Dads - Stephen Vanier (age 50) and Bill Higgins (age 70)take a knee (left-right) to share center ice and a life-long memory with sons Mitchell (23) and Scott (38) during a game-day morning skate at the Bell Centre at the recent Montreal Canadiens Fantasy Camp.
They arrived from various locations from all across North American and with varied levels of hockey skills, to participate in the recent Montreal Canadiens Fantast Camp. Whatever their regular day job - doctor, lawyers, accountants, financial advisors, realtors, school teachers, automotive plant supervisor, a City of Windsor bus driver or retiree - the 'Campers' came with high expectations as they skated into their personal Field of Dreams with former Canadiens heroes.
Even if only for a few days, these weekend warriors became valued members of the Montreal Canadiens' family in mind and spirit as they proudly wore the CH crest on their chest with their name etched on the back of the jersey. The memories they acquired during those four days will endure throughout their lifetime.
For a pair of father-son campers the fantasy experience went well beyond their passion for the game or their devotion as lifelong Hab fans. This 'bucket-list' trip provided a unique experience for these men to not only share as fathers and sons, but also as teammates and friends on an historic NHL franchise.
As invited celebrity referee at the Camp, I took the opportunity to sit down with both the Vanier's and Higgins' on Saturday morning during the Canadiens morning skate, in preparation for their game against the St. Louis Blues. I share how the experience came about and what it meant to each family member.
Stephane Vanier is a lawyer from Malone, NY specializing in general litigation and shares Habs season tickets. His eldest son Mitchell, teaches band at an elementary school and is completing his Masters degree. They got to share their love for both the game of hockey and for the Montreal Canadiens as loyal fans. This was the senior Vanier's 3rd consecutive attendance at the Canadiens Fantasy Camp - the previous two years he attended with his younger son Elliott, age 21. Mitchell's work schedule and pursuit of a Masters degree prevented him from joining his Dad and brother at the previous camps.
KF: Stephane, how did you come to learn about the Fantasy Camp and what drew you to participate?
SV: I share Canadiens season tickets and I happened to see an advertisement on the Jumbo Tron and thought that looks cool. I then received an email via the Habs website and thought this is really something that I'd like to do. My father was French Canadian and moved to the United States as a 16 year old. I was raised on a farm in Malone, NY and being close to the border we grew up with Hockey Night in Canada. I was always a Canadiens fan and passed my affection for that franchise to my sons; even though it took some work to convert younger son Elliott (the 'Rebel' of the family) from his initial fan following of the rival Boston Bruins!
When I saw the list of Alumni scheduled to participate in that 1st camp (Lafleur, Wilson (Murray), Gingras, Brisebois, Nilan, Petrov), hockey heroes of mine, I thought it presented an amazing opportunity; not only for me, but to share the nostalgia and history with my son(s).
KF : I took my Father to many of the 12 Stanley Cup Finals I worked, 2 All-Star Games and the '96 World Cup of Hockey that finished in Montreal. As a son, I know how special it was for me to share those memories. What was it like for you to share these 3 Fantasy Camps with Elliott and now Mitchell?
SV: As a parent, anytime you get to do something unique and special with your children it is very fulfilling. To be able to share this environment with my sons has been an amazing experience for each of us. Now as adults, in this setting, we interact as 'buddies' and 'teammates'.
The Alumni are extremely generous and giving of their time and energy. We watched, as fans for so many years, from the relative distance of our seats or via television. Through this Camp we have gained access into their world, to be inside the room and develop a personal relationship with players that we watched and admired for years. We have been able to see that the Montreal Canadiens are not "just a hockey team" but "a way of life"!
KF: So Mitchell, what has it been like sharing this experience with 'the Old Man'?
MV: It has been 'awesome' sharing with Dad! We are able to 'goof around' and it has been really fun to be able to play with him (on a line.)
Seeing the Habs practice this morning, sitting beside my father, gave us a look from the inside that I never realized took place. Interacting with the Alumni provided us with an "uncensored" look from the inside. (Especially Knuckles' use of colorful hockey speak, said with a laugh!)
For anyone that would never play professional hockey, this is the next best thing.
KF: What are you going to take away from your 1st experience at the Canadiens Fantasy Camp?
MV: Aside from the awesome experience of sharing this with my Dad, an added takeaway from the Fantasy Camp was how the Alumni coaches (Gaston Gingras, Stephane Richer, Chris Nilan and Francis Boullion) made the game fun for me to play again as an adult.
I stopped playing the game at a young age (bantam and some early high school) when a series of 'bad' experiences with coaches took the fun out of the game. Even though I still loved the game as a fan I soured on playing it.
Following the morning practice session I looked to my father sitting in the stall beside me and told him that I "actually had fun on the ice again!"(Gingras and company had restored the youthful enthusiasm and love for playing the game that Mitchell had once enjoyed as a youngster.)
KF: I share final thoughts from Stephane, the Patriarch of team Vanier...
SV: If there's a father out there who watched his kid(s) playing hockey and is a Montreal fan, I absolutely recommend doing this. The experience transcends the game because of the class of the Canadiens Organization it will be a source of memories that you and your son will never lose.
KF: Next on the 'Bucket List' for Papa Vanier is to play on a line with both sons and to score a 'hat-trick' at a future Montreal Canadiens Fantasy Camp. Stephane's game plan is let Mitchell and Elliott do all the work and Dad will park on Carey Price's doorstep for the tap-in.
From the on-ice practice sessions: I must say it took some patience, in addition to several returns to the "drawing board" before 'Gas' and the coaches were able to hammer home the proper way the drills were to be executed. After one such instruction session the Campers took off like a team of Mini-Mites all heading in different (and incorrect) directions. That was all part of the fun and laughter that took place as the whistle blew and it was back to the dry erasable board. Each Alumni had their own unique way to get their point across - none more direct, colorful and entertaining than Knuckles Nilan! Tears of laughter were visible on many faces during these multiple sessions.
Our next father-son pairing at the Habs Fantasy Camp is a literal tear-jerker. Bill Higgins, the 'veteran' player at the Camp at 70 years young, is a lifetime fan of the Montreal Canadiens. His grandmother had 23 children and young Bill was the only member of the extended Higgins family that cheered for the Habs and not the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As a kid, Bill's father even made him go to bed if the Canadiens were leading after two periods when the score was posted during the Leafs game. Even though it might a seem harsh form of discipline for family 'disloyalty', it didn't dissuade young Billy from his devotion to the Blue Blanc Rouge ever since he saw Rocket Richard play!
Bill Higgins never turned his back on the Montreal Canadiens Organization and he and his wife spawned future generations of diehard Habs fans in Southern Ontario. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree and his offspring are just as loyal as Bill when he was a young boy. Son Scott, who provided Bill's Fantasy
Camp experience as a Christmas gift, has two buddies that come to the house to watch NHL games. They happen to be Leafs fans!
These 'friends' of Scott's bought a Leafs jersey for Scott's young son Markus, who was 4 years old at the time, just prior to Christmas one year. They convinced Markus he was a Leafs fan and to tell Scott.
Scott, Bill, son-in-law Andre with kids Markus, Cruz & Chase
The next morning, when Markus wanted to wear his new Leafs jersey, Scott told the young lad that Santa doesn't come to Leafs fans - only Montreal Candiens fans! Markus quickly changed into his Habs jersey and wore it outside for three straight days just in case Santa's Elves were watching.
Scott then took young Markus to the Kitchener Arena for a learn-to-skate program where he youngster noticed a father who was wearing a Leafs jersey. Little Markus walked over to the gentleman and politely warned him that
Santa didn't come to Leafs fans! Now that's a loyal fan started early in life.
I got a chance to chance to chat with Bill and Scott on the team bus after the father & son pair watched the Habs morning skate at the Brossard practice rink.
Bill and Scott share a pre-game meal at Brossard practice rink as the Canadiens prepared for a game against St. Louis Blues that evening. That afternoon, the father-son duo would play on the same line in the Bell Centre in their Fantasy Game. Better yet the senior Higgins scored the 1st goal of the game on a beautiful feed from son Scott.
KF: Scott, what ever possessed you and your family to give your 70 year old father a strenuous hockey fantasy camp gift for Christmas?
SH: I told 'Billy' (as Scott calls his dad and typifies their relationship) I was looking to cash in on my inheritance early! (These two guys busted each other's stones constantly in a very fun and loving way.)
Obviously we knew the gift would be special for Dad. We inherited our love for the Montreal Candiens from him and it was time to give back. Selfishly, I thought it might be the last time we'd be on the ice together as he needs shoulder surgery but postponed it until after we attended this Camp together.
Since I turned 35, three years ago Dad and I have played a lot of Old Timer hockey together and if this was the last time, I wanted it to be very special.
KF: Bill, tell me the details of Christmas gift surprise that you received from Scott and the family that got you to Montreal.
BH: All the kids came over to our house on Christmas morning. My one daughter gave me a Canadiens sweat shirt and I thought how lovely it was. Then Scott handed me an 'Elf on the shelf' dressed in a Habs jersey along with a Canadiens Christmas stocking. The stocking had some Canadiens trinkets in it and as I dug deeper I came across a booklet with pictures from a previous Fantasy Camp. As I got to the end of the pictures there was a 2017 Montreal Canadiens Fantasy Camp roster and my name and Scott's appeared on it.
I said, "Are you serious, we're going?" Scott said yes and I started to cry in front of the whole family.
KF: Now that you are here tell us some of your impressions.
BH: This is beyond anything I could have imagined. Last year my family and I attended a game in the Bell Centre and sat in the seats. This year I walked in the players entrance. I can't tell you what a thrill it was when Geoff Molson held my hat while I slipped on the Canadiens jersey with my name and number on the back that he presented to me. I asked if it included a signing bonus?
(Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, greeted each Fantasy Camper on the press stage as their name was announced by Game P.A. Announcer, Sebastian Goulet in proceedings akin to the NHL Draft. The Campers were then presented with their jersey and a hat by Mr. Molson as newest members of the Montreal Canadiens family. What a First Class Organization. It begins with the ownership!)
KF: Tell us what it was like to step on the ice for the first time at the Bell Centre?
BH: My mouth dropped, I looked around and tried not to cry. Then I thought I'm here with my kid, how much better can it get than this? Of course Scott couldn't keep up with me so I had to slow down! (As I said , these guys never miss an opportunity to rib each other.)
KF: Scott, I'm going to give you the last word here.
SH: This has been an amazing bucket list experience that I got to share with my best friend. I look forward to the day when my son Markus brings me to share in this fabulous father-son memory at the Montreal Canadiens Fantasy Camp. ...I just hope the kid earns some money early in his life so I don't have to wait until I'm 70 years old!
Just an afterthought Billy, maybe you could bring Markus with you to the next Habs Fantasy Camp. Maybe his young legs will be able to keep up with the Old Man...Good Health and God Bless my friend.