Blues moms trip: Tales of stinky gear, early practices and the road to the NHL

Blues moms trip: Tales of stinky gear, early practices and the road to the NHL

DENVER — Bonnie O’Reilly’s son is a captain, so it’s no surprise that she was able to round up some “teammates.”

The Blues are hosting their first-ever “moms trip” in Colorado and Chicago, and there are 21 of them joining the club on the road. They’re in the meetings, eating the team meals, catching the buses and flying on the charter planes.

Before the morning skate Monday, O’Reilly asked four other moms to sit down with The Athletic and talk about raising NHL players, the memories along the way and what it’s like now to watch them play on TV.

They chatted for 30 minutes, playing off each other like they had known everyone for years. Often during the conversation, they began nodding their heads in agreement before the other had even finished their sentence. They laughed, and they also teared up.

Here’s our roundtable with O’Reilly (Ryan), Edna Acciari (Noel), Deborah Thomas (Robert), Ceri Walker (Nathan) and Susan Perunovich (Scott).

Acciari: This is once in a lifetime. For all of the time we were with our kids before they went off to college, that was our last one-on-one time. This is our next one-on-one time. When Noel called to tell me about the trip, I was out having a pizza and I cried. People were watching while we were having pizza and I’m crying. For us to come back in the picture after all the driving, all the practices, when are we going to get to see something like this again?

Walker: Nathan rang me about two and a half weeks ago and said, “Mom, you’ve got to come. It’s the moms trip.” I’ll be honest, I was speechless. It’s quite emotional for me. It’s such a long time coming and here we are. It’s been a long journey, but what a wonderful journey, and I’m so blessed to be here.

Perunovich: I get emotional, too. I got emotional in the locker room. It’s so exciting to be here, but then you go in there and it’s like this big wave, like this is such a big deal. I just got overwhelmed.

O’Reilly: There’s nothing like it and I’m just so happy to be here.

Thomas: To actually see what they go through and their routines, this is a special moment! When I look at it now, I think of all those early mornings, freezing cold, driving to the rink, lacing up their skates, and so it’s pretty special to be here.

Acciari: I remember Noel had a 4 a.m. practice. I would dress him in bed, put the skate guards on the feet, and away we’d go. A lot of times, he would get up for hockey, but if it was school, I could never get him up. Or I would say, “Do your homework while we’re driving,” and he would say, “I can’t … I have a headache.” But yet he’s going to go play hockey.

Thomas: Robert would jump up for hockey, but trying to get them to school, we were always running out the door last minute.

Walker: Our biggest issue was the lack of rinks in Australia. There were only four in Sydney, so we could travel up to 400 kilometers from one end of Sydney to the other, getting to rinks. And training was 10:30 at night with school the next day, so that was the biggest issue.

O’Reilly: Once they got old enough to carry their own bag, sometimes they would leave it in the car overnight and it would literally be frozen. They were chipping the ice off the socks to put them back on, and I’m like, “You’re old enough to bring the bag inside at night.”

Acciari: How about the out-of-town tournaments and you’re looking for the laundry mat? They have two games in one day and the equipment is soaking wet, and you have to dry it or else they’re going to get rashes.

Walker: We’ve always had German Shepherds, so we had bones because it’s good for their teeth. Nathan took his bag to a rink, only to find that one of the dogs had buried the bone in the bag, and it stunk! Actually, I’m not quite sure what stunk the most — the bone or the heap that was in there.

Thomas: I can’t even count the number of loads of wash I did. Thousands!

Acciari: How many washing machines did we go through? And I’d have to put hockey tape to keep the dryer door shut because equipment would pop out of the dryer.

Thomas: Oh, the number of sticks we had to buy because they broke one between the tournament games, and they’re so expensive.

O’Reilly: It was great when they started playing junior hockey and you’re no longer paying for equipment. You’re watching the game and your kid’s stick breaks, and you’re like, “Dam-, ching-ching!” but then when they go to junior, you’re like, “It’s not my problem.”

Walker: We didn’t have that blessing with the free equipment in junior hockey. We were selling the chocolates to pay for it.

Acciari: It was very expensive, but fortunately, Noel never liked getting new equipment. I swear he’s got the same knee pads now that he had in prep school.

Thomas: I said the same thing. I just looked in Robert’s locker stall, and he basically has the same shin pads, elbow pads and shoulder pads.

Perunovich: They get attached to their equipment, right? I was just saying, I’m so glad my son is at this level, but I sure do miss when I was tying his skates. Those days, they go so quick.

Acciari: It’s like we’re in different chapters of life now. We are mothers of sons looking in, but we’re not what we used to be — driving them there. That’s why going on the bus with the team today, that was something.

Walker: We never thought we’d be here. Nobody ever said that Nathan would make it. Nobody said he’d ever be drafted, apart from a loyal few, and they were the ones that kept encouraging him and encouraging him. So many moms said to me, “How can you send your kid to the Czech Republic to play hockey?” I said, “How can I not, when that’s what he wanted to do?” Nathan was the child that if I got home at 6 o’clock after working a 14-hour shift, and we had to leave the house at 6:30 p.m. to go to the rink that was one and a half hours away, he would be on the phone to another parent saying, “Mom is really tired. Can you pick me up?” He’d say, “Mom, it’s OK. Jeff is coming to get me and he’ll drop me back.” For me, that was dedication. He was so loyal to the sport. So from then, I took a month off work and we traveled to the Czech Republic. At the end, the coach couldn’t speak English, but he tipped his hat, as to say, “He’s in.” I traveled back to Sydney and waved goodbye to him at the train station, bawling my eyes out. Like, “What am I doing? I’ve left my child with a family I don’t know.” I got back to Australia and thought, “I’m going to be arrested.” But look where I am now!

Thomas: When Robert was young, I was more, “keep working hard, who knows where this will go.” I just really liked the team bonding and the friendships.

Perunovich: Usually the people growing up were pretty discouraging.

Acciari: Yeah, the coach would say, “You’re not going to the NHL, so you better get good grades because you want to play hockey in high school.” You want to be like, “How do you know?” You just keep working hard.

O’Reilly: Sometimes people would ask our sons, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” They’d say, “Well, I’m going to play in the NHL!” People would say, “OK, do you have a backup plan?” No, they just knew. They weren’t going to school. They weren’t doing anything but hockey. It was their determination, their dream, and they followed it. That’s how they got here.

Walker: Nathan never went to school. We did international schooling, which meant the books got sent to me. I sent them to him, and he was supposed to do the work, but he sent them back to me. I did all the work and sent them back to school. So he got great grades! People would say, “What are you doing?” But in my heart, I knew it was the right thing to do.

Acciari: With Noel, we’d be going to Canada for hockey tournaments for Thanksgiving and missing birthdays or weddings. They would get mad, like “You’re crazy!” You didn’t know it would end up here, in the NHL, but you had to take a lot of flak from family.

Perunovich: Mothers identify with each other. We’ve just got this unwritten language. We’ve all been there, and we’ve got the same understanding. You know, the tears, the laughter, the joy.

Thomas: And now to see them playing on TV! There’s great moments, and then there’s like, “C’mon, get going. What are you doing?” I have my own routine. I send my husband out to the garage, and I literally sit by myself and just watch the game.

Acciari: How about when you’re watching the game and people near you want to talk about everything else but hockey? Like they’re there for the entertainment, and you just want to watch the game.

O’Reilly: I like to come into the room late and find your spot. If it’s someone who’s not into it, you just come in and, “OK, I’m just going to stand over here.”

Acciari: You study everything about it, and we’ve done it for years. We know!

Walker: Do you find with the fighting, if they get into a fight, I’m sitting in the room looking through the TV and throwing punches in the air.

Perunovich: I don’t like anybody fighting. I don’t care if it’s my team, their team, I don’t like fighting. I get really upset.

Acciari: The first time Noel ever fought, my husband had a glass of Scotch in his hand and he drank the whole drink.

Walker: Then afterward, you’re like, “Is he alright?” I just ring Nathan’s wife, Tayla, and say, “Is he OK?” She says, “Yeah, he’s fine.” Because he’ll never ring me.

Perunovich: I never talk to Scott (who is 24 years old).

Acciari: I think as they get older, they start to call. They’re married now, so they’ll call you on the road while they’re driving to a practice or coming home from practice. But there’s a lot going on.

O’Reilly: We’re a pretty privileged group, though, to at least get to see them on TV. Do any of you remember when they had their first game on TV? We had a bunch of family together, and the camera would go by the bench, and we would all scream, “There he is!” He might’ve only played a few minutes, but it’s like, “Oh my God, he’s playing hockey on television.” I’m better now — I don’t scream all the time — but early in that first year or so, you’re like, “Is this real?”

Thomas: I find a lot of times you can just look in their eyes (on TV) and see how they’re doing. Either in their eyes or their body language, you just know. You can tell if he knew he did something right or wrong.

Perunovich: Doesn’t it calm you guys down? You get some good vibes.

Acciari: Yeah, it does.

Perunovich: See, that’s a mama’s language.

Walker: Another cool thing is seeing a fan wearing their jersey.

Thomas: It’s pretty surreal when you see that, especially when you consider how much jerseys cost.

Acciari: It’s like you want to go up and talk to them.

Walker: I have. When I’ve been in the U.S. watching a game and see a jersey, I go up to them and say, “Hi, I’m Nathan’s mom.” They’re like, “Oh my God, can you sign my jersey?” I’m like, “Me?”

Perunovich: Yes, you! You did Nathan’s homework — you are absolutely entitled to sign that jersey!

Acciari: Yeah, you’ve read some good books that he was supposed to read!

Thomas: What also makes me proud is when you see all the extra work they do with kids and charity. They take the extra time to go visit somebody or sign something, and as a mom, you’re thinking about the character they’re showing.

Pernunovich: And the joy that they bring to someone. That’s a forever memory that they’re creating for them.

Acciari: It’s amazing how they balance (everything) and the hockey. They can handle a family, the kids, everything … that’s pretty good!

O’Reilly: This trip is amazing, getting a glimpse of a day in their life.

Perunovich: Ditto! Just to be a part of this is amazing. I’m going to remember it forever and just cherish this memory.

Walker: It’s fantastic! What a great organization, the St. Louis Blues, to say, “Hey, get the moms over,” and here we are. So, good on you mate!

Thomas: Yes, thanks to the Blues! This is very special and very surreal. You hear different things about it, but to experience what they go through, I never thought we’d ever get to do it.

Acciari: I can’t thank them enough. They just did something so big in my life that everything did culminate in this moment. We get to bond with other moms that we’ve never met before, but we’ve all done the same thing. It’s like we’ve known each other because we’ve lived the same life, and it brought us together.

(Top photo of Bonnie O’Reilly, Susan Perunovich, Ceri Walker, Deborah Thomas and Edna Acciari: Jeremy Rutherford / The Athletic)

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