The Making of a Hockey Fan

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.

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24 Responses to The Making of a Hockey Fan

  1. Mara Gulens says:

    Yikes! I like to say I only watch gold-medal hockey games, LOL, and my older cousins asked me an intimidating question about hockey when I was six that made me never enter the TV room again, but I guess you never know…

  2. Jennifer says:

    Isabel, I am not a hockey fan and don’t plan to be but I like your style!!

  3. Dave says:

    Hi Isabel
    Glad to see your hockey knowledge has evolved. Like all of earth’s creatures it takes time to evolve. Not all humans take the same evolutionary path. Interesting how the brain responds to various stimuli. What was the trigger? Middle age life with the luxury of time? A better perspective that only comes with many years in the saddle? Do you think Fred is still so preoccupied or has he evolved in some other way?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – I never know if an interest in hockey is evolution or devolution, but it’s got me now. I expect Fred is still a fan – but I hope he doesn’t still cheer for Montreal!

  4. I can still remember the 1972 win again Russia — who was playing? I have no idea. I (think) I went to an actual game once. But, coming from California, the game is not in my blood — and except during the Olympics when both John and I are cheering and yelling along with the rest of Canada– never will be.

    I am so happy to see your new blog, Isabel, and will look in every day and probably put in my few cents.

  5. Seungji says:

    Hi Isabel!
    Congrats for starting your blog.
    I like your writing…it is very elegant and fun to read.

    I am not a hockey fan but I could understand why people enjoy watching hockey after I watched a hockey game at the U of A ice rink.
    It was lively and exciting.

    This blog is now in my bookmark.
    Look forward to reading your next essays!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Yup, live action makes a big difference – you have a shot at seeing the plays develop. Glad to have you onboard.

  6. Doreen says:

    Wow, how well written. Although I also am not a hockey fan, I sure
    loved your description and your comments. Well done.

  7. Wade says:

    I have always admired the way you shape a story and your ability to turn a phrase. Well done and congratulations.

  8. Wayne Holst says:

    Thanks, Isabel, for including me on your blog mailing list.

    Nice to know you are doing this.


  9. Lorna says:

    I am sooo glad you are blogging as I love reading your writing, both what you say and how you say it! I can’t blog, as I’m too busy quilting, but I can squeeze in time every day to check yours.

  10. Derek Smith says:

    I wish you had written more waaaay back when, instead of having to force yourself to read (and re-write) my crappy proposal writing. I learned a lot from you Isabel. I see now I should have stayed longer and learned more!
    Love your writing style!

  11. Cousin Thom says:

    Beautiful stories (except the slanderous insinuations about the world’s greatest hocky team – Fred would never give up his first love). You have undoubtably become the “Leonard Cohen” of the family – exceptional, heart felt prose and questionable singing skills. I shall continue to follow with interest.

  12. Gail Saker says:

    I’ve just re-read the hockey article and want to tell you that you are an extremely talented writer. Ever since the time Mike pointed out one of your articles in the Citizen I became a fan and wanted to see more — like maybe every day! So you’d better be cracking them out on your website on a regular basis!
    P.S. Mike edited out about one third of my original text, saying “Isabel would not approve”. Good grief, what have you created?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      ‘Less is more’ is something I keep learning – always hardest to execute with my own work! Delighted to hear from you; best to Mike-the-Concise.

  13. Marianne McQuillan says:

    My memories of hockey are bleak. Growing up we only had 1 TV which was tuned on Hockey Night in Canada for all Toronto, Buffalo and Montreal games, by my father and 2 brothers for the whole hockey and play-off season – at least 3 nights per week. I grew to despise it as the weekend meant being stuck in some cold hockey arena somewhere in Ontario while one of my brothers played hockey. I became an avid reader, getting through most of the Agatha Christie mysteries, hoping I could learn how to get away with perhaps the perfect crime of my own! Never got to see the shows Happy Days/Mork & Mindy/Laverne and Shirley, and so was uncool at school because I could not talk about these. When I finally got my own TV and cable and actually blacked out all sports stations, when my brother came over to my place, he could not understand what was wrong with my TV. I do not miss hockey today because I feel I more then met my quota! Thanks for the memories. Marianne

  14. Neil says:

    Isabel, thanks for inviting me to your Blog. I thoroughly enjoyed your take on Canada’s Game. It was a far more interesting read than most of what I am immersed in these days and I look forward to reading more – it’ll be the perfect punctuation for my weeks in theatre.

    Thanks for brightening my day!

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