I shared my passion and love for sports – more specifically, my passion and love for hockey – with my dad. I spent countless hours with him driving to and from the rink, talking hockey, and sharing countless laughs. He was the one who taught me the true power of sport, and how it can change and save the lives of those who play it. He was the reason I fell in love with hockey. He was my everything.

My dad was so much more than just the inspiration for my love of the game. My dad was my hero. He was my mentor, and my best friend. He supported me as a young boy, and taught me how to be a man. He would create chore lists that took my brothers and I an entire weekend to complete, teaching us the value of hard work and “earning our meals”. When the work was done, he would take our family camping, continuing to teach us skills, such as surviving in the wild, how to hunt and how to catch a fish. He loved telling stories, especially while camping, and I always listened intently, even if I’d heard it before. He told us that one day, we would have our own stories to share and this is mine.

Every son looks at his father as a hero, but mine really and truly was. He proved his heroism on far more than one occasion; however, one incident sticks out to me as a shining example of his selflessness and bravery. One evening, there was a frantic knock on the door of his home. This would be disconcerting to most, and even more so in this situation due to the secluded area in which he lived. My father pulled himself off the couch where he had retired for the night to watch TV. When he opened the door, he found that he was looking into the frightened eyes of a panicked mother, carrying her two sons on her hip. As he listened to her frenzied story, he came to learn that she had carried the two young boys for two miles, in the middle of winter.

He quickly ushered them in the door to hear the rest of their traumatic story. The mother explained that she and her boys had been walking home, as a drunken man began to yell at them while brandishing a gun, aimed in their direction. The mother and her boys were frightened, and began to run towards the nearest point of safety, which, in the Yukon, was not ever very close. As they ran, he pursued, firing off rounds as he went. My dad listened to her story, and his blood began to boil. My dad ensured the three felt safe and comfortable, and he set out to confront their antagonist.

As my dad marched outside, he was a sight to behold. Imagine, a six-foot, 240 pound, burly bushman, fired up and storming outside. Not to mention that my dad was an incredible marksman, and a southpaw (meaning he was left-handed). He intended to meet this despicable adversary with a metallic handshake. In the end, my dad and the other man never did meet that night. However, my dad was awarded the Queen Elizabeth the Second’s Golden Jubilee Medal for his valiant attitude, and his willingness to put himself in harm’s way, his life on the line.

This image of my dad, as a medalled idol, is how I always remember him. My dad, my hero, my mentor, my best friend.

My dad was my hero. He was my mentor, and my best friend. He supported me as a young boy, and taught me how to be a man.

At 11pm one night in August of 2017, I was crawling into bed as my phone rang. It was my brother. My heart sank, and my stomach lurched. It was bad. It had to be. He never called. I was right; this was the worst phone call I have ever received. My brother relayed the information that my dad had been moved to palliative care.

I was sick. My mind was racing. The only cognitive thought I had was to book a flight to see him. I left almost immediately.

When I landed in Vancouver, I had a few hours to kill. Now, as I’m sure you’d agree, layovers are horrid at the best of times, and made even worse when you are flying to spend the last few hours with your dying father. In an attempt to ease my worry, I called the hospital to speak to the nurses. I asked them to tell my dad that I was on my way, and that I would be there to see him soon. The nurses seemed to smile through the phone, and assured me he would be excited to see me.

When I landed in Whitehorse, a dear friend, Kim Solonick, met me at the airport. She gave me a vehicle, a place to stay, and a shoulder to lean on throughout the hardest time in my life. She was the exact support I needed.

I went straight to the hospital. I was almost at a run as I walked into my dad’s room. As he registered who had just burst into his room, a smile stretched across his face. He hardly had time to wave and say hello before I enclosed him in a tight hug, holding him close. As I released, I was confused. He seemed fine. He seemed great. How was this man on his death bed? Shouldn’t he look bad? Shouldn’t he be weak?

I didn’t care. I was excited to see him, and to spend hours visiting and catching up. We smiled, we laughed, and we remembered old times. After a few hours, the doctor came in to see him. As she spoke, I began to understand. When she was done with my dad, she pulled me aside and explained further. Although my dad seemed fine today, he was very ill and didn’t have much time left. My dad seemed great as he was being treated with blood transfusions. She continued to explain that without consistent blood transfusions, my dad would eventually die.

Reality set in. Her last statement echoing inside my head. He would eventually die. My dad would eventually die.

My dad was a diabetic who suffered from severe neuropathy. Over the past several years, I had witnessed significant physical changes, including massive deterioration of the nerves and muscles in his hands and feet, compounded by extreme weight loss. That big, strong, burly man was now a shell of his former self. He lost all sensation in his feet, and the loss of feeling had now creeped half way up his shins. Simple tasks, such as walking or opening a jar, were now insurmountable for him.

The year leading up to this, my dad had spent his time in and out of Vancouver hospitals, undergoing surgeries for a partial leg amputation. During his recovery from, he suffered from a heart attack, which landed in him in a surgical suite, as doctors performed a quintuple bypass on him. After recovery, he had been sent to the Thomson Centre in Whitehorse. And now, his internal organs were failing. It was the end.

I spent the next eight days sitting at the foot of my dad’s hospital bed. All day, every day, I was there. I was there before he woke up, and after he fell asleep. I couldn’t imagine wasting one minute of the last days of his life. There were good days, and there were bad days. But, in the end, the days all blended together. We spent every waking hour reminiscing, laughing, and of course, discussing hockey. On the good days, we would laugh and joke as if nothing had changed. On the bad days, I would hold his hand, reminding him how much I loved him, as he cried uncontrollably.

My dad spent my whole life supporting me, being there for me, staying strong for me. Now, it was my turn to support him, my turn to be strong for him. In his most vulnerable moment, at the end of his life, he needed me to be there for him, and to tell him I loved him, just as he had done for me.

   These were the most powerful days of my life.

This six-foot, 240 pound, burly bushman, who had grown up on a farm and spent his spare time fishing and hunting in the mountains, was reduced to tears. Needless to say, sharing his feelings, being emotional and crying were not high on his list of things to do. In fact, before this week, I could count on one hand the number of times I had seen my dad cry.

During this time, my dad liked to remind me of one of his favourite stories. In 2015, my dad made a trip to Edmonton to visit my mom and I. I was in my 5th year of coaching, and as my dad lived in Ross River, he was only able to follow my team from a distance. Now that he was here, he wanted to see what all the talk was about. So, I loaded him into my car, put his wheelchair in the trunk, and we headed off to the rink together for the first time in years. It was as if we hadn’t missed a beat; we were talking hocking, sharing stories, and laughing, just as we had done for all those years. I had missed this time with my dad.

When we arrived at the rink, I got him unloaded and wheeled him inside, grinning ear to ear. I was excited to introduce my dad to two people who had become family since my move to Edmonton. I had spoken to my dad about Darren and Anton Odynski, and he was eager to meet them. Darren and I were coaching together at the time, and our dads were finally together to watch us in action. As Darren and I headed to the dressing room to prepare for the game, the dads headed to the stands to watch with pride. I’m not sure what was said up there, but I can almost guarantee it would have made Darren and I smile.

After the game, we said goodnight, and I loaded him back into the car. On the drive home, we dissected the game, and discussed the traits and attributes of each individual player. As I listened, I knew I had so much more to learn about coaching.

As I tucked him in for the night, he turned to look at me, and told me he was proud.

The moment he passed away is forever etched in my memory. I lost my dad…my hero…my best friend.

In his final days, my dad left me with a gift that would have an enormous impact on my life and how I coach, I just didn’t know it yet.

Four days after his passing, I was back in Edmonton, attending a coaching presentation. The presenter, Berry Medori, was a mentor coach that I highly respected. Most people in the room knew about my dad’s passing, almost all, except Barry. During his presentation, I was voluntold to share my “why” for coaching. I couldn’t. He couldn’t have just… but he did. It was all so new, and so fresh. I was afraid to speak about my dad. I had just lost him. I hadn’t even processed life without him, and here I was, on the spot, asked to share about him. I was nervous. I’m sure I was visibly shaking. I stood up, and I shared my “why”.

As I tucked him in for the night, he turned to look at me, and told me he was proud.

“I coach because of my dad. I strive to be a role model like he was. I strive to share the lessons and values he taught me. I strive to teach the true power of sport and how it can change and save lives. I strive to help kids fall in love with the game of hockey”

As I spoke, the room fell silent, and I could feel that all eyes were on me, listening to what I was sharing. I was completely vulnerable in that moment. One comment could have broken me. I waited, but it never came. No one laughed, no one ridiculed, no one judged.

Barry commended me, and thanked me for sharing my story, before promptly moving the conversation along. I sighed, sinking back into my chair, relieved.

After the presentation, I went up to Barry to thank him for putting me on the spot. It was the support I needed, just didn’t know it.

Life moved on, even though I didn’t know how it could. A few days later, tryouts for the upcoming season started. He had only been gone for a week. I arrived at the rink early, expecting to hop out of the car, and excitedly head into the arena, as I had done each and every year. Instead, I was paralyzed. I just sat there, in my car, alone, staring at the doors of the arena. I didn’t think I could move.

Tisha Miller, the mother of one of my former players, startled me as she walked over to ask if I was okay. I didn’t know how to answer. No, I wasn’t okay. I couldn’t do it without him. How was I supposed to be okay without him? I looked at her earnestly, and asked her those exact questions. Instead of shying away from my pain, she stepped up, and reassured me that I could. As we walked together into the area, she began to ask me questions. What do you think he would say to you right now? What do you think he’d want you to do? Before I realized it, she had walked me through the front doors of the arena, and we were now standing in the lobby. All the anxiety, stress, and sadness that had paralyzed me moments before was all gone.

“I coach because of my dad. I strive to be a role model like he was. I strive to share the lessons and values he taught me. I strive to teach the true power of sport and how it can change and save lives. I strive to help kids fall in love with the game of hockey”

Without her, I may not have walked through the doors that day. Without her, I may have stopped coaching. She was the support I needed that day.

A week later, the coaching staff and I ran a team building session with the players who remained from tryouts. Part of this session was for the players and coaches to share a story about their hero, a highlight from their hockey careers, as well as a hardship they had faced and overcome. Our staff had planned this day in July, before the passing of my dad. As the players began to share, I doubted myself. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I didn’t know if I could be vulnerable and share stories about my dad.

Just as I decided I couldn’t, just as I decided I wasn’t strong enough to share about my dad, Zac Maxwell, a 14 year old player, stood in front of his peers and told a story about his grandma that had him in tears. I was amazed. I was in awe of his strength, especially in contrast to my own doubts. I watched as his teammates applauded him, supported him, and comforted him. I commended him on his strength and courage to be vulnerable and share his story with us.

Then, it was my turn. Again, I was shaking, I was unsure, and my stomach was in knots. I was already fighting back tears as I began to share about my dad. I told the boys that he was my hero. I talked about how we shared many highlights together, driving to and from the rink, creating memories. And I shared how the hardest moment of my life was supporting my dad as he took his final breaths. I was completely vulnerable, however, I could see the reaction and impact the stories had on the players’ faces.

That was the support I needed that day.

As I sat in the room at the end of the activity, I began to cry. I finally allowed myself to feel the emotions that I had been resisting and bottling up. I allowed myself to be fully vulnerable, as the boys had been, and feel the pain of the loss of my father.

What I had learned, what my dad taught me, was how to be vulnerable. Truly vulnerable.

I dedicated that season to him, writing his name on every practice plan and game card, keeping him close. The daily support I received from my closest friends, the men coaching alongside me, was the support I needed that year. They allowed me to learn and grow as I began my new journey without my father. I owe a huge thank you to Darren, Eric, and Donovan, as I leaned on them during my toughest days.

From that day forward, I have continued to share stories about my dad with every player and team I am fortunate enough to coach. I use these stories to relate to players, to teach valuable lessons, and to serve as motivation. Being vulnerable has helped me connect with players and those around me to build stronger relationships.

This gift that my dad has given me means that I will never go through a season without him. He will always be with me, and will always be a part of everything I do. Coaching has become a platform to share his stories, to teach the true power of sport, and to build relationships that will last a lifetime.

I miss him dearly, and I will never forget his last words to me:

I am proud of you. I love you.

I am proud of you, dad, and I will love you forever.



— Derek Hemsley

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