A great and old friend of mine invited me to an Ottawa 67’s game last night and it was almost a revelation. I haven’t been to a 67’s game in more than three decades and it really brought me back.
When I was a child, hockey was my favourite sport. It might have been my favourite thing. The most checked-out book in the school library was always Orr on Ice and we boys always marveled at Bobby Orr lacing up his skates in his bare feet. The Bruins, in the early seventies, were my first favourite team. Cheevers in nets, Espo, perhaps an asshole, scoring a goal a game. And Bobby Orr, a God. Gretzky on defence. He was beautiful and the Flyers were ugly. As a seven year old, it was the first time I made the delineation between good and evil.
I loved the Habs in the late seventies. I knew the stars and the fourth liners. The back-up goalie’s number. Bunny Larocque. I saw them a few times live and up close and it was like seeing the Stones or the Pope.
I played competitive hockey until Bantam and usually had no goals and ten assists a year. But I could skate and was a defenceman who always was there for my teammates.
Watching this game tonight, really brought it all back. In a way TV misses. The sound of the skate blades. The sounds of passes being gently accepted, almost silently, and the sound of passes being accepted loudly and clunkily. The crash on the boards. The goalie directing his defencemen verbally. The sound of the blades cutting the ice. The speed. The violence. The goal celebrations. The goalies standing in front of their seemingly impenetrable nets and the big guys and the little guys, checking like effen’ crazy, with bloody teeth and broken ribs.
One guy, on the Hamilton team, got crunched into the boards and laid in the corner motionless, for about fifteen minutes. He was put in a neck brace and carried out on a stretcher. And when he was being returned to safety, his 19 teammates emptied their bench and slapped their sticks against the legs of his stretcher. It almost made me cry.
The fluidity of the game. The almost silent beauty of its gracefulness, was astounding. I even spent time watching the refs skate. Fast and confident and reactive and truly beautiful. The kids cheering, the girls counting down the last twenty seconds. The announcer practically singing the occurrence of a Hat-Trick. The goalies slapping their sticks on the ice when a penalty was over.
When a kid got a penalty, his face was shown on the scoreboard. They always looked about fifteen, young enough to potentially be the grandchild of a middle-aged man such as myself. But they were young men, playing hard, in the greatest Canadian game of all time.
I looked to the rafters to see the retired numbers. Bobby Smith was my first early favourite. I didn’t need to see the banner to know he was number 15. But my favourite retired number to see was Steve Marengre. When I would listen to games on the radio, he was dominant. Only about 5’7″ as a defenceman, with a booming point shot, I almost shook with surprise when I found out he went to Rideau High School at the time, about a mile from where I had lived. It was like finding out Guy LaFleur lived in your neighbourhood.
Skating, checking, saves and goals, it was friggin’ awesome. But the skating was the best. So smooth, so fast, so purposeful. It was remarkable.
I don’t know how many high-level hockey games I will ever see again. Likely none. But tonight, I became re-acquainted with the grace and the aesthetic beauty of the game. From the Zambonies to the passes, to the full-line changes, to the let-er-rip point shots.
Every sport has its inherent qualities.
The ’79 Expos turned me on to baseball and it became a life-time love. Philosophically, I have probably thought more about baseball than any other thing in my life. That and music. I still think it is the greatest game. The most complicated, the most intricate, the most beautiful. As sports go, it became my wife.
For a time, basketball was my favourite sport. It was the one where I succeeded the furthest. A team sport in almost every sense, it is the game of solitude though. While passing and defence are collaborative aspects of it, only one hand can put the ball through the net. And if I played thousands of hours of it, in games and in practice, I spent thousands of hours playing it alone. Not lonely, just focused. Not even fun as much as work. Learning all the chords of the game and then being able to turn those chords into a song. Basketball became a best friend.
But being at the hockey game yesterday, it reminded me that hockey is like family. Maybe distant family now, but it runs through my blood. Being able to skate backwards, being able to hit a corner of the net, even the ritual of lacing up skates just right and knowing which are the correct gloves to wear so that the hands stay warm while the passes can remain crisp.
I need to purchase some new winter boots in the coming days. But maybe I need to head down to the second hand store and pick up an old pair of skates. And hit the canal. I will skate backwards by my old high school, past the gym where I was once a basketball star. And I’ll look at the time and notice that the sun is really starting to set a little later already. And I’ll know that Spring Training is just around the corner.
But in those skates, on the ice, I will know that I finally came home. And if I hit a rough patch I didn’t see and I tumble, or if I skate smoothly for a mile, I will know that I am where I belong. Even if it is simply for a short time and a thousand strides.