If you were born and raised in Canada, you are doubtless familiar with sounds that typify our country—the quavering call of a loon across a lonesome lake, for example; the eerie, chilling howls of a wolf-pack under a cold, starry sky; or the absolute sound of silence in a colourful, autumn woods.
For me, the most iconic sound of all is the shrill warning cry from a group of kids playing hockey on the street when an approaching vehicle is spotted—
Back in the 1950’s (yes, dear reader, that long ago!), I was one of those kids. Every day after school, all day on Saturday, and on Sunday after church, the neighbourhood boys—no girls back then—would assemble on our street in what was then North Toronto, hockey sticks in hand, to play road-hockey.
If we all showed up together, we’d choose teams the fairest way possible. Gathered in a circle, both fists held to the centre, we’d listen to one of us count off, tapping every fist: One-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four, five-potato, six-potato, seven-potato, more! The boy whose fist was tapped on the eight-beat would step back, waiting for the next kid, and the next, until half the boys were out. Those would be the teams.
Kids who showed up late jumped right in, joining the team with the fewest players at that moment. Our sticks were sawed-off wooden models, many of the blades worn thin from the constant scraping on the asphalt. Our puck was a scuzzy tennis ball, no longer white and fuzzy, and I remember how that ball could sting, especially when frozen, if it hit an unprotected spot.
Everyone at some point played with tears in his eyes, waiting for the pain to abate. Nobody laughed at the crying kid, though, because we all knew only too well how it felt. But no one ever quit.
In truth, we had scant protection—no helmets, no padded gloves, no shin pads. Toques, thick mittens, and lined jeans were all we wore, along with sturdy boots. Inadvertent whacks on the shins and hacks across the fingers were merely occupational hazards we all endured.
We didn’t care that road-hockey was technically forbidden, even when, once in a while, a police car would roll down the street. We’d simply scatter up any of the myriad driveways between the houses, sticks in hand, until the danger was past.
Makeshift goal-markers would be set up at each end of the stretch of street we had claimed—sometimes small piles of snow, sometimes mounds of frozen horse-turds left behind by the stoic steeds that pulled the carts of the milkman, the bread-man, and the ice-man. The youngest kids’ sticks were requisitioned to gather and pile the turds—a sort of rookie hazing, I suppose.
When those intrusive cars would dare to interrupt us, we’d trudge begrudgingly to the side of the road, glaring at the offending drivers as they passed, and yelling at them if they managed to squash one of the goal-markers. Repairing it was gross if it was one of the turds.
There were few rules: no slashing, no high-sticking, no deliberate bodychecking. That left lots of room for incidental body contact, however, especially when the number of boys playing was particularly high. When that was the case, we had to move the goal-markers back, lengthening the playing area to fit everyone in.
By and large, all the boys played by the rules, governed by a commonly-understood code of fair-play. The odd kid who might repeatedly play dirty was not assessed a penalty time-out for his transgressions, though; he was simply told to go home. Adult supervision was not required.
With no goal-nets and no end-boards, the ball would sometimes roll halfway down the street after an errant shot. The youngest among us were designated to chase it, but we never minded. It was a chance to practice our stickhandling as we came back up the street, unhindered by the other boys hungering to steal the ball from us.
Most of us had nicknames, some ethnic in origin, which nobody regarded as a slur back then. All that mattered is if you could play. There were Boo and Dinny, the Draper twins, Paul (Puppy) Jackson, and Terry (King) Clancy, son of the Maple Leafs’ hall-of-famer—all of whom would go on to win a Memorial Cup in 1961 with the St. Michael’s Majors. We had the twins’ older brother, Mike (Meatball), and Gary (Swampy) Marsh, who would win an Allan Cup in 1973 with the Orillia Terriers. No one knew of the fame some of the gang would find, of course, not then. But we all harboured our own dreams of grace and glory.
We played with Kraut, whose parents owned the Salzburger Deli on Eglinton Avenue; Mick, whose parents owned Murphy’s Meats nearby; and Dago, whose family owned Carradona’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. Our mothers all shopped those stores, two or three times a week, back in the days when icebox-chests, not refrigerators, were still the norm for many of us.
Other players included Boomer, he of the hard shot; Skinny, the guy who could slip through any defenders; and Magic, the kid who could stickhandle in a phone-booth. I think I was mostly known as Hey Kid!
I vividly remember reaching the age where my parents let me go back out after supper to play under the dim glow of the streetlights—it seemed a rite of passage, somehow. And I can still see the ethereal wisps of steam from all the panting mouths, dissipating into the darkness overhead. But I’ve lost track of how many Stanley Cups we won on that darkened, winter street, running and passing and shooting with reckless abandon.
There’s an old barbershop-quartet song titled, That Old Gang of Mine, and part of the lyric-lines come to mind when I think back to those long-ago good times with boyhood chums—Gee, but I’d/Give the world/To see them all again…
But I can see them, really, whenever I choose, stretched out in my recliner, eyes half-closed, ears attuned to the inimitable sounds echoing in my brain. It feels like I’m on the road again, under the streetlights, hearing the shouts of those indefatigable hockey players.
Calling loudly for a pass—Here! Here!
Yelling at a teammate to take a shot on goal—Shoot! Shoot!
Celebrating a score—It’s in! It’s in!
And hearing that most urgent shout of all, the iconic warning we all would heed, no matter what—