Codie Lambert peered over the bright yellow railings that separated her from the gathering hockey players.

Seven hundred ten miles from her hometown, she was standing in the bleachers, watching the Vernon Vipers line up for their pregame skate.

Codie had made the long trek all the way from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to see her little brother, Jimmy, play hockey. Jimmy was all about surprises — he had a knack for unexpected scares or pranks — but this time, he was on the receiving end. All of it — the flight, the trek, her presence — was done in secret, intended as a surprise for him. The siblings hadn’t seen each other in a long time.

And that was tough. As much as hockey means to him, family means more. It’s everything. Through all the ups and downs in his life, they’ve been by his side and supported him no matter what.

Jimmy playing junior hockey in British Columbia — twelve hours from home — made it tough to see family. As he readied himself to step out onto the ice, his sister readied her phone and reached over the railing, wanting to capture his reaction on camera.

“Jimmy!” she called.

And it took him a minute to register that someone had called his name. When he turned to look up — his face a mixture of disbelief and joy — two words slipped out.

No way.

The first three years of his life, Jimmy spent in England where his dad, Dale, played in the British Professional League. He would go to every one of Dale’s games, sit on his mom Reinas lap and clutch his baby blanket that he called Gigi in one hand.

Pretty soon he traded the blanket in for a hockey stick and strapped on a pair of plastic rollerblades. At just three years old, Lambert would skate around the living room, body checking any piece of furniture — or wall — in sight. He’d even make the occasional sound effect. 

When Dale retired from playing and the family moved to Canada, he built Jimmy a backyard rink. It wasn’t anything fancy. Just two nets, some mock boards and a sheet of ice he’d flood every day.

Everyday, Lambert would be out in the backyard practicing. From sunup to sundown on the days he didn’t have school. He would’ve been out there every hour of the day if Dale and Reina would’ve allowed it.

And whenever he did something he found particularly cool or exciting — whether it was stopping and making the snow on the ice blow or scoring a sick goal — he’d run inside the house to share the news. He wanted his family to hear all about it.

“In his little squeaky voice he would come running into the house, ‘Mom! Mom! You’ve got to come see me, look what I did! Come here! Come here!”, Reina said. “My husband and I were just like ‘Oh my gosh, it’s your turn (to go see).’ ”

Hockey is one of the ways Lambert and his dad grew to be so close. Dale coached him when he was younger, and he credits his early development as a player to that. But having your dad a coach isn’t without its conflicts.

When Lambert was six, maybe seven, his team was playing in a tournament, and he was playing forward. The team had a big lead. Dale asked his son to stop shooting the puck, a show of respect for the opposing team but Jimmy didn’t listen. The very next shift, he skated over the boards and netted another goal. 

As he made his way to the bench, his dad asked him what part of no more shooting had he misunderstood. And on his next shift, he skated over to the parents section and yelled out to Reina, complaining that Dale had told him he couldn’t score anymore goals.

Sixteen years later, Lambert’s playing hockey in the Big Ten for Michigan. He achieved one of his biggest dreams. He knows exactly how lucky he is to have the opportunity to not only play, but to receive an education on scholarship.

Because as much as Lambert loves hockey, as much as every opportunity to lace up his skates and put on the Wolverine sweater means to him, his family still means more.

Lambert and his dad always talk hockey together. When he has a setback or he’s struggling with his game, Dale is his main confidant. That’s his department.

On the other side is Reina. That’s who Lambert calls whenever he’s stressed about school or anything non-hockey related. Academics are really important to him, he knows he has to get a degree so that there’s life after hockey.

And his mom’s always been a huge supporter of his schooling.

When Jimmy was in first grade, he started learning how to read. But it didn’t come naturally to him the way hockey had. He struggled, so the teacher approached Reina about sending him to the resource room during class reading time.

At first everything was going okay. Then one day Jimmy went to Reina and confessed he really disliked going to the resource teacher. Some of his classmates were teasing him, and his self-esteem was wavering.

So Reina did what any mom would do, and hired a local university student studying education to help with Jimmy’s reading. It enabled him to stay in the class during reading time, and pretty soon his reading skills took off. And so did his self-confidence.

After that, his grades really took off. In order to get into Michigan, he had to take a full year of college classes his last year of juniors. He knows the value of the degree too.

When he was in high school, he worked at a hardware store. He’d hall lumber in and out of people’s houses all day. Every day he’d come home absolutely exhausted. It was long hours. And that’s when he knew he needed a plan for life post hockey.

In the crowd at one of his BCHL games, Reina noticed a little boy.

He had a sign supporting Jimmy and was chanting his name. It was the first time she’d thought about how her son could be impacting and inspiring little kids. Above being a good hockey player or a good student, it’s important to her that Jimmy’s a good person.

Ask any of his teammates or coaches and they’ll confirm it. He’s always trying to put a smile on their faces. Always working hard. Bringing a positive attitude.

And the occasional practical joke. Sometimes he’ll Saran Wrap a toilet seat. Lately, he’s been scaring people. His main targets are his housemates — particularly captain Will Lockwood.

“He scared me once when I was coming out of Yost,” Lockwood said. “It’s been a funny little thing going on at our house. He’ll hide in the corner, hide in the cracks of the basement and pop out and scare us. I know he got (Luke) Martin really good the other night, and he’ll videotape it so you can kinda see the reactions.”

Lambert’s teammates are a family away from home.

Back in Canada, he’s got his two sisters. Codie, and a younger sister named Kadie, making him the middle child. So while Codie was making him play house and be her baby — something Lambert admits he was pretty compliant to do — he was strapping pillows to Kadie and having her play goalie.

But beyond just playing together, Lambert and his siblings have a strong relationship. They talk at least once or twice a week, every day if you count Snapchat. 

When Codie was younger, she had a room downstairs. She was too afraid to sleep in the room alone, so Jimmy would stay with her. That made her susceptible to his pranking.

On April Fools, he’d put mustard in their toothpaste. Salt on their toothbrushes. Draw on their faces with markers. Sleep didn’t offer them safety either. Jimmy would wake them up just to scare them.

It wasn’t ever in a mean-spirited way though. 

“I’m always looking to get a smile out of someone,” Lambert said. “ … You never know someone might be having a little bit of a rough day, and if you can cheer them up by scaring them or giving them a little bit of a prank I think it could be good for someone.”

As uncommon as it was for Lambert to see his family while he was playing junior hockey, it’s even more so now. The closest Big Ten school to Saskatoon is Minnesota and even that’s 12 hours away. Last year the family made the trip, this year they didn’t because Jimmy was out with an injury.

He didn’t go home last summer. He remained in Ann Arbor to practice hockey. Other than that, he comes home for five days during Christmas now. And having him home makes the family complete.

He’s a peacekeeper. When everyone’s gathered around the dinner table talking and an argument breaks out, he’s the first to interject. But not with a combative reply. Instead, he deescalates the situation. Asking his family members to really think about the situation and if it really matters that much.

Lambert’s always been the type to look on the positive side of things. In hockey when he’s had his struggles, he’s never let them get too far under his skin. 

“I always tell myself it’ll work its way out,” Lambert said. “If something’s not going right, just stick to it. Keep my nose to the grindstone and just always push forward. Never look back. What’s in front of me is a fresh ground and it’s only up to me to shape it. If I can just make sure that I’m always battling, no matter what, if it’s going well or if it’s going bad, just keep looking forward and just always battle through it.”

This positive mentality comes from his parents. Lambert uses them as role models for how to deal with hardships. He knows whenever something didn’t go their way, they kept at it. They worked hard. And they continued to work even when it wasn’t giving the results they wanted. That’s exactly what he did last year, and during his time in juniors when his hockey wasn’t going how he wanted.

It’s obvious family means a great deal to him. He proudly talks about the accomplishments of his sisters, and they share the same sentiment towards his achievements. 

Distance doesn’t affect the family’s bond. They’ve got a group chat, and it’s always buzzing. Whether it’s someone asking what everyone wants for dinner or someone’s sending pictures of the three pets, they’re always keeping up to date with each other.

“They’ve supported me so much through everything,” Lambert said. “Definitely can’t thank them enough. I definitely won’t be able to repay them for everything they’ve done for me that’s for sure.”

So no matter what happens with hockey, Lambert’s family will always have his back — and he’ll have theirs.

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