During the postgame celebration, he tipped his new world junior champion baseball cap to a wildly exuberant crowd, a gesture that acknowledged the regular chanting of his name – Pogge, Pogge, Pogge – that resounded throughout the packed arena during the game as well as during the entire series.
Goalies are supposed to make saves: pad saves, stick saves, skate saves and kick saves. It was the latter type, his very first, however, and one that took place away from the hockey rink and the roaring crowd, that was by far his most important, for it saved not merely a goal, but two lives.
Let us wind the clock back some 19 years. Here we find 22-year-old Annet Pogge attending her engagement party. It was an elaborate affair to which 126 friends and relatives came to offer their best wishes. If the hopes of the well-wishers proved effective, however, it was not for any forthcoming marriage, but for something entirely different, though certainly not less significant.
Annet was four months pregnant. When she informed her boyfriend of her condition, he walked out on her, leaving his now ex-fiancée with the humiliating task of explaining to the expectant guests why there would be no marriage.
Her rejection, humiliation and ruined hope were too much for her to bear. She left the party that evening and walked to a bridge that spanned a river in her hometown of Fort McMurray, Alberta. She could drown all her sorrows at once by a single act.
“Just when I was thinking of doing it,” she told Toronto’s Globe & Mail, “when I was thinking of terminating everything, not just the pregnancy, but me, I felt a kick. It was light but I felt it. It was the first real sign of life,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh God. This is a sign. God wants me to live.’ I couldn’t end my life then. I couldn’t.”
The kick that signaled life defeated the pain that almost led to tragedy. This victory was one that Annet Pogge had to re-enact again and again before her son could begin executing his kick saves for large, enthusiastic audiences on a world stage.
Annet experienced financial hardship and made many sacrifices in keeping her son and allowing him to stay in hockey. She told him the story of that nearly fatal moment on the bridge, long before she told anyone else. As she explained to the Edmonton Sun, she wanted him to know that he was born out of love and that it was his action, gentle and unconscious though it was, that saved her from ending both their lives.
Two golden moments, one mirroring the other. The second, amidst fanfare and jubilation on a frozen ice surface in Vancouver. “Canada smashes Russia, takes gold!” was the headline of one Canadian newspaper. The first, alone on a bridge overlooking a watery grave, except for a gentle kick that reminded her that her life should be lived and not thrown away. The more golden moment by far was the one in which a kick save by an unborn child of four months kicked out despair and death.
The Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League already have signed Justin Pogge. By all indications, he has a most promising career ahead as a professional goaltender. His story is an invaluable reminder to all of us, however, that hockey at its best is just a metaphor, though one whose significance we should trouble ourselves to understand. Keeping a puck from crossing the goal line pales in importance when compared with what it symbolizes in the form of preventing discouragement from entering our hearts and threatening to destroy our lives and the lives of others who depend on us.
The task of the goalie, as we have mentioned, is to make saves. The word save is etymologically related to the word salvation. The best thing about sports is that it reminds us of a struggle that transcends itself, ultimately, between hope and despair, good and evil, life and death. We would be wise never to sever this link. The major difference between sports’ symbolism and life is that only in life can we all be winners.
“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,” wrote the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, “the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” Canada’s gold did happen, but it might not have been without their goalie who himself might not have been except for his mother’s love. This is a good story. But how many sad stories are there of things that “might have been” that cannot be told?
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell.