It was late on a weekday evening a few years ago when my phone rang. It was Gino Odjick, the legendary enforcer of the Vancouver Canucks.
Gino and I had known each other in another life, when I covered the hockey team as a sports columnist. But he was traded to the New York Islanders shortly after I began the job and our contact was limited for several years. After he retired, however, I would phone him up occasionally to talk about hockey-related issues in the news, whether it was fighting in the NHL or the brain damage that players could incur as a result of it.
It was in those conversations that I began to be exposed to a side of the man I had not previously known. Until then, my impression of Gino Odjick was the one many had: that of the endearing, loyal brawler who sometimes could enjoy life a little too much off the ice.
That, as it turns out, was just the façade. Behind it there was an incredibly complex individual who, like many First Nations people, could plunge deep into the depths of his soul when talking about a range of issues.
Around the time that Gino phoned me, he'd been experiencing some health issues, but not related to the fatal disease he battles now. He'd been taking medicines for various ailments and he told me that some of them were affecting his mood and sometimes his thinking.
The night he phoned, there didn't seem to be much of an agenda. But soon he was taking me on a journey of his life: from his hard-scrabbled beginning on a native reserve in Quebec to the NHL.
Gino came by his pugilistic skills honestly. He told me that night how he'd been forced to fight almost from childhood, often with white kids who had no time for aboriginals. It wasn't uncommon for him to have to take on more than a few other boys at one time. As he grew bigger, he was often counted on to defend his native brothers, both on and off the ice. It became the same in the NHL.
All that fighting takes a toll on a person, he told me. Who could doubt it?
But that experience also seared something into Gino Odjick: He would never forget what it was like to be from a poor, First Nations community, and the long odds a young person living in one could face when it came to ever amounting to something.
He also knew about the vicious racism those same young, native people would likely have to confront at some point. And this is why after he retired Gino never turned down an invitation to visit a reserve – wherever it was.
"The young kids have to know that they're not dumb stupid Indians like they're often told," Gino told me on the phone. "They have to know that education is the key to their lives. Education will unlock freedom for them. That's how I want them to succeed, not by fighting all their life like me."
We spent more than an hour on the phone that night, with Gino doing almost all the talking in that unmistakably languid rhythm of his. I remember thinking after he'd hung up that it was one of the most remarkable conversations I'd ever had with anyone.
When news broke this week that Gino was battling a rare, and ultimately fatal, heart disease, I called up a friend who'd once travelled with him to Hazelton, a down-on-its-luck, mostly First Nations community in northern B.C. They were there to help run a hockey clinic and draw attention to the dilapidated state of the town's arena. Pete Quevillon, director of KidSport BC, will never forget the adulation that Gino received.
"It was like travelling with the Stones," remembered Mr. Quevillon. "Gino signed autographs and posters for people for hours."
One of those in line was the local ice maker who asked if Gino would mind signing an autograph for a friend who was in the hospital dying of brain cancer. Without missing a beat, he suggested they go visit the man instead. Once at the hospital, Gino and the man's sick friend didn't say much, instead spending most of their time together looking out the window at the beautiful mountains in the distance.
In a sense, that was Gino's way of communicating, of focusing on the beauty in the world instead of dwelling on the inevitability of the man's condition.
Before leaving, the Canucks' tough guy signed a hat. It read: "Stay strong. Your pal Gino."
Today, we say the same thing. Stay strong Gino. And be proud of the fact that you have made a contribution on this Earth that extends far beyond the hockey rink.