It might seem an odd way to remember one’s father, but not so much if you happen ever to have played a game of pickup hockey with Gord Brown or, in this case, you’re Chance Brown, his 17-year-old son.
Chance, a promising baseball pitcher in his first year at SUNY Schenectady, a community college in upstate New York, was packing Tuesday for a trip home to Gananoque, a small Ontario town of 5,200 people in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River.
On Wednesday night, a charity hockey game will be played at the Lou Jeffries Recreation Centre in town. It’s the same hockey rink where, some seven months ago, a funeral was held for Gord Brown, the popular member of Parliament for Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.
A sold-out crowd of 1,500 is expected for the game, the same amount that packed the rink to say farewell to the hockey-loving MP who held the riding through four straight elections.
Brown died at the age of 57 on May 2 in his Parliament Hill office, suffering a heart attack after an early morning pickup game. There was nothing unusual about him playing hockey before a day on the Hill – “He’d play seven, eight times a week,” Chance Brown says – but unexpected that he would fail to show up for the weekly Conservative caucus meeting. When word came he’d been rushed to hospital, the meeting was called off.
Chance Brown was in high school when his cousin, Graeme Brown, came with the news. They were racing up the highway to Ottawa when the call came that Gord Brown hadn’t made it.
“A crazy shocker,” Chance Brown remembers. “Just crazy.”
Jeff Brown, Gord’s younger brother by three years, says his brother “was very competitive” and had just played a game with a group of firemen and policemen who were much younger. He figures his brother knew something wasn’t right – “He would have had some distress” – but felt obliged to make the caucus meeting rather than go to hospital.
“Any time I couldn’t find Gord and there was a hole in his schedule, he was at an arena somewhere,” says Mark King, Brown’s parliamentary assistant. “He even kept track of the number of games he played in a season.”
This one would be his last.
Gord Brown had been renowned – and many times honoured – for his charitable work in raising money, mostly for the United Way. With the help of his wife, Claudine Courtois, he would organize a hockey game featuring politicians of various parties and former professional hockey players. In seven such matches, they raised more than $800,000.
The last local project he worked on was to get a good outdoor skating rink for Gananoque. The MP was hoping to raise enough money to pay for a rink with boards, glass and a “chiller” – pipes running through the base to maintain the ice through thaws and on into early spring.
There was such a rink of dreams – on Parliament Hill.
The Canada 150 rink opened to great fanfare last December and was supposed to be open for only three weeks. So popular it proved, however, that the government kept it open an extra two months, attracting more than 150,000 skaters.
It also attracted a lot of unwanted attention. Costed out at $8.2-million, critics quickly worked that out to $100,000 a day, $9,300 an hour of public skating, or $53 a skater.
Then-heritage minister Mélanie Joly said the government would give the rink’s boards, glass and netting to a “vulnerable” community in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. Gananoque pitched for the rink but Gord Brown wasn’t convinced they had much of a chance. Too far away, too many needy communities closer to Ottawa.
“Gord didn’t think we’d get it,” Jeff Brown says.
But they did. The committee deciding where the Canada 150 rink chose Gananoque and, a week ago, the dismantled parts arrived. Once operational in 2019 it will be named the Gord Brown Memorial Canada 150 Outdoor Rink. The rink comes with a government cheque for $150,000, but if it will be everything Gord Brown wished for, a great deal more will be required.
There is a pledge of $100,000 from the Thousand Islands Accommodation Partners and another for $100,027 – the “27” in honour of the number Gord Brown always wore – from the Thousand Islands Community Futures Development Corp. A GoFundMe campaign raised close to $50,000.
The monies raised from Wednesday night’s game will be split between the United Way and the new rink. They have a signed jersey from Sidney Crosby to auction off. Former NHLers such as Laurie Boschman, Rick Smith and others agreed to play, as did the Speaker of the House of Commons, Geoff Regan.
One side will feature six Browns – from 54-year-old Jeff down to six-year-old Tristan, Gord Brown’s youngest. Tristan Brown will take a shift or two. Chance Brown will take a regular turn on the ice, knowing he will think of his father each time he steps on the ice.
“He was always cherry picking,” his son remembers. “Always waiting up by the other blueline for a breakaway pass. I miss him a lot.
“But it’s going to be awesome. My dad would never have imagined having something in his hometown with his name on it.”