When Son was born, almost nine years ago, I used to see his small, wrinkled face in my mind whenever I closed my eyes. I could be lying on a bench at the gym, and his face would emerge in front of my eyes. It’s hardly surprising since most of the time when I had my eyes opened those first few weeks, I would see his little face, too.
I didn’t want to be one of those pushy new fathers, so I didn’t carry photos of him to show to people. The one image I carried with me, of him, wherever I went, was that mental one. And maybe that’s the one I will always have with me, and maybe that’s why he will always be my baby – even now when he’s a genius almost trilingual Ph.D of Harrypotterism.
But last night, and today, when I close my eyes, the image that I see is of a smiling Stefan Liv, the Swedish goalie of the Yaroslavl hockey team that was wiped out in a plane crash yesterday.
I got the news sitting on a bus full of hockey reporters, who – as is their instinct – all started to go through the team roster, rattling off names of famous players on the team.
At “Stefan Liv”, my heart skipped a beat, and all blood left my legs.
I wasn’t friends with Stefan, and I only interviewed him a half a dozen times in the last three years, but it was enough for me to feel a connection. Because that’s what he was like. He made the person he spoke with feel like the most important person in the room.
A couple of years ago, Liv’s Swedish team, HV71 played against Brynäs in Gävle when HV71’s Jonas Johansson’s shot hit Brynäs young goaltender Jacob Markström in the throat. Markström went down, and stayed there for a few minutes. When he then got up and skated towards the door to leave the rink, Stefan Liv appeared at the door, tapped Markström on the arm and said something.
I remember watching the game, and clapping my hands, applauding this rare act of true sportsmanship. Too often we glorify the talk about winning at all costs. It is silly. Surely we don’t mean at all costs. Stefan didn’t.
A few weeks later, I waited for him outside the locker rooms at the Globe arena after Team Sweden practice to ask him about the incident.
“It was a really unfortunate incident, and I just wanted to wish him well. I wanted to see that he was OK. Maybe it’s a goalie thing, because we know what it’s like to be out there. It’s almost so that goalies play one sport, and the skaters another,” he told me.
“Of course I want to win, and of course you’d do anything to win, but I want to win because I’m good and my team is good, and that we’ve played to our potential, not because somebody gets injured or has a bad day,” he added.
And yet, nobody wanted to win more than Stefan.
In October 2008, HV71 lost a Champions Hockey League game to Espoo Blues, and Stefan thought he should have stopped the 3-2 goal with six minutes remaining in the game. Because I always liked him, and because he was usually a great interview, I went looking for him in the dressing room after the game. I found him sitting on the bench, still wearing his full equipment.
I sat down on the bench next to him, and asked him to sum up the game for me. He began to recap the game, going through the goals, and it was only then that I noticed his teary eyes. Stefan’s sentence trailed off, and I put my recorder down.
I sat there for a few more seconds.
“Sorry,” he said. “Is that enough for you?”
“Sure,” I said.
So now when I close my eyes, I see him sit on the bench with tears in his eyes, but I also see him do a forward roll on the ice after a win, and celebrate a Swedish championship, and I see him walk around the mixed zone at the World Championships, grinning and wearing just hockey underwear and hockey pants so huge that they looked like clown pants.
I also see an image of Stefan’s mask. It’s got a picture of his young son.
Then I see that old image of Son as a baby, and then of Wife and Son and Daughter, and now I just sit here with tears in my eyes, and a knot in my stomach.