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This article was published 28/3/2015 (2654 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When the helicopter rose over the Rocky Mountains, Don Dietrich looked down on a glistening sheet of ice below and cried.
Not a sad, empty cry, like the time he was first diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 34. Or the first time he was diagnosed with cancer, four years later, and given six months to live. Or the second time he was diagnosed with cancer. Or the third.
No, these were the tears of a 54-year-old man who saw his own nirvana. A hockey rink.
"I'll put it to you this way," Dietrich said on Friday, from his home in Deloraine. "If there's a heaven on Earth, I've been there."
It was earlier this month, when Dietrich and 10 of his hockey-loving ilk were flown to a frozen lake near Invermere. They had been selected from thousands of entrants in a promotional contest by Molson Canadian, which had built an NHL-sized ice rink on Lake Shamrock, 9,200 feet above sea level, surrounded by the stark natural beauty of the Rockies. A hoser's paradise.
Contestants were asked to submit entries on why they loved hockey. Dietrich did, too, but without a word to his three grown sons or wife, Nadine.
In part, Dietrich wrote: "Why could I be hurting from Parkinson's, but look so normal when I hit the ice? So I asked my neurologist. He said, 'Hockey is your true passion, and your adrenalin takes over when you hit the ice.' So you see, on the ice is where I feel human again."
Of course, this was a contrived promotion, above all else, to sell beer. Contestants spent the next two days, about five hours each, playing shinny while camera crews filmed the action, which will appear on future Sportsnet segments and Molson commercials prior to the NHL playoffs.
But the commercial element was inconsequential to Dietrich. Heaven awaited.
"We came over the crest of the mountains, when I saw the rink I was crying," he recalled. "It was unreal. I've played a lot of games in a lot of places, but never like that. It's so quiet up there. It's like you could hear everything but couldn't hear anything, you know?"
Some background: Dietrich was born and played minor hockey in Deloraine, a community of about 1,000 nestled in the southwest corner of Manitoba. From the beginning, hockey came naturally. By age 16, he was drafted by the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings, where the young defenceman would score 169 points over three seasons (1978-1981). In 1980, Dietrich was drafted 183rd overall by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Although Dietrich would play just 28 games in the NHL with Chicago and New Jersey, he continued to play several years in Germany before retiring in 1991.
"Why could I be hurting from Parkinson's, but look so normal when I hit the ice? So I asked my neurologist. He said, 'Hockey is your true passion, and your adrenaline takes over when you hit the ice.' So you see, on the ice is where I feel human again." –Don Dietrich
Dietrich returned to Deloraine in 1994 and began working for Canada Customs along he U.S. border. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's a year later. Then in 1999, Dietrich was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma in his small intestine. It was surgically removed. In 2001, the cancer was back, this time in Dietrich's liver. The third time, in 2003, it was in the webbing around his pancreas.
One of the first questions he asked the neurologist, after the Parkinson's diagnosis, was, "Can I play hockey?"
The next season, Dietrich suited up for the Deloraine Royals senior team.
"Hockey is the reason I'm still alive," he reasoned. "You know, when you played hockey you never had the choice of who you lined up against, right? You just wanted to beat them. That's the way I've always looked at it.
"When I went in to see my oncologist for the first time I said, 'Tell me what I've got. Tell me what I'm up against. Then I can fight it.'
All the while, Don and Nadine raised three boys, all hockey players: Tristan, now 32, was a goaltender. Jake, 27, played in the WHL for both Portland and Lethbridge, as did the youngest, Nick, now 25.
Despite failing health, Dietrich continued to help coach the hockey sons of Deloraine.
"I've seen him get up in the morning and he can hardly walk, but he'd make it to the rink for the Breakfast Club to help these kids," Nadine said. "Or when he was having cancer treatments and somebody would ask him to come and show him how to hit a baseball, and he'd go. That's Don. But that's what keeps him going. We don't let him feel sorry for himself. And he doesn't.
"He's at his best when he's out on the ice. I mean, you can see his skating isn't what it used to be. But that doesn't stop him. Hockey is everything to him."
"He's at his best when he's out on the ice. I mean, you can see his skating isn't what it used to be. But that doesn't stop him. Hockey is everything to him." –Nadine Dietrich
Dietrich, by far the oldest on the ice, had to take a few more breaks in the mountain air. He stubbornly persisted, even when his body would protest.
"He was just like a kid up there," Nadine said. "He was in his glory. It was the trip of a lifetime."
A lifetime. That's a phrase that has special resonance in the Dietrich household.
"He still shouldn't be alive," Nadine said, of her husband. "He was told he was going to die twice, given a year (to live). And he's here. And Parkinson's... he's had it for how many years and he's still able to get out on that ice. Not maybe as much as he wants to, but he's still able to do things. In my eyes, he's a lucky man. He'd be the first one to tell you that."
It's true. Life hasn't always been kind to Dietrich. But the game, the part that makes him still feel human, never abandoned him.
Alas, time may take that, too, someday.
"It gets tougher and tougher to stay out there," he admitted. "As years go by that time (on the ice) seems shorter and shorter."
No wonder Don Dietrich was crying.
It had been 16 years since he was given six months to live.
Who knew it would take this long before he finally played hockey in heaven?
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.