Sheer, breathless panic — that’s how I’d describe my experience at a recent Toronto Maple Leafs game.
It’s not because the game went to a nail-biting overtime and shoot out against their rival, the Montreal Canadiens, but because of what happened after the buzzer.
Let me begin however by explaining that this night was one I had looked forward to for many years: taking my Leafs-obsessed son (now nine years old) to his first NHL game — talk about sensory overload.
From the players’ warm-up to the pre-game light show and introductions, to the incredibly dramatic and fast-paced action on the ice, my son was glued and simply couldn’t contain his excitement the entire night.
While I, a huge hockey fan, was there to watch the game at its best, I had one job: Take care of my son. This order is, of course, a responsibility and expectation I put on myself. But make no mistake, the order comes from on high if you know what I mean.
So with those words etched in the deep recesses of my consciousness, I kept my son extremely close. Everywhere we went through the cavernous, heavily-populated Scotiabank Arena, Kieran was attached to me.
This leads me to the feeling of panic I would not wish on my worst enemy. At the end of the game we headed straight to the washroom. While waiting in the queue, a gentleman behind us struck up a conversation and asked my son if this was his first game and then proceeded to express his appreciation for the moment my boy was experiencing.
After waiting a couple of minutes, it was finally our turn. I asked one more time if my son needed to go to the washroom, he assured me he didn’t despite the upcoming long drive home.
While I stood at the urinal doing my business, my son stood a mere six-to-eight feet away directly behind me. Meanwhile, the washroom was abuzz with people, men coming and going, many of them standing around waiting their turn.
I finished what I had to do, turned and walked towards the sink to wash my hands. Then, my nightmare began — my son was not there. He was gone. Experiencing the worst sense of fear I have ever felt, I ran to the stalls calling his name, and nothing.
I ran out of the washroom looking everywhere, my head and eyes moving back and forth at a lightning pace looking for a four-foot-three boy decked out in Leafs gear among a sea of people in almost identical attire. I ran back into the washroom screaming his name while everyone there watched me experience these moments of terror.
After exiting again, I grabbed the first arena official I could find and tried to articulate what was happening. The words that I wished I would never have to say, “My son is gone,” spilled out of my mouth.
At that moment I thought back to the brief conversation my son had with the man in line and thought the worst. I kept thinking to myself, “How could this have happened?” A young man then came to offering his help.
“What does he look like?” he said.
I tried to give him a description while I was running back into the last place I saw my son for another look in hopes he was there.
How do you put into words that feeling of coming up empty-handed? You simply can’t, so there I was alone standing in the halls of the arena while thousands of people are exiting around me.
Then, for whatever reason, I just happened to look at my phone. I didn’t hear it ring, it didn’t vibrate but yet I see a number on the screen indicating someone was calling me. I picked it up to hear a woman’s voice on the other end.
Realizing it wasn’t a nefarious tone but one of benevolence, the weight of a thousand elephants lifted from me.
“Where are you?” I demanded.
“Outside in front of Gate 4,” she said.
Realizing it was the gate nearest to where I was, I ran outside as quickly as possible. There he was, in tears, a look of fear on his face not dissimilar to mine.
I thanked the woman profusely and asked what happened. She said he was outside crying and she did what anyone should do and asked if he was lost. As I cried embracing my son, I asked him how he got here.
“I saw a man with your jacket and your shoes in the washroom and I followed him. When we got outside, he stopped to talk to someone and I realized it wasn’t you,” he said.
That was it — something so simple resulted in something so horrible.
Expressing I would never leave the washroom without acknowledging him, I realized this could happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And let’s face it, it could have been much worse had we had not trained for this.
The “emergency plan” that had we had practiced for many years finally, and unfortunately, had to be executed. That plan is a simple one: Memorize my phone number.
Thank God it worked.
We practice this memorization with both of our kids regularly. My daughter is seven years old. They both can recite mine and my wife’s phone numbers on cue.
When my kids were younger, I would often write my phone number on a piece of paper and put it in their pocket and tell them if anything were to happen, find someone official such as someone in uniform, and tell them what happened.
This was a reminder of the worst — and best — kind that this plan is vital.
Not often as I just described, but anytime I go out with my kids especially to a busy place. The mall, Wonderland, and yes, a hockey game.
So hopefully my experience can help you avoid one of your own. Make a plan. Make sure your children know or have your phone number written down. Make sure your phone is charged. Have a meeting place pre-assigned if someone gets lost. Ask an official or employee for assistance.
Another piece of advice we tell our kids is these steps don’t work, find a woman with children and ask for help. Moms understand more than anyone else could.
So that was our night — a night memorable in so many ways, and one that provided an invaluable lesson I will never forget.