VANCOUVER – Home for the holidays. Presents under the tree. Christmas dinner at grandma’s. Skating on frozen ponds. Falling through the ice. Risking your life. Dad won’t mind.
“Yeah, my parenting was throw the kids in the deep end and see if they swim,” Chris Higgins laughs.
Luckily, he could swim. Came in handy when he went skating outdoors in Smithtown, the New York suburb on the north shore of Long Island.
“You’re not allowed to skate; there are signs telling you not to,” Higgins, the locked-out Vancouver Canucks winger, says of his hometown. “Liability issues for the town, I guess. But if you go at certain times of the day, you can get away with it. You go early in the morning or at dusk and usually you can get away with it.
“There was one really scary time when I fell in up to my chest, and I couldn’t feel the ground. Then I’d try to pull myself out and kept breaking the ice. My dad couldn’t come over because he’d fall through, too, so he just kind of waited for me to get out. I was seven or eight. My dad was kind of fishing a stick out towards me a little bit.”
Well, at least Robert Higgins tried a little to save the second of his five children.
Chris, you may have sharply deduced, made it out alive, shivering and with skates filled with ice water.
It happened a couple of times, he says.
Apparently, skating on thin ice is extremely dangerous.
“Yeah? Tell that to my dad.”
Before we condemn Mr. Higgins and notify child welfare services, although the statute of limitations has likely run out as Chris is now 29 years old, it’s worth remembering that dad is a firefighter in New York.
He was a first responder on 9/11, rushing to the World Trade Center before the twin towers collapsed 11 years ago after terrorists torpedoed them with hijacked airliners.
His dad has courage. And so does Higgins, who continued to skate as a boy whenever the ponds around Smithtown froze.
Higgins left home at 14 to pursue his hockey dream. But home never left him, which is why he is grateful to spend this Christmas there with his parents and siblings and an extended family big enough to fill his grandma’s house in Queens for dinner on Tuesday.
The chance for hockey players to be home for Christmas is one benefit of the NHL lockout. It may be the only one, besides the absence of John Tortorella press conferences. And the Phoenix Coyotes having their best season financially.
Higgins hasn’t been home for the holidays since a stint with the New York Rangers in 2009. He spent last Christmas in Vancouver and, somewhat surprisingly, was here throughout the fall. Even without an NHL season, Higgins chose to stay on the West Coast. Three times a week, he skated at UBC with a handful of teammates and a sparse assortment of other NHLers.
“I came out for the team golf tournament (Sept. 12, three days before owners locked out players) and stayed,” he says. “I’d have been skating probably with 12 year olds if I stayed home.”
But there are a lot of places closer to New York than Vancouver where Higgins could have rented ice time with NHL players. Toronto and Montreal, where Higgins spent five seasons with the Canadiens, are an hour’s flight from New York.
There are other places that even have better weather than Vancouver. I know — hard to believe.
“But the most fit guys on the team are here,” Higgins explains. “Danny and Hank (Sedin), Kevin (Bieksa), Dan (Hamhuis) and Manny (Malhotra). Those are the guys I wanted to be around.”
It led to a comical lodging situation, as Higgins stayed at a downtown apartment-hotel on a week-to-week basis, sheepishly telling the front desk clerk each Wednesday that he’d be extending his stay another seven or 14 days. He finally moved into Cory Schneider’s condo when his teammate left Vancouver last month to play in Switzerland during the lockout.
Higgins expects to head overseas, too, if there isn’t a settlement in the next couple of weeks.
In the meantime, he’ll be among family and friends in Smithtown, which was spared most of hurricane Sandy’s wrath when it slammed into Long Island’s south shore six weeks ago.
He laughs that his grandmother has finally upgraded him from the kids’ table for Christmas dinner.
His favourite Christmas memory was the day he was 11 and his youngest brother was born.
“I remember skating around the house in new rollerblades that I got that morning, and then my mom went into labour,” he says. “So I was rollerblading around the hospital on Christmas Day, skating around the hallways and stuff, causing havoc.”
His NHL career had some of that, too, after the Canadiens chose him out of Yale University in the first round of the 2002 entry draft.
After changing teams four times in less than two years, Higgins righted his listing career in Vancouver when the Canucks acquired him from the Florida Panthers 22 months ago. He had 18 goals and 43 points last season and demonstrated this fall, without playing a game that mattered, how committed he is to his team and his craft.
The NHL is on thin ice. But not Higgins, not anymore.