PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – She takes a handful of tissues and shuffles to her husband’s side. Her back is crooked by osteoporosis, her body beaten by a failing spine and the stroke she suffered last summer.
She looks much older than her 68 years. Her face is deeply lined, her hair thin and stringy, and her voice little more than a bullfrog’s croak, the product of a lifetime of heavy smoking.
There is a sadness about Gwen Balon as she sits next to the hockey player she married 47 years ago. She leans in close to his cheek and tenderly wipes away the stream of saliva bubbling from the corner of his mouth.
“Are you OK, hon,” she asks, gently, the words delivered with a sweetness that show she has never stopped loving theman in front of her.
“It is so hard for me to express,” she says. “They tell you there is no such thing as a soulmate, but Dave is mine. I knew right off the bat that we would get married. “He is such a kind man.”
Dave Balon’s clear blue eyes shift toward the sound of his wife’s voice and lock on to her loving gaze. “It’s been a long time for us, eh, honey?” Gwen says. “Yeah,” he whispers.
Balon used to talk in torrents. Words would pour out of his mouth so fast, and so softly uttered, that the hockey writers who hung around the dressing rooms in New York, Montreal, Minnesota and, at the sad end of his 13-year National Hockey League career, Vancouver, would scribble madly or risk missing what Balon had to say.
“Gosh,” “holy cow” and “guldurn” were among his favourite expressions, folksy terms spoken by an earnest, friendly, hard-working forward from the farm country of northern Saskatchewan.
The words do not come easily any more. They started to come less and less about four years ago, when the multiple sclerosis that has gradually transformed Balon’s once-athletic physique into a withered coffin of flesh and bone began its assault on his voice.
Everything below his neck is intact, but gone, really, a victim of the progressive strain of an incurable disease that affects the central nervous system. It first appeared just as Balon was enjoying his most productive seasons as a pro.
Squeeze his arm and Balon feels the pressure of your fingers, though his body is unable to respond. He takes Tylenol to ease a persistent low-grade ache and muscle relaxants to prevent his deadened limbs from twitching involuntarily
What remains alive for the man inside the broken body is his own bright mind, and a wife and a daughter, Jodi, who love him, care for him and continue to stand by him, even while somany others no longer do.
They want the hockey world to know that Dave Balon’s spirit persists, and that his life still matters. He can still experience joy. He can still hear everything. He has not stopped fighting this terrible disease. He never will, not until it kills him.
The women who love him hope an earlier generation of hockey fans have not forgotten about the bow-legged Prairie boy who helped Montreal win a pair of Stanley Cups in 1965 and ’66, played in four NHL All-Star Games, and fought for his teammates wherever he went.
Marshall Johnston remembers who Dave Balon used to be. The Carolina Hurricanes’ head of professional scouting was a teammate of Balon’s with the Prince Albert Mintos, and he has been friends with the family ever since. His duties with the Hurricanes seldom take him back to Saskatchewan, but when he gets there, he will drop in on his former junior teammate. He is one of the few that still do.
Balon’s permanent address is a private room at the Herb Bassett nursing home, a full-care facility on the outskirts of Prince Albert, not more than 15 minutes drive from the front door of the family home.
Every two weeks the staff transports him back to his real home, a tidy brick bungalow on Gillmor Crescent, where he spends the day in a reclining chair just inside the front door.
It is difficult to watch him sitting there now, motionless, in the late winter sun. He has blankets around his legs, a quilt around his shoulders and a Team Canada cap perched on his head. This picture doesn’t connect to the pictures from another time, some 50 years ago, when a handsomely rugged hayseed from the farming community of Wakaw first appeared in Prince Albert to play junior hockey for the Mintos.
Johnston remembers a brawl in Flin Flon, Man., way back when, that had Balon in the middle of it. “Dave was one tough player,” he says. “And I wasn’t very tough, and I guess that’s why I respected him so much: Because he was tough, and he could play.”
He could also charm the ladies. Gwen Gillies was a raven-haired nursing student at the Holy Family Hospital. She liked going to Mintos games. The whole town did. Balon spotted her there and thought she had a pretty smile. (He had “nice legs.”) Balon asked Gwen if she wanted to grab a Coke at the ice cream parlour sometime. “You were the prettiest groupie, mom. Come on, admit it,” Jodi says. “Thanks, Jod,” says Gwen, blushing.
They married in 1960, the season Balon skated for the New York Rangers’ farm club in Trois-Rivieres, Que. He would ship packages of fancy clothes back to Saskatchewan for his new bride. She would look forward to opening each one.
Balon broke in with the Rangers in 1962-63, but he was traded away to Montreal that summer. In his first season with the great Canadiens, Balon surprised Toe Blake, the legendary coach, by exploding for a career best 24 goals and 42 points — and 80 penalty minutes.
“I always knew he was a good checker,” Blake said then. “But he’s shown he can be a real good scorer, too.”
Montreal won Stanley Cups in 1965 and ’66. Balon drew the assist on Henri Richard’s Game 6 championship clincher in ’66, in overtime, against Detroit.
Minnesota selected Balon first overall in the 1967 expansion draft, but he was back in New York by the end of the year. Unable to have children of their own, the Balons adopted Jodi, and then a son, Jeff. New York was a happy time for the young family. Many of the Rangers were Saskatchewan boys, such as Orland Kurtenbach and Jim Neilson, and the whole crew lived in Long Beach out on Long Island.
They would get together to play cards, board games, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, laugh and share stories about their crazy new life so far away from home.
Long Beach was known as a mafia suburb back then, full of goodfellas and crime bosses. One day, there was a knock on the Balon’s front door. It was a delivery man from the Fulton Fish Market, dropping off a thank you from some shady character whose son had received a stick from Balon after practice. “I was giving fresh fish to everyone on the street,” Gwen says with a laugh. “I didn’t know where to keep it.”
On the ice, Balon was enjoying his best years. He finished 10th in NHL scoring in 1969-70 with 33 goals and 70 points. He scored 36 the following season, led the league in plus-minus — Bobby Orr came third — and won the Frank Boucher Trophy, given to the most popular Ranger in a vote by the fans.
Gwen clipped every article written about her husband, kept every hockey card, and she put it all in a scrapbook now held together by electrical tape. She noted Dave’s highlights in a neat, schoolgirl script; a four-goal game against St. Louis, a hat trick against Detroit and beating Orr in the plus-minus race.
But even as Balon was doing so well, something wasn’t quite right. “His legs and arms started feeling weak for no reason,” Gwen says. He talked to the team doctors, but all they could find was a chiselled 5-foot-11, 175-pound athlete.
Balon signed with Vancouver in 1971. He was expected to score goals. He got weaker and weaker instead. Canucks management figured Balon, at 33 years old, was washed up. He jumped to the World Hockey Association, lasted for three games, and then quit for good in 1973, heading home to Prince Albert.
The Balons had always been smart with Dave’s NHL money. They owned a house, a cabin in Prince Albert National Park and a paddle-wheel boat. Balon was the captain of the 40-passenger vessel. Every summer, Saskatchewanians from the south would trek north and line up for Dave Balon’s tours of Lake Waskesiu.
“Have you ever been to Waskesiu?” Balon asks. “It is so beautiful up there.”
People started gossping about his health in the late 1970s. Balon was having trouble with his balance. There were whispers he had a drinking problem. The problem was worse than that.
Dave and Gwen had never heard of MS when the doctors in Saskatoon gave them the diagnosis in 1980. They were told there was no cure, and that it would only get worse.
But Balon took on the disease like he took on his NHL career — with fight in his belly, a capacity to suffer its worst and seldom a complaint. Sure, there were tantrums every now and again, rages where the “Holy Cows” were replaced by curses better suited to a hockey dressing room than the family dinner table.
“The odd time he got cranky,” Gwen says. “But he really fought, and we just didn’t acknowledge the disease.”
That is, until they could no longer ignore it.
Balon started walking with a cane early on, and then two canes, and then a walker. He drove a big Lincoln outfitted with a hydraulic lift. He fell getting into it 12 years ago. That was it for walking.
“Honestly,” Jodi says, “he could do everything up until that one point when he fell, and then everything fell apart.”
The Balons did their best to keep it together, though, with the help of the NHL emergency fund, Dave’s player pension and the alumni associations in Montreal and Vancouver. The Canadiens paid for a custom van. The bungalow on Gillmor Crescent was outfitted with special lifts, and an electric chair to carry Balon down to the basement, his favourite haunt.
Jodi has spent the past several months transforming the cluttered space into an orderly shrine celebrating her dad’s NHL career; decorating it with old photos, framed newspaper articles, the Frank Boucher Trophy, and the pair of skates he wore with Montreal.
It is a museum Balon will never see.
The majority of Dave Balon’s neighbours at the Herb Bassett home are elderly women. Several of them suffer from Alzheimers. Orderlies wheel the patients to a common area after meals, where they sit in front of a television set. Balon sits among them. Many of the faces there harbour blank expressions. Oprah and Montel Williams — who also suffers from MS — are Balon’s favourite daytime entertainment. But he most enjoys those nights when a hockey game is on, especially one featuring Montreal or New York. The ex-Hab still refers to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the “Laughs.”
Some days the nursing home brings in guest performers: musicians, authors and clap-your-hands-and-sing-along groups. Balon likes some of the events, but mostly he looks forward to every second day, when he knows Jodi and Gwen will appear at the door for a visit.
He puckers his lips when he sees his daughter — and again when she gets up to leave — a ritual that leaves her near tears, even now, four years after a serious infection put her father in the home permanently.
“It was the worst day for us,” says Gwen. “The disease progressed so slow at first that we just adapted to it.”
The 69-year-old Balon has plenty of old friends living in the Prince Albert area. But few come to visit. They tell Gwen it is just too hard to see Dave like this. “Well, how hard do you think it is for dad?” Jodi says. Her brother Jeff, a handyman in Fernie, B.C., does not come around much either. “He misses his son,” Gwen says. Fans used to write letters, but not so much any more. Jodi wishes they still would. “Tell them: Just send money,” Balon whispers, his sense of humour clearly intact.
It has been a couple years since Kurtenbach, Balon’s teammate in New York, who now lives in Vancouver, has stopped by to see his friend. “Dave had changed so much,” Kurtenbach says. “It is a shock to see him.
“It’s terrible, especially the last time I was there, because it is a pretty one-sided conversation now. Dave is laying there, and you know he is not going to get up.”
Sometimes, in his dreams, Dave Balon does get up. He is a young again, and racing down the left wing of the old Madison Square Garden. He is free in these dreams. And they seem so real to him, but they aren’t. What is real is the woman who has spent a lifetime loving him.
The late afternoon sun is fading through the front window of the house on Gillmor Crescent. It has been a long day for the old hockey player.
Gwen leans in to her husband’s cheek.
“Are you OK, hon?” she asks. “That’s my guy.”
“I’m your guy,” Balon whispers back. “I’m OK.”
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