How hockey brought sobriety, unity to Souray family
EDMONTON, Alberta -- There is rock bottom and then there is the cold knowledge of what rock bottom will look like. It was 13 years ago that Richard Souray, father of soon-to-be NHLer Sheldon Souray, decided to choose sharing his son's life over life with the bottle.
"I knew that Sheldon was going to be drafted. And I knew that I would at least be around the periphery of it," Souray told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "And I also knew he didn't need a drunken dad around."
So on May 1, 1994, Richard, who is of Métis origin, attended a native healing ceremony in British Columbia near the Alberta border. He was handed a ceremonial peace pipe and spoke about his desire to change his life.
"I spoke from my heart about my sobriety," he said. "And I honestly heard and felt the great eagle swoop around my shoulders. And I came out of that ceremony absolutely convinced that I wasn't going to drink again."
It hasn't been easy. That goes without saying.
"I've had a couple of close calls," he said.
Last year, a decade-long relationship ended, bringing him back to the edge. "I really struggled with that," he said.
Richard actually poured himself a drink of Jack Daniel's, but called Sheldon's sister before he drank it and ended up pouring the liquor back in the bottle.
Often hockey and real life exist on separate planes. Occasionally, though, they become intertwined, woven into one.
It is so with the Souray family. What was lost, was found. What was in disrepair, was made new again. And while it would be exceedingly trite to suggest a game helped the family overcome abandonment, abuse and alcoholism, which are at the heart of this story, hockey has been the catalyst for rebirth and reconnection.
More than 40 years ago, Richard Souray and his two younger brothers and sister were split apart, the result of a broken, abusive home.
For Richard, there were foster homes and adoptions. For Bill and Michael, a foster home. Likewise for Marie. The children were so young that after they were separated, they had faint memories, if any, of their life together.
Richard was ultimately adopted by a family in the Toronto area. He didn't learn to skate until he was 9 years old, late in the game. But, later, as a teen, Richard worked parking cars at a hotel behind the old Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. He met Mike Walton and Pat Quinn and Frank Mahovlich and felt the buzz that surrounds the Maple Leafs in winter; a harbinger, perhaps, of the impact the game would have on his life.
Around that time, Richard also discovered he had a younger sister. After they were reunited, he and Marie maintained close contact. But their relationship also brought into focus what was missing, what remained unknown about the rest of their family. They knew they had other siblings, but their whereabouts were a mystery.
It was 1972.
Souray's first marriage was on the rocks. He and some friends headed west, looking for something else, something new. A new life perhaps.
"My friends, they didn't really like it. They went back to Ontario fairly quickly. But I really loved the mountains," he said. And so he stayed in Alberta.
He met a woman, Lillian, singing in a bar, and later married her. Their daughter was born in February 1974 and a son, Sheldon, was born a little more than two years later.
When Richard and Lillian married, Richard discovered the marriage brought with it a family life he had never experienced: brothers-in-law, cousins, uncles, nephews, nieces.
"He enjoyed being their big brother," Sheldon said.
After Sheldon and his sister were born, the family moved from the Fishing Lake Metis Settlement in Alberta to a small community so Sheldon's sister could attend school. A couple of years later, the Sourays moved to Edmonton so the children would have better educational opportunities and to give Sheldon the chance to play sports.
But Richard and Lillian soon divorced, and Sheldon lived first with his mother before moving in with Richard at age 9. The feeling was Sheldon needed the sterner discipline of a father as he grew older.
In the early years after the separation, Sheldon moved a number of times in the Northern Alberta area, from Peace River, to Bonneville, then back to Edmonton, where his mother had remained.
"It was kind of all over the place. It was hard. I can't say I really liked it," Souray said.
On most weekends, no matter where he and his dad were living, Sheldon would make his way to Edmonton to see his mother. There were a lot of rules at his dad's place -- what was acceptable, where he could go.
"There wasn't a lot of time for goofing around," Sheldon said. "I understood it, but there were times I really wanted to be with my mom."
But as Sheldon became more involved in minor hockey, Richard quit his truck-driving job and started selling cars, providing him with more stable hours and an opportunity to drive Sheldon to games and practices.
"He wanted some stability at home, but it just wasn't him going to work in a suit and a tie," Souray said.
When Sheldon left home to play major junior hockey in Washington state, Richard returned to the trucking life, something he continues to this day in semi-retirement, driving workers to and from a refinery outside Edmonton. Early in Sheldon's hockey career, Richard thought there was something that set his son apart.
"He always seemed to be a level or two above the other kids," Richard said. "I really believed very early on that he had a shot. It was my dream for him long before it was his."
Richard would tell Sheldon that if he kept at it, he could make it to the NHL. "And he'd just say, 'Oh, Dad.'"
When the two talked, it was often in the car going to and from hockey. Souray learned about his father's upbringing, the siblings from whom he had been separated.
"I was aware that he'd been bounced around in his childhood and that his childhood wasn't as privileged as mine," Souray said. "Something that was missing in his life was knowing what his brothers and sister were up to."
Richard's life was surely complicated enough, but add to the equation that he, for many years, was an alcoholic. Sheldon insists his dad was never abusive toward him, but the young boy was alone a lot of the time.
"He wasn't like a mean guy or anything," Souray said. "I spent some time alone, but he always took care of me. It made me more mature than probably I was. I had to mature pretty young."
And then, more than 13 years ago, when Sheldon was about to enter the NHL draft, his father stopped drinking.
"He just made up his mind," Souray said. "He's one stubborn old mule."
After Richard quit drinking, one of the areas that came into focus was his desire to find out what happened to his brothers.
"He wanted to reconnect with the other things going on in his life," Sheldon said. "That sort of became a mission of him and his sister, to try and find out where everyone was."
Sheldon, the 71st pick in the 1994 draft, broke into the NHL with the New Jersey Devils. One night, he was playing in Toronto and the game, of course, was on television.
Richard's brother Michael, not a hockey fan, was working on his computer in the basement of his Toronto-area home and the game happened to be on the TV. The announcer mentioned Souray and it caught Michael's attention.
"I did remember that my name was Souray once upon a time," Michael Coleman said in a recent interview. "I wasn't 100 percent sure, but I thought that was my name."
Figuring that Souray wasn't a particularly common name, Coleman immediately began searching the Internet for ways adopted children might be able to connect with family members.
Three weeks later, Coleman was in touch with Marie and Richard and a meeting was set.
Coleman said he remembers "very little" of his youth before the family was separated. It was 1959. He was 9 years old and Bill was two years younger when they were adopted. Richard had been gone about a year by then.
"At 9 years old, you're asked to forget everything [about your previous life] and I probably did. Let's just say that the way my life changed was quite, quite good," Coleman said.
Richard happened to be in Ontario visiting Marie and his adoptive family when the connection with Michael was made. As they parted, he and Marie noted that perhaps the next time they met, their brothers would be with them.
When Richard returned to his adoptive family's home, there was already a message to call Marie, whom he had just left. "In a couple of hours, I was in Michael's living room in Whitby [a Toronto suburb]," Richard said.
Driving over, Richard said he was "full of excitement."
Would he recognize his brother? Would his brother recognize him? What would they say? What would they do? "I'm a little more gregarious. I'm a kind of huggy-feely type of guy and Michael isn't," Richard said.
So, when he saw his brother for the first time, Richard gave Michael a great big hug. While Michael initially might have been taken aback, "within five minutes we had connected," Richard said.
Almost five decades had passed since the two brothers had seen each other.
They immediately found they shared some uncanny similarities despite the separation. They rode the same kind of Gold Wing motorcycle, wore the same brand of golf shoe, smoked the same brand of cigarette, and drove the same kind of car.
There also were shared mannerisms and a strong physical resemblance between Richard and Bill.
"They were very much alike," said Coleman, a retired planner who still does contract work with a nuclear power plant east of Toronto. "It just goes to prove that your family is part of what you become. The way you grow up isn't as important as what you were born from."
Ultimately, the four siblings learned they had six half-brothers and sisters along with their immediate family, many of whom met for the first time later at a gathering at Marie's home north of Toronto.
Coleman learned he had lived literally around the corner from Marie "for years and years" and didn't know it. He played hockey in the local arena that was also a few blocks away from his sister's home.
Later, Sheldon would meet the other members of the family.
"It was a pretty big thrill. I'm a real firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason," Sheldon said. "Sometimes, it's a huge world, sometimes it's a small world. It's a pretty cool story for sure. But I don't take any credit for it."
This isn't necessarily about credit or heroes or villains, but about how sometimes one difficult step forward turns into a journey.
And after finding sobriety and a family that had been lost, Richard now has his son home, too.
Pursued by a number of teams last summer, Sheldon, a free agent, signed with the Edmonton Oilers. The news came as a shock to many, including his parents.
"I nearly dropped my cell phone," Richard said.
Sheldon shares custody of his two young daughters, one 4 years old and the other 9 months, with ex-wife Angelica Bridges. When he told Lillian he was joining the Oilers, the first thing she thought of was how much fun Sheldon's children would have playing with their cousins.
"I'm so at peace with it. Nothing felt as natural and as comfortable as coming here," Sheldon said.
He lives about 20 blocks from his mother and wanders over on a Sunday afternoon to chat or sit on the porch or have a beer. His mother doesn't care if his plus/minus is minus-5 or if his team is in the doldrums or if he's been on injured reserve (as was the case when a shoulder injury kept Souray out of the lineup for almost two months earlier this season).
"In my heart, Edmonton is where my family is," Sheldon said. "They're going to be able to see me play as an Oiler. I don't think I'm missing out on anything."
Richard, who recently moved back to Edmonton from Fishing Lake, comes down to watch practice and have lunch with his son or see him play whenever he wants. He understands hockey has given him back his health, his family and his son.
"So, here I am, 13 years later and the reward is here," Richard said. "Hockey has been incredible to me. It brought me my brother back. Talk about amazing. I think it's a testament to the human spirit."
And, perhaps, the spirit of the game.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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