Hockey Day in Canada always has been a special date of the year for Jason Brooks.
He hails from the small, but hockey-passionate town of Listowel, Ont. And while he and his childhood friends could fervently discuss Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers or Dale Hawerchuk and the Winnipeg Jets or Wendel Clark and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brooks also could tell you everything about the local junior B Cyclones and his favourite player, Dan Gardiner.
Brooks dreamed one day of playing in the NHL, but first wanted to pull a Cyclones sweater over his shoulders.
"Every Saturday, we watched Hockey Night in Canada. But every Friday, my Dad would take me to watch the Cyclones play. I had the best of both worlds," the 41-year-old Brooks said.
He played for the Cyclones before he made the jump to major junior for the Ottawa 67s and London Knights. But he never did reach the NHL.
After his playing career concluded at the University of Waterloo and was cut short because of a concussion, Brooks made his way up the hockey ladder as a coach.
First, as an assistant coach, he won an OHL championship with the Guelph Storm. He later became their head coach before shuffling off to help the Niagara IceDogs reach the 2011-12 OHL final.
However, following the 2012-13 season with Niagara, Brooks had a decision to make. He was in agony with a wonky back that required a handful of surgeries. Was it time for him to return home, get healthy and help his dad with the family transports business?
Brooks and his wife Jessica decided it was time to retreat to Listowel and raise their three young children. But life can toss a curve at you when you least expect it.
In June 2013, Brooks began experiencing headaches as well as vision and hearing problems on his left side. The news was not good. He was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, a non-cancerous growth that develops on a nerve that connects the inner ear with the brain.
Brooks underwent 11-hour surgery that cut out 90 per cent of the tumour. He was on the road to recovery.
By the time hockey season rolled around, Brooks decided to coach the local atom team with his best buddy Robert Jackson.
Brooks leads Cyclones turnaround
He also kept a watchful eye on his beloved Cyclones. But Brooks didn't like what he saw. They struggled in 2013-14 and finished second from the bottom in the Midwestern Conference.
Brooks was given a shot at coaching the Cyclones. He wanted to change the culture of the organization and inspire the young hockey players in the community to strive and play for the junior B club.
Brooks had an outstanding coaching education. He learned from the legendary Brian Kilrea as a player in Ottawa and later in Guelph under Jeff Jackson, Dave Barr and Shawn Camp, and in Niagara with Marty Williamson.
The turnaround in Listowel was swift. The Cyclones were the team to beat in Brooks' third season behind their bench. But as good as the vibrations were on the ice, those dreaded headaches, vision and hearing problems returned in the fall of 2016.
Cyclones help Brooks get through health problems
A little less than a year ago, Brooks assembled his players for a team meeting. The junior B coach was pleased as punch at the way his players had performed and were amid an 11-game win streak to finish the regular season.
But he had gloomy news to deliver. He was about to undergo radiation treatments in the hopes of shrinking the tumour. His message to his players was simple.
"I told them what was going on and that I may miss a game or some practices," Brooks recalled. "I asked them to be prepared and to help out the assistant coaches. I asked them to more accountable."
Two principles Brooks preached to players were accountability, something he learned from Kilrea, a hall of famer, and he wants his team to be like a family.
That family helped him in the next few weeks. Maybe it was a parent of a player, a team executive or a friend, but he was driven to and from Listowel to London for his treatments.
"The support I had from the players, the parents and the executive was incredible," Brooks said. "Sure, I was scared. But that junior B family supported me and helped me get through it."
It turned out he didn't miss a game or a practice. At times, he was exhausted, but his players and the game kept him in a good frame of mind.
The Cyclones swept Brantford and Waterloo in the first two rounds. In the league final, the rival Elmira Sugar Kings won the first two games, but Listowel rallied to win four straight and the second Cherrey Cup championship in franchise history.
The wild ride was worth it.
'I've learned to take it day-by-day'
Meanwhile, Brooks recently received the results of a checkup on his tumour. The radiation treatments last year did not help his condition. But with medication, he feels fine.
"The only way the tumour can kill me if it gets too big," he said. "That situation is monitored and I've learned to take it day-by-day."
Learning, improving — Brooks is that type of person. When he took over the Storm all those years ago, he put so much pressure on himself. He demanded perfection.
"I didn't have the NHL player tag after my name, so I thought my team had to be technically perfect," said Brooks, who admits he has mellowed.
When Brooks took over the Cyclones four seasons ago, he set out to change the culture. He has not only done that, but his situation has been an inspiration to his players.
The Cyclones are rolling again this year at 32-5-1, tops in the standings by a country mile. It's a story that should be celebrated on Hockey Day in Canada.
"Sure, Hockey Day in Canada is important to me," Brooks said. "Hockey Day is about the small towns and how important hockey is to that small town. It's important here in Listowel."
And so is Jason Brooks, his family and his story.