Gordon Ernest Thomas was born on April 7, 1962, in the small Ottawa Valley town of Pembroke. He was the eldest child of Doris, an Eganville native, and Ernest, a military man stationed at CFB Petawawa. Shortly after the birth of their daughter Fay, Doris, a graceful woman, began dropping things: the keys to the car, a glass of water. Once, Fay slipped from her hands as she lifted her from the crib. Horrified, Doris visited the hospital, where she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 1965, she was admitted permanently to St. Vincent Hospital in Ottawa. Gordie, as the boy came to be known, was just shy of three.
Born with a congenital heart defect—a hole in his heart and a leaky valve—he was fighting a medical battle of his own. Gordie would not live past 20, said the chief cardiologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Rake-thin and small for his age, with pale, almost translucent skin and occasionally blue lips, Gordie knew he was sick. But Ernest kept the grim prognosis from him until he was a teen.
Fridays, Ernest left the base, where he worked in supply, at noon. He’d zip to St. Vincent, bundle Doris into their pale blue Volkswagen bug, and, to the kids’ delight, have her home by late afternoon. At noon, Sunday, he’d make the reverse trip. Perhaps because his mom was so sick, Gordie stuck to his father like glue. Ernest had been made sergeant, but he was no hard-boiled military man, and was gentle with his kids. And both husband and children continued to care for Doris, who by the time Gordie was nine could no longer see or speak and could only communicate with her eyelids (she would die in 1974). “Do you need anything, Mommy?” Gordie would ask. If she closed her eyelids, he’d have to guess: most often, she wanted ice chips.
In 1970, Ernest transferred to Ottawa, installing the family in a bungalow in suburban Vanier. Gordie became a constant presence at the Bernard Grandmaître hockey arena, and would have to be dragged home for dinner or bed. “Hey kid: wanna give us a hand?” a rink hand yelled one day—and so began Gordie’s career as an equipment manager. “He couldn’t play sports himself,” says friend Pierre Proulx. “This was his way of participating.” By 19, the one-time water boy, who left high school after undergoing open heart surgery in Grade 10, was working for the Ottawa Jr. Senators, a Junior A hockey club, and at 25, for the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Roughriders (in 1996, when the team added a franchise in Shreveport, La., a key cog in the CFL’s failed U.S. expansion, Gordie went for the season, too). It was a tough job: if a player’s not happy—their helmet is loose, their skates aren’t sharp, their pants don’t fit—they’re not going to play well. Gordie also did their sweaty laundry, with a smell ripe enough to bring tears to his eyes, and packed it up for road trips. For the Roughriders, that meant 70 bags, plus 30 more in colder months.
To Roughriders, the clubhouse—which Gordie kept spotless—was a “safe haven” from fans, wives and screaming coaches, says Jim Rempel, who was also behind the ’Riders bench. Sometimes Gordie, who never bought a car, and kept the same little Vanier apartment for 18 years, was there folding laundry till 4 a.m. During training camp, 20-hour days were not uncommon.
For 21 years, Gordie also ran the skate-sharpening stand at the Sandy Hill Arena—home of the Sandy Hill Wolves. To many hockey players—notoriously finicky about their skates—this was Ottawa’s top shop (Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s son Ben was one of many loyal customers). With the steady hand of an old pro, Gordie would run the skate sideways up and down the stone, sparks flying around him, thumbing the hot blade to gauge the edge. At 8:30, after hanging up the last skate, he’d head to Derringers, a Vanier watering hole with a roster of regulars and a Wednesday night wing special. Labatt Blue would await him on a bed of ice: “Gordie hated warm beer,” explains former staffer Jennifer Hood.
Two years ago, Gordie, who had retired a half-dozen cardiologists, finally began to tire. Doctors lined up open-heart surgery for January 2008, to repair a valve. Gordie convinced them to hold off until April—after hockey season. When doctors did open him up, his heart was the size of a football. He fought a litany of complications following surgery, and, after coming out of a coma, had to learn to walk again. To cheer him on, the Sandy Hill Wolves surprised him with a No. 1 jersey with “Gordo” on the back. He was on dialysis when he developed bowel problems, and doctors had to perform a colostomy. When, this spring, they went in to reverse it, Gordie was infected with C. difficile. His bowel perforated and he was unable to fight off the dual infections, although on May 7, Gordie did sneak out of his room for poutine and a Pogo. He died in hospital on May 14. He was 47.