It's Saturday. It's March. It's cold and snowing. I am surrounded by hockey equipment. I personify the Americanized view of the stereotypical Canadian, suffering through the stereotypical Canadian winter.
To an American, Canada is nothing more than a source of pastoral snow for Christmas and body-numbing cold and inconvenience the rest of the winter. And hockey.
Customers stroll in and out, without great frequency, but they all stop and chat. The store is a link to the past, like the local general store or hardware with the pot bellied stove roaring in the middle. We are all of the boys and men, from coast to coast, who would gather on a snowy Saturday in the hubs of their particular towns to discuss the two major themes that permeate Canadian society - weather and hockey.
Unsaid, unspoken, at times unfelt, but always lurking in the subconscious, is the feel that the small hockey store provides. It is a return to simpler times. It is Canadiana within arms reach.
The look of the equipment may change, but in reality skates are skates, sticks are sticks, gloves are gloves. The National Hockey League is now grossly over extended (in the eyes of expansion). Canadians still pine for and cheer for the original six. Look at the crowds in Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary when the Canadiens or the Leafs visit. For the Canucks, Oilers and Flames, it is almost like a road game. In Calgary, the Saddledome is a sea of red, but closer inspection shows that the red is trimmed with the blue and white of Les Habitants, not the white and gold of the Flames. The original six ... simpler times ... simpler lives.
Someone once said that the good old days were neither. But hindsight distorts reality. We cling to that which gives comfort. We cling to those things that can be recalled quickly and bring on associated warmth and security. Hockey is not Jim Hughson and Bob Cole. Hockey Night in Canada is Danny Gallivan and Foster Hewitt. Hockey Night in Canada was Saturday nights. Games during the week, for many fans, were a right reserved for the sanctity of the playoffs. Sunday nights were for the imagination. NHL games were on CBC radio. Even Sunday night broadcasts showed an attempt to hang on to the past because before television all NHL games were on the radio. But, the sense of purity remained. You knew everybody's name. Even the journeyman, up for a cup of coffee, was worthy of discussion and dissection around the stove.
Life in the big city was simpler. It wasn't a big city. It was a collection of settlements ... Weston, Mount Dennis, Leaside, Long Branch, New Toronto, each with its own particular feel, but all with the comfort and security that comes with familiarity. Today, single buildings hold populations equal, but the sense of community is long gone. Because of direction of society, we don't talk to strangers. This is tragic, because even the best of friends were strangers once.
The local arena was the meeting point for towns during the winter. Even if you didn't have a child playing, you knew someone's parents. It was a social event, not a necessity. You huddled together in galvanized tin barns, sipping your coffees, bundled up against a cold that settled in early and stayed the entire night, and only dissipated when you ventured back outside.
It was a chance to catch up, to plan and to interact. It was community. You met your neighbours and made new friends. You got to know each other. There was a commonality with a future. You talked about your kids and what you hoped and dreamed for them. Visions were shared, discussed and decided. You walked away a richer person for your interaction with others. The link was the game. Plans were made to meet the following week ... at the game, or at the dance that the team was puffing on to raise money. It was always the game. Road hockey, once the stalwart of Canadian society and the producer of dreams in all who were young, is now a rarity.
Road hockey was the best reflection of Canadian society. It instilled the love for the game, and the basic tenets of team work, fair play and dispute resolution. Each player had their own role. Although their talents may be less than others, they still participated. Even the worst could still be a Beliveau, Howe or Hull in their own world. They wore the sweaters of their heroes and tried, sometimes in vain, to emulate their style. A right hand shot, in his mind, could still be Bobby Hull.
In the city, road hockey reflected the changing face of Canada. New settlers in a neighbourhood brought a new crop of road hockey players. Part of a neighbourhood's image was the ever present road hockey game. Cars did not seem to affect the game. It was a minor inconvenience to move the net and allow cars to move. Like the traffic flow, constant and unabated, so flowed the players.
A new face would arrive bringing a stick and ball. The question was simple. Can I play? It was a simple form of transition that allowed hockey to renew itself in perpetuity. Road hockey was a noble form of acceptance. It was the blending of societies. The new kid may have looked different and sounded different, but he wanted to play hockey. That was acceptable. He was acceptable. To the other players, he wasn't really that different. He wanted to play the game.
Traffic in the store has increased. The doctor with his daughter and her skates that need sharpening. She is wearing a Florida jacket. He talks about the latest trials and tribulations on Carlton Street. The hockey executive, resplendent in his bleu, blanc et rouge of Les Canadiens wants to talk about equipment for the league. The game is being passed to another generation, and though the backroom machinations of the organizations have become greater, it is still volunteers with a love for the game who ensure it continues.
Ken Dryden once said that hockey was a game to be played by kids until the kids were old enough to pass it on to kids of their own. Go to many arenas late at night. Watch the "oldtimers" playing their pick up game. It is a valiant, yet losing battle to regain their youth. The "liniment leagues" means not admitting to mortality. Once a week, once during the game, it will all come together and you are again 8 or 9 years old. It is a liberating experience. All your worldly cares and woes are forgotten as you make the perfect move, or make the perfect pass. You have been transferred back to a time when life was simpler, and someone else was in charge. All you had to worry about was the game.
Another customer. This one in a hurry. Just wanted his skates sharpened, no time to talk. But the bond was there. He trusted me with his skates, his most important equipment possession. We were comrades through the game. On his way out the door, he stopped, cast a more discriminating glance at his blades, turned back, smiled and said, "nice job". A small act of kindness and caring, linked by the game.
People often cite the expression that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. It is usually used in the context of mistakes being repeated. Maybe we should not forget the good. The game, its simplicity, its focus, should be recaptured. It brought a sense of community, something so painfully absent today that its passing should be mourned daily.
There’s no doubt that the participation of hockey has diminished on a national scale. Unfortunately there are many factors: divorce; time constraints; technology; ice fees; equipment fees. It has become a rich man’s game that will never be transported to the working class establishment. The middle-class may just enjoy a simple game of hockey with their friends, for a moment the joy of the game is relived upon the youthful country that grew up with it.
As an immigrant it gave me joy to watch the game, it did something behind the backdrop of what I believed in. That is the Canadian character identity that is strong and courageous among the battles in the National Hockey League elevating the winners and losers as heroic figures.
The game and all it means still exists. Unfortunately, it exists all too rarely and in too few locales.
Another customer. He's wearing a Blackhawks jacket, and looks to be in no hurry. Probably wants to talk hockey.