It got to the point where Steve Hall's Calgary neighbours started calling him Walter, as in Gretzky.
There he'd be, night after night and every winter weekend, working on the backyard rink with his son, showing the four-year-old scrub how to handle a puck or putting down a layer of ice with a garden hose. As young Taylor Hall got older, the rink got bigger until it spread from the back of the house out to the front.
"The mailman never knew what hit him," Steve said of his man-made ice flow. "It was good fun. Taylor enjoyed it and so did I."
The boy who spent hours playing on that outdoor rink grew up on national television Sunday night. He helped the Windsor Spitfires their second consecutive Memorial Cup championship, helped himself to hugs and handshakes then said so long to junior hockey - not because he can't come back next season but because there's no point to it.
At 18, Taylor is ready for bigger things. Next month, he'll be the first or second pick of the 2010 NHL entry draft. He could go to the Edmonton Oilers or the Boston Bruins. Either way, he will be graduating to the NHL a potential superstar, and for the mother, who signed up her son for minor hockey more than a decade ago, and the father, a former CFL receiver and national team bobsledder, Sunday night was a time of celebration and reflection.
As Kim Strba, the mom, admitted, "I think we're living the dream of every parent who's ever put their kid in minor hockey. One era is done, another begins."
Like so many hockey families, the Halls have sacrificed for their only child. Steve built the backyard rink in Calgary (à la Walter Gretzky's act for Wayne), then built another when the family relocated to Kingston. Both parents took turns getting up early to drive their son to practices and games before lacing up his skates and sticking around to watch him play in chilly arenas.
"He took to hockey like a fish to water. He put everything he had into it," said Steve, who does small-job renovations and had to remain in Kingston over the weekend. (He followed Windsor's win on television.) "I was just around to open doors so he could go down that road."
It is a road Steve is familiar with. In 1983, fresh from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Steve signed with the Edmonton Eskimos as a defensive back who was quickly switched to slotback. He was traded to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1983 along with future Hall of Fame running back Willard Reaves. From there, the seldom-used Steve ended up with the Ottawa Rough Riders before turning to the rough rides of bobsleigh.
It was sledding that took Steve to Calgary, where he missed out on the 1988 Winter Olympics because of an injury. Three years later, he and Strba celebrated the birth of their son. Steve was over the moon; his boy was going to learn how to skate.
"Just because I didn't play hockey didn't mean I didn't want to play it," said Steve, who was determined if nothing else to give his son a place to play. "Anyone can build a rink in minus-20. Try building a rink in [Calgary's] Chinooks."
The dad had a suspicion the boy was something special when Taylor went to a minor hockey tournament and scored 17 of his team's 19 goals. That dominance continued when the family moved to Kingston to be closer to Strba's family. Taylor was 12 and happily following his dad's instructions on how to eat, how to strengthen his legs and how to be disciplined.
"As an athlete, he's been through it," Taylor said. "He understands what it takes and he's pretty dedicated."
Windsor coach Bob Boughner could see the father's influence the first time he met Taylor.
"We took Steve, Kim and Taylor out for dinner and we talked about Taylor's goals," said Boughner, whose Spitfires selected the 15-year-old wunderkind in the 2007 OHL draft. "Taylor said he wanted to lead the league in scoring and be the top scorer. Like the dad, Taylor is really confident. Steve believes in his son and has mentored him in the mental part of the game.
"Taylor won't be back with us," Boughner added. "He's ready for the next level."
The son spoke often of his parents during the Memorial Cup tournament. He wears the No. 4 because his mom's favourite player was Bobby Orr, now Taylor's agent. He credited his dad for helping develop the skating speed that has left scouts salivating. Asked what he was going to do with his NHL signing bonus, Taylor replied, "Maybe buy my parents a car."
The mom was asked a different question: Had her son ever given her any grief as a child? Not really, she said. But there was that one time.
"It was when the Calgary Flames were on that run [in the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs] He didn't come home from school, didn't call and I was getting a little worried about him. He had gotten on a bus and gone to a friend's house on the other side of the city to watch the Flames [on television]" Strba said. "I spoke with [the friend's]mother and told her, 'He has Flames' fever - and he'll be grounded when he gets home.'"
Taylor no longer has to worry about groundings. He's all grown up now, a young man on the move and perhaps hockey's next big thing. His parents still can't believe it's all happened for them and their son but they're settling in for another go.
"It's been a great ride," Steve said, "and Taylor's been the driver."Report Typo/Error