When a NHL hockey team is knocked out of contention in or before the post season, the reference to golf comes up. Golf… Hmmm, yup I suppose that is a popular off season activity for a Hockey Player, at least that’s what the press can capture in photos and make reference to. The silent, and- maybe best to keep it that way, -is fishing, shhhh! Not too many paparazzi will wake up when it’s still dark to run down to the marina to take a photo of a Hockey player setting off in his boat to go fishing. Hey, hockey players grew up bouncing out of bed in the dark to make their way to the arena for practice before the arena food booth had the coffee percolating.
Not all the media coverage on Hockey Players is as intrusive as I had described. Riley Dunda of Grimsby, plays for the Hamilton Redwings Junor A team, and had suffered a significant stroke that was considered life threatening. It was first covered by the media as a “bad news story”. Local, Regional, and even national news of the story spread rapidly. Certainly it would be a shock to the local hockey world (fans and organizers) to see one of its young prospects be challenged with this adversity. The Dunda hockey family instead took the “bad news story” and rewrote its meaning. Fight Riley Fight says it all as Riley ensues what was his already well understood Hockey work ethic into a rehabilitation, strength and conditioning. The media picked up on it and now we have Fight Riley Fight, road to recovery "good news story".
If you are not familiar with Riley’s story, here is a link to help bring you up to speed http://hamiltonhealth.ca/fightrileyfight/. Follow his progress on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/FightRileyFight as many of his great accomplishments are shared in video and status feeds. This write up is not about his undeniable diligence toward full recovery, it is about experiencing life away from its seriousness. Instead Riley, accompanied by his brother (and best friend) Liam and local Grimsby angler and advocate of Grimsby Minor Hockey, John Slade and myself. This is Liam in his Plymouth Whalers sweater
John arrived early to help prep the boat and connect with Riley. Riley showed dockside with his mom and I was introduced to him by John. I shook his left hand as it was lifted to present itself for the hand shake. The handshake was also met with eye contact to reveal his spirit and proud sense of being. I truly believe a handshake tells you a lot about a person. I knew right from the get-go Riley was not one to back down from this experience. Moments later Liam pulled up as he just witnessed the Blue Jays win their 11th game in a row- What a season they are having. He was still in his Jays fan wear when he stepped into the boat.
The Lake was picture perfect with nothing more than a ripple and a bright sunny sky. I motored out to 90 feet of water and settled the boat just East of Grimsby. I set the lines and John steered the boat and managed conversation about all the things around fishing, hockey, and life in general.
I have known John for 25 years since I was a young teenager fishing Forty Mile Creek for Salmon and Trout. John, ever since has been somewhat of a mentor for me in the fishing industry. John was also heavily involved in his son’s hockey as he made his way through minor hockey and beyond. His son also coached both Liam and Riley during those early years. John has a way that inspires one to do their best, and is an advocate of life lessons learned through experiences on and off the ice for hockey players, but also for me as it relates to on and off the water. I had worked with John on conservation projects, fishing promotions and public speaking opportunities that have etched important “life lessons learned” that have shaped me. That same knowledgeable mentoring was communicated while on the boat with both Liam and Riley. Yes conversation talked about Riley’s highly involved physiotherapy and training, but John also explained why fishing is also a form of his recovery.
Then we were interrupted by the sound of the drag coming from the reel on the port side wire diver rod pulling a directional diver and a Spindoctor and ATOMMIK Tournament trolling fly 130 feet back behind the boat. It hooks up after taking the strike and we have our first fish on. I place the rod in the rod holder and told Riley, "It’s all yours". Riley worked to crank the reel as this aggressive salmon pulled line out of the reel and Riley worked to bring it back in. He reeled it all the way in and I net the first fish of the night. I hand the fish to Riley for a photo and he was all smiles. We put the fish in the fish box ready to come home.
Riley looked at his left hand in agony after much work turning the reel handle hundreds of times to pull in this fish, and John kidded with him saying, "This will be his new physiotherapy equipment. A fishing rod and reel".
We continued to talk about all things hockey, from the past and the future of both Riley on the Hamilton Red Wings Junior A team and Liam on the OHL Plymouth Whalers team. As the evening was near its end and the sun approached the western horizon, we anxiously waited for our next fish.
We were pointed back towards port and now approaching 120 feet of depth when the starboard side wire diver pulling an 8” Protroll flasher and Magnum frog coloured MCRocket out 130 feet on the 3 setting, takes a vicious strike. The line is peeling off the reel as I hand the rod to Liam and the reel's drag screams as the clicking turns into a high speed cadence of sound. As soon as the rod leaves my hand and into Liam's, the Port side wire diver rod strains as it was out 125 feet on a 3 setting pulling a Spindoctor and ATOMMIK Trolling fly. That drag was singing as well and I knew both fish were about to make a memorable story for these two hockey kids. I handed the second rod to John, and John worked with Riley to fight the fish. John didn’t even touch the reel’s handle, just worked the rod to help hold it up against the muscular fish. Riley cranked away through the firm instruction from John, when and how fast to rotate the reel handle.
Meanwhile I coached Liam as his reel revealed the fish had pulled enough line out to display 900 feet on the reel counter!!! I told Liam that fighting fish is like learning to make and receive a pass using an egg on the blade of your stick, and not break it. I told him, "Slow and easy", just enough to push push the egg and not too much to break it. The line can only hold so much, soft hands and finesse in fishing is the same as stick handling.
Riley’s fish was not a small one either. It too, pulled line out hundreds of feet, making it that much more work for him to retrieve all that line back on the reel and fight the fish to the boat. “Fight Riley Fight” He brought the fish to the back of the boat and I net the fish and bring it aboard.
The excitement climaxed as both Riley and Liam (still busy reeling in his fish) were giggling in hysterics over what would be one of the largest fish they have ever caught together. I again raised my right hand to shake Riley’s in congratulating him, but this time he presented his right hand with a giant grin, and I knew then, he was living in the excitement of the moment and no ailment was going to get in the way.
Minutes later Liam muscles in the second fish and I scoop it up in the landing net and lay it on the floor beside Riley’s fish of near identical size. For a moment there was silence, then a look between brothers that said it all. This experience, however serious things have gotten in recent months, is now replaced for a moment of pure victorious pleasure. You might even say it's the same type of feeling as you get in a win in hockey shared with your team mates. Even big Salmon are no match for Riley and Liam.