It is September 2016, and the sun has set on Toronto’s Withrow Park. Two men are standing near the site of the park’s outdoor rink, and they are smiling.
One man is one of the greatest hockey players of his generation.
Beside him stands the other man: an adored Canadian rock musician, regaling him with exploits from the hundreds of games of shinny he’s played as a goalie on that rink. The hockey player wakes up the sleepy park with his boisterous laugh as the musician describes his game.
The two friends share laughter because they have to: the musician is in a bout with terminal brain cancer. And the hockey player knows this meeting, which he kept private from his teammates, might be the last with his friend.
The Tragically Hip’s final tour had finished months earlier. Gord Downie’s family, led by his brother and newfound caretaker, Patrick, were not necessarily open to regular visits from anyone who wanted to wish Downie well. Instead, they created an environment where Downie could rest when he needed to, focus on being around his children and make more music, as were his wishes.
But those rules didn’t apply to Joe Thornton, Downie’s favourite hockey player, who over time became a close friend.
“There was always an open door for Joe,” says Patrick.
And in those meetings, Thornton both grew closer with Downie, and became a changed man.
In a rare interview on a topic he has often declined to address, Thornton said he was thankful to have Downie in his life. The musician helped him find a better path, one that eventually led him to the Toronto Maple Leafs.