Accepting a new role in life is always challenging. We become accustomed to certain routines, people and customs, and when those end the adjustment process can be stark. This can be amplified when the change signals the end of a career pursuit.
This was the case for Jim Lessard. Now a resident of Prince Rupert, Lessard had carved out a successful hockey career for himself, playing across Canada and the United States. When an injury ended his career however, Lessard fell into a spiral that has taken him the last 20 years to emerge from.
Lessard was born in Fort St. James, a small town of around 2,000 people located 60 kilometres north of Vanderhoof. He is a member of the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation community, a reserve located next to town where he spent much of his time growing up. If Lessard wasn’t playing minor hockey, he was off in the northern lakes hunting and trapping.
“My schooling was in the bush,” Lessard says. This was due in part to troubles at public school, where he had been kicked out on numerous occasions. After one such incident, Lessard’s grandmother drove him North to a cabin so he could develop a different skill-set. “She dropped me off there and that’s where I learned to live on my own in the bushes, to hunt and trap. That’s my schooling.”
Emerging from the cabin a competent outdoorsman, Lessard turned his attention back to hockey, moving to Williams Lake at age 16 to pursue his athletic career in the Peace-Cariboo Junior Hockey League.
“It was exciting,” Lessard recalls. “Every kid dreams of playing in the NHL, and you get a little taste of that, and what comes with that in a little bit of fame with your community.”
After a year with the Williams Lake Mustangs, Lessard went over to Vancouver Island to play with the Nanaimo Clippers of the B.C. Junior Hockey League. Lessard established himself as a dual threat on the ice, scoring 166 points in 85 games his final two seasons with the Clippers, while topping the 400 minute penalty mark during his 123-game Nanaimo career from 1989-1992.
Following his junior career, Lessard hopped down to the States, where he played for the Erie Panthers, Dayton Bombers, Fresno Falcons, Dayton Ice Bandits and finally the Bakersfield Fog over the course of five seasons. Lessard’s enforcing ways continued, as he amassed a whopping 1,058 penalty minutes during that time.
“It’s fast,” Lessard remembered of the move from small town Canada to large American cities. “I got to see some things that I’d only ever seen on television.”
|Jim Lessard played more than 400 hockey games during a professional career that spanned over five different leagues in Canada and the United States. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)|
A trip to Alaska would cut Lessard’s career short however. While playing with Bakersfield in the West Coast Hockey League, Lessard took a knee from his opponent that tore apart his quad. It was the first professional shift he had ever played without the Cooperall pants his grandmother had gifted to him long ago, having forgotten them at home before the trip.
“I felt safe with them, and the one time I didn’t have them that was pretty much it.”
It was 1997, and Lessard had played his final game at the professional level. He returned home to Fort St. James, unfulfilled and unprepared for life after hockey.
“That transition from a little bit of fame to everyday living, I was trying to find out what to do with my life,” he said.
Lessard eventually landed a job in the diamond drilling sector. At the same time though, he turned to a pair of dangerous vices as a coping mechanism.
“My drinking escalated a lot more, and I got into drugs. My life was unmanageable and fell apart,” Lessard said. “The thing that you loved and you breathed wasn’t there anymore. After hockey I had nothing.”
Lessard can’t recall a specific moment that compelled him to seek help, but his interactions with the local hockey scene in Fort St. James started to make him believe a change had to be made. Getting kicked out of local bingo games also signified something had to be done.
“They’d have my picture in the rink, and I’d be outside picking up cans and bumming for change,” Lessard said. He noted that even still, the community did not give up on him, and would even bring their kids by to talk to Lessard about hockey. Years prior in Erie and Dayton, Lessard had gone into schools to talk to kids as well — about the importance of not abusing drugs and alcohol.
|Jim Lessard has spent the past six months at the Trinity Men’s Recovery House in Prince Rupert. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)|
Lessard got his first professional assistance at the Gya’wa’tlaab Healing Centre in Kitimat. “It came to either life or death,” Lessard said of the point he had to reach to seek help. Following treatment, Lessard worried he would slip back into old habits if he returned home to Fort St. James. He learned about the Trinity Men’s Recovery House in Prince Rupert, at first planning for a temporary stay until he could be readmitted to the Kitimat facility. But as it turned out, Lessard quickly warmed up to the opportunities the house had to offer.
“I was here for three days, and I decided this is what was for me and my sobriety,” Lessard said.
“After a treatment centre, instead of going back to my community, I could get back to my values that I was tought as a kid, and live and return to society in a healthy matter. Learning how to give back to your community insteadof just taking. The ultimate goal for a recovering addict is, of course, to stop doing what they’re doing,” he continued.
“But one of the hardest parts is getting back into society in a healthy way. My ultimate goal is to get back to that, but that doesn’t come easy. That’s got to be tought back.
This house is really giving me back what I’ve been tought; my morals and my respect for others.”
|Jim Lessard warms up before the Rampage take on the Kitimat Ice Demons on Nov. 30. Lessard has now dressed in a pair of games for Prince Rupert, both of them wins for his side. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)|
Lessard has now been at Trinity House for six months, and along with the other residents is helping give back to the community. They perform volunteer work every week, including at big events such as Seafest. Lessard has also taken the time to rekindle his true passion, and recently stepped back onto the rink for his first competitive game in two decades.
A few months ago, Lessard grabbed some gear and began practicing with the Prince Rupert Rampage to rediscover a taste of the game he still loves. This quickly turned into something more though when, despite being a more senior member of the team at age 48, Lessard was asked to join the team on a road game against Smithers at the end of October. He helped the short-handed Rampage grab a gutsy 4-3 victory, and although he didn’t get on the scoreboard, Lessard fittingly picked up eight penalty minutes.
“I wasn’t done with hockey. I left a lot on the table because of my drinking. Way back then I didn’t get to leave hockey peacefully. By practicing with the Rampage and going out with them, I feel like I’m making amends to hockey.”
|Many would be surprised to learn Lessard is 48-years-old, given his ability to keep up with players half his age out on the ice. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)|
Lessard ultimately hopes to return home to Fort St. James one day, and take the lessons he has learned in sobriety to help others going through similar struggles.
For now though, he is content with continuing his recovery in Prince Rupert.
“I dug a hole for myself. The transition away from hockey was very tough for me,” Lessard said.
“You have a sense of letting your community down, letting your parents and sisters and brothers down. And most importantly yourself. The last 20 years was really like I was in hell. I was either going to die, or I was going to live, so I had to make a choice.”
“Be careful, and look both ways before you cross the street,” he smiles in conclusion.
Alex Kurial | Sports Reporter
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