After scoring Belgium's second goal in their 6-0 win over England in the semi-final, Simon Gougnard pointed towards the heavens and was soon enveloped in hugs from his teammates.
It had only been hours since the 27-year-old got the news he had long been dreading. A call at 2 am informed him that his father Pierre had passed away after a long battle with cancer. "He got the call and I knew what had happened. The night was very tough to get through," says his roommate Tom Boon.
Coach Shane McLeod had let the team's second most experienced player know he didn't need to play the game. "There's more to life than hockey," he would say later. The Belgian media had kept the news under wraps so that there would be no avalanche of condolence messages on his phone. Gougnard though would insist he had to play. "It was hard but we focused on the match and Simon himself said, 'you don't have to change anything on the field for me'. But everyone ran that extra meter and fought extra hard for him," Hendrickx said after the game.
Gougnard's loss affected the team, who wore black armbands on the field. Much of Belgium's meteoric rise through world hockey, from a double digit ranked a decade ago to Olympic silver medallists (and now potential world champions), has been achieved by a core group that has played together right through their junior years. Boon for instance, has played with Gougnard right from the time they were 15-year-olds in the Belgian U-18 program. "They've been playing together from the last seven or eight years. It's part of the success of the group. When we tour it's almost like going on tour with your family," McLeod said.
It is a close bond, says Florent van Aubel "We play together but we also train together six days a week. We see each other more than our parents. You see just how close we are on the pitch," he would say. The bond helps on the field. "Sometimes it feels that the players can almost sniff out where the other is," he says. But it also helps to give strength to a suffering teammate. "When we get bad news, we can hold each other up and that is what being a family is all about. All of us knew his father wasn't going well but it was still hard for us. Because he is like a brother to us and seeing him in such pain is something we feel as well," says van Aubel.
Gougnard undoubtedly felt pain, but he had also made his peace with his father's lengthy illness. "His father's been ill for a long time. Simon spent a lot of time with his father before coming here. They managed to talk about things and his father told him to stay and complete the World Cup," says McLeod.
Gougnard's game provided some catharsis for him too. "Simon's father was an avid hockey lover and he would go to all his games. So this was a kind of a farewell. He took a lot of pride in how he played today," says McLeod.
As expected, there will be no celebrations in the Belgian team over reaching the finals. Gougnard was substituted seven minutes from time and received a bearhug and a kiss on the cheek from each of his teammates. Following the win, several openly wept. "All our thoughts are to complete this tournament successfully and then let Simon get back home to deal with the grieving process along with his family," says McLeod.