There’s an old adage for sports writers: "there’s no cheering in the press box." And even though Rob Stone has long since retired from the ink-stained profession, he still takes those words to heart when watching his two boys, Mark and Michael, play hockey. Like any good reporter, he’s tried his best to maintain his objectivity and prefers standing alone quietly as a railbird in whatever rink he happens to be in watching his sons.
"I try to sit off on the sidelines quite frankly," Stone said earlier this week.
There was no such luck for Stone on Wednesday night at Westman Place where Mark, a forward with the Brandon Wheat Kings, was facing off against Michael, a defenceman with the Calgary Hitmen, at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Earlier in the week, Rob Stone was spotted wearing a Wheat Kings jersey while his wife Jackie wore the smaller Calgary Hitmen version. He looked a little irked by all the attention the local TV crew filming was giving them.
"I don’t wear jerseys typically, this is unusual," he said after the cameras were gone. "I’m only doing it because the media would like to see it."
It might have been decades since he last covered a major junior hockey game as a reporter for the Sault Star, but the man knows the business. The elder Stone was there on the junior beat to document the one and only junior season of Wayne Gretzky when he was a 16-year-old with the Soo Greyhounds in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont, in the then Ontario Hockey Association. Watching the young one blossom into the "Great One" along with other junior notables like Craig Hartsburg, Ted Nolan, Dan Lucas and Paul Mancini, the elder Stone saw what made mediocre talents good and good players the greatest. He’s tried to pass on those observations to his sons to help them better their own hockey development.
"I’m their biggest critic," says Stone directly.
"I think he’s pushed me and my brother to be the best we could be," says Michael, a third-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes. "Obviously there were some times when you didn’t want to hear what he had to say, but that goes for any dad… he’s helped us a lot.
"If you don’t play well one game, he’s going to let you hear about it."
Rob Stone will likely have a chat Thursday with Mark to share his thoughts on the pair’s latest game on Wednesday night -- a 5-1 Calgary victory, making it the fifth straight time the Wheat Kings have lost to the Hitmen in the post-season this year and the fifth time the ultra-competitive smaller brother has lost to his more laidback older sibling.
"It’s getting a little frustrating, I’m not going to lie," says Mark Stone after the game of losing to his brother. "But now it’s more just losing to Calgary and not just him."
Nothing much has changed it seems since they were kids shooting pucks at each other on their driveway of their home in Winnipeg.
"He was older, so he always beat me," says Mark. "Given that he was more relaxed, I would always have to try to push to beat him."
That hasn’t happened yet, but Mark will get another chance on Friday when the two teams meet again in the Memorial Cup semi-final. At least the outcome after their losses has changed through, since as kids many of their contests ended in anger – one of them taking the ball and going home.
"If we were playing against each other and one of us lost, it always ended up in a fight," says the low-key Michael.
Jackie was the one who played referee, stepping in like a fearless linesman to break up any disagreements before they boiled over into full-scale brawls. Her word was unchallenged and law.
"Mum laid the law down and straightened things out before Mark’s temper took the best of him," says Jackie.
And while Rob sometimes practises the stoic tough love at the rink, Jackie is the one nervously fretting over how her beloved boys will deal with playing against each other. Last year when Calgary and Brandon met in the playoffs, Jackie was convinced she made herself sick with worry.
"I suffered big time – to the point where I thought I had an ulcer and I did go and see the doctor," says Jackie Stone, who insists she was much more relaxed in this year’s conference final when the two teams met again. At this point, she’s just happy all damage the kids did to her house – and a neighbour’s car -- over the years has paid off.
"I think I broke the window in the basement, but I know for a fact that my brother broke the tail-light on my neighbour’s car," says Michael with a laugh. "Somebody would get frustrated and then something bad would happen."
Now with only one game left for the boys to play against each other, Jackie says she’d love to finally have them play with each other as teammates. Mark is draft eligible and ranked 119 in the final North American rankings put out by the NHL’s central scouting bureau, so Jackie already has the perfect destination for a family reunion.
"I’d like to see them as teammates on the Phoenix Coyotes and then I can go and retire in Phoenix," says Jackie with a big laugh.
"How good would that be?"