'Pure joy': Olympian Chay Genoway's mom on family, Jonathan Toews' friendship and sleeping with skates

Kathy Fisher remembers a two-year-old boy so enamoured with hockey, he would insist on sleeping with his tiny ice skates slung around his shoulders.

Morden, Man., hockey player starts his Olympic career Thursday as Team Canada begins quest for gold

Kathy Fisher speaks about her son, Chay Genoway, who is playing for Team Canada in a quest for hockey gold. 3:15

Kathy Fisher remembers a two-year-old boy so enamoured with hockey, he would insist on sleeping with his tiny ice skates slung around his shoulders.

To prevent him from being cut, his parents had to wrap the blades in masking tape.

"We couldn't get skate guards small enough," said Fisher. "He wouldn't go to bed without his skates over his shoulder."

Now, her son Chay Genoway — a 31-year-old from Morden, Man. — is a fierce, determined defenceman for the KHL's Tolyatti Lada, who will play his first game in the Olympics Thursday as Team Canada begins a quest for hockey gold.

Nine members of his immediate and extended family are in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to watch him play.

Early years

Genoway began his hockey career like so many Canadian kids — on a homemade hockey rink in his backyard in Morden, a small city of about 8,700 people just over 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

"That's really where he learned to skate," said Fisher, who now lives in the western Manitoba town of Swan River, laughing as she remembered Genoway falling into snowbanks as he learned how to stop.

"And it would be so cold outside and he wouldn't come in.… Then he graduated to the larger ice surface."

Genoway chased his older brother, Colby, and his cousins around rinks, yards and driveways, always dealing with being the shortest, youngest member of the group.

Chay Genoway, left, with his older brother Colby Genoway as teens. (Submitted by Kathy Fisher)

"They played downstairs with mini sticks any chance they got, in our backyard. They had a lot of boy cousins and a hockey game always broke out. It didn't matter where we were," Fisher said.

Genoway's love for hockey continued to grow as he did. As a teen, he was also exceptional at golf, winning his provincial age group one year. But eventually he had to make a choice, and that choice was a hockey program at a school in the U.S. — Shattuck-St. Mary's, a boarding school in Minnesota known for its hockey program.

"Every inch of the way, he fought to get there," said Fisher.

At that school, he became roommates with a fellow Manitoban named Jonathan Toews.

Friendship with Toews

"Chay going down there, and Jonathan, it was all new to us. And they bonded very, very tightly there … and they've always been tight since then."

When the time came to go to college, Genoway was pursued by several Ivy League schools, but he chose the University of North Dakota, because that's where Colby went. Toews joined him.

"Jon, of course, went into UND very early and was a superstar right off the bat, but there was a bond between them and there still is to this day," said Fisher.

"Jon reaches out to Chay and I think Chay reaches out to Jon, and it's just an old friendship — the kind of friendship that counts."

While Toews is now captain of the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks, he played twice for Team Canada at the Winter Olympics — in 2010 and 2014. This year, however, the NHL decided not to allow its players to play at the Olympics.

Watch as Chay Genoway talks about Jonathan Toews' support:

Olympic hockey player Chay Genoway speaks about his friendship with fellow Manitoban Jonathan Toews. 0:38

When Genoway made the Olympic team, he organized a phone call between Toews and his teammates for a "sis-boom-bah," said Fisher. 

"Their world isn't just about hockey; their world is about being healthy, giving back to society," she said. "Both of them have the same values and beliefs."

10 jerseys and the KHL

Genoway's journey to pro hockey hasn't always been easy, Fisher said.

"Along the way, since he was small, he was often discouraged by others not to pursue hockey."

​Genoway is five feet, nine inches tall and weighs 170 pounds, his Team Canada profile says.

He did make it to the NHL, playing one game with the Minnesota Wild in 2012.

"He actually didn't get called until 10 o'clock the night before," Fisher said.

Flights to Minneapolis from Swan River, Man., weren't exactly plentiful, and Fisher said the family couldn't make it to the game in time.

"So what we did instead, every family member we could gather together sat upstairs in our loft and we watched him on TV and every one of us had a jersey on that he had worn from childhood on.… It was 10 different jerseys. 

"So that was our watching him from there — we were present and he knew we were."

An NHL career wasn't in the cards, so Genoway started looking abroad for other hockey opportunities.

"For Chay to go and play overseas, I think it had been in the back of his mind," said Fisher. "Colby [who also plays in the KHL] had a really good life over there. He was seeing the world and I think Chay recognized that he could have a really good hockey career."

Chay began his KHL career with Latvia and eventually landed with the team in the Russian city of Tolyatti, about 1,000 kilometres southeast of Moscow.

Playing for Team Canada at the Olympics wasn't on his radar until the NHL made its decision last year.

Watch as Chay Genoway talks about the possibility of playing for Team Canada:

Chay Genoway on what it's like to get a phone call saying you're playing for Team Canada's hockey team. 0:32

The phone call

"When the NHL started to talk about not going to this Olympics and there started to be whispers that perhaps non-NHL players could have a kick at the can there, I think he started dreaming hard," said Fisher. 

"He got lucky — he was in the right place at the right time, 'cause there was lots and lots of hockey players who were deserving of this."

In January, Fisher got a call from Genoway.

"When he phoned me, the words he said was 'Pure joy. Pure joy.' And he said, 'I don't know what else to say, this is just pure joy,'" Fisher said.

"I don't think there's words, or superlatives, or anything … a person can say, other than it's just a feeling of awe."

Watch as Chay Genoway explains why family is the most important thing: 

Olympic hockey player Chay Genoway on what's most important in life. 0:39

Genoway's first priority is family, said Fisher — especially his big brother Colby.

"Colby has just been a powerful influence. They're very different but they're on the phone with each other every day.

"Chay turns to him for all kinds of advice, and Colby turns to Chay for advice because of their differences. I can't say it enough how tight they are, and how much they rely on each other."

However, Colby could not leave his own KHL team to watch Chay play in the Olympics, said Fisher. 

Colby and Chay Genoway on the ice. (Submitted by Kathy Fisher)

"If I could talk to Chay and say the one thing I want him to do while he's there, and in the Olympics and playing, is to stay in each moment.… I just want him to be there, in his head, his heart and his soul," she said.

"I think Chay said, at one point, 'If they ask me to carry the water bottles, that's what I'll do to get this team to win.' And I think they all feel the same way."

Men's Olympic hockey action begins in Pyeongchang Wednesday.

Team Canada's first game is Thursday against Switzerland. Game time is 6:10 a.m. CT.

About the Author

Elisha Dacey

Journalist

Elisha Dacey is a journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is the former managing editor of Metro Winnipeg and her work has been seen in newspapers from coast to coast. Reach her at elisha.dacey@cbc.ca.