When Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler was growing up in Livonia, Mich., not far from Detroit, reading was a rich part of his childhood.
His mother probably read to him the most, although his older sister Jenny did so as well. His favourite reader, however, was his father, who worked as a project manager for an insurance company and ran a hockey school in the summer that Kesler attended throughout his childhood.
“He was probably the best at it,” the 27-year-old recalled recently in the sunny Yaletown condo he shares with his wife, Andrea, and their children, Makayla, who is three and a half, and Ryker, nine months. “It was just the way he read stories. He would really get into them.”
Kesler grew up steeped in the antics of Curious George and the Berenstain Bears. But he had a particular fondness for Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?, a children’s classic by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle that is replete with soothing singsong repetition, vivid illustrations and just the right amount of silliness to captivate a young listener. Makayla happens to love the book, too. She brings it to him so the two can snuggle on the couch and enjoy it.
“Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a redbird looking at me,” Kesler begins in a quiet gentle voice, a faint smile flickering across his face.
Makayla listens intently, the two ponytails on her head bobbing at times in agreement. Thanks to his daughter, Kesler has been introduced to Dora the Explorer and Dora’s best friend Boots, two characters who weren’t around when he was a child.
He may be a scrappy jock on the ice, but Kesler believes books and reading are paramount. That’s why he is lending his name to The Vancouver Sun’s Raise-a-Reader campaign.
“Obviously literacy is really important. It’s all around us and people use it in different ways.”
During hockey games, Kesler bristles with intensity. He doesn’t seem to care what happens to him; he just wants to win. He’s now recovering from hip surgery, unsure when he’ll return to the ice. But he’s matured over the past couple of years and he’s learned to take life in stride.
When he’s at home reading to his kids, you see Kesler the dad. He loves the role. It keeps him even-keeled. And it’s taught him to leave the game at the rink.
“Win or lose, this guy is smiling,” he says, holding Ryker. The little boy grinned from ear to ear almost the entire time this writer, photographer Jeff Vinnick and Jessica Hoffman, program manager, community partnerships, with the Canucks, invaded the Kesler home one Sunday afternoon.
“This is kind of my sanctuary. When I come home, they are always in a good mood so it puts me in a good mood.”
Kesler admits life on the road during the hockey season doesn’t give him all the time he’d like to be a father. He will miss Makayla’s first day of school. When Ryker says his first words, he’ll likely miss that, too. “I was able to be home for their births and I am grateful for that.”
He tries to make the most of family time when the team is in town. He usually reads Makayla her bedtime story while his wife gets the little guy to bed.
“We definitely make it a point to read her a story before bed. She has a stack of about 12 books and she gets to pick the one.”
As for his own reading habits, Kesler admits he doesn’t read much during the summer, preferring to be outside with friends and family. He has just returned to Vancouver with his wife and kids from their home in Livonia and is settling back into a fall routine. But once hockey season takes over and he is on the road, he says he likes to read autobiographies, inspirational books and articles on the computer.
Doing ordinary things like reading to his children helps to create a normal life for them out of the spotlight that comes with being an NHL hockey player.
The players and their families support each other, forming a tight-knit community. Goalie Roberto Luongo and his wife, who have two kids close in age to Makayla and Ryker, live next door in the same Yaletown building, so the kids play together. The Keslers often meet Kevin Bieksa and his young family at a nearby park.
It’s no secret the ultracompetitive Kesler took the Game 7 loss to Boston in the Stanley Cup Final particularly hard. He had tears in his eyes in the dressing room. Reflecting back, he said it was the support of friends and family that got him through the first days after the loss. But that experience has given him an appreciation of family on many different levels. “For us as a team, we’re family. We went through a lot last year. That experience drew us closer together. We all care a lot for each other.”
But enough of that. Pucks might fly, shoulders might crunch, sticks might break. But right here, right now, there is Makayla. There is Ryker. There is Andrea. There is brown bear. They are calling out to him.
“Redbird, redbird, what do you see? I see …”