Hometown heroes, on and off the ice

My hometown of Spokane, Washington is known for unknowns becoming great in sports.

We are the city that produced Hall of Fame basketball player John Stockton, Hall of Fame major leaguer Ryne Sandberg, and Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien. We are the home of Gonzaga basketball (“The Zags”) the mid-major team that is now a perennial power.

hockey-jeff-bunchOn a lesser-known front, we also are a hockey town. We have a long history of the sport in our town. The Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League are consistent winners. Most of the Chiefs come from Canada, but our city also produces some great players.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Tyler Johnson is currently tearing up the Stanley Cup playoffs. Tyler, a Spokane product, also happened to play for the Chiefs. He was a late-round pick in his draft year by his hometown team. Spokane is truly proud of him.

Yet, as Memorial Day 2015 approaches, my mind is on another hometown hero who filled many days of his youth on the same rinks as Johnson:

“Lance Corporal Joshua E. Barron, 24, died of injuries when the MV-22B Osprey he was aboard crashed while conducting training,” reads the Google News result.

The national news media only knows Barron as the Marine who perished in Hawaii last weekend in a helicopter training mission. The accident happened on Sunday, family was soon notified and by mid-week stories about Josh were everywhere.

Josh’s family bravely sat down with local media and told stories about a life that ended early but was lived fully. They talked about the son, brother, friend everybody loved.

Josh’s younger brother Jacob (“Jake”) remembered how, when the two played hockey together, Josh always had the backs of Jake and his teammates when trouble started. Not surprisingly, fellow Marines recalled how Josh “had their back” as a fellow soldier.

As I watched the extended TV interview, I found myself laughing and crying simultaneously. My son played hockey with Josh and Jake, our families were close and Josh was a respected player. Josh would play pickup games in the summer at Eagles Ice-A-Rena with hometown pros such as Johnson when they came back yearly.

Johnson’s mom is a local hockey coach who taught my son and the Barron’s the skills of the game. During those sessions, Tyler would fly around the rink, honing the breakaway skating skills that are his trademark today. Maybe he envisioned himself scoring a goal in an NHL game – only a dream at that point for a smallish pre-teen.

Josh Barron was a hockey player who stood out for his bruising style and determination on the ice, as well as his playfulness and kindness off of it. He may have had passing dreams of the NHL, as most youth hockey players do, but he pursued the path of serving his country as a Marine. His family and friends were proud of him as we watched his journey through boot camp in San Diego to that of celebrated soldier. His family would visit him and he would come back home regularly, just like Tyler and his family.

Tyler will be back in his hometown this summer, seeing friends and family, maybe bringing back the Stanley Cup with him. Josh was also supposed to be back this summer; his mom said his family is still processing that isn’t going to occur.

As a former sportswriter who covered Tyler and as a father who watched Josh grow up, I paused. The term “hero” is used to describe those who rise to the occasion in sports. Games are often called hard-fought “battles.” But the juxtaposed destinies of two kids from Spokane are a reminder for many of us this week about the folly of that language.

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