A life full of love, friends

A life full of love, friends, John Spoltore of Waterloo

A diamond engagement ring, a few photographs and a lot of happy memories are all that Doris Baumgartner has remaining of John Spoltore, who died at 38 of brain cancer.

“He was a very, very gentle person, the most genuine person I have ever met,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Germany. “He wanted people around him to be happy. Everyone liked him the moment they met him.”

“He was a sweet kid, always had lots of friends,” said his mother Noni Campbell of Waterloo.

That sweet boy had grown into a kind man who loved animals and people and became a heck of a hockey player, playing professionally for the Louisiana Ice Gators from 1995 to 2001, then in Germany from 2002 to 2006, where he met Doris.

While waiting for exam results from law school, Doris had taken a job at a restaurant in Regensburg, where John’s team happened to be dining one evening. She said the guys were teasing her about not paying their bill. “I told them I was going to keep one of them as a deposit,” she recalled. The conversation had been in German and John was a bit frustrated at not understanding the joke. She translated and immediately found a fan in John. He began to frequent the restaurant. “He refused to be waited on by anyone else,” she said.

Their romance blossomed, slowly at first. It seemed the guy who loved a good party, who lived his life as if he were marching in a parade, was finally ready to settle down.

John was the youngest of three, born into a close-knit family. From childhood, he demonstrated a talent for sports. Brother Ralph Spoltore Jr. said they would play street hockey from morning until their mother had to call them in at sunset. All three kids became elite athletes. John’s passion was hockey, as a member of championship teams, an inductee into Wilfrid Laurier University’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, the captain of seven different teams, recipient of numerous awards including all-time lead scorer, most valuable player and male athlete of the year. After he died, the Louisiana Ice Gators dedicated their 2010-11 season to John and retired his number 23, a rare honour.

Wherever he played, the fans adored John, giving him a plethora of nicknames like Spotty. He always made time to sign autographs, particularly for kids. “He was like the team mother to everyone. He just helped anyone,” said his sister Lori Spoltore-Slessor. In 2009, John organized a fundraiser to help a former coach suffering from colon cancer.

Ralph is sure his brother was underrated despite his impressive hockey career, possibly because John was an unselfish player, more eager to assist another player than take the spotlight himself.

“No matter what he tried, he was a successful as an athlete,” Noni said. “Even as a two-year-old, he rode his bike without training wheels.”

Noni remembers well the pain of separation when John was drafted by North Bay Centennials as a 16-year-old. “I cried for a week when he went.” She was supportive of his burgeoning hockey career but she was also concerned about his education, insisting he complete an English course in summer school before leaving for North Bay.

In North Bay, he was able to attend high school and later, at his mother’s urging, followed the family tradition of completing a degree at Laurier. Both his parents and his siblings are Laurier grads.

After getting his geography degree, John’s hockey career resumed and took him to several U.S. states as well as Germany. But he would always come home for celebrations, even if he only had a day or two to spare. “As a family, we reciprocated,” said Noni, recalling the many hockey games they attended as a family, even in Germany.

His family describes John as “Mr. Black and White”, the kind of guy who knew his own mind. Yet another key part of his personality was his many friends, how they would be waiting for him at the family home when he was coming home for a visit. He surrounded himself with people he loved and who loved him. Ralph said his brother had a knack for making people feel good about themselves and that he has a lesson for all of us in how to treat each other.

Generous and unselfish, he was a friend to the underdog. With his high spirits, he had a perpetually happy personality. When visiting John, he always had a full program of fun arranged, showing them all the sights.

After travelling around the U.S. as part of his hockey career, John and Doris eventually settled in New York City, where Doris practised law and John was a hockey instructor. Just as life was settling down nicely, he was diagnosed with brain cancer

He died at Toronto Western Hospital. The cancer’s advance had been so rapid, John didn’t have time to formally ask Doris to marry him, though he’d had a custom ring ordered.

This August, the family is planning a second annual golf tournament to raise money for John’s much-loved nine-year-old daughter, Kendall, who lives in Indiana with her mother. The tournament will have an Oktoberfest theme, because it was one of John’s favourite celebrations. The theme at last year’s tournament was Mardi Gras, a celebration he enjoyed thoroughly while living in Louisiana.

“Every day should be like Mardi Gras,” John once said in an interview. “That’s how I try to live my life.”