Gino loved to help people
HodgePodge by Charlie Hodge
Canada and the hockey world has lost another unique icon this week with the death of Wayne ‘Gino’ Odjick.
Gino was diagnosed in 2014 with AL amyloidosis, a rare terminal illness that causes a gelatin-like protein to be deposited in the heart muscle, affecting the organ’s ability to expand and contract. The popular former NHL player wrote an open letter to Vancouver Canuck fans after his first diagnosis saying he initially thought he would have a few years to live, but added that doctors informed him he might only have months, or even weeks. In the end his heart that served so many so well gave up the struggle. As great friend and teammate Stan Smyl said, “His heart was in the middle of everything he did, all the time. That was Gino.” He was just 52 years old.
Odjick played 12 seasons in the NHL for the Canucks, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens, notching 64 goals and 73 assists in 605 NHL games. He spent the first eight seasons of his career with the Canucks after being selected in the 1990 entry draft, before being traded to the New York Islanders for Jason Strudwick in March 1998.
Better known as an enforcer than a goal scorer Odjick holds the record for most penalty minutes in Vancouver franchise history with 2,127. His highlight in the NHL was likely as a key member of the 1994 Canucks Stanley Cup finalist team that eventually lost a physical seven-game series to the New York Rangers.
Smyl, now the Canucks’ vice-president of hockey operations, described his friend as passionate, kind, and funny, a joker who could lighten the room and still fill a tough role.
“He was a friend to me, and you – he was a very special individual. The role that he had as a player was the toughest role to play in hockey and he handled it well. He was one of the greatest teammates I ever played with.”
Smyl explains Odjick protected the team’s stars, fought, or stirred things up when necessary, and was never intimidated by the other NHL enforcers. He was one of the most feared fighters of his era.
Odjick’s hard work on the ice was matched by his community work, especially with indigenous youth.
Born in Maniwaki, Que., Gino remained reluctant to talk of his childhood which included time at a residential school. Nothing much is known of his parents nor his wife Jolene, however he was proud of his two children Bure Odjick and Tobias Commanda-Odjick. Bure was named after his best Canuck buddy and superstar Pavel Bure.
Off the ice, Odjick and best friend Peter Leech worked together to help youth in Indigenous communities across Canada by encouraging kids to never underestimate their potential.
“We really loved the work that we did,” said Leech. “It was like medicine for us, it really was.”
As an aboriginal Canadian, Odjick was seen by many in the First Nations community as someone to look up to, and his hometown of Maniwaki renamed its arena in his honour in the summer of 2014.
Betty Cahoose, health director of the Ulkatcho Indian Band in Anahim Lake, B.C., said the isolated community had sought Odjick as a motivational speaker, especially for its youth.
“A lot of our people went to the residential school and he knows the struggles in our communities with drugs and alcohol so he was wanting to touch on that too, just basically from his own experience, what he had to endure to get where he was at with professional hockey. He really had a heart for the First Nations community. But unfortunately, he didn’t make it to our community. All of a sudden we didn’t hear from him.”
“When someone like that, a professional hockey player, comes into our community, I think it really hits home to the kids,” she said. “Not only are they interested in being motivated into being a pro hockey player but in Gino talking about his experiences in getting through the challenges of becoming a professional hockey player and the challenges he knows that our First Nation faces. And they can overcome those barriers, like with drugs and alcohol and that anything’s possible regardless of the road you went down.”
In 2014 soon after learning of his fatal heart complications he penned a letter to fans saying, “I feel very fortunate for the support I’ve received over the years. During my career I played in some great NHL cities including Vancouver, Long Island, Philadelphia and Montreal. In my heart, I will always be a Canuck and I have always had a special relationship here with the fans.”
I was fortunate to meet Gino a number of times over the years and marveled at his gentle nature off the ice, his patience with youngsters and fans of all ages. Most of all I remember his huge smile and an aura of kindness, which struck me as odd considering his on-ice demeanor.
Truly a Canadian icon, he will be missed by many.