Long after I had stopped asking about Santa Claus, I still believed that hockey in this country was a creation of The Royal Canadian Legion.
In the fall of 1956, the year I turned eight, my mother gave me the two dollars necessary to sign up for town league hockey. With the two-dollar bill and my birth certificate in pocket, I walked with Brent and Eric, then and still the very best friends in the world, down the hill and along the leaf-splattered Muskoka River to the Huntsville, Ont., Memorial Arena. It was a typical rink of its day, large and bulky, erected in honour of those who had fought for their country, and the women of Branch 232 ran the snack bar. I was placed on the Legion Auxiliary team, which naturally meant we would be called the “Legion Ladies.” We were, as I recall, proud to be called this, for the simple sweater–blue, with a white maple leaf–not only made us feel like miniatures of the real Leafs, but it guaranteed quick service at the hot chocolate counter.
The Legion itself, further up the hill from the river, was also where the minor hockey organization held the year-end banquet and would one day, a few years later, be the site of the one moment for which Brent and Eric and I are remembered in Huntsville minor hockey lore. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with what we could do on the ice. One of us–history has conveniently forgotten which–passed wind so loud during the mayor’s opening remarks that it brought the awards ceremony to a dead halt and left the three of us, giggling and redfaced, crouching beneath the drooping white cloths of the long table assigned to the bantams–and we stayed there, the room silent, the mayor clearing his throat, until Mrs. Kelly, resplendent in Legion uniform, stuck her stately head under the cloth and informed us, in no uncertain terms, that we would all be given one chance to smarten up or else. It was, and remains, the best piece of advice the three of us ever received.
Forty-three years after I laid down that first two-dollar bill, I am still a hockey player. There have been small glories and large disappointments. I have made teams and been cut from teams, played in front of crowds and, today, play in front of no one. As an oldtimer, I have passed recently from teams that worried about the goaltender showing up to a team that worries whether or not the doctor on left wing will be out tonight, and yet the love of the game remains as intense, if not as simple, as it was that very first season of 1956-57, when I was fortunate enough to wear the blue and white colours of the Legion Auxiliary.
My mother, bless her heart, never threw out that scrapbook. There was the day the Toronto Daily Star and Toronto Telegram and The Toronto Globe & Mail all came to town to. see the wonders that had been created by a few townsfolk who had cared enough to build a rink and organize the kids. One of the old photographs shows me,with two teammates and the town coach, the cutline reading: “Last minute adjustments to the goalkeeper’s pads are made by Huntsville’s top notch hockey coach My Sedore before Roy MacGregor, Terry Stinson and Donny Strano of the Legion Ladies’ Auxiliary team took the ice to perform before Maple Leaf scouts Bob Davidson and Pep Kelly and Toronto newspapermen at the Arena last Saturday morning when 270 Huntsville kids showed the visitors how the Town Hockey League functions. They put on a grand show and the three Toronto daily newspapers told the story in big pictures and lots of type in their Monday and Tuesday editions, attracting countrywide attention to this Muskoka town and its surrounding district.”
Perhaps the cutline ran on a bit, but so, too, did our imaginations back then. Having been scouted, at age eight, by the Leafs’ very own Bob Davidson, who had even come into our dressing room, it would only be a matter of time, surely, before I was in the National Hockey League.
Certainly the little red Empire scrapbook seemed to think so. It was here that, for the first time, my name ever appeared in print–an intoxicating effect that would take a lasting hold. “Goals by MacGregor,” the headline reads, “Gives Auxiliary Tie with Hay & Co. 2-2.” I have no idea who wrote the game account up, but it could not have been better told in my own wildest fantasies: “The Legion Auxiliary’s Roy MacGregor turned two spectacular solo rushes into a 2-2 tie with Hay & Co. Saturday morning. A highlight of a Huntsville Hockey League squirt playoff game, MacGregor’s goals marked the second time Auxiliary had battled from behind a one-goal deficit.”
There is, please, note, no mention that we played the game on half the arena surface, with a wall of boards separating us from the other squirt game going on at the same time. Nor were there any “Spectacular solo rushes.” I remember both goals perfectly, one scored on a scramble, the other when the goaltender fanned on my weak shot. Brent scored for Hay & Co., representing the local mill yard. The Huntsville Forester newspaper knew what it was doing with such exaggerated accounts–creating local heroes, even if the only ones cheering were immediate family.
I see on the last page of the scrapbook where I have practised writing my autograph, and I smile at the small-town myth for the harmless, happy days it gave me and God knows how many tens of thousands of others in this country. Hockey, for most of us, was the first time–and so often the only time–we ever felt we truly mattered. I will never forget the Legion Ladies for the thrill of that first remarkable year.
But it is now 1999, racing toward 2000. No one pays two dollars to play the game any more. It costs me about $500 a year just for ice time, to say nothing of the sticks and tape and the endless sharpening that never seems to have me skating as I stubbornly believe I once could. Hockey, I must now concede, has played as much a part of my life as family, school and work. In fact, it has at times been both family and work, for I treasure the years when I coached first Christine and then Gordon, two of our four children who also played the game, and for the past six years my full-time job has been to cover the Ottawa Senators and the National Hockey League as a sports columnist. There have also, along the way, been four books on the game and a sprawling, now up to 10, series of hockey-based children’s mysteries.
This is not to suggest there is no ambivalence in such a confession. Like everyone else in this country who has become caught up with the national game, I have my moments when I shudder over what it has become. I cannot abide the corporate suites and multimillion-dollar salaries of today’s NHL. I grow easily bored at the style of the game at the professional level. I find the violence unnecessary, the clutching and grabbing unnatural. I consider Don Cherry’s commentaries as destructive to today’s game as Howie Meeker once was instructive.
As coach and hockey writer, I have seen more than my fair share of boorish parents, men who bait referees not much older than their own children, women who sit in stands with stop watches, insecure men and women so determined that they are able to say their child plays “competitive” that they have allowed house leagues to be ransacked in order to create levels of inter-community play where the youngsters can barely skate. As. a coach, I have fielded the incessant calls from fathers who want practice hours turned into exhibition games so that the parents have something to watch, and measure, even if it means our children now practise so little that it is no wonder we are losing out to those who believe there is a magic to hockey that cannot be learned in game conditions where every experiment earns a reprimand.
There are times when I sit in cold Canadian rinks, shivering lips blowing over a cup of coffee that tastes like boiled pucks, and agree with the longtime official of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association who admitted to me one day that the one great regret in his career was that 1960s campaign to get parents to “take, don’t send” their children to the local rink. Once some of those parents began to see their involvement in minor hockey as an investment,both in time and in money, they began to look for a return on that investment. And that is when hockey in Canada became more career than recreation.
Rising above all these unfortunate points, however, is the game itself, and the happy majority of parents and coaches who remain, today, not all that much different from Mrs. Kelly and Mye Sedore of so many years ago. For every hideous story of minor league politics that is faxed to me, I come across two or three incidents that give hope. The kids up the street playing road hockey in the dead end. The teacher who turns an hour of gym class over to an old-fashioned game of shinny. The coach who takes his team out on an open-air rink so that they will know what it is to play, and feel, this extraordinary game when sweat rolls down your spine and a January wind finds its way through your collar. When people talk to me of Triple-A hockey and summer hockey schools and power-skating clinics, I am reminded of a quiet conversation I had with Wayne Gretzky one slow afternoon during the 1996 World Cup. In the words of the greatest player the game has ever seen, he didn’t get that way through 50-minute ice slots, but “in my backyard and basement.” Where he could try things and, when they didn’t work out, try them again and again and again until they did. Where he could experiment without being criticized.
Where he could play.
That, of course, is what should give us all hope for this game that is, at the moment, going through some rough times in this country. Gather sportswriters anywhere and they will always mention two things about the game of hockey. The first, and the one Canada should be most proud of, is how remarkably “decent” the vast majority of hockey players have remained at a time when boorish behaviour among professional athletes is far more the norm than the exception. Ken Rappoport, who has covered sports out of New York City for the Associated Press for decades, once told me he thought there must be a connection to all those early practices hockey players head out for with their mother or father. “Someone’s got to make those drives,” he said. “If there’s no family support they won’t have the right equipment and they won’t be able to afford to play the game. There has to be that family environment or they don’t become hockey players.”
The other thing they invariably mention is the sheer pleasure that this game seems to bring all those who play it, from the smallest children to the most jaded professional to the overweight old-timers Thursday nights at midnight. Sportswriters rarely see baseball, football or basketball players still playing their games, but it is not at all unusual to come across a group of NHL multimillionaires playing with a roll of tape in the rink corridors, or finding a group of players– Russians, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Canadians–staying out on the ice at the end of a practice to see who can put the most point shots off the crossbar.
It is the sheer joy of hockey that will save it from money and television ratings and obsession with size and poor officiating and so much expansion that soon clutching and grabbing will become part of the “skills competition” at the annual All-Star Game.
For even if every NHL team in Canada left this country for New Mexico, there would still be someone willing to go out with a wide shovel and the fire hoses and flood the school rink for nothing but the pleasure of knowing that a,child might put on his or her skates and pick up a stick and chase a puck and feel, if even for the briefest moment, what it is to play the sweetest game of all.
I worry about the game, but do not despair. Each mail delivery brings another pencil-printed letter from a Screech Owls reader who wants me to know that he–and ever more often she–loves this game as no other play they have found. Nor will I ever forget that 18 months when I covered, full time, the Citizens Forum on Canada’s Future, the Spicer Commission, and how every session in all those church basements and community halls and large-enough living rooms began with the same question, a commissioner asking the people gathered that evening–usually older, always concerned–what it was they loved about this great big country. Medicare, they answered. And hockey. Always the first two mentioned.
The reason is simple: Hockey means more to Canadians than mere sport. “Hockey is Canada’s game,” Ken Dryden and I wrote in the book Home Game. “It may also be Canada’s national theatre… It is a place where the monumental themes of Canadian life are played outEnglish and French, East and West, Canada and the U.S., Canada and the world, the timeless tensions of commerce and culture, our struggle to survive and civilize winter.”
It is also fun. Fun tomorrow in that little Prairie rink when no one else in their right mind would be up. Fun this weekend when the child, or grandchild, is standing at the end of the bed pulling on your blankets to get you going. Fun tonight, when no matter how much your bones and muscles say no, there is something in your imagination that will send you down to the basement where that heavy-bag of disgusting equipment lies–and where there is always at least one more pretty goal in the stick that looks good for one more game.