MONTREAL, QC. — As my mind skipped through childhood memories of her, I’m not really sure that she was a hockey fan at all. As I recall, she loved novels, game shows, crossword puzzles and Ukrainian dancing. While hockey may not have made her top-10 list (perhaps not even top-25) she had a clear appreciation for what the sport meant to her husband, two sons, and her godson.
A few weeks ago my godmother lost her battle with cancer. She was a woman who spoke her mind, had a sharp wit and was a devoted mother of Randy and Jeff. She was also a supportive wife to “Uncle” Rick — he passed away three years ago.
Their family played a significant role in my early hockey memories. Many a winter Sunday was spent at their house — each year Uncle Rick built one of the finest backyard rinks in the neighborhood. Normally six players took to the ice: Randy, Jeff, Uncle Rick, my Dad, my brother and myself.
Of course, my hockey development was already ‘advanced’ having spent hours firing pucks (the hard rubber variety) around my grandparent’s basement, starting as a toddler. My Dad was coaching minor hockey at the time, and I loved to use the goalie stick from the gear bag even though it was at least twice my size. We all took on the name of our favorite players — my grandmother ‘was’ Frank Mahovlich.
But it was at the backyard rink where our skating skills were honed. Actually there was no choice — it was a matter of survival. The dimensions of the rink were tight; boards that were taller than most of us were unforgiving and always seemed to appear sooner than expected. Remarkably, injuries were rare and relatively mild.
Each year Uncle Rick added a new feature. Goalies on the nets were an early addition — not the Canadian Tire ones — but full sheets of plywood, hand-painted with challenging cutouts. The scoreboard wasn’t fancy — two Cool Whip lids were moved along strings hovering over painted numbers — but it got the job done and was tolerant of the elements.
Floodlights had the biggest impact extending game length far beyond the time when our extremities had gone numb. When I brought along a recording of “O Canada” by Roget Doucet, Uncle Rick was thrilled. Being a staunch patriot, he insisted that the anthem become part of our pre-game tradition.
The season usually lasted until the end of April. Milder temperatures meant a reduction in the bulk of our outfits but skating was a little tougher with the ice resembling the consistency of slightly-chilled mashed potatoes.
Games were interrupted by a brief hot chocolate break which gave time for my younger sister to do a few laps of the ice. The dinner break was longer giving us all a chance to thaw out. My mom and godmother dished out hearty meals, usually heaping plates of spaghetti or steaming bowls of chili. Then back on went the wet jerseys for a short evening match before the ride home.
There was hockey during the week too. At lunch we played hockey in the driveway of a classmate just a stone’s throw from the school. The game went until we heard the school bell leaving us little time to store the equipment — no mean feat for me as I removed a complete set of goalie gear and raced to my classroom.
More often than not, my brother and I played street hockey after school with the neighborhood guys. We took a break for dinner and then were back outside until called for bed. I can still hear my neighbour’s voice calling “car” while a vehicle rumbled through our road hockey game leaving a brief cloud of frozen exhaust in the air.The tabletop rod hockey game was regularly in use in the basement. On Saturdays my brother I sat down for Hockey Night in Canada to watch the Canadiens. We were convinced that where we sat had an effect on the outcome of the game.
I also remember rinks at the community center and the school grounds — kids showed up and everyone played no matter the age or skill-level.
Hockey, hockey, hockey.
It was full immersion, and a very dominant part of my early years. My love for the game was ingrained deeply long before any exposure to organized hockey.
My first NHL game was with my grandfather at Maple Leaf Gardens. I wasn’t a Leafs fan (no surprise there) but I remember being mesmerized looking at a bench of NHL players just two rows in front of our seats. The game itself was so different than on TV — the speed of the game, the intensity of the hits, the sounds all around me — I was awestruck!
My story is not unique. Many of you have followed similar paths as you developed a love for the greatest game on earth. What saddens me is that I’m reasonably certain that the two people who control the future of the NHL could not share a similar story.
We lack a shared history. We don’t get them and they don’t get us.
You may have noticed that my nostalgic trip back did not include terms like CBA, HRR, or ‘Make whole.’ For Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, these terms ARE hockey. Stories like mine and like yours would be foreign to them.
Perhaps this goes a long way to explain why hockey fans don’t believe they have been given consideration during contract negotiations.
You know, maybe there’s someone who could have helped.
My godmother may not have been all that knowledgeable about the intricacies of hockey but she knew exactly what the game meant to the die-hard fans in her family. It’s safe to say that Gary and Don could have learned a lot from her. One thing is certain, she would have made them listen.