- George Johnson, NHL
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Peering back through the mists of time, there's always one. Or should be. One to rival Ralphie Parker's "You'll shoot your eye out!" Golden Barrel 1,000-shot Red Ryder Cowboy Carbon Rifle. One remembered long after all the paper and ribbons and bows have been balled up and tossed aside, after the wonder and the magic of the season have gently faded with the passing of the years.
One that writes "A Christmas Story" of your very own.
For my 15-year-old daughter Michela, her very own Red Ryder appeared under the tree this Christmas. In a box, folded neatly, a Tampa Bay Lightning crest peeking out from underneath the wrapping paper: A Vincent Lecavalier jersey. Men's small. Nameplated. Home dark, naturally. And, best of all, inscribed on the back, on the No. 4, by the man himself: To Michela. Best Wishes! All thanks to the collaboration of a couple of secret Santas: Peter Hanlon, vice president of communications for the Calgary Flames, and Bill Wickett, his Tampa counterpart.
Being of a certain age and reared in a household that's sports obsessive, the Lecavalier connection needs no explanation. She'd dutifully been saving money to buy herself a pro-style Tampa Bay jersey for a while. For some unfathomable reason, that is a difficult, apparently impossible, task in hockey-mad Calgary. Flames? Naturally. Canucks. Yup, they're in stock. Leafs and Habs? Plenty. Goes without saying. Sens? If you squint hard enough. Even, ugh!, the odd Oiler sweater, here and there.
But the 2004 Stanley Cup champs? Might as well try to find someone who'd admit to voting Liberal.
Understand, Vincent Lecavalier rules in this house. Oh, Maxim Afinogenov of the Sabres is big, Teemu Selanne of the Ducks bigger yet (and an autographed Teemu 8x10 pulled out of her Christmas stocking prompted an initial shriek of joy). But Vincent Lecavalier he's the angel at the top of the tree.
"He 'owns'" is how kids of her age put it, apparently (translated, doddering old parents, take that to mean: He's good-looking, successful, talented and so, so cool).
Our oldest daughter supports the Lightning the way her dad used to follow the disastrous Toronto Maple Leafs, and her mom the golden, gilded Montreal Canadiens. She has the obligatory Vinnie poster in her room, by count 21 Lecavalier hockey cards, the Tampa media guide for the past three seasons, a couple of T-shirts and a Team Canada action figurine; and she has been promised tickets to the Lightning's visit to the Pengrowth Saddledome on Saturday, March 10.
She calls up the Internet to check scores on the nights the Bolts play the way we urchins used to ring up the paper in town every half an hour for updates on the Lusitania-like Leafs. She watches every game when they're on TV. Exults in the wins. Suffers the defeats. A fan's fan, at 15. Like so many other hockey fans.
As the days ticked down to this particular Christmas morning, just waiting for her reaction brought the memories flooding back. Of a straight-stick, Davey Keon style, under the tree back in Winnipeg. Or, briefly, the Leafs being so horrendous as to necessitate a temporary switch in allegiance, if only for sanity's sake, a Gerry Cheevers black Boston jersey, No. 30 -- up at 7 a.m., ball hockey game on in full swing outside by 10.
Of the anticipation, the nervousness, the uncompromised fun of the holiday season.
Both of her parents, for better or worse, write sports for a living. And a part of the sportswriting dodge is the very abrupt, sobering relinquishing of your youth, your naivete, your belief. You get too close. You see too much. Proximity, access, in far too many cases becomes a curse, not a blessing. There's something blissful in watching from afar, the picture-postcard-perfect view not marred by familiarity.
Too many confrontations, too many strained interviews, too many jerks leads to an irrevocable deterioration of what was most precious about being a fan in the first place -- hero worship.
All that baggage, built up over a quarter-century in the business, fell away in an instant this Christmas morning.
The look on our daughter's face when she caught a glimpse of that jersey is the reason people become parents in the first place.
She received a gift she'll always cherish, always remember, yes. But she gave something, too. Something far more precious than something to wear with a signature scrawled in Sharpie on the back. For a little while, she helped adults remember what it was like to be an unspoiled sports fan. And to recall a simpler time, to look at the season through younger, more willing eyes.
As Ralphie Parker of Cleveland Street tells us every year, snuggled up in his bed at the conclusion of "A Christmas Story," trusty 1,000-shot Red Ryder by his side: "The greatest gift I had ever received. The greatest gift I would ever receive.''
My daughter wore the jersey the entire day.
"It's beautiful!'' she blurted.
And so, no matter what your age or how high your humbug quotient, are certain Christmases.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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