Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price gives 11-year-old Anderson Whitehead a big hug after practice in February. The boy had lost his mother to cancer in November. The touching moment captured on video by his aunt quickly went viral. Image from Tammy Whitehead/Facebook

Gerry Turcotte: Yes, a little tenderness can change the world

  • April 29, 2019

It is rare to laugh out loud when listening to a news item, but recently this is exactly what happened.

Listening to the Calgary Eyeopener, a morning radio program, I was charmed by the story of a six-year-old boy who invited the legendary hockey player, Jarome Iginla, to his birthday party. Unbeknownst to his mother, the boy apparently sent a Spider-Man birthday card, with no postage and no address, to the then Calgary Flames captain.

To her shock, his mother received a phone call from the hockey player’s personal assistant saying that Iginla would love to attend, but that unfortunately he would be playing in the World Cup. Could he send a present instead? The mother’s response was, at first, relief — “I kind of panicked because my son was always in trouble for something” — and then shock: “Are you kidding me? He’s actually RSVP-ing?”

In a similar story trending recently on Twitter, many of us watched, teary-eyed, as the Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price hugged a young fan who’d asked for his autograph. The boy had just lost his mother to cancer and Price, rather than simply offering a signature, took the time to hug the child, then to sign a couple of hockey sticks and wish him well.

“You’re really going to sign it?” the boy asked, in disbelief.

The look on the young boy’s face afterwards tells us that this moment transformed him. It may not have erased the grief he felt for his loss, but it certainly offered him a life-defining moment of hope from within the darkness, and may well have helped to shape his belief in the goodness of others.

In the first story, the mother said it best: “He really changed my son’s life. He really did. He made a lasting impression on Drew in his formative years.” She added that Iginla was indeed an amazing hockey player, “but you know, the true test of a person is how they treat other people….”

These stories reminded me initially of the power of sports, and more widely, sporting heroes, to do good and influence the community. But I quickly thought of all the people I have encountered in my life who similarly made me pause because of their selfless actions, and made me reflect on the power of good, not just on the person we might be helping, but on the spirit and culture that is impacted by such actions.

As the Canadian Nobel Prizewinning author Saul Bellow once put it, “Goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of other men, attended by love.”

I remember a moment from my childhood when a customer in my father’s store mumbled an apology saying that he couldn’t pay his long-overdue bill. The man’s humiliation was written on his face.

To my shock my father said, loudly so that the other customers could hear, “What am I thinking, Arturo, this was paid in full last month. I’m sorry for the confusion.” And he crumpled up the bill and threw it in the trash.

I was too young to understand the look on the man’s face, but I can only imagine, now, what was going through his mind. A few nights later, I remember waking late in the night and finding my parents at the kitchen table.

“I don’t know how we’re going to pay these bills,” my dad was saying, then caught himself when he saw me in the shadows. In a more cheerful voice he added, “But I know things will work out. They always do.”

He looked at me and winked, but I stumbled back to bed confused and angry that he had forgiven a customer’s debt when we were even more desperately in need.

I suppose it isn’t reasonable to expect a 10-year-old child to understand the motivations of an adult, but today I remember the goodness of what he did. And although I didn’t recall the incident until years later, I know his acts of charity, of humanity, always influenced the man I would grow up to be — and the values that I hold.

In Pope Francis’ installation Mass he reminded us that “caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, St. Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!”

It is empowering to know that we can improve community through grace, knowing that it creates its own eco-system — one that can permeate and change the world.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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