Keith Aulie believed he was about to watch his father die.
He could see him underwater, scratching the bottom of the 4 inches of ice keeping him submerged while searching for the hole through which he fell.
"He's searching for the hole, not knowing where to go, and he starts going the wrong way," Keith said. "I just thought this is the absolute worst, standing here watching your dad basically run out of air and die."
But Bill Aulie did not die. After about a minute, he got close enough to the hole that his son reached in up to his shoulder, grabbed Bill and pulled him to the surface.
Keith threw his father over his shoulder "like a bag of ice," Bill said, and carried him several hundred yards to the family home.
That was Dec. 22, 2005. Keith, 16 at the time, would be honored with the Canadian Red Cross' Rescuer Award.
"It's something we don't talk about much," said the Lightning defenseman acquired Monday from the Maple Leafs and expected to join the team today. "But it's something that will always be between us. We're not going to take anything for granted."
"He was my son," Bill said. "But after something like that happens, I probably don't treat him like a son anymore. It's more like a very, very, very close friend.
"How do you treat someone who just saved your life? It's just been a real different relationship, a lot more respect."
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The Aulie family — Bill, 50, wife Karen and their kids Keith, 22, and Krystal, 21 — has a 3,500-acre farm in Rouleau, Saskatchewan, about 30 miles south of Regina. The farm grows lentils, wheat, oats and flax. In the winter, Bill trains Clydesdale horses.
Bill likes to say he handles the mechanical end of the operation while Keith — the Western league's 2007 scholastic player of the year while playing juniors for Brandon — is on the computers.
"We monitor all our yields and moisture data on all the crops, and he's so good at that stuff," Bill said. "He pushes. He wants above-average performance with everything. Sometimes, it costs a bit more money and I drag my feet. But I know it's the right thing because he's researched it. He pushes performance the same as he does on the ice. He's never satisfied with average. He wants to be the best."
"I actually love it," Keith said of farming. "I love being out in the summer and farming with my dad. It's a good transition from being in a rink all winter to being out in an open space. Coming in after a good day's work and sitting in the shed and visiting with your friends, I just love that."
Keith in December 2005 was home to play in the under-17 World Hockey Challenge in Regina. There was a plan to skate on a pond on the farm.
After drilling holes to check ice thickness — 14 inches, Bill remembers, more than safe — he drove a tractor across the pond to clear the snow. But about three-quarters of the way across, the ice cracked and the tractor, with Bill in the cab, crashed through into 14 feet of water.
• • •
Bill figures the piled up snow on the far end of the pond was enough insulation so the ice froze to only 4 inches.
For 15 seconds, Bill said, he was okay in the enclosed cab. But then the water pressure blew out the back window and his left eardrum. He swam out the window to the surface and began the desperate search for escape.
"I would say about a minute," Bill said of being underwater. "I was just mad Keith was going to watch me die under there. I try to be cautious, but I thought this was one of the dumbest things I'd done; to put Keith in a spot where he was going to watch his dad die."
Making the drama worse was the water sloshing up on the ice cleaned it so, as Keith said, "I could see him through the ice like a pane of glass. It was a pretty dramatic experience I'll never forget."
When Bill finally was pulled to the surface he said he had lost his sense of balance, likely because of the eardrum issue.
"I couldn't get off my hands and knees."
Keith, now 6 feet 6, 217 pounds, carried to the house his 215-pound dad, weighed down more by water-soaked winter clothes.
When Karen saw her drenched husband, she let him have it.
"He came in, and he was soaking wet. And I was like, 'What have you been doing? Why are you late for supper?' " Karen said. "I was a little sad for having that reaction."
Bill said it took him two days to finally go to a hospital, and he did so only because his left ear was oozing. He said he has some hearing loss but that is the primary leftover of the incident.
Actually, Bill said, there is one other thing: "I haven't been on the ice again."
MINOR MOVES: The Lightning reassigned forwards Trevor Smith and Pierre-Cedric Labrie and defenseman Evan Oberg to AHL Norfolk.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]