(Photo by Thomas Froese)
Hockey enthusiasts play on a frozen Lake Jojo, also known as Sleepy Hollow, in Dundas, last season.
(Hamilton Spectator, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021)
I would be a Leafs fan, I suppose, but when I was seven years old someone put a woolly Montreal Canadiens sweater on me, with the rest of my hockey gear, skates and all, before snapping a Polaroid of me standing in the living room. My allegiance was somehow set.
Paul, my best friend, was a Leafs fan. His mother made sandwiches and cookies and gave them to me with love, an act of forgiveness as much as anything. In those years the Habs couldn’t lose, and when they’d march off every spring like Norse gods to capture what we simply called “The Cup,” the result was often a foregone conclusion.
Playing in front of Paul’s house, I’d be Lafleur and Robinson and, of course, goalie Ken Dryden, along with every other Hab. Paul was Sittler and Salming and goalie Mike Palmateer, and every other Leaf in Toronto’s odious Harold Ballard era. Later, the games continued across the street at Maple Crest, our school, on a rink flooded by a loving teacher.
Later the game changed more. The NHL grew. I moved away and fell into newspapers. Paul became a cop. I’d get my stories. He’d get his. In time I’d befriend other Leafs fans. And while over the years I’d sometimes visit his mother, Paul and I reunited only rarely. A wedding. A funeral.
Now a new generation, and our kids have friends who are, naturally, Leafs fans. Several filled our house with their hopes that evening last spring during the deciding game of that stirring Leafs-Habs series, decades in the waiting. Then you-know-what happened. So I sent Paul a rare text.
“Sorry, man.” I said.
“Some things haven’t changed,” he responded. “It’s not easy being a Leafs fan.”
Regardless, whatever the loss, you keep going. Dryden said as much in “The Game,” an insightful book about life as much as hockey. Still regarded as one of the best sports books ever, “The Game” sits, again, on my bedside table, a gift from my bride, her loving words inside.
That particular visit unfolded 10 years ago this coming week. Which is to say that it’s good to recognize that there’s an indubitable spirit in Canada’s national pastime. And, at its best, this spirit helps us see the broader tapestry of our lives as much as it marks any winners or losers.
In five decades since I put on that woolly Canadiens jersey, I’d never seen a Leafs-Habs game. Not live. Not until being offered free box-seat tickets, in Toronto, two years ago this past week. I brought my boy and youngest daughter, who, sure, are also Canadiens fans. It was something: a 6-5 overtime shootout. The kids. Their faces. It was really something. I have a telling photo.
But it’s the gatherings of sticks and pucks in more obscure rinks, or on other patches of ice, impromptu games played on frozen lakes or rivers or ponds, that are more striking to me. I’m thankful that my kids, who’d missed many Canadian winters while living in warmer climes overseas, have now experienced some of this also.
It’s good to remember, now that another season is upon us. In Canada hockey is “the game,” but sometimes it’s more. No matter what jersey you wear.