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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hockey is carved in Stone

Mark, Mike, the whole family Stone loves the game

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For Mark Stone, it was a journey that started with baby steps.

Check that. Before baby steps.

You see, every Saturday afternoon, father Rob Stone played rec hockey at Sargent Park Arena. Their kids would play alongside the rink. Eldest son Mike was about three years old. Like father, like son.

Mark was two years younger. Like older brother, like little brother.

"Mark wanted to play hockey, too," mother Jackie recalled, when her youngest son was a baby. "But he couldn't walk. So I got him one of those walkers with wheels so he could play by moving his legs around. He'd be up and down with the rest of the kids."

These days, Mark is a 19-year-old star with the Western Hockey League's Brandon Wheat Kings, who leads the league in scoring (65 points in 33 games), and last week cracked Team Canada's 2012 world junior lineup in Alberta. Mike, 21, is a defenceman with the AHL's Portland Pirates, in his sophomore season as a professional.

Both brothers are NHL draft picks -- Mike taken in the third round (69th overall) by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008 and Mark selected in the sixth round (178th overall) by the Ottawa Senators in 2010.

But then hockey has always been a family Stone affair, proving the journey to the world's summit for teenage hockey players is rarely a mountain climbed alone.

When the Stone boys were toddlers, Jackie knitted them black socks to serve as skates on the kitchen floor. The dinner table had to go, so there was more room for games.

She tried to get them to play with Lego, but they'd just turn the stuff into sticks and pucks.

Before they entered kindergarten, Jackie religiously took the kids to Mom and Tots skating. "If I was going to take one," she reasoned, "I was going to drag the other one, too."

But Mark didn't need dragging. Dad Rob spent countless hours playing hockey with the boys in the driveway of their Westwood home. Even at age four, Mark despised losing.

"He's always been a fierce competitor from the first time he played the game," Rob chuckled. "I could tell you some stories, but I won't."

Of course, Rob Stone could tell a few stories. Back in 1977, he was a sports reporter for the Sault Star, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where he covered the arrival of a 16-year-old phenom to the OHL's Greyhounds by the name of Wayne Gretzky.

Years later, both of Stone's boys would leave home at age 16 to pursue their junior careers -- Mike with the Calgary Hitmen and Mark two years later with the Wheat Kings.

Mike left first, and once a month, Jackie would drive to Calgary to see her son play and stay for a week.

For two years, both sons were toiling in the WHL at the same time. So the parents who used to chauffeur the kids criss-crossing Winnipeg for minor hockey games were now criss-crossing the Prairies to catch as many games as they could.

"One year," noted Rob, a vice-president with Standard Aero, "I put 40,000 kilometres on a vehicle."

As fate would have it, Michael's Hitmen and Mark's Wheat Kings met in the semifinal of the 2010 Memorial Cup, held in Brandon. The Wheat Kings prevailed 5-4 in overtime.

"That was the absolute worst," Jackie remembered. "Everybody asked, 'Who are you cheering for?' What can you do? It was nasty."

The Wheat Kings were then trounced 9-1 by Taylor Hall's London Knights in the final, which is a reminder that the family absorbs the losses, too.

After all, on two previous occasions, both of the Stone boys were cut from previous Hockey Canada tryouts for under-17 teams. "Those are painful days," Rob said.

So imagine the angst last week, when the mother who knitted those black socks -- who used to sit by the computer when her first son left for Calgary just waiting for an email message -- got word that her little boy had make the final cut.

"Definitely, it was relief," said Jackie, who found herself up pacing the kitchen floor every morning at 5 during the Team Canada tryout camp. "You just want to sort of scream, cry... you don't know what to do."

Those are the good days; like the nights when Rob and Jackie Stone sit down and watch one son play via Internet broadcasts on the East Coast and the other suit up for a game on the West Coast. Said Jackie: "We start at six o'clock and we don't end till midnight."

The boys are all grown up now, but in a way nothing much has changed at the Stone home. It's still hockey almost every night.

On Christmas Eve, the Stone parents loaded up the car for the drive to Edmonton. Sure, they could have flown, but what's another 1,260 kilometres (and back) on the odometer now?

"This is going to be a very interesting experience and probably one of the best experiences we've ever had in hockey," Rob said. "You always dream of your kid making it to this kind of competition. And this is going to be pretty special."

No more Mom and Tots. It's the best in the world now.

"We're probably all excited," Jackie Stone said. "But me, I'm butterflied up. I'm looking forward to this. I'm ready."

Time to move the kitchen table, boys. The hockey is about to start.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

more world junior coverage c3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2011 C1

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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