Chapter OneSome Kind of Pain
March 16, 2006
Hockey is many things. Wimpy is not one of them.
In early 2006, the Ottawa Senators were in a race for the playoffs. They were the highest-scoring team in the National Hockey League (NHL), scoring nearly four goals per game. By the middle of March, the Senators had won eight of their last nine games. And veteran Mike Fisher had scored and scrapped all season to help his team become one of the favorites to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
On March 16, the Senators were in Boston, down a goal and down a man on the penalty kill. Fisher intercepted the puck and carried it the length of the ice, driving to the net.
A Bruin defenseman picked him up on the wing, cutting off his angle to the net. Together they skidded by the goal line. Mike's right leg got caught for a split second and bent as he fell to the ice. With his leg folded behind him, he slid into the end boards. When he hit the wall, his body tensed as his twisted ankle took the brunt of the force.
Grimacing, Mike got to his knees, stood up slowly, and tried to skate. But his ankle couldn't take the weight. He knelt on the ice, his face stressed in pain.
The announcer calling the game knew it was bad news. "One thing you know about Mike Fisher is he's not going to lay around the ice," he said, watching the trainer come out to help with the injury. "He'd get himself off. He had to be in some kind of pain ... That is one guy you can not afford to lose at this time of the season."
Ottawa Sun hockey writer Bruce Garrioch wrote, "I nearly cried when I saw Fisher go down."
He wasn't the only one.
SensNation—red-wearing, towel-waving fans of the team—loved the gritty, hardworking passion of number twelve. His teammates needed his aggressive speed on both ends of the ice. And for Mike, the only thing more painful than playing the postseason on a broken ankle would be missing it altogether.
Mike had to be helped off the ice and back into the training room. It would be easy to cave to all the bad news—the sharp pain of the ankle, a long injury that could keep him from challenging for the Cup, the ache of watching the ultimate competition from the sidelines. Mike glanced at the game clock on the wall and tried to hold on to something encouraging.
Ticking down the seconds of the game, the digital clock on the wall paused for a stoppage of play with twelve minutes, twelve seconds left in the game.
12:12. Mike did a double take. "Right away I thought Romans 12:12: `Be glad for all God is planning for you. Be patient in trouble, and always be prayerful.'"
With a deep breath, Mike refocused—but not on his circumstances of an injury. Instead, he focused on the promise of his faith. After all, he was more than a hockey player. He was first a follower of God. Here in a lonely training room on the road, Mike's faithful God reminded him of a tender truth. "It was kind of just God saying, `You know what? Be patient and trust in me and lean on me and things will work out.'"
And they did. To the amazement of everyone who winced at the replay and squinted at the slow motion footage, Mike's ankle wasn't broken. "I got back in less than three weeks, which was surprising to me," he admitted.
After more than ten years in professional sports, Mike knows as well as anyone that pressures and distractions can come as fast as a slap shot. So how does somebody maintain focus on what's truly important in the middle of tough circumstances—slumps, criticism, contracts, expectations, injuries, ego, media ...?
Mike's unwavering focus stems from his faith in God. Planted first by his family, his faith grew into the stabilizing force in his life. But it didn't happen overnight. Cultivating strength of character and conviction when surroundings are unpredictable takes serious training and practice. And Mike has had plenty.
After all, hockey is many things. But wimpy isn't one of them.
Chapter TwoWhere It All Started
On June 5, 1980, the New York Islanders had a Stanley Cup, nineteen-year-old Wayne Gretzky had played only one NHL season, and Ottawa hadn't had a pro hockey team for forty-six years. None of that concerned Jim and Karen Fisher, who were welcoming their newborn son, Michael Andrew. By 1987, the Fishers had a full house in Peterborough, Ontario, with their children Rob, Mike, Meredith, and Bud.
For the Fisher family, faith was significant and central. They worshiped at church. They prayed at home. They said grace before meals and at bedtime. Watching his parents live out their faith, Mike was captivated by Christ early. "When I was six years old, I made the step of faith to accept him into my heart," he said. "I remember I prayed with my mom before I went to school. I didn't want to wait any longer."
Feeling honored and lucky to have a relationship with Jesus, Mike humbly realized the gift of salvation. His faith was young, but his belief was grounded in a heart where it would grow. "It's hard to do it on your own," he acknowledged later. "A lot of people and Christian friends and family and people around me are praying for me, encouraging me, and walking along with me."
Mike's faith started early. So did his love of hockey. Watching Gretzky dominate was cool. Wearing a Montreal jersey was neat. Cheering for the closest Canadian team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, was good. But really, Mike wanted to play.
Big brother Rob could compete, and Mike wanted to keep up with him. When Bud came along seven years after Mike, the Fisher boys had their goalie. "We'd just put pads on him, because we wanted someone to shoot on downstairs in the basement."
Mike's dad worked in the family-owned business, and his mom was a nurse, but they soon realized that supporting their kids and shuttling them to their activities was a full-time job. So Mom retired to stay home. "They were there to support me and take me where I needed to go," Mike realized, "and it was a total act of selflessness."
With four active kids at all ages, they hustled from one thing to the next. At one point, the Fishers had three boys in hockey and a daughter in either synchronized swimming or figure skating. "It was just go, go, go," said Mike. "But dinner was still important, and we'd try to sit down as a family. Sometimes after we'd do a little bit of a devotional, get into the Bible. That was an important thing for us."
When it came to competing, the Fishers really just wanted their kids to have fun. "My parents were pretty relaxed, let me make my decisions where I wanted to play and when I wanted to play." Eventually the Fisher kids chose different things. Rob got interested in things other than hockey in high school. Bud was a goaltender at Quinnipiac University, where he received a good education. Mike played some baseball and volleyball—loved to compete in anything, really—but he excelled in hockey. And he played it all the time.
* * *
One summer, the Fishers took a rare break from the rink for a road trip. They packed up their ten-passenger Chevy van, hooked up a pop-up camper, and headed west to Vancouver. They traveled 4,500 miles across Canada. On the way back home, they took the southern scenic route through the United States. It was a uniquely long vacation for the Fishers and a long haul for the Chevy. "We had a couple spots where the van broke down," Mike remembered. "So we'd pull off. My dad would fix it, and we'd be on [our way] again."
The Fisher family hit the odd hotel, but mostly they stayed in camping spots along the way. Watching the changing countryside, Mike looked for wildlife he'd never seen in person—elk, moose, black bear. The boys competed to spot the animals. "I don't remember who won any of the competitions," he grinned. "Probably me."
And his sister? "She would just read Nancy Drew books in the back," Mike laughed.
They watched out the windows and played cards. Rob drove and Meredith read (and read and read). And while the outdoors was a highlight for Mike, so was each NHL rink they found along the way. If they passed through a city with one, they found it, piled out, and took a Fisher family photo.
That road trip was a special, long vacation. But the Fishers also had plenty of recreation at home in the wide-open cottage country of Ontario.
Mike's mom grew up one of nine children in the Bancroft area. It was there she first met Mike's dad at Graphite Bible Camp. With extended family still there, Mike spent time in that area snowmobiling, four-wheeling, playing pond hockey, and hunting with his uncles and cousins. "Every fall, I used to try and get away for a day or two and go, as a kid," Mike remembered. "That was my favorite time of the year, no question."
The chilly first two weeks in November were hunting season. "It wasn't just the hunting part," he explained. "It was the camaraderie of the guys and hanging out in hunt camp. Those types of things were really cool."
For the Fishers, hunting brought the family and guys together to connect, reflect, and enjoy the wild creation of God. For Mike specifically, his love of the outdoors started with exploring on his own, fishing as a family, or joining his dad and uncles for hunting. And it only grew from there.
Because they visited Graphite Road during the year, hunted the area, and shared some of the Christmas break together, the Fishers stayed close with extended family. When Mike was in his teens, his older cousin Warren started going to college in Peterborough. Instead of commuting an hour and a half to Bancroft, Warren lived with the Fishers and shared a room with Mike. A strong Christian and good role model, Warren became like another big brother.
After dinner, Warren and the boys would head downstairs. In the basement was a full-sized net and a pretty good hockey area, so they'd shoot pucks, tennis balls, whatever. "One of us would be goalie," Mike remembered, "or we'd throw Bud in net."
When Mike began junior hockey, Warren was still living with the family. Mike's move four hours away meant Warren had a room to himself. But they would live together again. And Mike would take away a lot more than a good, post-dinner hockey contest.
Surrounded by family and friends, Mike was encouraged to enjoy his relationship with God and run with it. "My parents always stressed faith as a central part of my life, and I grew to understand the importance of having a balance in life and finding a purpose through our Creator. I believe we are all gifted in certain areas and it's our responsibility to use these gifts that God has given us for his glory."
Mike didn't know what his future held, but he was excited about who held it. "It's great having God to rely on, knowing he has a plan for us. We don't have to worry what's going to go on in our future or what's going to happen down the road." His family helped plant faith and focus. Blessed with determination and drive, Mike would use these gifts to the fullest.