August 29, 2016
Good sports: when the dog days
of our lives take on a golden hue
By KEITH GAVE
I blame it all on Joey Kocur, the ham-fisted pugilist during some glory years with the Red Wings. My wife pins it all on Mitch Albom.
Whoever it was that led us to this singularly glorious addiction, we can’t thank them enough.
I remember clearly how it all began for me. I was the Detroit Free Press beat guy covering the Red Wings in the late 1980s, when the franchise started to turn things around after two decades during which they had well earned the nickname “Dead Wings.”
For a short-lived time under the gregarious coach Jacques Demers, the team had a tradition of bringing their best friends to work on the occasional off-day weekend practice. Notable among them was Tyson, defenseman Lee Norwood’s massive, intimidating bullmastiff. Shawn Burr and Steve Chiasson had their playful yellow labs. Someone brought a gorgeous German Shepherd, but I don’t think it was Ray Sheppard.
Kocur’s “Bruise Brother” Bob Probert had Basenjis, the African hunting dogs he liked because they are physically unable to bark. Steve Yzerman had a Chinese Shar Pei that soon figured out that his favorite place to urinate was in the coach’s office – which seemed to delight the players for some reason. (My guess is that this had something to do with the tradition being short-lived.)
But I couldn’t take my eyes off the regally beautiful golden retriever that Kocur had brought with him to practice that day. His name was Molson. Of course.
I went home and told my Jo Ann I’d just seen the most beautiful dog I’d ever met, and like a 10-year-old I found myself asking, “can we get one?”
She didn’t know much about them, she said. Besides, she wanted a Sheltie – one of those beautiful but yappy miniature collies. I persisted, to no avail. We got the sheltie. Happy wife, happy. . . you know what I mean, eh?
Then we took a visit to the Irish Hills, to the summer cottage of our good friend Mick McCabe, the preeminent prep sports writer in Michigan for most of his 47 years at the Freep. Mitch, my famous Free Press colleague, was there with his golden, Elvis.
My wife was thunderstruck every bit as much as I had been previously with Molson. Not only was Elvis beautiful, but the way he carried himself around people, as most goldens do, mesmerized her. It wasn’t long after that when she mentioned, out of the blue, that maybe our house would be happier with two dogs – they could be friends! – and we could add a golden retriever to our pack.
Pretty soon, a pretty little blond, a bit on the ditzy side as it turned out, came to live with us. We named her Chelsea, and it seemed to fit her just fine. There began our love affair – and we’re not at all uncomfortable with the word addiction here, as you’ll see – with golden retrievers.
As it turned out, Chelsea and the sheltie, both females, were not friends. So the best interests of the sheltie, we found her a perfect match with some wonderful friends of ours who had a lot more money than we did. That dog hit the lotto, and because we still wanted Chelsea to have a friend, we added another golden. A big, farm-bred boy we called Steinbeck.
One thing we learned quickly: Golden retrievers are like potato chips and tattoos – you can’t have just one. So Chelsea and Steinbeck went with us when I left the Freep and went to the Morning News in Dallas. Jo Ann spent some time volunteering at a wonderful no-kill shelter there, and one day she came home with another golden (because I’d always wanted a red one). He like his new home as much as he did his new name, Hemingway.
Those three came back north with us four years later, and lived their final years on the banks of the Au Sable River’s South Branch, a veritable carnival of sights and smell for water dogs. They were followed by Tolstoy and Chaucer.
So every day for more than 26 years, we’ve enjoyed the unbridled love and affection of a golden retriever – the very personification of the term “unconditional love.” Always at least one, usually two and, for several glorious years, three.
Until Sunday. That’s when decided we couldn’t bear to see Chaucer in pain. Nine days earlier, after we had detected a slight limp, his doctor took some X-rays and determined that the dog was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. Just over a year previously, we lost Tolstoy to the same awful disease.
Our kind and loving friends, veterinarians Nancy Martindale and Troy Fairbanks, helped us put an end to Chaucer’s suffering at the Roscommon Animal Clinic. We returned to an empty house. Our Great Pyrenees, Roxie, who had been with us at the clinic, joined us in our anguish.
Everyone has their own way to deal with that kind of pain. And Jo Ann has hers. I can only say thank goodness for the Internet. Three hours later, after a relentless round of surfing and phone calls, we found the right breeder with the right dog and we were on our way across the bridge to Pickford.
We arrived home about midnight with Conroy Prince of the AuSable, and the literary among you might figure out how that follows the line of author names among our golden boys.
So it’s 26 years and counting, thank you very much. Or, to be more precise: thanks to Joe Kocur and Mitch Albom. They started it, and we couldn’t be more grateful.