Kindred Spirit Found in Edmonton
Bill was in Sherwood Park last month for a big game of shinny,
and a special meeting: Bill in the centre, right of him is Chris, behind is Peyton in black.
Bill and son David were on the road again recently. As you may recall, last time it was Saskatchewan. This time it was Alberta. To be specific, the ‘hamlet’ of Sherwood Park, right next door to Edmonton. It was a bit of a shock for persons from Victoria, with the cold and the snow and the ice and such. Bill tramping one-legged through it all on his crutches. Shivering outside the airport, as we wondered ‘What the heck?’, little did we know the fierce winter weather was about to be magically charmed away by the warmth, generosity and kinship of our host family.
And that was not the only magic on this trip. There was also that rare chemistry of two strangers meeting for the first time. Strangers, yet in a way kindred spirits, two people who share a special connection, share a bond formed through similar, though separate, experiences that have drawn them together on a level of cognition few of us can ever know or understand.
Such was the case when 15-year-old Peyton Kalbfleisch and the substantially older Bill Brownridge, 86, met last month at Peyton’s home. As Bill explains: “So many of the things Peyton is going through are things we are both living with and there is no escape. I do escape through art, as Peyton does working with wood. As both of us do through our love of hockey. He and I have endured things normal folk can’t even imagine. Despite the age difference Peyton and I have a bond.”
“We were both born with very challenging physical problems and we both found hope and inspiration in watching and being with hockey players.”
Both Bill and Peyton, at a very young age, suffered extremely debilitating medical conditions. Bill was born with deformed feet, then as a teen lost half of one leg, and half of his remaining foot after doctors botched an attempt at repair.
As for Peyton, he was just four-years-old when doctors found a brain tumor. While he survived its removal, his ability to move, to speak, even to think all suffered severe damage.
But after battling through years of multiple surgeries and hospital visits and tests and deep anxiety and constant worry or worse, after all that, the two of them seem to have somehow survived. And even succeeded. Bill helped raise a large family and became an accomplished artist, his works exhibited across Canada. As for Peyton, his success is astonishing. Not only can Peyton walk, he can skate, and he can play goal. He can talk and he can learn. He can smile. And he can look rather handsome.
Okay, so you’ve survived. Now you have to live with it. Peyton and Bill owe much of their intestinal fortitude and success to a special place in the mind, and in the heart. A place involved and yet also removed in that it is unique to the individual. And for them that place lies within the culture and world of ice hockey
In his short biography ‘The Heart of Hockey Story’, Bill says: “(E)very serious artist must find themes that are powerful enough to keep driving them forward. In a world preoccupied with the sensational, the bizarre and the vulgar, I find great enjoyment watching children at play. Their laughter, enthusiasm and naivete are a source of endless fascination, especially when the setting is a hauntingly beautiful prairie or foothills landscape. These are the things I most love and respect in life.”
That is the world of hockey for Bill. Here is the culture, again from his bio: “Looking back, hockey was far more than just fun, although that, in itself, was of great importance. The rink was where we had a crash course in behaviour and socialization. Not just in theory but in reality. In an afternoon scrimmage we might encounter bullying, cheating, embarrassment, even a bruise or a scrape. Equally we saw other qualities – courage, determination, patience, and discipline. Most important in my mind, a good team player had to demonstrate selflessness. Here in each session of “play”… was life in a microcosm. The reason the good things always overcame and controlled the bad was because of ‘The Game’.”
Bill found hockey through his friends and family, his brothers, and by playing outdoor shinny as a child. Unable to skate or even wear skates, Bill wore moccasins on the ice. After losing his mobility, Bill and hockey found each other again amongst the paint and canvas of his evocative art: moody prairie rinks wreathed in moonlight and nostalgic memories, scenes of wild action and colorful children, arms and legs and sticks flying.
Peyton also found it by playing hockey on outdoor rinks along with his family. It continued from there through his friendships with local teams and players. Then later came his position as honourary team captain for the local Sherwood Park Kings Midget AA Oilers. And a then new hobby of making deck chairs from old hockey sticks, which he then tries to sell to help with family expenses.
Curious outsiders might ask, what is it about hockey that’s so special? Why this power to engage, why the sense of belonging? In the past, Bill has remarked on the vital aspect of hockey involving teamwork and camaraderie, and how it binds and strengthens and is even a force of good Certainly that draws people to this enclave. And old memories, those are a source of comfort and attraction. And of course, all this is heightened by furious action, fast-paced excitement, the bustle of fans and families and friends and neighbours, the air-splitting ‘CRACK!’ of a frozen puck, that sweeping arc of sound, steel blades cutting the air, cutting the ice, legs pumping. And even the watching heart pumps faster. This myriad of things, viewed through your lens, or maybe through your heart, creates that time and place.
“Watching hockey makes your spirit rise – you thrill to the incredible flow of speed and skill, all the things you identify within your imagination,” says Bill.
We all need a place away from the noise and the dissonance, a place where things make sense, and people care. And maybe it’s even fun.
Bill had initially become acquainted with Peyton’s story through a news article, and then, moved by the boy’s situation and his love of hockey, Bill painted ‘Burning to Play’. A number of weeks after the painting was delivered, Bill decided on a personal visit. In addition to myself, Alan Bibby joined us. Bill’s good friend and a noted cameraman & filmmaker formerly with the CBC, Alan heard of our expedition and saw an opportunity to grab some film footage. Alan is filming and producing a biographical film about Bill. Hence Alan provided one more witness to the extraordinary visit.
We spent two days in Sherwood Park. In the end, much too short a time after our growing friendship with Peyton’s family — parents Chris and Tracey, and his siblings, all girls and all younger: Paige, Kruise, Kadence and Kourtney.
Like many things involving human interaction and emotions, explanations don’t come easy. So for whatever reason, right from the moment we entered their home, we ceased being strangers and were somehow transformed into close friends. It was more pronounced for me because I had entered the weekend prepared to be more of a bystander than a participant. And yet faced with their sincerity, openness, and acceptance, even I was disarmed. In fact, I’ve been told that I’m somewhat ‘Grinch-like’, and indeed, just like him, I too finally succumbed to their confounding happiness.
After our initial arrival by plane, we spent that afternoon at the family home, Bill and Peyton exchanging hockey stories and viewing memorabilia such as Peyton’s collection of Oiler autographs, his Gretzky rookie card, and his cherished ‘McDAVID’ Oiler’s jersey. Later we were invited for supper, and with Tracey’s father in attendance, Chris and Tracey regaled us with a large home-cooked meal including Tracey’s ‘old family-recipe’ Ukrainian dishes. Next, Peyton’s team was playing that night so the entire pack of us were off to the local arena right after supper. It was great hockey with an extremely high pace, very exciting. And the home team won!
Hard to believe but the next day was even more of a highlight reel. Chris and Peyton organized a game of outdoor shinny! We all met outside of town at an outdoor rink in the middle of a forest. It was wonderfully picturesque. Nonetheless, enthusiasm was put to the test as temperatures plunged and a fierce wind blew snow onto the ice faster than it could be shoveled off. Still the game took place complete with subs, line changes, and non-stop action with Peyton in goal at one end and his father Chris in the other.
Not prepared with clothing made for the Arctic, Bill and I spent much of the time inside a heated vehicle. We did venture forth though, Bill courageous (foolhardy?) in his manipulation of crutches over ice and through snowbanks and ultimately out onto the ice rink itself. That was a bit scary.
Peyton’s remarkable family was once again in evidence as two of the young girls created large color posters as ‘fan signs’ and then stood in the snow and cold and wind, and cheered on the two teams. I recall Alan remarking at one point that weekend, something to the effect that this family seemed quite extraordinary. We all agreed; Chris and Tracey, and the kids too, were constantly at our disposal, and always cheerful and energetic and funny and yet generally calm, and despite periodic chaos (minutes before the game Chris’s skates were missing) nobody got upset. Now, I grew up with four siblings myself. And to me, these guys were extraordinary.
After the outdoor hockey game, the entire mob of us retired to a local pizzeria (Nitza’s) where we were all treated to an enormous buffet featuring all manner of delicious hot food and drinks. And as we sat eating we chanced to meet another array of Sherwood Park residents, the friends and neighbours and colleagues of Chris and Tracey and Peyton. And lo and behold, they too suddenly seemed like long-lost kin.
Bill remarks, “We had a great time. An impressive family of delightful girls. Peyton is the only boy. He is quiet, speaks very slowly and I enjoyed our visit, surrounded by his memorabilia collection.
“The highlight of the trip was the shinny game – about 15 players playing in the bitter cold with Peyton in full goalie gear at one end and his Dad in the other net. Wow.”
To all the players who came out and all the friends and family who came to watch and cheer, you guys were great, not just for your incredible stamina and your support of Peyton, but for the super entertainment and the shining example of community spirit shown to us.
And now, though we are far from our new friends, and it’s not easy to travel, Bill and I ponder when we might next meet our Oiler kinfolk.