For the Love of Hockey, Am I Not Canadian?

miloI witnessed something extraordinary and deeply personal in the men’s sauna today.

Now that I have your attention, no, this is not about sex. It’s about the one thing that Canadians like more than sex.

“I never played nothin’ less than triple A,” the stocky guy was saying to the other guy. They were both about 50. Stark naked.

The not-stocky guy was sitting on the bench with a drippy washcloth on his head. Stocky guy, who had a tattoo of a fierce goalie mask on his upper arm, stood in the sauna doorway, intending to leave, but caught up making his point. “I never played nothin’ less than triple A. That’s top tier.”

He was not being aggressive or defensive, he just really wanted Washcloth to know this was his level back in the day. And Washcloth was with him all the way.

“No kidding? Wow. You gotta be a helluva goalie to play triple A.”

“Yeah,” said Stocky, still holding the door open, letting all the heat out while I took my seat and dearly hoped he would close it soon.

At last he did. The door closed. He was gone. But he’d be back.

Times like these I feel like a bad Canadian. Sure, I was into hockey as a kid. Who isn’t? But my interest has been in steady decline ever since, and not just because the Toronto Maple Leafs suck pucks most of the time. It just doesn’t seem to be in my blood like it is for so many.

It’s simplistic to pin things down to a single watershed moment, but I think the watershed moment might have been when Mrs. Pal and I attended an Oshawa Generals game when our daughter’s class happened to be performing the national anthem.

Within the first three minutes there were five fights. Five!

And the crowd went absolutely ape shit. Everyone was on their feet. Grandmothers and toddlers were screaming for blood. On the ice, sixteen-year-olds were concussing each other and the capacity crowd could not have been happier. When the Generals scored a goal, it was a funeral by comparison. I am not exaggerating. I was stunned. This is the game that defines us as a country?

Washcloth and I were hanging out, just the two of us, silently roasting for about two minutes before Stocky burst back in.

“I’ll tell you about something else,” he said, standing in the doorway, letting the heat out again. “It happened when I was 12. No, 11. No, wait…it was ’77, so I was 12. Yeah. So the phone rings one day, my mom answers, and the guy on the other end says – Hi, it’s George Armstrong.”

“No way,” said Washcloth as I, like an idiot, wondered who George Armstrong was.

armstrong

“This is when he was coachin’ the Marlies,” said Stocky. “And George tells my mom he’s interested in me playing on the team.”

“Wow. So what happened?”

Stocky paused. “Didn’t do it. Stayed on the team I was with…

“…I was loyal,” he added quietly, though I suspect there’s more to the story than that.

He stood there for a moment, in the open door, thinking about what was and what wasn’t and what might have been. I know nothing about Stocky, but I was starting to draw conclusions about his life and guessing the highlight reel favours the first period. My heart went out to him. 

The door closed. He was gone. But he’d be back.

There is a private school in our town that caters to teens with athletic aspirations. If you think your kid might be a future NHLer, this is where you send him. I gather they do whatever it takes to make sure a young man walks away with a diploma, but with a clear understanding that hockey comes first. You got a tournament in Owen Sound this weekend and practices on Thursday and Friday? No problem, we’ll squeeze in that geography test some other time.

I get it. If you believe you may be raising the next Sydney Crosby, you need a school like this. It makes sense. And it’s this groomed-from-the-womb dedication that keeps Canada the best hockey-playing country in the world. But if you’re like me, and you were reading a graphic novel with your son while the Canadian juniors recently won gold, it all seems so…extreme. I just hope those kids come out equally prepped for alternative futures.

Washcloth had a bucket beside him and was pouring water on his head – he was a dedicated sauna man, in for the long haul.

Two minutes later, the door opened again. Stocky’s back, letting out the heat.

“Hey Man,” he said to Washcloth. “I just wanted to say if you ever get more tickets for a Generals game, I’ll totally go with you again.”

” Yeah, the quality of hockey’s really good.”

“Like, if you got tickets and there’s no one else to go…”

“Yeah, for sure….”

“I’ll buy the beers. I don’t care, I’ll spring for them. I just want to go.”

Stocky’s enthusiasm triggered something. There was a time when hockey mattered a lot more to me. I remember Dad taking me to Maple Leaf Gardens for games in the days of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming – one of those brief, rare times when the Leafs were actually good.

one_sittler04[1]

And I remember drawing team logos, reading stats and collecting hockey cards (I still have my two Wayne Gretzky rookie cards). And I remember playing road hockey under streetlights, never wanting the game to end.

street hockey

It doesn’t take much to stir up childhood emotion.

Maybe hockey’s the one thing that can do that to just about every Canadian.

“Sure thing,” said Washcloth to Stocky. “We’ll go. Beers on you.”

“Cool, Man. See ya later.”

The door closed. He was gone. This time, it stayed closed. Within minutes, the sauna was so hot I had to get out of there.

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