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Time travelers

When the Bruins invited the players' fathers along on a road trip, past seemed to merge with present

The first time the wineglasses clinked, Phil Kessel was prepared. The Bruins rookie knew it was time to make a speech for his teammates, extend an official greeting, and the speedy forward flew through the dinnertime salutation almost as if his pistonlike legs had taken charge of his vocal cords.

"I'd like to say thanks to the dads for coming," blurted out the teenage emissary, some five dozen pairs of eyes trained to his perspiring forehead as he stood in the middle of a cozy dining room in a Tampa steakhouse. "And thanks to Peter Chiarelli and the Boston Bruins for taking us all out to dinner."

With those few simple words -- simple for someone else to say, perhaps -- the first Bruins fathers/sons excellent road trip officially was under way. Accompanied by 16 of their fathers, the Bruins recently made their way from Toronto to Tampa to Sunrise, Fla., and then back to Boston.

Overall, the journey covered three games and five days, and served as a touching acknowledgment, and reminder, that a boy's road to the NHL is almost always a PG (parental guidance suggested) journey.

"My son's in the NHL," said Steve Mowers, his son Mark a long shot to make it to the big leagues upon graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1998. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure it's true."

Over the course of a few days, the fathers and sons traveled together, fished together, dined together, hung out in hotel lobbies together, sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a Tampa dressing room for an X's-and-O's video session directed by assistant coaches Mark Habscheid and Doug Houda.

They shared stories, time, and experiences. They shared memories of much simpler days, when hockey was little more than a boy's passion and a winter's pastime. They came from as far as Landshut, Germany, and Ytterby, Sweden, and as nearby as Hull and Winchester.

The fathers of the Canadian-born players joined the trip in Toronto, while the elder Yanks and Euros flew directly to Tampa. The team's Tuesday night charter flight from Toronto didn't deliver the boys to their hotel until 3 a.m., and as the bleary-eyed travelers straggled through the lobby, the fathers of P.J. Axelsson and Bobby Allen, tired of eye and beaming of smile, were standing with arms wide open.

"Oh, that was fantastic, seeing my boy like that," said Harold Allen, 59, who wrapped Bobby in a lingering bear hug. "I waited up, just because I had to see him. Had to. I'm tellin' ya, I would have waited till 7 in the morning. That's what hockey parents do, I guess."

If anything, the trip was a recurring testimony to parental devotion, and a good number of the fathers -- perhaps under fear of penalty or divorce court -- were quick to point out that their sons' playing careers weren't solely dad-directed.

One of Bob Savard's memories was of his wife playing hockey with Marc, today the club's elite center, in the basement of the family home in Orleans, Ontario. "And Marc on a breakaway," recalled the senior Savard, who runs his own handyman business in Ottawa. "He ran right into the center post, and was out, with half an egg on his forehead."

"You know, this is the third father-son trip I've been on," said Steve Mowers, of Whitesboro, N.Y., who made similar sojourns when Mark played for Nashville and Detroit. "This one was by far the best.

"But when I told my wife I was going, she said, 'What am I, chopped liver?' It's just a great opportunity for the dads to get together and talk about their kids, and in a very short time, it's like you've known them forever.

"We're kind of all average guys whose kids got interested in this sport, and from there it was, you know, rinks in the backyard, long car rides to tournaments, and a lot of hot dogs at a lot of rinks along the way."

Cast of characters
The Bruins trip included one significant break from standard hockey operations. Only some nine hours after the team arrived at its Tampa hotel, the fathers and sons (along with Jeff York, brother of Jason York) embarked on an afternoon deep-sea fishing expedition.

The day's catch was meager. In all, the trip lasted five hours, all but about 90 minutes of it spent motoring to the fishing grounds, in search of better spots, or returning to the dock.

"You watch," said a prescient Glen Murray, he of the Canadian Maritimes (Bridgewater, Nova Scotia), as the boat set out. "No one is going to catch anything."

As it turned out, the veteran winger knew his stuff. The total haul did not exceed 10 pounds, perhaps a world angling record for smallest net catch, considering there were about three dozen rods working the entire time.

"I'm no fisherman," said Nicholas Habscheid, 83, his son Mark one of the club's assistant coaches. "I'm afraid I have no patience for it."

The senior Habscheid, born in Luxembourg, still works the same farm in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, to which he first immigrated in 1949, in the wake of World War II. He grew up speaking German and a little French, and on this trip, he was a constant companion of Johan Sturm, father of Bruins winger Marco Sturm. The elder Sturm speaks very little English.

"It's nice to speak it again," said Habscheid. "Luxembourg is so small, and really Europe is so small, you have to know a few languages. If you don't, you are lost."

Amid the relative calm of the fishing trip, it was, to no one's surprise, the chatty Marc Savard who broke the boredom. With a fish roughly the size of a Woolworth-purchased golden guppy, the ebullient pivot rushed into the galley claiming the day's biggest catch.

"I got 'er!" he bellowed. "I got 'er -- a monster!"

Goalie Tim Thomas, working the back of the boat with his dad, was on to Savard from the start.

"He paid off the deckhand," said Thomas. "He's cheating. He got the good pole, and a double hook, too."

Informed that a teammate questioned his fish-catching scruples, the velvet-handed Savard acknowledged only having slightly better equipment. "C'mon," he said. "You gotta have a good reel."

Bob Savard seemed not too upset that his son was on the other side of the boat. He has had a lifetime of watching his boy compete. He knows the surrounding dynamics.

"Ahh . . . what do you call it?" he said later, trying to describe his son's competitive personality. "I guess you'd say it's a controlled brashness. On the ice, I know he can drive [the opposition] crazy. But if you're around him much, you realize he is quite a comedian."

Pregame bonding
The following day, prior to the day-of-game morning workout in Tampa, the dads filed into the dressing room, invited to attend the day's strategy session. All around the room, fathers listened intently, first to Mark Habscheid reviewing videotape, and then to more of the same directed by Doug Houda.

Before the show began, a still picture of a young Bobby Orr, sipping from the Stanley Cup, filled the screen.

"I want to come back someday," Ian Murray, Glen's father, said later in his thick Scottish accent, "and I want to be here for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup. They've won the first three, and I want to see 'em do it."

With the fathers next to their sons, the juxtaposition seemed to peel away years from the players' faces. They indeed looked like children, as if the accompanying older images at their sides magically returned them to boyhood.

"You know, the whole thing was really special," the younger Savard said when the trip wrapped up. "I know my dad never thought he'd get to experience something like that. Travel with us at the NHL level, be with us on game day, and live the life, so to say. It was our dream as kids to make it, but it was also their dream, too. And they got to feel a little bit of it."

The second time the wineglasses clinked, Kessel was not as prepared. Not long after being asked to deliver the official greeting the night of the dinner, he all but dissolved in a pool of anxiety when coach Dave Lewis stood and nonchalantly informed everyone that Kessel would now say grace prior to dinner.

"Oh, and Phil," added Lewis, "you can stand up when you do it."

"What!?" said Kessel, his teammates hooting and clinking. "Come on. Grace? Right now? I don't know what to say."

Kessel squirmed in his seat as his father cupped a hand and whispered advice. Slowly, he pushed back his chair, stood, and brushed his long hair to the side.

"Uh, bless this food," he finally said, still shaking his head, "and, uh, help us win tomorrow."

The hoots and hollers returned as the young Kessel dropped in his seat, a rookie raked over the coals of social nuance and ritual. His dad, also named Phil, patted his back in comfort and smiled.

"That was good," his dad later said, knowing that his son, treated for testicular cancer in December, has conquered larger demons in his life. "I can already see that he's matured this year, after his health situation.

"And like I said to him, you don't do that to people you don't like. That's a perfect thing to help you grow up, to stand in front of a group like that. Let's face it, if they don't care about you, they don't bother you with stuff like that."

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