For more than 50 years I lived happily without hockey. Now, as I wait anxiously for the Sens to secure a playoff berth and agonize for our junior team, ambushed by the Russian army, it is clear that the national game has me in its clutches. Let my story be a warning to all who think it can’t happen to them.
In 1950s Edmonton, hockey for me meant 10-year-old Fred across the alley. His eyes moved all the time, his world a constant blur. But sitting 12 inches from the tiny screen, he could see the puck and follow the play. Intent, intense, he cheered madly for Toronto. Or was it Montreal?
Who knew? Who cared?
There was no hockey in the 1960s, that I recall. We’d moved to Calgary, leaving Fred behind. The first boyfriend, an Australian immigrant new to all winter’s manifestations, wasn’t the guy to sell me on a game played on ice.
Another move, and the Great One electrified life in Edmonton in the 1970s — like I cared. As the Oilers were stripped of talent, the price of NHL entry, I reacted indignantly not as a hockey fan but as a westerner — even this game was stacked against us.
The 1980s in Saskatoon were a blessed release from feigning an interest in a hometown NHL team. My sons liked dinosaurs, not hockey, saving me from 5 a.m. practices and them from high-sticking.
By 1989 my respite was over. We were in Calgary and the Flames were hot, winning the Stanley Cup that year. It meant nothing to me. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” — Joni Mitchell, a one-time Saskatoon girl, said that.
Like the players, my slip-sliding on hockey started with the need to earn a living. In the 1990s I entertained clients at hockey games, alongside a former junior hockey player. He could follow the game with half his attention; I asked questions of the other half. Why did they blow the whistle sometimes when the puck was shot down the ice to the far end? Why didn’t they always blow it? What did “offside” mean and why did it happen so often? Those things on their feet — were they sharp?
Slowly I learned the basics, but I still couldn’t “see” what was happening — not in the game, where men swarmed unpredictably down the ice — and not to me. Moving to Ottawa, I found a city preoccupied with the Senators, a team that even their fans said had talent but no heart. People anguished over their inability to come through in the playoffs. They revelled in their anguish. “Who cared?” I thought. Who knew?
As I sat through games on TV, visiting with friends at the breaks, I started to look forward to Don Cherry’s rants, Ron MacLean’s quirkiness. I watched more games, asking questions again. Why is the crowd booing? Why didn’t they allow that goal? How do you know they won’t score twice during this power play?
On replays I could now see the deflection of the puck that had allowed or prevented the goal. I understood why offensive zone penalties were stupid, why a clean check wasn’t the same as a late hit. I began to appreciate the discipline in staying on “the point”, doing your job and trusting your teammates to do theirs. I saw the beauty in a well-executed pass, flipped into the net with no pause, timing and positioning coming together in a perfect moment.
By now, I was a solitary drinker, watching playoff games even when I was alone. I knew the names of our players. I whooped and carried on when we scored a goal. I yelled “Shoot” when, in my expert opinion, they held the puck too long, looking for a better shot on goal. Above all, I believed that this year they would do it. Then, suddenly, it was over. With my new vision, I saw the season-ending goal as it happened: no need to wait for the replay. Now I knew why Don Cherry said to keep a defender in front of the goal.
But there was worse to come. Having finally come of age as a Canadian, I was stunned by the lockout (who knew that was even an option?). Succeeding years on the playoff roller coaster (hopes raised only to be dashed) dulled my capacity for hope. And every year brought the inexorable attrition of the clock–the Sens aging almost as quickly as I. Throwing in the towel on the entire sport seemed like a good option.
In all this gloom, the annual junior hockey tournament has reminded me of what people love: not just the sweet taste of gold, but the speed and grace with which young legs and amazing talent play the game. Brushing off two shocking losses in a row, I look ahead to next year. Next time, they will do it. I feel it in my bones.
Ten-year-old Fred looks up from in front of the black and white TV set and waves in welcome, wondering only what took me so long.