by their first name, and I pride myself on doing that,” he says.

“When a kid walks in and sees you for the second time in his life and you call him by name, well, that makes an impression.”

It was a hockey game — the midget A provincials in Mount Pearl — that Rod was returning from when he came upon an accident scene not far from his house. Little did he know it was his only son who was involved.

That was just over eight years ago.

Two weeks following Matthew’s death, Rod was back at the rink. Hockey is, and has been, his therapy.

“I always say to my wife, ‘I feel closer to Matthew when I’m at the rink.’ I guess what it was he was so happy playing hockey. He’d make friends with the devil himself. It didn’t matter which team he was on, if his buddies were with him or not … by the end of the year they were all best buddies.”

For years, Matthew Churchill’s jersey hung from the ceiling at Twin Rinks. The rink has undergone renovations and a couple of jerseys that were once prominent are no longer there.

“With the new ceiling,” Rod says, “I’m not sure if they can hang anything up.

“But when it was there, I looked up at it every time. It hung over the home bench.

“I have a little folder that I carry lineup sheets and stuff in. To this day I have an 8x10 of Matthew in his hockey jersey in the folder.”

One of Andrew Ryan’s fears, believe it or not, was not of dying, but rather of being forgotten. It’s one of the reasons why the minor hockey tournament was started.

Now that it’s done, Andrew’s memory will remain alive in the form of an annual scholarship which will be awarded each year.

The memory of Matthew Churchill is alive, too. Each year, St. John’s Minor gives to one player on each midget team — six to eight teams — the Matthew Churchill Player Award for the player who displays the same characteristics as Matthew: a love of the game and being at the rink, of camaraderie in the dressing room.

The Ryan and Churchill families will never get over their losses, but they’ve learned to move on, easy as that may be to say.

A couple of years ago, Casey, the association’s president, mentioned at a meeting there were a few kids joining hockey who needed gear.

“I thought that was a sin,” Rod recalls. “So I went home and talked it over with my wife. See, with Desma, she has to do whatever it is she needs to do to deal with what happened.

“She thought it was a great idea. But we did keep his skates and his sticks. His helmet and everything else went to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have had a good helmet. That was nice.”

Up until last year, Matthew’s bedroom remained untouched. His stuff was still hung up, the die-cast cars on the dresser, the guitar in the corner.

It wasn’t until Rod’s sister happened to mention she needed a new bed for her daughter that the room changed when the little girl was all over the idea of getting Matthew’s bed.

“Some people say you have to sanitize things. You don’t sanitize. These are memories. Fellas who tell you this, these are guys who never lost a child. God willing, they never will.

“The one thing we learned early on is you do what you need to do to get you through the day. And that’s pretty well what we did.

“We don’t mind parting with stuff, but we don’t take it and shove it into a Value Village or some place, getting rid of it for the want of getting rid of it.”

Mother’s Day is tomorrow and there’s no other way to say it other than it’s not going to be an easy day for Desma Churchill.

She’s been to hell and back, Rod says. And it’s the little things that sometimes hit like a smack in the face — last day of school, first day of school. Could be SportChek. Could be anything. Could be meatballs and gravy.

“It’s probably not fit to eat, but Matthew loved it,” Rod says. “We haven’t bought a tin in eight years.”

Hockey’s over for another year, but Rod Churchill will be back at the rink next season, no doubt with the midget-aged kids again.

Probably can’t wait, truth be told.

But he’ll miss the Andrew Ryan tournament, though you can be sure he’ll be involved with setting up the scholarship.

“Myself and Mike, we have a connection. I found the Andrew Ryan tournament was twofold — supporting Mike, because he’d come down here very year, which I’m sure opened wounds. But he saw the bigger benefit from it. I sort of saw the same thing.

“The other is the ideals we were trying to set. We weren’t stressing winning, but being good corporate citizens, fair play, respect.

“It was a bit of therapy for me because I knew there was something good coming out of it at the end of the day.”

For these two men, the days were long and dark, but maybe now they’ve shortened and the sun shines sometimes.

And in some small, perhaps even insignificant way, hockey’s helped.

It may have even helped in the patching up, in some small way, of broken hearts.

 

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email rshort@thetelegram.com.