February 26th, 2012 didn’t start out so great.
“I don’t feel good,” mumbled the five-year-old a few minutes shy of five in the morning.
“Hop in bed with us, buddy,” they invite. He obliges, nestles in between them, and throws up all over their comforter. The next five hours are not for the weak-of-stomach. He finally falls asleep again at 10.
It’s January 1990. Report card day. The nine-year-old is a good student, but his mind often wanders and his attention isn’t always as crisp as it should be. He opens the envelope and exhales loudly. It’s a good day. A good quarter.
At home, he hands the crumpled paper to his mother. He smiles. She smiles, then retreats up the stairs.
She returns with his booty: a pack of hockey stickers for his book. He cautiously tears open the wrapper so as not to rip the stickers. It’s a very good day — no duplicates and one Boston Bruin. He peels the backing off and affixes Andy Brickley to page five. All he needs is Craig Janney to complete the Bruins’ team page.
It’s a Thursday in 1992. The 11-year-old doesn’t read the paper, but he grabs the sports section once a week. On the bottom right hand side is the familiar ad where Collector’s Heaven, the local card store, lists their sales once a week. His allowance won’t get him very far on the other six days, but Thursdays are different.
His friend at school scored a Sergei Fedorov rookie card the week before. The boy’s eyes dart around the ad, then find gold: Upper Deck Hockey packs, 2-for-1. That Pavel Bure rookie card has to be in that store somewhere.
It’s June 1993. In an upstairs bedroom, on any number of rainy weekend days, the 12-year-old prepares for his task. Plastic card holders sit in a crooked pile. He peels off the tiny white circles, the dollar values written on them irrelevant now.
In cardboard boxes, arranged by team, sit the subjects of investigation. The ones in plastic holders get priority — these are the money cards, the rookies, the rare finds. He stares at the cover of the magazine in front of him, at Boston Bruins winger Cam Neely. He thumbs the pages and begins the process.
Upper Deck, 90-91. Card number 356. Jaromir Jagr, on draft day, shaking hands with some bald guy. The boy follows the tiny print in the magazine down to number 356, then slides his index finger to the right. He puts the card into the plastic holder, fixes a new white circle to the top right, and transcribes what the magazine told him.
January 18, 1996 is a beautiful winter day. Cold but sunny, the blue sky bounces off the windows of tall skyscrapers and old churches. The city of Boston buzzes with NHL activity as the foursome hop out of the car and head towards the convention center. The dads walk. But the 15-year-olds float. The NHL All-Star game will be played the following day at the Fleet Center, but today, hockey fans from far and wide converge on the NHL FANtasy Expo.
Inside, it’s what the boys expect heaven will be. The Stanley Cup is here. Hockey legends sign autographs along the back wall. They play video games, visit vendors, and put on NHL jerseys to get their pictures taken, the photos affixed to make-believe hockey cards. Oh, and the hockey cards. More hockey cards than they’ve ever seen in their lives. Free cards, cards for sale, cards commemorating the event and the All-Star game.
They get back in the car that evening and fall asleep on 93 North, the bulging bag of giveaways between their shoes.
It’s May 12, 2006. The twenty-something couple sit in the waiting room, nervous, holding each other’s clammy hands. Today is the day. They shuffle down the familiar hallway, into the familiar room. Lights dim. The technician mans the controls. Their anxious eyes strain to see…something. Or possibly nothing.
The technician sees something.
“You’re having a boy.”
His wife squeezes his hand. His eyes well. A boy. A son.
There are errands to be run on February 25th, 2012. The twins need diapers and formula, and dad needs to buy a new dress shirt with the gift certificate he got for Christmas. But the five-year-old went to sleep by himself last night and stayed in his bed all night, so as promised, he gets a reward.
Hand-in-hand, dad and son fight the wind on the Elm Street sidewalk. The five-year-old stares in awe at the windows, plastered with posters and pennants and t-shirts and hats. It’s a sports utopia.
Aptly-named Collector’s Heaven has changed locations a handful of times over the years, but it’s manned by the same couple that opened the store in 1979. The boy and his dad greet them. They’re the only ones in the store.
“It’s been a while,” says the dad. “I remember I used to steal the sports section from my dad to read your ads.”
“We still run ’em,” says the owner.
The boy, dwarfed by rack upon rack of sports memoriabilia, is in awe. So is his dad.
“Daddy, let’s buy all of this stuff so the store is EMPTY!” says the boy.
The owners chuckle. The boy and his dad pick up a three-ring binder and some plastic sheets for the boy’s budding card collection. They also grab some hockey stickers for his book. All he needs is Tyler Seguin to complete the Bruins’ team page.
It’s noon on the 26th.
The comforter is in the washing machine, the twins are napping, and the boy is awake and feeling much better. Today is going to be a pajama Sunday, they decide. A DVD spins.
“Wait right here,” says the dad. He heads to the garage and arranges junk into unstable towers, uncovering something he hasn’t seen since the day they moved in. It’s a wooden chest that once sat at the foot of his bed at his parents’ old house. He opens it and stares at the junk inside: floppy disks, yearbooks from junior high and high school, a program from the senior prom.
And the cardboard boxes. He takes them out and stares at them. His name is scrawled in awkward cursive on one, the address of his parents’ old house on the side of another.
“Daddy, are you looking for your hockey cards?”
The pajama-clad boy smiles.
“Daddy, do you know why I love hockey? Because you love hockey, and I love you.”
The 31-year-old gathers the boxes in his left arm and scoops up the five-year-old with his right. He’s 40lbs now, but still fits perfectly in the crook of his arm.
On the bedroom floor, they open the cardboard boxes. There’s one labeled “1996 NHL FANtasy Expo – Boston, MA”, full of cards commemorating the NHL All Star game that took place at the Fleet Center that year. Another has dividers inside with the cards broken out by team. Many are in plastic holders, their values written on tiny white stickers. They find a Pavel Bure rookie card.
“He’s wearing ROLLERBLADES!?” shrieks the younger boy.
A larger plastic case is dumped onto the floor. The sticker on the case reads “1991 World Junior Championships – Complete Set”. Eric Lindros, Doug Weight, and Ziggy Palffy sit atop the pile.
“Is it ok if I use this case for mine?”, the boy asks.
In go Jason Spezza, Tim Thomas, and Dustin Brown.
They tear through the boxes, stopping at rookie cards for players long since retired and “Young Gun” cards for guys who barely made a dent in the league.
“Be gentle with these,” says the older boy.
“Who are the…Nor…Nor-di-cues?” says the younger one.
After a half hour, the cards go back into the boxes. They’re carried back to the wooden chest, where they’re situated underneath the yearbooks once again. Grabbing the lid to close it, the dad notices an old orange NHL logo. He moves a stack of old magazines and picks up his Panini NHL sticker book. 1989-1990.
He brings it upstairs. The two boys lie down on their bellies, flip pages, laugh at hairstyles, and talk about franchises that have moved and uniform colors that have changed. 26 years separate the two on that February 26th. But turning the page and staring at the Craig Janney-less Bruins, they’re just two boys loving an old sticker book, each other, and the game that bonds one generation to the next.