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Summer of the Stanley Caps: Wilson and Smith-Pelly

August 16, 2018
Sunday, August 5

Tom Wilson’s day with the Stanley Cup began with some fuel and fortification for the long day ahead; he poured himself a healthy bowl of magically delicious Lucky Charms cereal and dined from the bowl of the Cup before heading out to share the hard won hardware with family, friends and the good folks of the greater Toronto area.

After posing for a family photo on the front porch of his residence, Wilson went off to his first stop of the day, the gym in the back of the old St. Mike’s barn in Toronto. Wilson trains here in the offseason with noted BioSteel trainer Matt Nichol, and he made a quick stop here for some photos in the no frills gym.

Just outside the gym were coffee and an impressive array of Wilson-themed baked goods. The rink itself is replete with banners of so many elite NHL players who came through the fabled St. Mike’s program over the years, including Hockey Hall of Famers such as Red Kelly, Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Gerry Cheevers and a host of others. 

An hour or so later, we were headed to another rink, the North Toronto Arena. This immaculately kept structure was built in 1965, but shows much less wear and tear than many arenas half its age. As Wilson walked into the back door of the rink with the Cup, he was greeted by applause from players from several youth hockey teams who now play at the barn, the same place Wilson played as a lad not too many years ago.  

Wilson posed for team pictures with each of the youth hockey groups, and then put a different and personalized touch on the proceedings by opening up the floor to questions from the kids. Via one of those questions, we learned that one of Wilson’s teams went undefeated over a two-year span, with a single “tie” (remember those?) as the lone blemish on the team’s record during that timespan. Wilson recalled that every kid on the team was in tears after that tie game. Later in the day, one of his teammates from those days remembered that Wilson himself was suspended for that tie game, suggesting that may have been the reason they didn’t win. 

Wilson shared the podium with two VIPs, 12-year-old cancer survivor Brock Chessell and Toronto mayor John Tory. Wilson’s event at North Toronto Arena helped raise several thousand dollars for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Kids, and brave young Brock spoke of how Wilson and the Capitals inspired him while he was undergoing treatment. Tory also played his youth hockey at NTA, and he sported a sweater commemorating the arena’s 50 thanniversary, a milestone celebrated in 2015. 

Later in the afternoon, Wilson spent some quiet moments in the tiny old locker room where he once dressed, his old Bedford Bisons sweater hanging behind him and a tiny championship trophy earned in 2001 beside him. He spent some private time with family members and reflected a bit on his journey from those humble beginnings to his current status as a 24-year-old Stanley Cup champ who just inked a six-year contract extension worth more than $31 million.

Wilson’s 90-year-old grandfather Jake Avery watched the proceedings, sporting a No. 43 Caps sweater emblazoned with “GRAMPIE” on the nameplate. Avery told me about the time he took a very young Tom to a steak dinner followed by a Toronto Raptors NBA game, where they sat courtside. Tom’s dad Keven picked him up after the game so that Grampie could head straight home, and as they got in the car to head home, Tom asked his dad to stop so he could get something to drink. Keven told Tom they’d be home in 20 minutes or so, and he could get a drink then. But young Tom persisted, insisting he was thirsty.  

“Tom,” said Keven to his son, “you were with Grampie all night. If you were thirsty, why didn’t you ask him to get you something to drink?”

“Dad,” replied an exasperated Tom, “Grampie took me to the best steak dinner I’ve ever had and the Raptors game where we had the best seats ever. How could I possibly ask him for something to drink?”

In a conversation with Keven, who is a true historian of the game, he noted that Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s name would be coming off the Cup this fall, and that Alex Ovechkin’s name will be engraved for the first time. Each is the greatest goal scorer of his era, and Richard won the Cup for the first time in 1944. So for a grand total of at least 138 continuous years, either Richard or Ovechkin’s name will be on the Cup, although never both simultaneously. 

After a quick stop at his house for a change of clothes and a bite to eat, we headed to Ontario Place, down on the northern shores of Lake Ontario. There, Wilson posed with the Cup on a friend’s boat, with the CN tower in the background.

The next stop was for Grampie. The Cup made a drop-in visit to a gorgeous private golf club that was established in the late 1800s, and where Grampie has been a member for roughly half a century. Golfers coming in off the 18 thgreen were treated to quite a surprise photo opportunity, and Grampie had a written letter from the club permitting him to wear the aforementioned No. 43 sweater at the club for this special occasion. That wasn’t the case in the spring of 2017 when he wore it there proudly a night after Tom’s overtime goal gave the Caps a Game 1 win over the local Maple Leafs in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

For the Wilson family, the summer of 2018 has been an eventful one. Pete, the oldest of the three Wilson brothers, got married. Grampie celebrated his 90 thbirthday last month. And now Tom brought the Cup to his grandfather’s lovely home in a neighboring town, where guests would spend the last six hours of Wilson’s day dining, drinking and enjoying each other’s wonderful company.

Caps teammates Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly were among a handful of current and former NHL players in attendance on this steamy Sunday night. Wilson brothers Pete and Jamie each delivered speeches, as did a pair of Wilson’s former junior teammates. The message was similar: if you are on Tom’s team – on or off the ice – he will always have your back.   

Wilson’s mom Neville informed us that two of Tom’s former billet families made the trip to Toronto for the occasion. Wilson’s billet family from his days playing junior hockey in Plymouth, Mich. came in, as did his billet family from his rookie season in Washington, when he was still just a teenager and in need of some direction and mentoring away from the rink. In turn, Wilson helped mentor his D.C.-area billet family’s own budding young hockey player, a young man with his own NHL dreams who recently committed to Miami (Ohio) University. Later, we’re fortunate to meet and spend some time talking with his billet family from D.C.; they’ve since relocated to Michigan. The number of mutual acquaintances we share is staggering; it reinforces how small and wonderful our hockey world is.

As often happens at these Caps Cup days, the keg stands commenced after dinner. That was the case at Wilson’s bash, too, but right at 10 p.m. there was a short break in that activity. That’s when an ice cream truck pulled up out right out in front, supplying guests with a nice frozen treat to top off a splendid summer’s night.  

At midnight, Wilson performed the final keg stand of the night and the Cup went back into its case ahead of another day in the Toronto area. 

Monday, August 6

A day after Wilson used his Cup day to raise funds for Sick Kids Hospital, Devante Smith-Pelly started off his own Cup day by taking it directly to those kids at the hospital itself in downtown Toronto. Along with his parents, his brother and his aunt, Smith-Pelly graciously spent a couple of hours cheering up these kids and their families, and handing out Caps hats, t-shirts and other team-themed items.  

Smith-Pelly played air hockey with some of the kids, and he posed for photos and signed autographs for all. It was easy to get emotional seeing his effect on them; almost all of these kids entered the room with a grim uncertainty about them; you could almost sense their hesitation and empathize with what they must have been feeling and thinking as they were led into the room – oh no, what now? A big, fearless man who thinks nothing of laying out in front of an oncoming slapshot, Smith-Pelly also has a disarming smile and an easy, gentle way about him. The kids and families responded to that, their omnipresent burdens and trials briefly put in the background.

Early in the afternoon, we headed to a Toronto residence where old friends of the Smith-Pelly family from his minor hockey years hosted a backyard luncheon for him. Back in the days when Smith-Pelly played for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens of the Greater Toronto Minor Midget Hockey League, Harvey Shapiro owned the team and his son was a Smith-Pelly teammate.  

Shapiro and his wife presided over a lovely gathering at their home, and he delivered a warm and heartfelt speech about recruiting Smith-Pelly for his team and watching him blossom over the years. He also paid homage to a noteworthy guest at the affair, former Caps winger Mike Marson. Marson played for the inaugural 1974-75 Capitals, and at the tender age of 19 he was the second Black Canadian player in the NHL, some 13 years after Willie O’Ree last laced them up in the League.  

Spending a few minutes talking to Marson was one of the highlights of the day for me; he sat for a lengthy one-on-one interview with me in Washington a few years back and I’ve enjoyed his insight and his memories every time we’ve spoken over the last couple of decades. This day is no exception, and he’s extremely happy for Devante and for the Caps winning the Cup after all these years.  

Many of Devante’s former minor and junior hockey teammates were in attendance, as was Connolly. The appreciative Smith-Pelly took the mic and delivered a brief but sincere thanks to his hosts and his friends. Photos were taken, hugs and laughter abounded, and just as a perfect outdoor event was wrapping up, the skies opened and a heavy rainstorm began. Goodbyes were exchanged and we headed off to the Black Dog Pub in Scarborough for the next event.

After a drive of about 30 minutes through a heavy rain, we arrived at our destination where a line of slicker-clad and umbrella-holding hardies stretched around the block. Perhaps even more impressive, more than half of those umbrellas were branded with the Black Dog Pub logo. The Black Dog staff was superb, dealing effectively with the sudden midday blitz both inside and outside of the establishment. 

Smith-Pelly’s family and friends assembled inside and on the adjoining deck – which was covered from the elements – for food and beverage while the Washington winger patiently posed for the slow but steadily moving line in the midst of a driving downpour. More than three hours later, the line was finally gone and the sun was out, but sinking. It was time to head to the final landing spot of the evening.

After a brief stop home for a shower and a change of clothes, Smith-Pelly’s day resumed in the large outdoor area at The Addisons, a King’s West club in Toronto. Several current and former NHL players were on hand, including Connolly, whose own day with the Cup is coming up later in the month.

Smith-Pelly posed for more photos while his guests mingled and partied under the stars, making good use of the ping pong table. Nearby, an ice sculpture and a terrific action shot of Smith-Pelly’s game-tying goal from Game 5 of the Stanley Cup added to the evening’s ambience. A highlight reel of the Caps’ run to the Cup was shown, and that tying tally from the Cup-clinching contest drew a rousing reaction from all in attendance. 

As darkness descended, the keg stands get underway. Just as midnight approached, a light rain began and Smith-Pelly carried the Cup to its resting place, posing for a final photo and sending it off to Denmark for its next stop, a date with former Canadiens teammate Lars Eller in Denmark.

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