At the age of five, Tiana Lisle was sitting in the back of my green SUV. We were coming home from her dance recital at a downtown school we had never been to. She was cute as could be in her yellow chicken outfit. Me, trying to be the supportive father, smiled and clapped at the end of the performance that was… well a five year olds dance recital. As we drove home I couldn’t help but think "thank goodness that’s over" and looked in the back seat to see if Tiana was still awake.
What I saw in the rear view mirror was a very unhappy kid, her lower lip could not have been pushed out further to show her emotions.
"What’s wrong T?" I said.
She responded, "This is stupid! Next year I am playing hockey!!"
Ah, the words every washed up hockey dad dreams of hearing. I can’t even remember what happened next, I was way too excited about what I had just heard.
A few trips to various sports stores later, she had some gear and I had her enrolled in IP (Initiation Prgoram—basically a first year player hockey school in Canada). Tiana struggled at first and didn’t seem to get it, but she was happy and so was I. Her mom, Tracy was a bit less enthusiastic about playing a "boy’s sport", but tagged along for almost every ice time and made friends with a few other moms at the rink. This gave me the opportunity to watch every stride and every fall intently… I was already becoming one of "those" parents.
Fast forward to her first year of Novice (U8), and she was playing for the Nepean Wildcats house league team. We had a bit of a rough summer as what we had believed to be a skin irritation for Tracy was diagnosed to be liver cancer. It was serious enough that surgery was required and the doctors removed 60 per cent of her liver. Family helped us out a lot that year—it is tough to remember much of that entire year as these types of situations tend to leave you in a daze of helplessness.
Tiana’s second year of Novice was about to begin. She had been to her summer hockey school and we were just a few weeks out from the beginning of the season. I had a new lady in my life, Karry, and she had fallen in love with Tiana (more than she liked me I bet). Tiana had stayed at my place the night before her birthday so Tracy could get their house decorated for her party. Then we got a phone call that we didn’t expect. It was from her new beau, Kevin. They were at the hospital as Tracy had spiked a 103 degree fever out of nowhere. He felt we should come to the hospital and speak to the doctors.
We did, and Karry watched Tiana while the rest of us convened at Tracy’s bedside.
"The cancer is back," We were told, "it’s everywhere and we won’t be able to beat it this time".
My jaw dropped. A million different thoughts raced through my head: "What do I do now?"
Suddenly picturing myself as a single dad (what did I know about seven year old girls anyways?) scared me to death. The one blessing I had was that just a few months later Karry and her roommate had a bit of a falling out and even though our relationship was only a few months old, she moved in and we hoped for the best. Karry was a sensible woman who could look at things objectively, while still having the compassion and humility to visit with Tracy, learn everything she could about Tracy, and helped in any way she could.
As Halloween rolled around, hockey was a bit of an afterthought. Tracy’s health deteriorating, now on oxygen and bedridden, we brought Tiana to see her and realized she was quickly wasting away. Were we doing the right thing having Tiana visit her? Would she remember how beautiful Tracy was before all this or have the image of her frail, tired mom forever etched in her memory?
Karry and I quickly decided that we needed to tell Tiana but when, and how? Is there any point in leaving now? Are we any good to anyone back home? We made the decision to stay and let her play her final game, knowing all too well what the rest of the day had in store. She had been through a lot and hockey was her safe place. Call me a horrible person, but I wanted to see her smile one more time, as I knew I might not see one from her for a while.
Tiana disappeared to her room and we decided to give her some space to grieve… maybe talk to her mom in private. Whatever her heart desired. 45 minutes later we hear her barreling down the stairs in her wind pants and team jacket: "C’mon, Dad I have a game!" she exclaimed.
"T—you don’t have to do this, I already told your coach we weren’t coming tonight."
"What do you mean?" she asked, "Of course I am playing".
I think it was at that exact moment I realized how important hockey really was to her.
Scared to be the one to tell Karry, I did what every smart husband would do… had her coach suggest it to Karry. Tiana would later tell Karry when she heard our rather animated discussion on the topic that "One day I am going to play hockey for my university, you know!"
Tiana had been shooting pucks in the driveway a lot and just loved to sail backhand shots over the net and into the forest beside our house. I think she just loved watching me search for her pucks! On November 11th of that year, she had an away game in Brockville, Ontario versus their biggest rivals, the Brockville Angels. The girls were pumped, though Tiana’s body language was a bit slouched: the anniversary of her mom’s death was no doubt on her mind. With the score tied and just a few minutes to go, one of her teammates came out of the penalty box and Tianna jumped on. Just then, the puck came around the boards and she found herself on a breakaway from centre ice. She skated in, slowed up a bit, shifted to the right and lifted a backhand off the crossbar and in.
What happened next is forever etched in my mind. As her line-mates came to congratulate her she quickly high-fived them and then skated along the side boards by herself. She took off her glove, kissed her fingers and pointed towards the heavens… oh man! There was not a dry eye in the rink. I looked over and saw the coaching staff wiping their faces with their jacket sleeves, everyone knew that she had just done that for her mom.
She had a decent year and we concluded that the coach’s daughter was moving up to Bantam and heard that Tiana’s Atom coach, who we all adored would be her coach again the following year. She couldn’t wait to hit the ice as a second year Peewee, but something was different.
"Dad can I try out for a higher team?" she asked.
Of course I thought that was a great idea, so I signed her up to try out in Smiths Falls, Kanata, and RSL. Another mistake; the kid could barely walk after all the ice she was seeing. These teams all played about 30 minutes from us, one to the north, one to the west, and the other to the south. Needless to say, playing B and C hockey, she quickly got to see the difference in the skill level at AA. She was one of the first girls released from all three sets of tryouts and although disappointed, she accepted her fate and went back to Kemptville to play with her friends.
Later that year came a big break for her. A rural Peewee A team had a very short bench, but they were a very skilled team. The coach’s daughter had taken a hard slash in a game and had her arm broken, so she would be out most of the season. The coach of the Dundas Lions called our coach and asked if he knew anyone who could come and play for him. The only problem was that the tournament he needed a player for started in 48 hours. Duke (Tiana’s coach) smiled and told him he thought he knew of a girl.
So, I suddenly came down with a "Friday Flu" and we were off to Kingston, Ontario to play for Dundas. We were met in the parking lot by the team manager who had a team jacket ready for Tiana to wear so she could really feel a part of the team. We were both very excited. Karry’s stepfather and wife lived in Kingston, so we had a place to stay and Tiana had her own little cheering section. Well doesn’t she score in the first game! The coach was pleased with her efforts and the team had not had much recent success, so when she scored again in the second game (I think she had her back turned and it went off her shin pad!) the parents were starting to treat her like a hero.
Every game she scored, I couldn’t believe it—four straight games with a goal. There was one small caveat I had agreed to about her playing that weekend. She had promised her little sister that her and her friend would dress up as princesses for Alyssa’s birthday party, which was at the same time as the semi finals. I only had to look at Karry and she could see the look of pity on my face.
"NO, she promised!" and I knew that was it. The Lions would have to play the semi-final with only nine skaters against Nepean… Oh how I loathed Nepean. They were the top dogs at every level.
So, we stayed home for the party and Tiana did an admirable job as a princess. I would duck out occasionally to check texts from one of the Lion’s team parents… "We are up 4-2… now 5-3 at the end of the 2nd… oh no Nepean tied it at 5… 6-5 Nepean… we tied it up with three minutes left! WE WIN!" Holy cow… the final was in just three hours. I showed my phone discreetly to my wife, who snarled and said, "You have two daughters. You will stay until after the cake and then you two can go if you can even make it by then."
I quickly packed the car and prepared everything to leave. Thank goodness two year olds don’t like to wait for cake. We rushed out of the house and hopped in the car, it was 80 minutes ’til game time and it was a 90 minute drive. Did I drive over the speed limit? Uh, no? We flew into the parking lot, T with still the rouge of princess makeup on her cheeks, and about two minutes before puck drop, we run into the rink and find that the zamboni is just coming out—there was an overtime in the previous game and they were running behind. Whew!
So, she got ready and hit the ice in time for warmup. The final was against Massena, NY, a very skilled group and they were huge. What did the parents feed those monsters? Long story short, Tiana gets the game winner and the Lions win the tournament in dramatic fashion. Her confidence was at an all time high and on her club team she scored about 70 points that year. As a first year Bantam she now understood what AA try outs were like, no deer in the headlights this time.
We decided her best shot was to stick with smaller town organizations, so she tried out for Smiths Falls. It looked very promising: skilled group, not too many girls trying out there, and I thought she had a shot. Safely through the first cut, and the second cut. Only four girls left to fight for the bottom three spots and she was a solid second of the four. The coach had already hinted that she was going to need some matching gear. This was it, she was gonna play AA!
Hey, wait a second… just minutes before the final tryout started, three girls and a goalie walk into the rink, all with Kingston Ice Wolves AA bags. Oh no! This couldn’t be happening. Yup, she was released, as all the surprise Kingston players were immediately offered spots. Tiana was so angry. This was so unfair. She was ready to quit and she didn’t want to have to go back to Kemptville, especially after bragging that she was going to be playing AA this year. It was a quiet tear-filled drive home.
All things happen for a reason I told her, though at the time I didn’t believe it myself. Just a few days later I got a call from the president of RSL. They had heard that I had completed my coaching levels and wondered if I would be interested in coaching a new Bantam A team. I immediately accepted the challenge, and then heard that voice in my head that asked where they would find my body after I told Karry I was going to do this.
The day of the first try out came and I was worried that not enough girls would show up to even make a team. That had happened a few years prior when RSL tried to run a Peewee AA team. Goalies wouldn’t be an issue because I had the two young ladies that I had the pleasure of coaching on Tiana’s previous teams and the parents were excited to move up to the A level.
We got 14 skaters out to the first try out. Parents were worried already, so I had a quick scrum and told them that if they were with me, we would go with a short bench and see this thing through. Then, we acquired a girl from boy’s hockey. Not much of a skater but she had a cannon from the point and was tough as nails. We got a few AA cuts from nearby teams and next thing you know, we had a team. We were the Canadian version of the Mighty Ducks movie, but we had a team.
I picked the captain, and the players picked the assistants. We were thrilled that they picked Tiana as one—that kid had done everything from reaching out via Facebook to girls she barely knew, to collecting tryout jerseys, to gathering up the pucks… she truly deserved that A.
We didn’t win many games that season but it was a great experience for both of us. My focus was on having different drills every practice and keeping the girls wanting to come to the rink. That year set her up for things to come.
First year Midget (U17) she was successful at making the RSL AA team. Again, it was a numbers game. She was no star on this team but she made it! She was going to tournaments where players get recruited by NCAA teams. She was bound and determined that this was her destiny; she was going to play university hockey. The entire year passed by and not a sniff. Not surprising, as she was a third liner, not playing PP or PK and rightfully so as she was a first year player… small, very fast, fiesty, but just not ready for this level.
Second year, she made the team again. This time, the team was a bit better. They had picked up some new players and they were actually able to make it to OWHA provincials that year. Again, not much action from scouts. A few of the SUNY schools, and a few new NCAA start ups had contacted her. Two that were first year D3 teams willing to take practically any "warm body with skates" had actually considered offering her a spot. She was disappointed, hoping to stay in Canada and play post secondary hockey.
The biggest error I made was not calculating the amount of time required for this volunteer position. It was a four-team association and even after recruiting a full executive team there was actually nights where Karry would go to bed and I wouldn’t… at all. Realizing when the sun came up that I just needed to do a few more things and I would be caught up. I nearly lost my job because I couldn’t function at the job I was actually PAID to do. Folks, thank your execs… league and association execs. If you have never been one, I can only describe it as begging someone to punch you in the face over, and over, and over.
So, the hockey season was finally beginning. The RSL Midget AA team looked stronger than any we had been part of previously—we were on our way to Stoney Creek, the mecca of all tournaments to be seen at. Tiana sat beside me in the front seat, didn’t say a word for hours during the drive as teenage girls tend to do, then pulled out her ear buds and proclaimed, "Dad, I guess this is it, I’m never going to get to play university hockey. I guess I’m just not good enough."
My heart sank. She was she right, this was really the last kick at the can and other girls we knew who were younger than Tiana already had the framework in place: a signed NLI and a deal to play for their chosen school.
"Never give up, you have an entire year left." I didn’t know what else to say, after all, she was speaking logic.
"Excuse me, are you the RSL coach?"
"No I am not, but I will get him for you."
I’d seen enough deals go down to recognize that this was someone looking to speak to one of our players. How exciting! Not many RSL girls had been recruited previously.
"I am looking for… Tiana… Lisle." he said.
WHAT THE??? My mind was racing. Let’s see… she did a nice shot block, she did well on her faceoffs, I think she got an assist on the second goal… why her over the player that scored two goals including the game winner?
"Just a sec." I said hastily.
I banged on the dressing room door and interrupted the post-game coaches talk but I didn’t care.
"Someone here would like to talk to Tiana Lisle!" I yelled into the room.
Tiana emerged from the room, luckily still in full gear so as to look larger then her 5’2", 100 pound frame.
"Hi, my name is Scott and I represent Liberty University…" I heard him say, then I stopped eavesdropping as I had never heard of this university. Probably some community college with majors in basket weaving and American history that would never interest her anyways. She took a brochure about the school and then handed it to me. Fearful of the consequences of leaving the room during a team meeting she ducked back in.
"ACHA… what is that?" I thought to myself.
She took the brochure from me and began reading as we descended to the lobby on the elevator.
"I need to call Poppy (Tracy’s dad—Tiana’s grandfather, and probably the closest thing to a saint that I have ever met) and tell him".
We hopped in the car after breakfast to get to game two when Tiana called her Poppy: "Poppy, you aren’t gonna believe this! I got scouted by a Christian university… yah… Liberty University… yah, it is in Virginia… you have heard of it?"
I could hear Poppy through the bluetooth in the car and he sounded like he was holding back tears of joy when he explained to her how he had given money to that ministry in the early 1970s to get the University off the ground. What were the chances of that?
Liberty holds a few weekends each year called CFAW or "College For A Weekend" where prospective students can go and stay in a dorm with a chosen older student, sit in on classes, get a tour, attend a major sporting event, and eat in the dining halls… all for free to see if the school is a good fit for the prospective student.
Tiana decided to attend a CFAW. She got the weekend off from her coach and we purchased her a flight to Roanoke, Virginia. The women’s coach would pick her up at the airport and she would have a brief opportunity to experience CFA. She would practice with the team and on the Friday afternoon she would head out with the team to Penn State. She would stay at the hotel, go on the bench, be in the room for the coach’s pre-game talk… get the full experience. Needless to say, she came home knowing what university she wanted to go to, and never looked back.
On March 19, 2018, Tiana became an ACHA national champion in her Sophomore year. She also obtained an academic All-American award. Her young life was filled with bumpy roads, but all things happen for a reason.