Chris McNeill’s cancer battle touched this Habs great

It was late November 2014, Forbes Robertson and I sat at our kitchen table, and he told me all about his friend, Chris McNeill. They had grown up together in Halifax.

by Ken Dryden

It was late November 2014, Forbes Robertson and I sat at our kitchen table, and he told me all about his friend, Chris McNeill.

They had grown up together in Halifax, as Forbes put it, “playing hockey, loving the Nova Scotia Voyageurs and worshipping Les Canadiens.”

Chris was a goalie. As Forbes later wrote to me, “You and your teammates were the heroes of our Saturday nights,” like “Santa Claus and Spider-Man,” except that “you were real-life heroes we could and would emulate, tirelessly, on driveways and deserted tennis courts, ponds and lakes, my bustling backyard rink, and Halifax’s dingy old minor hockey arenas.”

And, as he related, nobody was luckier than they were.

“The Habs won nine Cups in the first 13 years of our lives.”

Chris was so big a fan of the team and of me, Forbes said, that as I had written in The Game where my goalie idols as a kid were “Hall, Sawchuk, Plante and Bower,” his were “Dryden, Dryden, (Voyageurs goalie) Eddie Walsh, and Dryden.”

Forbes and I were in our kitchen in Toronto because Chris was dying of metastatic liver cancer. Forbes wanted me to sign a Canadiens jersey for him.

After their days in Halifax, they both moved away, Forbes to Toronto, Chris to Whitehorse. Their friendship, their love of hockey and of the Canadiens never diminished.

Forbes’ letter arrived last month. He had put off writing it, then had put off writing it again during the playoffs hoping that somehow the Canadiens might win the Cup to add another climactic story to Chris’ life. Forbes told me that on Dec. 5, four days after the jersey arrived, at age 48, Chris died.

Forbes also included in his letter a clipping from the Yukon News. Much more than an obituary, it was an appreciation of Chris’ life. He was a teacher, the kind that if we are lucky, we have once in our lives. He brought his love of the Canadiens into his classroom and used it to create a rapport and bond with his students. Not that they were all Canadiens fans, not even close, and that was the fun of it.

Myles Dolphin of the Yukon News began his beautifully written tribute this way:

“Hundreds of F.H. Collins Secondary School graduates can tell you about ‘the oath’. It was written on an overhead transparency and stuck to the side of a filing cabinet in Chris McNeill’s Grade 8 classroom. If students bet against the Montreal Canadiens advancing in the playoffs and won, their teacher would treat them to Timbits. But if they lost, McNeill would take great pleasure in watching them drop to their knees and recite the following words, ‘Hail Mr. McNeill, who is so mighty and so wise in the ways of all things but especially hockey. We should have listened to you when you told us about the marvellous Montreal Canadiens. We doubted your wisdom and your team and we are not worthy so much to scoop the snow out of the dirty corners of the rink. Please forgive us, we have seen the grievous errors of our ways and we are sorry.’ “

Forbes concluded his letter this way:

“In some springtime future the Canadiens will once again hoist the Cup, and in the victorious elation (Chris’s wife) Heidi, or (their 7-year-old daughter) Annie, some loved one will tearfully celebrate it in, and undoubtedly attribute it to, a #29 McNeill jersey. And who could tell them that wasn’t the reason why the Habs had triumphed?”

This article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette.

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