Dave Balon's Silent Fight

Monday » April 2 » 2007

Dave Balon's Silent Fight
He was a bow-legged prairie boy, whose now-ravaged body belies the
athleticism that marked his NHL career. But while disease has stolen his
freedom, it can not rob him of his Stanley Cup memories nor the loves of his

Joe O'connor
National Post

Saturday, March 24, 2007

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

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

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

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

"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 in to 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 mone y," 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."

© National Post 2007

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